Essays, Steven Spielberg

The Spielberg Attack
A study of Steven Spielberg

(c) 2006, Carla Henriques

Steven Spielberg just became my new obsession.

After spending weeks gathering information in books, articles and watching his movies, I achieved a state of readiness, found a pen, and started to write. Throughout this paper, I will discuss Spielberg, the famous film director who has entertained and terrified us for decades with his movie creations filled with impossible scenarios and vicious creatures.  I will be giving special thought to the implications of Spielberg as a popular icon and the values he is transmitting, the impact his work has on consumerism and movie industry, and how his movies and characters affected me on a personal level.

Steven Spielberg was born in Ohio in 1946, his father an electrical engineer and his mother a pianist. He was raised in Phoenix, Arizona and, from a young age, showed his enthusiasm in moviemaking. He made his first movie at the age of 12. Later, he studied cinema at the California State University and by the age of 20, he had a contract as a director in television for Universal-MCA.  His parents divorced and he became estranged from his father, and this traumatic event resulted in a strong theme for many movies (Wikipedia).

When I think about Spielberg, what first comes to mind is special effects, aliens, and power; however, that is only the epidermis of the significance of this famous director. Spielberg has become a powerful icon and the effects on our culture are seen and felt outside the theaters.  Everyone knows the theme song of the movie Jaws, —and what it means—most kids still want dinosaurs and paraphernalia from Jurassic Park. Who doesn’t feel paranoid about the future and technology after watching Minority Report?

If you saw this man walking down the street, you probably wouldn’t recognize him. He looks just like another white middle aged man, wearing glasses—often a hat— with a trimmed beard and mustache. This man is “the most financially successful director in Hollywood history: six of his movies remain among the top twenty-five-box-office hits of all time’’ (Friedman 3).  Wealth and power are connotations that are implied with his image, but are not why people love him. Being considered a visionary and a movie genius, Spielberg takes us to imaginary worlds, distracts us from reality, and gives us insight on what the future may bring. In order to understand the man, we have to analyze his movies, most of them melodramas that carry messages we fail to acknowledge because the special effects are so overwhelming.

One of the recurring themes in the movies is the distant father and lonely child. The fathers in Spielberg movies are usually emotionally and physically absent, forcing the child to find the strangest friends; in E.T , we see how Elliot befriends an alien and even Indiana Jones has an estranged father (Friedman). This brings me to the realization that it is not easy being a man in Spielberg’s world, where the nuclear family is in crisis and men are not sure what to do with their lives. It is even harder being a child growing in a broken family where the security of a present father is lacking and the ego of a child is permanently challenged. The mothers are not much better as they “are emotionally and intellectually limited’’ (Friedman 36) and, as single parents, always distracted with the responsibilities of daily life. The message that this scenario conveys is of family crisis, uncertainty and alienation, but as the stories enfold, there is room for hope, for Spielberg’s characters always encounter special beings or situations that change their lives forever. Is he leading us/the characters to a paradigm shift?
Gender stereotypes are very present in Spielberg’s movies. Men are rough, macho and heroic while woman are portrayed as noisy, deceitful, and hysterical. Indiana Jones is the perfect example of the sexy explorer, covered in dirt and still loved by schoolgirls and women, while Willie Scott is the screaming woman always dependent on a male saviour. The movies Temple of Doom, The Colour Purple and even Jurassic Park are stigmatized with sexism, and are obviously offensive to many—“The white male is always the hero on Spielberg movies and sends the image of political and philosophical conservative ideals” (Friedman 109). Spielberg tends to perpetuate masculinity in America with his interpretation of gender stereotypes and gender roles.

Many of the Steven Spielberg movies are examples of xenophobia, starting with how he portrays other cultures. He shows ethnic figures as savages performing horrible rituals, or violent gangsters (Indiana Jones). As usual, the white American hero saves all the indigenous people who were depending on a white mentor to pass by….   This perception of the world is racist and infantile, and causes negative stereotypes towards other cultures, upsets many ethnic groups and continues the Imperialism of America over other countries. Racism is also present in The Colour Purple, a movie that caused polemic due to “the presentation of incest, spousal abuse, female sexuality and lesbianism within African American society” (Friedman 252). This movie degrades the African American family and fails to show the real problems they have to face, the dominance of white culture and, of course, slavery.

Aliens and alien invasions is a theme that can be interpreted in different ways– Alien meaning the foreign, the alienated and the persecuted, and maybe an expression of Spielberg’s Jewish identity, childhood feelings, and social belonging.  In many movies, the alien has to be eliminated at all costs.  This is clearly a metaphor meaning that outsiders, non-Americans, are not welcome.  It is also a reflection of the cold war— fear of communism and invasion, ultimately portraying Americans as victims in the hands of evil non-American hands (Friedman). Somehow the stubborn aliens always choose to land in American soil.
This kind of science-fiction movie is meant to hit at first our sense of security as the audience observes how our way of live can change, be destroyed, and the ones we love killed. An invasion can happen now.

The positive in all this tragedy is the incentive one gets by identifying with the hero—instant ego boost— and believing that one person can save the world with courage, some luck, and self-sacrifice (of course, good looks help). Jaws symbolism is similar, meaning that “the strongest bulwarks of civilization are powerless against a guerrilla attack that is fast enough, fierce enough unexpected enough” (Friedman 175). Again, invasion and fear are the message.
Steven Spielberg can be contradictory and have ideas clash in front of your eyes; for instance, he shows ethnic groups as uncivilized sharp-toothed maniacs, or people of colour in need of a white hero to be saved; however, when our hero goes into these ancient societies, he always encounters divine forces or a miracle that changes his perception of everything he thought he knew (Indiana Jones). It seems that these “uncivilized” folks have something America lacks—spirituality, mysticism, and a connection with the divine. Spielberg gently attacks materialism and how America is losing spiritual values. Maybe the materialism layer is so thick that only a miracle can shift the paradigm of western culture.

Religious connotations are common in his films, starting with E.T. who “ ascends to Earth from the heavens and mingles with the sons of men, risking his own life. He is misunderstood, hunted, captured, dies and his reborn” (Friedman 40). This alien’s life has a lot in common with Christ’s, and throughout the movie, we observe more religious symbolism.  In A.I., the religious symbolism is not as obvious as E.T. but it’s present, starting with the android boy, David, who wishes to be human and loved above all things. David tries to find the Blue Fairy, —who looks like Virgin Mary— who supposedly can turn him into a real boy.  When he does find the Blue Fairy and touches her, for his ultimate disappointment she shatters into a million pieces (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). Spielberg here is criticizing Christian beliefs and the implication is that their doctrine is an illusion, and religion is used to soothe and mask problems (Friedman). The fact that David is an android that never grows up implies that the Christian doesn’t evolve, is dogmatic and probably doesn’t have a soul.
 Spielberg’s view of religion has evolved through his career, and the making of Schindler’s List  must have been a transition point. Spielberg studied the Third Reich (Nazi Germany) before making this movie, and perhaps it “convinced him that Christian theology played a pivotal role in the destruction of European Jewry” (Friedman 44), a strong reason to explain the cynicism behind the movie A.I.

Spielberg’s research for Schindler’s List  resulted in going back to painful memories and Steven Spielberg reaffirming himself as a man of Jewish descent.  As a boy, he felt ashamed and alienated for being Jewish, and this movie was an opportunity to dig deep into his soul and make him proud of his roots: “I was so ashamed of being a Jew and now I am filled with pride” said Spielberg about the transition that he experienced during the make of Schindler’s List  (Friedman 303). In this movie, the tall, blond, handsome Schindler becomes the focus and the hero that we feel affection for.  The movie doesn’t do justice to humanity since the victims are an amalgamation of shame, desperation, and pain and we never even get to know the little girl with the red coat (Schindler’s List). Spielberg does not give the Jewish people individual personalities and their faces are as similar as their fate—it is difficult for the viewers to relate to them unless you were there. By this time, the audience might be suffering from an emotional overdose and detach themselves from what the Holocaust really was and means.  The fact that the movie was shot in black and white makes it easier to manipulate the viewers emotionally and tries to offers a somewhat historical, European independent approach; however, this Oscar winning movie was the most important introduction of the Holocaust to the American culture, and is forever linked with “the Americanization of the Holocaust. It also brings up themes like the Jewish immigration from Europe and the American dream” (Friedman 296).
Spielberg became a stereotypical director by bombarding millions of viewers with his futuristic dreams fabricated in Hollywood. He promotes the values of the American middle class family as the example to follow and yearn for.  Spielberg’s movies have been reshaping values, creating social trends, and spreading out Americanism on a global scale. Steven Spielberg once said “I dream for a living,” and he was correct. Spielberg never fails to pump us up with adrenaline and paranoia, and his imagination keeps on surprising us. Most of his movies attack our sense of security —how can you feel secure when a shark is attacking you or while the world is being annihilated—and our perception of society. Many times, the hero is all alone, persecuted, with the government after him.  If you look at Minority Report, safety, privacy and social identification are in jeopardy. The Pre-cogs track your movements for the regime, and technology is in the hands of the corrupted.

Technology in his movies is the strongest example of “extensions of humanity.”  It has limitless potential and does wonders for society, or ultimately makes you obsolete and destroys your life.  Spielberg also makes a connection between technology, human corruption, and government control.  Negative connotations are linked to the government, that is invariably depicted as imcompetent and greedy, especially in the Indiana trilogy (Friedman). 

Spielberg maneuvers the audiences in many levels—primary instincts, safety, social and sense of self—and uses allegories and symbolism to lead us emotionally and visual technological effects to get and keep our attention. Many consider his movies empty of content, but in fact, the content is found when you are past the visuals.  Marshall McLuhan was right when he said, “the medium is the message and the user is the content” because Spielberg’s movies are powerful tools of enculturation and propaganda that have been conditioning and altering behaviors and the perception of the world for over a generation. This enculturation has made us a culture of unsatisfied viewers always waiting for the new spectacular blockbuster movie, coated with special effects to distract us from our ordinary lives.  I am one of them.

The movie industry changed and it was never the same again. I write this with nostalgia because I have always loved European and Classic Hollywood movies– the movies that made you think, shed a tear, and grow with a character.  They had intrigue, suspense and a story to follow.  Spielberg created a snowball effect with the blockbuster movie Jaws in 1974.  He didn’t do it alone, for he had the approval of Lew Wasserman “who took over Universal in 1962” (Gomery 202). Wasserman was a Hollywood agent and studio executive that created the Hollywood studio system and used it to merge TV production with film.

This conglomeration—the modern studio system—affected how movies were marketed, distributed, and viewed worldwide and soon enough, his strategies were copied by other agents perpetuating this system until today (Gomery).  Spielberg caught Wasserman‘s attention when making the TV movie Duel.  Wasserman was confident in Spielberg’s work and assigned him to the movie Jaws. “Jaws cost about $8 million and grossed nearly $200 million in the USA ” (Gomery 213) … it was the beginning of recognition for Spielberg as a director. The advertising campaign for the movie Jaws (prior to opening) was immense. The campaign was in the theatres, on TV, and a new era of marketing was born where “television advertising campaign revolutionized motion picture marketing” (Gomery 213) and the blockbuster mentality was born. Other B-movies came along and soon enough, E.T. was out there. This movie was released in 1982 and, financially, was bigger than ever anticipated. It generated 300 million only in USA, and was the peak of the Wasserman Empire. The movie E.T. started a trend that added incredible profit— the merchandising of movie products— by selling dolls, t-shirts, posters, books etc (Gomery). This marketing technique has been used to sell movie products, and children are the most important targets since they are the ones who want the Jurassic Park knap sacs, the Monster House posters and so on…   Later came the videocassette and DVD, making the profits enormous and always flowing and victimizing our children and us, enculturating us into to consumerism.

I can’t analyze Spielberg’s career without mentioning his best collaborator and close friend. Spielberg and George Lucas also known as “Lucasberger”(Friedman 105) worked together in major movies like Jaws and Star Wars. Together, through multimedia conglomerates they “dominated the 1980s film market”, (Friedman105) and were one of the most successful alliances. These two are blamed for the popularity of the B-movie and spectacle before content, movies that are empty of narrative, just plain eye candy. The European cinema Industry was already unstable, and when the B-movie arrived, it collapsed as a result of not being able to compete with these powerful conglomerate productions. Due to other factors like American capitalism and movie distribution laws, foreign movies have been suffering tremendously (Pruit).
Steven Spielberg achieved tremendous success directing B-movies and making our movie experience visually unforgettable. Today, his name sells not only movies but also all kinds of merchandise associated with them. Spielberg, as a brand, lets you know what to expect from his products—creativity, stunning effects, and out of this world experiences. Although we forget to acknowledge it, it was Lew Wasserman that made this possible with his studio system approach, intelligent leadership, and marketing insight– without Wasswerman, the blockbuster phenomenon wouldn’t have been possible.

I have always enjoyed Spielberg’s movies, with all implications.  E.T. was one of the first movies I saw on the big screen, and it taught me about courage, alienation, and injustice.  I silently cried in the theatre and couldn’t sleep when I went home. This movie made me look at the sky with the pure eyes of a child, and wonder about the universe and the possibility of life in other planets.  It opened an extra door in my already active imagination. My favorite of Spielberg’s characters is Indiana Jones, the sexy professor/adventurer that gets in trouble over special artifacts. He dresses appropriately, with a worn jacket, dirty shirt, and military pants, and knows how to accessorize, with a felt fedora hat and bullwhip.  Even though he’s a sexist— and I hate that—he can be a gentleman, is courageous, and looks great covered in dirt.  I was eight years old when I saw Raiders of the lost Ark, and became infatuated with Indy and his life style.  I decided that I should become an archaeologist and live in an exotic place, digging skulls out of a pit of mud.  Strangely enough, I ended up marring a man who resembles Indiana, felt hat included…    movies might shape you more than you think.
The “Lucasberger” creations had a big impact in my perception of the world and contributed to my later decision to pursue Graphic Arts and to learn about image, sound, and video manipulation.  Even though I have a special attachment to old movies (black and white, and European), I must say that I am a “special effects junkie”.  Spielberg has taken me away to imaginary worlds, and made possible my need to escape.  He’s also an icon I admired while growing up due to the way he displays complex ideas so simply.  I consider his movies therapeutic in that sense, and I need a certain amount of them to soothe my addiction. Long live Steven Spielberg!

I found the task of writing this paper to be overwhelming in scope, due to the importance of the icon, and especially the impact of his work in our world.  I mentioned how Steven Spielberg is a powerful icon that has been responsible for the enculturation of generations, using his medium and reshaping our values.  I showed how his Blockbuster movies changed the movie industry and movie marketing, and how his movies and characters affected me by encouraging me to dream and let me discover my own Indiana Jones.

Sure, he had some help…. nevertheless, Steven Spielberg changed the movie industry at its roots.  Some love his work while others accuse him of destroying Hollywood.  Personally, I am up for the sensationalism and the loud excitement he delivers.  I think I’ll watch Jurassic Park tonight. 

Bibliography

A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law and William Hurt . 2001 Laser Disc Warner Bros

Friedman, D. Lester. Citizen Spielberg . Urbana and Chicago : University of Illinois Press,  2006

Gomery, Douglas. The Hollywood Studio System . Trowbridge, Wiltshire: U.K. Cromwell Press, 2005 .

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom . Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, and Amrish Puri . 1984 Laser Disc Paramount/Viacom .

Minority Report. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton . 2002 Laser Disc Dreamworks Pictures .

Pruit, Nicole . “Globalization, International Cinema, and Western Hegemonic Cultural Imperialism.” Online Posting. Spring 2000 http://www.si.umich.edu/Classes/607/ MT_Projects/mt_papers/ Nicole_Pruitt_mt_paper.htm (Retrieved 23 Nov. 2006) .

Schickel, Richard . “Spielberg takes on Terror .” Time Magazine . 2005 : 9-12.­­

Schindler’s List . Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley . 1997 Laser Disc Universal .

“Steven Spielberg.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Steven_Spielberg (Retrieved 15 Nov. 2006 ).

Spielberg photo (public domain). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image: Steven_Spielberg_1999_2.jpg