Wrote this as a filler-column for my newspaper today. Not too happy with it; couldn’t think of an angle (had originally wanted to do something on various treatments of War of the Worlds, including the Orson Welles radio broadcast, but that had been written about in many newspapers already) so ended up writing this thing on Spielberg’s career instead. Six hundred words not enough to do justice to the subject.
When the socialites emerged, blinking heavily, from the PVR Plaza hall after the special preview screening of War of the Worlds in Delhi last week, the first question they were asked by byte-seeking TV journalists was: "So who was the star of the film -- Tom Cruise or Steven Spielberg?"
The answers notwithstanding (most people replied "Spielberg" anyway, probably because they were annoyed with Tom for breaking up with Nicole), the very fact that such a question could be asked at all was significant. In the actor-struck world of commercial cinema, Spielberg is a brand name among directors -- among the rare few who have, in the tradition of Cecil B DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock, earned the right to have their name above the movie’s title. The comparison with Hitchcock is appropriate, or used to be: back in 1975, when the young Spielberg had just come off the success of Jaws, the Master of Suspense, filming at a nearby studio, pointed at the wunderkind and said "See that kid who made the fish film? He’ll go very far." Hitchcock had recognised in Jaws a talent for audience manipulation, for the slow, agonising build-up of suspense that had marked his own best work.
Since then, over a long and many-phased career, Spielberg has been many things to many viewers. At his best he is a master of technique, with a startling sense of composition and camera movement. He famously has an empathy for children that has contributed enormously to the success of films like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and that has given an autobiographical charge to even less successful movies like Hook, about Peter Pan, "the boy who never grew up". At his most earnest, he has responded to charges of being a "mere entertainer" by making films like Schindler’s List, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan -- all noteworthy movies but also over-hyped by a critical machinery that insists on judging films by the depth or relevance of their content (it’s notable, and a bit sad, that the Academy Awards only deigned to recognise Spielberg when he made the Serious Films). And at his worst he has been painfully cloying, often junking interesting ideas to accommodate happy endings (witness Artificial Intelligence, originally intended to be a bleak Kubrickian drama, but which somehow ended in the lap of a fairy godmother).
But the problem with War of the Worlds wasn’t that it was a bad Spielberg film; it was more that it didn’t really feel like a Spielberg film at all. Even the man’s biggest critics usually admit that his work is interesting. But War of the Worlds was full of sequences that could have been directed by just about anyone: scenes that were direct references to Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, with giant-eyed mechanical alien scanners supplanting the T-Rexes of the earlier movie; scenes that cheapened suspense by reducing it to a hide-and-seek equation. The Spielberg touch was largely missing from this pointless update of the H G Wells novel (itself a curio today).
While Spielberg continues to be as financially successful as ever, a tediousness has seeped into his films, despite their occasional, frustrating flashes of brilliance. This could have to do with confusion about the kinds of films he should be making, excessive self-consciousness about his own reputation or the fact that neatly wrapped up endings (Oskar Schindler sobbing "I wish I could have saved more people" to give Schindler’s List an emotional epiphany it didn’t need) don’t go too well with the more "mature" subjects he occasionally takes on. Whatever the case, 30 years after Jaws, the "fish film kid" is floundering as a creative artist.
None of which means we’ll stop flocking in droves to his movies.