Watch: Steven Spielberg’s Artistic Strength Depends Upon His Humanity
Fans of Steven Spielberg say he gets them at their gut; critics of Spielberg say he goes corny too often, and in so doing betrays his craft. Both viewpoints hinge on one attribute: his ability to capture moments of what we call, for lack of a better word, humanity, or times when human sloppiness, idiosyncrasy, even stupidity, might achieve resonance, even luminosity. This video essay by Andrew Saladino does an excellent job of calling out these moments, explaining Spielberg’s technique in executing them, and discussing their relevance to Spielberg’s work. Whether it’s an alienated scientist playing with mashed potatoes in ‘Close Encounters’ or a boy crying for his mother (or any mother) in ‘A.I.,’ the ability of Spielberg’s films to drop anchor, to reach his viewers in a memorable way depends on his skill at observing those viewers and the way they act when they think no one’s looking.
Watch: Steven Spielberg, Housebuilder, Shot by Shot
If you want your teeth done, contact the sumptuous Paolo Sorrentino. If you want a house built, contact Steven Spielberg. The great risk a director like Spielberg, whose films grapple with vast subjects like the Holocaust, life on other planets, slavery, and Abraham Lincoln, takes is that his film will never be able to grasp it all, that it will fall prostrate before its subject, flopping into mediocrity and cliche. What keeps Spielberg’s films from doing this is his profound sense of structure, of arrangement, of timing, of letting the stages of a story, such as Frank Abagnale Jr.’s from ‘Catch Me If You Can‘, unfold gradually rather than cutting to the maudlin chase too soon. This sense of craft, of what English majors would call the "well-wrought urn," can be found all over his work, perhaps most notably, as video essay dynamo Jacob T. Swinney points out, in his shots. Swinney has assembled 30 shots here, all of which bring that reaction—you know, the sharp intake of breath that follows a dramatic, thematic leap by a director, a jump into territory that might be (but isn’t) too big for the film at hand (cf. the red sweater in ‘Schindler’s List‘). If you look at the shot, you see that it’s the composition, as much as the extenuating circumstances, that bring the reaction. If you were to try to pin down what it is about the composition that’s giving you chills… you would come up short. But the structure is there, and it’s usually a part of a much larger story structure, one that is, in the words of many a financial journalist, too big to fail. Why is it that a bicycle moving across a full moon in ‘E.T.’ is so magical? It could be because everything in the frame is centered; it could be because a full moon is very close to a perfect circle; it could be because we like imagining such an arc, because it recalls our own dreams as children. Whatever the cause, if you want to study Spielberg’s magisterial structure, his shots provide a good place to start.
Watch: What Props Do for The Films in Which They Appear, and Vice Versa
Can the heart of a film be its props? The light saber. The movie camera. The gun. The tape deck. These are all things we see as we watch our Spielberg, our Andersons, our Hitchcocks, our Godards, and yet we somehow view them as incidental. Rishi Kaneria argues, with this new video essay, that they are essential. He has set himself a difficult exercise here and exceeded its limits, taking us through the use of seemingly incidental items from the beginnings of film to its most recent developments.
Watch: Steven Spielberg’s Bloodiest Scene from ‘Saving Private Ryan’: A Breakdown
I remember very clearly the day I saw the Omaha Beach scene from Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ A dear friend had taken me to a screening, and after the 20th burst of vomit or blood, I asked myself quietly, "This is a Tom Hanks movie, correct?" I can think of few war films with quite as visceral an opening as this one, and so I’m thrilled that Cinefix (who seems to be on a roll recently) has put together this reel of background about the scene. We get a lot of nice tidbits here, such as the fact that shutter modifications on the cameras used gave the scene its jumpy, alarming immediacy, or that squibs of blood were programmed to explode in sync with flare bursts from soldiers’ guns. We get voice-over quotes from Spielberg, Hanks, and sound designer Gary Rydstrom. And we get the pleasure (painful, but meaningful) of revisiting one of Spielberg’s most remarkable isolated achievements.