Watch: Vilmos Zsigmond Defined 1970s Cinema
Watch: How Did Steven Spielberg Influence David Fincher?
Steven Spielberg and David Fincher make for a more likely chain of influence than one might think. It might boil down to this: same audience, different focus. Spielberg reaches towards broad themes intended for a wide audience; Fincher seems to have made it his mission to bring the dark side of humanity (the torment, the obsession, the rage, the calumny) to, like Spielberg, as wide a viewership as possible, with films like ‘Seven‘ and ‘The Social Network‘ in particular. Michael Bryant has narrowed this comparison considerably in this pithy video, bringing these two cinematic minds together in a rare and convincing way. So: how did Spielberg influence Fincher? Fincher seems to have absorbed Spielberg’s filmmaking techniques and presented them to us transformed. Look and see…
Watch: How the Boulder Scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ Was Made and Why It Lasts
There were many scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark that thrilled my preteen mind: brushing the spiders off a man’s back, the melting eyeballs, the unleashing of the power of the Ark. But, in the end, a scene of Indiana Jones being chased by a large boulder down a long tunnel wins. Why? Not sure. It has metaphorical power, I suppose–maybe it’s the opposite of the myth of Sisyphus, in which a man pushes a boulder up a hill for eternity? Maybe because it was the sort of gut-level entertainment that we rarely see in unmitigated, pure form in films these days? In any event, this brisk and informative "Art of the Scene" installment from Cinefix lays out the history of the film, and, for our edification, the details of the making of the boulder scene. We learn, among many other things, that George Lucas got the idea for the boulder from a Scrooge the Duck comic book, and that the sound of the boulder rolling is actually the sound of the wheels of a Honda Civic, rolling on gravel. Enjoy!
Indiana Jones and the Misunderstood Character Arc
Back in October 2013, an episode of The Big Bang Theory ruined Raiders
of the Lost Ark for many of its fans. In the episode, the geeky Sheldon
shows the movie (one of his “all-time favorites”) to his new girlfriend, Amy.
The moment the credits start to roll, he turns excitedly to ask her what she
thought of the film (as well as his taste). Her reaction is not what he had hoped
for. “It was good,” she shrugs, clearly underwhelmed. “It was very
entertaining. Except for the glaring story problem.” Incredulous, Sheldon insists
that Amy explain; she replies: “Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of
the story. If he weren’t in the film, it would turn out exactly the same. […] The
Nazis would have still found the ark, taken it to the island, opened it up, and
all died. Just like they did.” Sheldon’s mouth drops, followed by the mouths of
geeks worldwide. Amy’s criticism was picked up and passed around the Web, as writers
at various fan sites chimed in to voice their opinions on how the episode had gutted
Indiana Jones. At What Culture, Simon Gallagher explained “How
the Big Bang Theory Ruined Indiana Jones For Everyone,” while at Cinemablend, Kristy Puchko asked, “Has
Big Bang Theory Ruined Indiana Jones Forever?” (Such hyperbole is
typical of geek culture.) Suddenly, a previously undetected story problem was
eating away at the fabric of geekdom itself. But the problem, despite all the
hullaballoo, is that there is no problem, and there never was.
Amy’s argument, essentially, is that Indy isn’t a good protagonist
because he doesn’t advance the film’s plot. At the climax of the movie, he ends
up tied to a post, and doesn’t do anything to beat the Nazis. According to this
argument, he’s not a true hero because he fails to save the day by, say, punching
someone, or rigging an explosion. Instead, God steps in and wipes out Indy’s
foes, a modern-day version of deus ex
But this argument fundamentally misunderstands the central
conflict in Raiders of the Lost Ark,
and what the film is ultimately about. To be sure, the Nazis are Indy’s
antagonists, and he struggles with them throughout the film. His motives stand
in clear contrast to theirs, and one of his goals is to stop them from
unearthing the lost Ark of the Covenant for their own nefarious ends. (Hitler’s
army, with the Ark at its forefront, would be unstoppable.) But Indiana Jones’s
true struggle isn’t ultimately with the Nazis, but with something else.
Let’s consider who Indiana Jones is. He’s a man of science,
an archaeologist who travels the world digging up priceless artifacts, then
putting them in museums—which is where, he repeatedly and gruffly insists, those
artifacts belong. In other words, Indy is devoted to uncovering the past,
bringing its remains to light, and adding them to the stockpile of human
knowledge. This is why he’s incensed by mercenary archaeologists like his rival
René Belloq, who work for private collectors; it’s also why he opposes the
Nazis, who would use the Ark as a weapon, and a tool of oppression. Belloq and
the Nazis might do archaeology, but their goal isn’t the enrichment of all humankind.
For Indy, securing an artifact for a museum is to secure it for everybody, to
put it on display where anyone can see it, and learn from it. (Of course, this ignores
the colonialist, imperialist aspects of archaeology, especially archaeology of
the 1930s, but let’s save that critique for another day.)
It’s with this goal in mind—the enrichment of public
knowledge via science—that Indy enters into a race against the Nazis. Can he
find the Ark before they do? But his primary struggle remains a conflict with himself. His arc, if you will (pun
intended), comes to a crisis when his devotion to science is tested, and he’s
confronted with the limits of secular, experiential knowledge.
Early in the film, Indy makes it clear that he doesn’t
believe in the legends surrounding the Ark. When explaining what the artifact is
to some visiting FBI agents, he calls it “the chest the Hebrews used to carry
around the Ten Commandments … the actual
Ten Commandments, the original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of
Mount Horeb and smashed—if you believe in that sort of thing.” A little later, while
studying a picture of the Ark, the agents ask, “What’s that supposed to be
coming out of there?” Indy replies, “Lightning … fire … the power of God, or
something.” He agrees to locate the Ark before the Nazis do, but his
motivation is, as usual, to secure a great new piece for Marshall College’s museum.
As soon as the FBI agents leave, he confirms with his colleague Marcus Brody that the school’s museum
will get the Ark.
Brody chastises his friend, however, for taking the matter
too lightly: “For nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the
lost ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets.
It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.” Indy’s reaction couldn’t be
more flippant. Laughing, he says, “Oh, Marcus! What are you trying to do, scare
me? You sound like my mother. We’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t
believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of
incredible historical significance; you’re talking about the boogie man.
Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.” On that note, Indy tosses his
revolver into his suitcase. It’s a brilliant character moment in more ways than
one. Obviously Indy is a tough guy who can take care of himself in a scrap. But
he also believes that any threat he meets will be mortal—not divine.
The Ark, to Indy, is an artifact like any other. It’s rarer,
perhaps, and more celebrated, but it’s something made by man, and mystified by
human stories. His nonchalant manner regarding the artifact’s divine power
stands in exact contrast to his friend Sallah, who truly respects the Ark’s supernatural
power. Sallah echoes Marcus Brody’s warning to Indy, claiming, “It is not
something man was meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not
of this earth.”
Lest any of this reading seem like embellishment, the
question of Indiana’s faith was central for Harrison Ford, who scribbled notes
in the margins of his script, wondering whether Indy was “a believer.” Recall
also Belloq’s line to Indy, when our hero is standing above him with a grenade
launcher, threatening to blow up the Ark. Belloq calls his rival’s bluff,
saying, “All your life has been spent in pursuit of archaeological relics.
Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see
it opened as well as I.”
Indy’s lack of faith is directly challenged at the climax of
the film, when the Nazis secure the Ark. He and Marion Ravencroft watch as the
villains prepare to open the chest—going so far as to document the moment on
film—and their hubris proves instructive. Whereas the Nazis believe
themselves to be God, or even superior to God, Indy realizes that he must
choose a different course of action. Famously, when the Ark is finally opened,
he shouts to Marion that she should close her eyes. In other words, at the very
moment when they are finally able to look upon the artifact they’ve been
chasing, Indy chooses to look away—to refuse to observe. He has come to agree
with Sallah that the Ark is a thing divine, and embodies knowledge that humans
are not supposed to have.
To misunderstand this is to misunderstand Indiana’s
character, and the whole point of the story. Ultimately, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film about the limits of science, about its hero reaching a boundary where one kind
of knowledge (empiricism) breaks down, only to be replaced by a different kind
of knowledge (religion, faith). Unlike the Nazis, unlike Belloq, Indy humbles
himself, and makes what the film considers the right decision: to close his
eyes before God.
If there is a “glaring story problem” with the Indiana Jones
films, it’s that this basic conflict gets repeated in all of the movies. Temple of Doom, Last Crusade, and Kingdom of
the Crystal Skull all effectively reset Indiana to square one, despite the
lessons he’s learned elsewhere. In each film, Indy starts out a man of science,
incredulous in the face of some greater power, only to relearn humility. Indeed,
the ending of Last Crusade depicts
him once again learning this lesson. Even worse, Temple of Doom takes place chronologically before Raiders, which means that Indy already
had some experience with the divine before setting out after the Ark—albeit the
divine of a different faith. (A separate article could be written on the
challenges that Temple poses to the monotheism
of Judaism.) To gripe about any of that would be a complaint worthy of a true geek,
rather than the weak tea with which the pretend nerds on Big Bang Theory flummox one another.
But of course, Raiders
got made first, and told the story best. Its crystal-skull-clear dramatization of
Indy’s crisis of faith—and his triumph via humility—is an essential part of why
it’s the greatest Indiana Jones film.
of three books: Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium Inc., 2013). Other
writing of his has appeared
Other and HTMLGIANT, as well as in dozens of literary journals. Since August 2011 he’s been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. He is currently writing a book on geek cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.
Steven Spielberg, Hollywood Historian: A Debate Between Matt Zoller Seitz and Tom Carson
[Publisher’s Note: I’ve been arguing with film and TV critic Tom Carson for over a decade, over all sorts of issues. One is the relative merit, or lack thereof, of the films of Steven Spielberg, about whom I’m quite enthusiastic; Tom, not so much. Tom’s recent, highly skeptical take on Schindler’s List in The American Prospect sparked a chain of emails between us. We talked about Spielberg, history, Hollywood, the relationship between showmanship and truth, and other thorny issues. Read on, and feel free to argue with either (or both) of us in the comments.—Matt Zoller Seitz]
Matt Zoller Seitz: It’s fascinating to me that, after all these decades, and after so many Oscars and Oscar nominations and such a gigantic box-office take, Steven Spielberg is still considered an “issue.”
Tom Carson: Then we must read very different stuff online, because one reason I get so contrary about him is the amount of uncritical reverence he attracts.
MZS: I don’t get the “uncritical reverence” thing at all. The industry has canonized him for financial as well as “respectability” reasons—to Hollywood, he’s like Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kramer, and maybe Cecil B. DeMille rolled into one, and they’ve certainly given him every award in existence at some point or another. But I wouldn’t describe the critical or even popular reception as purely adulatory. The numerous takedowns of Lincoln this past year seem to me like proof of that.
TC: But even when people find fault with a particular movie of his, he’s on a sort of hallowed plane I mistrust. Interestingly, in my experience, that’s especially true among younger movie buffs — who might be expected to think of Spielberg as an oldie and, you know, chafe a bit. Instead, he seems to be a hallowed figure to them, the guy who defines what movies can be.
MZS: Not a week goes by that I don’t see somebody on social media linking to a think piece or an interview with some other filmmaker decrying Spielberg as a rank sentimentalist, a hack, a fascist with a smiley face, or some combination. You’ve had serious problems with him for quite some time, Tom, and since I’ve been arguing with you about him for years now, I thought it might be fun to argue about him here.
The spark for this is your recent piece for The American Prospect, keyed into the 20th anniversary of Schindler’s List. It took the film to task for some of the same reasons that Stanley Kubrick disliked it—for, in essence, finding a triumphant story within a narrative of genocide.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been very skeptical about one of his historical films. I still remember your Esquire piece from 1999, after Saving Private Ryan came out and became a cultural phenomenon. It included a line so provocative that it made me write a whole rebuttal in New York Press: “Honestly, I can’t see much that Hitler would have wanted changed in Saving Private Ryan, except the color of the uniforms.” And this: “It’s a weird reversal of the usual proportions of the selfless-gallantry genre, in which one man dies to save many. As a parable of this nation’s World War II sacrifices, the story would be truer to what the GIs deserve being honored for if Ryan were a European. Then again, Saving Monsieur Renault might not have gripped the modern Stateside audience: Who cares about some damn snail eater? Instead, in a way that’s both solipsistic and tautological, saving the world gets redefined as saving ourselves–which must mean we are the world.”
Is it possible to sum up what it is about Spielberg that irks you so? Is it his filmmaking, his choice of subjects, his world view, or some combination?
TC: Every problem I have with Spielberg starts with conceding his brilliance as a filmmaker. That’s particularly true when he’s giving us one of his 20th-century history lessons. With both SPR and Schindler’s List, there’s a way that his depiction of the event gets conflated with, or even outright supercedes, the event itself. If you find fault with those movies, you’re indifferent to the GIs’ sacrifices or the Holocaust’s evil. And since I care a lot about history, I care a lot about those movies’ inadequacies in substituting for the real thing in people’s minds.
If the comparison isn’t too incongruous, it’s a bit like the way the Disney versions of classic children’s stories have become the quasi-official ones. I don’t want Spielberg’s idea of the Normandy invasion to be the authoritative one any more than I want the Disney version of The Jungle Book to replace Kipling. But my animus may have something to do with the fact that The Jungle Book and Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day are two books I knew practically by heart at age 10.
MZS: Well, I think what Spielberg is doing in these historical films is a more sophisticated than he’s being given credit for. He’s working in that Stanley Kramer vein—which is to say, on the most basic level, at the level of glossy Hollywood entertainment—but I don’t necessarily think the takeaway of his historical films is as simplistic as detractors say.
For instance, Schindler’s List, to me, doesn’t feel like a triumph-of-the-human-spirit movie at all, because it constantly makes us aware that this is an anomalous story; a lot of innocent people die onscreen in the film, and it’s portrayed with an almost Kubrickian level of cold absurdity, such as that scene where the young Jewish woman architect tells the Nazi officers that their architecture plans are subpar, and they take her advice to heart, then shoot her anyway.
I can’t think of another mainstream American film that explores the sick intricacies and self-justifying anti-logic of fascism and antisemitism as thoroughly as Schindler’s List does. I think the question, “How could a thing like this happen?” is asked and answered in the movie in a no-fuss, very pragmatic way: It happened, and the explanation is less important than the fact of all that moral inaction/complicity/corruption happening in every corner of the film.
The moment where Schindler observes the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto from afar, and suddenly sees this one little girl with a red coat, is a brilliant moment, one that challenges the audience in a clever, almost subliminal way. Schindler doesn’t personally know any of the people he’s watching suffer, but that splash of red indicates that he individualized this one abstraction, this one child, for whatever inscrutable personal reason. Suddenly the abstraction isn’t abstract anymore, and that launches him into this secret, very risky mission to save as many people as he can, at great risk to himself. That’s all it takes. And the implication is, that’s all it should take for anyone. I don’t think Schindler’s List devalues the magnitude of the Holocaust at all. I think it refuses to stop at the horror, refuses to put it in the past and declare it a mysterious, unanswerable horror, something sacred that you can never even depict for fear of trivializing it. I think it’s taking a much more common sense approach, a present tense, “What does this mean now?” approach, and saying something like, “It is possible to just make up your mind to give a damn about people you think have no connection to you—to just decide to care, and then to take action.”
We’re all Schindler, standing on that hillside watching horrors happen far away; we all could decide to add a splash of color to one person’s distant grey coat, and suddenly we’re invested, and it’s not as inscrutably difficult as we might make the process out to be. Maybe we intellectualize the basic issues too much.
That’s what I get out of Schindler’s List, and I think it’s hugely valuable. Is it naïve or corny to respond to a message like that? Or is refusing to respond to a message like than an indication of the sort of moral paralysis that enables atrocities to happen in the first place? There’s an anger, a furious present-tense anger, in Spielberg’s depiction of Nazi violence against Jews that caught me by surprise back in 1993, that still feels fresh, and that I believe is of great value and purpose.
Most Holocaust movies, whether dramas or documentaries, are a lament for something that happened a long time ago, and that has been sort of entombed by history, or by history books. When we say that a movie makes history “come alive,” it’s always a veiled admission that for most of us, anything that happened before we were born is a dead thing, dead to us, in the past, irrelevant except in terms of academic study or maybe political comparison. The history in Spielberg’s movies is not that way. Once you get past the bracketing devices, which I mostly don’t care for, and you’re in the thick of it, it’s happening now. You’re right in the middle of things. Suddenly what’s past has become present tense.
Schindler’s List might be Spielberg’s best example of this sort of approach to history. It’s got a dramatic-personal arc for the main character, and humor, and pathos/sentiment. But mostly it’s angry. It’s angry that these events happened in the first place. I mean, truly angry. Incredulously angry. Some of the more blackly humorous, Strangelove-ian depictions of German illogic are scathing. You can feel the filmmaker going, “You’ve got to be kidding me . . . How insane is this? How ridiculous is this? And what kind of spineless, ass-covering cowards would stand around letting something like this happen, for fear of losing their property or their social station?” It’s a primal response that is at times closer to what you’d expect from somebody like Oliver Stone than from Steven Spielberg, who is not know for his anger.
I love that sense of revulsion, the sense that the whole movie is shuddering in recoil. This movie holds the audience to a higher moral standard than most movies about the Holocaust, by not keeping the horror safely in the past, by making the violence present tense and battering you with it. And it’s really important to point out, again, that this movie is aimed at a general audience, at the widest possible viewership, and that most of the people seeing this have perhaps not imagined themselves into the situation as extensively as a history buff might have already done, or as a documentary buff might have already done. Job number one for a film of this type is to immerse the viewer and make the situations feel immediate, to spark an emotional understanding. And on that score, large parts of this film—and parts of Spielberg’s other historical dramas—are very successful. I don’t see how one could look at the movie and not think, “What would I do in this situation? If I were part of the ruling class, or one of the so-called ‘good Germans,’ would I risk everything the way Schindler did?”
For all the awards the film has won, I don’t think it has ever really been given proper credit for that.
The Girl’s Red Coat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers
TC: If you compare my two pieces, it should be obvious that I think more highly of Schindler’s List than I do of SPR. My problems with the former have to do with how the third act does, in my view, shunt aside the horror of mass death in favor of sentimentality about the handful of people Schindler saved. To my mind, there’s an equation between that red coat and Dorothy’s red ruby slippers—she’s The One—and what about the thousands of children sent to the gas chambers who got stuck wearing gray that day? I’m as grateful as anyone that Anne Frank is famous because we have her testimony. But at some level, to single out an individual victim of the Holocaust is to deny the horror of its anonymity. Like, if the kid hadn’t been so noticeable—and sorry, but she’s as cute and tough as Shirley Temple, guiding our responses somewhat—Schindler’s conscience wouldn’t have been stirred?
By and large—because I do admire how Goeth is characterized, and we’ll get to that—I also don’t agree with you that the movie is really all that informative about the nature of anti-Semitism or how the Holocaust came to be, since a viewer without prior awareness wouldn’t find much that explains either. Its power comes from re-creating the Holocaust’s atrocities so intensely that you feel you’re watching—or, if you’re susceptible, almost experiencing—the real thing. That bothers me. We have a lot of newsreel documentation of the actual camps, and the paradox is that Spielberg’s very scrupulous and horrific facsimile ends up having more authority for the audience because it’s superior as filmmaking. There’s something disturbing about the fake version replacing the documentary one at that level.
MZS: I don’t agree. Where Spielberg excels is where narrative cinema itself excels: at helping you understand the physical, visceral experience of going through something, whether it’s a mundane contemporary moment or some grand historical turning point. Where Spielberg flounders, I think, is when his films are trying to hard to put things in perspective, to put a frame around it. The strongest section of Amistad for me is that flashback to the Middle Passage, which conveys the full physical as well as moral (immoral) reality of the slave trade better than any mainstream American film or TV production ever had. The lived experience of being under fire and seeing people blown up around you is the most valuable and memorable part of Saving Private Ryan, although that film’s “men on a mission” template tends to turn a story with Apocalypse Now/Dr. Strangelove absurdist aspects into something that feels, or plays, much more conventionally. The guys argue about the logic or necessity of saving this one guy, but the movie makes it clear from the very beginning that they’re risking soldiers’ lives for a symbolic or PR gesture. And even at the end, the film has a deceptively complex/simple way of asking if it was all worth it: it’s concluding, I think, “Yes, it was worth it, in that they saved this one guy’s life, and that’s what you can take out of it—and maybe it’s the only unambiguously positive thing to come out of it all.”
But you’re still aware that almost everyone else in the platoon died, and they all had lives, too, lives that were just as valuable as Ryan’s.
The film is bracketed with those cemetery scenes, which are admittedly very sentimental and perhaps unnecessary from a plot standpoint, but even those aren’t as straightforward as they initially read. We start and end with an image of the American flag, but it’s not a robust, pristine, poster-ready image of a flag. The flag is tattered, and the sun is behind it. You see the flag, but you also see through the flag, a multi-valent image that might be—as odd as this sounds!—too subtle for the intended audience. Visually Spielberg is incredibly subtle, even when he’s being loud and spectacular, but those kinds of subtleties tend to get lost in the din.
The lived experience of those Schindler’s List atrocities are the most valuable aspect of the film—that and the practical response on the part of Schindler, which is to say “I need to do something about this.” That we never know why he did it is one of the reasons I respect the film as popular art, that “One more life” scene notwithstanding, which I really wish the film had done without.
But that’s the biggest problem for Spielberg, as far as this fan is concerned; that tendency—as a New York Times Magazine piece put it, back in 1999—to put ketchup on a perfectly good steak. Which might or might not be a whole other issue?
TC: Well, let’s start with your line “The lived experience of being under fire and seeing people blown up around you is the most valuable and memorable part of Saving Private Ryan. . .”, which is the heart of the problem for me. It isn’t a lived experience; it’s an illusion, brought off with great directorial flair and technological skill. To me, there’s a danger in people watching SPR and thinking they now know what It Was Really Like—much less How It Really Felt. They don’t and I don’t either. It used to be that movies simply couldn’t approximate — and, indeed, heighten and hyperbolize—reality in this way, and I question whether that’s a desirable goal.
Since I do know my D-Day history, I could also bore you with all the things SPR gets wrong or deliberately falsifies for excitement’s sake, which would obviously be less troublesome if people weren’t convinced that they were seeing D-Day exactly as it was. Beyond that, what I most dislike about SPR is its distasteful, bizarrely Wagnerian mysticism about sacrifice without reasoning why, which goes against the grain of everything I admire the GIs for and is the reason I never tire of saying that this is the kind of WWII movie the Germans would have made if they’d won it.
It doesn’t seem to me that Spielberg treats the mission as absurdist or reminds us—satirically or otherwise—that in some ways it’s PR. It treats saving Ryan as noble, with Hanks’s valedictory “Earn it” compensating for any illogic in all these guys dying to save just one.
And yes, the ketchup-on-steak problem is an abiding one. I really dislike both Schindler’s “And here are the real Schindler Jews!” epilogue and SPR‘s present-day frame story, though for somewhat different reasons. In one case, Spielberg is using the actual survivors to validate his movie, and in the other, the implication that Ryan—and by extension, America—has indeed “earned it” is both nonsensical and offensive to me.
MZS: Again, I don’t think SPR ever comes out and says, “Yes, we ‘earned it'”, whatever that phrase means. Not in a political or historical sense. It’s just one guy talking to another guy as he’s dying, saying, “Don’t let this personal sacrifice become meaningless.” Whatever that means to Ryan is whatever that means to Ryan, and there’s no indication that he became a senator or CEO or the head of a movie studio. He’s just some old guy visiting the cemetery with his wife and family. I don’t really see a “by extension, America” in that bracketing device, though John Williams’ score confuses the issue, as it so often does.
TC: I’ve complained many times that Spielberg’s reliance on Williams is an artistic flaw. Even when a scene is emotionally complex and ambiguous, he often (not always) lets Williams undermine that by spelling out the obvious, non-ironic reaction, which is a form of either artistic cowardice or pop-culture casuistry. I can’t stand how little Spielberg trusts the audience most of the time.
As for the “We earned it” thing, I was unaware that the United States participated in WWII as a self-improvement project. What moves me most about the real GIs—incidentally, a very disgruntled, reluctant draftee army, not nearly as thrilled by or expert at warfare as the Germans were under Hitler—is that they ended up dying to liberate all these strangers in foreign lands that they had no connection to and whose languages they didn’t even speak. SPR makes it all about us, and I think the coda scene when the elderly Ryan asks, “Have I been a good man? Have I led a good life?” and wifey reassures him he’s done great is a pretty unmistakable benediction on that whole generation.
Spielberg the Showman vs. Spielberg the Artist
MZS: Spielberg the showman and Spielberg the artist are inextricably intertwined, and sometimes they get tangled up, if you know what I mean. But I think he’s doing consistently subtle work in an unsubtle mode. Compare Saving Private Ryan to, say, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor—that’s a film that I think is truly guilty of the sins you ascribe to Ryan, and has none of the residual ambivalence that makes Ryan fascinating even when it’s irritating or problematic. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gets up out of a wheelchair in that one to chew out the joint chiefs of staff for being pussies!
TC: Well, bringing Pearl Harbor in as a point of comparison could turn me into a shrieking Spielberg fan in one second flat. I may have my problems with Saving Private Ryan, but it’s a serious movie that’s worth arguing about and not a travesty. I almost stood up and started shouting obscenities in the theater when Bay did that cutesy bit with the two American fighter planes flipping vertical to avoid crashing. It’s the “day of infamy” and he wants to make audiences laugh with a cool stunt.
MZS: The point is, I think there’s value in a kind of national reckoning blockbuster of this sort, and that it’s easy to lose sight of its utility when you’re a critic. Hotel Terminus is a far more sophisticated film about moral inaction in the fact of Nazi corruption and cruelty than Schindler’s List. But it’s a documentary, and done in a mode that is for a variety of reasons is simply incapable of reaching as large a number of people as a Spielberg blockbuster.
That’s the rub, ultimately. When you work on the scale that Spielberg works on, you’re basically making a story that consists of woodcuts. Every block has to be simple, pared down, graspable. You’re sort of working simultaneously with the reality and the myth that’s sprung up in its wake and that threatens to displace it. I think you can make popular art in that way and still be able to call it art – I think John Ford proved this quite a few times, though some may disagree – but the downside is, when you work this way, the movie’s complexities are more elusive, and more apt to be drowned out by the elements that are there to make it accessible. You may make something that, in terms of picture and sound, in terms of expression, is powerful, perhaps revelatory, but if it’s not scrupulously faithful to what happened, a lot of people are going to dismiss it anyway as being just a bunch of Hollywood bull. A bunch of pretty pictures. They’ll say, “Who cares about the form, when there are so many problematic aspects with the content?”
There’s always going to be that nagging question, “Can this even be done? Is it worth making this movie, in this mode, or are we kidding ourselves by even trying?”
TC: I wouldn’t say either Schindler’s List or SPR shouldn’t have been made, no.
But in both cases, I’m bothered by the perception that they’re the definitive, ultimate depiction of the events in question—an idea, as I’ve said elsewhere, Spielberg doesn’t exactly discourage—and that to watch either is the closest thing we’ll ever have to an approximation of the reality (clearly one of Spielberg’s artistic goals).
Even if it is, shouldn’t we accept that some realities aren’t available to us via cinematic mediation and we’re better off not confusing the two? You’re arguing that it’s a good thing for people to have this sort of vicarious experience, and I think it’s a slippery slope in terms of our historical understanding.
You should also feel free to call the next observation a double standard on my part. But I do think this kind of historical re-creation is a different story when the events are well outside anybody’s living memory and we don’t have newsreel records of them to complicate the aesthetic and ethical issues involved in our reaction to seeing them get the Spielberg treatment. I actually think more highly of Amistad than many people do, since we don’t have documentary films of the Middle Passage—or, as a result, any real way of visualizing its horrors *except* via a filmmaker’s version. I also like the underrated way in which the movie’s interest in thorny talkiness—not just compelling action—prefigures Lincoln.
Even so, here’s a counter-example: Spielberg has never tackled 9/11 head-on, and I hope he never will. But he has made two movies that were clearly responses to it—War of the Worlds, which is mostly terrific until the dumb plot starts taking over, and Munich, which is the single movie of his I admire most. Coming at the subject obliquely let him say so much without the quandary of challenging himself to make the World Trade Center’s fall even more vivid to audiences—and, therefore, more exciting, the inevitable downside of Spielbergization—than the TV footage we all watched over and over. So I prefer him in that indirect but eloquent mode to the “This is what it was really like” task he sets himself in SPR and Schindler’s List, which has a built-in fallacy, to my eyes.
For instance, as I hinted earlier, I do admire the treatment of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. The way he’s at once turned on by the chance to unleash his own sadism and a fairly pathetic (even creepily wistful, disgustingly self-pitying) mediocrity does tell us something about Nazism. There are interesting ways that the cutting keeps equating him with Schindler, not for a simple-minded censorious effect, but as if to imply that each man could have gone down the other man’s path if only Goeth hadn’t yielded to the worst in himself while Schindler was discovering the best.
But then the potential psychological complexity of that gives way to the large-scale depictions of the Final Solution’s atrocities, which are ever so slightly marred by showmanship—showmanship in a grim and noble cause, but showmanship nonetheless—and ultimately teach us less than a close-in movie just about Schindler and Goeth (maybe one not even set during the literal Holocaust, who knows?) might have. Does that make sense?
MZS: Yes, it does. It seems sort of a strange corollary of Francois Truffaut’s belief that there is no such thing as a truly anti-war film, since war is such an amazingly cinematic enterprise, always beautiful as spectacle, that to depict it is in some sense to glorify it. I don’t agree with that formulation one hundred percent. I think there are great anti-war films. But he was onto something. And perhaps you are as well, in a different context.
Are there some places movies shouldn’t go?
MZS: The year 1998 was an important one for big-budget films about World War II. Besides SPR, which was an outwardly very straightforward re-imagining of combat in Europe—one that I’d argue complicated and subverted some of the same cliches that it restaged with such incredible vigor—you had The Thin Red Line, which treated combat in the Pacific theater as a sort of midnight movie theological psychodrama about the effect of war and human civilization on nature. And there were two other films that dealt with the Holocaust in genre terms: Life Is Beautiful, which I think is almost universally reviled now, and Apt Pupil, based on Stephen King’s novella about an American suburban boy falling under the spell of an old ex-Nazi who’s moved into his neighborhood. Both of those movies were accused of being insensitive to history, and with perhaps distorting or falsifying history in a cheap way.
At various points during that year I read pieces about some or all of those films worrying that films shouldn’t even go there, that there’s something morally dicey about it. Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman both made similar arguments about Schindler’s List, specifically the shower scene—that even depicting such a thing trivialized it. The argument seemed to be (in part at least) that maybe the best way to honor the horrors of history is not to depict certain aspects of it.
I think this is a counterproductive attitude—that one of the best ways to keep history alive is to let it breathe through popular culture, and take each representation of history as it comes, and judge it in terms of the piece itself, and not just in terms of how faithful it is to the actual record. Historical films aren’t just about what happened, or about preserving some facsimile of what happened, or communicating the factual essence of what happened. They are also snapshots of how we the audience—the culture—feeling and think about what happened. I think what we’re really seeing when we attend a film like SPR or Schindler’s List or Lincoln, or for that matter, Django Unchained or Apt Pupil, is a different kind of history, a record of how we felt about an earlier era at this particular point in time, somewhat removed.
TC: The “there are some places movies just shouldn’t go” argument is one I’m not happy to find myself making, even if it means I’m allied for the nonce with Rosenbaum and Hoberman—two critics I consider Mozart compared to my feeble versions of “Chopsticks.” But Spielberg is the ultimate test case, I guess—and who knows if I’d be taking the opposite side if we were talking about Gillo Pontecorvo. So I hope it’s not weaseling to say that the issue isn’t where movies should go so much as how they get there.
For instance, let’s take that famous Schindler shower scene. It excruciatingly recreates every stage of death in the gas chambers except the outcome (including the fact that the women are—accurately—nude, a *very* paradoxical declaration of high moral seriousness). In a way, the historical cheat here is the reverse of Spielberg putting paratroopers behind Omaha Beach (there were none) so he can give us Bloody Omaha up top. Not to be a D-Day pedant, but any troop of Rangers sent to rescue Ryan would have started from the much less bloody and spectacular Utah Beach landing instead. So I kind of knew SPR was fibbing for effect from the start.
But Schindler’s shower scene, to me, is far more morally questionable. The reason it’s there is that, fuck it, Unka Steven was determined to show us Auschwitz—even if the fates of the women we care about turn out to be different than what happened to 99 per cent of the people who got shipped there. For me, Schindler becomes grotesque at the moment the women greet real water coming out of the showerheads with ululations of relief.
That’s only partly because they likely wouldn’t have known “the showers” were usually a lie. The celebratory note here disgusts me, making Schindler’s Jews “exceptional” in a way I think is vile. I’d find that whole sequence infinitely more admirable if its ending had been the routine one at Auschwitz—a pile of obscenely dead bodies who had to be shoveled up, checked for gold teeth and carted off to the crematorium, as usual.
Overall, whenever a filmmaker tackles an obvious Harrowing Subject, my magniloquence detector goes on red alert. It’s interesting to compare Spielberg’s WW2 movies to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The War, because in the latter, the filmmakers aggrandize themselves via the opposite route, the Ken Burns route—by being mournful and stately, not exciting. They’re still putting their version of icing on the cake, but The War does benefit from using the real footage and images, even if it’s got Yo-Yo Ma sawing away on the soundtrack.
Which is more valuable in instructing us about What It Was Really Like, which is more morally dubious?
Tom Carson is the movie critic for GQ and the author of the novels Gilligan’s Wake (2003) and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (2011).
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.
A Father and Daughter Chat About E.T.
[Editor's note: The following is an iChat between Press Play founder Matt Zoller Seitz and his daughter Hannah, a film student, about Steven Spielberg's E.T., which was released 30 years ago this week. It is the most recent installment in a series of dialogues about popular culture; earlier pieces discussed Cinderella, Fantasia and Harry Potter vs. Star Wars.]
Matt Zoller Seitz: Do you remember the first time you saw E.T.? Wasn't it during the 2002 rerelease when you were not quite five?
Hannah Seitz: I don't remember seeing it for the first time at all. But I do remember that when I saw it for the second time a couple of years later, I had no memory of the scenes where the government interferes and E.T. is dying. Was that because I was so traumatized during those scenes the first time?
Matt: Maybe you blocked it out?
Hannah: Maybe. Do you remember me not wanting to watch it at that point? In my mind there was a blank spot between the point where E.T. and Elliott are in the bathroom and the mom comes in, and then the part when Elliot sees E.T. come back to life.
Matt: I don't remember your not wanting to watch that part of the movie when you saw it for the first time, but I do remember you bursting into tears during the scene where the older brother finds the pasty, sickly E.T. lying in that drainage ditch. You were fine up to that point.
I am always a bit surprised by the length and intensity of all the medical stuff near the end. Steven Spielberg really twists the knife. It's like the scene in Dumbo where Dumbo goes to visit his mother in the iron cage. Or the "death" of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Stanley Kubrick used to say that he didn't like Disney movies because he thought they were cruel to children, and I don't think he was necessarily wrong in that description. But fairy tales are often cruel, or unrelenting, and we do want to feel things very intensely when we experience art. Some excess seems forgivable when a work is really, really cooking, in the way that E.T. cooks all the way through. It's operatic or symphonic. It's so powerful that it gives me the kind of feeling that I think you're supposed to feel in church, but that I never felt there.
Hannah: I haven't seen E.T. in a while, and this was the first time I really watched it as a film. I always knew it was a great story, but the lighting in the movie and the music really did give it a symphonic feel.
I also noticed an insane amount of religious or spiritual-like imagery. I know the most famous one is when E.T. comes out of the truck wearing the robe with his heart glowing in his chest, but I noticed a lot more shots than that one.
Matt: Such as?
Hannah: One of my favorites is when the brother and the sister first meet E.T. and they're in the closet. They're all kind of peering at him. There's even something in the background that looks like a stained glass window. Then it cuts to E.T., and he's encircled by a bunch of stuffed animals that look like they could be his disciples or something.
Matt: I hadn't even thought of those images in that way, but you're right.
That closet, which is really E.T.'s sanctuary or home, is a sacred place, part womb and part cave of contemplation. It's almost a geographical metaphor for what happens when Eliott invites him into his life. There is nothing more intimate than inviting somebody you don't really know into your room. And since Eliott's closet is the place where all the toys are stored, the symbol of the childhood innocence that Eliott is still clinging to, it's as if the boy is inviting the alien right into the center of his personality, into the deepest place.
When the devout try to bring somebody into their faith, they often couch it in terms of an invitation. Invite God into your life, let Christ into your heart: that kind of language. Spielberg and Melissa Mathison, who wrote the screenplay, are brilliant at encoding that into the images.
Hannah: I love that scene where E.T. is listening to Elliott's mom reading Peter Pan to Gertie. E.T. is a great character because it's easy to look at him as a figure of wisdom, considering he's super-intelligent. But he's also very childlike, in the sense that's he's very curious and forms attachments easily.
I think that's one of the beautiful things about Elliott's connection with E.T. When Elliott first meets E.T., he doesn't immediately think of him as a higher, more intelligent species that needs to be studied, like the scientists and government workers do. As soon as he meets E.T. he begins to show E.T. around, and he doesn't immediately question what E.T. is or where he came from. And when Elliott does inquire about E.T. and what he's capable of, he does so in a very innocent and non-pushy way.
Matt: Spielberg is a humanist filmmaker, one of the greats, and you can see that come through in the way that he depicts the meeting of different cultures or even species. E.T. and Eliott's relationship is founded on open-mindedness and mutual trust and empathy—as Michael tells one of the researchers near the end, it's not that Elliott thinks what E.T. thinks, it's that he feels what he feels—and that's why they have such a strong and pure friendship, so strong that you can't even classify it.
At various points E.T. is like a mentor to Elliott, the dad that he recently lost to divorce, a friend, an older brother, a younger brother, and a pet. And towards the end, when the full extent of his power is made visible, he becomes angelic or supernatural. And at every point Elliott goes with the flow and accepts wherever the relationship is going. The reverse is also true, of course. Both characters change in relation to one another depending on what's happening in the story.
Communication might be the most important theme in Spielberg's filmography. Close Encounters, E.T., Amistad, Munich, pretty much every one of his films contains one or more scenes of different beings learning to speak to each other, and discovering they aren't as different as they thought.
Hannah: The idea that E.T. has a power that allows him and Elliott to feel each other's feelings is very metaphorical of friendship. In the beginning of the movie, Elliot makes the mother cry by saying his father is in Mexico with some woman named Sally. Michael says, "Dammit, why don't you just grow up! Think about how other people feel for a change." When E.T. comes along, Elliot is really forced to grow up by feeling E.T.'s emotions. He has a deep mutual connection with him, and towards the end it's clear that Elliott has matured a great deal, and made sacrifices as a result of being so connected to E.T.
Matt: Yes. There's a wisdom in the boy's face during that final shot that wasn't there at the start of the film, and all the changes have come about organically, as a result of his living through these extraordinary events.
Hannah: I also love how it portrays the government workers. Although they are the antagonists, the movie doesn't necessarily portray them as evil people who only want to harm E.T. They are, after all, trying to keep him alive. They aren't coldhearted people. They just don't understand how E.T. functions, like Elliot and his siblings do. In a way, their ignorance is really what drives their role as antagonists.
Matt: That's true.
Hannah: It always sort of gets to me when Keys is talking to Elliott at the end and he says, "He came to me too, Elliott. I've been wishing for this since I was nine years old."
Matt: As you read more about film history you may eventually come across articles about Spielberg that were written in the '70s and '80s when he first became a cultural force. He was described as being culturally very conservative for a young Baby Boomer, and in some ways that's true. But the optimistic way he depicts human understanding, and cosmic understanding, is very much in tune with hippie values. He's a lot more countercultural in his worldview than some of the overtly counterculture filmmakers. He really believes people can make up their minds to be good, to do the right thing, to overcome ignorance and build bridges, that war and violence is rarely necessary, and so forth. All the stuff that modern popular culture tells us is for suckers, Spielberg actually believes in. And I like that about him.
Are there any particular things you noticed about the tone or style of the movie, the way it moved and looked, that spoke to you?
Hannah: The lighting. Every shot in Elliot's house was lit in a way that represented the content of the scene. A lot of the lighting felt very eerie, or sometimes kind of quiet and lonely.
But it didn't make itself too obvious. The house still felt very real and homelike, no matter what the lighting was. I think the house itself was also one of the best features of the movie. Like you said, it was sort of a temple to innocence and childhood, which was a very magical environment for E.T. to be in. Also the layout of the house felt real and comfortable, not like most Hollywood movies where homes are well furnished and spotless.
Matt: With whom did you identifying with when you watched the movie this time? I ask because when I re-watch movies I've seen many times, my point of view changes.
When I was a kid I used to identify with Elliott, then after a certain point I started to feel more of a connection with other characters, probably because I was maturing. I went through a phase where I would imagine what this experience must have been like for E.T. This time, though, I thought about Mary, the mom. The way she was always emotionally wrung-out and kind of distracted really spoke to me as a single parent. When you're in that situation it's completely plausible that an alien could be walking around behind you in a bathrobe and you wouldn't notice.
And this time I was with Michael, too. The moment where he goes into Elliott's closet and curls up in a corner looking at all the toys and stuffed animals destroyed me.
Hannah: I can't really say whom I connected to. I'm really bad at answering that question. I'm really not the type of viewer who connects to the characters.
Matt: What kind of viewer are you?
Hannah: I don't know. I don't really connect to characters, like, throughout an entire movie. When I do feel emotionally connected, it sort of just jumps out at me in a particular moment or scene.
I'm a film student now, and although I don't like to admit it because of my high school freshman finicky-ness about the future and careers and such, filmmaking or writing may possibly (emphasis on possibly) be something I want to do with my life. When I write, I usually write about realistic characters and situations, and I would say I'm pretty good in that field. So it was a weird experience watching this movie last night, because after it was finished and I had soaked it all in, I just felt this weird surge of jealousy. Art is made to affect and speak to people, and generally when it does so, the audience is limited, be it by age, ethnicity, gender, etc. I think it's one of the most amazing things in the world when you can create a piece of art that speaks to everybody. E.T. really is a timeless movie that you can enjoy when you're a little kid and appreciate just as much when you're on your last legs. It's really an incredible thing to be able to make something like that.
GREY MATTERS: The Way the World Ends
In 2001, Steven Spielberg went apocalypse crazy and he never recovered. 2001 was when he froze the world in in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, followed by War of the Worlds, followed by the legacy-soiling Transformer toy-apocalypse line, more alien end times in Falling Skies, and the failed eco-Holocaust/Jurassic Park mash-up of Terra Nova—and was he done? No, he was not.
He will soon be destroying the world again in a remake of the original SF Armageddon, 1951’s When Worlds Collide, and an adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson’s robot apocalypse, Robopocalypse.
Still, the question isn’t “Why?” so much as, “What took him so long?”
One can only guess, so I will. One thing that rose from the debris of 9/11 was a need to process ambient terrors, of which there were suddenly so many. A new genre created itself from bits and pieces of other genres, in true Doctor Frankenstein fashion. And there’s always big money in salving inarticulated jitters—just ask Spielberg.
And so, by my rough count, over seventy-five films and TV shows have congealed over the last decade to form an actual new subgenre, or series of interconnected subgenres, complete with shared repeating narrative patterns and modes of obliteration.
How does the world end? By nuclear means (28 Days Later), by plagues (Contagion), vampires (Stake Land), zombies (The Horde), aliens (Returner), natural threats (The Happening), and sundry Biblical agita (Jerusalem Countdown).
The subgenre has developed certain stylistic defaults: for example, heavy gray murk and raining ash, as in the indie post apocalypse road picture, The Road, and populist films like Terminator: Salvation and Book of Eli. We also have apocalypse-film go-to actors: Willem Dafoe moves effortlessly from Michael and Peter Spierig’s populist vamp actioner Daybreakers to Abel Ferrara’s self explanatory art house effort, 4:44: Last Day on Earth, while Sarah Polley, eternally wan, affectless and snarky, stared in 1998’s seminal indie end timer, Last Night, which added dot.com-style yawns to the Armageddon reactive syntax, and the remake of Romero’s pre-apocalypse classic, Dawn of the Dead.
Most fascinatingly, this new subgenre has split into what I’ll call indie and populist apocalypse films, each with radically differing sensibilities, aesthetics, and values.
First, the indie apocalypses. The indies are largely by, about, and for upscale, highly educated, older white people fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury of feeling a weary, ambient disappointment, born of under-appreciated entitlement. Inevitably, this leads to the valuing of the canon over the new, the ‘introspective’ over the vibrant, and, to bring us back to where we started, to what Spielberg is up to: staying lively, even if that means blowing up the world.
In the populist apocalypse films, anyone, of any class or any gender, can be a hero. She can be a genetically modified lab experiment turned anti-corporate leader, (see Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil: Afterlife). She can be a boy survivor of Earth’s decimation with a second chance on another planet (see Titan, A.E.). Or, possibly, in a few years from now, while the world is falling apart, a starving, ruined slip of a girl taking down a fascist government, one arrow at a time, in the last of the Hunger Games films.
Anyway, while she may not make it to the end credits, the pop-apocalyptic hero’s efforts will not be for naught, and our entertainment budget will not be blown on a solipsistic nihilism fantasy.
And so, for your approval—or not—five films from the indie and populist sides of the Armageddon divide. Although I clearly have my issues with the indie cause, I’ve tried to include the best—or most interesting—of the subgenre.
4:44: Last Day on Earth (2012)
So nobody listened to Al Gore, and now some unspecified, global—but prompt!—atmospheric disaster will destroy the world at exactly 4:44 EST, in Abel Ferrara's new film.
As if continuing the role of the drug dealer he played in Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, Willem Dafoe is Cisco, a recovering addict with a super younger painter girlfriend named Skye. She’s played by Shanyn Leigh, the director’s real-life GF, which adds a layer of hermetic creepiness. Her paintings, big splashes of bold organized color are a true relief from the drab, mauve-ish digital video tones that give the movie a vanity project emptiness broken only by stock footage of riots, the Dalai Lama and other random elements.
In true boomer fashion, the End is really all about Cisco. So after bedding Skye, he mumbles to the heavens, wanders around Essex Street on the Lower East Side to see if—like the wild Ferraro of Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, and The Addiction—he will be able to stay literally/figuratively sober long enough to find some friends with whom he can talk about himself. Then he comes home, and the world ends.
Thing about these movies, you don’t have to worry much about spoilers.
They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back takes the flesh-eating out of the zombie film model; what's left is a nightmarish allegory of elderly hospice care that never ends.
In a French village, the dead return. They seem the same. Almost. Sort of. But then they start gathering at night, silently, doing . . . what?
Robin Campillo’s unnerving film bounces real world fears into a fog of classic, Val Lewton-style quiet horror. The camerawork is stealthy, but like many indie apocs you wonder why color is such a villain in the director’s mind.
Still, the atmosphere and implication stabs home some cold questions: How long before the dead use up too many jobs, resources and space rightfully allotted to the young or healthy? How much care is too much care?
They Came Back also entertains a spiritual dimension that’s truly scary. It’s also revealing in the sense that it reminds us how self-limiting left-leaning indie film has chosen to be.
Both a balm and a reveal of a classic Romantic sensibility at work behind Lars von Trier's mad Dane image, Melancholia limns depression as an elemental power that rips the planets out of line and threatens to sever the connection between two sisters. There's Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a major depressive getting married in the grand style, and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), slender and always frightened.
And then there’s a planet—called “Melancholia”, no less—hurtling, When Worlds Collide-style, towards Earth, and Claire has no choice but to do the most terrifying thing: to ask for what she needs from a sister who delights in cruelty.
Most of all, this is rapturously beautiful, the natural universe as a cruel, loving, and insane mother-tormentor figure. Obliterated in the first and last images by Melancholia’s impact, but united by Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” and the sisters’ recurrent hand-holding, this is von Trier filming his way out of malady back to our world—and at 56, just starting a whole new peak of his career.
The Road (2009)
So, something destroyed all life on Earth. The skies are grey, trees black and spindly, buildings in advanced decay. The world, in John Hillcoat's vision, looks like a 90s black metal album cover.
Filthy, wretched, starving, fifty-something Poppa (Viggo Mortensen) and his filthy, wretched, starving Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are wandering South, and that’s what you’re going to be seeing for 111 minutes. The only reprise comes in the form of 30-second sunny dreams of Man's wife (Chalize Theron).
Aside from starvation and the elements, the biggest threat is from cannibal attack. As luck would have it, Man and Boy stumble upon an old southern mansion with a basement full of naked, crazed people . . . who are being warehoused as food.
Excuse my flippancy, but The Road’s cloying high seriousness, its saccharine Nick Cave score, and its studied miserablism can't hide the fact that The Road is one genre step away from being a zombie movie, which is why I suppose they eliminated the famed baby-roasted-on-a-campfire-spit scene which appeared in Cormac McCarthy's original book.
The Last Days of the World (2011)
Thanks to Japan's manga culture, we finally got an indie end time film with young people in it. Based on Naoki Yamamoto’s cult manga, The Last Days of the World tells of Kanou (Jyonmon Pe), a seventeen-ish schoolboy busy hating life when a half-foot high God in a top hat shows up to tell him the world will be ending soon.
And so Kanou kidnaps his crush, Yumi (Chieko Imaizumi), steals a car, tries to sexually attack Yumi with mayonnaise (don’t ask), finds a cult devoted to cos-play (dressing up in manga costumes), as a life-hating cop kills people while in pursuit of the pair. And sometimes a talking dog, or their car, might remind Kanoe that The End is Nigh.
Eiji Uchida’s sometimes funny nihilist travelogue wants to be Donnie Darko, suggesting Miike’s Gozu, but it lacks the latter’s passionate nuttiness. It’s also bereft of any music beyond a stumbling two-chord guitar flourish, or any color beyond a dull palette of liver-lavenders, greys and spoiled mauves. Uchida’s film is already dead: the end of the world is a mere formality.
At the start of the film, the crew of a huge starship wakes from hyper-sleep with severely compromised memories.
The ship—apparently designed by a firm headed by Philippe Starck, H.R. Giger and H.P. Lovecraft—slowly reveals itself to be infested by shadow-dwelling monstrosities, but this is blamed on a mind-malady called "pandorum."
As more sleepers awake and promptly die horribly, we realize that the starship has been at the bottom of another planet’s ocean for hundreds of years after Earth’s destruction, and that Christian Alvart’s relentlessly nerve-wracking film is, like Carpenter’s The Thing, about trust among the working class. Unlike Carpenter’s film, it ends with a very tentatively hopeful gesture.
Dollhouse, “Epitaph Two: Return” (2009)
Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse starred Eliza Dusku as Echo, a ‘doll’ implanted with an endless array of personalities with as many skills who are hired by the rich, corrupt and despicable for various purposes. After a dumbed-down first season that felt like a surreal, sub-par Alias with muted anti-objectification subtext, Fox left Whedon alone. The result: the bleakest show in network history.
Men ‘nested’ inside women's memories like cancers. ‘Dolls’ blew their brains out to stop becoming what men wanted, or were brain-wiped and stored in an ‘Attic’ like, well, broken dolls.
“Epitaph” suggests where Whedon would have gone with a third season. It’s 2020. Corporate misuse of Dollhouse technology has turned the world into a wasteland. Clutches of people know who they are; others have built agrarian lives built on false memories.
Echo and a small group of survivors believe that a pulse weapon can destroy all imprinting and return humanity to their real selves.The Onion’s Noel Murray compared Dollhouse’s artistic growth to “MacGyver [who] gradually morphed into Battlestar Galactica." Yep.
I Am Legend (2007)
For all Robert Neville knows, he’s the last man in Manhattan after an attempted cancer cure decimated most of the city’s population, save nocturnal “Daykseekers” that feed on those immune to the virus.
Neville—played with grace and gravity by Will Smith in what will be remembered as his greatest role—is an Army doctor who doesn’t give in to despair even as it tears at him.
Director Francis Lawrence takes shots of almost Malick-ian stillness in long shots of a strangely sylvan dead city, rendered in computer-assisted views of Manhattan landmarks overgrown with Nature softly amuck. There’s the tiny alien effect of being able to hear Neville’s German Shepard sniffle where once crowds would dwarf his loudest bark. Smith portrays the alienation, fear, and loneliness of his situation beautifully, while never going for pitiful. And that ending—what’s wrong with nobility again?
Somewhere in an unspecified post-apocalypse wasteland, The Church is led by a corrupt monsignor (Christopher Plummer) who rules with an iron Christian fist in the middle of a war between vampires and humans.
When a lovely young girl (Lily Collins) is kidnapped by rogue vampires, led by an uber-vamp Black Hat (Karl Urban), who doesn’t know the girl is the niece of a vamp-hunter named Priest (Paul Bettany), all hell breaks loose.
Before you know it, our rockin’ man of the cloth with the upside down crucifix face tattoo (!) is on his ultrasonic nitrocycle to save Lucy and teach Plummer a thing or two, eventually teaming with a priestess badass (Maggie Q).
Directed by Scott Stewart as if he lost his mind after watching The Searchers, Priest is the real successor to the Mad Max films, with about twenty gallons of sizzling sacrilegious transgression thrown in just because they could, and also the alien luster in Don Burgess’ purposefully monocolor images, as a gorgeous bonus feature.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-9)
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was the most conceptually daring television entry in the canon since the first film in 1984. Predictably, Fox axed it after a paltry thirty-one episodes.
Lena Headey took the titular role as the badass mother of John Connor, aka the man who will save us all from the world-destroying Terminators. Connor, meanwhile, is played by Thomas Dekker.
Guaranteeing the show its eternal place in Queer Media Studies is the other "woman" of the Conner household–a "good" Terminator dedicated to John’s survival. Her name is Cameron, and she's played by Joss Whedon regular Summer Glau in a hilariously discombobulated performance.
Showrunner Josh Friedman deftly ran this odd alt.family through plot lines that juggled Fugitive tropes, bits of bizarro-world domestic comedy, SF time paradoxes and action film storytelling—but what’s compelling now is the way its anti-corporate storylines mirror the general exhaustion of the Cheney era’s end.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.
VIDEO ESSAY: Where Experiment Meets the Mainstream
In an age of redundant remakes (Total Recall, Fright Night), attempted revamps (21 Jump Street, The Three Stooges) and even 3D re-launchings (Titanic 3D, Star Wars: Episode 1 – 3D) of past Hollywood fare, it’s easy to become disheartened at the current state of film and television. Then again, any sort of significant movement in cinema history stems from a desire to break free from the established filmmaking “norms” of that era (French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, etc.). Therefore, if today’s mainstream filmmaking temperament is rooted in simply remaking past scripts, movies and TV shows for new audiences—what is a strong way for select filmmakers to retaliate in an effort to create striking work? By absorbing the complex, original and impressionistic styles of post-1940s experimental cinema, the holy grail of non-traditional storytelling. And by surveying facets of some contemporary films, it becomes clear how influential experimental cinema is to today’s visual rhetoric.
One of the most important pieces of American experimental cinema, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, shows filmmakers turning the cinema of its time on its head. To read the script, Deren and Hammid’s film seems to be illustrating a woman’s feverish dream. Yet, at the time, audiences hadn’t witnessed a dream quite like this. Meshes took a conventional narrative, with characters, action, and music, and then restructured it into a circular story by repeating certain imagery, employing an offbeat editing rhythm, and using unusual camera angles to make everyday objects (a phonograph, a house key) seem ambiguously ominous. These stylistic traits are now readily evident in the works of such filmmakers as David Lynch (Inland Empire), Carolee Schneemann (Body Collage), Su Friedrich (Scar Tissue), and Barbara Hammer (Nitrate Kisses), among others. Further, the unforgettable visuals of Meshes—like a cloaked grim reaper with a mirror for a face—have bled into the pop culture via some music videos (e.g. Ambling Alp by Yeasayer).
There are even cases when Hollywood accidentally soars on the strength of some experimental films’ imagery—whether Hollywood realizes it or not. Case in point: Terry Gilliam’s 1995 sci-fi film 12 Monkeys is obviously inspired by (if not a remake of) Chris Marker’s La Jetée from 1962. La Jetée boldly told its story (of a man traveling through time in an attempt to save a post-apocalyptic Paris) simply by presenting a series of powerful still images and voiceover narration. But Gilliam’s film is not the only place a cinephile’s interest could be directed. For example, the image of the strained, blindfolded hero from La Jetée no doubt was in the mind of Steven Spielberg while making his Minority Report (2002). Who could forget the virtuoso sequence where Tom Cruise emerges blindfolded from an ice-cold tub to find a horde of crawling robotic spiders? Cruise’s shocked face, frozen in time, mirrors the still image of the hero in La Jetée. In fact, imagery from Marker’s post-apocalyptic experimental masterpiece still shows up in other modern films (see the Jake Gyllenhaal character in Duncan Jones’ 2011 film Source Code) and music videos (e.g. Jump They Say by David Bowie) as well.
The most powerful impressions of experimental cinema in modern movies, though, are found in the works of filmmakers who are unabashedly rehashing the distinct styles of the avant-garde masters. For example, the abstract and vibrant visuals in Stan Brakhage’s film works (like The Dante Quartet, 1987) have left their mark on recent films by Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love, 2002) and Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, 2011). Love splits up the chapters of its narrative by spraying abstract pieces of art on the screen; Tree features a sequence that flies by city storefronts until they bleed into vibrant, overlapping colors.
We could also look at the audacious narrative risks in an experimental classic like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). The Red Shoes unexpectedly took its otherwise straightforward story about an ambitious ballerina and smothered it in psychedelic, voluminous colors and emulated elements of the surreal through bizarre imagery and costume design. The film was no doubt a psychological inspiration for Darren Aronofsky’s similarly ballet-themed Black Swan (2010). Swan even goes so far as to create similar fantastical characters (via hallucinations) and re-stage the earlier film’s distressed close-up shot on its heroine’s face during a climatic dance. In his Tetro (2009), Francis Ford Coppola takes it one step further by brilliantly restaging some Red Shoes-esque ballet dance sequences; Coppola even photographs them in the same 1:37:1 aspect ratio as Powell and Pressburger’s film.
In the end, perhaps the most profound (and possibly most important) sign of contemporary film’s wrestling with its experimental influence comes in 2001’s criminally underrated Vanilla Sky, by Cameron Crowe. Crowe’s film, like a plethora of other Hollywood films, is a remake of an already celebrated film (in this case, Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 drama Open Your Eyes). In both films, a man is coming to terms with the life he lived and the (possible) life in front of him. Yet, unlike so many Hollywood remakes, Crowe is able to surpass the source material. Crowe does this by allowing the stylistic impressions of titan experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas to enter Vanilla Sky. Mekas, known for his prolific filmography composed of personal film diaries (e.g. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty ), has developed a fragmentary visual style, created by quick edits and strategically inserted (handwritten) title cards. What separates Vanilla Sky from Open Your Eyes is the way Crowe capitalizes on Mekas’ visual strategy: Vanilla Sky unforgettably closes with a vomiting of personal archival footage in order to convey an internal reckoning of its hero.
What all of these examples show—other than how the unique styles of experimental cinema have become embedded in certain filmmakers’ techniques—is how vital it is to challenge the norms or ideas behind “traditional” moviemaking. If it weren’t for the risks of a select group of filmmakers, most directors would still be thumbing through Hollywood’s Rolodex of remake-ready titles.
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance – E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. A case can also be made for Yoda. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]
For a pretty long time, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial was the top grossing film ever made, and it’s still one of the most beloved. The title character is a space alien. Who plays him? It’s hard to even begin to answer that question. There were so many people involved, and they all contributed something. But it you rule out the obvious suspects – Spielberg, who directed the movie, and Melissa Mathison, who wrote it – it’s still a pretty long list. And when you actually try to sit down and cite specific people, what you end up with is a case study in why
there should be an Academy Award for outstanding collaborative performance.
The voice of E.T. was provided by Pat Welsh, an old woman who lived in Marin County, California. She was a two pack a day smoker. And when you listen to the dialogue, you can tell.
But 16 other people contributed just to E.T.’s voice. Supposedly one of them was Debra Winger, the star of Midnight Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman. It’s impossible to tell which voice actors did what , because their contributions are filtered through the sound effects wizardry of a legendary sound wizard named Ben Burtt. Burtt worked on a lot of classic science
fiction, fantasy and horror movies, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Wall-E.
Who performed E.T.? And how many were there? It depends on the scene. The physical creation of E.T. was mainly the work of creature designer Carlo Rambaldi. Among other things, he created a lot of audio animatronic versions of the title creature for the 1976 version of King Kong. He also did the aliens for Spielberg’s previous science fiction movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And he did the mechanical head effects for the original Alien.
When you see E.T. acting in closeup, and he’s reacting with great precision to the human actors around him, you’re seeing a very sophisticated, partly mechanical puppet, being manipulated by several people.
When you see E.T. in long shot, it’s a little person wearing a suit.
For some of the close-ups of E.T.’s hands, they went old-school and got a mime named Caprice Roth to wear prosthetic gloves.
I mean, you can’t really can’t argue that E.T. is an underappreciated film. Not only was it a huge hit, it got nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director and original Screenplay. And it won four technical awards, including best visual effects. But it still seems like kind of a shame that E.T. himself could not be recognized as an astonishing, singular creation. The system just isn’t set up for it.
The title character is a really just a collection of inanimate, inorganic things created in a workshop. But the parts are made so lovingly, and lit and shot and voiced with such imagination, that they that sell the illusion that E.T. is Elliott’s best friend, that he’s a creature with a personality and even a moral code. And I think if there had been an outstanding collaborative performance category that year, E.T. would have taken it for sure.
He’s one of the greatest fantasy characters in the history of cinema, and a walking, talking, living, breathing argument for a collaborative performance Oscar.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Big Media Vandalism.
OSCARS DEATH RACE: ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
Not to crap on two Steven Spielberg movies in a row here, because I do enjoy his work sometimes. Alas: enh. The Adventures of Tintin's failure to land with me isn't entirely on the director; the source material seems like something I'd have loved as a child, but isn't something I knew before coming to the film, so I didn't get any reunion-y feelings, and motion capture may appeal to some, but is still creepy to me.
But the pacing probably is Spielberg's responsibility, and the movie plods. Chase scene; interstitial bit with Thomson and Thompson that fails to delight; fight scene; Thomson and Thompson; chase/fight; nonsense with dog; "joke" about Captain Haddock's alcoholism that's awkward instead of funny; lather, rinse, repeat. The 3D does nothing to help the story, which involves a flea-market ship Tintin purchases and a treasure lost at sea and which contains no suspense — we've been told repeatedly from the very beginning of the film that Tintin is a genius investigator (though not shown much evidence of this; he repeats things a lot, and actually seems somewhat slow), and it's clear he'll solve the…or prevail over the…whatever. The score tries to add tension, but John Williams is recycling runs and trills from Indiana Jones and the Imperial March. No idea how that nabs Williams a second nom in the category, but at least it didn't make me yell "shut UP, timpani!" like the other one did.
I've never even read the comics and I have to think they're a better bet than this clatter-fest.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.