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The Eternal Reach: How Steven Spielberg’s evolving ideas continue to ignite cinema

There was something very telling watching Steven Spielberg at the AFI Fest last year introducing TinTin. He did two things. He downplayed our expectations of the movie we were about to see and he breathlessly announced he was still in Virginia filming Lincoln. His enthusiasm for his subject matter might just be the thing that keeps him fumbling towards greatness nearly every year. He was releasing two films — TinTin and War Horse and yet the thing he wanted to talk about more was Lincoln.

In a recent Q&A about Lincoln held on Yahoo Movies, Spielberg was asked whether he had any fear taking on the daunting subject of Abraham Lincoln. Spielberg said,

“I require fear in order to run towards something. Fear never makes me run away from anything but the more scared I am, the more frightened I am I have to run into what’s scaring me to try to figure out what it is because it has power, it has sway over me, fear. It has a certain kind of power and I don’t like losing control so things that frighten me make me go to it, to embrace it, to understand it, which gives me a better understanding of myself and in that case, the work that I’m most proudest of is the work that I’m afraid of.”

His best films, in his mind, were those he was most afraid of making. By all accounts, Jaws was a difficult production that he — at the age of 28 — just barely pulled off. Everyone, including Richard Dreyfuss, was convinced it would bomb. And yet, it became arguably the best film of his career. When naming the best films of Spielberg’s career after being asked where I thought Lincoln stood in his collection, I named the solid canon, Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., Raiders and Schindler’s List. I put Lincoln ahead of Saving Private Ryan, though I know for many that’s sacrilege. You see, Spielberg’s classics have winnowed themselves through us, all the way through to our bones. They’re part of the mortar between the bricks that we’ve built over the last thirty-seven years, in Hollywood and in our own lives. But then that’s my own generation’s eye view.

It struck me as something altogether mesmerizing to watch Spielberg talk about Lincoln. The meaning of that interview didn’t really hit home until I’d seen the film: an amalgam of prolific storytellers determined to do justice to their subject. Lincoln himself was an infamous storyteller, so is Doris Kearns Goodwin who can talk at length about all US Presidents but has a special affection for Lincoln. Tony Kushner, an equally dedicated storyteller joining forces with Spielberg, one of cinema’s greatest storytellers. And finally, Daniel Day-Lewis who says he was never much of one, really does tell his own stories as an actor. All of these forces working together make Lincoln work as well as it does.

The daunting task was not undertaken lightly, as Spielberg says:

“After Daniel Day-Lewis committed to playing Lincoln, we postponed filming for a year so we actually spent a year with Tony Kushner, Daniel and myself in conversation, Daniel and I had an entire year to get to know each other. We became friends during that year and we were friends on the first day of shooting, so all of the big narrative adjustments in the story, but also some of the choices that Daniel could have made and other characters, other actors, these choices were available for them to make as well. Sometimes that was done, or at least I formulated my own ideas during that entire year of exploration. So by the time we got ready to shoot Lincoln, and I had spent the time with the other actors, most of my work was with everybody else, with Tommy Lee Jones, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with Sally Field, with David Strathairn, who plays Secretary of State Seward, because we hadn’t spent that time discussing this together. We had it down to — never a science because that isn’t what we do – but when we made adjustments, the two of us – director/actor there were little nudges this way and that way, no huge epiphany that I had in the middle of the night that changed everything. The script was solid and beautiful – it was just details, because the devil is in the details. Art is in the details and there are so many details that Daniel and I discovered during that four months of shooting that really took the movie to a whole different level.”

Listening to Spielberg talk about Lincoln is to remember what value he’s brought not just to American film but to our culture — his endless curiosity probably motivated him to pursue filmmaking in the first place and that trait has served him well for three decades. We all know Spielberg’s story, don’t we? A valley kid from a broken home who felt a bit out of place growing up, but who found himself behind the lens. He was and is one of the templates, in fact, for generations of film student in his wake. His curiosity and attention to detail resulted in excavating so much we remember from World War II, on the allies side in Saving Private Ryan, and deep inside the Holocaust with Schindler’s List. His peculiar interests seem to range from sci-fi, to sharks, to airplanes, to dinosaurs, to great filmmakers from the past, like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, to the special effects technology of today — even when he fails, his failures are still so much better than most successes.

The Color Purple and Amistad were two prior attempts to wave his magic wand and make racism and discrimination go away; it was as if he thought if he just makes the right kind of movie that would change the world. His intentions have been appreciated and they’ve been criticized. Somehow, though, Lincoln reaches a different level for Spielberg. He explains here that this has been brewing for over a decade:

“Lincoln was one of my favorite figures in the American landscape, as a leader and as a role model and as a brilliant thinker, so I was always a student interested in Abraham Lincoln but it wasn’t until I met Doris Kearns Goodwin in 1999 in a meeting unrelated to Lincoln and I asked her what she was doing next and she said she was writing a book about the Lincoln White House, about the Lincoln presidency. For some reason, at that moment, I realized that whatever she was writing, being such an amazing artist and organizer of history and historical narrative that I wanted to be involved in whatever she was working on, so I asked her, would you ever sell the movie rights to your book to me and she said she would. So that was the first time this really became a reality for me and that was a while ago, that was in ’99.”

Without writing an actual review (it’s embargoed until November 9), Spielberg’s Lincoln is not that far from Schindler’s List. They are both stories about enacting change. The change is specific, and perhaps “small,” in the framing of its time, but it plants seeds for the future that are immeasurable. Spielberg may have finally found his ideal match, though, in choosing to collaborate with Tony Kushner, Daniel Day-Lewis and Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose dedication to Lincoln hovers over the film like a guardian angel; in fact, the writer was continually asked questions by Spielberg to make sure every last detail was right.

At the screening that accompanied the Q&A, Spielberg showed it to students and teachers rather than journalists, although it did also play at the New York Film Festival. When asked why he showed it at the university, Spielberg said:

“Put it this way, students and teachers are first wave of people I’m interested in hearing responses from about history. You are the first audience that I’m interested in hearing about what you have to say. The truth is that we have a big responsibility in telling the story, and the responsibility is that it’s very possible whenever you make a film about an historically significant character that the film becomes one of the few tools about teaching that character. I don’t agree with that. I think that a movie can only be an adjunct or a supplement to books, to different points of view, to scholars, historians and your own teachers — I said this about Schindler’s List also. Schindler’s List isn’t the only movie about the Holocaust. It’s a minor, little hole in the wall that you can put one eye through and get a sort of 2D look at the holocaust and our interpretation of it based on survivor’s testimony. The same thing with Lincoln. There are so many stories I encourage everyone to read and to learn about Lincoln and let this complement your learning. Do not let this be the only learning you do about Abraham Lincoln during this period of time, the Civil War, and slavery.”

Spielberg’s willingness to dive into history, to run towards something that scares him, separates him from other filmmakers of his generation. Spielberg is way past needing to prove himself — he pretty much owns Hollywood at this point, has a core of dedicated fans who will follow him everywhere and his movies always tend to make money. He brings them in under budget usually and on time. He doesn’t have to spend a whole year with an actor and writer having an eternal conversation about this man, Lincoln. But he did it because it rendered a kind of authenticity you simply would not have otherwise. Perhaps that’s why watching Lincoln feels like a fever dream. It feels like you have been thrust back through time.

Naturally, since we’re enduring a difficult election season, many will wonder about the politics of Lincoln — what it says about America then, and what it says about America now. The Republicans back then stood for freedom, for the most part. There were abolitionists on each side but the Republicans were really the driving force behind progressive change. But Lincoln does two things to bring us up through today. It reminds us how hard it sometimes is for a president to enact controversial, but necessary change. John F. Kennedy sent troops into Mississippi so that the first black college student, James Meredith, could attend Ole Miss. He had to attend with armed guards by his side. Lincoln had to push through the 13th amendment to forever abolish slavery. It was not popular at the time and was so controversial, in fact, that Lincoln was shot because of it. But the Republicans and the Democrats today have mostly swapped responsibility for which party will try hang on to traditional values and which is ready to carry the country forward to a more progressive future. The old Republicans do not exist anymore. Obama had to use his executive power to temporarily legalize some immigrant children because he could not pass the Dream Act with the Republican led Senate. He barely passed Obamacare and that alone has lit the fire of hate throughout much of the country. And finally, he’s the first president to openly support gay marriage. All three of these things could get our president killed, and that is a chilling thought. Lincoln reminds us that it isn’t so hard to imagine.

But the other thing the film reminds us of is how little change took place for African Americans after slavery was abolished. Post-reconstruction saw Jim Crow laws cripple millions of newly freed slaves. Civil rights and desegregation were slow to take hold. And yet, here we are in 2012 and we have a black President, 150 years after Emancipation Proclamation. Still, Spielberg himself did not feel any political driving force with this film:

No, I really was not trying to draw any parallels, that’s certainly up to you if you choose, there are certainly parallels because the democratic process was the same in 1865 as it is today in 2012, so there are going to be many honest parallels that you can draw from this, Tony Kushner and myself pretty much embedded ourselves in books and learning and understanding what it must have been like and Tony found the most beautiful language, which is a language he discovered by reading books written in the 19th century – essays and memoirs so we were pretty much steeped in this period of time and this particular story about this individual but there are obvious similarities to a country divided, a house divided, then and a house divided today.

When speaking of Oscars, there is no way the Academy will be able to resist the look of Lincoln, how it was lit and filmed. Some of the cinematography here is beyond anything I’ve ever seen in a Spielberg movie — this is how Spielberg and Kaminski were inspired:

“We saw a lot of art, a lot of paintings, a lot of Vermeers, we looked at a lot of paintings of the 19th century where artists began allowing natural light to infuse and inspire their work, as opposed to a kind of artistic license to frame the light, and let the light come from places where light doesn’t exist. We were also looking at Andrew Wyeth, 20th century but certainly Andrew Wyeth paintings, really have a tremendous contrast because the 19th-century White House, the office of the President, all the rooms that these scenes take place in, the only had gas lamps and candlelight but there was also sun coming through the windows — it still meant that the table the President was working at still needed some kind of illumination. So the interesting thing was balancing a very hot sun coming through a window with a very very tickle of a candlelight on his writing or on the book he was reading — that gave Janusz Kaminski a tremendous amount of latitude in making a movie that has a lot of contrast.”

So immersed in this subject matter, years in the making, Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis found it difficult to let go of Lincoln. I’m sure that Doris Kearns Goodwin found it difficult to let go of Lincoln after spending ten years of her life writing about him. I have never seen an actor so perfectly capture the spirit of a man as Day-Lewis has in this film. Said Spielberg:

“I still haven’t said goodbye to Lincoln. This is Daniel Day-Lewis sitting next to me, not Abraham Lincoln. I still refuse to part with my view and my experience with Lincoln. It was a very hard day for me, the last day of shooting. I went into Daniel’s trailer not to say goodbye because we’re friends now forever and just basically say, well, it’s over and we’ve done something that we can be proud of and this and that and Daniel, who calls me the Skipper, that was his nickname for me and he said to me, yes, Skipper, I think this is about it and he said it as the man sitting here, not the man you saw there and that was a little bit like I’d fallen through an elevator shaft and hit a cement floor. I was not ready to lose the President at that point. But it had to be done and it had to come to an end and it did.”

Listening to this Q&A before screening Lincoln helped to prepare me for what to expect. By the end of this exquisite film, I found I didn’t want to say goodbye to Lincoln either. But with this film, Spielberg has found a way to bring him back.

50 Comments on this Post

  1. Tero Heikkinen

    Yeah, it took a while with Jaws. He was 27 when hired, 28 during principal photography (as Sasha wrote) and 29 when it was released.

    But with Lincoln it took even longer, hehe.

    This will be a solid film. When SS is passionate about something, it works. I don’t think that he has been passionate enough about any film project since A.I. Well, Tintin was a semi-passionate thing because of the “Raiders-connection”, but it needed a co-worker (Jackson) until nothing really happened.

    I am curious about the Cinematography aspect, because Kaminski has not done anything great in a decade. Same could be said about Williams, who gets to be nominated for being Williams. Will he win his sixth, being the most nominated living person with the inevitable #48? I think it should come soon (or Honorary Oscar). He’s not getting any younger.

    I wonder how Lincoln will end. Is his tragic death even mentioned in the film? Maybe, but there sure is no need for it.

  2. Beautiful piece. I had the same reaction watching the q&a. The commitment, passion and genuine respect the parties have for this subject is inspiring. This is a film made by real artists. I agree with Spielberg that the real audience for this film are students, teachers and everyone who loves history and care about the legacy of, as Mr. Day Lewis said, “this beautiful man”. I could care less about rotten tomatoes.
    I haven’t seen the film yet, but listening to SS and DDL speak of the process was fascinating and riveting.

  3. “he could not pass the Dream Act with the Republican led Senate”

    Republicans have never held the Senate while Obama has been in office. The Democrats have held the Senate since 2007.

  4. CommentYET ANOTHER Lincoln?

    Someone give Spielberg a NEW coloring book
    and decoder ring. He’s gone from stale –to dangerously
    clueless as the Globalist unfold and RED China handover
    op ramps on.

    And, in 2012, are we the ONLY ones noticing?
    —Hollywood has ‘mysteriously overlooked’ the
    200th Anniversary of the Defeat of Napoleonic Globalism
    —–the 40th Anniversary of the Nixon-MAO handover summit
    ——–and 30th -40th -50th -and now 60th Anniversary
    of the RED China, Globalism, mind control and EUGENICS
    ‘unfriendly’

    ——————–KOREAN WAR———————–.

    AGAIN —about that colring book. . .

  5. And sadly, we’re still stuck with the “John Gs” and “OP Hips” …..

  6. Sigh, this is always the part of the year when I start to get turned off from this site. When Sasha has found her dead horse and begins flogging it.

  7. “When Sasha has found her dead horse and begins flogging it.”

    Da fuck? Lincoln hasn’t seen a single proper review beyond largely positive tweets. And Sasha’s also written rapturous praise toward The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Argo, and other flicks. If anything, she’s got a stable going.

  8. Graet piece, Sasha.

    I have watched Q&A twice. I can agree that when Spielberg has passion it turns to be something great. I don’t know why but when the trailer released I felt that this is gonna to be something extraordinary. You see iconic person walking, speaking, laughing. You feel energy in it…

  9. Bob Burns

    lovely piece, Sasha. Thank you.

    I study and visit historical buildings obsessively. They are always lit with today’s bright power, so the opportunity to view historical lighting well done in a film is important for me.

    the paintings are interesting, thanks for posting them. The historicist art of the era, out of style for decades now, catch the lighting of the time well, but architecture is better approximated in the movement of film.

    I learned something looking at the stills. The high value figures on the darker green wall paper, in that light, become actual light sources themselves.

  10. While I have been a self-admitted cynic of most of Spielberg’s work in terms of its entertainment value over ideas, it sound to me like he’s grown up, at least for this film.

    He seldom spoke of attention to detail on previous films (perhaps Schindler’s List, he did, and the opening sequence in SPR). It was always this effect or that action piece – tech achievements, to be sure, but nothing that has an artistic shelf life.

    Now, he’s analyzing 19th century interiors and light sources, complicated political interplay, and the persona of one of the most reveered and, at the time, contentious politicians in US history.

    It appears that he’s made ideas the action this time and given his skill with action sequences, I’m looking forward to seeing if he can transport me back to that time and delliver me into the room where all this was playing out – without sentimentality.

    I really want to see if the director who made my jaw drop and my eyes tear-up by making dinosaurs walk again can do the same thing on an intellectual level.

    OH – and in another post, I think somebody mentioned that DDL wasn’t an acting legend yet. Have to disagree – this will cap almost 27 years of not one single bad performance. To me, that makes a legend.

  11. @Robin

    You can’t be serious, unless you think posting a single article is “flogging it”.

  12. rufussondheim

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whaty turns me off about Spielberg, it’s not the usual littany that others offer. I don’t mind the sentimentality. I like sentimentality when it’s done right, I think that’s as valid form of flimmaking as any.

    I rewatched Jaws a year or so back. Yes, the opening sequence is amazing, one of the best on film and for a moment I thought my dislike of Spielberg was unwarranted. But thirty or so minutes in with the story established I started to get very bored. And then I turned it off.

    I turned it off during a large beach scene. One that took place right after there was a huge discussion by doubters and the one lone guy who believed the beaches should be shut down. And while the large beach scene was technically well done, it lacked any sense of surprise or interest to me because I knew that a shark attack was going to happen. Spielberg set it up so it had to be that way or there would be no story. In a movie that’s supposed to be suspenseful, there was no suspense. And that’s when I realized there was nothing here for me.

    Spielberg, in my opinion, offers no complexity in his work. His stories are simple, his characters are simple, there’s no ambiguity. And when you are done watching his movies there’s nothing to discuss, unless you want to discuss his technical ability.

    But I don’t go to movies to watch technical virtuosity, I go to feel something, and it needs to be genuine, not artificial. Everything about Spielberg seems artificial, pre-destined. And there’s no way else to say it. That’s just plain boring.

  13. Houstonrufus

    Wonderful piece, Sasha. Thank you.

  14. STEVEN SPIELBERG IS NOTHING BUT A GODDAMN THIEF!!! YOU WILL BE SUED FOR STEALING MY WORK THE PAST 30+ YEARS!!! YOU WILL PAY IN THIS LIFE AND THE NEXT!!!!

  15. Please, this is about the fourth article on this film already and you KNOW there’s going to be a littany still to come. Not saying the pieces are necessarily bad in and of themselves, but other blogger sites maintain a nice spread of critique across the whole season whereas Sasha tends to fixate on one or two aspects to discuss ad nauseum.

  16. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    Show me an Oscar site with less than 4 articles about Lincoln this year and I’ll show you a shitty Oscar site with no clue about the immensity looming on the horizon.

  17. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what turns me off about Spielberg…”

    Yeah we know. You do a little more than just thinking.

  18. rufussondheim

    Ha Ha – I feel your pain.

    But I’ve enjoyed the conversation with various posters who’ve chosen to engage me on the topic. And I’m looking forward to Lincoln and I originally wasn’t. So there is a purpose.

  19. Tero Heikkinen

    “I rewatched Jaws a year or so back. Yes, the opening sequence is amazing, one of the best on film and for a moment I thought my dislike of Spielberg was unwarranted. But thirty or so minutes in with the story established I started to get very bored. And then I turned it off.”

    BLASPHEMY!

    But I know there will never be a Spielberg thread on this website where you will be absent. Same shit, different day. This Spielberg hate of yours is getting old. We get it. Move on.

  20. Nik Grape

    Schindler’s List isn’t the only movie about the Holocaust. It’s a minor, little hole in the wall that you can put one eye through and get a sort of 2D look at the holocaust and our interpretation of it based on survivor’s testimony. The same thing with Lincoln.

    There’s something in this quote that can very well explain my own feelings towards much of Spielberg’s cinema. Like rufus and steve50, I’ve expressed my disdain over Spielberg’s filmography and its lack of spirit when it comes to truly engaging and thought-provoking film. Saving Private Ryan is a perfect example, a film that is now respected for its technical prowess moreso than adding a new and exciting vision to the cannon of WWII films. That same year Malick came out with The Thin Red Line which, in my opinion, adds the necessary depth needed to stir up that very cannon.

    Spielberg’s “2D” approach to filmmaking or, as rufus puts it, artificial way of telling stories is something that’s always bothered me too. I was not surprised at all when I saw that Spielberg’s movies are hardly to be seen on the Sight and Sound Poll.

    That said, Sasha, this is a really great article. Were I an American, I too would be extremely vocal about the importance of this film and I respect Spielberg for his attitude towards it, the subject, the actors, the author and the importance of students and teachers. That it’s a passion for him is clear, and the fact that it comes out at such a pivotal moment for America (and, by extension, the world) is messing with my jaded feelings towards Spielberg’s films. Thanks to these articles, I’m anticipating it a lot and can’t wait to read the review come November.

    The hints of praise at the cinematography, writing and acting don’t hurt one bit either.

  21. Superbly written Sasha. This is why I’ve been coming to this site for 10 years. Indepth, poetically written analysis of films. Thank you for loving movies this much!

  22. “Spielberg, in my opinion, offers no complexity in his work. His stories are simple, his characters are simple, there’s no ambiguity.”
    And that’s why you don’t like his work? Good art is simple. For film, simplicity is visual economy. Leonardo da Vinci said, “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, recognizing that the most beautiful works are the ones that are free of the superfluous.
    So with your counter-intuitive thinking, simplicity is what makes a work of art less thought-provoking for you. But really, simplicity is what makes a work of art more thought-provoking universally.

    By the way, “His stories are simple, his characters are simple…”; so that’s all you think a film’s merit is based on? Story and character? And everything else is just technical? Sorry, when I judge film (which is a visual art form), I tend to actually judge what I see above everything else.

  23. The Pope

    Nice, considered piece Sasha. One of the many reasons I like the site.

    While I agree with the film’s you list as Spielberg’s best, I would like to include Minority Report and Munich. Report is great mix of breathless pop-corn action and meaty themes. I think it is under-appreciated. And a helluva lot darker than people would believe (the ending is a complete trick because Anderton never escaped the crypt).

    Munich is a flat out masterpiece (one or two flaws included). it’s messy mature and complex. No easy answers and very difficult questions. And as for the technique on display… some of the best sequences he has ever done. Ever. Brittle and brutal.

  24. “I was not surprised at all when I saw that Spielberg’s movies are hardly to be seen on the Sight and Sound Poll.”
    Did you look at the entire poll? Yeah, hardly any of Spielberg’s films are on the list, only 9… (E.T. is in the top 250 of the critics list, while Jaws is in the top 100 of the directors list)

  25. You haven’t turned off yet, Robin?

  26. I remember seeing “Danton” in high school in Brazil during the 80s and being so in awe about its attempt to tell history that all I wanted to do was learn more about the French Revolution. Another talky, atmospheric piece of filmamaking in its own way. Not perfect, as there is no such thing, but IMVHO one of the best history films there is. The performances and overall direction from Wajda made everything feel so real that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a long time.

    After seeing it at the NYFF this month, “Lincoln” reminded me of the feeling I had as a teen after history class and, to some extent, that film – engaged with Time and in need of Knowledge. Wonderful pool of actors being their best on the screen.

    I agree with Spielberg when he said it is no substitute for history books or our teachers. However, it does make the learning process much more pleasurable when using such well crafted art as a tool. For sure it did help me get good grades in history class back in the day.

    Very nice appetizer before your main course, Sasha. Looking forward to your official review.

  27. So, let’s say Schindler’s List lacks spirit but The Thin Red Line is a masterpiece and a depth film. Thankfully I’m not crazy, the critics are on my side and here is one of the very few places where I have to read those things. And by a large margin: 93 x 78 on Metacritic, with a very selective group of critics. Here it is cool to hate certain directors and adore a couple of others. During the awards season, I laughed so hard that some people here tried to say that The New World is a complex epic. Gladiator is number one enemy here. Or has Forrest Gump as a close rival. But The New World is a masterpiece of an epic. Christopher Plummer doesn’t seem to agree either: “but the problem with Terry is he needs a writer, desperately. He insists on overwriting until it sounds terribly pretentious…and he edits his films in such a way that he cuts everyone out of them.”

  28. rufussondheim

    The last ten posts have been more interesting and thought-provoking than any ten consecutative posts that praise Spielberg.

    Patrick, I agree that art film is primarily a visual art form, but it’s not only visual. But isn’t photography or painting. It can also be a storytelling medium and Spielberg is definitely in that school of thought (while I would argue that Malick straddles the storytelling and purely visual aspects of filmmaking.) I appreciate the visual aspects of Spielberg a great deal. his ability to frame certain action shots is impeccable. He doesn’t need quick editing to make it exciting. And that makes certain Spielberg films, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, a pure pleasure to watch.

    I think Spielberg stopped challenging himself in the mid-80’s. He was at the top of his form. But it’s implicit in some of the passages above that while he engaged in more chalenging subjects, he still approached them in the same way he approached films he’s made previously.

    It really sounds like with Lincoln he challenged himself, that he chose a script that doesn’t allow him to rely on what’s worked for him in the past. And that has me kind of excited. He’s clearly a director with a lot of talent, and it sounds like he’s making the kind of film someone with a more literary preferance can enjoy.

    I guess we’ll find out soon.

  29. rufussondheim

    Oh, and I prefer not to address the DaVinci quote about simplicity. That was 550 years ago and art has progressed tenfold (at least) into new forms he couldn’t even dream of. If you want to argue that simplicity is better, have at it. But to me it’s an insanely dull argument.

  30. rufussondheim

    As for people bringing up critics and website scores, please stop. Please learn to like or dislike a film on its merits and how it speaks to you, not how it speaks to others. Great film, like any art, is intensely personal. We all bring different expectations and experiences (and baggage) every time we see a film and therefore our opinions of the film as we leave should hopefully be different. If a film is universally loved, then I would argue that it didn’t try to do too much.

    For example, I love Argo and think it’s a great film for nearly everyone to enjoy. But it’s not something that I will treasure for years because it really doesn’t force me to confront who I am. I don’t think Argo will ever force me to change my way of thinking or my perspective on the world at large.

    Now let’s discuss a film that most people think is one of the worst Oscar Travesties out there, Chariots of Fire. Interestingly enough it’s the only film since 1980 that I think the Academy got right. At its core, I think it’s the best film I’ve seen which discusses faith and the role of faith in people’s lives. As an atheist, these are things I don’t consider on a daily basis, even though I’m bombarded by religious people constantly claiming their spirituality.

    But in Chariots of Fire, we have Eric Liddell who feels his faith deeply, and with conviction, follows what he believes God wants him to do

    (Continued next post as I hit enter accidentally)

  31. rufussondheim

    And when I watch Chariots of Fire, I am so taken in by his story, I find it utterly beautiful. It forces me to examine my own faith (or lack thereof, if you wish) and how my lack of belief forces me to examine who I am. It forces me to look at those around me (and I see lots of hypocrisy) but when I see people who genuinely are inspired by God and follow his teachings, it gives me a great respect for them and it deepens my relationships with these people.

    So while many others dismiss Chariots of Fire as a rather dull athletic affair that’s filled with too much sentimentality, I see it as a rich character study that’s beautifully rendered. It reaffirms who I am as a person. Not many films can say that.

  32. ChrisFlick

    So looking forward to this I scratched the itch and picked up the TV miniseries LINCOLN, with Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore. Given the limitations of television it was still quite good; a bit dated stylistically, but ambitious in its way, with excellent performances by the leads. So if you can’t wait…there is always Young Mr. Lincoln or Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

  33. “If a film is universally loved, then I would argue that it didn’t try to do too much.”
    Oh yeah because that’s so easy… Anyone can make a work of art that’s universally loved…

    “Please learn to like or dislike a film on its merits and how it speaks to you, not how it speaks to others. Great film, like any art, is intensely personal.”
    I completely disagree.
    I can watch a film that doesn’t entertain me at all yet still consider it a good film. I can understand if you said that film is wholly subjective, but I definitely don’t think it’s wholly personal. A film’s merits is not only in how it affects me but also in how it affects others. To ignore how it affects others is simply narrow-minded.

    “Please learn to like or dislike a film on its merits and how it speaks to you, not how it speaks to others.”
    Why are you here then? To discuss film? Why should we listen to you when you just told us not to?
    Do you want to persuade others to feel the same way as you? No obviously not; you just told them not to listen to you.
    Do you want to discuss films so that you could perhaps change your opinion about them? No obviously not; you just told yourself not to listen to them.

  34. moviewatcher

    patrick: I love you…

  35. rufussondheim

    Patrick, you should be a politician, you like to twist words!

    Obviously discussing film/art with others and getting new and fresh perspectives is part of what it means to evolve as a consumer of art. It’s so obvious I didn’t need to point it out. Good criticism will help you see things that weren’t apparent.

    The danger is being overreliant on criticism and letting it form your opinions for you. At that point why even bother? People who always rely too much on critics remind me of this exchange in Metropolitan…

    Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
    Tom Townsend: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.

    If you rely too much on what others think, it’s just too easy to ignore what you love about a film (or didn’t love)

  36. Nik Grape

    Did you look at the entire poll? Yeah, hardly any of Spielberg’s films are on the list, only 9… (E.T. is in the top 250 of the critics list, while Jaws is in the top 100 of the directors list)

    I did..none of his films are in the Top 100 Critics Poll (which is the closest thing we have to defining the cannon) so I think saying “hardly any” is pretty fair.

  37. “I did..none of his films are in the Top 100 Critics Poll (which is the closest thing we have to defining the cannon) so I think saying “hardly any” is pretty fair.”

    But there are many of his films on the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They yearly All-Time poll, whoch is much much more comprehensive than Sight & Sound’s. So there you go.

  38. In AFI’s 100 greatest films list Spielberg has 5 films, 1 being in top 10. He is most represented director on list. Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock tie for 2nd place with 4 of their films making the list.
    Need to say something else?

  39. “…a rather dull athletic affair”
    Never had one of these, but I guess it’s possible.

    Seriously, liking the exchange between rufussondheim and patrick. Guess I fall somewhere in the middle in that there are some critical icons I just don’t enjoy, some guilty pleasures that were hammered by both critics and the public, and, while I can appreciate the technique of a well-reviewed film or recognize why a movie is such a hit with the public, neither factors in when I put together my favourites list.

    Critics are a guideline, only; audience reception, much less so. The final cut is determined strictly on a personal impact basis, on ideas that touch me and a style that doesn’t answer my questions but raises my curiosity.

    But thanks for a conversation lacking low blows and insults.

  40. “And when I watch Chariots of Fire, I am so taken in by his story, I find it utterly beautiful. It forces me to examine my own faith (or lack thereof, if you wish) and how my lack of belief forces me to examine who I am.”

    Fascinating stuff. I cannot wait to hear how The Breakup challenged your conception of long-term relationships and City of Joy your idea of India. If you’re going to poo-poo Spielberg for offering no complexity in his work and being too simple, you should come up with something a bit more exciting than Chariots of Fire as a counter-example.

  41. rufussondheim

    Chariots of Fire isn’t exciting, but it is good. So it doesn’t work for you. Do you think that bothers me?

  42. Thanks Sasha, this is a really very interesting and perceptive article and I enjoyed reading it very much. I was guarded and doubtful upon that first trailer, but am very happy to know that there is a lot to commend this movie before getting to see it. As an early cinephile I was an easy Spielberg hater, diving into Lynch, echoing Godard sentiments about film, blaming Spielberg for corrupting cinema with the blockbuster, thoughtless pap that’s out there. Yeah, he Executive Produces Transformers and etc etc, of course he does, because he ruined cinema! Perhaps the Roger Eberts of the world brought me around to quit being so pretentious. I can still melt into a four hour, entirely obtuse, indecipherable slice of auteur ethereal ambiguity. But I also acknowledge that creating moments of sentimental wonder or campy adventure takes real talent.

    So actually, where Lincoln will fit in a range of Spielberg movies remains to be seen, obviously. Yet my instincts say it will fall within my “second tier Spielberg”, which is good company. The second tier includes movies I love, yet those I consdier Spielberg masterpieces, also in my top 100 American films list, are, in order: Jaws, Temple of Doom and A.I.

    Jaws has become a nearly universal selection as Spielberg’s crowning achievment and it is not difficult to understand why. With the visceral “guilty pleasure” watchability of a Psycho there is no pretension to enjoying this movie. It’s about a few guys on a boat, reminiscing, fighting a big robotic Shark with deep, black eyes. It’s simple and basic. Concepts like “fear of the unknown”, “the mystery of the ocean” are off hand and effortless. Spielberg gives us that marquee ability to create moments that simply define the movies, especially the popcorn, accesible, cinematic, movie-going, whatever feeling that most people hope to find if they are looking for anything in a movie.

    Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is what rescued me from anti Spielberg pretensions, because it is so shamelessly takes itself so unseriously. The pure joy of camp and absurd levels of constant suspense are basically always on the screen. I get flack for choosing this as the masterpiece over the oft-cited Lost Ark. Maybe it is sheer preference of which modes each chooses. I typically shy from traveling movies, where people are going places, especially in the desert. Temple is all set into this zany, dark ride-like, cave of craziness. That just appeals to me more.

    Finally A.I. Here I contrast to, I suppose, E.T. The latter is one I need to re-visit, but nonethless I don’t remember it having quite the impact. I’m not sure if it is how the whole sick alien thing feels a bit cheesy. I don’t know. I do want to see it again. It’s been awhile. Anyways, I just really kinda love the audaity of A.I. It’s really quite ambitious, I do get that Kubrick vibe, something 2001-ish in the depths of storytelling. The opening visions of the future, the sun through the glass, the air brushed feel to it, just amazing. Teddy, I mean I so rarely remember real characters names in movies, but I can remember “Teddy”. What a imperceptible longing this movie creates in keeping a keen eye on David. His nature is so mysterious and I get so caught up in where his mind his, what we understand what we don’t. Plus the vision of the future is just gorgeous. I don’t ever really get the criticisms of this movie. I can see that it’s a bit preposterous, but I just love it. Even those last few scenes, these little plot turns and bursts. I love it. I love that kind of audacity. Science Fiction is all about audacity and kind of implausible things happening. And that movie is pretty long, but it always feels so short after I watch it, it really does.

    So those are my big 3 on Spielberg. The next tier is pretty ranging without getting into specific rankings. And, as i’ve mentioned before, I have to try and defend War Horse. It just sweeps along in really grand, 50’s kind of arc. It’s beautiful, the detail, everything. The emotion, yeah I love feeling that way at the movies. 3 times in a theatre. Just so wonderful. Anyways, in that next tier also Duel, though Duel is just about my favorite of this crop. I love it. ummmm… Close Encounters, yeah, I really loved that when I saw it on a really small screen, would love to watch it again. Truffaut, ha, take that Godard. Definitely Color Purple. I’ve doubted it a lot since watching it, but remember how strong I was impacted by it. Minority Report. Jurassic Park is a bit lower, but I just was so obsessed with that as a kid. Schindler’s List, not as high as for some, but yeah. I need to see Private Ryan again for sure. Don’t remember it well. Lost Ark, E.T. of course. Catch Me If you Can is fun, I love cranky Hanks. The Terminal. I’m with Ebert on that one, just a blast I think.

    And there are always the fun, just blatant kinda mis-steps. Hook. Oh boy, Hook. Lost World is kinda bad. Actually not a Tintin guy, I really hate that animation style.Crystal Skull. Almost all of these though, they’re almost too fun to really hate completely. dustin Hoffman as a Pirate. That’s stinkin’ hilarious…

    But yeah, Lincoln. I figure I’ll like it.

  43. Tero Heikkinen

    Very good comments, Matt. Temple of Doom was a big surprise to be put to Top 3, but you gave words to support that.

    I try my Top 10 (I’m not even considering Duel):

    1. Jaws
    2. Schindler’s List
    3. E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial
    4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
    5. A.I. – Artificial Intelligence
    6. Empire of the Sun
    7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    8. Saving Private Ryan
    9. Jurassic Park
    10. Munich

    That’s quite a resume for any director.

  44. For me it is difficult to rank Spielberg’s films. I can only say that Raiders is my favourite film of all time.

  45. Just noticed that Spielberg gets the treatment on 60 Minutes tonite – 7PM EST. Worked for Meryl last year.

  46. Tero Heikkinen

    Do people believe anything that is on 60 Minutes? At least they lie about foreign countries, because they know that Americans wouldn’t bother checking facts. There was this one bit off Finland which is a big joke here (we watch it for laughs) – approximately 30% of the whole news story was true.

  47. Yes, Tero – and they did a piece on Vancouver several years ago called “Hongcouver”, which went over here like a lead balloon.

    It’s an interview with your idol, fer crissakes!

  48. Seems that the consensus among those who saw Lincoln in NY is that it’s a good flick, but not at the top of the Spielberg filmography. If this turns out to be so, what’s wrong with that? It may be his dream to win more Oscars. I can’t see anything wrong with that either. On the other hand, it is my dream to learn something, not to feel like I was there. I cannot suspend my disbelief enough for films–at least, not as an adult. So, in the end, did Kushner pack in enough from the Kearns Goodwin book to illuminate us? If he didn’t, then all the cinematography in the world will not teach me a thing. It may provide a nice warm visual bath–but frankly, even a cold visual film like 2001 does that for me.

  49. Steven Spielberg, and Spielberg’s Hollywood now definitively ‘X—posed’
    for some 4 decades of collusion and relentless predictive programming
    for the CAPSTONE EUGENICS AGENDA.

    Spielbrg’s ‘Lincoln’, even beyond the industrialized ‘authenticity’
    of the production, ‘mysteriously OMITS’ —any— mention of the
    ONLY yet to be mentioned aspect of the ENTIRE Lincoln legacy,
    his very possibly –FATAL– diss of the Global USURY banking monopoly
    over finance of the war.

    Just a little REALITY CHECK on this the —-BURIED—-

    200th Anniversary of the Defeat of Napoeleonic Globalism at Moscow

    and 100th Anniversary of the Jeckyl Island USURY coup against our Republic

    TAKE HEED!

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