It’s not meant to be the definitive biography of Steve Spielberg. And veteran critic Molly Haskell pays plenty of homage to Joseph McBride’s date-by-date, deep background and thorough recent (conventional) biography of the filmmaker.
What Haskell has taken on, courtesy of Yale University Press’s “Jewish Lives” series (I prefer the label “Jews in Action,” but that’s just me.) is a close-reading of Spielberg’s filmography. “Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films” revisits the movies and filters them through the lenses of Freudian criticism, feminist criticism and gossip.
So she’s all over his “shrieking woman” characters, fathers not cut out for fatherhood, refusing to grow up morphing into fathers mistakenly idealized by their sons. She charts Spielberg’s assorted father figures — his own dad, he seemed to think, was remote, unavailable — Lew Wasserman to Steve Ross, Kubrick to Billy Wilder.
And she recaptures Kate Capshaw’s asingle-minded pursuit of becoming Mrs. Spielberg, in ways only a feminist critic can get away with.
Offhanded shots include her take on the Spielberg producer/collaborator Frank Marshall’s escape from “Twilight Zone” justice. The blood on that set was on his hands just as it was John Landis’s, but Marshall simply left the country and could not be even half-heartedly investigated.
There’s astute, deconstructive criticism of “Close Encounters,” “E.T.,” “Empire of the Sun,” “AI” and “Amistad,” with Haskell scratching her head over the unjust pounding she (and many others) gave him for such efforts as “The Color Purple” and the like. Haskell is hard on the Indiana Jones films, appreciative of “Saving Private Ryan” and determined to rescue the reputation of “Empire of the Sun” and “Amistad.”
Haskell also takes us back to a Golden Age of Movie Criticism in her own admissions, reactions and agendas. There was a time when heavyweight critics would position themselves as Freudians (psychological takes on movies, based on what we know about those who wrote and directed them), feminists, deconstructionists, Semioticians (films interpreted through symbolic imagery) and so on.
If there’s ever a bio-pic, “Life of Spielberg,” Haskell’s book — connecting this scene to that childhood event — would make the best source material to start with. Sure, it’s got the usual Haskell head-scratching takes on this or that film, and the odd boner (a “Chinese battleship” named “Petrel” isn’t sunk in “Empire of the Sun.” China hasn’t had a “battleship” since oh, the 15th century. HMS Peterel was the ship sunk, in reality, book and film.
But the book is useful, too, in reminding us that great directors are artists, often pounding the same nail (childhood traumas, Judaism, the lure of science fiction’s night sky) over and over again. Great directors make great movies, with the occasional great blunder or miscalculation. Spielberg has managed, over five decades in film, to deliver heartfelt, thought-provoking and witty blockbusters and serious pictures blessed with those same virtues, letting them carry their weight lightly.
A fun, short book to read in a summer of billion dollar hits whose shelf lives are as suspect as the lightweights studios put in charge of them, just to keep the trains running on time.