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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Loving Steven Spielberg's "late period"

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an affectionate throwback to the thrill-a-minute cliffhangers of the “early period” Steven Spielberg. It offers more charm and heart than we usually get in our summer movies, but I confess that I now prefer “late period” Spielberg instead.

At 62 years old, Spielberg may not be old enough to have a “late” period, but you can definitely divide his body of work into three distinct phases. The early, "wunderkind" period featured his masterpieces of pop entertainment that defined the movie blockbuster as we now know it: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, etc. Someone (I forget who) aptly compared him to a perfect amalgam of Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney, and this year’s Screen on the Green pays tribute to early Spielberg by showing Jaws on May 29 and E.T. on June 19.

After Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg conspicuously shifted gears, and seemed bent on making “grown-up," prestige movies — frequently historical epics with literary credentials, which just happen to be the kind of movies that usually win Oscars. His middle period includes The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List and Amistad, along with early-period flashbacks like the first two Jurassic Park movies. After winning his second Best Director Oscar with Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg finally earned critical acclaim and film industry validation for so-called serious films to match his commercial success with entertainments. What do you do when you have nothing left to prove?

Spielberg subsequently embarked on the most idiosyncratic phase of his life, experimenting with different genres, overt political content and envelope-pushing approaches to cinematography and narrative momentum. The six films from the past decade that make up his "late period" all have problems — some insurmountable ones — and they almost never build to strong, economical endings. But they all show the flashes of genius of a brilliant filmmaker dedicated to cultivating his talent and curiosity for his chosen art form. Spielberg's late period flaws often prove more interesting than his early and middle period virtues.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

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Strokes of genius: Spielberg described this sci-fi fable as a posthumous collaboration with legendary director Stanley Kubrick, who died before having the opportunity to direct it himself. Since Kubrick's cerebral style tends to be all brain, and Spielberg's is all heart, A.I. offers a fascinating combination of sensibilities, which could be summed up in the character of the robotic toy "Teddy," showcased in the above highlight reel: it's cute and cuddly, but speaks with a disconcertingly hoarse, grown-up voice. In the film's engrossing first half, a grieving family adopts a prototype "mecha" boy (Haley Joel Osment), an android programmed to genuinely love his parents. Spielberg's Kubrick-ian camera work and Osment's cunningly "artificial" performance challenge our expections for what's human behavior, and what qualifies as "simulation."

Ending problem: A.I.'s second half falters when it becomes a weirdly explicit remake of the Pinocchio fairy-tale in a not-always convincing futuristic America. The coda goes in a bizarre direction when highly-evolved alien robots give the little android his fondest wish to meet the Blue Fairy, become a real boy and reunite with his mother. In the Spielberg on Spielberg documentary, the director points out that Kubrick always intended the film to end that way, and that he wasn't imposing a happy ending over the other director's dead body. It's still too "magical" for audiences to swallow, and perhaps Spielberg's near-worship of traditional family structures overwhelmed Kubrick's trademark misanthropy.

Minority Report (2002)

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Strokes of genius: Echoes of Kubrick recur in Minority Report, an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story about "Pre-Crime"-based law enforcements, in which psychic "precogs" aid police officers to make arrests for murders that haven't yet happened. Spielberg crafts loving homages to film noir detective tales like The Big Sleep and grubby, dystopian sci-fi (including a nod to Terry Gilliam's Brazil). The chase scene above captures the film's best parts: a persuasive high-tech future that's both uncomfortable and attractive; breathtaking action sequences; and a freaky, Fellini-esque punchline at the end of the scene.

Ending problem: The premise of Minority Report is Tom Cruise's detective trying to prevent the murder the "precogs" claim he'll commit. The killing finally happens with a sequence of dark twists comparable to, say, Roman Polanski's Chinatown. Rather than endorse a grim vision of fate worthy of Oedipus (like that Greek tragedy, eye imagery abounds in Minority Report), the film resorts to an elaborate, contrived conclusion in which justice is served and the family units are restored.

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

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Strokes of genius: The most polished, breezy and satisfying of Spielberg's late period films, Catch Me if You Can superbly casts Leonardo DiCaprio as brazen teenage con man Frank "The Skywayman" Abagnale and Tom Hanks as dogged G-man Carl Hanratty, who tries to track him down. Spielberg famously talked his way onto the Universal Studios lot as a young man, so he may identify with Abagnale's inventive chutzpah, and he certainly grooves on the 1960s period detail and thrilling con scenes. The opening credits scene showcases one of John Williams' best scores, and the witty animation offers a neat recap of the film's premise and set pieces. Plus, the film's treatment of airline pilots as celebrities connects to Spielberg's fascination with airplanes (see 1941, Empire of the Sun and others).

Ending problem: The film's called Catch Me if You Can. So shouldn't it end when Hanratty, you know, catches him? Instead, a coda depicts Abagnale working with FBI, affirming his surrogate-father relationship with Hanratty and putting an overly neat bow on themes probably better left to the audience's imagination.

The Terminal (2004)

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Strokes of genius: Arguably The Terminal comprises the first film in an extremely loose trilogy of post-9/11 politics. Tom Hanks plays as an Eastern European Everyman virtually imprisoned in an airplane terminal, partly due to post-9/11 security concerns, who gradually beats the system. Hanks brings winning, Chaplin-esque underdog comedy to a premise that combines Kafka-esque bureaucracy and American corporatization, and the clip above provides a perfect example of the film's easy sense of humor, as well as its too-conspicuous product placement. Spielberg handles most of the comedy well, but it's telling that the film's most memorable scene is a suspenseful, near-violent confrontation.

Ending problem: The Terminal's resolution doesn't feel stuck on or drawn out like those of the other late period films. It's perfectly appropriate that a story about waiting (and subverting narrative expectations) should end with a series of anticlimaxes: Hanks' romance of Catherine Zeta-Jones fizzles out and his goal in America proves surprisingly modest. Spielberg knows how to end on a bang, but ending on a whimper eludes him.

War of the Worlds (2005)

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Strokes of genius: Many critics pointed out that his remake of War of the Worlds reverses the plot of Close Encounters: Instead of a man leaving the arms of his family after aliens land on Earth, an alien invasion drives a man (Tom Cruise) back into his family's arms. The scenes with terrified crowds and marauding "Martian" tripods (particularly the one above) represent Spielberg at his Hitchcockian best, and when one of the aliens touches a bicycle in the basement scene, the director nods to E.T.

Ending problems: More — and less — than an apocalyptic thrill-ride, Spielberg overly evokes the imagery of Sept. 11, including crashed planes, dust-shrouded bystanders, and grieving American citizens leaving bulletin boards for loved ones. How a genocidal alien invasion connects to American grief after 9/11 never comes together in a satisfying thematic way, however. Worse, the final scene depicts a family reunion in miraculous defiance of the aliens' ruthless efficiency at exterminating humans. Despite his willingness to venture into dark territory, Spielberg can't seem to leave bad enough alone.

Munich (2005)

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Flashes of genius: I find Munich to be Spielberg's most impressive film since Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List before that. Inspired by true events, the heavyweight spy thriller follows a team of Mossad agents (led by Eric Bana) as they plot the assassinations of the architects of the Munich terrorist attack that killed Israeli athletes. The script, co-written by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, almost overflows with precise and colorful details along with rich, political ideas, and Spielberg's suspenseful set pieces — like the bombing above — are absolutely top-notch. With its pulpy thrills and substantial metaphors, Munich is The Godfather of espionage films...

Ending problem: ... at least, for its first two hours. In Munich's latter section, Bana's team gets caught up in a conflict with apolitical French intelligence brokers, muddying the film's powerful revenge plot. And like Minority Report and Catch me if You Can, the story keeps going after achieving its stated goal: the assassination of the Munich terorrists. Bana's sex scene, intercut with images from the massacre, proves not so much disturbing as embarassing. The film sort of dawdles until it ends with a shot of the World Trade Center, a powerful image that doesn't entirely justify the last-act slackness.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features one sequence in keeping with late-period Spielberg, in which Indiana Jones finds himself on a mock-up of a suburban neighborhood, shortly before it's nuked in an atomic test. It's weird, witty vision of American iconography that feels consistent with the most surreal moments of A.I. or Minority Report.

After Crystal Skull, which Spielberg do we get next? Supposedly his next project is directing the first in a trilogy based on the Tintin adventure comic books, which sounds about as "early period" as they come. He's also developing an Abraham Lincoln biopic with Liam Neeson — you can practically see the 'For Your Consideration' ads for Oscar voters without knowing anything else. The potential project I'm most excited about is The Trial of the Chicago 7, based on a script by "The West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, which Sacha Baron Cohen and Philip Seymour Hoffman reportedly on board as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The Writer's Strike and potential Screen Actor's Guild strike may have derailed the film, but it sounds like late period Spielberg to a T.

(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

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