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Studying Spielberg: McBride’s Biography is Memorable … and Unauthorized

Imagine deciding to write a biography on someone you had met twice, a contemporary who worked in the same industry and lived in the same state, only to learn, several months into your research, that your subject has declined your request for an interview and asked his close associates and family to do the same.

This is the backstory for Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride (Second Edition, University Press of Mississippi, 2011). Undeterred by Spielberg’s lack of cooperation, McBride (a friend and colleague of mine in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University) soldiered on. No slacker, over the next three years he interviewed 327 other people for this book, including many of Spielberg’s cohorts and relatives.

The result is a marvelous work, an unauthorized biography overflowing with McBride’s voluminous research, crisp critical thinking, and an easy, engaging writing style that refreshes like a clear mountain stream. He muses on the issue of authorization:

I am constantly surprised by how many people, including some in the literary world, react with automatic suspicion when they hear the phrase “unauthorized biography,” as if there were something inherently dubious about a book not having the subject’s seal of approval.

On the contrary, what should arouse the reader’s suspicions are the inevitable constraints placed on an author’s integrity by the decision to allow his subject to authorize and thereby to control the writing of the book.

By talking endlessly about his life in press and television interviews to promote his movies, Spielberg already has given us an autobiography of sorts, albeit a scattered, fragmentary, and sometimes misleading one; what largely has been missing from the picture is an independent examination of his character, seen not simply through his eyes alone but also through the perspectives of the people who have known and worked with him throughout his lifetime.

This discussion reminds me of Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs, published shortly after the Apple founder’s death last year and based on dozens of interviews with Jobs and his friends and associates. That authorized biography approach charmed me at the time with the feeling that I was seeing behind the curtain, gaining insights on Apple’s history and future, especially after Jobs passed away.

Critiques

But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the additional layer of critique in McBride’s book on Spielberg. This unauthorized biography reveals no scandalous secrets, but it does include the author’s informed opinions and speculations on all aspects of Spielberg’s life and career. A former critic and columnist for Daily Variety and author of 16 books on film, McBride clearly appreciates Spielberg’s genius, but his pointed criticism of numerous aspects of the director’s work give this book a genuine and independent feeling.

For example, in discussing Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of Spielberg’s greatest “entertainments,” he deplores the two-dimensionality of the main character, Indiana Jones, citing commercial expediency and the filmmakers’ desire “to make a film of nonstop, unreflective derring-do, the kind that takes no time to grapple with moral ambiguities…” But it’s not that simple, says McBride:

Indy’s two sides never add up to a coherent whole. A scholar who loves adventure and physical danger, he behaves in a casually amoral and brutal way whenever it suits his purposes. He loots Third World cultures and slaughters the natives with the abandon of a mercenary from colonial days. And yet the contemporary audience throughout the world was skillfully manipulated into identifying with this ruthless figure and finding him heroic…

The scene of Indy pulling out his pistol to mow down a sword-wielding Arab—a gag Spielberg and [Harrison] Ford improvised on location to shorten the shooting schedule—“was very popular, but it disturbed me,” [screenwriter Lawrence] Kasdan says. “I thought it was brutal in a way the rest of the movie wasn’t. I’m never happy about making jokes out of killing people.”

Another example of McBride’s criticism centers on the violence in Jaws, and possible implied cultural messages or metaphors:

A particularly disturbing aspect of Jaws is its mingling of sexuality and violence in the opening sequence … Like the slasher movies that became popular later in the 1970s, the sequence seems to punish the woman for being sexually aggressive; she enters the water to entice a drunken young man into skinnydipping with her, but he sprawls impotently in the sand, unable to respond as she is attacked.

… There is no doubt that Jaws is swimming in some treacherous psychological waters. That streak of misogyny is an attitude Jaws shared with other American films made during the period when the women’s liberation movement was threatening traditional male prerogatives. Film editor Verna Fields admitted she “came very close to not doing Jaws” because of her concerns over whether it would exploit sex and violence.

Unauthorized

Spielberg’s refusal to participate in this biography was summed up by an assistant, who told one of McBride’s interviewees: “Steven is in the throes of planning an authorized biography. Please save your recollections for that one.”

For the biographer, it helps that Spielberg, the biographee, is by Hollywood standards the most famous and fabulously successful artist of all time, that he has been open throughout his career and generously participated in many introspective print and filmed interviews about segments of his work and his life (despite his reluctance to open up about the whole, which is no doubt greater than the sum of those parts).

It helps that most people like Spielberg and seem eager to talk about him, that he has had a long and storied career, that he has directed more than 50 movies (many of them classics and among the top-grossing films of all time) and produced well over 100, that he often employs innovative and fascinating imagery, groundbreaking whiz-bang special effects, and a fine rapport with actors, especially children. Enormously wealthy and powerful in Hollywood, he seems to impress everyone around him.

Yet there have always been Spielberg detractors. Despite his creative genius and reputation as an honorable mensch (and the amiable father of seven children), many critics hate him, either jealous of his massive success or stubbornly convinced that works which appeal to a mass audience cannot be great art. His films about people of color, Amistad and The Color Purple, have been both widely praised and bitterly panned for his choices of subject and the appropriateness of a Jewish director doing a “black” film. Even Schindler’s List, the ultimate expression of his own Jewishness, has been both adored and attacked, often by Jewish groups and critics in the most vitriolic terms. A faculty colleague of McBride once referred to Spielberg as the Antichrist, leaving us with the distinct feeling that some of this hatred is rooted in anti-Semitism.

Film Historian Joseph McBride

Early Days

In the first 100 pages of the book, we follow the trail of Spielberg’s childhood from Cincinnati to New Jersey to Phoenix to high school in Saratoga, California.

Through the voices of people who knew him when he was growing up (and with Spielberg quotes from articles and documentaries), we read of his peripatetic family life, his discovery of filmmaking at an early age, his father’s monetary, technical, and physical support for his early films, his artistic and indulgent mother, their subsequent split and later reconciliation, the bullying and anti-Semitism he encountered in his childhood. Steven’s father Arnold provided a particularly rich and insightful interview; his mother Leah Adler declined when Steven asked her to. McBride, who has also written acclaimed posthumous works on directors John Ford and Frank Capra, enjoyed talking with Spielberg’s boyhood pals who crewed on and acted in his earliest films:

There are major advantages in writing a biography when the subject is in the prime of his life.

The subject and his surroundings have a vital immediacy, and if the benefit of distant perspective is somewhat lacking, it is not entirely absent. Spielberg has been making films, as boy and man for forty years now, and if he were to stop tomorrow, his career would stand as one of the most important in the history of film. But the foremost advantage for a biographer of the fifty-year-old Steven Spielberg is being able to interview the people who knew him during his formative years—his family, friends, and neighbors, his playmates, classmates, and teachers, the people who shaped him into the man he would become—and the opportunity to hear their accounts when their memories still are relatively fresh.

Schindler

McBride published the original edition of this biography in 1997 in response to Spielberg’s creation of Schindler’s List:

Once he mustered the courage to confront the Holocaust and his own Jewish heritage, the conflicting impulses of his life and work began to resolve themselves in a way that provided dramatic shape and resolution for a biography even if the subject still was only a middle-aged man with (one hopes) another twenty or thirty years of productivity ahead of him.

Schindler’s List, in the view of many critics, is the point in Spielberg’s career when he began to deal with more serious subjects, the point where, in the pantheon of Spielberg characters, the real Nazis Oskar Schindler bargained with for Jewish lives supplanted the cartoon Nazis of the Indiana Jones movies. To be sure, goes the argument, before Schindler, he had tackled difficult subject matter in The Color Purple (incest and abuse) and Empire of the Sun (war and its horrors), but most of his films were huge family blockbusters such as Jaws, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jurassic Park.

McBride disputes this, pointing out that Spielberg “was dealing with serious, adult subject matter from the beginning of his career. Even his early TV work does—such as his ‘Par for the Course’ episode of The Psychiatrist, a moving story of a golfer who is dying of cancer. And The Sugarland Express is tragic, even if his characters seem somewhat childish, which is why they blunder so badly.” Nevertheless, many of his harshest Hollywood critics had wondered aloud if Spielberg would ever grow up and still had trouble giving him a break:

Spielberg’s return to his roots in making Schindler’s List was also, paradoxically, an act of liberation from his culturally imposed and self-imposed limitations. In confronting the Holocaust, he radically redefined his public image, confronting most (though not all) of the skeptics who thought him merely a frivolous entertainer, a child-man incapable of dealing with serious themes. But there was a double edge to their abrupt reevaluation. Annette Insdorf … commented in the Village Voice, “Many of us were expecting him to simply apply the techniques of Jurassic Park to the Holocaust, but were pleasantly surprised that he transcended his reputation for a glib, feel-good approach.”

As Armond White wondered in a Film Comment essay on Spielberg’s career, “Can the man who directed the most splendid, heartfelt Hollywood entertainments of the past twenty years accept that praise, that dismissal of his life’s work, as reasonable?”

Sunny

Schindler was a hard act to follow. Spielberg’s next project was The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park:

Going back to sheer entertainment was a way of keeping his creative equilibrium. The traditional American dichotomy between art and entertainment is a stubbornly enduring part of the nation’s puritan heritage, but for Spielberg, pleasing himself and pleasing his audience have almost always gone hand-in-hand …

Schindler’s List demonstrated that, at least in the case of a great popular artist such as Steven Spielberg, artistry and popularity need not be mutually exclusive.

“You’ve tackled one of the darkest chapters in history,” an interviewer said to him. “Can you go back to making sunny, optimistic movies?”

“Sure I can,” he replied with a laugh, “because I have a sunny, optimistic nature. But I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.”

In the years that followed, Spielberg’s directing work continued to evolve. Though he still made the cheery Catch Me if You Can, another sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark and other family fare, his work also took on much more dramatic themes, including Amistad (slavery and injustice), Saving Private Ryan (war and its horrors, redux), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (the nature of humanity).

After 9/11

McBride sees much of Spielberg’s later work as a reaction to the Bush Era, the Patriot Act, and the subsequent loss of civil liberties in the US:

The gathering darkness in Spielberg’s body of work since Schindler’s List, a mood that has persisted in Saving Private Ryan and gained force with A.I., took on a new urgency over the next few years as the director dealt with the chilling new atmosphere in the United States following the attacks … on September 11, 2001.

Even in his “entertainments,” Spielberg addressed the national trauma and the repressive political climate of the George W. Bush–Dick Cheney era with a pointed and probing intensity. The attacks on the United States and the ensuing assaults on American civil liberties were reflected metaphorically (and sometimes more overtly) in film after film as Spielberg questioned what had become of his country in the new century and challenged it to remember and live up to its former ideals.

Minority Report, which was filmed before 9/11 and released afterward, presages severe police power battling “pre-crime” in a dystopic world fifty years in the future. The otherwise-upbeat film The Terminal poignantly examines our country’s restrictive entry policies: “America is closed,” compared to an earlier era’s “Give us your tired, your hungry, your poor.” Munich dissects government-sponsored political assassination, revenge for the murders of Israeli Olympic athletes. War of the Worlds depicts a hell on earth, a “horrific vision of social breakdown” and “expands upon the fears Americans felt after their mainland was invaded for the first time since the War of 1812.”

Spielberg risked his popularity repeatedly to make a series of films boldly addressing his fellow citizens, and his audience throughout the world, about the radically changed political and social circumstances in which they found themselves. He recognized how difficult that journey was for some of his audience: “You wouldn’t believe how many people come to me in the street and repeat almost verbatim the lines the Martians say to Woody Allen in Stardust Memories: ‘You know, we like your earlier, funnier films.’”

McBride has continued to follow Spielberg’s prolific career through all these films and through his ups and downs with partners Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen in developing DreamWorks Studios. This Second Edition of the biography was published last year and covers Spielberg’s work through the making of The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, though neither film had come out before the book’s publication date. Now the author informs me that a Third Edition will be released this month by Faber and Faber, revised to include detailed analysis of Tintin and War Horse, as well as Spielberg’s newest project, Lincoln.

I’ve always felt an affinity for Spielberg’s work, bolstered by learning that he and I (and Joseph McBride) were subject to many of the same cultural influences as children: Walt Disney, The Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody, The Lone Ranger, Superman, The Honeymooners, Bilko, Dragnet, Milton Berle, and Hopalong Cassidy, among many others. Unsurprisingly, Spielberg, McBride, and I were all born within eight months of each other. Reading this biography has spurred a Spielberg Film Festival at the Zarchy residence this summer. Viewed so far: Duel, Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., 1941, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Color Purple, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I’ve enjoyed seeing Empire of the Sun for the first time, and I’m especially looking forward to seeing Amistad again

For all of us, Joseph McBride has created a fine book, memorable in its scope and its depth, which illuminates Spielberg’s background, elucidates his motives, and compels us to watch his films again.

Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride (Second Edition, University Press of Mississippi, 2011)

Joseph McBride, Film Historian


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