As a young film student just out of school, I once shared the usual contempt that all serious film connoisseurs were expected to display for Steven Spielberg. From young students to senior lecturers, everybody I knew agreed that Steven Spielberg was the leading auteur of a kind of ‘lesser’ cinema, centred on spectacle, devastation and cheap sentimentality. In other words, he made blockbusters and blockbusters were bad.
Of course, if Spielberg had produced films that were badly made, his contributions would have been received with less hostility. The thing that people truly hated about Spielberg was that he produced incredibly entertaining films, filled with convincing characters placed into situations that in a previous era would have been relegated to B cinema. These were spectacular works of escapist cinema that captured the attention of the public and did not concern themselves with exploring the human condition, the political clime, or any other subject deemed worthy of the form. More than this, whether one acknowledged Spielberg’s merits or not, his successes soon redefined what Hollywood cinema was about –many would say for the worse.
After the success of Jaws (Spielberg’s first ode to the B-movies of his youth), the industry began to remodel itself with a much greater focus on what would soon become known as the ‘blockbuster’. These were films with a central focus on action and spectacle, and a lesser focus on narrative, character development and… well… anything that wasn’t spectacle. More than this, the studios progressively moved towards a marketing approach to cinema, with productions more often being structured in such a way as to satisfy various demographics. The result was a risk-averse industry, weary of films and filmmakers that moved far beyond standard generic formulae. That’s why a lot of people really hate Spielberg… he has long been seen as a marker for the rise of a shallow and more commercially driven cinema.
Of course, from a business perspective the modern approach to film-production is understandable, businesses are designed to make a profit and the studios cannot be blamed for their attempts to produce a popular product. However, the tragic truth is that such an approach is also very restrictive on the creative possibilities of cinema. While one could argue that limitations and boundaries (commercial, generic etc.) can often result in great art, this is not so much the case when those boundaries include having to produce a film targeted towards men and women between five and sixty-five years of age that must be action packed, feature a romance, conclude with a happy ending and receive a PG rating from the censors.
Michael bay and Jerry Bruckheimer are probably the epitome of this kind of cinema. They’ve dedicated themselves to the production of epic spectaculars starring young, attractive men and women playing two-dimensional stereotypes that spend their time kissing each other between explosions and gigantic robot battles that run for thirty minutes at a time – all of this is usually tied together by some kind of lazy and preposterous narrative that involves the potential end of the world at the hands of a robot or meteor or…. whatever. The cynicism with which these filmmakers approach their work is astonishing – but not as astonishing as the audience’s willingness to eat it up. However, it’s not Michael Bay’s films that break my heart – there is room in this world for crappy escapist cinema, it’s the fact that ninety-percent of Hollywood’s output is crappy escapist cinema and nobody seems to care. Compare today’s films to the cinema of the American New Wave and it becomes clear that the recent lamentations of many European critics are right – today, Hollywood only makes films for teenagers.
Let me try and pull away from this grumpy rant so that I can get to the point – Spielberg isn’t an awful filmmaker, and he did not destroy American cinema. He is not to be held responsible for the unforeseeable consequences of his passionate love for the B-films of his youth, and his desire to share that love with the generations that followed. Every filmmaker strives for success and Spielberg succeeded. If his approach to filmmaking (and that of contemporaries, like George Lucas) resulted in an industrial shift towards a youth oriented cinema of spectacle then the responsibility lies fundamentally with the industry itself and the tastes of the public.
And at the end of the day, one need only look at the cinema of Michael Bay to fully appreciate the filmic talents of Steven Spielberg.
Here endeth the grumpy rant.