Review by Nadia Bee
Steven Spielberg – A Life in Films
Molly Haskell; Jewish Lives – Yale University Press 2017. Our Rating: ★★/5
Sometimes a critic gets handed a particularly tempting poisoned chalice. For example, an invitation to write the biography of a celebrated filmmaker they are neither particularly interested in, nor seem to like very much. Still, there’s something to get at, an itch to scratch. This book is just that.
Molly Haskell is an eminent U.S. film critic. She started her career in the 1960s, and is considered a grande dame of American film criticism. She was invited by Yale University Press to write a short biography of Steven Spielberg for its Jewish Lives Series.
Haskell is known for not being a great fan of Spielberg’s work – so much so that Spielberg is aware of that dislike, and has publicly commented on it. He declined her request for an interview – she was told he does not give interviews to biographers. He has however given rather candid interviews about his films, and in so doing has said quite a lot about himself. Some of that has found its way into the book. He has also been known to say that everything about him, is in his films.
Haskell acknowledges in the preface that she felt spurned by his refusal, but also relieved – she might otherwise have felt compromised, admitting in those same pages, that ‘the sense of personal liking was strong’. It is unusual for a journalist to state that interviewing their subject might undermine the integrity of their work.
The book kicks off with a promise of liveliness, mixed feelings, strong opinions, and a hint of comedy. Given the lack of access, her subject’s well-guarded private life, and the considerable volume of public information already available, Haskell has found herself with a challenge. Under such conditions, and if one is not an investigative journalist, how does one write a biography, especially an insightful one?
One doesn’t. Haskell has taken Spielberg at his own word. If indeed everything about him can be found in his films, then one hardly need look beyond them: the films are the biography. By analysing the work, one analyses the man. Haskell thus chooses to deliver a book primarily centred around a series of extended film reviews – supplemented with biographical information, and a generous dash of extrapolation.
Early chapters focus on publicly known details of Spielberg’s life, published or broadcast elsewhere, and are followed by extensive discussion of the films. Some chapters cover just one film – for example Empire of the Sun, which meets with Haskell’s approval. Other chapters pack in more material – chapter 9 covers both Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and The Color Purple; chapter 16 packs in The Terminal, War of the Worlds, and Munich.
As the book progresses chronologically, and after a peak – a discussion of Empire of the Sun, it loses steam. It tapers off abruptly with a very short final chapter, five pages containing a perfunctory discussion of two more recent Spielberg films, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. There is no conclusion or afterword.
This last chapter includes a final look at Spielberg, again in the guise of a review: the last moments of Bridge of Spies, as seen through the Haskellian lens; the main character’s return home after his fraught Cold War odyssey:
“Home is a refuge but also where his responsibilities lie, perhaps in penance for those feckless husbands in the kid-centric films, or for the deserter Roy Neary, who in Close Encounters abandoned his family for cosmic adventure (…). A weary Donovan ascends the steps. Like Jamie in Empire of the Sun or Elliott in E.T., he is alone with a lingering sense of loss. The deeper bond lies elsewhere, with the alien and soul mate who has returned to the mother ship.”
This passage encapsulates brilliantly Haskell’s feelings about Spielberg’s whole oeuvre. What she states here is repeated throughout the book, in various ways and in almost every chapter: Spielberg’s heroes – and they are usually male – are not family men, or if they are, they are so out of duty. Their dreams are elsewhere. And it seems they are afraid of women. In her preface, she writes “the fears that Spielberg played with so brilliantly struck me as men’s fears – of women, of maturity, of sex”.
Haskell’s approach to film criticism is heavily influenced by Freudian ideas: Freud and Oedipus are expressly referred to in the book on several occasions – but are not included in the book’s index. She sees Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as psychologically regressive, and in the same sentence writes of Hook, Spielberg’s Peter Pan film, that it was “meant to utilize the insights into his own infantilism”. This is strong stuff. Haskell does not explain what she means by infantilism, or how she concludes that Spielberg’s drive to explore or revisit childhood is evidence of it. It seems incongruous that a man capable of rising to the heights of influence within the Hollywood machine, with such a prolific output, responsible for overlapping and highly complex productions, could be thought of as infantile.
These are not her insights alone. Spielberg has given interviews where he reveals aspects of his own personality which Haskell and others seem to have taken more literally than he may have imagined. In a New York Times interview in 1988 with the journalist Myra Forsberg, in which he discusses Empire of the Sun, among other projects, he does mention that he was ‘consciously regressing’ in deciding to direct The Last Crusade – because he wanted to have fun. It is a jolt to see Spielberg’s presumably playful choice of words, that he was consciously regressing, reworked by Haskell, to say of the same film, that it was evidence of psychological regression.
The idea that Spielberg’s work might have been reflecting the public mood at the time, tapping into the zeitgeist, or simply responding to market forces and requests from distributors and other investors, is hardly glanced at. There are very few passages in the book where the wider context of Spielberg’s work is seriously entertained, where the social or political circumstances Spielberg was operating in are seen to have exerted an influence on his output.
When Haskell bemoans the loss of women as central characters in post-1950s Hollywood cinema, she points her finger at Spielberg and his contemporaries, the cohort of male directors which includes Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas. She does not explain the reasons for their emergence, or why the gender solipsism which characterises much of their filmmaking has exerted such a powerful draw on cinema audiences, almost regardless of gender.
Yet those are fascinating questions, relevant to a biography of Spielberg: what are the forces that shaped his career as a filmmaker during his adulthood? Do these explain his meteoric rise? In describing that rise, Haskell refers to him in one chapter as “the man with the Oedipal hang-ups”. How does she achieve this insight? The films. If a director says that everything about him is in the films, this does leave the door open to all sorts of conclusions.
Haskell’s choice of narrative structure presents some advantages. With the film reviews providing the spine of the book, a straightforward narrative order appears to be into place. However, as the reviews are mostly compartmentalised, there is no arc. There is chronology, but little development. Key elements of Spielberg’s evolution as a filmmaker are not charted, with the exception of his relationship with Judaism. Are there developments over time in storytelling, in aesthetics, in technique?
An outburst by Shia Leboeuf in 2016, reported in Variety, provides a partial answer: “You get there, and you realize you’re not meeting the Spielberg you dream of. You’re meeting a different Spielberg, who is in a different stage in his career. He’s less a director than he is a f—ing company.”
There is arguably an arc formed by Schindler’s List, Munich, and Bridge of Spies. In all three films, Spielberg demonstrates skill of the highest order but more than this, it is fascinating to see how increasingly nuanced and complex the stories become, even if the films are visibly the output of a finely-honed production line. The latter film was written by the Coen brothers; their involvement would have enhanced the complexity and rigour of the story. The film nevertheless remains recognisably Spielbergian.
Throughout his career, regardless of genre, humanistic concerns and moral choices peek through the storytelling, with greater and greater insistence. The characters are for the most part flawed beings, and face existential challenges. There is a contrast in his films between characters who are subjected to the forces of destiny and those who fight for survival – as Empire of the Sun so poignantly demonstrates – and then there are those who do more than survive, and somehow, work to shape history. They become active agents in morally ambiguous settings.
In Schindler’s List, Munich, and Bridge of Spies, the characters are respectively saviour, avenger, and guardian of due process and the rule of law. Each of them exists in a setting of deep moral ambivalence, and each successive film tries to address the moral conflicts raised in the previous film.
Bridge of Spies is perhaps the culmination so far of Spielberg’s attempts to resolve that conflict, but in Haskell’s account of his life, the film appears almost as something to be ticked on Haskell’s race to the finish line. In looking so closely at some of the trees, she may have missed the forest.
Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.