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Spielberg: Amblin Towards the Father

From Jaws (1975) and E.T (1982), through Indiana Jones to War of the Worlds (2005), Steven Spielberg’s on-going Oedipal tussles with the father figure have become a core leitmotif. Will Lincoln (2012) finally bring to the director’s mixed oeuvre a successful, long awaited, mastery and genuine understanding over such material?

Lincoln (2012)


There is a seminal sequence in an otherwise indifferent Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) where three male figures are attempting to pull each other out of a life threatening swamp - on one end of the umbilical rope (which is a snake) is Indiana’s son Henry (Shia La Beouf) and at the opposite is his grandfather (Sean Connery) while between them is Indiana himself attempting to hold the threesome together; thus a father trying to save a father is himself saved by his own son, a perfectly knowing pun that neatly enforces a bonding across the generational divides. Only that isn’t the way it was on the set as Connery had politely uninvited himself from the role of Indiana’s father - but it was the initial plan as formulated by writer/producer George Lucas and director Spielberg. The filmmakers were themselves saved from their own casting swamp with the inclusion of father-figure surrogate Harold Oxley as played by John Hurt. So the scene remains, but without the idyllic full complement of son, father and grandfather.

And therein is a tough irony - in one of those rare films where the father figure was so crucial to a Spielberg film, where the role was so positively called for and eagerly anticipated, the role of the father was denied to the filmmaker.

The emergence of this Oedipal strain in the Raiders films was itself grounded in Spielberg’s first critical and commercial film success - Duel, 1971. Dennis Weaver plays a middle aged business - David Mann - who, from city to desert, becomes terrorized by an increasingly devious and menacing Goliath of a truck. The film ends in an explosive showdown that, for all its technical and dramatic wizardry, neither reveals Weaver’s character (he remains nameless) nor the truck’s motivation (we never see the driver). The film, with its exclusive emphasis on plot, is a showpiece of brilliant film technique that is devoid of what makes great drama – character. Yoking the two successfully has become a lifetime challenge for Spielberg.

The blockbuster that was to become Jaws (Universal, 1975) elaborates on the premise that Duel established in 1971. Amity Island’s often awkward and uncertain Sherriff Brody (Roy Schneider) is the first actor to play what would become a series of ambiguously drawn father figures which, over the decades to come, would populate Spielberg’s cinema. Brody is essentially a New York cop transposed with his wife and children to the beach resort of Amity Island; his liminal position is confirmed when it is emphasized how he doesn’t swim, but the problem, of course, is that the Bad Guy does. Like Duel, the film concludes with another brilliantly choreographed showdown (this time in the cruel sea) but one which this time explores and tests the Schneider character who, in completing his bloody task against another unnamed and ruthlessly mechanistic antagonist, returns exposed, exhausted and somewhat luckily to his waiting family.

With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, (Columbia, 1977) Spielberg had the technical and production resources of one who had effectively become one of Hollywood’s most successful directors (It also set a strategic trend in the coming years of successfully setting up blockbuster successes with each of the Hollywood Studios). It is said that CETK was written for Steve McQueen but the actor backed away on the grounds that he couldn’t cry on cue. It is a telling insight into the male protagonist - as designed by Spielberg - who commands the film’s center stage dramatic focus. Played eventually by Jaws colleague Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Neary is another family man under pressure. The arrival of the aliens generates a profound uncertainty in his life’s mise-en-scene to the point where he becomes increasingly distanced and at times threatening to his own wife and children; the rubbish and clay mountain that he builds in the center of their suburban home both foreshadows the location of the alien arrival (Devils Peak) and testifies to his failure to communicate via the usual channels - in other words, the silent muteness of the menacing truck in both Duel and Jaws is now transferred to the home loving father figure. There is so much there that can’t be put into mere words.

The two films that followed CETK were both based in the Second World War. Despite its critical mauling and weary box office, 1941 (1982) can be seen today as a precursor of everything that did go right in the film that followed - Raiders of the Lost Ark of 1983. As we shall note, the historical moment under playful scrutiny in these films had resonance in a filmmaker whose father - Arnold Spielberg - had made his own color 8mm films while stationed in Burma during that same war.

While Spielberg’s actual father plays an unseen influential significance in these expansive B-feature films, the sinister representation of the dominant male figure becomes explicit in ET, the Extra Terrestrial of 1983. In contrast to Jaws and CETK, the suburban home has everything except a father. Shots of male characters (even school teachers) are restricted to hands, feet and threatening keys that intrude in the night to trouble the young Eliot.  Into this gap comes ET, himself a lost soul from outer space with just one aim - to go home. His time on Earth, however, brought the intervention of scientist Keys/Peter Coyote whose place in the closing family frame in a sense completes what was the dysfunctional homestead.

The motif of the isolated mute alien recurs three years later with Spielberg’s rendition of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, 1985. Celie Harris Johnson played by Whoopi Goldberg is, thrust into a grim forced marriage but finds expressive release via a series of letter exchanges with her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia). It is in one of these scenes - that cross-cut from the U.S. to Africa - that Spielberg references another father figure, this time a famed director of some influential significance - David Lean. In celebratory documentaries on Lean, Spielberg has articulated brilliantly on what specific ways former Film Editor and then Director Lean would merge one scene into the next using a sound match-cut - in Dr. Zhivago, 1965, for example, Spielberg would pinpoint the moment a laboratory instrument would hit into a receptacle and how that clink! would be matched instantly by Lean to a close-up cut of an urban train leaving a stop in the street outside. Precisely the same effect is achieved by  Spielberg himself in The Color Purple as he employs the sound of raindrops in the U.S (as falling into well placed buckets) to match the beat and rhythm of jungle drums in the African scene that follows. Unlike Lean, though, it could be argued as a critique that the technician in Spielberg has arranged the elaborate mise en scene so that such a cut with subtle reference and homage to Lean can be made in the first instance.

Passing reference to Spielberg’s own father as a soldier in the Second World War has already been made. Little wonder that air pilots and a fascination for dare devil flying (as in 1941) would emerge in the late 1980s with two films - another novel adaptation Empire of the Sun, 1987 and Always, 1989, a remake of A Guy Named Joe, and which starred Audrey Hepburn in her last role. In Always pilot, Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss) has actually died a hero. His appearance throughout the film is, once again, that of a liminal figure, a character’s ghostly function that becomes increasingly father-like, both here and not here at the same time.

By 1993 (after Hook, 1991) Spielberg was to undertake perhaps the most challenging creative and production period of his life. He had already filmed Jurassic Park (this time a whole family in peril) but was now editing it at night while during the day filming what would become his major seven times Oscar winner - Schindler’s List - in Poland. In terms of an artist’s creative arc, the choice of material was timely. It was the first time Spielberg requested that actors don Nazi uniforms in earnest, and the first time he left his storyboards behind. Critics wondered how the director of Raiders of the Lost Ark could tackle the Holocaust, and the vivid answer, for anyone with eyes in their head, is in the climactic end of that film where the Nazi paratroopers are cruelly subjected to the unforgiving fire and gas of a Jewish director. While 1941 was based on comic historical assumptions and extravagant technical play, Schindlers’s List was rooted in grim historical fact, as mirrored in the stark black and white visual design and a vivid sense of documentary immediacy. It also contrasted two father figures - the superego/savior Schindler and his erratic vicious Id counterpart SS-Lieutenant Amon Goeth played by Ralph Fiennes. But even here, in the midst of this challenging material, Spielberg could not resist two characteristic distancing maneuvers; what, people asked, was the significance of the Girl in Red? And how to explain the prolonged and agonizing exhibition of panic and rising despair by naked men and women inside a gas chamber which, at the last minute, turns out to be a shower room after all. The great manipulative designer that was Spiel-berg could not resist flourishing his technical expertise and grasp of narrative spin even here. A genuine maturity of vision and humble respect for the film art was yet to prove itself, despite the seven Oscars that were to follow.

While Schindlers’ List gave testimony as to why a war against Nazism needed t be fought, Spielberg’s next account of the Second World War, Saving Private Ryan of 1998, highlighted those ordinary GI Joes from the United States who, from 1941,  actually fought that war. As the last surviving brother of three, it is thought best by U.S. war administrators that Ryan (Matt Damon) should be pulled out of the war zone in Northern Europe.  Leading the task group is United States Army Rangers Captain John H. Miller (played by Tom Hanks) who emerges as an English Literature teacher and father. The film closes with his final battle sacrifice to Ryan who must now “Earn it” in the peace dividend that, for the Baby Boomers, is to come. It is at this point that Spielberg is webbing fictional genre elements ever closer to some reconciliation with the lost and ambiguous father figure - the one who has been absent has returned to the fold to seek out and selflessly secure the life of a lost if nominal son.

These tropes - the lost absent father, the lost and trapped muted soul - would resound and forcefully combine in the next Spielberg-Hanks collaboration that was the narrative-lite The Terminal four years later. Based on a true story, Hanks plays East European Viktor Navorski who falls into a diplomatic and bureaucratic vortex of frustration and confusion when he is compelled to live out his days as a liminal character at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport . In many ways we have a replay of E.T, with Navorski having to negotiate his way through the airport’s linguistic and culture mix in the hope of beaming back home not to outer space but, in this instance, to Bulgaria. Additionally, and in echoes of Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Novorski’s inability to converse effectively with the airport authorities also thrusts him into an alternative, more creative, display of communication when he magically concocts the visionary wall mural. And, like ET, his touches of genuine assistance and care for airport staff turn their steel and glass work environment into a magical village of collaborative neighborliness of a kind not seen since Snow White met the dirty dwarves.

Spielberg’s collaboration with another A-star actor, this time, Tom Cruise in Minority Report in 2002 would extend to their remake of War of the Worlds in 2005. The film posits Cruise as Ray Ferrier, a divorced dock worker estranged from his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) and wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto). His character arc begins as an indifferent father who, when he and his children are threatened by the invading force, turns into a protective loving father who returns his son back safely to the arms of his estranged wife (the fact that Cruise was himself up against the ropes after his unseemly divorce from Nicole Kidman may be reason enough to use this aspect of the film to platform his own fatherly prowess to the watching world).

Leaving aside Tin Tin (2011) this leads us finally to War Horse, 2011. Nominated for six Oscars and understandably winning none, Spielberg’ filmic version of the sensational theatrical powerhouse was nothing less than dreadful - an uncomfortable leap backwards in every creative respect. Signs of despair could be noted in the director’s heavy referencing of past Great Directors - Ford (The Quiet Man, 1955) and Lean again (Dr. Zhivago). Even the extended blood red horizons echoed Gone with the Wind, 1939. But given the track record etched above we can perhaps see why Spielberg was eager to mount such a questionable project that had at its dramatic focus a (male) animal as its muted, linguistically stunted protagonist.

The royal road to an accommodation with the father was suddenly severely blocked, curtailed, ignored, or perhaps put on hold.

As the critics of the French New Wave asserted back in the 1950s, a true director/artist emerges through a body of work/films that, irrespective of surface narrative features or genre choices, repeat and enhance - with applied self-critical intelligence - certain common themes and motifs that suggest and articulate in time a nuanced personal vision. In this respect, and in this respect only, Howard Hawks, another successful Hollywood director-producer hybrid across a range of genres, can be bracketed with our director under question.

The question is, though, at what point has Spielberg, at the age of 65, been able to come to professional and personal terms with those core personal motifs that have motivated his choice of film material since 1971 and which have been outlined above?

The choice of selecting the painfully isolated master rhetor Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S President, suggests a director who is fully aware of the creative and personal challenges inherent in the given material.  The character of Lincoln (a saving Schindler to the broken American soul) offers up an opportunity for a director to articulate more fully than he has ever done before his often ambiguous relationship with the male protagonist.

Furthermore, the choice of protagonist in this historical instance has even sharper significance when, given his central role in forging the unified post-Civil War national identity, Lincoln is figured so prominently in the U.S 20th Century national consciousness as that nation’s father.

To be continued….

Dr. Alan Taylor is an accredited member of the International Federation of Journalists and academic book author. He is a graduate of the Universities of Keele, London, Oxford, Mainz and the London Film School. He has a home base in Berlin, Germany, and a work base in South Africa where he lectures as Professor in Film in Research Methodology, Film Theory and Motion Picture Production at the Tshwane University of Technology Film Programme, Tshwane. 

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