I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know who Steven Spielberg was. He was there when I was a boy of only six, watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the very first time, in secret, because my parents wouldn’t dream of allowing me to watch a PG-rated movie at that age. My aunt, the “cool” relative to us kids in all kinds of ways—a former model turned business owner, living in LA, fabulously rich, mysteriously chic, childless by choice—showed it to us when we spent the night at her house in the early ‘80s on a fancy new BetaMax player. As a sheltered religious kid whose media diet consisted almost entirely of SportsCenter and the “Greatest Heroes of the Bible” made-for-TV movies, it was, to put it lightly, a fairly mind-blowing experience: I was hooked from the first frames through the final credits. I didn’t know a thing about tracking shots, composition, or visual framing, I only knew I wanted this film in my brain forever. I stayed up late to watch it a second time that night and then begged my aunt and uncle to let me watch it again the following morning. I drank in every detail of it, my little mind utterly taken by Indiana Jones—and, by extension, Steven Spielberg. And, though I wouldn’t see another film of his for years, Spielberg’s name was permanently etched into my brain, forever associated with adventure, excitement, and joy.
Fifteen years later, I was fully immersed in a life of movies—finishing up a film degree and working at quite possibly the coolest video store on the planet. My days were spent watching and analyzing all kinds of films, while my nights were mostly filled by amicable debates with customers and fellow employees about the virtues and merits of various films and filmmakers. It really, truly was one of the most enjoyable times of my life. But I learned quickly—both in film school and at work—that it was basically unacceptable to publicly proclaim any affection for Steven Spielberg. In the entirety of my college coursework, we never screened a Spielberg film; at work, despite having directed Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan by that point, he was denied his own director’s section (by way of comparison, David O. Russell, who had directed all of three films at the time, had one). On one hand, I understood—he was a master craftsman, but rarely “cool,” an old school director who was willing to sacrifice ‘edginess’ for heartstrings, artistic depth for the sake of mainstream appeal—but a part of me was baffled. Even back then, I firmly believed we needed our Scorseses, Altmans, Malicks and Spielbergs. That American cinema was made stronger by artists and entertainers—and that Spielberg had his finger on the American pulse as much as, if not more than, any working filmmaker. But I was in the minority, and I mostly kept my mouth shut. (Thankfully though, the store added a Spielberg section shortly before I left.)
It’s an interesting thing, this continual backlash against Spielberg. And this issue doesn’t shy away from that—our writers have all kinds of feelings, good and bad, about the filmmaker—and we’re proud to publish a diversity of voices this month. Gray Hendryx looks at the wanderlust that nearly unraveled her adult life through the prism of her childhood obsession with Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Charlotte Orzel uses the morality and ethics behind Bridge of Spies to better understand her own relationships; Joel Blackledge recalls the excitement he felt upon leaving the theater after A.I., and how it set off his lifelong interest in ‘a cinema of the future’; Brian Doan explores his shifting feelings on Empire of the Sun over the past 30 years, a film which initially bored him when he first saw it as a teenager, but which he now holds up as one of Spielberg’s finest; Miranda Dubner imagines Raiders of the Lost Ark from Marion Ravenwood’s point of view. But then comes the criticism: Valerie Kalfrin praises Spielberg’s filmmaking abilities but attacks his career long tendency to ‘play largely in a sandbox where boys rule’; Fedor Tot explores the notion of Spielberg as America’s most popular historian, and the dangers inherent in the ‘security blanket’ he offers audiences; Arielle Greenberg takes Sugarland Express and its mythmaking to task in light of the recent violence and general political climate in America.
At the end of the issue, we move away from Spielberg and into the present—something we’ll likely start doing more and more moving forward. While we still love the notion of focusing each issue around a particular theme, we want to continue to find ways to open up space for the present cultural moment, both on film and in television. So, this month’s issue will be capped with two pieces we’re proud to feature: pop culture writer extraordinaire Soraya Roberts on the duality of Christian Slater, from Heathers to Mr. Robot, and comedian Fran Hoepfner’s look at the recent film Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and the art of constructing a joke.
Recently, Spielberg mentioned something to an interviewer that gets right to the heart of so much of what this issue is all about:
“The amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie, not necessarily one of my movies, brings a whole set of unique experiences. Now, through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time. But you can’t get everybody to interpret the result in the same way. And that’s thrilling to know—that everybody will see it differently.”
It’s a fascinating, telling quote in all kinds of ways, speaking both to a filmmaker’s ability to manipulate an audience and the limits of that control, given the variety of outside influence that each one of us brings to our viewing experience. Spielberg is a master craftsman, with more than fifty years of filmmaking under his belt at this point (he literally won an award for making a 40 minute war film at age 13). He knows how to make you feel things. But what you do with those feelings—and how you feel about the man behind the curtain who you know is trying to make you feel them—well, that’s up to you.