Few film-makers or artists have shaped popular culture since the 1970s as much as Steven Spielberg. His work can be divided into two categories: fantastic adventure films for the whole family, such as E.T., Jurassic Park, Tin-tin, and serious adult-oriented dramas about important historical issues (The Color Purple, Empire of The Sun, Schindler's List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, War Horse, and the upcoming Lincoln). Commercial hits in the first category, and critically acclaimed are in the second.
Spielberg's Styles and Themes
Spielberg's main stylistic and thematic concerns cuts across these categories. For example, the intense and fearful exhilaration created by a freely and rapidly moving camera is central to sequences employing hand-held cameras and aerial shots in Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Empire of the Sun, as well as to the roller-coaster rides depicted in the Indiana Jones films. Soft focus cinematography, eerie lightening, lush colors can be found in The Color Purple and Empire of The Sun as well as in the E.T. and Close Encounters of The Third Kind. Suspense and extreme physical violence are at the heart of Jaws, Indiana Jones as well as all of Spielberg's serious dramas.
On a thematic level, problematic father-figures -- weak, absent, abusive or irresponsible -- can be found in Jaws, Close Encounters, The Color Purple, Hook, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and Schindler's List. Children's experiences, often presented from a child's point of view, are also central to many of these films. Slavery is the subject of both Temple of Doom and Amistad. The moral weakness, corruption even, of authority figures due to greed or power lust is as central to Jaws and 1941 as it is to Amistad and Schindler's List. The rise of fascism and/or the Second World War are the focus of 1941, the Indiana Jones films, Empire of The Sun, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.
Spirituality And Religious Mythology
Whilst Schindler's List and Munich is usually perceived as Spielberg's coming to terms with Jewish history and religion, the three Indiana Jones films deal with religious mythology (Jewish, Hinduism, and Christianity), and both Close Encounters and E.T. can be understood as messianic pictures (on the surface, E.T. would appear to have a distinctly Christian flavor, with E.T. as a Christ-like figure). In any case, almost all Spielberg films, whether fantasy-adventure or serious-drama, culminate in scenes of redemption and/or spiritual renewal (which may come in life or death).
There is, for example, the final union of Quint wit the 'great white one' in Jaws, the ascension of Roy Neary in Close Encounters, the sparing of Indy and Marion during the climactic opening of the ark Raiders of The Lost Ark, Albert's redemptive actions and the lifting of Celie's curse in The Color Purple, and the final cemetery scene cherishing the life, and mourning the death, of a 'righteous' man both in Schindler's List and in Saving Private Ryan.
All-American Fairy Tales and Myths
Spielberg's most complex and fully realized films are not the Academy Award winning dramas Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, but his biggest hits, the fantasy adventures E.T. and Jaws. While seemingly simplistic, special effects-driven, all-American and cloyingly sentimental, Spielberg's most popular fantasy adventures are in fact complexly structured stories and spectacles focusing on child-like or rejuvenated characters, placed in archetypal situations that resonate deeply across cultural, social and political boundaries and provoke experiences which at their best are incredibly exciting, deeply emotional and indeed spiritual.
In other words, Spielberg is a modern myth-maker. Like the Star Wars films of friend and collaborator George Lucas, Spielberg's fantasy adventures have brought a contemporary perspective and cutting-edge technology to the fairy-tales, myths and religious tales which underpin (not only) western civilization, and updated these ancient stories for the latest generation, with movie theaters functioning as modern temples and cathedrals. At the same time, of course, Spielberg has also used the movie theater as a forum for public debate of important issues in western history, ranging from slavery to the Holocaust.
War And Historical Epics
Spielberg has explicitly stated that he admires David Lean, probably more than any other film-maker. Like David Lean, Spielberg has also produced a string of historical epics, which depict their central characters' emotional and spiritual growth in turbulent times, most notably during the Second World War (in Empire of The Sun, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) and First World War (in War Horse).
From the start of his career, Spielberg's film-making had been concerned with the Second World War (for example, his 1960 8mm film Fighter Squad); he returned to this preoccupation many times before making his 'serious' historical epics. The war is the backdrop or at least an important reference point in Raiders of The Lost Ark, the slapstick comedy 1941. Jaws contains a indirect, yet crucial reference to the war: Quint's Indianapolis speech, which links the events of the summer of the 1975 depicted in the film to the delivery of the atom bomb to Japan exactly thirty years earlier, and adds important historical resonance to the film's events.
Spielberg's films are also centrally concerned with ethnicity and race. This is most obviously the case in Schindler's List and Munich, which deals with Holocaust and systematic murders of Jews, and in Amistad, which looks at the international trade in slaves from Africa in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the background for the sexual oppression of black women in The Color Purple is provided by an extremely oppressive racist society, exemplified by the treatment received by Sophia (Oprah Winfrey).
Revitalization of Hollywood Cinema
By using the movie theater as a highly public, yet also deeply mythical site of sensual stimulation, emotional release, spiritual renewal and political debate, Spielberg has revitalized Hollywood cinema, returning it to the center of contemporary culture, from which it had previously been displaced by broadcasting and other cultural industries. Hollywood movies are the primary products of a range of new media delivery systems, and their theatrical releases serves as the launch-pad for a vast array of product lines and other commercial tie-ins and promotions.
Spielberg, who was making movies since the mid 70s, is one of the reasons for the growth of this industry, and his media company (Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks Skg) will be a key corporate player in the cutting-edge industries of the future generation. DreamWorks, formed in 1994 by Spielberg with ex-Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and music mogul David Geffen, is the new major Hollywood studio since the 1930s.
Steven Spielberg is a spiritual universalist, a socially concerned citizen of the world and possibly the greatest entertainer of the last four decades, a great stylist and successful entrepreneur. In his work, Spielberg combined two dominant traditions in Hollywood film-making, namely the tradition of family entertainment, which is best exemplified by the work of Walt Disney, and the tradition of historical epics, the last master of which was Spielberg's idol David Lean. While Spielberg, the film-maker, is thus a cross between Disney and Lean, he is also a movie mogul of Hollywood.