Director, Producer, Writer and Philanthropist; the master of populist movie making and storytelling, who when moved to do so is also able to make thoughtful, intelligent films on the more disturbing corners of society’s past.
Since 1975, when he unleashed the psycho fish ‘Jaws’ on the world he has thrilled audiences the world over with his formula of ground breaking spectacle married to old fashioned yarn spinning. Not only that but he has also made fortunes for himself and the studios that have supported him.
For decades it has been an accepted truth that Steven Spielberg is the “King of Hollywood”, the question is what is his legacy?
It’s through his helming of large scale fantasy and adventure films that the man with the beard built his reputation. He cut his teeth on TV movies; most notably the brilliant and suspense filled ‘Duel.’ He stalled with ‘Sugarland Express’, which though critically well received made little money; but then came ‘Jaws’.
‘Jaws’ not only made Spielberg a household name and millionaire many times over but it also injected Hollywood with the adrenaline shot it needed in order to get back up on its feet and start fighting back against the vicious pounding Television had been doling out for ten years or so.
A B-movie with an A-list budget, Jaws was a worldwide smash. The simple and sensational story line of ‘Man versus Beast’, coupled with pioneering special effects captivated our imagination and subconscious fears in equal measure and transformed them into dollars. Lots and lots of dollars.
Up until then, 70s Hollywood had been in direct competition with Television. A happy side effect of this was that it was producing challenging movies from politically and socially aware directors like Scorsese, Altman, Peckinpah and Coppola. It was a time of artistic integrity and movies that did OK business.
‘Jaws’ changed everything. The suits realised they could make heaps of cashola by producing escapist fantasy high on visual stimulation, instead of relatively small amounts through gritty realism and social commentary.
Despite being an extremely well written and crafted movie, Jaws’ success created the blue print for the concept of the modern summer blockbuster, big on special effects and crammed with one dimensional character and plot.
Having set these events in motion Spielberg went onto make little films like ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Proving beyond doubt that he was a veritable money making machine; even ‘1941’ (considered a big failure) made 3 times its budget.
This Midas touch was not just limited to Directing either. Just taking a look at his writing or producing credits will bring a tear to the eye of any film student wanting to take a crack at the big time. A glimpse of what he executively produced will bring on a full blown panic attack, having a hand in the ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Austin Powers’ and ‘Transformers’ franchises, to name only a very few.
By directing the ‘Colour People’, ‘Amistad’ (another profitable failure) and of course the remarkable ‘Schindler’s List’, where he managed to combine the art house with the multiplex by producing a black and white biopic about the holocaust and still make over 300 million dollars; Spielberg was also able to show a more sensitive and artistic side.
Not everybody is a fan though. His commercial touch and sensibilities have often lead to accusations of sentimentality and schmaltz (not least of all by me); sugar coating life’s more perplexing and difficult questions with easy and comforting answers.
So, he is an Oscar winning, critically lauded director of insanely profitable films, who with his second ever film re-invigorated Hollywood by creating the modern American summer blockbuster.
He is also one of the most successful film producers in Lala Land history and makes ground breaking television and lucrative video games. I forgot to mention that ‘Band of Brothers’ and’ Medal of Honour’ didn’t I?
There is no doubt that people are always going to love the films of Spielberg, his line of heart-warming nostalgia and sentimentality will work in the future for the same reasons they work now: they make people feel safe and warm in a world that is in actuality weird, violent and ultimately unquantifiable.
He gets away with pushing our buttons in this way because they are his buttons too. This is the ultimate artist of sentiment and wishful thinking, expressing himself in the only way he knows how. You or I may not like this expression but we can’t doubt its integrity.
He is however the major catalyst for the predictable and mindless excretia that passes for a lot of cinema these days. We can’t really blame for this though, it wasn’t intentional, he was just making the films that he wanted to make in the way he wanted to make them.
I have no doubt that Spielberg will be loved by future generations as much as he is now. In fact his legend will surely grow and if humans are still pottering about in 200 years time, he will be seen as a pioneer and more so than whoever came before the absolute Master of his craft.
And I don’t even like him that much.