American Literature C Block
Research Paper: Final Draft
18 May, 1999
Steven Spielberg: Revolutionary and Visionary
Who would have thought that a brilliant career in filmmaking could have originated with a modest jar of Skippy Peanut Butter smeared on a neighbor’s window in a tiny Cincinnati suburb? One might not think that such an average boyhood prank could evolve a boy into a man who would become the most financially successful film director in history. Well, that is exactly where Leah Spielberg, Steven Spielberg’s mother, would trace her son’s initial entry into becoming one of our nation’s most creative storytellers. ?His badness was so original,? she recalls (Stein 3).
Steven Spielberg, the only child of Leah and Arnold Spielberg, was born on December 18, 1946 at the beginning of the Baby Boom years in Cincinnati, Ohio. It does not take a great stretch of the imagination to see that Steven’s film influences were derived from his father’s experience as a World War II veteran and computer technician and his mother’s past profession as a concert pianist. The love and amount of technology, history, and music within Steven’s films can all be traced back to his early life with his family.
While many men returning from war never want to reiterate their experiences, Steven’s father seemed to be an exception. Steven said of his father, ? he intoxicated me with bedtime stories about the war. His stories were like the war movies I was watching on television, all worthy of cameo appearances by John Wayne? (Stein 1). It is no wonder that at the age of twelve Steven’s first film, Fighter Squad, was filmed on a WWII fighter plane (Corliss 79). However, when Steven was unable to find certain props or realistic backdrops, he simulated dogfights and plane crashes by editing in footage from a WWII documentary. Only a year later, in 1960, he featured the war family Jeep in his second film, Escape to Nowhere, which was an action picture in which GIs invaded a Nazi hideout in the Libyan Desert. Since his family had moved to Arizona in 1960, the Arizona desert near his house would easily replicate the simulation of the Libyan Desert. It is clear that Steven’s love and knowledge of visual effects began many years before his creation of a mechanical great white shark in 1975. There have been many incidents throughout Steven’s childhood that have made it into his films.
At the age of six, Steven’s father awoke him to witness a meteor shower in the middle of the night (Stein 2). In time this event would also find its way into his 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The grin of a clown, a deadly tree outside a window, and being afraid at night, all out of 1982’s Poltergeist, were all born out of Steven’s real childhood phobias (5). Influence for films such as 1993’s Academy Award winning drama/documentary Schindler’s List could be attributed Steven growing up in a Jewish family. Steven has recalled that during his days in school he felt discriminated from others for being apart of the only Jewish family within the whole community (Graham 530). During the Christmas season, he would be embarrassed that his family’s house would be the only one without lights or decorations. When his father offered to place a menorah in the window, Steven responded, ?No!?People will think we’re Jewish? (Graham 528).
Steven has claimed to have learned his numbers as a toddler with the help of a concentration camp survivor who pointed out the numerals tattooed on his arm. However, it was at high school, where he was first exposed to anti-Semitic behavior. He would suffer verbal and sometimes physical abuse from other students. Making movies was definitely an escape for Steven who told the New York Post, ?I enjoy the sense of being transported and no longer thinking anyone is in the audience? (529).
?Nearly three years after finishing Escape to Nowhere, he made his first feature-length film Firelight. It was a two-and-a-half-hour science fiction epic about an investigation of mysterious lights in the sky. However, it was also a look at a rocky marriage. Could the couple within the film have been Arnold and Leah who divorced when Steven was nineteen? Although Steven disregarded it as a terrible film, it was a commercial success. After his family had hired a local movie theatre to screen it, it earned back its entire 500-dollar budget in one night.? (Stein 7)
Throughout high school, Steven did not receive grades one might call ?Harvard quality.? Because of this, he was not accepted to any film schools. Therefore, he later enrolled in California State College where he majored in English. In his spare time, he studied films and spent a lot of time trying to get into the parking lots of motion picture studios in an attempt to get producers to look into his films. Unfortunately, the studios would not budge. It would not be until Sidney Sheinherg, head of television at Universal Studios, caught a glimpse of Steven’s twenty-five minute road movie, Amblin. After seeing it, Sheinherg offered Steven a seven-year contract to direct television episodes.
He would go on to direct episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., Columbo, and The Name of the Game (Corliss 80). Eventually Universal assigned Steven to his first made-for-television film, Duel. Showing off his skills at editing and creating heart-stomping action sequences, the film was well received critically. Pauline Kael of the New Yorker writes, ?it is one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies? (Graham 531) Many critics still consider it ?the best American television movie ever made? (529). Due to the film’s success overseas, Universal Studios handed Steven the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s popular novel Jaws, a story of a great white shark terrorizing a seaside community. The film, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider, broke ground in many ways. Aside from eclipsing every box office record at the time, it broke ground in visual effects, constructing a mechanical, remote-controlled replica of a great white shark. Steven reflects back on 1975 during the shooting of Jaws, ?it was the loneliest time of my life. Jaws exacerbates the loneliness by the sheer size of the Atlantic Ocean and the challenge of shooting a complete motion picture on the water? (Corliss 78). Gary Arnold wrote of Jaws, ?There has never been an adventure-thriller quite as terrifying yet enjoyable as Jaws, and it should set the standard in its field for many years to come? (Graham 529). And that it did. The film would set the standard in the thriller genre with films like John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher Halloween. Replace the seaside community with Haddenfield, Illinois and the shark with ?Michael Myers? and you have a prime example of the ?Jaws? influence. Not only influencing the genre, the film had a lasting affect on ordinary moviegoers alike. Betty Martinelle, your average film fan recalls at the time, ?although it probably didn’t keep most people out of the water that summer, there’s hardly a person around that didn’t at least take a good glance at the water before going in? (Martinelle). Aside from establishing himself as Hollywood’s director to watch out for, Jaws marked his first time collaborating with composer and former head of the Boston Pops, John Williams. He created the now famous two-note theme to the movie as well as doing the scores for everyone of Steven’s films to come afterward. Grossing well over 200 million dollars, Jaws created the concept of the ?summer movie blockbuster.?
Coming off the phenomenal success of Jaws, Steven went back to his passion for science fiction with 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film, which Steven both wrote and directed, focuses on an alien-obsessed family man played by Richard Dreyfuss and his fascination with alien spaceships. ?It’s a movie for people who like to use their imaginations,? he told Film Comment (Graham 530). Stanley Kaufman described the film’s finale as ?one of the most overpowering, sheerly cinematic experiences I can remember? (529). Having released his second box office smash in a row, Steven also earned his first Oscar nomination as well. Unfortunately, he would lose in what would be the beginning of an Oscar losing streak.
This time period would also mark his meeting and collaboration with another director whom he met at a film festival, George Lucas. ?Steven saw Lucas as both compadre and competition? (Empire 5). The two would develop a close friendship over the years that stands to this day and would collaborate on many projects. Steven would be the executive producer on Lucas’s 1977 mega-hit, Star Wars. The film would even gross more money than that of Spielberg’s own Jaws.
It was in 1981, however, that Lucas and Spielberg would collaborate on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Aside from making the lead character Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, the biggest action hero in American cinema next to James Bond, the film was nothing short of non-stop entertainment and suspense. ?Raiders puts people in the same place that made me want to make movies as a child, which wanting to enthrall, entertain, take people out of their seats to get them involved in the kind of dialogue with the picture you’ve made. They’re just a lot of fun to make? (Graham 530). Grossing around 300 million dollars and spawning two sequels, it earned Steven his second Oscar nomination for Best Director. While ?Raiders? gave him the reputation as the master of action sequences, it would not be until later on that he would be taken as a serious film director.
Following ?Raiders,? Steven released what he calls his most personal film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, in 1982. The film, starring a then young Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore, told the story of an alien and his friendship with a young boy after being left behind by his spaceship. At the time, Steven revealed to the Harper Bazaar, ?the movie is about how I felt when my parents broke up? (Corliss 78). In the words of a USA Today columnist after E.T.’s release, ?Steven is the first director since Alfred Hitchcock to become a household name? (Graham 530). In addition to earning Steven yet another Oscar nomination which he lost again, E.T. grossed nearly 400 million dollars beating fellow buddy Lucas’s blockbuster, Star Wars.
Because Steven was always interested in so many projects, he was never able to attend to all of those he wished. Thus, in 1984, he founded his own production company, Amblin Entertainment. The result would be a number of great films including Gremlins, The Back to the Future Trilogy, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Growing tired of creating action packed stereotypical Spielberg pictures, in 1985 Steven made his first attempt at serious filmmaking, The Color Purple. The story evolved around a woman, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who is oppressed by the men around her. The film, though received by most as deeply moving, received criticism for what some called ?insensitivity to the realities of poverty, brutality, and black experience? (Graham 531). The film made Whoopi Goldberg into huge star and earned eleven Academy Award nominations. Ironically, Steven was snubbed for Best Director and the film failed to win one award in what would mark the beginning of the Academy’s reputation for disregarding films that deal with African-American culture. His first attempt at serious filmmaking would lead to 1987’s Empire of the Sun, a film about a British boy’s experience within a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. Once again, his father’s influence showed up on screen. Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple would be among Steven’s least commercially successful efforts.
In an attempt to rebound off of 1991’s box office flop, Hook, Steven released in the summer of 1993 what would become at the time the most successful film in the history of American cinema. When Jurassic Park was released, Steven made us believe that dinosaurs existed through the use of digital effects on computers. Astounding crowds with trademark Spielberg action, the film’s gross would not be toppled until the 1997 winter release of James Cameron’s historical epic Titanic.
During the shoot of Jurassic Park, Steven began work on another project, Schindler’s List, which would become his most critical success of his career. Schindler’s List is the true story of Oskar Schindler who saved over one thousand Jews from certain death by employing them in his factory during World War II. One writer for Newsweek noted, ?this movie will shatter you, but it earns its tears honestly? (Corliss 81). The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won seven including Best Picture and finally after all the rejections, Steven won his first Oscar for Best Director. In 1997 when the American Film Institute announced the ?100 Greatest Films of All Time,? five of Steven’s films were among them including Schindler’s List which ranked at number nine. Following the production of the film, in 1994 Steven founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which recorded oral histories of Holocaust survivors. He then followed that up with the Righteous Persons Foundation, which provided grants for Jewish groups and causes.
After taking a three-year break from film making, Steven returned in 1997 with a not surprising follow-up to 1993’s Jurassic Park entitled The Lost World. Despite the film’s commercial success, the film has been regarded as the worst work of Steven’s career. Even Steven himself has noted that the film was made because he knew that it would be a huge blockbuster.
Later that same year, he released the drama Amistad, the true story of African-American men’s struggle for freedom aboard the slave ship ?La Amistad.? Even though the film was named as one of the best pictures of the year by critics throughout the country, the film failed to receive any Oscar recognition which some might attribute to the Academy’s reputation of, once again, disregarding films that deal with African-Americans and their culture.
Most recently in 1998, Steven released the World War II drama Saving Private Ryan which single-handedly redefined the term ?movie violence.? Creating what some may call the most graphic and realistic war movie ever made, Steven made the film as a tribute to his father and dedicated it to him after receiving his second Oscar at the seventy-first Annual Academy Awards. People were taught that war is no laughing matter.
Steven Spielberg’s films have left us with so much to remember. From the horrors of Auschwitz to the image of a boy on a bicycle, sillouhetted against the moon, his films have sketched images in our minds we are unable to forget. His influence upon mainstream Hollywood directing is more than evident. Whether it be making us reflect on past tragedies or teaching us that differences should be celebrated aside from being just recognized, his methods of storytelling have established him as more than just a wonderful film director, but as a great humanitarian.
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Drama ?Saving Private Ryan’ salutes the ?citizen soldier of WWII’.? L.A. Times 10, May 1998: 4/13/99 http://www.multimania.com/spielbrg
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