Will Spielberg take a walk on the wild side?

Spielberg, being the most attuned of his generation to the mojo of Hollywood, was naturally the director who most wholeheartedly fell into the prestige trap.
Special to The Times

Steven Spielberg, who at 22 was hired by Universal to a long-term contract, started out his career as the teacher’s pet of the Movie Brat generation. With the unveiling of his first Indiana Jones escapade in 19 years today at Cannes, he’s proffering yet another polished apple.

It’s been something of a class reunion lately. Francis Coppola made his first film in 10 years, “Youth Without Youth,” a muddled mood-memory fantasia that attempted to recapitulate the handmade approach of his “Rain People” days. Martin Scorsese brought out his Rolling Stones documentary “Shine a Light,” which hearkened back to his apprenticeship as editor of rock documentaries such as “Woodstock.” Brian De Palma made his Iraqi docu-thingamajig “Redacted,” which, in its shape-shifty experimentalism, recalled his earliest, French New Wave-influenced movies such as “The Wedding Party” and “Hi, Mom.”

And now Spielberg is set to deliver the biggest blast from the past yet. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is not exactly the movie you might expect to follow “Munich.” But then again, he once shuttled between “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park.” Of his contemporaries, Spielberg has probably undergone the greatest sea change throughout his career. The “Indiana Jones” franchise, like the “Jurassic Park” movies, are a palate cleanser for him -- a cackle in between epic kvells. For this teacher’s pet, the class syllabus changed a long time ago.

The directors of Spielberg’s generation who came up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, many of them film-school-trained, were the first in America to push their encyclopedic passion for movies right into the forefront of their work. Their rebellion against Old Hollywood was essentially a pose, since directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra were mainstays of their mindscapes. Old movies functioned for these filmmakers as primary experiences -- touchstones of inspiration -- in the same way that poetry or literature might have functioned for an earlier generation of artists.

Not all of the movie references were drawn from favorite Hollywood films. De Palma had his Godard phase before he entered his Hitchcock phase; Coppola drew heavily on Visconti’s “The Leopard” (for “The Godfather”) and Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (for “The Conversation”). Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” is blood brother to Fellini’s “I Vitelloni” and owes a debt to the scruffy, free-form spirit of the John Cassavetes indies. Even George Lucas, in his chilly debut feature, “THX 1138,” piled on the art-house references to Jean Cocteau (“Blood of a Poet”) and Carl Theodore Dreyer (“The Passion of Joan of Arc”).

Spielberg, however, came from a somewhat different place. He never officially attended a major film school. His heroes were the big-picture guys like David Lean and Stanley Kubrick or versatile old studio hands like Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming -- directors who could be counted on to deliver reliable commercial entertainment (and sometimes more than that). While many of his ‘70s confederates, who also were to include such directors as Terrence Malick, Jonathan Demme and Philip Kaufman, were attempting to work outside the industry, or subvert it from within through sheer force of artistry, Spielberg was directing episodes of “Night Gallery” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and then moving on to sharks and flying saucers.

In the more “serious” film circles, his prodigious filmmaking skills were held against him as proof that he lacked substance. Even Pauline Kael, his most ardent critical champion early on, wrote of his uncommonly touching first feature “The Sugarland Express”: “Maybe Spielberg loves action and comedy and speed so much that he really doesn’t care if a movie has anything else in it. . . . I can’t tell if he has any mind, or even a strong personality, but then a lot of good movie-makers have got by without being profound.”

Resenting Mr. Blockbuster

AND OF course, as Spielberg began to rake in the riches, this was held against him too. It has always been a truism of popular culture, no more so than in the ‘70s, that artistry and commercial success are mutually exclusive. And where exceptions to this rule were made, as in the case of “The Godfather” films, it was because they were recognized as gangster films in name only. They were really about the corruption of the American dream. Spielberg’s early movies are rife with broken families and intimations of child abandonment, but they are glittery baubles when placed beside the dungeon-like Coppola and Scorsese pictures (especially “The Godfather” films, “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”) with their floridly Catholic sense of sin and redemption. Spielberg, by comparison, at least up through “The Color Purple,” specialized in uplift, in the exaltation of the American dream. He himself became its personification.

Spielberg’s “personality” does indeed come through loud and clear in those early films -- “Sugarland Express,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” -- because of his delight, which we share, in how preposterously wizardly he is. Spielberg’s genius was not simply to think like his audience -- any good hack can do that -- but to be his audience. His aesthetic instincts and his commercial instincts were twinned, and not in a calculating way, either -- at least not until “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which is when his large-scale entertainments, followed by the two “Indiana Jones” sequels and the “Jurassic Park” movies, turned into corporate theme parks themselves.

The career trajectory of Hollywood directors before the ‘70s typically followed the winding path from unpretentious to “prestigious” (i.e., Oscar-worthy). Take, for example, George Stevens, who went from “Alice Adams,” “Swing Time,” “Gunga Din” and “The More the Merrier” to “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Most of the ‘70s directors did their best to avoid this syndrome or at least held out for as long as they could. Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” a deranged movie about a deranged war, could never have been mistaken for a respectable war epic. Scorsese’s biblical movie was “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

But Spielberg, being the most attuned of his generation to the mojo of Hollywood, was naturally the director who most wholeheartedly fell into the prestige trap. Whatever their merits, and in some cases they are considerable, films such as “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich” are all deeply conventional in terms of how the world is comprehended. Some of these films may be better made, or, in the case of “Schindler’s List,” more richly felt than their Old Hollywood counterparts. But all are afflicted with a kind of transcendent Stanley Kramerism. We are made to understand that moral lessons are being imparted and that, in the end, tomorrow will somehow be a better day.

And yet, Spielberg’s career trajectory is by no means simple, for in the wake of “Saving Private Ryan,” he made two consecutive films, as well as a third several years later, that in many ways upend his beloved early work. “A.I,” which was originally developed by Stanley Kubrick, is the dark side of “E.T.” “The War of the Worlds” is the anti-"Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The Philip K. Dick-derived “Minority Report,” which has no antecedent in Spielberg’s career, is a scabrous freakout. None of these films are overwhelmingly successful -- they’re more fascinating as psychodrama than as drama. But they demonstrate, much more so than his “prestige” entries do, how spooked Spielberg’s mind-set had become in the decades since he closed “Close Encounters” with a stirring snatch of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

In “Close Encounters,” aliens from outer space are benevolent emissaries who descend from the heavens in a dazzling cathedral glow and belt out boom tones of peace and love. In “War of the Worlds,” the aliens are arachnoid horrors who erupt from underground. Their call to arms is a bellicose bellow. The skies may have roiled in “Close Encounters” and Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy might have made too much of his mashed potatoes, but we were never in any doubt that benevolence was upon us.

In “War of the Worlds,” the aliens initially are mistaken for terrorists. The film is, I suppose, Spielberg’s post-9/11 movie, but even without 9/11, he might eventually have made his way to this scorched terrain. “A.I.,” which was made four years earlier, is about a robot boy who yearns to be human to win back the love of the flesh-and-blood mother who abandoned him, and for most of the way it’s frighteningly creepy. “Minority Report,” about a future in which cops, guided by all-seeing “pre-cogs,” arrest killers before their crimes are committed, is a ghastly fusion of sci-fi and noir.

Some audiences, still wishing upon a star, experienced these films as intimate betrayals. And yet they cut the closest to his psyche. “Right now I’m experimenting,” Spielberg said at the time of “Minority Report.” “I’m trying things that challenge me, I’m striking out in all directions trying to discover myself in my 50s.”

Exploring the dark side

FOR A director of conscience who can make his camera do anything, the realization that he has it in him to inspire absolute dread must be supremely unsettling. (I’m not thinking of “Jaws,” which was comic-book dread.) What surely must prey upon Spielberg as he gets older are not the bliss-outs he is uniquely capable of creating but the horrors. The Normandy Beach landing in “Saving Private Ryan” goes way beyond the usual technical exercise; it’s a fury against the flesh. In “Minority Report,” Tom Cruise’s John Anderton, the chief of the Department of Pre-Crime in the District of Columbia, stands before a floating computer interface and, arms waving like an impresario, whisks around its midair crime scene visuals. It’s a nightmare representation of the director as puppet master, and it comes with a kicker: Anderton, whose mind is a mausoleum of horrific images, is himself a murderer-to-be.

The filmmakers of Spielberg’s generation wanted to take over Hollywood and change the face of an art form. And for a brief period, until the blockbuster syndrome kicked in in the mid-'70s, they did just that. Along with Lucas, Spielberg is often blamed for shutting down the renaissance, as if without “Jaws” and “Star Wars” it never would have occurred to anybody in Hollywood to come up with high concepts and saturation marketing. “I hate Spielberg,” a young filmmaker told me at a movie festival recently when he heard I was going to be writing about him. “He killed the indie film.” And then he added, “But I loved ‘Jaws.’ ”

Spielberg has long been in a position to pretty much direct or produce whatever he wants. This makes him the only kind of auteur Hollywood truly understands. (Forget the Lubitsch touch -- it’s the Midas touch that makes the studio chiefs slobber.) He’s taken more creative chances than any other director of close to his clout. Early films such as “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” were experienced by audiences all over the world as invocations to a more ecstatic life. Plus they were playful and goofy. But there was no safety net for “Schindler’s List,” neither was there one for “Amistad” or “A.I.”

This doesn’t mean Spielberg gets a free pass. Some of the cottages in his cottage industry have all the allure of McMansions. He has yet to make a movie that revels in the commonplace; for him, the ordinary is always (yawn) a springboard to magic. He has never made a movie with more than a trace of carnality. His world view is cut-rate Manichean -- darks and lights and not much gray in between. It’s a pity he shelved his plans to make a movie about his childhood idol, Charles Lindbergh, the all-American aviator and Fascist sympathizer. Now there’s a character who would have put Spielberg to the test. Instead, he’s gearing up to make “Lincoln” with Liam Neeson, which sounds like a snooze. And “Jurassic 4" is on the radar.

Spielberg is still the teacher’s pet of his class, but the difference is that now he owns the schoolhouse. Maybe for a while he should try being a truant.