The Three Spielbergs

Make no mistake about it, I am a huge fan of Steven Spielberg films. I don’t really care for some of the off kilter stuff like Hook or The Color Purple, although I don’t mind sitting through them. But other than that, I’ll eat up anything that he’ll direct. Even stuff like The Terminal or Catch Me If You Can in recent years, that initially sounded odd and awkward, are now some of my favorite movies.

In the next five years, he will be tackling some monumental projects that will help define the capstone of his career. These films are going to be movie geek fodder for quite a while, and it’s fun to speculate about them. A good way to look at this is to take a look into where he’s been to see where he’s going. Directorial work is like any type of art, where the artists can and usually do go through different periods that contain specific types of work. In my theory, I believe there to be three different eras of Spielberg films. He’s been making “event” type films for nearly thirty years now, and that span of time will not leave anyone unchanged. By looking into tools like storytelling, camera angles, and uses of available technology, it’s safe to say that he’s employed varying techniques over this span of time that quite easily categorizes his work into three different areas.

First Period
Jaws – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1975 -1981)

As a younger man, Spielberg shows right out of the gate at how adept he is at telling stories. After a few years of cutting his teeth on his own productions and gaining experience with some TV shows, he created the Summer Blockbuster with Jaws. While Jaws doesn’t really showcase the same storytelling tools that he uses later on, it does display how is The Man when it comes to pleasing audiences in a way that doesn’t speak down to them. He continues this with Close Encounters, which incorporates something that he’ll use for the entirety of his career. An aspect of “family” intertwined in the story.

An internet friend of mine sums this up best:

Every Spielberg male main character is one or all of the following:

1. A man who’s work and/or inability to be an adult keeps him from interacting with his family.

2. A Man who’s somehow lost his family, and follows a cause that he thinks will redeem that loss.

3. A Man displaced from his family who must provide a new family for the people around him, or help them find their place or find a new home for himself.

4. A Man who has no interest in a family who learns that he actually needs one to complete himself.

Keep in mind that “family” sometimes is a literal term– in that the character needs to be amongst his children, wife, etc. But in other films it is parental figures, and in other films “family” is often represented by the simple concept of “home.”

Close Encounters follows all of these four prerequisites. Type One will be used for years, even as recently as with Minority Report. However, the most outstanding aspect of First Period Spielberg films isn’t in the freshness of the director, or in the new tools that he employs. These first films provide an almost documentary feel. With many modern films, it seems as if there is an invisible narrator that guides you from the introduction, to the conflict, and then to the conclusion. Spielberg’s first films provide a “God Aspect” or “Man On The Street” point of view.

In the case of Close Encounters, you witness the alien landings alongside Richard Dreyfus, not with the narrator.

It is as if the events on screen are happening in real time in which dialogue and events aren’t clearly cut. As for dialogue, it seems as if this young Spielberg was inspired by Robert Altman, as characters usually speak over each other and out of turn. As for visuals, let’s just say that as good as Children of Men is, it isn’t employing an entirely new technique. Stuff like Close Encounters, and even Raiders of the Lost Ark to a point, use this technique perfectly.

Second Period
E.T. – Hook (1982 – 1991)

In this period, Spielberg really establishes himself with films that become the meat and potatoes of his portfolio. Narratives and camera techniques become more traditional in form, but Spielberg proves that he’s the best at it time and time again. Even some of the less applauded films such as Hook still have production values head and shoulders above everything else. Everything just clicks and runs like a finely tuned machine.

The perfect example of Spielberg firing on all cylinders.

If there’s one distinguishing factor, it seems as if Spielberg focuses on themes of youth. E.T. features a young boy finding himself and his place, Temple of Doom gave Indiana Jones a son figure of sorts, and Hook featured an older man regaining his lost youth. This period does overlap a bit, as it should. Spielberg was at the top of his gain, and I’m not implying he’s lost any of it either. This is just the time that he really found himself. Raiders and Jurassic Park, the films that bookend this category, fall into this category just the same as they do their respective others. While he doesn’t stray too far from the formula that is proven to work, each consecutive “high concept” film in this category hits it out of the park in terms of massive crowd pleasers.

Third Period
Jurassic Park – War of the Worlds ( 1993 – Present)

With a deserved sense of accomplishment, Spielberg entered into his current period perhaps a little cocky. But in this case, that slight arrogance helped quite a bit. It seems that in terms of storytelling and technique, he’s felt a bit more “free” in what he’s done. Cameras seem to travel a lot more, color pallets are bright or washed out according to the feel of the film, and tougher subject areas are studied.

Obviously, he’s successfully tried serious work with Saving Private Ryan and Shindler’s List. He’d tried these sort of subject areas before with 1941 and Empire of the Sun, but not anywhere close to as in this manner. While the technique is still conventional in ways of his Middle Period, the subject matter definitely isn’t. Even with definable “crowd pleasers”, he’s still totally open to trying new techniques. War of the Worlds employs camera angles, cuts, and focus points in ways that would have totally out of place for an Eighties era Spielberg film. Same goes for Minority Report, which in close inspection, actually uses a blurry and out of focus lens that gives it the proper look to the genre it tackles.

Some of the more modern films employ not only futuristic themes, but also futuristic camera methods.

The thing is, when most directors would fall flat when faced with new technology and new techniques, Spielberg elevates himself. He’s fine with technology and uses it to tell the story without technology becoming the story.

You’ll notice that I included War of the Worlds as the last movie that he’s directed, although if you’ll remember, that isn’t necessarily true. Munich was his last. That’s because I actually believe there to be a “sub-category” of sorts. It’s not really a period in of itself, but a series of side projects that Spielberg challenges himself with from time to time.

Empire of the Sun, Always, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Munich

More so in recent years than in the past, Spielberg has had a tendency to chose films that would initially seem out of his range and outside of the realm of his previous portfolio of work. Let’s take The Terminal.

Compared to E.T., you’d probably never know this was from the same director.

It’s basically a love story amidst an awkward situation of a foreigner being stuck in the legal process which strands him in an airport. Considering Spielberg’s main body of work, it wouldn’t sound like something he’d tackle. Despite the sort of high concept story, it’s still mainly a love story. It does star one of his stock actors, Tom Hanks, but he’s casted severely against type. However, Spielberg seems to shine when he tries something new, and the film works even though you’d probably not know it if it didn’t use some patented Spielberg techniques. It’s still a story about a man searching for “home”, and it does use some of Spielberg’s modern camera trickery. But were it not for that, it would be hard to peg him down as the director if you didn’t know it.

Same goes for the other films. Maybe not with the flop that was 1941, but to his credit, Spielberg did discover fairly early on with it that he’s not a straight up comedy director. And it is my opinion that with a Aykroyd / Belushi / Candy era comedy cast, and with an equally ambitious and funny script from the writers that would eventually pen Back to the Future, it’s very underrated. However, this proves that it just seems that every once in a while he challenges himself with a separate genre that he’s not accustomed to. Most of the time it works. It’ll be interesting to see if he tries this again in the future, but with the next few projects being Indiana Jones, Lincoln, then Interstellar, it seems unlikely.

The Once and Future Spielberg
Indiana Jones IV and beyond…

All in all, I still think that Spielberg will be bright enough to know that Indiana Jones IV will have to have the same look and feel as the originals. So I don’t expect it to follow his modern look too closely. However, Lincoln should be the barsetter for the rest of his career. If I had to guess, I’d venture that it should be a mix of Second and Third Period films, as it shouldn’t look too advanced given the setting.

After that, it’s all fair game. Interstellar will be very interesting for this very reason. Either he will continue his “Modern” techniques, allow his “Sub-Genre” to become the true Fourth Era, or develop a new section of his work altogether. No matter what the case is, it looks as if we are truly at the crest of another classic era in line with his Middle Period in the years to come.


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