Sunday, November 12, 2017

Jonathan Sturgeon on Spielberg's role in freezing our culture in adolescence, but he doesn't suggest that Spielberg's trick is to vicariously re-enchant the world for adults through cinematic children or attempt to propose what's wrong with that

There will probably never be a shortage of high-brow disdain for the not-high-enough-brow arts.  Spielberg has been a reliable target for a generation or two now, as has George Lucas.  Spielberg may be a more convenient target because amid the highs and lows of his filmography he doesn't exactly have a set of Star Wars prequels.  But Sturgeon's piece is pedestrian in its condescension and indignation.  It's the easiest thing in the contemporary literary world to say that Spielberg's entire filmography is some kind of kitsch.  But that won't stop Sturgeon from underlining the point in case people forgot or, in case there's some possibility that the argument could convince those who might otherwise still be fans of Spielberg's films or the designated (by Sturgeon) heirs of Spielberg are naked emperors.
 
 
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Who is Spielberg? Hollywood’s vanishing mediator, Spielberg is hard to know, but it’s not hard to know why. Susan Lacy, the director of the HBO documentary, has been candid about the lack of crisis in the director’s personal history, which began in a benign suburb of Phoenix. His dad was an important computer scientist, and his mom was a concert pianist. The climacteric of his entire life, Spielberg says, was their divorce, which he long blamed on his father’s lack of vigor; his frustration once boiled over when he repeatedly shouted “crybaby!” at his dad, who wept silently at dinner. (The scene was later recreated in Close Encounters of the Third Kind). In what would amount to the greatest irony he’d ever know—which may explain the near-total lack of irony in his films—it turned out that his mother was in love with his father’s best friend, which led her to ask for divorce.
 
Rather than be honest about the humdrum inscrutability of Spielberg, Lacy follows Spielberg’s own example and mythologizes childhood—Spielberg’s childhood. The idea is that Spielberg, a lonely child from a somewhat broken family, withdrew into a fantasy realm of ameliorating make-believe which inspired his later filmmaking. (It is never considered that Spielberg could simply afford a camera at an early age, or that family connections may have helped him get an early start in Hollywood.) Spielberg then reproduced this sense of childhood wonderment in the many young protagonists and aliens and adventures of his franchises. This narrative seems true to me, at least in one respect: the Spielberg model of childhood is very much with us today, and it demands that children prefer robust “worlds” and escapist fantasies and formulaic genres to art that finds weirdness in our own shared world. Even now the vacuous franchises that were offered to Gen-X children by New Hollywood are being forced on their own children, who are now babysat with the idea that full-bodied worlds can substitute for the missing love from a mother or a father.
 
Twenty-first century Hollywood, too, acts as a child of divorce—its imagination thrives in the dead zone of separation between a dwindling filmgoing public and any idea this public might have of a collective project (or meaningful social life). And it acts as a child of divorce because it is, like many of us, the progeny of Spielbergism. The opportunistic self-referencing found in the current Marvel superhero “universe” films descends from comic books, yes, but it’s also an evolution of the ultra-successful experiment in cross-referencing hatched by Spielberg and George Lucas, who made entertainments together, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and alluded to each other’s work in their films. “The walls of the children’s bedrooms in Poltergeist,” noted critic Andrew Britton in the 1980s, “are festooned with Star Wars memorabilia.”
 
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Almost no one would argue that Spielberg’s films are good, and yet he continues to make them with impunity. This is the fault of film critics like David Edelstein and A.O. Scott, who defend Spielberg in Spielberg by shortchanging his detractors: What’s the point of criticizing Spielberg? What’s so bad about being a director of quality entertainments? This defense comes from Spielberg himself. When asked to respond to one unnamed critic’s assertion that his films shouldn’t be confused with art, Spielberg gets about as mad as a rich man can. “Sometimes,” he says, “I think that statements like that are pretentious in themselves because it says that art is serious and that art can’t move you; art can’t be on a bicycle and fly across the moon—that that can’t be art.” It’s mesmerizing to behold: Spielberg’s self-defense becomes self-reference. Why can’t art be E.T.? Why can’t E.T. be art?
 
In Aesthetic Theory even Adorno quoted an axiom by a writer who said that there can be bad good art and good bad art.  How certain is an author like Sturgeon that Spielberg can't be good bad art rather than bad bad art, seeing as it's a foregone conclusion that Spielberg is excluded from being good good art?
 
Contemporary Hollywood films, like all of Spielberg’s films, get worse with repeated viewings. Yet almost any person you talk to will attempt to justify the intake of Hollywood garbage by way of the Spielbergian defense: What’s so wrong with consuming expensively made trash? This suggests that there is indeed something drug-like about twenty-first century entertainment, and it’s frustrating to admit that the comparison between Hollywood and “our national addiction to foreign oil” is a worthwhile one. (If it’s not Hollywood, it’s “binging” on streaming TV.) And this druggishness explains in part why filmmakers like Spielberg and Christopher Nolan (another child of divorce who reconvenes broken families in his films) rely heavily on the idea of “the cinematic experience”; if their films can drown you in wonderment—loud sounds, 70mm images, fully realized worlds—the first time, you’ll revisit them over and again, even though they are bad, in a bid to reclaim the original high. The high inevitably diminishes, and the dependency grows.
 
When has Christopher Nolan reconvened broken families in his films?  Does Leonard get his wife back in Memento?  Does Pacino's character in the remake of Insomnia get reunited with a relative instead of dying at the end?  When did Bruce Wayne get his parents back anywhere in the Batman trilogy?  Jackman's character doesn't get his wife back in The Prestige, he discovers he's been a murderer.  Cobb was never in the real world for the super-majority of Inception and he doesn't get his wife back, although he admits he believes he was directly responsible for her suicide. Sturgeon's assertion that Nolan reconvenes broken families in his films seems hard to square with my having watched pretty much every Christopher Nolan film.  Just because the father and daughter reunite (at the moment of her death) in Interstellar doesn't mean such reunions are the norm in Nolan's work.  There's a more plausible case to be made that every Nolan male protagonist reaches a point where he realizes he's guilty of murder either by an act of commission or by an act of omission.  Since we never get a clear resolution as to whether Cobb returned to the real world the reunion of that family in Inception deliberately ends on a question mark.

I doubt my life will be appreciably better if I read James Joyce, on the other hand.  I'm not even really a fan of Spielberg overall.  But rather than suggest that children of divorce who go on to make movies are trapped in some kind of juvenile mindset or in infantilism by way of literary implication, it might be useful to come up with some ideas for why broken families and the formation of family surrogates has permeated pop culture.  After all, couldn't people suggest that the formation and celebration of surrogate family life is a thread in, oh, gay cinema?  Not that I'm really in the habit of watching gay cinema but I have a gay friend or two who persuaded me to watch a film or two that were regarded as landmark films in that scene.  The trouble with a Sturgeon approach is that merely declaring that directors like Spielberg and Nolan are fixated on blockbuster filmmaking is less an act of informative film criticism and more an act of aesthetic (and not necessarily even moral) judgment.
 
Let's see if we can do one better than a bromide about juvenile entertainment.  Why would a storyteller like Spielberg, who came from a family with divorce, might keep coming back to childhood or reform families.  The wish-fulfillment of knitting families together seems obvious enough, artists can desire to obtain within their art what they fail to accomplish in life.  Someone could even suggest that a composer like Mozart strove to achieve a balance in art he never came close to achieving in life.
 
But let's try another, related angle of attack.  Kitsch is said to be fabricated emotion but what's being fabricated?  In a film by Spielberg, especially something like E.T.,  or Spielberg's cinematic descendants we're getting stories in genres where the world is not as pedestrian and stifling and closed off as it feels like it is for people living in cities or suburbs. If we're living in an era in which the supernatural is rejected as being outside the realm of possible or rationally thinkable then you can't re-enchant the world that way in art.  What you "can" do is re-enchant the world vicariously for grown-ups through the way the often choose to re-enchant the world for themselves vicariously, through children, most often their own children but someone else's children can do in a pinch or the swipe of a card at the cinema.  The problem with this formula is that it's a formula, it can be picked up and broken down into stages and thanks to Lucas fans it's been broken down into stages countless times by way of the Hero's Journey. 
 
Merely saying there is a spell being cast in these films does nothing to break the spell.  The trouble is that if the films of Spielberg exemplify a new opioid for the masses what do you plan to replace it with? 
 
Not everyone who goes through divorce tries to vicariously reassemble the family or re-enchant the world the way Spielberg does.  Some take the discovery of moral evil and betrayal and transform that into musings on how men convince themselves they are the heroes of their own narratives without realizing they're actually villains.  That is, in a sentence, where Christopher Nolan has gone in the majority of his films, yes, even his Batman films.  What makes Sturgeon's invocation of Spielberg and Nolan seem just a bit too pat is that I've never heard a line in a Nolan film comparable to Jeff Goldblum's "Life finds a way".  There's not exactly a moment that corresponds to the "I could have done more" line in Schindler's List.  The self-deluding man who kills for what he regards as a righteous cause that is ultimately self-serving is such a recurring motif in Nolan's films it would seem like an easy thing for a writer like Sturgeon to look at but that wasn't the point of interest for Sturgeon.

Instead, the idea is that Nolan can be understood as an heir of the Spielbergian cinematic formula by simple way of the medium as if there's no distinguishing message.  Even if the thread of the lies people tell themselves and each other to maintain the illusion of civilization keeps showing up in Nolan's work (yes, even in Dunkirk, for those who saw the twist at the end where the child who got murdered by a panicking escaped soldier is described as a war hero rather than a victim) that's probably just not the kind of theme or thread that would get attention from the writers who publish at The Baffler, perhaps.  But then the lineage of highbrow disdain for lowbrow media seems hard to avoid for journalists who cover the visual arts scenes in Anglo-American coverage.  The possibility that, whatever their limitations, Gil Kane and Steve Ditko made more memorable drawings than Frank Stella made paintings might just not be on the table. To get back to Adorno's reference, it may be possible there's good bad art and bad good art whether or not we feel any obligation to agree with an Adorno or a Sturgeon. 

But with Spielberg it doesn't seem particularly difficult to propose that across many of his films he resorts to children as a way to vicariously re-enchant the world so that we who watch his films can have the world vicariously re-enchanted for ourselves through the cinematic child.  It would only have taken a few more sentences to have touched on that trope in Spielberg's work but it just didn't come up.  It wouldn't be that difficult to suggest that in an increasingly irreligious society in terms of formal dogmas that the new opiate of the masses is something like television or film but that pedestrian punchline was pulled off more memorably by Bill Watterson in Calvin & Hobbes decades ago. 

I know this was published in The Baffler but it read more like a piece I'd expect to see in Jacobin.

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