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Oscars 2013 and Spielberg: The storyteller is part of our cultural DNA

Oscars 2013: Oscar or not for 'Lincoln,' Steven Spielberg has not only shaped our fantasies, he's influenced a generation's perspective on history.

By , Contributor , Staff writer

A shark fin glides ominously near unsuspecting holiday beach swimmers, a crescendo of musical peril rising – "DA da, DA da, DA da."

A giant, rolling boulder nips menacingly at the heels of a fleeing, ragged archaeologist.

The glowing, spiky finger of a goggle-eyed alien points from a California suburban street into space.

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While the craggy visage of America's stovepipe-hatted 16th president may not yet be as ingrained in American pop culture DNA as those iconic movie moments of the past 40 years, the celluloid depiction of Lincoln – which won the most Academy Award nominations this year with 12 – shares the distinction of being crafted by the same movie magician responsible for six of the 25 highest-grossing movies of all time.

Steven Spielberg has not only shaped our fantasies, but with "Lincoln" he has influenced the perspective that a generation of Americans will have on a key part of history.

As an audience of a several hundred million gathers for one of the planet's global campfire moments Feb. 24, the popcorn-popping masses will await the verdict to see if Mr. Spielberg will win his third Oscar for Best Director – to tie such icons as William Wyler and Frank Capra – and remain behind only legendary John Ford, who won four.

Over bowls of steaming chili at home, and around office water coolers, fans and critics may debate what this year's best movie is, but one thing is certain: Love this director or demean him, Spielberg's movies are woven more deeply into the fabric of American daily life and culture than those of any other director in history.

He burst onto the world stage with "Jaws" in 1975. With just two road-movie thriller features – "Duel" and "The Sugarland Express" – under his belt, Spielberg originally conceived the Peter Benchley bestseller as a low-budget creature-feature. But he ran into so many production problems filming realistically on water – from a malfunctioning robotic shark to a drunken British lead actor – that he had to reconceive his vision of horror right on location, deciding to keep his deep-sea monster lurking mostly off-screen.

Spielberg's counterintuitive improvisation paid off, showcasing his populism across the spectrum from substance to style in actors, scripts, plots, conflict, tone, and all the rest. The first of many cultural catchphrases was born – "We're gonna need a bigger boat" – as well as an industry-changing marketing phenomenon that could only have been launched in America: the summer blockbuster. "Jaws" was the first movie to earn more than $100 million in theatrical rentals. This distinction also earned Spielberg criticism – along with his "Star Wars" director buddy, George Lucas – for infantilizing movies and forcing studios to spend their resources on fewer and higher-budget movies.

What are his secrets? The armchair pundits suggest it's his adherence to the American dream script: listening to the child within him and trusting his own instincts. Born in the Midwest heartland of Cincinnati in 1946 to an electrical engineer dad and a concert pianist mom, he made a minimovie in 1959 to earn a Boy Scout merit badge. Ever the neighborhood-lemonade-stand entrepreneur, he sold tickets to his friends for home movies, and won his first prize, at age 13, for a short war film.

The dean of American film critics, Pauline Kael, thought it was Spielberg's bold confidence – undergirded with a suburban-bred innocence and wonder – and innate kindness that made him unafraid to turn timeless themes on their head. Reviewing "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" – the big-budget alien-friendly science-fiction movie – she put it this way:

"In routine science-fiction films, any bodies from space are alien invaders.... But in "Close Encounters" ... the intelligent creatures ... are benevolent. They want to get to know us. This vision would be too warm and soul-satisfying if it weren't for the writer-director Steven Spielberg's skeptical, let's-try-it-on spirit. He's an entertainer – a magician in the age of movies. Is Spielberg an artist? Not exactly – or not yet. He's a prodigy – a flimflam wizard technician."

And while the public has voted lavishly with ticket purchases, Spielberg is not flawless by a long shot, if you listen to other critics, who can be skeptically brutal.

Spielberg, wrote critic Peter Biskind in his book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls," is obsessed with a "sentimental view of our better self as the inner child, the innocent youth we used to be.... He wants to return the boomers to the sandbox."

Sneaking into Universal Studios

When he was 18, Spielberg took a bus tour of Universal Studios while on a visit to Los Angeles. When his fellow tourists got back on the bus after a bathroom break, he hid out of sight in a toilet stall until the bus left, allowing him to wander the back lots.

As recounted in Joseph McBride's biography of the filmmaker, Spielberg has told this story in many ways over the years. In the latest version, included in Richard Schickel's lavishly illustrated "Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective," the director said: "I was on the Universal Studios lot. I had no idea how I'd get home. But I spent the whole afternoon just walking in and out of doors – sound stages, cutting rooms – and took my own tour and had an amazing time."

Quitting time came, and as he was still wandering around trying to figure out how to get back to his relatives' house across the San Fernando Valley, he serendipitously met up with Charles Silver, the head of the film library, who, amused at the kid's audacity, wrote out a pass for the young Spielberg that allowed him future access to the lot.

If curiosity is one key quality, the other most-telling Spielberg trait might be his unflinching determination. Mr. Schickel tells of the time the teenage Spielberg was sent by a chief editor at Universal to fetch a small Moviola editing machine from down the hall. He was told to inform the person using it that it was needed elsewhere. He caused a ruckus unplugging the machine and rolling it out, not realizing (or did he realize?) that the shirtless man using it was Marlon Brando, dressed in Tahitian garb.

Developing a degree of teflon to criticism, and following his gut and an uncanny eye and ear for storytelling, Spielberg has matured and broadened his skills over the years, now doing more than just jerking everyone's emotional chains of terror, love, hate, embarrassment, anger.

After such crowd-pleasing, popcorn action movies as "Jaws" and a couple "Indiana Jones" movies, he turned to face head-on some of the truly complex moral topics of contemporary life. Those include racism and prejudice ("Amistad," "The Color Purple," "Schindler's List"), historical and cultural memories ("Saving Private Ryan"), technological morality ("A.I."), scientific ethics and governmental intrusion ("Minority Report"), immigration restriction ("The Terminal"), state-sponsored assassination ("Munich"), and the morality of war ("Empire of the Sun," "War Horse").

Fast-forward to 2012, and it's still clear Spielberg hasn't abandoned his inner child. He recently told Oprah Winfrey how he had to leave the set of "Lincoln" because of the emotional resonance of one of Daniel Day-Lewis's Lincoln speeches: "I think the first time [I cried] is when [Mr. Day-Lewis] gave his very, very long and important explanation of why he needed to get the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery passed as constitutional law."

Spielberg said that at that point he moved to another room so that no one else could see him crying, because getting emotional in front of everyone is "not a good thing" for a director.

The key to figuring out how Spielberg manages to make history leap off the screen may be in the way he focuses attention on personal stories within a complex web of actual events. It makes viewers experience the broad sweep of time through the eyes of a particular person. That's what he did with Oskar Schindler, the greedy German factory owner-turned-savior; with Cinque, the proud African-turned-slave in "Amistad"; and with the ambivalent assassin Avner in "Munich."

In "Lincoln," however, Spielberg faced far more complicated challenges, because he re-creates the tumultuous last four months in the life of one of the most revered and well-known figures in American history. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals," Spielberg's "Lincoln" offers up a man who emerges as an intricate blend of idealist and pragmatist, of visionary and horse-trader. Yet this brooding, even melancholy, president fits comfortably into Spielberg's obsession with broken families that need parental healing. The distraught father figure must reconstitute the shattered Union into one nation, and by doing so, mend the painful wounds that have ripped apart the American family.

Spielberg's Lincoln is not only the public figure carved into Mt. Rushmore or sitting on the Washington Mall; he remains vulnerable, struggling with a depressed wife, raising his own children, and ultimately confronting the death of his son Willie. He also has an awkward sense of humor that both delights and frustrates colleagues.

As Spielberg puts it, the goal was to "show a man, not a monument." The film itself contains none of the flashy pyrotechnics for which Spielberg has become so famous, but is more a series of tableaux with intense dialogue showing the president deftly maneuvering through a political mine field and enlisting unsavory men to help him pass transcendent legislation.

Although Spielberg spent 12 years re-searching the19th century to endow this production with authenticity, he made sure not "to get too fancy in the cutting room," wanting to draw attention to the political process, not the imagery: "Many scenes play to one angle because I wanted them to exist in seemingly real time," he says in the companion book to the movie.

Spielberg has also spoken often of how he uncharacteristically wore a suit while filming "Lincoln" – to boost his own sense of the needed reverence and gravitas. He also addressed Day-Lewis – noted for his method of living in character during a film shoot – as "Mr. President," and Sally Field as "Mrs. Lincoln" or her nickname, "Molly."

The New York Yankees of cinema?

Though Life magazine named him "the most influential person" of his generation – the most superlative of the infinite list of accolades he's gotten over the years, including two Oscars for Best Director – a large and vocal segment of the "serious" film community still views Spielberg as the New York Yankees of cinema.

Spielberg is the man they love to hate because he fields the best players, controls the biggest budgets, draws the largest crowds, and reaps the highest profits. And his penchant for happy endings – only one of his movies, "The Sugarland Express," has a truly unhappy ending – further fuels the criticism. Whenever his movies win awards, the applause barely dies down before the accusations of unfair advantages, immature characters, and superficial ideas quickly surface.

Some critics say Spielberg's films remain too filled with earthly pleasures, too stuffed with things that go bump in the night, too reliant on emotional manipulation to command serious analysis. They view Spielberg as little more than a modern P.T. Barnum, a technically gifted and intellectually shallow showman who substitutes spectacle for substance and raw sentimentality for reflective contemplation. They assail Spielberg for two of the greatest problems in modern cinema history: the Blockbuster mentality that now permeates the commercial film industry, leaving little room for intellectually challenging works; and the dumbing down of contemporary movies that promotes bloated budgets and relies on wham-bam action flicks.

Spielberg, in effect, has become a brand name that epitomizes this dichotomy of reactions to his work: To call something "Spielbergian" is to characterize it as wondrous and full of powerful feeling, or as pandering and relentlessly manipulative.

The kind alien and broken home

Despite the diversity of Spielberg's 40 years of output, there are two themes – alone or together – that infuse every one of his movies: threats to the human family and human/nonhuman interaction.

The first involves a menace from outside the family unit that causes a domestic rupture and inevitably thrusts children into danger. This traumatic collapse of normal domestic bonds, in turn, motivates dramatic attempts to save the children and reconstitute the family, whatever the dangers that must be faced to achieve this reconciliation. Often, the director focuses on divorced families with either the mother or the father absent or barely present, a desertion that represents the highest of sins in Spielberg's celluloid universe. Within these movies, the "family unit" is defined not only biologically, as in films such as "Empire of the Sun," but also situationally, as in films like "The Terminal," or even nationalistically, as in "Lincoln."

Armchair psychologists, prompted by comments from Spielberg himself, point to the painful divorce of his parents and his own separation from actress Amy Irving as the root causes for this compulsion to depict the disbanding and restoration of crumbling families.

"I don't think that I have ever not made a melodrama," Spielberg told an American Film Institute audience in 1988. Given his recurrent focus on vulnerable children and broken families, Spielberg is right: All of his films are essentially melodramas, despite the adrenalin-pumping overlay of exciting exploits and daring escapes.

But this blend of action and feeling is key to understanding his popular success and longevity as a filmmaker: Audiences thrill to the technical and dramatic flair of whirling action sequences, but they also connect with the damaged and often emotionally fragile characters who undertake scary trials and survive spine-tingling adventures to reunite a family.

Unlike conventional action/adventure movie characters, Spielberg's heroes ultimately discover that their most important quest is to gain inner knowledge, emotional maturity, and psychological fulfillment rather than material gains or public glory. Most of the characters in his movies – from "The Sugarland Express" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" to "Catch Me If You Can" and "Lincoln" – all seek to reestablish stable personal relationships and mend the wounds that have torn apart their families.

Spielberg's other major theme revolves around how human beings interact with non-human elements, including trucks, killer sharks, aliens, airplanes, rampaging dinosaurs, and robots. Sometimes, these mechanized, natural, and foreign creations appear enlightened and kind, as in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.," and "A.I.," while other times they seek simply to destroy humans, as in "Jaws," "Jurassic Park," and "War of the Worlds."

Spielberg's movies, and how he creates them, reveal both a heightened fascination and deep distrust of the relentless march of technology that characterizes modern life. The paradox shows up in many of his best movies, most profoundly evident in "A.I." and "Minority Report." Although Spielberg's savvy use of computer-generated imagery in "Jurassic Park" signaled a new form of filmmaking that revolutionized the industry, he has resisted using advanced digital technology.

"My favorite and preferred step between imagination and image is a strip of photochemistry that can be held, twisted, folded, looked at with the naked eye, or projected onto a surface for others to see.... After all, this 'stuff' of dreams is mankind's most original medium, and dates back to 1895," he told the Manchester Guardian in 2011. "Today, its years are numbered, but I will remain loyal to this analogue art-form until the last lab closes."

The 'envelope, please' tension

Looking back at the gallery of saints and sinners of the last great era of American filmmaking – the "Raging Bulls" and "Easy Riders" – only two survivors still function at the height of their powers: Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Others from that generation – such as Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, and William Friedkin – still plow the fields, but their labors evoke little of the excitement and anticipation that greets each new film by Mr. Scorsese and Spielberg. None matches their breadth and consistency. And, of the two, Spielberg has been the more daring in selecting his projects during recent years. No doubt surprisingly to his detractors, Spielberg has evolved into a director of thought and spirit, not just spectacle and style.

Whether or not "Lincoln" expands Spielberg's trophy case with another Oscar for Best Director remains to be seen.

But the "envelope, please" tension recalls the incident in 1975, when Spielberg, still not yet 30, received an ego jolt that may be behind his humble public demeanor to this day. Certain of receiving an Oscar nomination as Best Director for "Jaws," Spielberg was radiating confidence – so much so that he invited a camera crew from a Los Angeles TV station to be with him on Oscar-nomination day and memorialize his reaction to hearing himself nominated.

Instead of recording exhilaration, however, the crew captured Spielberg's shocked disappointment as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took its first bite out of the wunderkind who had only three features on his résumé. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown got the Best Picture nomination for "Jaws" and the movie was nominated in three other Oscar categories, but Spielberg never heard his name announced among the nominations.

"I got beaten out by Fellini," he groaned into the TV cameras, adding that the Academy's failure to nominate him was "commercial backlash" against the film's overwhelming popularity.

"With 'Schindler's List,' I almost had to wear earplugs because of all the people that kept telling me that it could be our year," Spielberg told Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "That was worse than radio silence. I would have rather heard nothing. When younger people get nominated, I give them this advice: Don't watch television, don't read the trades, don't read blogs – just get on with your life, and whatever happens, happens. I am eternally grateful just to be a movie director. That's the important thing to me."

Lester D. Friedman is professor and chairman of the media and society department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. He is the author of 'Citizen Spielberg' and co-editor of 'Steven Spielberg: Interviews.'

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