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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."