Tuesday, June 1, 2010

#30: Steven Spielberg


- “I dream for a living.”

Check your elitism at the door if you wish to proceed with the first entry in this series. And I'll note up front that this one is significantly longer than other entries will be... as you'll see, I go off on some tangents here, just to get some thoughts out there!

I’m kidding with the elitism crack, but there is at least a grain of truth in such sarcasm. I thought I’d kick things off with a man who can divide “serious movie fans” as fast as Brian De Palma. The backlash that has developed against Steven Spielberg in some quarters is mindboggling. I hate to use the word elitist, but it definitely comes across that way. In some quarters of the internet movie community, simply admitting to be a fan of Spielberg’s films is enough to get labeled as a mindless sheep of big-budget Hollywood; as someone incapable of appreciating more subtle, toned down cinema.

I am honestly not pointing this finger at any of the folks that frequent Goodfella’s. Really, none of the blogs that I regularly visit fall victim to such a ridiculous viewpoint. But if you don’t believe me, I urge you to check out various forums and message boards devoted to movies or certain DVD labels and see for yourself. The enormity of the box office numbers that his films generate is likely the first cause of the counterattack. Beyond that though, the general complaint about Spielberg being labeled not just a profitable director, but a genuinely great one, is that most of his films lack the true depth and substance of peers like Scorsese, Coppola, and others. Even more damning, they say, is that he simply panders to cheap emotional reactions from the audience rather than allowing poignant drama to develop naturally. This phenomenon has been most noticeable to me among self-anointed amateur “cineastes” that tend to balk at all things overtly commercial, but it’s evident among a number of critics and historians too. Just read some of the professional assessments of his work:

"As America in the 1990s moves slowly away from the Reagan era, will Spielberg find new materials and adult themes, or will he seek continuing refuge in tried and true formulas? And will those formulas continue to work? And finally, will Spielberg manage to successfully mediate his apparent dual interests - being a modern day mogul in the style of Walt Disney or Cecil B. De Mille as well as being a respected artist whose work requires no apology?" - Charles Derry (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)
"While it is impossible to deny either his Midas touch or his extraordinary technical proficiency, it has nonetheless become increasingly clear in recent years that he is perhaps more at home with sentimental 'family' fodder than with more sophisticated material." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

Are these people serious? I don’t understand why some are so quick to assume that “commercially successful” and “artistically significant” have to be mutually exclusive. Spielberg has at times fallen into the trap perpetually occupied by his good friend George Lucas of simply overwhelming audiences with special effects. But beneath any effects that Spielberg might employ, the skill he possesses is, in my opinion, undeniable. His technical chops are so well-established in fact, that he is often criticized for being too reliant upon such cold, detached skills. What I think is overlooked is just how good of a storyteller he is. Perhaps he doesn’t have the auterist credentials of other successful directors who rose to prominence in the same era, but the man has a track record of producing compelling stories, regardless of the genre he is working in. Is Raiders of the Lost Ark a matinee action adventure? Yep, it sure is. But even while making a movie that had every intention of breaking the bank at the box office, Spielberg and company simultaneously created a character that people cared and fell in love with. I see nothing wrong with avoiding great philosophical thoughts or statements, and simply concentrating on crafting enjoyable, well-told stories. Is that not what many great directors (Hitchcock comes to mind) set out to do?

Then, when Spielberg did decide to tackle mature themes and stories, he took some flack for those as well. There was still something to nitpick in each of these efforts. Some argue that much of Saving Private Ryan’s reputation is built solely on the famed beach landing. Is this the case? Of course, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the drama is unimportant. The craziest accusation I have seen leveled against Spielberg is that with Schindler’s List – which is unquestionably his artistic zenith – that he intentionally “manipulated” how the audience should respond to Holocaust atrocities. What?! At any rate, I’ll stop reeling off the ludicrous accusations I have seen thrown at the monstrosity that is the Spielberg box office machine. I’ll simply close by saying that I enjoy each stage of Spielberg’s career – his early adventurous cycle and his later, more mature works. In the new millennium he seems to have caught a second (or third) wind and has produced some wonderful films.

Below is my ranking of his films that I have seen (which clearly is not all of them), based purely on personal preference. In terms of greatness, I don’t think there is any question that Schindler’s List would have to be placed at the top. There are a number of his films I still have not seen, and not every one included here is one I actually like, but I think this is a resume that is strong through the Top 10-12.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
2. Schindler’s List (1993)
3. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
6. Jaws (1975)
7. Munich (2005)
8. Empire of the Sun (1987)
9. Duel (1971)
10. Jurassic Park (1993)
11. Catch Me if You Can (2002)
12. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
13. Minority Report (2002)
14. The Color Purple (1985)
15. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
16. The Sugarland Express (1974)
17. Amistad (1997)
18. Hook (1991)
19. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
20. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

- Up next in the countdown: Nicholas Ray. And as a TCM alert to those in the States, one of Ray's more celebrated yet harder-to-locate films THE LUSTY MEN will be shown Wednesday June 2 at 2:00 PM. Set the DVRs or VCRs as necessary.

Also, my hope is to keep discussion centered on the director of the day, holding off the next revealed entry until it's actually posted. Everyone probably already knows this, but it's worth typing it anyway. So all Nick Ray nuts, you'll have to wait until Thursday! (LOL)

67 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, I just spent half an hour fleshing out a long comment, containing quotes and everything, and then it was lost.

    Suffice it to say I agree with just about everything you say here and have some thoughts about what it is critics and intellectuals object to in Spielberg, and why this colors their perception so stubbornly. Perhaps I'll return later and re-articulate them.

    Crap.

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  2. Aha!

    Dave, This is good defense against a director because of whom I started watching Hollywood cinema. I'm yet to read an article or a book that elucidates why Spielberg is as atrocious as they claim to be (For the record, I've been increasingly going against Schindler's List, a film that I used to worship once upon a time).

    Here's how I would rank his films now (I mean right NOW!):

    Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
    Duel (1971)
    Jurassic Park (1993)
    Jaws (1975)
    E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
    Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
    Munich (2005)
    Minority Report (2002)
    The Color Purple (1985)
    War of the Worlds (2005)
    Saving Private Ryan (1998)
    Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
    Catch Me If You Can (2002)
    Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
    Schindler's List (1993)
    1941 (1979)
    The Terminal (2004)
    Amistad (1997)
    The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
    Hook (1991)
    Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
    Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

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  3. MovieMan - I am sorry to hear that. I was hoping that maybe the comment was somehow caught by Blogspot and I might be able to retrieve and paste it, but I found nothing. Your insights definitely would have been much appreciated. I am glad to hear, though, that you are in agreement with me regarding Spielberg.

    JAFB - I've yet to read a decent reasoning for the hatred too. Surely the box office numbers and commercial aspect of his work has to be a key reason. But again, few things annoy me more than people who hate a movie or director simply because of popularity. As for your rankings, I love seeing Jurassic Park that high - I have some great nostalgia of waiting in HUGE lines as a kid hoping to get into matinees of that film.

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  4. Schindler's List (1993)
    Jaws (1975)
    Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
    Duel (1971)
    Saving Private Ryan (1998)
    Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
    Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
    The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
    Empire of the Sun (1987)

    And from here not so good:

    War of the Worlds (2005)
    E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
    Hook (1991)
    Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
    Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
    Minority Report (2002)
    Amistad (1997)
    Catch Me if You Can (2002)
    The Terminal (2004)
    Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

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  5. Very interesting first entry in the new count down. I feel ambiguous towards mr. Spielberg. I see his skills, but I also see his choices of movies... Maybe I am an "elitist", I don't know. I clearly do not like the generic "epic" movie too much, and mr. Spielberg has done his share among those dreaded films...

    One very big plus is that he gave us Indy.

    In summary I understand that he is a genius at what he does, but he will never be in the list "My favorite directors".

    My top bunch:
    Raiders of the lost ark
    ET
    Jurassick Park
    Saving Private Ryan (due to the beach landing!)
    Indiana Jones and the last Crusade
    Jaws

    My "need to see":
    Duel
    Close encounters of the third kind
    Schindler's list

    Best regards,
    Henrik

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  6. This guy has created some of the best family/adventure movies of our time. So many classics!

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  7. Similar attacks were made about Frank Capra, too. The elitists are always on the wrong side of history; Speilberg is a master of film.

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  8. Indeed, C. Dexter Haven. He has always been the target of the elitists, especially those who can't digest a little emotion in their meals. He is a master of American cinema, ranking up there with Scorsese, Allen, F. Coppola, and Malick among living stateside directors. Dave, you've launched your series here in grand style, and I will gladly join in the fun with my own list of 20, though like you and all the other here I have see every film he's made. Interesting tha you opted not to quality BAND OF BROTHERS as eligible, though it's decision I agree with.

    1 Empire of the Sun
    2 A. I. Artificial Intelligence
    3 Schindler's List
    4 E. T.
    5 Raiders of the Lost Ark
    6 Saving Private Ryan
    7 Amistad
    8 Jaws
    9 Catch Me If You Can
    10 Duel
    11 Indiana Jones ad the Temple of Doom
    12 The Color Purple
    13 Munich
    14 The Terminal
    15 Jurrasic Park
    16 The Sugarland Express
    17 Hook
    18 Minority Report
    19 1941
    20 Always

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  9. My own top ten.
    1. AI: Artificial Intelligence
    2. Saving Private Ryan
    3. Munich
    4. Schindler's List
    5. Minority Report
    6. Jaws
    7. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
    8. Raiders Of The Lost Ark
    9. Catch Me If You Can
    10. Jurassic Park

    I would say Spielberg is both underrated and overrated at the same time. He cannot be lumped in with truly hack big budget directors like Michael Bay, George Lucas and James Cameron. His films do offer more substance than those mindless technical stylists. I think it's insulting when I read misinformed or snooty critics attempt to dismiss him with such comparisons. At the same time as I go over my list I realize he isn't in the same class as some of his peers like Kubrick, Malick, Scorsese, and Coppola. I would say he is maybe a notch or two below. I want to say he belongs in that company due to all the unwarranted criticism that gets thrown his way but I guess that's where the overrated part comes in for me.........M.Roca

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  10. I'm surprised to Catch Me if You Can in so many lists. I thought it was overlong and miscast. The Terminal was a good story but way too long for the story. Close Encounters is just unbearable. But, I do love Spielberg generally.

    The kids have been watching Hook lately and I've found it to be pretty good overall.

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  11. Let me see if I can recollect my thoughts, and maybe more concise in the process:

    Spielberg represents a "line in the sand" to a certain generation (his own) of film critics/scholars/cultural intellectuals. Younger and older folks have their ambivalence, but I would say that its largely the boomer-age crowd which has defined the line on him.

    He represents a perfect storm of qualities they detest about modern Hollywood: the fetishization of box office scores, the targeting of the adolescent/child demographic, the dependence upon fantasy, escapism, nostalgia, and comfort. For these reasons and others, he is indicative of the cultural shift away from the ambiguities and subversion of the sixties to the materialism and traditionalism of the Reagan era. Among intellectuals, this is seen as the "Fall" of that generation born between the early 40s to the mid 50s, and Spielberg and Lucas have a Luciferian role in this fall for those whose primary cultural investment is in the cinema.

    It should be pointed out that a few factors make Spielberg relatively unique in this regard. (As an aside, only Disney, as an institution rather than an individual by this point, and Lucas, who is more sporadic in his creative output and more overtly a tycoon, are as consistently decried in ambiguous terms; the Bays etc are demolished outright but ultimately seen as more symptom, less cause, than their more talented, and earlier-emerging, brethren).

    (continued below)

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  12. (continued)

    One, Spielberg born in 1946 (though he's changed the date to 1947, apparently when he was young to make him appear even younger) is generationally perfect for this enterprise. In a sense, Lucas would be a better echo of the generational patterns. After all, unlike Spielberg, he had genuine roots in the more radical aspects of New Hollywood (Zoetrope etc) and the counterculture (THX 1138 and even Star Wars have leftist-libertarian leanings, though the latter aspect made Star Wars a cause celebre of the Reagan years).

    However, as previously noted, he did not have his finger in as many pies post-'77, and he was less ambiguous as an artist (indeed, he gave up that role almost altogether in the 80s) than he was as a cultural figure. Spielberg, on the other hand, despite being an industry insider from the get-go (albeit for reasons of chutzpah and drive rather than connections or privilege) is more ambiguous as an artistic figure. He is clearly talented, visionary, and creative (not that Lucas isn't, but increasingly these qualities were filtered through organizations and intermediaries as he embraced the Thalberg role over the de Mille). Hence his bargain seemed more Faustian than Lucas - to mix Satanic metaphors.

    Another generational aspect simply has to do with "the present": other filmmakers, however popular or privileged (see below) are safely in the past; Spielberg must be dealt with now. It's harder to see the forest for the trees, or perhaps it's trees for the forest in this case.

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  13. (continued)

    Two (gee, this is not proving more concise, though it is a bit more organized and lucid!): the multiplicity of ambiguous factors, previously noted, but worth expanding upon. Many auteurs of the past were popular, mainstream, seen as dabbling in "trivial" genres (Hitchcock is a perfect case in point). Others gained actual power in Hollywood, in one form or another (Hawks often produced his own films, Chaplin owned a studio, even Kubrick was able to make his films however he wanted). Still others reflected values that the cultural establishment generally did not share, or aesthetic approaches that were not seen as too flamboyant or self-indulgent, or storytelling strategies that seemed to flatter the audience too much. But almost no other figures embodied ALL these qualities simultaneously, even as they repeatedly demonstrated their dominant and undeniable talents, proving they could not be dismissed.

    Critics can forgive Hitchcock his popularity (besides, Hitch was looked down upon by critics and the middlebrow establishment in his time, never winning a competitive Oscar; even when Spielberg was earning ambiguous reviews and being snubbed by the Academy - as he was for years - he was not being ignored in the same way, and hence the conditions for the same reevaluation are not quite there). They can forgive Ford his conservative inclinations (his outlaw personality and small-bore/genre-niche filmmaking ensure that - please note that it is upon the likes of The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that his current reputation rests upon more than The Grapes of Wrath, The Informer or other "establishment" pictures). They can forgive non-"smuggler" directors their autonomy, indeed even savor said autonomy if it isolates the filmmakers somewhat - even Scorsese, who has pretty much been enfolded in the hairy arms of the industry at this point, had enough years in the wilderness and maintains enough of an idiosyncratic, dark vision to be celebrated. But someone representing all these qualities at once? Only Walt Disney provokes as much discomfort, and in his case it was mostly after the fact, I think.

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  14. (continued)

    Three, Spielberg is a totem. To those who only know a little bit about directors, he is "THE filmmaker" (any aspiring filmmaker has been told at least once by a well-meaning non-cineaste, "you're going to be the next Spielberg!"; tellingly, by these people, Spielberg is usually characterized as a producer rather than a director). Even to those deeper in the thicket he is unavoidable. Unlike Lucas, he can't simply be labelled a sell-out tycoon and dismissed. That Charles Derry quote highlights this phenomenon perfectly. The power disparity between intellectuals and Spielberg is so egregious, there is little feeling that he can be treated like a fellow artist, struggling against the system to express himself, and anyway his aims seem too complicated to fit him into this paradigm. Any Spielberg product feels "forced" upon critics, and hence they feel compelled to resist - they are used to challenges and championing causes and are automatically suspicious of something that's so easily appreciable and so unneeding of their praise. He's the establishment.

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  15. (continued)

    Finally, aside from the cultural, auteurist, and anti-establishment elements, there is an aesthetic quality too, tied into both narrative choices and stylistic devices. Spielberg, as noted above, goes down easy which is not to say his work is not rich or complex in its own way: but one generally does not struggle with it (this is less true of his 00s work, but I think it's still true of Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan - or rather one struggles with those films after they're over or aside from the viewing, but goes with the flow while watching). Furthermore, particularly in his zenith as "boy filmmaker" (around the time of E.T.) his choice of topics, storytelling strategies, and fleet use of form to draw us further into the fiction, all created a sense of illusionism, a cloak falling over our eyes. Put simply, he is a mythological filmmaker and this in itself is something that post-sixties intellectuals are suspicious of, let alone what the mythologizing is applied to.

    Robin Wood probably offers the most succinct and honest appreciation/critique of this effect: "[The films] work" ... "because their workings correspond to the workings of our own social construction. I claim no exemption from this: I enjoy being reconstructed as a child, surrendering to the reactivation of a set of values and structures my adult self has long since repudiated, I am not immune to the blandishments of reassurance..."

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  16. (continued)

    Jonathan Rosenbaum is also a key case in point. Essential Cinema, which I am now reading, is replete with Spielberg-snarking, to the extent that most knocks on the director aren't even linked in the index. Here's one passage, after praising Richard Linklater's use of the film Greed in The Newton Boys: "Cameron or Spielberg wouldn't be caught dead creating a mysterious parenthesis of this kind, a discreet pocket of bliss in which audience members are invited to lose themselves: the necessity of lurching the story and the audience forward eliminates the very possibility of such a poetic and dreamlike interlude."

    Though I think that the widespread antipathy towards Spielberg generally produces a richer discourse around the filmmaker than a largely laudatory approach would, this quote highlights the worst of the prejudice to me. It ignores the ambivalence of Spielberg, his roots in both individual vision and larger social myth, to make a simplistic point about him as a cookie-cutter narrator.

    In fact, his early pictures are stuffed with minor details, momentary asides, irrelevant flourishes. Because these consist largely of domestic family interactions, suburban paraphenilia, and appropriatized pop cultural artifacts (Star Wars toys, Budweiser commercials, "Goofy golf") they're not likely to warm Rosenbaum as much as a screening of von Stroheim but they're still worth considering. Among other things, they point to a strong Altman's influence on Jaws, E.T., and especially Close Encounters, an element that usually gets overlooked. It adds an interesting flavor to the mix alongside the Hitchcock formalism and comic-book iconography. The contemporary blockbuster aesthetic, with its reliance on computer-animated signifiers, context-excluding close-up, and lack of interest in the "offscreen" has moved far, far away from what made Spielberg's early work (whatever its direct/indirect influence on these films) so rich and exciting.

    His movies were as much about the comforts and restlessness engendered by suburban cocoons, intense family dynamics, and imaginative yearning as they were about killer sharks, mysterious UFOs, or lost little aliens - there's a rewarding tension between the devices of fantasy and the realistic context which he never forgot to utilize. Aesthetically, he was fond of shots and sets which were cluttered with details - one feels one could strikes out in any direction and explore the world on, or offscreen. His films, despite their reputation for being closed, controlling, blinkered, are remarkably open in this sense.

    Rosenbaum is fairer to Spielberg in his review of A.I. in the same book, when he writes: "People who remain baffled that Kubrick ever proposed that Spielberg direct A.I. are perhaps succumbing to the media typecasting of both filmmakers. ... The two did have things in common: they were both middle-class Jewish prodigies and technical wizards who leaned toward war movies, SF, and adolescent sexuality and humor." Though the review acknowledges Spielberg's success largely in relation to the challenge Kubrick provided, it at least regards the two as equals in talent and capability, if not vision.

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  17. *I should note that my comparison to Altman is unclear. I had in mind the overlapping nature of these details, obviously in terms of sound design though visually they overlap as well.

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  18. MovieMan's is a tough act to follow, so I'll restrict myself to saying that Spielberg, like Lucas, is a scapegoat for the end of "the Seventies," is blamed for a perceived affinity with Reaganite optimism that blighted American cinema in the Eighties, and is identifed as a brand name with many of his Amblin productions, which do appear symptomatic of a dumbing-down of American movies. As an entrepreneur Spielberg has a lot to answer for, but that shouldn't bias our appraisal of his directing work. Now that he's reached a point in his career when he's had trouble getting an ambitious project (the Lincoln biopic) financed it may be easier to separate the artist from the icon of commerce.

    I regret to say that I haven't seen all his films. I'll rank what I have seen.

    1.Schindler's List
    2.Munich
    3.Close Encounters
    4.Raiders of the Lost Ark
    5.Saving Pvt. Ryan
    6.Jaws
    7.I.Jones & Temple of Doom
    8.Empire of the Sun
    9.1941
    10. Amistad
    11. A.I.
    12. Sugarland Express
    13. Minority Report
    14. Jurassic Park
    15. The Lost World
    16. E.T.
    17. I.Jones & Last Crusade
    18. Hook
    19. Always

    UNSEEN:Duel, The Color Purple, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, I.Jones & Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

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  19. Movie Man's act is a Hall of Famer, and absolutely impossible to follow!!!

    He is a tireless supporter of this often maligned artist and I stand toe-toe with him.

    Fantastic.

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  20. I do think some of the criticisms thrown against Spielberg have serious merit. I don't remember whose blog it was, but a bunch of us we're having a conversation on War Of The Worlds and Ed Howard made the point that it came across as all only being a dream, as if Spielberg was incapable of not doing a happy ending. And while I don't think that's particularly detrimental in that film's case (one of the director's best, in my opinion), it's harder to defend in something like Schindler's List. Because it is about the Holocaust, and because it's such a somber picture, Spielberg is demanding to be taken seriously, and some degree of verisimilitude is suggested, which makes it a pretty reprehensible picture in some ways. If you can't stand to look in the ovens you have no business making a Holocaust movie.

    But I do think he makes great movies, and is a great director. The widespread notion that in inventing the blockbuster he helped to get rid of the artistic freedom in American movies in the seventies is dependent upon all these myths about that time period, and this notion every other movie coming out in that time was The Godfather. There's many differences between an average film from 1975 and one from 1985, but none of them are overall quality.

    Anyway, here's my ten favorite Spielbergs in vaguely preferential order;

    Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
    Jaws
    Raiders Of The Lost Ark
    War Of The Worlds
    A.I.
    Munich
    Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom
    E.T.
    Duel
    Minority Report

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  21. Nostromo - Interesting, as some you list as subpar are favorites of mine... that's why seeing lists from other people is so interesting for me!

    Henke - I wouldn't say that you are elitist, as you acknowledge that the type of movie he is making just isn't necessarily your cup of tea... you're not just simply dismissing him because of the various asinine reasons that I went over the write-up. There's nothing wrong with not caring for a director or a type of movie, but the "anti popularity" thing is what annoys me to death. You don't seem to be taking that stance at all.

    Uber Torso - I agree... thanks for stopping by and please keep up with things as the countdown continues!

    C.K. - A very good parallel with Capra.

    Sam - I didn't include Band of Brothers since he didn't direct any of the episodes himself. If I did include it, it would have been #1 without hesitation. I see we have some similarity of favorites and I well remember your love of EMPIRE OF THE SUN and AI.

    M.Roca - That's a valid argument, as I don't think I would rank him above any of the ones you list either (hint, hint). But the wild backlash against all things Spielberg in some quarters is ridiculous.

    Robert - I definitely like Catch Me if You Can. Close Encounters I don't find as good as most other Spielberg fans, but I definitely don't think it's unbearable.

    MovieMan - I'm hope for lunch now and don't have time to go through your spectacular response here... I will get to it this evening once I get home from work. Definitely Hall of Fame material, as others have noted!

    Samuel - A very good summation of the like root of the Spielberg backlash. And I thought that you would have Munich ranked very high, as I remember that you thought very highly of it for decades lists. It's one that has definitely improved for me over time.

    Doniphon - I can see your argument here, but in the case of Schindler's List it doesn't bother me. Yes, it was a movie about the Holocaust, but more specifically it was a movie about a man during the Holocaust. I don't think that Spielberg necessarily HAS to account for every aspect of the event. If he wants to end things as a celebration of Schindler himself, I don't really have a problem with it. I certainly don't think it ended on a necessarily upbeat note. Like I said, though, I do understand where you are coming from, just not sure I completely agree.

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  22. That piece sure is a great support for Spielberg. I agree with what M.Roca commented above, that he's both underrated & overrated. And by the way, your point on elitism is well aimed. Spielberg, without doubt, was, and perhaps still is, one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Yet, on the side, along with his big-budget bonanzas, he had the guts to go against type and make some memorable offbeat movies too.

    Here are 6 of my favourites (ranked) from Spielberg:
    1. Munich
    2. Minority Report
    3. Jurassic Park
    4. Saving Private Ryan
    5. Jaws
    5. Schindler's List

    As you can see, like JAFB, my placing of Schindler's List, too, isn't as high as that of most others. Like him, I'd absolutely loved the film when I'd watched it initially, but somehow it dropped a bit since then.

    Minority Report, on the contrary, happens to be the most underrated film by Spielberg, in my opinion. I absolutely loved the mind-bending sci-fi - it was a brilliant film for me.

    As for E.T., I have some very serious issues with that film - that goes far beyond the artistic merit of the film (its a fine film, no doubt, and would have figured very high on my list but for my issues with it). Suffice it to say, Spielberg must come clear on the source for the film and give the person who the very concept of "E.T." really belonged to - Satyajit Ray - his due.

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  23. Dave, it is strange but only one divide us - A.I. ... And the sequence of course...

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  24. The first Indiana Jones are still amongst my favourite films of all time, and yes, that includes Temple of Doom. Honestly, I think it's a wonderful movie even with all it's flaws (plus I liked Short Round and most of the humour) and it's definitively miles better than Crystal Skull which is awful and, visually, one of the ugliest movie I've ever seen in my life.

    Other than that, I still need to catch up with some of Spielberg's most acclaimed work (still haven't seen Jaws, for example), so I'll reserve final judgment about him until then (Crystal Skull has somehow tainted the way I looked at him).

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  25. Great discussion with a lot to think about. Dave, I'll admit I'm not a big fan of Spielberg - I've seen about 20 of his, but when I tried to draw up a list I realised that I only really like a few of his movies. Admittedly, there are one or two acclaimed ones I haven't seen as yet, such as The Color Purple and Minority Report. He's not really a director I go for, as I tend to prefer movies which are on a smaller scale and don't have so many special effects and stunts. I do also feel he gets repetitive and sometimes tips over too far into sentimentality, for instance in The Terminal (this is an example of a film where it all seems to be a dream, to pick up on Doniphon's comment) or the last half hour of A.I., though I know many people would disagree with me on that one.

    Here's my list of the few that I love:

    1. Catch Me If You Can (I love DiCaprio and Walken in this, and also think it is one of my favourite performances by Tom Hanks - his grumpy scene in the laundrette is one of his finest hours.)

    2. Schindler's List - This should really be number one in terms of its importance, but I've been honest and put the one I love most at the top.

    3. Munich - The first time I saw this it absolutely blew me away and I thought it was a masterpiece. Second time around I noticed a few flaws, but I still think it is a very fine drama.

    4. Always - Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter are both wonderful in this, and I'm quite surprised not to see it higher in people's lists, though it has a reputation as more of a "woman's film". I know it is a remake of a 1940s film, 'A Guy Named Joe', so I really want to see that too.

    5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - The best of the Indy films for my money, partly because I like the relationship between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. I also enjoyed Raiders and Temple of Doom, but not Crystal Skull.

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  26. Doniphon,

    For what it's worth the only Spielberg film I find genuinely problematic is Schindler's List (the rest simply are what they are, and should be accepted as such). And I say this thinking also that it may be his stone-cold masterpiece.

    Everyone else,

    On another note, why the generally low marks for E.T., even among fans? I find it to be his keystone work - personally I'd place it right after Schindler's List, and in terms of perfectly embodying the auteur's vision and sensibility I think it has no peers.

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  27. Shubhajit,

    Wow - that's the first I heard of that rumor (Ray's The Alien providing the inspiration and perhaps even an outright model for E.T.). I googled it and found out a bit more. I wonder if it's true - or if it's just a case of "like minds"?

    At any rate, there seems to be some rather outlandish conspiracy theories circulating around the notion that Spielberg stole the script from Ray without acknowledgement. My favorite is the notion that the Academy was going to award the Oscar to E.T. but gave it to Gandhi instead due to James Ivory (who knew and had worked with Ray) pulling strings behind the scene to ensure that justice was served to his old pal. And that then Spielberg was so infuriated he crafted the Indian stereotypes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as revenge against Ray!

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  28. MovieMan - I don't really know what more I can add to your spectacular response. It is great stuff and incredibly fascinating to consider the points your make.

    As for this: "My favorite is the notion that the Academy was going to award the Oscar to E.T. but gave it to Gandhi instead due to James Ivory (who knew and had worked with Ray) pulling strings behind the scene to ensure that justice was served to his old pal. And that then Spielberg was so infuriated he crafted the Indian stereotypes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as revenge against Ray!"

    That literally made me laugh out loud.

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  29. Samuel Wilson's statement that Spielberg gets blamed for ending the '70s is right-on. His "Jaws" changed everything from the type of movies Hollywood was willing to make to distribution of the films. Good or bad his influence makes him essential. So many greats comments I cannot really add anything.

    My top 10 are below

    Jaws
    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    A.I.
    Empire of the Sun
    Duel
    Schindler's List
    Minority Report
    The Sugarland Express
    E.T.
    Close Encounters

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  30. I'm going to hold off a full ranking to wait until I finish my own loosely scheduled retrospective of his work, but the top 5 I would have had before starting this would be:

    1. Jaws
    2. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
    3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
    4. Munich
    5. Schindler's List

    I've already done a huge turnaround from my childhood indifference to Close Encounters, so I'll be interested to see what a full ranking looks like when I'm done.

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  31. Shubhajit - I had no clue concerning the Ray thing either, so interesting stuff to look into. I don't care much for E.T. as it is, so it doesn't really bother me one way or the other!

    That Quebec Guy - Yes, I love Indiana Jones as well, particularly the first and third. I don't dislike Temple of Doom, but I really really love Raiders and Last Crusade so it doesn't compare to them for me.

    Judy - Glad to see more Last Crusade love... I agree with you, I like the interaction between Ford and Connery.

    John - You're spot on, whether or not you care for his brand of filmmaking, he is not a personality that can simply be disregarded as many would like to.

    Jake - Yes, I know that you have been doing your own Spielberg retrospective, so definitely don't give anything away concerning your own future postings. But your Top 5 there are certainly some of my favorites also.

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  33. Brilliant thread here -- I just have to say, if you love film, you have to love Spielberg's enthusiasm for the study of film and his longevity in the business -- he's weathered a lot and always goes full throttle (well, almost always -- he's been hit or miss lately) -- but anyhow...

    --My faves (in particular order)

    Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    Schindler's List
    Saving Private Ryan
    Jurassic Park
    Sugarland Express

    --Misunderstood or Underrated:
    Amistad
    A.I.
    Munich
    Minority Report
    War of the Worlds (yup, I said it...I liked this one a lot except for the awful happy ending)

    --Always thought these were a bit overrated (but by all accounts still high quality):

    Jaws (I just never thought it was "scary" but I totally get why people rave about it)
    E.T. (I actually kinda hate this one)

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  34. Dennis PolifroniJune 1, 2010 at 10:30 PM

    In all actuality I find compliling a list of this director's work exceedingly difficult. As I discovered him in my youth, like so many "products" of the 60's I will tell you that th efilm that literally changed my life, and made me a film fanatic was his `1975 adventure film "Jaws." As I've stated at WitD I think that "Jaws" is an absolutely perfect entertainment. It has a little bit of everything in it. And while I hold fast to my love for that film, watching the director embark on a journey into accepted maturity has for me been a thrill to watch unfold. So often I am jealous of people born earlier in the century who were able to watch the unfolding of careers of directors like John Ford, Orson Welles, Howard Hawkes and Billy Wilder, I feel privleged that I was able to see the artistic arc of his work reveal itself over time. To compare his fantasy work to his grittier, more mature work is unfair. I find a film like E.T. has just as much emotional resonance as a film like "Schindler's List" made later in his life.

    So here now is my list:

    1 Schindler's List
    2 E. T. The Extra Terrestrial
    3 Jaws
    4 Close Encounters (to this day I feel his original ending was correct)
    5 A.I. Artificial Intelligence
    6 Empire of the Sun
    7 Raiders of the Lost Ark
    8 Minority Report
    9 The Color Purple (grossly underrated)
    10 Catch Me If You Can

    BTW: I've often been upset at the snobbery aimed at his wonderful WAR OF THE WORLDS. If people would look at this film with better eyes they'd realize it's not a terrible interpretation of Wells' books, but a brilliant metaphor for the senselessness of terrorism (which he amply talked about in MUNICH that same year.)

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  35. Adam - A wonderful response and defensive of a favorite director... great stuff!

    David - I agree... for me at least, that passion is infectious. Despite all of the technical innovation and being IDed as a "Reagan generation director," that aspect of his personality feels like a throwback to me.

    Dennis - Thanks for stopping by! I well remember you speaking at WitD about the great experience that you had with Jaws. As someone who has never been crazy about swimming in water when I can't see precisely what is swimming around me, Jaws made a serious impression on my as a kid... that's for sure! I also hear exactly what you are saying about wishing you (or I, or any of us) had been around to watch careers like Hawks, Wilder, Ford, Hitchcock, etc. It's definitely a privilege to be able to see each aspect and development over the course of an entire career.

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  36. Dave, I hear what you're saying, and it's a precarious position either way, and I don't think a director is responsible for showing everything either (I'm not knocking Verhoeven or Tarantino for not showing showers in their WWII films). But there remains, for me at least, something really disturbing about the film that has more to do with the treatment than the subject matter, although I haven't seen it in several years and shouldn't speak too definitively about it. I really should re-watch it (if it's at the library when I go tomorrow I'll try to and comment back here), but I'm very wary of any attempt to make sense of that kind of atrocity in the way Spielberg did there. But I need to see it again.

    On another note, Nick Ray is one of my absolute favorite directors, and if it's okay I think I'll prepare a little piece to post in your comment section. Maybe my ten favorite films of his with a little blurb on each or something.

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  37. MovieMan: I wouldn't be able to respond to the Oscar rebuff & getting even through Indiana Jones, one way or the other. But the good alien in E.T. bears such an uncanny resemblance to Ray's version of Alien (drawn by Ray, and which can be easily viewed through Google, or in Ray's biographies if you have them) that its difficult to explain that with "great men think alike". In fact, even Close Encounters... bears resmeblance to the story of Alien, which in turn was based on a short story by Ray in Bengali called Bankubabur Bandhu which I've read, and reread after I became aware of the plagiarism allegations against Spielberg.

    Here's the concise version of the event as mentioned in Wikipedia...
    "In 1967, Ray wrote a script for a film to be called The Alien, based on his short story Bankubabur Bandhu ("Banku Babu's Friend") which he wrote in 1962 for Sandesh, the Ray family magazine. The Alien had Columbia Pictures as producer for this planned U.S.-India co-production, and Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando as the leading actors. However, Ray was surprised to find that the script he had written had already been copyrighted and the fee appropriated by Mike Wilson. Wilson had initially approached Ray as an acquaintance of a mutual friend, Arthur C. Clarke, to represent him in Hollywood. The script Wilson had copyrighted was credited as Mike Wilson & Satyajit Ray, despite the fact that he only contributed a single word in it. Ray later stated that he never received a penny for the script.[29] Brando later dropped out of the project, and though an attempt was made to replace him with James Coburn, Ray became disillusioned and returned to Kolkata.[29][30] Columbia expressed interest in reviving the project several times in the 1970s and 1980s, but nothing came of it. When E.T. was released in 1982, Clarke and Ray saw similarities in the film to the earlier Alien script—Ray discussed the collapse of the project in a 1980 Sight & Sound feature, with further details revealed by Ray's biographer Andrew Robinson (in The Inner Eye, 1989). Ray believed that Spielberg's film would not have been possible without his script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies (a charge Spielberg denies)."

    Maybe Spielberg wasn't really plagiarising intentionally. Maybe the script & the "good alien" concept landed in his hands when he made E.T. & Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So I'm not really putting it whole on Spielberg. After all I'm an admirer of a lot of Spielberg's films. Only that, he should come open with it cos I'm sure he must be aware of the implications of his actions.

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  38. Adam,

    I think Crispin Glover probably was on drugs when he wrote that. Or all the time.

    Dennis,

    Finally a list with E.T. up there!

    Shubhajit,

    I did see the wikipedia passage (along with the obscure thread which accused Ivory of denying Spielberg his Oscar etc.). I've not seen the drawings yet, which sound more damning than the evidence wiki mentions - I'll look into them. Either way, it would not change my opinion of the film, but it is interesting how Spielberg has been charged with slipperiness from time to time. Another example is his supposed appearance on the Twilight Zone set the day of that helicopter accident which decapitated Vic Morrow and the kid actors. He vehemently denies having been there, and supposedly distanced himself

    John Baxter wrote a biography of Spielberg which is interesting if gossipy. It has some astute observations, particularly about Schindler's List, but in addition to its pulpy aspects (dredging up every rumor and insult it can find in the notoriously resentful community of Hollywood) it's very sloppily edited - at one point even repeats several sentences, word for word, that already appeared several pages earlier.

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  39. should read "distanced himself from John Landis for a while."

    In the same comment that I criticize Baxter's editing too!

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  40. Consider visiting these links:

    http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2009/05/04/perceptions.htm

    http://www.satyajitrayworld.com/raysfilmography/unmaderay.aspx

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  41. My list would look like this:

    1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
    2. Schindler's List
    3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
    4. Jaws
    5. Saving Private Ryan
    6. Duel
    7. Catch Me If You Can
    8. War of the Worlds
    9. Minority Report
    10. Jurassic Park
    11. Jurassic Park II
    12. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

    All but the bottom two films I would consider at least good and something I'd definitely watch again.

    Also, I just realized I've still never seen E.T. As a 32-year old, that's probably kind of rare. Can I somehow blame my parents for that?

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  42. Troy - Good to hear that you enjoy Spielberg as well... and once again, I love seeing others that dig The Last Crusade as much as I do.

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  43. What would movie-land today look like without Spielgberg, he made tons of great films.

    Schindler's List & Saving Private Ryan are my favorites :)

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  44. I've been wondering around this blog for a while now, and I've been enjoying all of the insightful and intelligent film reviews and commentaries (great job, Dave. Your articles are better than 95% of all "professional" film reviews). I haven't seen the need to comment, though, until I came across this article, simply because I have some very fiery views on Spielberg and his position in cinematic history.

    The key to understanding Spielberg's rightful acclaim is, in my opinion, the debate of entertainment versus art (presented below).

    To begin with- is there a difference between entertainment and art? I believe there is.

    Entertainment is all about pleasing the audience. At its best, it offers a sense of comfort, of relief, of escapism, and of wonder; it is designed to, first and foremost, provide a visceral emotional experience that ultimately provides the viewer with some strong sense of catharsis. It can perhaps be best described as "stimulation for stimulation's sake". It does not challenge the viewer on any level; rather, it leads them to some sort of comfortable conclusion, one that is, well, warm and fuzzy and nice. An example of this is the film "Avatar".

    Art is the opposite. It exists as an expression of the director's will, and does not necessarily reward the viewer; rather, it is supposed to represent some sort of philosophical and intellectual view point that challenges and provokes. Art often employs unconventional narrative techniques, and often meets an initially negative reaction; the greatness of art is sometimes recognized after the fact, after digestion of said work. Art transcends beyond the screen, and is suppose to change the viewer on some sort of cerebral level; because of that, art may be good even if the experiencing of it is not necessarily strictly enjoyable (notably, this does not mean that art cannot be enjoyable. Goodfellas comes to mind- it is most certainly art, but is also one of the most enjoyable films ever made in my book).

    Art and entertainment both have their place in the world, and one cannot exist without the other. People need both of them. However, lists of great directors, intellectual analysis, important awards- belong to the realm of art, simply because art, as something that provides something beyond the immediate, has the potential to simply be more important and interesting than entertainment. That does not mean that entertainment should not be rewarded; it simply has its own place, most notably the box office.

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  45. (continued)

    This is, of course, not all there is to be said about art versus entertainment, but I think that's enough for the purpose of this specific debate.

    I think you can see where I'm going with this. Spielberg is the supreme entertainer, and knows how to awe and thrill better than the vast majority of directors; he is not, however, an artist. I'm sure I don't need to explain why the very films he gained fame for, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, E.T, and such are entertainment, so I'll get right to the big ones.

    Let's take a look at Schindler's List. It is often credited as Spielberg's artistic zenith, his masterpiece. I'm, however, going to go out on a limb and say that Schindler's List is an example of entertainment that is under the pretention that it is, in fact, art.

    Schindler's list is a bombastic, sentimental movie; there are clear good guys and bad guys in it, for instance (despite Schindler's "change" in the movie): we always know who to root for. Never in the film is there a sense of doubt, ambiguity. Think of Schindler's ending speech: not only is it exagerrated and sentimental, but it is as emotionally manipulative as it gets. Sure, it works on that level- but did any of you leave Schindler's List changed? Did it ever cause you to re-inspect the human condition, to THINK?

    It does not analyze human nature on some deep level. It does not analyze the event known as the Holocaust in a way that is different and impacting, merely stating the obvious. Sure, it shows how good and evil humans can be; but do any of you need to be told that "humans can be really good and really bad!"? Schindler's List is ultimately a comforting, crowd pleasing, overtly manipulative movie. It's entertainment.

    Overall, that sums up most of Spielberg's "adult movies"- entertainment disguised as art, films that all value the heart above the head. [I haven't seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though, and I heard that it's supposed to be good... who knows, maybe I'll watch it and revise my opinion of Spielberg?]

    That doesn't mean that Spielberg is a bad director, that Schindler's List is a bad movie. He's a great director. He is, however, ultimately an entertainer rather than an artist, and therefore has no place in my list of best directors.

    Here are my 5 favorite Spielberg movies, in order:

    1. Raiders of the Lost Ark/Temple of Doom/Last Crusade (I see them all as equals)
    2. Minority Report
    3. Jaws
    4. Schindler's List
    5. Jurassic Park

    Thanks for reading through my rant, everyone. Sorry if it was incoherent or gramatically incorrect at times... I'm not a native English speaker.

    Keep up the good work, Dave.

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  46. Ethan - Your response here is a great one. Also, don't ever feel the need to apologize for your English or writing - it is excellent! Seriously, this is a wonderful response and the type of stuff I love to see in this series.

    I can't really argue with the points you outline and I can see a distinction between entertainment and art. The thing that I am leery of getting into is deciding what is and what is not art. That, to me, is something that can be decided on an individual basis. What annoys me more than anything are "professional" scholars, critics, historians, etc. that take it upon themselves to deem what is worthy of being classified as art and what is not. Schindler's List may be art to me but not to you (or vice versa). I have no problem with that. I just don't like the ombudsman role that some people take on themselves in deciding this for everyone.

    Call me a populist I suppose, but I do think there is merit in the old saying that "art is in the eye of the beholder."

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  47. I'll just reiterate, Ethan, that your response is great though... a wonderful counterpoint to MovieMan's earlier excellent response. This is has EASILY been the best post in the history of this blog in terms of comments.

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  48. Harry - Thanks for stopping by... I love Schindler's and Ryan as well!

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  49. Thanks for your kind comments on my post :).

    The thing is, while I'm not sure there are objective standards as to what quantifies "good" or "bad" art/entertainment, I believe that it is within the power of the human mind to define what is art and what is entertainment. It is like distinguishing between the color yellow and red; certainly there is a difference, right? What is debatable, however, is whether yellow is prettier than red or vice versa. For the sake of the metaphor, let's assume that some colors are complex enough to warrant debate as to whether they are more "yellow" or "red".

    That's my opinion on art and entertainment. We can debate about whether Schindler's List is art, entertainment, or a mixture of both, and hypothetically reach some sort of objective conclusion; I did my best explaining why I find it to be entertainment, and why it therefore deserves less acclaim on such lists than, say, art films like Eyes Wide Shut.

    What bothers me, though, is when film critics define "art" and "entertainment" according to some extremely loose, arguably non-existing standards. Indeed, it can perhaps be better said that they deem films they dislike "entertainment" and films they like "art".

    By the way, Dave, do you know anything about postmodernism? Because if you don't, I really think you'll appreciate the postmodern school of thought (among other things, it opposes the traditional separation of "art" and "entertainment").

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  50. Good points again, Ethan. And I completely agree that one can definitely come to a conclusion as to what is art and what is "just" entertainment. But as you say, I don't think there are clear cut objective standards... I still think that ultimately each person is going to have to define it for themselves, which means that all definitions are going to vary.

    So... then, at least in my mind, no definition is going to be much good except for each person. People with similar opinions/mindsets/etc. are going to have similar definitions and agree. Those that don't could be completely at odds.

    I can see a clear distinction. I just don't see where my distinction is any more or less valid than yours, John Q. Public's, or anyone else. We might both easily agree that the latest Michael Bay film is just entertainment. But does that mean that someone who actually feels it is art (which would not be me) is just flat out wrong? Perhaps it does... I just don't know if I'm ready to make that conclusion.

    Is that postmodern? I don't know enough about the actual tenets of the school of thought to say whether it is or not.

    Very interesting discussion, though, and I think we're in agreement about the fact that distinctions can be made. I think they most certainly can. I just don't know if they're valid for anyone but the person actually making them.

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  51. Alright, a fair enough analysis. While it may be a bit arrogant and elitist of me to declare the standards I advocate "objective", I believe that humans can accurately define certain terms and deem those who misuse those terms "wrong". Like yellow and red. Because of that, I would tell the Michael Bay fan in your example that he is simply wrong.

    Where I could not make the same judgement, however, is if said Michael Bay fan stated that "Transformers is the greatest movie ever made and Bay is Jesus reincarnated". While such a statement would simply seem wrong to people like us, can we prove it? I'm not sure. I would love to declare that there are objective standards that measure "good" or "bad" art, but I'm not that sure.

    What I do believe, however, is that the actual opinion of certain people is better than the opinion of others- if we don't think that, after all, the entire insitution of professional film criticism is redunant.

    Anyway, while I'm fairly confident you'd disagree with the most hardcore elements of postmodernism, some of what you say sounds rather postmodern. The base value of postmoderism is: there is no truth. There are only subjective point of views, narratives, if you will, that exist for each and every individual. Each one of those narratives is equal. Because of that, a postmodernist would say that art and entertainment are equal, and that the assumption that Michael Bay is the greatest director of all time is as valid as saying "the sun is yellow".

    Among directors, examples of postmodernists are the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Frankly, that's why its difficult to state whether their films are "art" or "entertainment". A film like Pulp Fiction, for example, has philosophical to say about reality. Therefore, we would ordinarily dismiss it as entertainment- but is it, necessarily? Pulp Fiction suggests that there is nothing to teach about reality, as reality is meaningless, random, and cannot be understood by the human mind... so is it actually art?

    We're sort of deviating off-topic here, but I too find this discussion very interesting (and, well, sort of relevant!).

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  52. This may be going off-topic, but it really is a incredibly interesting discussion. I guess I'm somewhat in the middle of the two schools of thought - as you say, not quite a full-blown postmodern outlook, but still think that a lot is left to the individual to decide for himself.

    I guess if someone told me that Michael Bay was the greatest director who ever lived, I too would simply tell him he is flat out wrong. But if I were to make the statement that Carl Dreyer, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, etc., etc. are the greatest to ever live and somebody tells me I'm wrong, I don't think there is an objective way of proving that I would in fact be right. I still maintain that in the end, you're going to have to personally make your own judgment call.

    Fortunately, in a countdown like this, it really is personal taste. I am picking the directors that give me the most pleasure - whether this comes from pure entertainment, deeply philosophical works, or emotionally moving films. All of these are factored in, but I don't really have to make a delineation between the types of films. I'm picking what I like most. Now, granted, what most people would classify as "art" is more likely to earn a spot in lists like this than mere "entertainment," but that is not always the case.

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  53. While you might be closer to postmodernism than I am, I, too, cannot call myself a true modernist (as you might guess, modernism is sort of the opposite of postmodernism. Spielberg is a perfect example of a modernist director), as I do believe that the truth is often ambiguous and difficult to define. If someone were to ask me what the best film of all time is, I would do my best to rationalize my choice, but would I be able to prove it beyond any shadow of doubt? Is Citizen Kane the "objectively" greatest film of all time, as most critics seem to think? I think that reality is somewhere between postmodernism and modernism, between subjectivity and objectivity; striking a balance in one's philosophy is necessary.

    For that reason, my own "Favorite Films" list would be a mixture of films that I personally love and films that I acknowledge as marvelous masterworks. Interestingly, the films I enjoy the most tend to belong to a category I like to call "artentainment"- films that represent some sort of deep, multi-layered philosophical view while simultaneously providing enjoyment on a visceral, base emotional level.

    If the film industry was dominated by "artentainment", it would be in a truly ideal state, as intelligent, provoking films be endorsed by major studios and would make huge amounts of money. That's why I think the 70's were the best time for movies- artistic masterpieces like the Godfather, Taxi Driver, and a Clockwork Orange achieved much mainstream success and acknowledgement (in particular, the Godfather was the highest grossing film of all time at the time of its release).

    Perhaps, as many before me have noted, one of the reasons I feel ambiguous towards Spielberg is because I see him as a symbol of Hollywood's shift from "Artentainment" to simply "entertainment". My greatest fear is that the movie industry will eventually become dominated soley by entertainment, art being unprofitable and redunant in our current world. I do not, however, think that will happen so long as talented directors and intelligent film critics live; I just hope that the movie industry will shift more towards artentainment.

    I don't know much about the other directors you posted in your countdown thus far, but I can't wait to comment on some directors I know and love (who I assume will occupy the top spots in this countdown). My biggest question so far is if Hitchcock or Scorsese will occupy your number one spot (my money's on Hitchcock, though I'd personally go for Scorsese).

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  54. Oh, man!

    Ethan, if you'd posted this a few months ago, or even a week ago, I'd be jumping in with a multi-paragraph response. You've hit on all the themes I've found irresistable over the past year or so: subjectivity vs. objectivity in art, oppositions between art and entertainment, the difference between "favorite" and "great", and modernism and postmodernism and what they mean. (Apropos, I disagree with your characterizations to a certain extent; for one thing, modernism is opposed to postmodernism much as liberalism is opposed to radicalism - not as opposite but as varying extremes on a spectrum, modernism being a kind of way station between loosely-defined classicism/traditionalism and postmodernism, a way station I generally prefer to both - particularly the second - but that's neither here nor there. As for art vs. entertainment, I think the distinction you pose is too sharp, even as you acknowledge you like films which mix the two. I think Schindler's primary ambiguity is to be found in the character of Goethe, as charismatically fascinating as he is morally repellent, and also, ironically, in the way the film tackles a serious subject in a showmanlike way - there's a rich, complex tension there, however unintentional.)

    Anyway, I have to stop there. As of now, I'm taking a breather from getting into long, long-winded blog exchanges, or trying to anyway. I can come back later and link to some of the past discussions I've had which are relevant, if you're interested. These topics generally do interest me a great deal.


    And oh, by the way, you're wrong about something else: the sun isn't yellow at all, my friend. It's chicken. (Or at least it was until I closed shop last week.)

    Sorry, that was really inside baseball! ;)

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  55. Very well, then, my unapologetic postmodernist friend (I haven't seen one of those in ages).

    While my knowledge on postmodernism and modernism is admittedly somewhat sophomoric, I know enough to conclude that these two are radical opposites, I guess in someway comparable to liberalism vs. fascism.

    According to the modernistic grasp, the universe functions according to discernible laws, one that can be understood and appropriately taken advantage of by the human rationale. There is an "objective" reality- even action has a correct cause, and anyone who refuses to acknowledge said cause is simply incorrect (in extreme cases, insane).

    The postmodernistic grasp, however, blatantly opposes that philosophy, believing that there is no such thing as "truth" or "objectivity" in this world. Everything is from someone's point of views- hence, to me, the sun might be yellow, and to you, it might be chicken. While a modernist would, had you made that comment seriously, have you committed, a postmodernist would claim that you beliefs have as much merit as mine. With the arguable exception of advanced quantum mechanics (that suggest that the universe is in many ways affected by chance and coincidence), postmodernism is largely opposed to science and any attempt by humanity to determine a certain truth about the universe- as said truth does not exist according to postmodernism, or is at least indefinable by the human rationale.

    As postmodernism claims that everyone's point of view is equal, it also opposes hierarchy in art and the traditional distinction between "art" and "entertainment". Therefore, a postmodernist would claim that my claim that Spielberg's craft is inherently inferior to, say, Fellini's, is inane.

    The thing is about Schindler's List is that it does not tackle the holocaust. It depicts the holocaust. There is a difference. Did you learn anything about the holocaust beyond the obvious from it? Did you learn something important about human nature that had already been expressed in countless, infinitely more complex pieces? Goethe is an interesting character, yes, but he is a sociopath. He is evil. There is never any question as to what his fate should be and what his nature is, or, hell, what his motives and backgrounds are; he's simply a somewhat charming villain, something that is far from new (the Silence of the Lambs is an example of film that does a much better job of crafting a multi-layered anatagonist with whom the audience engages in a complex relationship). Schindler's List is excellent showsmanship, an emotional trip that is both saddening and ultimately inspiring. But I haven't found any person who could prove that Schindler's List truly is "art" (as I have attempted to define it).

    If you don't want to get into an elongated debate with me, you don't have to respond now :). But I would like some of those links you promised...

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  56. No, you've got me wrong - I don't have much use for postmodernism personally. Although of course I have the art world's postmodernism in mind more than, say, a philosophical or political postmodernism (however much they might all overlap).

    So when I'm talking about modernism I'm thinking of, say, T.S. Eliot or James Joyce - someone who made a clean break from past modes of working but still revered and referenced tradition with a sort of awe. (I would put Godard in this category too, contrary to some who classify him as postmodernist.) I see postmodernism is more or less a free-for-all, not really mourning past structures or ways of seeing the world so much as moving completely beyond them, embracing the chaos so to speak. That's why I said modernism was a way station.

    I would say that Goeth and his charisma show us something about our own dark side, because we hate him but find him fascinating and perhaps recognize his narcissism as an extreme version of something we know in ourselves and others - this is not new, of course, but since when do great themes have to be new? Anything that is moving or electrifying on a deep level, even if it eschews depth in other ways, I would not have a problem calling art, personally.

    Here are some links to previous discussions that touched on these topics (apologies ahead of time if your eyes glaze over; I know mine would on re-reading my lengthy online rambles!):

    Here is a ridiculously long thread which digs into objectivity vs. subjectivity in criticism, and how one distinguishes between the two: http://checkingonmysausages.blogspot.com/2010/02/citizen-kane_05.html

    And here's another one which touches on postmodernism and the value of canons/pantheons:
    http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/2001-a-space-odyssey-no-13/
    The conversation continued here:
    http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2009/05/21/shakespeares-the-merchant-of-venice-in-prison-setting-at-bam-harvey-theatre/#comment-7599


    Sorry, that's all I've got now. Like I said I'm trying to ratchet down this debate-hungry persona as I think I've binged on such discussions over the past year, and now I've no appetite left!

    "I guess in someway comparable to liberalism vs. fascism." Don't tell Jonah Goldberg or the tea partiers! ;)

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  57. Alright, very well. While I deeply oppose the political implications of hardcore postmodernism, I certainly do appreciate its application in art. Postmodern films, when they are interesting and well-made, are unconventional, provoking, witty, and so forth. Enjoying those works does not demand full belief in postmodernism.

    To be fair, my definition of modernism is somewhat difference from your- in a certain sense, modernism is more "conservative" (not necessarily because it is associated with conservative political beliefs, but because it has been perhaps the predominant philosophy in the world since the 19th century), as modernistic films, for example, utilize a traditional narrative structure (exposition, catalyst, turning points, climax, conflict, etc). Though very few works are truly postmodern, those that are closer to it often utilize bolder narratives techniques and usually reject the drama of modernistic films (almost all postmodern movies are genre films). Hence, I don't see modernism as a bridge between traditionalism and postmodernism, but more the very opposite of postmodernism. In my opinion, the greatest works are modernistic (as postmodern films do not have anything philosophical to say about the world- that's part of postmodernism), but employ certain bold storytelling tactics that might be more consistent with postmodernism.

    Perhaps Goethe is supposed to represent our dark side. Even if he is, however, that attempt at "philosophy" is superficial, shallow, and has been done countless and better times. You say themes don't have to be innovative to be appreciated? I say they do. If a film does what countless other films have done better, why should it be appreciated? I cannot acknowledge Schindler's List to be art because it lacks depth; it does not tackle the holocaust in a way that such an event deserves. I enjoyed the movie very much, and was left emotionally wrecked after it; however, as a so-called "film critic", I cannot dub it "art" simply because it triggered my heart. If we have a distinct definition of art, we should attempt to cross all films we watch with it and deem if they conform to the definition of "art" (or at least what I believe art is).

    Anyway, those links you gave me have left me with a lot of reading to do, so I'll get back to you when I'm done :).

    As for the tea partiers... those people are idiots who know nothing about philosophy or political science. They don't even know what liberalism really is (other than OMG SOCZIALISM!!!). Just my two cents.

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  58. Re: Schindler's, I agree, and I did, but unfortunately are definitions of art seem to differ!

    As with "modernism." What I have in mind really does not go back much further than just pre-WWI and really doesn't exploded until afterward (though I suppose Nietszche is a predecessor). If you see modernism as the complete opposite of postmodernism though, where does like pre-modern traditionalism?

    I can see I am not going as quietly into the night as I had hoped... ;)

    The Jonah Goldberg thing was supposed to be a joke, btw...

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  59. Well, I think we're kind of mixing terms up here (could be my fault, I've already said I'm rather new to this world of philosophy), so could you please define how you see traditionalism? It could be that I simply think traditionalism and modernism are the same things.

    To sum it up, modernism is a philosophy that emerged in the early 19th century, and is consistent with the philosophy known as rationalism and other such terms. It was based upon critical thinking and belief in humanity's ability to reach a better world through reasoning and deduction, and, of course, opposed the then-dominant belief in the supremacy of religion and humanity's role as being servants to a deity. Modernism changed the face of the world, and was among the many causes that led to the emergence of nationality (and, indeed, nationalism and fascism).

    Ultimately, though modernism is still probably the dominant philosophy in the western world, the tragedy of WWI and II led many to doubt the modernistic grasp and to adopt a new philosophy, postmodernism, which we have already defined in detail. Though postmodernism in art is a recession today, it was at its peak during the 90's.

    I know your tar partiers reference was a joke, but it's just my personality to get emotional when those sorts of subjects are mentioned ;).

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  60. Ethan, MovieMan,

    I'm completely new to this way of thought called post modernism. Through this discussion, and through the handful of articles I've managed to read on it so far, I do see its merits, especially in its tendency to embrace the world's complexities as it is.

    But I really can't get my head around its tenet that there is no universal truth and no right way to live (I can understand that there might not be one right way. But surely, all good ways of living must share some basic principles) Pray tell me, when there is no truth, what determines morality? I still can't hep but see post modernism as a self contradicting idea.

    Cheers!

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  61. According to postmodernism, there is no morality... other that morality is perfectly subjective. There is no "good" and "bad" way to live- all ways are inherently equal. Therefore, some postmodernists would argue that Ted Bundy and Mother Theresa are moral equals; we cannot determine one's superiority over the other according to certain universal, absolute truths. Postmodernism is, at its purest form, an anarchistic philosophy.

    What I would personally argue against that (by using postmodernism itself), is that enabling one to do harm to the other means that one's "narrative" is allowed to infringe upon another's, which could only work if the former's narrative was better than the latter's- something that is itself opposed to the basic tenets of postmodernist thought. But that's just my response, not necessarily indicative of the postmodernist way of thinking at large.

    When approaching postmodernism, you should know two things:

    1. Postmodernism is a so-called "closed philosophy". It has no basis in reality; it proves itself. Therefore, arguing with a postmodernist is a nigh impossible, as his philosophy proves itself.

    2. True postmodernists must be distinguished from people who simply dabble in postmodernism. Though David Lynch and Tarantino are both postmodern directors, for example, I doubt either endorses anarchism. True postmodernists... is there such a thing? Even they live their life according to certain established cause and effects; they sleep, they eat, they don't swallow cyanide pills. By doing that, they are indeed hypocrites in a certain sense. Plus, would any of them really not complain if their loves ones were murdered, because no truth suggests that murder is wrong?

    I think that postmodernism should be taken with a grain of salt- it cannot be fully embraced, because the consequences of that would be horrendous- but some of what postmodernism has to say is interesting and can perhaps lead to a better understand of the worlds and its many complexities.

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  62. Thanks for the clarification, Ethan.

    It's sort of interesting that your argument brings postmodernism close to modernism. That by pushing equality to the extreme, it runs the risk of violating liberty, bringing us back to "liberalism vs fascism" question. Something like Dosteyevsky's Rodion Raskolnikov or Hitchcock's Phillip Morgan (who can be considered modernists I believe?).

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  63. I think the reasoning I have for disliking Speilberg as a filmmaker is this.

    While on Vacation, Joe Dante directed Gremlins, Speilberg returned, disliked the film, but the test screening got a great response. Steven was praised for "Making another great movie", instead of pulling Joe in front of him and saying "It's Joe's baby, he's a great director, have you guys seen The Howling?" he accepted the praise and mentioned little if next to nothing about Joe.

    Poltergiest was more or less the same situation. Tobe Hooper just got off of his low budget Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he was asked by Steven to direct. But the reports, the making of, always showed Steven directing the picture, with Tobe sitting down with his coke can looking depressed.

    So Steven Spielberg makes Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull...and Tobe and Joe are directing commercials for Netflix.

    It just doesn't sit well with me. To me a good director would be someone like Roger Corman who gave Coppola, Scorcese, Dante, Cameron, Demme and others "The break", he gave them money to make their films and helped show them the ropes. I think that's way more respectable than someone who walks into a town and says "We need a river, build me a river."

    Now, a true filmmaker, a real artist would work around the fact of not having a river, by shooting on two locations or being creative...a technician would order for a river to be built.

    That's my gripe with Speilberg. It's easy to make a good film (In the general public's eyes) when you have a whole machine behind you, don't rock the boat in terms of content, and have everything at your disposal....but that doesn't take talent..that just takes being spoiled. Now making a film for next to nothing, working against the studio system and trying to say something in terms of content...that takes talent.

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  64. Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Munich and Color Purple are such racist, stupid, ahistorical and wholly dangerous films.

    Scorsese is another wildly overrated director, appealing to juveniles.

    Watch AI. Kubrick shows exactly why Spielberg is an artificial intelligence.

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  65. Spielberg is a postmodernist. It's not even debatable. All his films are updates of films done before.

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  66. I wonder if you have more stuff about the movies of this guy!

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