At their best the Pocket Essentials allow for a whole career or topic to be surveyed, summarised and easily digested. But they require authors who are able to combine vibrant analysis with a gift for the format. James Clarke’s take on Spielberg falls short on two fronts: it bafflingly puts the movies into unhelpful groups, and it fails to give Spielberg’s achievements an honest once-over. Of course it’s in the nature of Pocket Essentials to be celebratory, and one of the functions of the series is to try to persuade, or encourage, readers to (re)visit the subject in question. But Clarke offers little more than blind adoration of a director who, by his very success, could surely withstand a little criticism.
There are people who blame Spielberg (and George Lucas) for dumbing-down cinema by ushering in the modern era of the blockbuster, thanks to films such as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). That argument isn’t really convincing: it’s surely (sadly) in the nature of popular success to be conservative, and if you take a look at the big money-spinners throughout history, you’ll find a remarkable amount of mass-market middle-of-the-road movies: Gone With the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959) – the types of films that Spielberg and Lucas might have made had they been directing a generation or two earlier. It’s only because they came along in the thick of the seventies – where so many American movies were gutsy, intelligent and uncompromising – that it looks like they lowered the tone. Most people, though, would probably agree that Spielberg’s early films – by which I mean everything up to and including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – are, for all their shortcomings, fantastically entertaining. So I can’t really quibble with Clarke’s enthusiasm for the likes of Duel (1971) (‘a stunning display of economical storytelling’), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (‘perhaps still the ultimate Spielberg film’) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) (‘Spielberg’s great suburban epic’).
But although it may not be unreasonable to say that The Color Purple (1985) ‘affirms faith, hope, solace, loneliness and the power of home’, shouldn’t we also cast a merciless eye on its clichéd, prettified view of slavery (not to mention domestic abuse) and its sexless lesbianism? Clarke mentions that cinematographer Allen Daviau ‘gives the film a purple/pink tone almost throughout’. And yet there is no sense of how the choice of visual style, when combined with the perilous sentimentality, results in a simplistic and forgettable movie. The closest he gets to a pertinent comment is: ‘The prevailing criticism of the Indiana Jones films has been their possibly unthinking racism towards non-white cultures.’ But Clarke only reports the concern: he doesn’t agree with it or refute it.
In general, Clarke’s points tend towards the obvious – of E.T., for example, he writes that ‘Love is a big idea in this film’, while ‘Jaws is notable for its fine balance between tension, spectacle and character’. Furthermore, his writing style often amounts to an accumulation of one-line insights and thoughts – as if he’s merely transcribed the notes he took during screenings. And even in note form he misses the mark: Close Encounters is not a road movie – and it’s not set in 1977, it’s set in the ‘Present Day’, which is a little different. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is not austere, it’s as elastic as Raiders – it’s just about sadder things; and where exactly is the ’emotional drive and intelligence’ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)? At the same time, he does often uncover things that most of us Spielberg watchers probably didn’t already know: the ominous clouds in Close Encounters, for instance, were created by filming paint being poured into a water tank.
This is an updated, second edition of the book, with brief entries for Artificial Intelligence A.I. (2001), Minority Report (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002) and The Terminal (2004). These amount to little more than footnotes to the book’s previous edition; it’s baffling as to why they didn’t receive full entries like the other films. And I found no mention of Something Evil (1972), the rather chilling movie Spielberg directed between Duel and The Sugarland Express (1974). It pains me to say it, but this book has to be counted as a rare misfire in the Pocket Essentials series.