Lester D. Friedman, author of Citizen Spielberg, answers questions on his scholarly influences, discoveries, and reader takeaways in his book.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I did not begin to write on Steven Spielberg as a labor of love. It began when students requested a course on Spielberg and, much to my surprise, I could not find a comprehensive book that provided a scholarly study of his films; most were primarily concerned with others matters regarding his career: biography, interviews, behind-the-scenes revelations. I simply could not understand why scholars had ignored Steven Spielberg, arguably the most important figure in screen culture over the last few decades. Perhaps, as Frank Manchel wryly observes, “Film is medium where the more successful you are commercially, the less acceptable you are to the critical community–at least until you are dead.” Spielberg’s cinema seems too filled with earthly pleasures, too stuffed with things that go bump in the night, too reliant on emotional manipulation, to command favorable academic attention. As a result, the standard critical view resolutely positions Spielberg as little more than a modern P.T. Barnum, a technically gifted and intellectually shallow showman who substitutes spectacle for substance and emotion for depth. For most cinema studies scholars, therefore, Steven Spielberg embodies both the excesses and the ideology of mainstream American filmmaking; he has, in fact, “become a synonym for Hollywood itself. . . an incarnation of Hollywood’s large-scale, world-conquering ambitions” (Scott 60/63). Within the pages of Citizen Spielberg, I willingly engage in ongoing dialogues with Spielberg’s harshest critics, not ignoring the flaws and failures in his artistic canon but also reclaiming ignored elements of value and significance. In particular, I contended that Spielberg’s films are worthy of more careful and nuanced study and that the director demands more respect both for his particular accomplishments and for the overall quality of his work.
Spielberg remains, by far, the most financially successful director in cinema history, amassing a gross of $14,313,238,988 in his various technical roles; solely as a director, his box office earning total 10,548,165, 432. Although financial considerations and current trends remain important for any filmmaker, we cannot approach Spielberg’s newest films as we would those of a new director or, for that matter, as we would any director. His box office success is impressive, but so are his artistic achievements spanning four decades. No other director, expect perhaps Scorsese, has woven so many of his/her striking images so thoroughly into the fabric of our lives. They dwell in our memories alongside football games, school dances, and perhaps a first kiss. Even casual moviegoers have seen a number of Spielberg productions and, as a result, we bring an array of pre-conceived expectations into the screening process, into how we engage with his movies. Think for a moment about the Spielberg films you have seen and the images you recall. Is it those breathtaking scenes of the boy on a bike silhouetted against the moon or the child engulfed by light as he opens his door in E.T.? Maybe you jumped when the shark leaped out of the water in Jaws. Remember how we chuckled when Indiana Jones shoots the artful Arab swordsman in Raiders? How our pulse pounded when the T-Rex chased the frightened scientists in Jurassic Park? How our hearts broke watching the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in Schindler’s List? I could go on and on, but you get the point: Spielberg’s movies remain tattooed on our body politic like no other filmmaker.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
First and foremost, anyone plowing this field of Spielberg studies must give ample thanks and appreciation to the outstanding biographical/critical work of Joe McBride who lit the path for all of us to travel.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
As a Cinema Studies teacher interested in contemporary American films, I thought I was quite aware of Spielberg’s various endeavors, not only his commercial productions but his role in the business of filmmaking. But damn if his face didn’t keep showing up in the strangest of places. If you want more, just go to any of the twenty or so Steven Spielberg websites and drown yourself in the trivia. The point is this. No other film artist in history has matched his uncanny ability to tap into the public’s collective imagination while, simultaneously, displaying a business acumen usually reserved for C.E.O.s of Fortune 500 companies. Steven Spielberg is unarguably the most influential filmmaker since the 1960s. Spielberg, in effect, has become a brand name and his films often interact not only with American cinema but with larger cultural issues within American society.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
Spielberg is a far more complex, sophisticated, and wry filmmaker than most mainstream critics and academic scholars appreciate. Spielberg’s reputation suffers from the practice of naive criticism that equates the director’s point of view with the ideological positions of his protagonists; indeed, I want to make the radical claim that some Spielberg films protest against what they reveal, that they parody rather than advocate or affirm a particular set of values held by his protagonists. Particularly as he matures as a filmmaker, Spielberg’s camerawork increasingly offers uneasy counterpoints to his protagonists’ world views, instead of a direct correlation between the character’s perspective and that assumed by the viewer, Spielberg makes alternative options available to his audience, consistently allowing for an ironic distance on events as they unfold before us. Spielberg’s cinema is filled with opportunities to contest, and even contradict, the attitudes of his characters, and his visuals consistently propose counternarratives to those recognized and ultimately espoused by them.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
Where does Spielberg, now in his 70s, fit in a movie sphere teeming with swarms of superheroes and animated features, a cinema topography dominated by avengers and x-men? Can he still harness his abundant technical skills, whatever the genre, to mesmerize audiences, not only with action scenes but with significant ideas as well? To crib from William Wordsworth, then, does Hollywood’s most financially successful filmmaker still possess “the visionary gleam” necessary to capture “the glory and the dream” or do his moments of “splendor in the grass” remain only in the past? This Second Edition of Citizen Spielberg explores these and other questions in Spielberg’s evolution as a visual artist and storyteller, incorporating the 10 new movies made since the publication of my first edition in 2006: Munich (2005), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies (2012), The BFG (2016), The Post (2017), Ready Player One (2028) and West Side Story (scheduled release December of 2021).
When I look back to the gallery of saints and sinners who comprise the last great era of American filmmaking, the “Raging Bulls and Easy Riders” of the 1970s, I find only two survivors still functioning at the height of their powers: Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Others from that generation still plow the fields, but their labors evoke little of the excitement and anticipation. While Spielberg’s films contain his trademark fixations and demonstrate his skills as a narrative filmmaker, they are increasingly concerned with moral issues rather than either roller-coaster narratives or adolescent fantasies. No doubt surprisingly to his detractors, Spielberg has evolved into a director of thought and spirit, as well as of spectacle and style, demonstrating a sustained intellectual growth and emotional maturity that once seemed impossible to imagine. The more I watch Spielberg’s films, the more convinced I become that he ranks among the foremost filmmakers in the history of the cinema. The fact that he has been so financially successful encourages some scholars to dismiss him as a convention filmmaker pandering to mass taste. But, as I hope this book demonstrates, he is so very much more.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
I read contemporary and classic fiction, mostly, and watch a variety of TV shows, mostly on sites that do not contain commercials. Of course, Netflix and Prime have become staples in a sheltered world. British mysteries, easy to digest, are so abundant that the entire UK seems like one big murder site. Because I play guitar, I watch a variety of concerts and, during this pandemic, have sorely missed attending live musical performances, as well as plays and of course movies in theaters. Politics obsesses and depresses me, so The Rachel Maddow Show is daily consumption, as is Jeopardy! So it goes. So it goes.