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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > August 2016 > 13 ways of looking at Steven Spielberg

13 ways of looking at Steven Spielberg

The thrill merchant who wields a sledgehammer of subtlety, the childhood sentimentalist who always puts children in danger—the filmmaker’s contradictions run deep

To explore your medium, to revisit childhood, to have paying customers queuing round the block, to confront history at its most atrocious—there aren’t many filmmakers who can reasonably claim to have been driven by all of these impulses. Steven Spielberg has been a global brand for over 40 years now, though you’d have to say it’s a curious brand when the products run from ET to Saving Private Ryan, from Tintin to Jaws. In 1993 he was responsible for two highly successful films that couldn’t have been more different: Schindler’s List, which set out to represent the Holocaust in Poland without compromise, and Jurassic Park, which set out to sell a lot of popcorn. The 30-odd films Spielberg has directed may have brought in an estimated total of four billion dollars at the box office, and he may currently be the subject of a retrospective at the British Film Institute, but this is a very uneven and self-divided body of work, the contradictions running deep. It’s as if there were quite a few separate sub-Spielbergs, not all of them necessarily working well together.

ILLUSTRATIONS BY PEDRO DEMETRIOU

Thrill merchant

The first Spielberg to emerge was the implacable thrill-merchant of Duel (1971). He got the most out of limited resources in a lean road-movie thriller with tension but no psychology. One vehicle pursued another and we simply watched, siding with Dennis Warren more because he had a face (the driver of the truck that persecuted him being kept out of sight) than for any deeper human reason.

Reluctant minimalist

Jaws (1975) capitalised on the strengths of Duel, seeming to announce Spielberg as the heir to Alfred Hitchcock, someone who could manipulate audiences with masterful technical control and subtlety. The most effective scenes were ones that kept the shark out of sight, like the brilliant sequence of two drunks lobbing a joint of meat from the freezer off the end of a jetty in the hope of attracting the killer Great White. They get their wish— but what we see isn’t too explicit. The rope attached to the meat goes slack in the water, meaning that the shark is no longer pulling away from the shore but is coming towards them.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s August issue: Rachel Sylvester argues that the EU referendum has started a re-alignment of British politics while Roger Scruton and Jay Elwes say that it has thrown Britain into a bout of self-examination with the fundamental question of who we are as a nation at its centre. In addition, Peter Mandelson says without reform the EU could fall victim to a populist uprising. Also in this issue: Philip Ball explores quantum entanglement, George Magnus looks at the political situation in Brazil ahead of the Olympics and Adam Mars-Jones unpicks the work of Steven Spielberg. James Cusick looks at the impact of the Chilcot report and Kathy Lette explains what the world would be like if she was in charge.
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