Monday, July 09, 2007

preview: spielberg on spielberg

I will never forget my 6th grade year. It was the year that I discovered Steven Spielberg. I wasn't the only one. Millions of kids my age older did the same. There were several genuine "phenomenons" during that time, and in some ways, I don't think they have ever been equaled in terms of impact and number. Star Wars was a real empire of money, toys, cartoons and imagination. Garfield was everywhere. In fact, I could go over to any of my friend's houses and be assured to find at least several of the following: Star Wars action figures, Garfield comic strip books, puffy stickers, empty Reese's Pieces bags under the bed, a handheld electronic football game, a 3 inch high G.I. Joe (if you were cool you had Snake Eyes) and perhaps an Atari 2600 near the television. With all that stuff, what were we most likely doing? We were outside with some sort of hat and rope or twine fashioned like a bullwhip arguing over who was going to be Indiana Jones and who was going to be the bad guy Nazi.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first movie I went to without my parents. It was PG, which made the outing even more "grownup". I went with my cousins and a couple of other kids from their neighborhood; and there we sat, eyes transfixed on the screen, hands only moving from the popcorn bucket to our mouths and not even whispering to each for fear of missing something important. During the scene where Indy and Marion were tied up and the Nazis were opening the Arc, the music cued me to hid my eyes. Even though I saw the movie in the theater several times, I always closed my eyes during that scene. I never saw what happened until years later when I watched on video. We loved the movie. I loved the movie. All of the sudden carrying a bullwhip and walking around in a Fedora was hip. If you dressed up as Indiana Jones for Halloween and you actually had a homemade costume with an actual Fedora and something resembling a whip, you were uber-cool. The plastic costume did not cut the mustard, and all of the kids in kidworld knew better. Homemade was way better. If you couldn't do that, you didn't dare try to imitate with cheap plastic costume and mask. It was better off leaving the Indy costume to the professional kids with costume making moms who had grandparents with old Fedoras, or relatives who lived on a farm that had need for bullwhips. The rest of us stuck with the standard Star Wars or superhero costume.

The greatest thing about a blockbuster movie like Raiders or Star Wars back then, is that it was such a shared experience. The movies would play for months on end, and movie theaters, which only had one, two or at the maximum three screens, didn't worry about business. They proudly proclaimed "In it's Fifth Month! Don't Miss the Hit of the Year!" Movie theaters knew that they could show a blockbuster for several months, because the kids kept coming. Today, a movie that lasts a month in a 16 screen megaplex is considered long in the tooth. But Indy was on the big screen, no- a huge screen, and the music and sound effects blared across the theater. You could hear kids, as if on cue at the right moment, singing the theme song: "Duh-da Dun duhhh, Dun da Duhhhhhhh- Dun da Dun Duhhhhhh- Dun Da Dun Dun Duhhhhh!"

I didn't know that the director of the film was Steven Spielberg, I just knew that who ever made this movie had better make some more. Then, one day at school the E.T. kids on the playground crossed paths with the Indiana Jones kids. It was quite by accident actually. We were fighting the Nazi's of course (we decided that Indiana Jones had a lot of brothers or something- that way we could all be Indy. My name was Cleveland Smith), and we turned a path in imaginary Cairo when we saw a bunch of girls and some of the boys in class who were trading the plastic E.T. figurines and stickers. One of them even had a E.T. doll. This was a dangerous situation. You see, as part of the Indy crowd, we were serious adventures. We had to save the world from Nazis and keep them from recovering biblical relics for their nefarious purposes. This was important business. We didn't have time for bobble headed aliens and flying bicycles. The E.T. kids thought that we were always in the way of their space and I guess, were expressing fears of government seizure and probing. We were about to kick these kids out of Cairo when one of the 8th grade kids started laughing at us from their side of the playground. "Look at the dorks! What a bunch of dorky kids!" We all looked at each other. Certainly he was referring to the opposing faction. Wasn't he? Then the 8th graders came over to make fun of ... all of us. And I heard one of them say- "The same movie dude that made Indiana Jones, made E.T. dork! Didn't you know that!" Heresy! I didn't believe it! Later I asked a reliable source and it was confirmed. I couldn't believe it! How could the same person make both of these films? At the time, to me, E.T. seemed like a boring film that adults liked. Sure Reese's Pieces were great, but it wasn't Nazis and bullwhips and Fedoras and adventure! Was it?
Fortunately, I kind of grew out this myopic view of the movies; and I grew to love more and more movies, and more kinds of movies. Although today I'm still not that fond of E.T., I still admire it for it's technique and vision. I also grew to really love Steven Spielberg's work. We talk a lot about Classic films here at The Shelf, in many ways that identifies a movie in a certain timeframe: pre-late 1960s. What you may not realize is that we love a lot of movies, including so-called "modern films." To me there are many modern day classics that deserve repeated viewing as well. And I have several directors that I admire and enjoy their work, like Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott and, of course, Steven Spielberg. To me, these guys are the link between the classic and the modern. They all have a love for classic films and film history, and they are as serious students of film as they are producers of it. And Steven Spielberg has either directed or produced many of my favorite modern day classics: The Indiana Jones series, Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal, Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Goonies, Back to the Future series (producer), Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Amistad, and Poltergeist are all modern day classics that I watch often. Even some of the films like Young Sherlock Holmes, Always, Used Cars, An American Tail and the television show Amazing Stories, which may not be masterpieces, are wonderful in their own right. To me they all bring an amazing amount of inspiration, storytelling and imagination to the screen. I've often thought that if I were a film maker and true to myself, my films would look more like Spielberg than Orson Welles. There are repeated themes of childhood lost, childhood found, hope lost and found, growing up, adventure and imagination, survival and endurance throughout his body of work. And often I've wanted to talk to great directors, like Spielberg, to figure out what they were thinking, what their inspiration was and whose films they looked up to. Sometimes you can get some of that from DVD commentaries or interviews. But Spielberg is more elusive than that.

Steven Spielberg has never recorded a director's commentary for any DVD of any of his films. And tonight is the best way you will be able to get a director's eye view and commentary from Spielberg himself, that you're likely to get. It's a new documentary entitled Spielberg on Spielberg, and it premieres tonight, July 9th at 8pm/ET (eastern time, not the alien). The 90 minute documentary was produced by Richard Schickel (producer of the recent documentary, Bienvenue à Cannes that we also previewed). The format is pretty much a long interview with Spielberg- without the interviewer. And it works. Spielberg discusses his beginnings, his career, his mistakes, his heroes, critics, his triumphs and his highs and lows. There is a thread to the discussion that is easy to follow, and without any narrator or omniscient voice guiding us, it actually works better here, than say in Schickel's Cannes doc.

Spielberg talks about his youth, in which he made amateur movies and demonstrated a deep love for movies even as a teenager. On discovering the joys of filmmaking Spielberg said, " I was infatuated with the control that movies gave me in creating a sequence of events or a feeling or a train wreck with two Lionel trains that I could then repeat and see over and over again. I think it was just the realization that I could change the way I perceived life through a funnel or another medium to make it come out better for me. And I realized I could make life better for me through this little 8mm rinky dink medium, I felt really good about my life, myself and possibly bringing some other people into this amazing medium to enjoy what I was putting together."

He also tells about a time when, as a he was on a Universal Studios Tour, and during a bathroom break, hid in the bathroom til everybody left and then had his own self guided tour. He eventually ended up in the film library where he so impressed the film librarian, he got a signed three day pass for Universal. He ended up spending that whole summer at Universal observing film making. He eventually was able to get a contract directing television on the strength of a student film entitled, Amblin' (yes, that's where the name of his production company comes from) and the went to on to direct his first feature length film Duel.

Althought Sugarland Express was what made him a director on the rise, it was the success of Jaws that made him a blockbuster director. Jaws led the way for what we now refer to as the Summer Blockbuster. From that point on, Spielberg has gone on to direct many blockbuster films, but even more serious films that betray the influence of some of his heroes like David Lean. Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List and other films all stand out from the blockbuster adventure films, but they all come from the imagination and heart of the director or producer, Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg on Spielberg is a unique opportunity to look into that heart and imagination of the director. You may not agree with some of his politics, you may not agree with some of his ideas about childhood or life or even his own heritage, but I believe that the man and artist is an American film classic and many of his films will stand the test of time. Yeah, you may have thought War of the Worlds stunk, and you wouldn't be alone. You may have thought that Minority Report wasn't that great. I do know that many are excited about the possibility of a fourth Indiana Jones (if it's done right) and that many of you will probably be rewatching your favorite Spielberg film, again, after you see this documentary.

Spielberg on Spielberg is a great documentary and an great insight into the work of Spielberg. This is why TCM remains one of my all time favorite networks, as this is just another in a long line of great original shows and documentaries that celebrate and examine the movies and why we love them. Be sure not to miss tonight's premiere of Spielberg on Spielberg. It's a Shelf Classic. And then come back here to our comments section and tell us about your favorite Steven Spielberg movie and why you love it (or why you don't like another one- we don't care, we just love talking about films).

Spielberg on Spielberg
Directed by Richard Schickel
Premieres Monday, July 9th, at 8pm et
(check local listings for times)
Features rarely seen footage and photos
from the Directors early days of filmmaking.

Spielberg on Spielberg premieres on
Turner Classic Movies
The Home for Classic Movies

Don't miss it! We'll back with this week's roundup, a DVD box set review and more. Stay tuned!

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Snakes. Why does it have to be snakes?


filmfanman said...

Loved your memories about Indiana Jones. Brought me back to my own memories of Star Wars. I'll be watching this tonight.

Anonymous said...

The ET kids were the Emo kids of the 80s minus the poetry.
Indy rules!

Laura said...

I went with a friend to a "sneak preview" of RAIDERS the week before it formally opened. (I'll date myself and say I was about 18.) The preview was advertised in the L.A. Times -- we saw it in Long Beach -- and was apparently used as a way to build word of mouth for a film they knew would be a hit. We had thus not read any reviews and had NO IDEA what the movie would be like, other than it starred my favorite STAR WARS actor. WOW! Was that ever a roller-coaster ride. We laughed, we screamed, and we left that movie absolutely exhausted. And I don't think I've looked at the screen in the opening of the Ark sequence to this day. :) That first time seeing RAIDERS has to be up there with my top movie-going experiences of all time.

Not long after that I was visiting a friend in Phoenix. She had read an article about Spielberg's childhood which included the address of his former home, so we drove by and photographed it just for the fun of it.

You're so right about the shared experience. My husband and I went and saw RETURN OF THE JEDI every Friday for the first three weeks it was open, just to be able to take it all in. I can't even remember how many friends we had lined up with us to see the first showing of JEDI at the Big Newport in Newport Beach, CA. The line waiting to get in was part of the fun. (My husband and I later figured out that before we had met each other, we must have passed each other on the opening day of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK at the same theater.) My friends and I saw E.T., POLTERGEIST, SUPERMAN, all the great movies of that era. It was a real "golden age" for that particular kind of film.

Fun memories!
Best wishes, Laura

J.C. Loophole said...

What a great story- thanks for sharing that! That's also funny about crossing movie paths with your future hubby.
The funny thing is that some people would argue that camping out for advance tickets is a shared experience, and perhaps it is in a way. But it does not compare to the shared experience of the golden age of the blockbuster. Summertime was a time to stand in line with your buddies, grab as much calorie laden goodness as you could carry (or carry in), play some pac man or spyhunter or whatever arcade cabinet they had, and then watch a GREAT movie on a HUGE screen. Those days are definitely gone....
Thanks to filmfanman and anon for your comments as well. Hope everyone enjoyed the documentary as I did, whether you were an ET kid or an Indy kid :)


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