Before Spielberg, the new HBO documentary is released on October 7th, Max Langer reflects on Steven Spielberg’s filmography to see how one director’s work has shaped the face of modern cinema.
What this documentary has aimed for is no small feat; trying to give a comprehensive overview of one of the greatest careers in cinema history through the people who know him best. Through interviews with his family, fellow directors and actors who have worked under him, we should hear the inside story of a life that has changed film forever.
Everyone has their own favourite memory of Spielberg’s films. Mine is watching for the first time and being struck by a sheer sense of awe. He is almost uniquely able to put these adventures on screen and he has been doing this his entire life. This wonder manifests itself on the faces of his characters, as well as his audience, with what is now called the “Spielberg Face” (see below).
As a child, Spielberg was obsessed with filmmaking, winning amateur film competitions with short films made with an 8mm camera. He even created a full 140 minute film for $500 which was shown for a single night at his local cinema. It’s obvious to see that he’s had serious drive from an early age. While still a student, Spielberg was offered a seven-year directing contract with Universal, making him the youngest ever director to sign a deal with a major Hollywood studio.
So, dropping out of college he began work, directing straight to TV movies and his first feature The Sugarland Express (1974) was well reviewed but only received a limited release. However, if this got his foot in the door then his next feature, Jaws (1975), rocketed him into the spotlight.
Jaws set a domestic box office record and caused what was described as “Jawsmania”. Since then Spielberg has repeated that feat several times over making him the highest grossing director of all time. In the process, he has also altered the direction of the entire industry, being instrumental in shaping the modern blockbuster.
one of the greatest careers in cinema history
Spielberg became big at a transitional time for filmmaking. The studio system of the fifties and sixties had broken up and a new breed of filmmakers who had grown up studying film were just coming on to the scene. Spielberg stood out though, having learnt his craft on TV sound stages rather than at a university. Maybe this is what enables his films to stand out from the crowd.
Spielberg’s early works are the epitome of escapist cinema, showing fantastical stories that often explore the theme of father-son relationships. Spielberg’s own parents divorced when he was 19 so in many of his films, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the concept of fatherhood plays a key role.
However, in more recent times he has begun to experiment with other issues. Think about the difference between E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Schindler’s List (1993) for example. This just shows the mastery that Spielberg has with his craft, as very few other directors have ever attempted such a breadth of subject matter. Despite this, he has had his missteps: who could forgive him for the absurdity that is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)?
Most importantly, Spielberg has been able to stand the test of time. While many of his peers from the seventies have passed away or ceased filmmaking (Martin Scorsese being the exception), he has continued to develop his work. He has several projects on the go at the moment including a fifth Indiana Jones movie and Ready Player One (2018), a futuristic adventure based on Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name. It seems that the most successful director of all time is not done just yet.
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