What is cinema? Oxford dictionary defines it as the ‘art or industry of producing films’, yet every film aficionado reading this knows better. More closer to the truth was Andrei Tarkovsky, who defined cinema as ‘a mosaic of time’, and also Ingmar Bergman, who asseverated it to be ‘either a document or a dream’. There are many such definitions, all of which go further to show that even the very meaning of cinema is inscrutably bound to the ordeal of subjectivity, just as it is when it comes to how it is perceived. So since cinema is different things to different people, the definition of cinema is also bound to vary from person-to-person. Some will define it in terms of their favorite directors’ oeuvre (like Jonathan Rosenbaum does with regards to Carl Dreyer), some will define it in terms of the utility cinema serves for them (like escapism, self-addressal, etc.), while some may even define it in terms of a socio-political-economic context. Personally speaking, as I always am, gauging cinema for me has always been treading on that fine line of what it invokes, and what it chooses not to. It has always been for me that unintelligible euphoria after walking out of a great movie, experiencing the indiscernible where all emotions seemingly converge yet never let you pinpoint on any one of them. So, in my case, I choose to define cinema as ‘cinema is what cinema does’.
Now, I want you to forget all that for some time and start over. Again. Here. With me.
The origins of cinema show it in its naive and purest form, unadulterated of any influences from other forms of arts. They show averseness to complexity, choosing rather a straight path en route to the viewer’s consciousness. Remember the character introductions in Birth of a Nation (where the good-evil distinction is established by how the characters treat animals) or in Nosferatu (where the terrifying Nosferatu is established with a low-angle shot so as to impose his larger-than-life nature). With the passing of time however, cinema gradually assumed a more complex form (and for the greater good) becoming apt at dealing with themes which had been deemed out of bounds for the rest of the arts. And that is the cinema of today, which can chronicle anything from the depths of an individual (Synecdoche New York) to that of the universe (The Tree Of Life). These two forms represent polarities of the very sort the Greek philosopher Parmenides once took great pains to jot down, and the fact that the transition was from the seemingly negative to the positive, it further adds on to my case there.
The thread which binds these two apparently unrelated paragraphs together, and the actual focus of this post, is my favorite director Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s filmography has been personified by an unparalleled diversity in subject matter, the half of which seems to be poles apart from the other half. His work captures cinema for me in its transitionary realm, from the naive to the mature. Speaking broadly here, there exist two Spielbergs for most: – the ‘blockbuster’ Spielberg and the ‘serious’ Spielberg. Pauline Kael, a fan of the former, called his work ‘a boy soprano singing with joy’. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, all signalled the arrival of a born entertainer, whose works were plain fun done with heedless joy. The energy is infectious here, with boundless imagination at play at a breakneck speed. But under the jovial brouhaha, lies a deeper layer. Take Raiders of the Lost Ark for example – When Indiana grabs the hood ornament of a Mercedes truck, it snaps off. When the Ark is being transported in a Nazi ship, the swastika catches fire. And obviously, there is obviously the character of Belloq (think carefully, doesn’t he mirror Occupied France?). All of these sardonic wits masked under the unrelenting action.
If Pauline Kael didn’t see the arrival of a film artist, the reasons are the same as it goes for most, for she did never care to look beyond the intelligible lie Spielberg parades around, while effectively masking the unintelligible truth, with the dismissive attitude inherent towards blockbusters further helping the notion. It is this subtle touch Spielberg gives to his larger-than-life stories that stand out: – holding back the shark for the first hour in Jaws to build the audience’s anxiety and so on. But furthermore, I see even in these movies an expression of the self as personal as Truffaut’s in 400 Blows. These movies seem like a getaway to Spielberg towards his younger self, to discover again and invoke in others the same excitement that beheld him when he first saw the trains crashing in The Greatest Show On Earth. There is another predominant element: – the troubled parent-child relationship. In E.T. and Indiana Jones, Spielberg’s pains from the past of his parents’ divorce resurface, and that he does express them in the most unembellished form we can think of is to also understand that he does so in the very form that he felt them.
Then there was the inevitable transition, with his work assuming a startling maturity. Spielberg started making movies he didn’t ‘have’ to make, but ‘needed’ to. In Schindler’s List, we have the two halfs of human nature, with the monstrous personified along with the sacrificing, both seeping into each other at points and hence, clearly evading a black-and-white characterization. The implications Spielberg raises with the interpreter character in Saving Private Ryan raised it above another run-of-the mill patriotic war movie expected of him, and Munich grapples with questions for all nations that believes it must compromise its values to defend them.
Some movies, dear reader, are to make us feel, some to make us think, some to take away our problems and some to examine them. While most greats try to master one of these facets, Spielberg’s oeuvre charters through all of them. Some of them misfire for me, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The BFG, but the vices in his movies stand taller for me than the merits of most others.
His work has been labelled as kitsch by many, but I sincerely disagree. His films are rather a yearning of kitsch, a struggle to achieve the idealized version of the world he envisions for himself, surrounded by the background noise that is the reality of the world we live in. Am I biased towards Spielberg? Probably, yes. His works paint the entire mosaic of cinema to me, in other words, they do all that ‘cinema can do’. I know this article hasn’t divulged any objective standpoints from where the appreciation of Spielberg may accentuate among his haters, but it has promulgated what he means to me. For when it comes to Spielberg, I can only be personal, only view his work through the prism of my own being. But it is the same manner of how I view cinema too. Hence, for me, Spielberg and cinema remain the very same.