Why Steven Spielberg Is My Favorite Director

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.



Farewell To The Ordinary

[So dear reader, this is a not-so-short short story I wrote which ain’t cine related. But, if you would give it a read, it would be a great honor of mine]

For all the experience I have amounted to by travelling in the Mumbai local trains for a not-so-enviable period of one and a half months, there is only statement I feel I can make which comes close to veracity and which I feel will be met with uncontested opinions and sullen nods from even those who have had only the slightest brush on travelling on the aforementioned mode of commute – that there isn’t a single day on these trains which seem devoid of the hustle and bustle which one so naturally associates with them.

I am one of those rare quaint ones who looks forward to travelling on this mode of transport which my other fellow commuters abhor (and with good reasons). One might say it is because I get to reach my destination without any hassle all the others have to endure, since I board from the starting station and wherefore, get a seat every day. Now this reasoning may be true and I haven’t bothered to go to any lengths to prove the contrary by offering my seat to someone and standing till Sandhurst Road (i get off at C.S.M.T., but the train gets almost empty by Sandhurst Road). But, I believe this enjoyment is beyond the mere convenience I partake in everyday. For me, the reasons which seem to have brought about this fascination of travelling in overcrowded bogeys with other’s butts in front of your face for the entire duration of it is very reminiscent of falling in love, for once someone tumbles on your heartstrings, his or her imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks. I am fascinated by the nonchalance with which the experts who board running trains look upon the swiftness of their glide, as if it was the most ordinary of things. I am fascinated that every damn bogey has an individual who no one remembers to have ever got a seat, who always ends up standing near the window and arranging the bags of the fellow passengers with such an unparalleled display of organizational prowess, that if one fine day some dexterous mathematician actually considered the numbers of bags accommodated and the area demarcated, I am pretty sure various mathematical concepts wouldn’t seem to hold quite right. I am more than all fascinated by the profanities folks hurl at each other when one of those timely fights breaks out in the compartment, for in some of them, I see glimpses of literary genius in them (i have once heard a comeback which involved almost all the blood relations of the person at the receiving end along with cannabis, cows and the latest Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie in the same sentence, with all the elements in perfect harmony with each other), and also because at the end of the day, there seems to be nothing bad about these bad words. They just seem to be words folks use and most of the times, they don’t mean nothing by it.

Another fascination is the seeming broadcast of a daily commuter on a wavelength that only the other daily commuters can pick up, a kind of a pirate radio station of the heart. So, being one of those privileged but not exquisite (considering that almost 90 lakh people travel on Mumbai trains on a per day basis) club, the wavelength at play today seems to be of unco turbulence. Neither is Sahil sitting on the steel benches near the Handicapped bogey sound indicator, watching Narcos (no, wait a second. he finished Narcos two days ago. it is the Leftovers now). And neither is Manish, untying and tying his laces, to make sure they do not pose a quandary to his getting his beloved window seat (and this routine is working quite well too it seems since i haven’t seen anyone warm their behinds on that except him). Today, everyone is standing together, with neither headphones shoved in their ears, and not with papers held in their armpits. And suddenly it strikes me. Today is the 8th of September. Today is the day

A peremptory silence meanders when everyone boards the train, a striking contrast to any other day, and it shrouds the bogey even after two stations passed. Nobody can think of anything to break the ice today, for this is the day when Kaka will be travelling with us for the last time.

Kaka, as he is fondly called, means ‘uncle’ in Marathi. Kaka works in the Railways, and has for forty long years, and is considered unanimously as the founding member of our train group. Today, the September of 8th, is the last day of his service, i.e. in other words, the last time he has to go through the ordeal of boarding the first class compartment of the 7 :45 Dombivli – C.S.M.T. train.

Finally finding this silence, which had brooded over as though the tearing pace of the launched Earth had suddenly become audible, unbearable, it is Uncle (the second oldest in the group after Kaka, and whose fond designation if compared with that of Kaka’s, i believe provides an insight into changing times) who decides to speak up, a notion all of us were as sure of him making as we were that ten dimes make a dollar. The conversation topic is the venue for the farewell party for Kaka on Sunday. Nandi Palace is the venue decided after much deliberation, yet this denouement is overthrown the moment Rajesh points out is situated on the highway (and the new law prohibits you to crack open a cold one with the boys there) and the new and seemingly concrete conclusion to this discussion seems to be Regency Hotel. The questions about Kaka have now begun to arise like thirsty men drink, ranging from till when does his first class past last (ninth of october), what will he do in his free time (rotaract club and yoga classes), and whether they have found someone already to take up his position (a fumbling intern). Stations pass and one-by-one, the members of our group have to get off, with their destinations as inscrutably bound to them as destiny. They all stand by the windows and talk to Kaka as long as the motorman gives his brief approval, and the train keeps moving on till I and Kaka are the only ones of our train group left in the compartment. I am sitting next to him, with him brooding over the WhatsApp messages his near and dear ones have sent him congratulating him on this milestone of his and deleting them after a read or two. One of the traits you seemingly acquire if you travel in trains long enough is that you realize when the eyes of the person sitting next to you are on you and for one who has traveled in them for forty long years, it isn’t much time before Kaka’s eyes rest on mine and just like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tastes and long since forgotten, I find myself blurting out those very questions which had been burning up inside me from the moment today’s date had struck me :-

Me :- Won’t it feel weird from tomorrow ? Not following the same routine ?

Him :- I don’t think so. I will be busy 

Me :- Has anything changed all these years ? 

Him :- I don’t think so. The trains ran then and they do so today.

And he rose up. Bewildered by this motion of his, I look outside and see the reason behind it. We had already reached C.S.M.T.

We say our due farewells to each other and walk in our separate directions, yet my eyes meander on him. A man, no taller than I was, with a worn out Jensport bag, grayed out hair and yet at this moment, larger than life. And in a motion which came about as quietly and swiftly as near insanity comes to men, he looked back at me, smiled and went on. My emotions, which were at this point like a full cup that the least motion might over brim, come pouring out and I realize I will miss him. 

Yet this realization ushers in all kinds of doubts about why I would do so, for I had always felt we miss only those who we envy. I miss Bhagat Singh, for I can never be as brave as he was. I miss Roger Ebert, for I can never talk about movies as he was. I miss Virginia Woolf for I can never have a prosaic style as enchanting as that of her. So, why would I miss Kaka ?

Maybe it was because I would never have that reality he was inhibiting in. I am pretty sure I will never be confined by the shackles of a desk job, having looked down upon those who content themselves with one as far as I can remember, yet here was a man who had spent forty years of life on a ticket counter and yet was contented with it. Or maybe it was knowing that I could never feel what it would be to be retired. One of my biggest fears is that what I am feeling right now or will in the future, will be lesser version of what I have already felt. It is the reason fellas that you remember your first love, for when it had transpired, love and ideas seem to be truly one’s personal discoveries, never before apprehended in quite this way of yours, with the beloved in question happening to you all over again every time you meet.

Maybe it was all this and maybe it was none of it, yet what I felt was as profound as anything can be. One might ask (and to good reasoning) what this tale amounts to. Well, I don’t like the fact that, nowadays, it feels like it’s not permissible to leave something unresolved. I mean, what is closure? Some people never get that. Why can’t there be a tale of the triumphs of the ordinary ? Why aren’t their victories as important as others ?

I might also say something to on the lines that ‘if there is no final meaning, my work may be itself about that impossibility’. But to be honest, I don’t know myself. I believe a writer writes because he has doubts and hopes that at the end of the day, the answers to them translates on the page. Yet most of the times, just like in this very piece you are reading, they don’t and to good measure, for one always has a better tale in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.