Despite praise for Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films – an assignment journalist Molly Haskell accepted for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, this witty, accessible though sometimes glib inquiry disappoints. But not because Haskell’s not Jewish.
She was surprised, she said, that she was asked to do the book, and she readily acknowledges being ambivalent about many Spielberg movies, especially his pre-Schindler work. A feminist critic and an intellectual, she always favored complex, ironic, European-style films, susceptible to psychoanalysis. Spielberg’s reputation, however, was made on fantasy-action entertainment, often science fiction adventures that typically featured nerdy, lonely or childlike guy heroes. Think Jaws, ET, A.I,, Indiana Jones.
As she worked on the book, however, Haskell says she came to appreciate 71-year- old Spielberg’s “staggering” cinematic accomplishments and commercial success. He changed the notion of the blockbuster and went his own way, not needing critics. He also, eventually, went serious alongside the fun. Think Schindler, The Color Purple, Amistad, Lincoln, Saving Private Ryan.
Haskell starts with Spielberg’s early years, concentrating on the family’s move to Arizona, and goes on to analyze 29 major movies, two to three per chapter. Though the later sections feel rushed and the whole gives the impression of a collection of essays, there is a unifying theme – and that’s the source of my disappointment.
Haskell’s take is that Spielberg’s movies reflect Oedipal conflicts, especially tensions with his often absent father. His films avoid sex and fix on boys and men who fear women, Haskell writes. Yet, as her narrative shows, it was Steven’s father who introduced him to cameras and was always encouraging him to make movies, some of which are lovingly dedicated to him. Besides, what can you do with an argument that holds that Spielberg expressed his hang-ups in his films consciously…or unconsciously?
And what to make of an intrusive sentence like this “Yes, reader, once long ago, women were actually the deciders as to what movie a couple would see on a Saturday night.” And what of Haskell’s research? Though generous in crediting others, she relied only on secondary sources, saying that Spielberg does not like to give interviews. But her book references at least six different interviews Spielberg gave.
Then there’s the matter of Haskell doing the book for a series on Jewish Lives. Spielberg did embrace his Jewishness after Schindler’s List. But what Haskell does not persuasively show is how the films after Schindler evidence what she calls Spielberg’s personal journey and arrival story when it comes to Judaism. For example, how does Spielberg’s recent film Bridge of Spies exemplify the particular historical, cultural and theological tenets of his faith? In other words, does Haskell, who can be a lively and discerning movie critic, really need to pursue Spielberg as a Jewish filmmaker. There are some fine analysis in this book, especially on Spielberg’s lesser known films, such as the brilliant Empire of the Sun. Would that she had spent more time on these.