Last month saw the publication of George Lucas: A Life, a biography of the Star Wars director that suffered from favoring a basic kind of storytelling over a complex consideration of the man’s work and legacy. As if on cue, here comes Molly Haskell’s Steven Spielberg: A Life In Films, a work that’s basically all analysis—unconvincing, aimless analysis.
Haskell has impeccable credentials, but like Richard Schickel or David Thomson—two other well-established critics who have published exceedingly lazy film books in the past few years—movie buffs will find her scholarship wanting, if not mystifying. Not only are there few new insights (Spielberg declined to be interviewed, which left Haskell “stung, a little red-faced, like a girl angling for a date and being rejected”), but the points she makes range from dubious to flat-out false. To wit:
- Haskell writes Saving Private Ryan won the Best Picture Oscar and that Chiwetel Ejiofor won Best Actor for 12 Years A Slave (neither did).
- Discussing the source for Hook, she bizarrely states that, “In the kinky gender dynamics of the play, Peter [Pan] is generally played by a girl, a ‘trans’ or asexual choice that serves two purposes: the actor/character can take on sensitive qualities that would be ‘sissy’ if possessed by a boy, and she can never grow up to be a man.” No.
- At one point she writes, “Spielberg was going backwards and forwards at the same time, making a film about an irresponsible father at the age he was about to sire a son of his own.” This quote appears in the chapter covering The Color Purple and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, neither of which feature a notable father-child relationship. (Unless by “irresponsible” she means the dad who rapes his underage daughter in Purple, though the story isn’t “about” him.)
- She speculates that The Last Crusade featured Nazi villains because “in a more diverse and globally aware world, ruled by political correctness and terrified of offending minorities (now majorities), it was becoming harder and harder to find safely despicable ‘others’; generally the Nazis were the only available villains whose dignity and inner lives didn’t need to be considered.” Given that Pictures is being published as part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series (which last year took a worthy look at Groucho Marx), this unsupported claim is bonkers. Is it really so hard to believe that this boyish Jewish director, who grew up hearing firsthand accounts of the Holocaust, wouldn’t want to repeatedly stick it to the Nazis?
Haskell’s viewing of Spielberg’s work through a political lens is where the book is most compelling (because there are provocative theories being thrown out) and least convincing (because the theories are easily dismissed). She describes Raiders Of The Lost Ark’s Marion Ravenwood as “a cartoonish gin-slinging tomboy who will soon be wearing dresses and screaming for help,” omitting the context that she only puts the dress on as part of a clever escape attempt she orchestrates. And just as it’s hard to see Jaws and E.T. as being about “both the pleasure and the terror of an unmanning,” as she puts it, it’s hard to see an “ever-present motif of threatened masculinity, maleness that must prove itself” in the Indiana Jones series. Her evidence for this is how “the social awkwardness of Dr. Jones’ sensitive fuddy-duddy absent-minded professor must be exaggerated before being usurped by the authority of Indy.” (She’s apparently referring to Jones’ befuddlement at a flirtatious student; morally speaking, not the place you want maleness to prove itself.)
Her evaluation is all over the map; Haskell refers to both “another deglamorized Spielberg woman” (Marion) and “the ubiquitous ‘turn-on’ of gorgeous women being gleefully tormented” (e.g., Kate Capshaw’s character in Temple Of Doom). She writes that the sexism of the Indiana Jones series “remained unadulterated” post-Temple Of Doom, but adds, “As his relationship with the women he worked with makes clear, Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.”
Haskell has done important work in this vein—her From Reverence To Rape is an important text of modern criticism—but if there’s not a real argument to be made about Spielberg on feminist grounds, then why make it? Especially since she spends so much time on this but doesn’t really look at him through the lens of Judaism—ostensibly the focus of Yale’s Jewish Lives series. This is ground that’s worthy of exploration, especially given that Spielberg is both the premier chronicler and creator of modern Americana and someone who foregrounds Jewish concerns in his work. If the central theme of postwar Judaism is the idea of a homeland, consider how many Spielberg characters—E.T., Fievel, The Terminal’s Viktor Navorski, Empire Of The Sun’s Jim—are obsessed with getting home. (Haskell is herself not Jewish: Let others worry about that, she writes. “I believe strongly that there should be no bars of race, ethnicity, or gender to writing, and I think it’s particularly important in the case of Spielberg, for one of his greatest trains has always been a kind of natural ecumenism, a generosity of spirit.”)
A Life In Films has some value, in particular when it looks at Schindler’s List, giving full weight to its merits, flaws, and controversies. Her conclusion is worth quoting in full, as it’s the best analysis of the book:
It would seem that any work, particularly any film, that tries to deal with that vast and incomprehensible enormity of the 20th century is almost doomed by definition to fall short... For the masses of people who have not read Maus or seen Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour film [Shoah], for all of us, there is room for a more accessible telling of the story [of the Holocaust], and Spielberg has found it honorably. And, like so many politically charged movies based on true stories, license will be taken, and arguments will follow. Historians, pledged to the truth and nothing but the truth, will always disagree with critics, whose allegiance is to art, and the dramatic conventions that entails. Every film is a different case, and thoughtful viewers must decide for themselves if the freedoms taken are artistically valid.
Early on in the book, Haskell frets over the assignment she’s somewhat impulsively agreed to undertake. What is there left to say, at this point, about this most towering of cinematic figures, especially for someone who is an admirer but “had never been an ardent fan”? Her look at Schindler’s List suggests there’s still room for critics to analyze what his art does, can, and should mean, but elsewhere, it feels like she’s just making it up as she goes along.