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Good, but hardly essential
on February 12, 2014
Steven Spielberg is a man that needs no introduction. Arguably the most successful (and versatile) director of all time, Spielberg has shockingly yet to have gotten a definitive biography or critical study that not only respects his work but also sees him as a restless, wide-ranging artist (Joseph McBride tried but came too short while Lester Friedman's excellent "Citizen Spielberg" is hardly available in retail stores). Richard Schickel's "Spielberg: A Retrospective" tries to right all wrongs: to provide a critical analysis on Spielberg's work, see his growth as a filmmaker, delve a little bit into his personal life and become the definitive Spielberg book to buy in public domain. In most cases, the book does its job but while "A Retrospective" is an entertaining read, to quote Oskar Schindler, it "could've done more".
If anything else, the book is worth purchasing for the photos. The photos are wonderful to look at, some that have never been available in public before, while others range from sentiment from genuinely funny to haunting to awe-inspiring. But while these photos are fabulous to view, the real strength in "A Retrospective" is Spielberg himself, who is shown to be an insightful, passionate filmmaker not afraid to admit his flaws and defend himself and the work he takes great pride in. Spielberg is not the kind of person to publicly respond to criticisms or needless bashing a la Tarantino, but here he reveals his justifications for the so-called critiques labeled at his work. For example, although he was chided for the cemetery sequences that book-ended "Saving Private Ryan", Spielberg defended these sequences by saying that he did them for the veteran soldiers, that he was honoring their fathers and grandfathers who served in the deadliest war in mankind history. Similarly, for "Schindler's List", Spielberg cites the widely panned moment of the film when the girl in the read coat walks down the Krakow ghetto as a symbol of the world's failure to intervene in the extermination of Holocaust Jews. He also reacts to the controversial ending to "A.I.", the infamous sci-fi tale that was originally brought up by Stanley Kubrick.
But while Spielberg can talk a good game, Schickel is a disappointment. Schickel is known to be a mixed bag: he can write good books like his biographies on Elia Kazan and D.W. Griffith and books that aren't worthy anybody's time ("The Disney Version", "Eastwood"). Here, he's surprisingly tame. Unlike the "Conversations With Scorsese", Schickel fails to engage Spielberg (and by large extension the readers) into getting to the heart of the films. Not only that, but Schickel has little to say about the movies and when he does, it feels by-the-books. For example, he dismissed "Always" simply as a "mild misfire", rather than the full-blown turkey that it was. In the case of "War of the Worlds", Schickel cites the burning train sequence as the pivotal image that makes the movie good (apparently, he never saw the ending). And the best Schickel could muster about the disappointing "Jurassic Park" sequel was that it lacked substance but is not to be dismissed. In fact, the only movies Schickel genuinely expresses his honest opinion and defend are, ironically, the movies widely regarded as Spielberg's weakest movies: "Empire of the Sun", "The Terminal" and "War Horse".
Most disappointingly, we rarely hear about the influences (or consequences, depending on who you ask) Spielberg's movies had on the cinematic landscape. We never get comments on how "Saving Private Ryan" became the standard for future war movies and that it annually airs on cable TV uncut on Memorial Day. Or how "Raiders of the Lost Ark" re-wrote the book on how the film action movies. The notorious incident during the shooting of the "Twilight Zone" movies is scarcely mentioned (in fact, Spielberg's "Kick the Can" episode is only discussed in a meager two sentences with no photos). There's little discussion on the political controversies surrounding "The Color Purple", "Amistad" or even "Schindler's List". The negative reaction towards the fourth Indiana Jones movie is barely sketched, not to mention on how that film spawned the godawful "South Park" episode where the creators constantly and endlessly remind viewers that Spielberg and Lucas had "raped" Indiana Jones (as if we viewers didn't get it the first two times). Most of all, we don't even hear how not only "Jaws" kick-started the blockbuster mentality, but that it spawned "The Jaws Log", which many filmmakers consider the Holy Bible of film-making. In the end, one gets the impression that Schickel is not only playing safe but that he's playing cozy with Spielberg, fearing that he may say something to offend him.
So Schickel's "A Retrospective" is far from a definitive book about Spielberg, but it's definitely worth purchasing for the photos and for Spielberg's quotes and comments. But if you want a critical study about Spielberg that is more honest, rich with fascinating detail and genuinely informative, you're better off just picking up "Citizen Spielberg" by Lester Friedman.