December 9, 2005

"Spielberg knows how to overwhelm."

"But I am tired of being overwhelmed. Why should I admire somebody for his ability to manipulate me? In other realms of life, this talent is known as demagoguery. There are better reasons to turn to art, better reasons to go to the movies, than to be blown away." -- Leon Wieseltier on "Munich."

I have no basis for an opinion on "Munich" specifically, but that statement hits home for me. It expresses so much of what keeps me away from the movies.

38 comments:

Peter B. said...

I have had this complaint about Spielberg since 'E.T.'. Yeah, yeah. Great movie. Real touching, etc., blah blah blah.

But all the way through 'E.T.' (and each of his movies since then) I had the feeling that I was being smashed over the head with Direction By Spielberg(TM). "Now watch. Here comes the sad part. You can go ahead and cry now. Hear that weepy music?" "Here's where it get's exciting again. Cue the exciting music and shouting." And so on.

There is not one response I have while watching Spielberg movies that doesn't feel overtly manipulated by Spielberg. In all these years, he has not learned to step back and let the movie tell itself rather than have the director dazzle us with his Vision.

noodge said...

It's Leon Wieseltier. (You must have been thinking Simon Wiesenthal?)

wildaboutharrie said...

Peter, yes, the ETification of the movies is horrid.

But Jaws and Close Encounters (original version) are among my all-time favorites.

PDS said...

I, for one, am tired of being underwhelmed.

Harkonnendog said...

I'm not sure what you all are saying... are you saying he is heavy-handed and that makes you remember that you are watching a movie- I mean that it knocks you out of the narrative? Unsuspends your disbelief?

Or do you not like directors that attempt to draw you in- that sort of require suspension of disbelief in the first place?

Or is it something else?

Wade_Garrett said...

I think that the word "manipulated" is enormously overused in reference to Spielberg. I think I know what people mean when they use it, but I don't understand why they phrase it that way. Taken to its extreme, every artist who tells a narrative can be considered manipulative. You could call Bruce Springsteen manipulative, because oh, here's the part where he wants me to believe that he comes home from work, washes up, and goes racing in the street. F. Scott Fitzgerald is manipulative because he really makes you believe that Jay Gatsby died in a swimming pool. And so on.

Do people really mean to say that they're too aware of devices Spielberg uses to make his audience feel certain emotions? If so, then that's a failing of Spielberg's, but not because he's being manipulative, but probably its because we've all seen enough of his films to know where he's trying to lead us at any given time. Then again, in 95% of romantic comedies, action movies, westerns, and Christmas movies we know where we're being led at any given time, so I guess I don't see what makes Spielberg so offensive in this regard.

PatCA said...

I betcha "it makes you think."

Geek, Esq. said...

The professional critics have noted that this film, unlike most of Spielberg's work, is much less manipulative, sappy, and heavy-handed than his normal work.

That author's real complaint is that the film wasn't sufficiently pro-Israel--he wanted it to be manipulative to that extent.

The Exalted said...

i find the majority of spielberg's movies to be, perhaps not actually patently manipulative, but just silly in that they are so maudlin and cutesy

even in his so-called "dark" movie, Minority Report, he had to have some really stupidly "cute" probe critters, etc.

The Exalted said...

unrelated:

ann, you were fast to jump into the london subway shooting, not so (not at all from what i can see) with the miami skymarshall shooting.

any reason?

Troy said...

Michelangelo, Delacroix, El Greco -- is there an artist who isn't manipulative to some degree? Aren't they always seeking to draw a reaction -- an emotional response. Bad artists are ham-handed about it. Spielberg is hit and miss

Geek -- it's Ok to be pro-Israel. Does the picture have to see "both sides" as if there's a moral equivalence between the outright murder of 11 innocents and the vengeance sought on their killers? The ambivalence on the part of the Mossad agents (feeling guilt, even though the killing may be justified) is a much more interesting (and realistic) take than any handwringing wishay-washy "both sides share equal blame" crapola.

It sounds like Spielberg's problem is that he wants to be pro-Israle, but he's so eaten up with liberal ET irrational pacificism, that he can't bring himself to take a side for fear of siding with a group of people who kill others.

At least the Mossad agents and the Israeli government felt ambivalence. Arafat felt no such disquiet.

Joan said...

Speilberg's main offense is that he doesn't trust his audience, and he can't abide anything other than a happy ending. He can be brilliant but he always whacks us over the head with cheap tricks that just kill the film as a whole. Examples of this are the little girl in the red coat in "Schindler's List" and the entire last 20 minutes or so of "A.I." Over on Television Without Pity, they refer to these tricks as anvils. Spielberg is heavy on the anvils.

On the other hand, he's capable of so much better -- "Catch Me if You Can" is free of anvillicious moments, and is overall a wonderful movie. That makes it all the more frustrating when he continues to pump out these movies that are designed to - yes - manipulate, rather than illuminate, inspire, or amuse.

Palladian said...

I'm with you on this one.

Say you're a composer and you want to overwhelm the listener. You could add 400 tympani and the entire brass section sustaining a high c sharp for two minutes. People would be overwhelmed. So what. It's like the artist who decides to make a sculpture of Pope John Paul II hit by a meteorite. People are going to react, some quite negatively! This proves nothing more than that the artist has a basic understanding of what happens when you slap someone.

But take another overwhelming piece of music, Bach's unfinished Contrapunctus 14 from Die Kunst Der Fugue, a piece that some argue was never meant to be played at all. That I become overwhelmed upon hearing Glenn Gould, a single man playing quietly at the piano, playing it has nothing to do with manipulation. It is a spontaneous reaction to beauty, to something completely internal in the interrelationship of those notes. Great films can do the same. Spielberg, who has made some entertaining movies, relies on pouring a 1000 gallons of syrup over you, then firing a gun loaded with blanks at a puppy.

me said...

I don't think I've seen a decent Spielberg movie aside from Jaws and Shindler's list. Saving Private Ryan was so real it looked fake.

I think Spielberg needs to go back to DIY format, where he can make a movie work with no budget, based simply on the actors, the script and the direction.

I think there are still pleny of great movies being made. However, the vast majority are independent or foreign. Hollywood is film by committee. Try to please everyone and please on one.

Palladian said...

Ann, as an aside, I remembered while finding that Pope sculpture another work by the same artist involving, either humorously or manipulatively, a squirrel.

Pooh said...

Examples of this are the little girl in the red coat in "Schindler's List"

When I saw the title of this post, this is the exact image that popped into my mind. Its fine to have a message but Spielberg does occassionally (or more than) like to beat his audience about that head and neck with it. Though I think Ryan is largely devoid of this, aside from the coda. But that was more due to the hammy performance of Character ActorMcGee than anything else. (It turns out the man's name is Harrison Young).

As to "Munich", I reserve judgment until I actually see it.

Eli Blake said...

Spielberg is a great filmmaker at the top of his profession. He is very rich because movie-goers made him that way. So obviously, he knows what he is doing. And if being 'overwhelmed' is such a bad thing, then why to so many millions of people pay so much money to get 'overwhelmed?'

And heck, look at movies that have been successful over that years that he had nothing to do with. Are you guys going to claim that 'Star Wars,' 'Titanic,' 'Harry Potter' or 'the Passion of Christ' weren't overwhelming? Big stories sell at the box office.

Why is it that when moviemakers and other entertainers are successful, they are attacked, but when people rise to the top of their profession in any other area, they are respected?

Eli Blake said...

Have you guys tried to post on the next board (the death penalty board?) I tried to and got some kind of error message.

Palladian said...

"So obviously, he knows what he is doing. And if being 'overwhelmed' is such a bad thing, then why to so many millions of people pay so much money to get 'overwhelmed?'"

Because most people are not critical thinkers and have a coarse and undeveloped aesthetic? It's the same reason heroin is popular, despite the obvious problems associated with it. Just because it feels good, doesn't mean it is, or that there is any profundity behind its appeal. Yes, I'm an elitist, when it comes to art.

Knowing your political predilections, I'm tempted to turn your words against you: "So obviously, he knows what he is doing. And if Bush is such a bad person, then why to so many millions of people vote for him to get 'lied to?'"

Still agree with the merits of popular appeal? I'm not asserting that the value of art and democracy are the same thing, by the way, quite the opposite, nor am I denigrating the President. I just couldn't resist having a bit of fun.

Ron said...

Well, Ann, I give up...what do want directors to do? What would make you happy? You've mentioned a lot of why you don't go to movies, alright, express it in the positive: what would get you to go? Maybe movies haven't gotten worse, maybe your own tastes and interests have changed. What would you enjoy now?

Harkonnendog said...

"Because most people are not critical thinkers and have a coarse and undeveloped aesthetic?"

Yeah, all those professional movie critics that 4 Star and thumbs-up so many of his movies aren't critical thinkers, and have coarse, undeveloped aesthetics... lol!

Elitist doesn't mean what you think it means, btw. From Wikipedia:
"Elitism is a belief or attitude that an elite — a selected group of persons whose personal abilities, specialized training or other attributes place them at the top of any field (see below) — are the people whose views on a matter are to be taken most seriously, or who are alone fit to govern."

If you were an elitist then you would agree with the top movie critics. They all think Spielberg rocks, pretty much. You're probably more of a movie snob, as you pretend to be elite but aren't.
(Unless you are a professional movie critic or something; in that case I take it back.)
Cheers!

XWL said...

Spielberg's biggest problem is that he no longer trusts stories.

In A.I he had 2/3 of a great film (his homage to Kubrick) and brought the whole project to a halt to add that awful 'Spielbergy' ending.

In the Terminal he constructs one of the largests sets ever built for a film, to tell 'When Balki Met Sally'.

War of the Worlds was a sloppy loud mess, that was a hammer blow of a film (and not in a good way).

You can be loud, bombastic, over the top and not manipulate. QT gets the mix right. The emotions come from the characters and are organic to the story (tell me you don't tear up at the end of Kill Bill, Vol. 2). Spielberg signals the emotions and throws in the anvils (as joan already pointed out) so heavy handedly that any real emotions are lost.

Maybe it's his frequent collaborations with John Williams and the usually awful scores he produces that accounts for part of that.

Stories are what make pictures, not technique, great films have both, for most of his career Spielberg has undermined his stories in favor of 'the big moment' filmmaking.

(1941 on the other hand, there was a movie...)

All this doesn't bode well for a 'message' picture that Spielberg hopes brings both sides in the middle east closer together. That doesn't sound like he was focused on 'story' it sounds like he was making a string of 'big moments' tied around a 'message' (but I haven't seen it, I could be wrong, maybe Munich will be his most fully realized picture ever).

Palladian said...

"If you were an elitist then you would agree with the top movie critics. They all think Spielberg rocks, pretty much. You're probably more of a movie snob, as you pretend to be elite but aren't."

Well, you don't seem to be able to separate an actual "elite" from an annointed elite- most newspaper/tv critics have the aethetics of vaporous high school students. You don't have to automatically accept the status quo just because they have a platform for their opinions. The lesson of blogdom!

I'm not really a movie snob; I actually don't really like movies very much. I don't have time for other people's stories usually, unless it's a documentary or Kubrick. My favorite movies are favorites usually for formal reasons (photography, pacing, sound design, etc.) I'm more of a technician in my taste.

Freeman Hunt said...

So according to Leon Wieseltier, a movie must be made in line with a particular aesthetic (in his case, minimalist) in order to be good?

Rather than showing he is above the "coarse taste of the masses", I would venture that it shows him to have no real taste at all. If a critic is just writing about his personal preferences, isn't he really just writing about himself? And if so, why should we care (unless his writing stands on its own as particularly engaging)?

When addressing a particular piece, an art critic should be able to appreciate art in context of its style. If asked to review, "Landscape at Rouelles," it would seem silly for the critic to write, "All Impressionism is crap." Why not the same for film? Certainly Spielberg is no more "overwhelm[ing]" and "manipulat[ive]" than a director like Kurosawa, an undisputed master filmmaker (generally speaking).

All of that said, I haven't seen "Munich," so I have no opinion on the film. It could be crap, but maybe not on the basis Leon provides.

Harkonnendog said...

Palladin,
What a cool answer to a snarky comment. We'll have to agree to disagree about the definitions of elitism, etc, I guess. ;)

Geek, Esq. said...

Geek -- it's Ok to be pro-Israel. Does the picture have to see "both sides" as if there's a moral equivalence between the outright murder of 11 innocents and the vengeance sought on their killers? The ambivalence on the part of the Mossad agents (feeling guilt, even though the killing may be justified) is a much more interesting (and realistic) take than any handwringing wishay-washy "both sides share equal blame" crapola.

1. I agree that it's okay to be pro-Israel. I'm pro-Israel myself.

2. From every professional movie review I've read of the film, it isn't a "both sides are equally to blame" piece of PC crap. According to them, it is exactly what you hoped it would be--a story of the Israelis and what the moral anguish they felt from killing as retribution.

Now, to a certain extent, they have to show the Palestinians they're assassinating as human beings--otherwise the whole moral dimension is pointless.

The author's real objection seems to be that this wasn't a film that said "Israel was totally justified in exterminating those scumbag terrorists."

It's a story about internal moral conflicts and crises--it isn't a "message" movie that tries to push one side or the other.

Ann Althouse said...

Sorry it took so long to correct the Simon/Leon problem. I was away from my desk! At least I got the second syllable right!

Terrence: My original post is not specific to Spielberg. It's a problem I have generally with movies, especially commercial movies that starve us of complexity and subtlety.

Geek: I think you are probably right about the real basis for Wieseltier's opinion, but the general statement still resonated with me.

Palladian: Well put. The question is which movies work at the level of that Glenn Gould performance. (Personally, I love the movie "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.")

Ron: You're asking that question too. Well, I'd say the dramatic series on HBO do more of what I would like to see. For actual movies, I'd like to see more things like "The Bicycle Thief." Think they might provide some of that sort of thing for me? I also like documentaries like "Grey Gardens." And I like really profound and beautiful animated movies like "Grave of the Fireflies." Can we have a little more of that? And I thought "Catch Me If You Can" was pretty good.

Sorry about the glitch on the death penalty comments. Try it now.

Wade_Garrett said...

Ann - I agree with you, if more movies were like the Bicycle Thief, or movie-length versions of some of HBO's original programming, I would go to see a lot more movies!

I wonder if Spielberg isn't in the same place as a rock singer like Bruce Springsteen. By objective standards, The Rising was probably an excellent album, but I still saw it as somewhat of a disappointment because, in my mind, it didn't live up to Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run. I'm sure that The Terminal and Amistad were better than most films of their genre, but I was so blown away by Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan that any lesser movie coming from Spielberg is going to let me down.

I'd like to see Munich, because I find those historical events to be enormously interesting, and I'd like to see what Spielberg, Geoffrey Rush, and Tony Kushner can make out of it. Rush is one of my favorite actors and I loved Kushner's Angels in America, so I'm willing to give this film the benefit of the doubt. And I think that Spielberg, for all of his faults, is the only director who has a) sufficient standing with Jews and b) a track record of making great movies about delicate subject matters, to even attempt a film like this. I for one am curious to see what it looks like.

PatCA said...

The Spielberg movie I like the best is Empire of the Sun. Maybe it's that he trusted Tom Stoppard to write it. It was emotionally gripping because of the story and characters; it wasn't pasted on.

One aspect of film viewing that thwarts filmmakers is that the moviegoing public is so thoroughly educated now as to how movies are made, as well as how any meaning is created from images and story in any medium, so people like Ann or me or anyone are tougher sells than the viewer of 1925.

Harkonnendog said...

'The author's real objection seems to be that this wasn't a film that said "Israel was totally justified in exterminating those scumbag terrorists."'

That's my objection, too, lol.

I mean, how was Isreael NOT justified?

Wade_Garrett said...

harkennendog - The reason this isn't that cut and dry is as follows: These assassinations took place in Europe; several of them in nations which otherwise had no ties to the events in Munich. Golda Meir had to weigh her options; she knew that Israel couldn't count on the neutral European nations to go too far out of their way to help Israel, so if Israel wanted to kill those terrorists, it had to take matters into its own hands. At the same time, by taking matters into its own hands, it risked alienating a lot of the European nations upon whom it relied for funding and military supplies.

Its an enormously difficult question to grapple with . . . I don't know what I would have done in her situation. If Israel hadn't retaliated, would the Palestinians have been emboldened? Was there a more tactful way for Israel to retaliate? I would probably have done the same thing, if I was in Meir's situation. One thing's for certain, I can't think of another nation who could have pulled off those hits even if it wanted to. Do you think the U.S. could have done it? I dont know if we would have had the know-how.

lindsey said...

The real question Terrence's post makes me ask is, if Europe truly was neutral, why was Europe allowing so many terrorists who'd murdered people in Europe itself to go free? Most countries arrest the people who commit murders in their countries? And does anyone really believe that European nations do not have agreements covering the extradition of wanted murderers? If Israel couldn't count on Europe to arrest the murderers in their midst, at what point does this constitute neutrality or something else?

Ron said...

Well, I'd say the dramatic series on HBO do more of what I would like to see. For actual movies, I'd like to see more things like "The Bicycle Thief." Think they might provide some of that sort of thing for me? I also like documentaries like "Grey Gardens." And I like really profound and beautiful animated movies like "Grave of the Fireflies." Can we have a little more of that? And I thought "Catch Me If You Can" was pretty good.

Well, movies like that appear, but of course, they're not going to be in the center of the multiplex -- but then they never were. Movies have always been about putting people in seats and selling popcorn! That was vital for Chaplin, and things haven't changed in that regard since. Will you go and see these movies several times in theatres? Will you buy your Bicycle Thief action figures? (I just now thought of a New Yorker cartoon for "Far From Heaven" action figures!) These movies will always be marginalized economically, because of the subject matter and the audience reactions to them. (No theme park rides out of Seventh Seal, no Renoir, or Sturges, or Ozu floats in the Macy's parade!)

Why fault a system like this when at its core it's never been any different? Support these films in the art house venues that will show them, and let the multiplex be what it is. I don't like Spielberg either, I just don't go to his movies! But popcorn movies exist for reasons of their own, none of which affect my enjoyment of other things, so I don't understand the kvetching.

Ann Althouse said...

Ron: "Why fault a system..."

All I said was why I don't go to the movies. The fact that there are reasons why movies are they way they are is quite irrelevant to that. Am I supposed to be charitable to them? Because they need to make money? Why don't I just go out an buy a lot of other products I don't want? Part of the market system is people choosing what to buy. Actully, movies haven't been doing well lately, so on their own terms they need to reassess. Not that I think tailoring their product to Ann Althouse is a solution.

Cranky Gnome said...

In game theory, the strategy of tit for tat has proven the most successful. You act benevolently until your opponent does something offensive. Then you respond offensively until he stops acting offensively. You then act benevolently.

I suppose some would say that creating the State of Israel was an offensive act--but why shouldn't the Israelis be allowed to defend themselves from Palestinian terrorists? Why is that considered moral equivalency? The audacity of Spielberg (living in Malibu) to question what the Israelis deem to be in their best interest to protect themselves. Perhaps Stephen Spielberg should ask how many innocent Israelis are alive today because the Mossad went and killed those PLO members. Spielberg should also note that the Israeli current strategy (disengagement and retaliation for any attacks) is actually working. Whose side is Spielberg on: With the Israelis or with the misguided "peace activists" like Rachel Corrie and her comrades, defending murderers and terrorists?

Wade_Garrett said...

Cranky Gnome - I think you're missing the point. The Israeli assassins can know on an intellectual level that they're doing the right thing for the country, but still feel guilty about killing somebody.

I'd wait and see the movie before you accuse Spielberg of selling out.

Joe Baby said...

Anyone know if Spielberg is putting words into Golda Meir's mouth in this film?

And if so, isn't that objectionable?

Harkonnendog said...

Thanx Terrence.

Ann, I just realized why they don't make the kind of movies you like anymore... Why pay to go see them in a theater when they can be enjoyed just as much at home?