Steven Spielberg. A household name. A brand. He has achieved more universal success than any other filmmaker in the history on cinema. But how did he become Hollywood’s wunderkind? How did Jaws, despite its nightmare shoot, become such an overwheling success that it changed the film industry forever? Like any medium or artform, when the big boys see the money, the art becomes compromised. The New Hollywood era consisted of filmmakers that were first generation film students and considered film as an artform rather than a business. These young filmmakers throughout the 1960s and 1970s revived Hollywood, which was becoming increasingly out of touch with audiences. The philosophy of the counterculture and the development of television had left the big studios bewildered and in dire need of help.
The movie brats – Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, John Milius, George Lucas – were the last of this breed to come along. These guys were film nerds, and Spielberg was the biggest nerd of all. Milius was a gun-toting anarchist, Scorsese was coked out of his mind, De Palma was too perverse, Coppola too stubborn and Lucas too delicate. And the common thread between them all was that they all despised the corporate studios, they never wanted to play ball. Along comes Spielberg, clean as a whistle, non-confrontational and willing to negotiate. The type of guy studio execs could bring home to their mothers. His only artistic integrity was his technique and skills were a boomin’.
Even Alfred Hitchcock, after seeing Jaws, praised Spielberg as “the first one of us who doesn’t see the prosecenium arch”, in other words – calling him a visionary. His technical prowess fused with genre cinema made a thriller that audiences had never witnessed before. Similar, to the affect Psycho had with audiences fifteen years before, Jaws created a film so visceral that it crossed over to create anxieties in people’s real lives. This time round, instead of a shower you had the ocean. George Romero once called Jaws “the scariest movie of all time because who can deny it?”, people’s anxieties and fears came to the surface and wouldn’t go into the water after seeing the film.
The success of Jaws was a gift and a curse for the film industry. Journalist and author, Peter Biskind, argued that it was the “Trojan Horse” that allowed studios become more audience saavy. They didn’t have to rely on an “auteur” director’s principles, they had the summer blockbuster. Put money into the exploitation concepts and create big, flashy spectactles. F*#k a director’s whiney sense of artistic integrity. Universal Studio’s chairman Leu Wasserman, after attending a screening, decided to give the film a nationwide release, which had never been done before. The impact of Jaws paved the way for the marketing and release sensation that would be Star Wars. The Box Office became like Sportscentre, and films became ranked like sports results rather than subjective art.
Along with the departure of the socio-political cynicism of the 1970s and with such feelgood romps as Rocky, Hollywood had audiences exactly where they wanted them – cheap and docile. Disco! Despite this asinine stipulation, nobody could dispute Spielberg’s finesse. He went on to make possibly his most personal film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in 1977. The film portrayed Spielberg’s curioisity and excitement with space and the unknown, a more human, almost childlike innocence to the wonderment of science fiction.
In 1982 he did it again, but for this time for an even more universal audience. You didn’t have to be a sci-fi geek to enjoy E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, you didn’t even have to like movies. You simply succumbed to its magic. You laughed, you jumped, you cried, you got weirded out by E.T. fingers, and you always stayed invested. Some critics denounce Spielberg for manipulating the audience through his vistuoso style of filmmaking. Granted, his films have evolved throughout the years to more mellodramatic heights, but manipulation stands to be intrinsic to filmmaking. That’s the challenge. That’s the point! To play the audience like an orchestra – get them to laugh here, get them to cry there – is the job of any real director. All sensitive film critics need hugs and kisses, stop playing the victim and handle it. It’s popcorn cinema, pure escapism and nobody does it better.
N.B. The Happenings present an Open Air Screening of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Thursday 28th July at Kilkenny Castle