They have a seductive charm and sensitivity, which comes partly from Spielberg’s gift of entering into the world of children. This contrasts with his seeming disinclination to enter the world of adult anxiety, whether it be social, psychological or sexual. There are considerable tensions in Spielberg’s films, as anyone who has jumped and shivered and sweated his way through Duel (1971), Something Evil (1972) and Jaws (1975) knows. But the tensions in Spielberg correspond more to the frisson of the cartoon and the funfair than the permanent pains of real life. Indeed, as Close Encounters of the Third Kind  and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial  intriguingly demonstrate, Spielberg can make the most thrilling and suspenseful films without any reference at all to the presence of evil, or even badness. (1)
While Sinyard was clearly making a case for Spielberg’s cinematic art, such assessments have contributed to the director’s reputation as a purveyor of light, empty-headed “popcorn” entertainment. Of course, Sinyard was writing before Spielberg’s critically acclaimed Holocaust drama Schindler’s List (1993), usually seen as a defining moment in his career, the moment when he matured as a filmmaker and had something darker, edgy and “serious” to say.
However, as James Kendrick sets out to problematise in Darkness in the Bliss-Out, darkness has been a feature of Spielberg’s work all along, which merely came to the fore in Schindler’s List. Drawing vastly different conclusions from Sinyard’s, Kendrick recounts how he came to see Spielberg’s early films in particular as “deeply conflicted, their surface pleasures often cracking open to reveal fissures of darkness, despair, loneliness, and regret that their conclusions, no matter how upbeat on the surface, couldn’t fully resolve.” (p. x) While Kendrick concedes that he is not being entirely original in noting these darker undertones, they have never been the focus of critical study. Indeed, there has been a paucity of serious academic criticism on the director in general. Regarding the title, Kendrick draws inspiration from influential New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, for whom E.T. was a rapturous experience: “It’s a dream of a movie – a bliss-out.” (2) However, Kendrick offers an important corrective in which “it is the darkness contained within that bliss and the struggle between them that keeps that film, along with most of Spielberg’s work, firmly lodged in our cultural consciousness when so many other feel-good blockbusters have faded from memory.” (p. 21) With commendable academic rigour, he defines “darkness in art as the expressive result of the artist’s recognition of the uncomfortable and unsettling aspects of life – essentially, that which does not reassure.” (p. 10) Kendrick does not intend to be comprehensive; rather, he analyses carefully selected films in the Spielberg canon, and his selections are sometimes surprising.
In Chapter 1, Kendrick takes as his starting point Andrew M. Gordon’s insight that Close Encounters, E.T. and the 1982 Tobe Hooper-directed supernatural horror Poltergeist (co-produced and co-written by Spielberg from his own story and unmistakably bearing his thumbprint) form a “suburban trilogy,” based on their shared subject matter, emotional tone, technique and underlying psychological concerns (p. 23). For Kendrick, these films are fraught with darkness, pain, terror and disappointment. Indeed, what unites the trilogy “is the manner in which their effects-laden conclusions […] create barely sustainable resolutions that easily crack apart beneath the strain of what has happened throughout each film and what has been left unresolved.” (p. 25) Later, he notes: “In one way or another, the suburban homes in Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist are all invaded by external forces, which is a particularly potent and disturbing thread that binds the films together, given their frequent misreading as films of reassurance and wish fulfilment.” (p. 51) This thread he connects to real-life anxieties about home invasion and increased suburban crime, but which Spielberg translates into otherworldly invasions/visitations.
There is some shrewd analysis of the family dynamics in each of these films, which in Close Encounters and E.T. reveal stress and strain. For example, in the early dinner scene of E.T., Spielberg delineates how the family has been “fractured by divorce and is deeply stressed by divisiveness among family members and repressed emotions.” (p. 50) When the middle child Elliott (Henry Thomas) lashes out at the mother (Dee Wallace) with news that the father is in Mexico with another woman, it is “a stark emotional moment, crammed with all manner of complex familial tensions.” (p. 49) Everyone is hurting. Likewise, the Neary family of Close Encounters is “wracked with tensions” (p. 47) from the outset, and the alien-obsessed Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) is less than the ideal father-head. Kendrick is quite right that we should be sympathising more with the harried mother (Terri Garr), instead of demonising her as other critics have done. As Kendrick interrogates Roy’s man-child construction:
Readings of the film play into the idea that Roy is a screen surrogate for Spielberg himself, thus providing ample evidence of the filmmaker’s simplistic celebration of childishness as a virtue – in his characters, in himself, and in his audience. Yet, such a reading rests on Roy’s childishness being a virtue, and the film offers no evidence in that regard. While Dreyfuss is an appealing actor who generates the necessary sympathy for Roy’s plight (otherwise the film would be unacceptable to mainstream audiences), his childishness is ultimately based largely in narcissism and lack of self-awareness. (p. 55)
How else can we explain why Roy can so easily leave his wife and kids behind for the aliens? It might have been useful for Kendrick to carefully distinguish here between the “childlike” and the much more pejorative “childish,” along the lines of Robin Wood – a critic he cites throughout the book as one of Spielberg’s detractors. Influenced by Peter Coveney’s groundbreaking study of childhood, Wood aligns the childlike with the more profound Romantic vision of poets such as Blake and Wordsworth, for whom the child was a source of growth and renewal, and the childish with a form of “regression into infantilism” as typified in the “Lucas-Spielberg syndrome.” (4) For Wood: “Spielberg in E.T. seems to hesitate between the two concepts […] before finally committing himself to the childish.” (5) Thus, if Kendrick is right about his reading of Roy, could Spielberg be commenting on the self-limiting narcissistic childishness of the character? And could he be hesitating in the film between the childish and childlike? Such a reading locates ideological contradictions and opposing impulses within Spielberg himself, and is consistent with the aims of Kendrick’s analysis.
One surprise is the second chapter on the much-maligned 1941 (1979), where the war film meets John Landis’s Animal House (1978). While not quite the flop it is reputed to be, various explanations have been tendered for the film’s failure. Kendrick has his own take: “1941 lacks a crucial sense of humanity to balance its carnivalesque mockery of both war itself and war movies, leaving the audience with a lingering sense of loss that mitigates the humour of the wild antics on-screen.” (p. 75) For Kendrick the “great irony of 1941 is that, even though it is Spielberg’s only outright comedy, it is one of his darkest and least reassuring films.” (p. 77) It is also one of Spielberg’s most subversive, characterised by narrative “perversity” and “incongruity” (here, Kendrick manages to turn Wood’s notion of the incoherent text against the critic himself). Fascinatingly, Kendrick thinks that 1941 was reflecting on its own “disastrousness” (i.e. flop status) even before the film made it into theatres. Chapter 3, on the enormously successful Indiana Jones franchise, deploys formalist, narrative, ideological and characterological analysis to further reveal Spielberg’s dark side. Thus Kendrick shows how Harrison Ford’s intrepid archaeologist is more mercenary than ethical scientist/academic, in which the field of archaeology is figured as a blood sport. More interesting is the argument that the films undercut rather than celebrate the myth of American exceptionalism and the Pax Americana concept, although this is not the most compelling chapter of the book.
Rather, the highlight of Darkness in the Bliss-Out is Kendrick’s insightful and subtle readings of lost childhood in the last two chapters: the war-damaged Jamie/Jim Graham (Christian Bale) in Empire of the Sun (1987, adapted from J.G. Ballard’s novel) and the mecha or robot David (a remarkable performance by Haley Joel Osment) in the poignant A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Apropos Jim, Kendrick writes that that he is “hardly the one-dimensional symbol of childhood innocence he is often accused of perpetuating […] since Empire of the Sun plays as a sustained critique of the limits of a child’s imagination in a world of violence and conflict.” (p. 145) Kendrick astutely questions the nature of that innocence, the focusing point of tensions between romantic idealism and realism/“reality” (the horrors of war, displacement, the brutalities of life in a Japanese internment camp). I particularly welcomed his interrogation of the significance of the 1943 Norman Rockwell painting, Freedom from Fear, to the film’s central concerns of family, lost innocence and the “illusory nature of safety” (p. 154). (Interestingly, both Spielberg and his compatriot George Lucas own Rockwell originals and have acknowledged the American artist’s influence on their work). Curiously elided, however, is Jim’s unlikely friendship with the Japanese youth (who will become a Kamikaze pilot) through the barbed wire fence of the camp; despite their ethnic, cultural and political differences, they share a mutual passion for flying and the gung-ho of war. The youth is another one of Spielberg’s doubles for the child figure (cf. Elliott and E.T., who have a psychic/emotional connection; David and the scheming Martin, David and his mecha double). There is an extraordinary moment when Jim tries desperately to resuscitate the life of his friend who has been shot down in confusion, and Spielberg cuts almost surreally to an image of Jim in the other’s place (in the maroon schoolboy uniform of seemingly a lifetime ago). In short, this is emblematic of how Jim is trying to resuscitate his lost innocence/childhood.
Spielberg inherited A.I from his friend Stanley Kubrick, who confided to him about the project (which he admitted had more in common with Spielberg’s sensibilities than his own) before he died, leaving the film unrealized. Thus, owing to the apparent uneasiness of their collaboration, it is tempting to view A.I. as “not quite one and not quite the other” (p. 173), and as something of an “aberration” (p. 175) in Spielberg’s career. However, Kendrick has a different view: “A.I. is not an aberration at all, but rather a synthesis of Spielberg’s previous themes, a summative work that makes explicit the darker undertones and thematic conflicts that shaded so many of his previous films.” (p. 176) To be sure, this is one of his most heart-wrenching films about childhood, which grapples with a complex range of “human” emotions: fear, resentment, jealousy, rejection, rage, hope, melancholy and despair. Most distressing is when David is abandoned by his mother-object Monica (Frances O’Conner) in the forest, but not before she has had him imprint on her, which prohibits him from imprinting on another. This is his “tragic flaw.” Like Pinocchio, whose story forms an important intertext for the film, David is on a quest to become a “real live boy” – all because he craves love and acceptance from the mother. But as a mecha he will never be real enough for Monica and will in fact outlive her by millennia. In its anguished vision of an eternal childhood the film casts a shadow on the eternal childhoods sought by Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie. Indeed, after pondering Kendrick’s readings of childhood in Empire and A.I., I believe we need to speak of a “traumatised” Romanticism (again, capital R) in the films of Steven Spielberg. When Pauline Kael waxed rhapsodic about the merits of E.T. she was seizing on its Romantic qualities: freshness, awe, wonder, imagination, emotion and, of course, bliss. As the child who’s transformed by his friendship with the eponymous alien, Elliott may be likened to Wordsworth’s child “trailing clouds of glory”; and it would not be too much of an exaggeration to credit Spielberg with reinventing the Romantic child in contemporary cinema and culture. Even in “serious” films such as Schindler’s List we sense the filmmaker trying to keep a lid on his Romantic impulses, while confronting the darker aspects of his material. Alas, Kendrick never makes explicit the Romantic underpinnings of Spielberg’s vision, which in Empire and A.I. reveal lost children dominated by clouds rather than glories.
Kendrick’s book is that rare thing: eminently readable, yet suitably academic. In advancing his thesis for the “darkness in the bliss-out,” he does not just cover well-travelled ground but examines marginalised, if not underappreciated, works in the Spielberg canon, thus offering something new for contemplation and analysis. I, for one, want to revisit films such as 1941, Empire and A.I. And while his thesis may seem like a no-brainer, it’s something that clearly needs to be explored, as a riposte to not only Spielberg’s detractors but also his most ardent defenders, who have been known to exercise an almost wilful blindness regarding these darker elements within his work. At times Kendrick labours this point, but we can not fault him for the rigour of his analysis, in which he engages with a wide range of research and scholarship: biographies, book-length studies, contemporary reviews, journal articles and interviews. One minor drawback is the lack of a concluding chapter, which might have helped to tie his discussions of the films together. But overall, this is refreshing, thought-provoking criticism.
James Kendrick, Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)
- Neil Sinyard, The Films of Steven Spielberg (Twickenham, UK: Hamlyn, 1987), p. 7.
- Pauline Kael, “The Current Cinema: The Pure and the Impure,” The New Yorker, June 14, 1982, p. 119.
- Writes Kendrick: “Both E.T. and Poltergeist take place in unnamed southern California suburban communities that look similar enough that the two films could very well be taking place on different streets in the same neighbourhood” (p. 41). But in Poltergeist the Freelings reside in the fictional Cuesta Verde Estates. This seems to have been a red herring for writers and critics (I stand guilty) who have assumed that the family’s house has been built on Indian burial ground instead of a regular cemetery. Have critics “wilfully” read against the grain of the text, with the Indian burial grounds of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and other horror movies on their minds? Or have they made a critical blunder which has since taken on a life of its own? In an early treatment the bodies were of white settlers slaughtered by Indians.
- Robin Wood, Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 155.
- Ibid., p. 156.