“The fact that I consider myself a film critic first and a feminist second means that I feel an obligation to the wholeness and complexity of film history.”– Molly Haskell1

While researching her portrait of the life and career of Steven Spielberg for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, Molly Haskell recalls her mortified reaction to being denied an interview with the director: “I felt a little stung, a little red faced, like a girl angling for a date and being rejected.” (p. xii) Coming from a critic of Haskell’s stature, this is wonderfully self-effacing and endearing. Suspecting a grudge on Spielberg’s part, Haskell happened upon a YouTube clip of him speaking in the late 1970s to an American Film Institute master class, where he said, “You can’t worry if critics like Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell don’t like your movies.” Ouch! The man clearly reads reviews. But in this cringing moment – this moment of truth – Haskell makes a startling confession, where she found her approach to her subject: “I […] fell a little in love with him at that moment, with his charm and quick-wittedness, his playful faux-modesty, and – most erotic to the movie lover – his obvious knowledge of and passion for films.” (pp. xii-xiii) More important, she adds, “His spurning of me personally came to seem a relief. I’d have been compromised. Either through natural sympathy or good manners, I’d have felt inhibited, seduced into his point of view, unable to maintain a critical distance.” (p. xiii) For as much as Haskell’s opinion of Spielberg has improved over the years, Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films is no exercise in reverence or hagiography. Indeed, it is this odd marriage of critic and subject that makes the book so enjoyable. We may suppose that Spielberg would not have been too happy about her taking him on for the acclaimed series, whose previous subjects include Ben-Gurion, Einstein, Freud and Marx (Groucho not Karl).

As Haskell admits, she wasn’t an obvious choice for this entry in the series.  For one, she is not Jewish, and for another, “I had never been an ardent [Spielberg] fan.” (p. x) As for the former, she argues, quite rightly, “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 traits has always been a kind of natural ecumenism, a generosity of spirit.” (p. ix) As for the latter, Haskell admits having to work through her resistances to his work: “His great subjects – children, adolescents – and genres – science fiction, fantasy, horror, action-adventure – were stay-away zones for me. Even his forays into history were inspirational rather than ironic or fatalistic, the work of a man who favored moral clarity, was uncomfortable with ‘shades of grey’.” (p. x) That there is something for everybody in Spielberg – even for an old-school critic like Haskell who once wrote of Jaws (1975) that it made her feel “like a rat being given shock treatment” (p. 62) – is the greatest testimony to his appeal. While for many early films such as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) remain his most vital, Haskell prefers “the later films with their dark edges – Empire of the Sun [1987], Schindler’s List [1993], A.I. [2001], Minority Report [2002] and the melancholy-tinged Catch Me If You Can [2002] – [which] give a greater and very different kind of pleasure” (p. ix). Although comments such as these are well-meaning, intended to increase our appreciation for Spielberg’s work, Haskell perpetuates an all-too-familiar narrative about his critical reputation – I shall return to this point later.

In reading Spielberg’s films as autobiography, with an eye to his Jewishness, Haskell unashamedly adheres to auteurist assumptions. As such, the book is part (potted) biography, part film survey, in which Haskell takes us through each film in chronological order. For example, she reads E.T. as an “Ugly Duckling story – the Jewish kid with the long nose and big ears, misfit in Arizona’s Wasp and jock culture, transformed by cinematic magic into a big-headed extra-terrestrial, cousin to the childlike figures who had descended from the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And a lonely guy story” (p. 95), mirroring the kind of companion Spielberg would have liked to have had as a ten-year-old. Later, she reads Catch Me If You Can as one of his most personal films, “a fable about acting and masquerade, about ‘passing’, something a Jewish guy growing up in the heartland and trying to hide his ethnicity would know something about.” (p. 182) Similar statements are sprinkled throughout the book. But, while Schindler’s List is often seen as a “coming out” for Spielberg regarding his ethnicity – including by Spielberg himself – Haskell makes large claims about two animated films he earlier co-produced for his production company, Amblin Entertainment: An American Tail (1986) and its sequel, An American Tale: Fievel Goes West (1991). In imbibing the memories of the Holocaust through his maternal grandfather, Fievel, and others, Haskell notes the “double vision” of these films, “in which Holocaust imagery and reverberations play out in a children’s story.” (p. 12).2 The adventures of Fievel’s young namesake, from a Russian-Jewish family of mice, may have provided Spielberg with an outlet for parts of himself he wasn’t ready to express (p. 20).  For Haskell, then, “the two-part Fievel saga is in many ways more deeply personal” (p. 21) than Schindler’s List, and, while we might think she is overstating her case, Spielberg significantly refused to change Fievel’s name to something “less ethnic”, which shows the hand of producer as auteur. For me, this was enough to give these movies a second look. Interestingly, there was a backlash from Art Spiegelman, whose celebrated graphic novel Maus also adopts the analogy of mice as Jews. Spiegelman even accused Spielberg of plagiarism.

Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films

Theatrical release poster, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Following other biographers, Haskell cites the importance of light as a “primal scene” in Spielberg’s films – the book is peppered with psychoanalytic language and insights – which has been traced to a formative experience of light in the Adath Synagogue when he first beheld the Ark of the Torah (p. 12). She – or biographers such as Joseph McBride, on which Haskell is evidently drawing – has no problem with the fact that Spielberg’s “earliest memory” (which he recounted to critic Richard Corliss in 1985) goes back to when he was only six months old! Could such a memory, or at least the timing of it, have been confabulated? Or could it be part of Spielberg’s tendency for self-mythologising? Haskell herself notes a discrepancy in the date, given Spielberg was still lying about his age. As for the films, Haskell diagnoses a certain religiosity in Spielberg’s films that is not specifically Jewish: unlike the tortured Catholicism of Altman, Coppola or Scorsese, Spielberg “seems to have been born with a religious sense of awe the way others are born short or gregarious of curly-haired. He bows not to God or orthodoxy, but to the otherworldly and the ineffable.” (p. 71). In signature works such as Close Encounters and E.T. Spielberg reveals himself as one of the most numinous – and, I might add, Romantic – of filmmakers. E.T., she notes, was embraced as “a religious parable, or as we always seem bound to say, a ‘quasi-religious parable’,” an interpretation that was encouraged by the film’s promotion: an image of the alien’s luminous finger touching the boy Elliott’s (Henry Thomas), a la Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam fresco (p. 99). Fascinatingly, Haskell suggests that “If you had to pin down the theology behind Spielberg’s articles of narrative faith – hope, optimism, and a belief in goodness triumphant – they are actually closer to a Mormon worldview than a Christian or Jewish one.” (p. 97) “Like Steven Spielberg’s aversion to murkiness and ambiguity,” she explains, “Mormon stories (see Stephenie Meyers), are driven by crystal clear plots, avoiding sex and other pleasurable (or sinful) aspects of adult life – smoking, drinking, and pessimism” (pp. 97-98). All right, but methinks Haskell is taking her Mormon parallels too far! For starters, ambiguity and, yes, murkiness has been a feature of Spielberg’s work all along – if you care to look for it. One of the few sex scenes to be found in a Spielberg movie is in the controversial Munich (2005), between Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana) and his wife. This, though, is depicted as an outlet for posttraumatic stress order rather than an act of love or desire (pp. 192-193).

Haskell’s addressing of Spielberg’s alleged sexism and misogyny forms one of the most interesting threads in the book. When Haskell updated From Reverence to Rape for the 1987 edition, she noted how the treatment of women over the last decade was a “story of an absence, followed by a fragmented, schizophrenic, but oddly hopeful presence”,3 and that the “Young Turks who might have been expected to ally themselves with women – Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Coppola, Paul Schrader, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg – burrowed into violent male-centered melodramas or retreated into a no less fantastic world of eternal adolescence.”4 No need to guess where Haskell places Spielberg on this plane. In that work, she also diagnosed an on-screen backlash to the threat women posed in their dual roles as wife/mother and successful professional. This, she argued, “took the form of nymphetmania […] male rite-of-passage movies, and that most curious of late-seventies phenomena, the male parenting movie.”5 Both Jaws and Close Encounters may be counted as male rites-of-passage movies; while Hook (1991) is a variation on the male parenting movie. But whereas McBride, whom Haskell defers to in all other matters, believes there is a streak of misogyny in Spielberg, particularly in the formative works, Haskell seems over-eager to qualify the director’s treatment of women, in both his life and films: “As his relationship with the women he has worked with makes clear, Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked the guy stuff more. And action, along with being hugely profitable, was […] both sensational and irresistible.” (p. 108) His female collaborators include long-time producer Kathleen Kennedy and the late Melissa Mathison, screenwriter for E.T. and ­The BFG (2016). Such qualifications, though, do not sit well with her other statements about Spielberg and women on particular films – as such, the whole of her argument does not add up to the sum of its parts.

Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films

A young Spielberg directing Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express (1974)

Apropos of his theatrical debut, The Sugarland Express (1974), Haskell writes how “Critics noted the theme of deranged motherhood, and the strain of misogyny, it revealed. ‘Misogyny’ may be the wrong word, too broad and all-encompassing. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg, but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” (p. 52) As much as one concedes her point, fear and mistrust are arguably aspects of misogyny. She calls Goldie Hawn’s portrayal of the mother in this film “abrasive and shrill, the first, but not the last, of that Spielberg archetype, the Shrieking Woman.” (p. 52) Actually, no. That honour belongs to Sandy Dennis in the curiously overlooked TV horror movie, Something Evil (1972), made just prior to The Sugarland Express. Here, Dennis portrays a “deranged” mother trying to protect her children from unseen forces inside a haunted farmhouse, which culminates in the possession of the adolescent son. As for Jaws, Haskell rehearses the now-familiar reading of the shark as the vagina dentata, the scapegoat of men’s fears about the unknowable Female (p. 63). But, in discussing Chrissie’s (Susan Blacklinie) demise in the film’s celebrated opening, she derives a “satisfaction of sorts in unleashing the monster on that other monster, the Shrieking Woman. No wonder we’re more frightened for the dog [later in the film].” (p. 64) For Haskell, then, it is the Shrieking Woman who needs to be humanely put down! Terri Garr’s Ronnie from Close Encounters is not so much a Shrieking as she is a Nagging Woman. If this was a different type of movie, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) would have left his wife and kids because of the allure of another woman; in Spielberg’s pre-adolescent, boys only universe, Roy leaves because of the allure of extra-terrestrials. As the woman he left behind, Ronnie is strident and unflattering. Unable to fathom her husband’s obsession with the UFOs, she has no place to go in the narrative, hence her disappearance in the second half. In Haskell’s judgement: “If this is the New Hollywood, it is no place for actresses.” (p. 76) This judgement, however, does not take into account the more sympathetic treatment of the single mother Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) in the film, who helps leaven some of the negativity of Ronnie’s character. What’s more, she is UFO obsessed just like Roy. But, while their mutual obsession brings them together, Spielberg ultimately baulks at a romantic relationship.

Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films

Mario Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg 1981)

For many the Hawksian heroine of Raiders of the Lost Ark was an advance on such representations. Not so for Haskell, for whom Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenhwood as Indiana Jones’ sidekick and love interest is only a “putative Hawksian heroine”: “another deglamorized Spielberg woman, a cartoonish gin-slinging tomboy who will soon be wearing dresses and screaming for help” (p. 88, my italics). To be sure, Marion/Allen walks a tightrope between feisty leading lady and damsel in distress in the film, but for his male viewer at least, I’m not sure she is so deglamourized! Allen is what we might term an earthy rather than glamorous beauty. In contrast, nightclub singer Willie Scott (played by Kate Capshaw, the future Mrs Spielberg) from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is both glamorous and a damsel in distress. For Haskell, she is “Spielberg’s most nerve-wracking version of the Shrieking Woman” (p.105). Echoing Haskell’s own sentiments about Chrissie’s demise, she quotes Gene Siskel’s review that we wish Willie/Capshaw would fall into molten lava, when she is almost ritually sacrificed in the film. Such a retrograde, anti-feminist and mean-spirited representation left both Spielberg and sometime-collaborator George Lucas open to charges of misogyny. “The tortures designed for the actress were excessive even by standards of the time,” she notes. “Could Spielberg be going overboard, torturing the sassy blonde as if she were one of his kid sisters, because he was attracted to her?” (p. 105) Revisiting the hostile reviews of her character, Haskell speculates, “Could it be that the future husband – all unwitting – was trying to thwart his wife’s career before it began?” (p. 106) In unpacking the implications, “one can’t resist asking: how much of the violence against movies, the ubiquitous ‘turn-on’ of gorgeous women being gleefully tormented, is a delayed revenge perpetrated by nerds on the high school beauties who wouldn’t give them a backward glance?” (p. 107). Perhaps unhelpfully, she labels this the Alfred Hitchcock syndrome. More damningly, Haskell notes how the director has not been particularly helpful in reviving his wife’s career, telling her, “You weren’t supposed to have a career. You were supposed to be with me.” (p. 155). Hmm.

Whatever credence we assign to such auteurist and psychological speculations, which Haskell frames as questions (albeit with a rhetorical air) we should not lay the charges of misogyny for Temple of Doom solely at Spielberg’s feet. As Lucas himself acknowledged, he was going through a divorce at the time – a divorce that was by all accounts bitter –which darkened his mood for the sequel.6 And as Lucas’s most recent biographer, Brian Jay Jones, has suggested, the scene where the evil priest Mola Ram “reaches out and rips the victim’s still-bleating heart out of his chest [was] as literal a metaphor for Lucas’s own heartbreak as he would ever put on-screen.”7 Thus one can not resist asking: were the tortures visited upon Willie/Capshaw more a reflection of Lucas’s feelings towards women at the time?

Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films

Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg 1984)

However, if Spielberg is no misogynist then he is no feminist either. If I am understanding Haskell correctly, she is saying that Spielberg doesn’t do women very well in his movies not because he hates women (and hate is a strong word) but because he does not really understand them. And maybe she is right. “Spielberg would not be alone in rarely if ever featuring an interesting complex woman at the fore or even an adult sexual relationship. And by sexual I don’t mean specific portrayal of sex, but a feeling for the chemistry of attraction that is a sort of baseline language not just in European films, but even, perhaps especially, in old Hollywood films.” (p. 5) For Haskell, this is borne out in the nearly-forgotten Always (1989), Spielberg’s remake of the Spencer Tracy-Irene Dunne movie A Guy Named Joe (1943), one of Spielberg’s personal favourites.  Always was Spielberg’s second attempt at a “woman’s picture,” after the controversial The Color Purple (1985). In her 1974 study, Haskell lamented the death of the woman’s picture: “For the woman’s film, like other art forms, pays tribute at its best (and at its worst) to the power of the imagination, to the mind’s ability to picture a perfect love triumphing over the mortal and conditional.”8 Haskell might have been referring to Always, for whom it is presumably a woman’s picture at its worst: “He [Spielberg] may have loved old Hollywood movies, but was deaf and blind to the language of love at their core, the visual and verbal, the eros of the ‘look’.” (p. 132) Haskell’s conclusion: Spielberg does emotional longing – think E.T. or A.I.– better than romance or desire (p. 133). Again, one feels inclined to agree.

Another interesting thread is the alleged infantilising tendencies of Spielberg’s cinema and how these have shaped the New Hollywood and beyond. As Peter Biskind argues in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the juvenile fare of Spielberg and Lucas would return “the ‘70s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-‘60s Golden Age of movies […] They marched backward through the looking glass, producing pictures that were the mirror opposite of the New Hollywood films of their peers.”9 Even Pauline Kael, who started out championing the boy wonder’s career (calling The Sugarland Express “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies [p. 54]”) would soon join in the backlash that Spielberg was responsible for the infantilisation of moviegoing taste. While acknowledging Jaws as a watershed in blockbuster moviemaking and saturation marketing, Haskell notes the unwelcome long-term consequences: “Over time, the term ‘blockbuster’ itself would change, no longer referring to an actual hit, a movie the public has embraced, but to a business model or ‘product’, at the conceptual stage rather than at its consummation.” (p. 65) Many – like Biskind – would see this development as symptomatic of a decline in post-1970s Hollywood. Later, Haskell reads Jurassic Park (1993), which was similarly a watershed in digital special effects, as a “kind of ur-parable on the technological evolution of filmmaking itself, a story of the decline and fall of human characters in the wake of cinema’s relentless march away from film and toward animation. This had to be exciting for Spielberg […] but perhaps it was also a harbinger of a future he wasn’t entirely comfortable with.” (p. 141) This would reach its “fulfillment” in the record-breaking Jurassic World (2015) from Amblin Entertainment, in which the genetically engineered beasts have more personality than the humans.10

Haskell’s ambivalence towards her subject is at its most palpable when interrogating tensions between low and high culture: the bottom line mentality of the blockbuster on the one hand and film as art on the other. Here, she rehearses critic Tom Shone’s energetic riposte to  Biskind in his 2004 book Blockbuster that Spielberg and Lucas didn’t ruin but rather “reinvigorated” (p.66) Hollywood. While conceding a level of truth to this, Haskell diagnoses

a coarsening of taste and expectations in the wake (and imitation) of those early blockbusters, and the audiences they cultivated. When he [Shone] defends his youthful enthusiasm against us killjoys, what is he defending? … The Peter Pan ‘in all of us’; an elevation of nostalgia to first principle. Shone’s paean to the blockbuster is a valorization not of his adult, cinephile, art-film-plus passions but of his fourteen-year-old first loves. He sees the excitement generated by Star Wars [1977] or Close Encounters not as something one is meant to outgrow, but as a permanent gold standard of taste, of feelings too precious to be left behind. (p. 67)

Forcefully expressed, I’d say! Such passages make the book compelling – criticism and not reverence.

Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films

Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, in the over-hyped Hook (Spielberg 1991)

One of Spielberg’s most biographically revealing but maligned movies was the over-hyped Hook, which Haskell calls a “film about regression, meant to utilize the insights into his own infantilism that the director had gleaned from the analyst’s couch” (p. 134), in this case, self-help guru John Bradshaw, who at the time was peddling his pap about healing the relationship between one’s inner child and wounded child. Haskell sums up Spielberg’s “conundrum” in the film: “how to keep the uninhibited freedom of the child’s imagination and still grow into an adult?” (pp. 134-135) “But his inner compass,” she adds, “his sense of himself in the world, was shifting, and the man who made Empire of the Sun could no longer fully believe in childhood innocence.” (p. 135)11 Many critics thought Hook was the film Spielberg had to make, so that he could put away childish things (although not completely, as it turns out). In this regard, the movie was just as important for Spielberg’s personal and artistic growth as Schindler’s List. Despite this reviewer’s attempts to see good things in the movie, I agree with Haskell that it is one of Spielberg’s most forced: “Located in some strange limbo between childhood and adulthood, the fairy dust doesn’t ignite, but adulthood seems to offer all the pleasures of a life sentence. Witness a startlingly subversive riff on the joylessness of parenthood.” (p. 135)

In the films he made to court the Academy, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List, we see Spielberg making his bid for credibility as a filmmaker. By the time he made his slave picture Amistad (1997), notes Haskell, Spielberg had “internalized the somewhat false bifurcation of the medium into art vs. money, the Serious vs. Commercial, so that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, a credo […] he almost invited criticism by framing the ‘issue film’ as good for you, something you had to take like castor oil, while belittling the popcorn movie as disposable, a summer throwaway.” (p. 156) Like Lucas, Spielberg is a history buff. But in Amistad and Lincoln (2012) his approach to history and detail can come across as stilted and workmanlike, with a lot of talking heads. Amistad did not fare well critically or commercially. Nevertheless, Haskell defends the film alongside Steve McQueen’s highly acclaimed 12 Years a Slave (2013) “as far more interested in nuance, in the way this terrible evil [i.e. slavery] has metastasized into so many veins of our society.” (p. 160) In contrast, Lincoln was a critical and commercial success, picking up 12 Academy Award nominations (including for Best Picture and Best Director). Haskell, somewhat unappealingly, describes the film as “the very essence of gravitas, a history lesson in epic storytelling mode, and makes its own argument for the scale of Spielberg’s ambition to the mass audience he hopes to reach” (p. 199). In many ways, the director’s self-consciously “serious” films trade on the good will of the Spielberg name more familiar with his “entertainments.”

In combining history and civics lesson with the visceral excitement of war and bloodshed, Saving Private Ryan (1998) was for many a return to form for the director. The movie is justly singled out by Haskell for its bravura opening sequence of the Allied landing on Omaha Beach which – like the boot-training section of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) makes the rest of the movie pale by comparison. And while its self-assured patriotism may seem ideologically questionable and naive in the post 9/11 era, Haskell notes Spielberg’s ability to tap into the Zeitgeist: “Private Ryan was seen as an antidote to the Vietnam-induced gloom and cynicism in movies like Apocalypse Now [1979].” (p. 166) Like Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016), the film espouses both anti-war and “just war” sentiments. In Munich and Bridge of Spies (2015) and sci-fi fare such as War of the Worlds (2005) and Minority Report, we see Spielberg tapping into present-day anxieties such as terrorism – just as the earlier films tapped into a longing for childhood and innocence. But a major drawback here is coverage. As much as Haskell expresses a preference for more mature Spielberg product, she spreads herself thinly over the most recent films: The Terminal (2004), War of the Worlds and Munich (eight pages), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (2011) and War Horse (2011) (four pages and only a single paragraph on War Horse!). I take it that Haskell regards these as minor works in the Spielberg canon, and in the case of Crystal Skull and Tintin she’s arguably right. That said, I couldn’t help wondering if Haskell was short-changing her subject.

Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley, Schindler’s List (Spielberg 1993)

Moreover, in expressing a preference for the later films, Haskell largely reduces the early films to innocuous, uncomplicated, unambiguous creations. Like many critics, Haskell argues that Empire helped to prepare the way for Schindler’s List (p. 121), while she notes how the latter “would be the most celebrated film of his career, hailed as a high-water mark signaling a new maturity” (p. 144). For the most part, Haskell holds to this critical assessment. “Unfortunately”, notes Peter Krämer, “Spielberg has conspired with many of his critics to construct his career in terms of an ‘immature’ early period, associated with the kind of family entertainment best exemplified by E.T., and a ‘mature’ phase which, despite earlier attempts at ‘serious’ filmmaking […] was reached only with the critical praise garnered by Schindler’s List in 1993.”12 But judging by the reception to his output up to the early 1980s, Krämer shows how Spielberg’s television and feature films “were considered to be fully accomplished pieces of work, even masterpieces, and thus by no stretch of the imagination ‘immature’.”13 Furthermore, “revisionist” critics such as Lester D. Friedman, James Kendrick, Noel Brown and even myself have stressed the tensions, conflicts and ambiguities beneath the reassuring surfaces of Spielberg’s work, including early work such as E.T. and Close Encounters – what Kendrick has colourfully termed “the darkness in the bliss-out.”  Kendrick (whose excellent book I reviewed for Senses of Cinema) 14 also rejects Schindler’s List as an immature/mature dividing point, noting that “Darkness wasn’t absent from his earlier works; it was there, but had simply been downplayed or ignored in light of the pervasive arguments in both the popular press and in academic film studies that Spielberg’s films were supposedly upbeat, paternalistic, and reassuring.”15 In reviewing Haskell’s book it is important to remember that the legwork has been done by other scholars, most notably, Joseph McBride “whose superb biography I am deeply indebted.” (p. xii)  As such, Haskell has not unearthed new information on Spielberg, nor has she interviewed key players in his life and career. As we saw, she was denied an interview with the great man himself – much to her chagrin.

In digesting large volumes of information, it seems that Haskell has not had time to check her sources, facts and understandings. The resultant errors have been noted by other critics, and in the interests of being charitable (I am prone to errors myself!) I will be selective about the ones I identified. Apropos of Close Encounters, Haskell claims that “Columbia induced him [Spielberg] to shoot the interior of the spaceship for an anniversary reissue of the film on DVD.” (p. 78) Actually, this was for a 1980 theatrical re-release, called the “Special Edition.” Close Encounters has a convoluted release history, which includes a 1998 re-edit of the film that omits the interior. In any case, the film was not released on DVD until 2001. Haskell also claims that Spielberg “refused to direct Jaws II” (157). Not quite true, at least according to McBride. When director John Hancock was fired early on in the shoot Spielberg briefly reconsidered Universal’s offer. Spielberg wanted to base the screenplay on the USS Indianapolis shark incident recounted by Robert Shaw’s Quint character in the original film. Because of his scheduling conflict with Columbia on Close Encounters, Spielberg was prevented from taking up the offer.16 Haskell’s “misreading” of Poltergeist (1982) perhaps shows her over-reliance on McBride.  She writes: “The Spielberg building blocks are all here – the Norman Rockwell suburban neighbourhood, this time ironically called Questa Verde estates, built on top of an ancient Indian burial ground, and under siege from vengeful spirits of displaced Native Americans.” (p. 100) No, no! It’s not Questa Verde but Cuesta Verde, and there is no Indian burial ground. Indeed, as a shady developer explains to real estate agent Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) how a cemetery was relocated to make way for the estate on which the Freelings’ haunted house lies: “Oh, don’t worry about it. After all, it’s not ancient tribal burial ground. It’s just… people.” Yes, the line is riffing on other horror films like The Shining (1980) with Indian burial grounds. But this misconception about the estate’s history continues to be perpetrated by critics, including McBride (left uncorrected in the latest – and third – edition of his biography) and yours truly!17

Like Brian Jay Jones’s recent biography on George Lucas, Molly Haskell’s biography-cum-survey does not offer anything new or revelatory about Steven Spielberg. What it does offer is some insightful and satisfying observations on individual films, especially of how details about Spielberg’s life can be used to illumine our understanding of the films themselves. As one would expect, Haskell writes with clarity and intelligence.  However, her somewhat uneven treatment and self-admitted biases underestimate the richness and significance of Spielberg’s legacy. It’s fortunate that the factual errors and misconceptions don’t detract too much from the quality of the work.  On balance, this is a worthwhile primer to the life and career of an important but often unappreciated filmmaker. But for those seeking greater depth, they should consult some of the more cutting-edge scholarship. For the hardcore Spielberg scholar, there is Wiley Blackwell’s impressive A Companion to Steven Spielberg (2017).

Molly Haskell, Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films (Jewish Lives) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

 

Endnotes

  1. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 38.
  2. Another film that shares this double vision is Ken Hughes’ 1968 British musical/fantasy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
  3. Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, op. cit., p. 372.
  4. Ibid., p. 377.
  5. Ibid., p. 394.
  6. Similarly, it has been suggested that Spielberg’s mood on the film was darkened by the tragic helicopter accident involving Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children on set of the omnibus film, Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).
  7. Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A Life (London: Headline, 2016), p. 326.
  8. Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, op. cit., p. 188.
  9. Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), pp. 434, 444.
  10. Earlier, Haskell notes that Spielberg’s sensibility lies fundamentally in animation – Looney Tunes creator Chuck Jones was even an advisor on his overblown war comedy 1941 (1979). Tim Burton, notably, shares this sensibility.
  11. Might this explain Spielberg’s apparent lack of conviction in his surprising flop, The BFG? This is clearly not the same filmmaker who made E.T. in 1982.
  12. Peter Krämer, “‘He’s Very Good at Work not Involving Little Creatures, You Know’: Schindler’s List, E.T., and the Shape of Steven Spielberg’s Career,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 7:1 (2009), p. 24.
  13. Ibid, p. 25.
  14. http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/book-reviews/innocence-lost-darkness-in-the-bliss-out-a-reconsideration-of-the-films-of-steven-spielberg-by-james-kendrick/
  15. James Kendrick, Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. x.
  16. Joseph McBride, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, 3rd ed. (London: Faber & Faber, 2012), pp. 257-258.
  17. To add to the confusion, Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) traffics in faux Native American mythology.

About The Author

Adrian Schober received his PhD in English from Monash University, Melbourne. He is the author of Possessed Child Narratives in Literature and Film: Contrary States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and co-editor (with Debbie Olson) of Children in the Films of Steven Spielberg (Lexington, 2016) and Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018). He is currently co-editing a collection on children in international television.

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