The Blockmaster

At least in Australia, Boxing Day 2011 saw two new Steven Spielberg blockbusters open on the very same day. And in typically Spielbergian fashion the two films would struggle to be more different. War Horse (2011) is a serious, ‘Oscar-bait’ drama, a WWI-set love story between a horse and a boy, whilst The Adventures of Tintin (2011) is the director’s first animated venture, a 3D mo-cap adaptation of Herge’s iconic series of adventure comics (and was awesome – featuring in my top 10 films for 2011). This sudden output would be a surprise were it to have come from any other director. But where Spielberg and big budget flicks are concerned, nothing is a surprise, or at least shouldn’t be after all these years.

When you talk about blockbusters, not just by Spielberg, you really cannot start off by not talking about Jaws (1975), which in many ways signalled the birth of the big-budget ‘event’ picture. This is for a couple of very important reasons. Traditionally, films opened gradually across the states. They would open in a big centre or two and then expand out. The major advantage of this is that it would slowly build hype as word of mouth spread. And by the time it opened in a particular city, people would be ravenous to see it because of all they had heard and read. Jaws broke with this tradition with a mass release, being simultaneously released on something like 450 screens. Although this is commonplace now, why make such a change? Well for starters it mitigates the effect of shit reviews because everyone (in theory) just rushes out and sees the film on the first weekend. Whilst there were concerns to the contrary, Jaws in the end had very few poor reviews to counter, going on to become a cinematic classic. But this approach works well when you have a modern day dog such as Clash of the Titans (2010) on your hands. This approach also shifts the timeframe in which you need to generate hype for the picture. So instead of post-release reviews hyping the picture, it is achieved through a pre-release advertising and merchandising blitz encompassing making-ofs, press tours, Happy Meals and a whole lot more. The other major point to make about the release of Spielberg’s killer shark thriller is timing. Summer in the states, had traditionally been a bit of a dead period for releases. Awards season was still many months away so there was no need to build any films for that (and this is I guess a bit more of a modern phenomenon anyways). And more importantly it was summer surely everyone had better things to do like lick ice creams on the beach rather than sit inside a dark cinema catching a flick (this logic is foreign to me, but apparently some people are into other things besides watching movies). But the summer release of Jaws started a tradition that lives on to the present day, with many massive flicks geared to capture the summer blockbuster market.

Now onto Spielberg’s film itself. I thought I had seen it before I sat down to watch it the other day, but I now suspect that I had just seen part of one of the sequels on T.V. Whilst I was expecting a thriller, Jaws is really a horror film par excellence. With a young child being one of the first to meet their maker at the hands of the man-eating shark, the film immediately establishes that no-one is safe. The scene is beachside holiday, with holidaymakers frolicking in the blue ocean under the bright shining sun. The enjoyment of these frolickers helps to build the tension, so when that music kicks in, the tension has been built to almost unbearable heights. The swift transformation from peaceful calm to the terror stricken atmosphere of a shark attack was for me reminiscent of a Nirvana song shifting gear from quiet to loud. As for that music in the film, even though you’ve heard the score 14 million times (surely one of cinema’s most iconic, up there with the James Bond and Halloween (1978) themes), it is still awesomely chilling. The film, whilst carrying this horror streak throughout, also evolves generically. It increasingly weaves in dramatic elements (Drahor? Horrama?), before finishing with a second half that is classic closed setting thriller. Is there a more isolated setting than three men, alone upon a boat, tiny against the comparative vastness of the ocean? Here also, the final hunt creates quite the emotional event out of a hunt that could have been in other hands played simply for action and machismo.

The film opens with a wonderful night-time scene which allows Spielberg to dazzle with his expert cinematography. The combination of light is managed perfectly so that the night is seemingly all-pervasive, yet you can still actually see what is occurring perfectly. A number of the characters in this film are much like archetypes of the Western genre. Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody for example is a lone cop, fighting for the people he is employed to protect, against the tyranny of bureaucracy and the tourism dollar. Surprising depth is lent to the film by the depth and nuance of the relationship between Brody and his wife Ellen played by Lorraine Gary. They have just moved from the big smoke to Amity Island, thinking they would find peace. But struggles await their relationship as the titular shark begins terrorising the town. Robert Shaw’s fisherman Quint starts out as a saltydog caricature, but his character too gradually builds depth. Before the final shark hunt, he prepares his fishing gear like a cowboy prepping his gun, getting ready for battle, with Spielberg showing this meticulous preparation in slow detail. He is a cowboy, getting ready to track his foe, and his caricature gains much nuance, most notably through an expertly delivered monologue aboard the boat recalling a famous wartime ordeal that establishes his connection to sharks. Probably the film’s best performance comes from Richard Dreyfuss as the young oceanographer Matt Hooper. The friendship that gradually grows between him and Scheider’s Brody is wonderfully drawn, being borne out of the mutual desire to get the powers that be to recognise the seriousness of the situation. And his verbal sparring with Quint on the final hunt has the dual effect of at times lightening the tension, and other times heightening it.

It says much for Spielberg’s highly evolved storytelling chops that in a film about a killer shark, the real villain is not the shark, but rather the mayor of Amity Island. The mayor ignores numerous warnings that there is a highly dangerous shark on the loose, preferring to put the almighty dollar above all else. There is also a fantastic plot twist where one shark is caught, but turns out not to be the one doing the killing. But the grubby mayor will not listen to reason in this regard either. This back and forth between the Mayor and Scheider’s Brody is reflective of current arguments over how to deal with sharks that start to kill, arguments that seem to erupt every summer in Australia. Should the shark, surely just doing what comes naturally, in its natural environ, be left to its own devices. Or should it be hunted down to protect swimmers? And what role does the tourism dollar’s importance to a coastal town’s economy have to do with the final decision? At the end of the day though, this is pulp horror/thriller, yet just like a Peter Temple or Cormac McCarthy novel, it is elevated above pulp by the excellence of its execution. In this vein, the discovery of Ben Gardner’s body is one of cinema’s great frights. I had seen a clip of this scene before, yet it still scared the snot out of me when it came.

There are numerous classic myths about the shark used in the film. That the first time it was put in the water it sunk straight to the bottom of the ocean, that they continually ballooned up, got caught in seaweed and so on; the veracity or otherwise of these myths has often been argued about. What is for certain though is that Spielberg is able to work brilliantly with what he has, which is a physically imposing model that looks clunky and fake as all hell, and I imagine would have to audiences in the mid-70s. The first shots of the beast are delivered from an extremely high angle as it cuts through the ocean, which makes the model look ok, and its size suitably intimidating. The issue with the shark is really not so much what it looks like but how it moves, and this comes out in the couple of close ups of the shark attacking which in some ways are a little comical given the clunkiness of the model’s attacks. Moviegoers can probably be thankful for the poor quality of the model though, as it served to make the director consider deeply how much to show the shark, and how much to just hint, however overtly at its presence. In the end, Spielberg nailing that balance is one of the great joys of the film.

This is a wonderful film, perhaps in my top 10-20 favourite of all time. This is big-budget, Hollywood at its best, and it shows that when this type of filmmaking is done well, it is as worthy as any style in cinematic history.  

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

The next blockbuster of Mr Spielberg’s that I am going to examine will always hold a special place in my heart. Jurassic Park (1993) was one of the first films I remember seeing in the cinema, and my Nan and Pop took me to see it with my sister. I remember everyone jumping when that motherfucking Velociraptor sticks its head through the wall (I still jump every time I see that). And I remember that, as a dinosaur nut at the time, I absolutely loved it. I also remember my grandparents not liking it, thinking it was a little too violent for my 7-year old sensibilities.

I’m a little surprised that Jurassic Park’s opening scene has not become more iconic. It immediately sets the tone for the whole film, establishing its sci-fi stylings and soaring, classic adventure film soundtrack. It also has the brilliant close-up of a mouth screaming “shoot her” as the dinosaur claims its victim uncontrollably. The film does not look back from there. There are self-referential (in a good way) nods to Indiana Jones, and I think in many ways Spielberg is here riffing on and expanding upon his entire preceding oeuvre. The other thing the film definitely does is create a wondrous world for the audience to lose themselves in. From the moment Richard Attenborough lovingly says “welcome to Jurassic Park” the audience is taken there, and the outside world is lost. The scenery is visually spectacular and it is populated by numerous, huge creatures rendered using effects that still expertly hold their quality today, 18 years of advance down the road.  They still look so real, and there are no Jaws-esque dodgy models on offer here.

Script wise Michael Crichton has helped craft something both more engaging and intelligent than the source novel he also wrote. It is great that in a blockbuster such as this, the script maintains a level of scientific enquiry, with guesses at how dinosaurs lived. What’s more the more scientific aspects of the dialogue are actually incorporated into the overall screenplay, rather than feeling like bits of a uni lecture which have been tacked on. Thematically, the attainment of and profit from scientific knowledge is specifically acknowledged in dialogue from Jeff Goldblum’s character, and the film explores this on a broader level – especially through the relationships between the characters and their underlying motives for finding themselves on this island off the coast of Costa Rica. The creation of this scientific and inquisitive tone to the film, results in the birth in a lab of a baby dinosaur being as exhilarating to witness as a T-Rex attack.

But enough of all that, how about all the dinosaurs going nuts and ripping people’s heads off? Well there is plenty of that going on here too. I mentioned my first viewing of this film as a youngster, and my two most memorable recollections of that screening fall into this category. The first is the ‘toilet’ scene which sees the first major attack of the film. A man is plucked from the toilet scene, and I have never forgotten that, or the Jeff Goldblum quip that follows it. The second scene is where the Velociraptor bursts through the wall just as Laura Dern’s character has restored the power. It’s the film’s big shock moment, and I remember afterward my pop joking about how hard my sister had dug her nails into his arm at this point. Just like in Jaws Spielberg uses calm as a counterpoint to courage. Most famously the first Tyrannosaur attack is preceded by a close-up of a glass of water, with the ripples in the liquid signalling what is to come. The end result of Spielberg’s ability to render chaos and destruction is a film that is really quite frightening and gruesome in parts.

Every so often there is a performance in a blockbuster film that will have people up in arms about the lack of recognition these types of films, and performances in them, get at awards time. Sam Neill’s turn in Jurassic Park is one such performance. It definitely deserves plaudits as he conveys the role of grumpy yet brilliant palaeontologist brilliantly. His character also evolves nicely into a morally upstanding dude of a father figure when required.  Whilst I am a fan of the sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), it definitely lacked something not having Neill on board. Richard Attenborough is terrific as the scientific ‘visionary’ behind the creation of Jurassic Park in the film. This character is part visionary, part mad scientist. Well he’s not mad, but Attenborough brings to life a man who struggles to reign in his obsessions and their illogicality. Then there is Jeff Goldbum’s chaos theorist, a man diagnosed in the film as suffering “from a deplorable excess of personality”. Goldblum really does bring that excess to life, playing a delightful nerd with fantastic glee. Actors must love these characters which allow them to play it up to excess but still be serving the purpose required by the film. And any film with Laura Dern yelling SHIT! SHIT! Over and over again is fine by me.

Even today, the best part of 20 years later this film still inspires me with a sense of awe. The same sense of awe I had for dinosaurs I had when I was a kid, collecting Dino mags. An intelligent film that is one of the supreme blockbusters ever made.  

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Only one man could release a harrowing wartime blockbuster about WWII Jewish Genocide in the exact same year as a mammoth budget, thrills and spills dinosaur film. Schindler’s List (1993) is that film. I think that in many ways Holocaust films are easily dismissed these days as awards bait, and I think that in some circumstances that assertion holds merit. Films on this subject should never lose their impact, but I think that in some ways they have become a dime a dozen in recent years.

There is no such risk with Spielberg’s take on this horrendous moment in 20th Century history though. The atypical storyline ensures that the film provides a different view of wartime. The narrative concerns Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson. Schindler is a member of the Nazi party who arrives in Berlin, looking to make money from the War. One good way to increase profits is to employ in his enamelware factory Jews who are in detention nearby, given that there is no requirement for him to pay them. The film tracks the relationship between this money hungry businessman, and the oppressed people he employs. I have to say, I did not think that Neeson was capable of delivering a performance of this quality. He is mind bogglingly good. Schindler is an intriguing character, so he has much to work with. Knowing the vague outline of the plot before seeing this film, I assumed that he would be a somewhat one-dimension figure, a rogue Nazi white knight who was morally pure, upstanding, could do no wrong and the film would adulate him. Spielberg is too good a filmmaker to engage in that kind of glossing over of reality though and what we get is a flawed man. Initially his motives are quite unclear, and when they are finally revealed, they are not as idealistic as one would have assumed. He’s a man who is hungry for money, who happily swans around in bars and woos members of the Nazi establishment. A man who only gradually comes to realise exactly what it is that he is witnessing before him, and gradually summons the bravery and the means to do something about it at great personal risk.

The most prominent member of the Nazis that Schindler regular comes into contact with is Ralph Fiennes’ chillingly portrayed Amon Goeth. Goeth is one of the great supervillains of film history. At times, the character and performance threatens to veer into moustache twirling, arch villain territory. But in the end the character works, as a representation and ultra manifestation of the Nazi scourge. The film starts slowly, and I actually found it a little confusing in the early going as it struggles for flow. Early on, I think the film also grapples with how best to portray the atrocities committed – should it be done graphically or more subtly. Both approaches appear in the film, but I think the first such event which really hit me during the film belongs to the latter camp. It is a scene of luggage being emptied, luggage that belonged to Jews who had just been sent to the gas chambers. The luggage is emptied and then painstakingly sifted through to locate anything of value. Heartbreaking. Once the film settles, it is repeatedly horrifying, and still has a massive impact to this day, showing the unmitigated horror of what occurred. The most tense of these ‘horrors’ that is portrayed is the travel of a train containing female Schindler Jews. The audience can only watch in horror as the train takes them, not to the location of Oskar Schindler’s new factory, but instead to Auschwitz. The notion of their looming location starts as a seed of thought, and Spielberg slowly adds on layers, til it becomes shockingly apparent where they are headed. The scene that follows in the ‘gas’ chamber is the film’s most unbearable to watch. The black and white cinematography is stunningly good, sharp and deep. I don’t know if cinematography is inherently better when black and white or if it is just the fact that this particular art form is highlighted more by the nuance that comes from shooting without colour.

Whilst I found the film achingly emotive, I did not find it to be manipulative. The scenes of the Jewish people being rounded up are truly horrifying, and it is during these Nazi raids that Schindler starts down his eventual path. He spots a young girl, dressed in red (a bold splash of colour by Spielberg) who he sees moving through this chaos. It is not a cheapened, instant transformation but rather this moment triggers deep thought and soul searching on behalf of Schindler which permeates the rest of his journey. The pacing of this change is a good thing, helping to make it feel legitimate. A film like this is always going to be a difficult one to finish in a satisfying manner. Schindler’s evolution of sympathy is finely finalised. However some of the ending is perhaps a little po-faced and sentimental with an abundance of big speeches and a group hug. However the last shot of the real-life Schindler Jews and their descendents visiting the grave of Oskar Schindler provides a fittingly poignant end.

I have spoken above about the complex construction and characterisation of the character of Oskar Schindler. It is worth noting that there is a thoughtfulness of the representation of all those involved in the War here. Whilst it is there, the film goes further than Nazis=good, Jewish people=bad. One example are the scenes of young children throwing stones at the Jews as they are corralled into ghettos, or making throat-slitting gestures as they are transported by train. Spielberg is showing us the indoctrinated, multi-generational hatefulness that pervaded Nazi Germany. Perhaps pondering how you stop that hatred, or the transference of it from one person to another. Have no doubt though, the sheer fucking evil of the Nazi regime is made abundantly clear, especially through the character of Goeth.

The film does have its critics though. Perhaps the most notable of them is Claude Lanzmann, the director of the 9 hour Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) who attacked the film as melodrama and a deformation of historical fact. Whilst I have commented on what I perceive to be the interesting and complex characterisation of Schindler, it has been claimed that Spielberg overtly glosses over aspects of his persona, namely that his womanising ways are minimised, as is the role of his wife in the eventual saving of the Schindler Jews. The criticism has also been made, reputedly originally by Stanley Kubrick, that the film is celebratory about the fact that 600 Jews were saved by Schindler, yet 6 million were exterminated by the Nazis and the film chooses supposedly neglects that fact. This is a difficult one. I don’t know that the tone is particularly celebratory, and despite the fact Schindler is lauded at the end of the film, I think the portrayal of him is a nuanced one. I would think that no film could accurately convey the true horror, and especially the true scope of the Holocaust; and I don’t think this should stop aspects of these events being portrayed, if it is done in a manner that is as respectful as this. I do not have the knowledge or the first-hand experience to draw definitive conclusions regarding the criticisms directed at the film. I just feel that I should let you all know that people with both the knowledge and first-hand experience have both praised, and attacked aspects of the film and its treatment of the Holocaust, and that you should do your own research on these things.

The film is as powerful as the subject matter deems it should be. Parts of the film left me crestfallen. It is difficult to think with any depth about the Holocaust without feeling unbearably oppressed at the state of the human race. Does the film provide hope? I’m not sure, and if it does, it is not undue hope.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress: 54/1001

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