Since it's Indiana Jones week, I wanted to do something Indy-themed for my column this week, perhaps something along the line of "Indy indies," but I kept coming back to an idea that has been gnawing at me for some time: a recently re-discovered appreciation for Steven Spielberg, flaws and all. As a kid, I was treated to Spielberg's childlike fantasies, including E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, to a lesser extent Poltergeist and The Goonies. He, along with George Lucas, seemed to be able to tap directly into the universal fantasies of boys (and some girls, too) everywhere, thereby discovering a gold mine.
But he eventually felt the need to grow up, not because he wanted to, but because he yearned for the acclaim that goes with making more grown-up movies. His first attempt, The Color Purple, was oddly, almost uncomfortably childlike, but he eventually made the leap with Schindler's List. At least three times he has jumped back and forth between childhood and adulthood in a single year: 1993 (Jurassic Park and Schindler's List), 1997 (The Lost World and Amistad) and 2005 (War of the Worlds and Munich). It's only natural, then, that fans and critics began to see this as a kind of betrayal, or worse, inconsistency. Not to mention that his gargantuan success, both financial and critical, tends to breed contempt in others.
But in recent years, I have re-discovered my love for Spielberg. His A.I. Artificial Intelligence -- though my initial, disappointed reaction was about the same as everyone else's -- slyly, slowly reveals itself to be one of his most intelligent, illuminating and accomplished features. And one year later, Minority Report -- despite its silly plot contrivances toward the end -- was a truly exceptional immersion into a unique sci-fi world. Around this same time, I had the opportunity to re-watch Duel and Jaws on new DVDs and was astounded at the complete level of skill the twenty-something director showed in those early days. Though Spielberg was a film school brat and studied the works of earlier directors, he emerged with a style all his own, and he has stuck to it through thick and thin (unlike, say, Ridley Scott, who has swapped his early, moody, quiet films for today's junky, choppy style). But to get to the point: Raiders of the Lost Ark is Spielberg's best film, and the Indiana Jones series -- including the new Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull -- is the crowning jewel in his filmography; it's what he'll be remembered for. Now let me explain...
It recently occurred to me that, more than anyone else alive, Spielberg is the closest thing we have to a modern day John Ford. Of course, Ford was a poet, and Spielberg is closer to prose, but both filmmakers were appreciated in their own time, and both became household names and a stamp of quality in films. Both were all-American filmmakers with outsized senses of humor, although each came from the point of view of an outsider (Irish and Jewish). Ford made a film about Lincoln, and Spielberg plans to do the same. Both made slow rises to prominence, rather than a slam-bang debut, Ford with silent films and Spielberg with television. But most importantly, both won multiple Oscars for Best Director for films outside their usual focus. "I make Westerns," Ford once said by way of introduction during a crucial meeting of the Director's Guild, and yet he won his six Oscars for his dramas and war documentaries. Likewise, Spielberg won Oscars for two of his "serious" films, though his real talent lies in making boyish adventures. (And indeed, it could be argued that the reason his "serious" films succeed is because they contain hidden elements of boyish adventure.)
Both Ford and Spielberg felt the need to make serious films because they knew they would never be accepted through pure entertainments. Every filmmaker associated with any of the lower, more physical genres (comedy, horror, adventure, etc.) has longed for recognition, and many of them, from Charlie Chaplin to Wes Craven and Tom Hanks, has tried his hand at making "serious" films. But here's the truth: now that Ford is gone, I think it's safe to say that his Westerns, his entertainments, tower above his more serious films. The Searchers was a hit, but was critically ignored during its day. Today it makes more of an impact than Ford's Best Picture winner How Green Was My Valley. Right now, it's fashionable to claim that Spielberg's best film is Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan or Munich (or even Empire of the Sun, which looks rather better today than it did in 1987), but it's obvious that Spielberg cannot call those films home; he's too uncomfortable wearing those skins. The endings of those films show his lack of trust, his lack of confidence. He always goes too far, provides too much information that betrays his panic and his longing for acceptance. Duel and Jaws are far more self-assured and accomplished, but they tell us too little of who Spielberg actually is.
No, the four Indiana Jones films make up his peak. They are Spielberg's Searchers. Like some of Ford's films, they include some uncomfortable humor and awkward moments, but they show Spielberg at his most relaxed, his most gleeful and his most unguarded. He's unafraid to try things that might fail. And the films still work on an unexpected emotional level, like the cinematic embodiment of a dream. It's harder to intellectually justify them and their effect; it's much easier to explain academically why Schindler's List works. When I was a boy, the Indy films made me feel like more of a boy, and now that I'm grown, they make me feel like a boy once more. And, as Preston Sturges proved in Sullivan's Travels (1941), that's much more powerful than yet another message about the misery of the world.