Steven Spielberg On the Couch
There is only one film director alive today whose name is a household word. Steven Spielberg achieved that status at an astonishingly early age by creating a series of movies which managed to appeal to that most elusive, yet massive, audience, "children of all ages."
With an illustrious oeuvre that was sometimes marred by syrupy stories and trite characterizations, and often top-heavy with spectacle, he turned the glorification of childhood into a gold mine that lent him enough clout to do virtually anything he wanted. But when what he eventually wanted to do was stretch his creative dimension and make a series of films that appealed to "adults of all ages," he floundered--and consideration as a high auteur on the order of his heroes Welles and Truffaut eluded him.
In fact, more than that eluded him: Although he received many tokens of industry recognition, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences persistently--some would say, perversely--denied him its coveted Best Director Oscar. Now, close upon the box-office disaster of his third "adult" effort, our grown-up whiz kid has made his own version of Peter Pan, the definitive celebration of developmental arrest. In it he transforms J.M. Barrie's pubescent highflyer into an out-of-shape, angst-ridden yuppie who can't remember his past, fears heights and open windows, and is alienated from his wife and kids.
One may legitimately ask why, when he still has a great deal of creative freedom, former prodigy Steven Spielberg decided to make Hook, yet another exercise in regression, and one that seems, at least in early script form, especially infantile. What can the 44-year-old director be dreaming of to want to transform Tinkerbell into a feisty, foul-mouthed Pretty Woman, and The Lost Boys into streetwise hip-hoppers? Does Spielberg identify with his kid-hero dwindling into middle age? For that matter, what have the director's visions been all along? And what forces in his background have compelled such visions?
If movies are a kind of dream within the public domain, who better to interpret film and its dreamers than the psychoanalyst, professional decoder of restless, extravagant fantasies? Of course, limits should be respected in close-encountering Spielberg or any other director. All too often, analysts have been guilty of reducing subtle art and its creators to a few simplistic subheads--penis envy, breast fixation--with inane results. "I have a nameless fear," says patient to therapist. "Don't worry," replies the shrink, "we have a name for everything."
A patient in therapy provides thousands of biographical details, often over hundreds of sessions. Artists, however, sometimes reveal very little information about their lives (like Spielberg), or embroider shamelessly, reinventing biography as they go along (Fellini is notorious for this). An educated guess about the relationship between a life event and an artistic theme is often the best the cineanalyst can come up with. After all, art isn't a symptom, nor is every artist an automatic couch candidate. Many artists' personalities are as healthy as can be found in this bruising world. By almost every account (except, perhaps, Julia Phillips's), Spielberg's is one of them. So what if he has a big ego--how else are you going to persuade all those other giant egos to do what you want, on and off the set? Psychoanalysis does, however, theorize that even reasonably together artists will keep returning to long buried childhood/adolescent trauma and conflict for inspiration, and that you can identify the telling and persistent themes in their work.
My interpretations of Spielbergian motifs and motives are grounded in another basic assumption that may raise some objections--that Spielberg's movies are chiefly the product of Spielberg's mind. It can be argued that cinema is a collective art--Spielberg himself has frequently (and generously) made this point. But Spielberg is, in fact, one director who does enjoy sufficient control and charisma to imprint his unique psychological concerns on all his films. He was given strong creative control even before he became famous, and his collaborators--writers in particular--have always appeared to consciously or otherwise identify with his themes (the most definitive case of this is Melissa Mathison's screenplay for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial).
Spielberg has yet to write his autobiography, but the image he has presented of himself over the years in interviews reads as if his childhood were straight out of a Thomas Mann novel. Like the classical Mann hero, he pictures himself torn between a father solidly anchored in business reality and a mother immersed in artistic concerns.
Arnold Spielberg had a background in electrical engineering and helped design early computer technology. Steven Spielberg portrays his father as a pragmatic, hard-driving man, passionate about his scientific work, eager to reveal the wonders of the universe to an impressionable, admiring boy. A crucial early memory (brilliantly retrieved in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) was of being awakened at an ungodly hour by his dad, rushed into the family car, and driven to a hill where several hundred people had gathered to watch "a magnificent meteor shower." The only instance of open conflict between father and son also centered on a scientific enthusiasm: When Spielberg was 11, his father gathered everyone in the kitchen and "held up a tiny little transistor he had brought home, and said, 'This is the future.' I took the transistor from his hand--and I swallowed it ...it got very tense. It was like the confrontation scene between Raymond Massey and James Dean in East of Eden. One of those moments when two worlds from diametrically opposite positions in the universe collide. It was as if I was saying, 'That's your future, but it doesn't have to be mine.'" (It is interesting to note how the director filters his own life experience through a Hollywood lens.)
Spielberg describes his mother, Leah, as a tiny lady with formidable energy--"like a little girl who never grew out of her pinafore ... she left a large wake." She was a talented classical pianist, and through her influence, her son developed a passion for music at an early age. (Musical choices would prove to be exceptionally important across his body of work.)
According to Spielberg, the contrast between these two intense personalities got oppressive at times. His mother held chamber concerts, "while in another room my father would be conferring with nine or 10 other men in the business about how to build a computerized mousetrap. These opposite lifestyles would give me circuit overload. My tweeters would burn out and my only insulation would be my bedroom door, which remained closed for most of my life. I had to put towels under the jamb so I couldn't hear the classical music and the computer logic." (In his films as an adult, Spielberg would frequently present a kid's room or closet as a fortress against a jangling, frightening adult world.)
Whatever their differences, Spielberg's parents were united in their immense love for him. He was eventually able to draw upon a double wellspring of affection, identifying healthily with his mother's art as well as his father's business/technical interests to become what he is today: director-producer-entrepreneur extraordinaire, skillful at Hollywood's rough-and-tumble dealing, passionate about advancing the art and science of cinema, eyes fixed literally and figuratively upon the stars.
Spielberg became involved with movies as a child, quickly showing precocious talent. His father seems to have launched his career when he handed over his home movie camera to his son after becoming "fed up" with the fledgling director's barrage of criticism over the "shaky camera movements and bad exposures." The family was tremendously supportive of disruptive shoots which converted the house into a miniature back lot. Spielberg soon passed from recording family outings to staging his own scripts, starring his parents and three sisters.
Away from the comfort of a reasonably affluent home, Spielberg had the kind of Catcher in the Rye problems experienced by many superbright, creative people during adolescence. Apparently, he sometimes felt excluded by other youngsters, and was spectacularly unathletic and a bit of a dreamer.
Contrary to popular misconception, psychoanalysts are wary about pinning subsequent problems or developments on a single life event unless it's highly traumatic. I speculate that the divorce of Spielberg's parents during his mid-teens represented this sort of influential catastrophe. Typically, he has very little to say on the subject, beyond briefly noting his pain and describing his distress at suddenly becoming the man of the house. Watching movies, and especially making them, redeemed the young Spielberg's loneliness, gave him strokes with peers and grownups, and probably helped him endure whatever difficulties existed between his parents. By 17, he had completed an embryonic war film and a two-hour exploration of UFOs, and received several local prizes. He improvised his own cinema curriculum at California State University, crafting 16mm shorts. Disguised by a suit and briefcase, he roamed Universal Pictures unnoticed for several months, picking up the trade firsthand. At 21, his 35mm film Amblin' attracted Sidney Sheinberg's attention at Universal, and the rest, as they say, is celluloid history.
For the cineanalyst, two major themes emerge in Steven Spielberg's particular stretch of celluloid history. First, the director places childhood on a very big pedestal. And second, he shows an overwhelming concern with family unity and disunity. In tandem, these themes constitute the great strength of Spielberg's best movies. That said, it can also be pointed out that they sometimes operate as preoccupations that have significant negative fallout.
With the enormous love lavished upon him during his youth, it's understandable that Spielberg should view childhood (and the suburbs he grew up in) through a rosy glow. Quite possibly his early years acquired greater shimmer from having been set against the adolescent trauma of his parents' divorce. Others have observed that Spielberg's childhood might very well embrace the "realest" reality he's ever experienced, and I think that makes sense. He plunged into Hollywood barely out of his teens, and he's been immersed in Lala-land's artificial--and often infantilizing--environment ever since. His recollections of childhood's golden time and its pop culture artifacts may thus be all the more compelling in shaping his vision. Spielberg himself often comes across in interviews as a grown-up kid with a loopy enthusiasm I think thoroughly genuine.
The Spielbergian vision of Tom Sawyeresque innocence is essentially pre-Freudian. His kids may have dirty mouths (the ultimate putdown in a Spielberg film is "Penisbreath"), but their hearts are pure, with hardly'a trace of the casual cruelty, exuberant narcissism or sexual curiosity often discovered by psychiatrists in children. Interestingly enough, Spielberg "grownups," like Roy Neary in Close Encounters, frequently exhibit the same disarming innocence and project little sense of sexuality. Several of these child-men have been played by Richard Dreyfuss, who may be viewed as Spielberg's diminutive double-- perhaps some sort of projection of the child-Steven.
Spielberg's glorification of childhood has some very positive aspects. His ability to work with children is legendary--he probably succeeds because his nature so easily touches and is touched by them. The director particularly treasures youthful openness to new experience, the child's awe before unexpected revelations, and he is brilliant at conveying it. His masterful shot of a backlit Cary Guffey, crowing with delight before the incandescent alien presence in Close Encounters, is a perfect example. At transcendental moments in his movies, Spielberg often shoots people from above, from an imaginary giant's perspective. His characters' faces are turned upwards in childlike wonder, as in the appearance of the mother ship in Close Encounters, or when Shug Avery and friends dance down the road to an exuberant reunion with the churchfolk in The Color Purple. The director wants us to become like little children ourselves, awestruck with Neary as he ascends into the spacecraft, filled with Elliott's longing before E.T.'s enchantment. At Spielberg's eternal Saturday matinee, it's "Oh, Wow!" time for all us kids.