On September 22, I began a Spielberg marathon, the “sequel” to my Disney marathon of last year. I’m staying on schedule so far to finish it a little more than two weeks from now. Like I did for the Disney animated films, I will post a recap and top ten list next month. But for now, I direct you to my Letterboxd profile, on which I am reviewing each and every film I see in the marathon. Below are the three reviews I’ve written so far of which I’m most proud. Writing about a movie right after you’ve seen it can be difficult, as it turns out. But that’s probably a challenge I need to embrace.
Duel (1971) – I’m excited to announce that I’ll be going through all of Steven Spielberg’s films in chronological order over the next month. Of course, I’ve seen most of them before (all but ten of the twenty-eight, to be precise), but it’ll be good to get the full sweep. It all starts with nothing more than a car and a truck on a desert highway.
Coleridge once described Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello as a “motiveless Malignity.” No two words better describe the “villain” in Spielberg’s minimalist, suspenseful debut. An Everyman (Dennis Weaver, whose character’s last name is literally Mann) inexplicably runs afoul of an unseen truck driver. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game of ever-increasing brinkmanship, to the point where the psychotic truck driver clearly becomes homicidal. Wherever the driver was headed at the beginning, as soon as he gets involved with Mann his entire mission is to mess with the poor man’s head and possibly kill him.
The premise is hokum, sure, but I can forgive hokum when the experience is this consistently tense. Weaver’s performance is pretty amazing, as well. He makes us root for an incredibly pitiful character, providing a balance between the kind of character who couldn’t survive for the duration of the movie and the kind that would find a way to escape the truck driver. Mann basically tries everything — except turning around and going home. Anyway…
The anonymity of the villain elevates the story to a primal struggle, almost a blank canvas for interpretation. There’s a little bit early on about Mann’s difficulties at home, and an incident with a school bus provides a less-than-flattering picture of children — surprising from a director who would be so successful with “family entertainment” not much later. In the end, this is a small film, and all the more enjoyable for it. It’s more of an exercise than the kind of full-blooded entertainment that Spielberg would master in just a few short years, but it’s a corker nevertheless.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – This movie consistently fails to bowl me over. Maybe I came to it too late; maybe if I had been younger when I first saw it, the movie would have made that psychic connection with me so I could “feel its feelings.” As it is, I think the movie feels more than enough for the both of us. It all just seems a little self-congratulatory. Perhaps that’s what some people mean by “childlike.” The righteousness of Elliott and the cuteness of E.T. are never questioned. Honestly, the alien is just too cutesy. People complain about the attractiveness of the aliens in Avatar, but this is equally manipulative.
The worst thing about the movie is all the Star Wars product placement. And that’s because this movie appeals to children at an impressionable age, when they’re likely to respond as follows: “Hey, I love Star Wars, too! I even own some of these toys! Elliott is just like me!” Now I’m a sour, cynical adult and all I see is Lucas and Spielberg patting each other on the back and laughing all the way to the bank.
Don’t get me wrong; this is a beautiful film, and the theme of growing up with an absent father certainly has its power. I love the film’s opening moments. As Michael Koresky of Reverse Shot describes it, the redwood forest where the story begins is “so enormous (and shot with such a child’s-eye view) that it seems like the vegetation of another world.” My favorite scene is the one that establishes the telepathic connection between Elliott and E.T., the one with the frogs and The Quiet Man. The shot where the girl’s foot curls while the frogs escape the room is an image that the movie never tops. I couldn’t care less about flying bikes. Which leads me to the music. I actually love this John Williams score; I think it’s one of his most beautiful and memorable. But when it really gets going, I care more about the music than the images on the screen.
This probably isn’t going to help my case any, but this movie reminds me of another universally-beloved children’s film that I don’t love as much as everyone else: My Neighbor Totoro. I like and respect both of them, but for whatever reason I don’t fully connect with them. If and when I have children, I’ll be more than willing to show these movies to them, and maybe my kids will be able to show me what I’m missing here. But at this point I think they’re both beautifully constructed films that mostly just want to be nice to me. Build my gallows high, baby.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – This is still the only Indiana Jones sequel that really works, in my opinion. It’s hardly a coincidence that it’s practically a remake of Raiders, the plot mirroring that of the earlier film to sometimes hilarious detail. It’s not as good as the original, but I have special affection for it, because I think it was the first one I latched onto as a child.
Once again, Indy races a bunch of Nazis to find a Judeo-Christian relic to which the filmmakers grant historically dubious magical powers. The quest this time around lacks the grandeur of the search for the Ark of the Covenant — perhaps it was hard to find inspiration when they were just taking what worked before and doing it again. Spielberg moves the tone toward camp, with maximum self-awareness at how ridiculous the whole thing is. But it’s all in good fun — certainly miles away from the grating attempts at humor in Temple of Doom.
What this movie adds to the Raiders formula, of course, is Indy’s father, played by the one and only Sean Connery. The interplay between Connery and Harrison Ford is the highlight of the film, and although Jones Sr. can be a little irritating at times, he also proves resourceful in ways that complement his son’s skills. Most importantly, his presence motivates Indy’s actions all the way through the plot. If there’s one way in which this film actually improves on the original, it’s with Indy’s character arc. In Raiders, Indy grows from just being in it for the history to respecting the Ark’s power. This change comes out of nowhere during the climactic scene. Here the entire plot, particularly toward the end, is orchestrated to convince Indy to “believe.” And the same decisions that lead him to the Holy Grail also lead him to reconciliation with his father. Some exaggerated silliness and warmed-over ideas notwithstanding, that makes for a compelling film.