Celebrating “Septemberg” With Spielberg’s Forgotten FilmsPosted: September 27, 2015
Over at Birth.Movies.Death (one of the best film sites currently going), they are in the midst of what EIC Devin Faraci has dubbed “Septemberg”, a celebration of Steven Spielberg’s career and influence through his amazing films. If any filmmaker deserves a month of recognition and analysis it would be Spielberg; I think it would be safe to say that Steven Spielberg is one of the well-known and well-respected filmmakers in the history of the medium. And while some of my twentysomething peers might be too willfully contrarian to appreciate Spielberg’s work, the general critical and commercial consensus suggests that is not the prevaling perspective. Given that, I won’t I need to bother naming Spielberg’s greatest hits, as everyone reading this is probably aware of them. But no matter how well-versed one might be in Spielberg’s filmography, when you have a career as long and multifaceted as this, some films are bound to be lost in the shuffle. In my case, I recently came to realize that out of the 27 full-length theatrical feature films Spielberg has directed so far, there are only 5 films of his that I had not seen: The Sugarland Express, 1941, The Color Purple, Always and The Terminal. So in honor of Septemberg, I decided to rectify this oversight and see what such a selection of films might reveal about the evolution of one of the all-time great filmmakers.
One thing that is apparent through every single one of these films is Spielberg’s unending confidence as a filmmaker. Even though some of the films here are among the worst in his career, you can tell Spielberg is completely committed to the story in front of him, flaws and all. These films also stand out amongst Spielberg’s filmography because they are so far removed from the recurring genres and tropes Spielberg is better known for. These movies are, for the most part, more intimate affairs rather than huge adventure films or chronicles of history. Furthermore a couple of these films are comedies, a genre that Spielberg has otherwise never really explored in full. The end result is an odd collection of curiosities, films that exemplify Spielberg’s strengths and weaknesses in ways that we might not otherwise notice in his more recognizable efforts.
I began as Spielberg did, with his theatrical debut The Sugarland Express. While it has since been eclipsed by his first TV movie Duel in terms of recognition, The Sugarland Express shows all of Spielberg’s talent and promise just as clearly. There are veteran filmmakers working today who wish they had ever made a film as good as the one Spielberg did his first time out. It’s a very straightforward story that fits nicely with the many other car/road movies that came out of the 1970s, but with the added level of emotional earnestness one would expect from Spielberg. As broad and simple as the characters are in Sugarland, Spielberg imbues them with life almost effortlessly; little grace notes like Lou Jean and Clovis watching cartoons make a huge difference in making them relatable and likable, and show how considered and assured Spielberg was from the beginning. But Spielberg doesn’t limit his detail work to his protagonists; in the middle of the film, when a few gung-ho reserve cops track down our heroes, Spielberg has a great shot where he tracks around the back of their station wagon to reveal two bumper stickers that read (approximately): “Don’t register guns, register COMMUNISTS!” and “Keep Your Police Local!” Through this one shot, Spielberg effortlessly communicates so much about these jackass wannabe cops, and makes their presence in the story all the more tangible and infuriating. The Sugarland Express was certainly the hidden gem of this bunch, a great character-driven chase movie that feels like a test bed for Spielberg, both narratively and technically.
But if The Sugarland Express is the intimate precursor to all of Spielberg’s strengths as a filmmaker, then 1941 is bloated, blowhard waste of all those strengths. The simplest and most direct criticism one could level at 1941 is that, for an epic screwball comedy, it ain’t that funny; even John Belushi falls flat here. But perhaps an even bigger issue, one that probably drags down the potential for humor, is the scatterbrained story. While Spielberg’s films tend to be incredible examples of storytelling craft (while Spielberg rarely ever writes himself, he has a firm grasp of how a script needs to function), 1941 is a narrative trainwreck with absolutely no momentum. There are a half-dozen different plotlines that barely relate to each other and are not explored with any sense of rhythm or balance. However there are some tiny sequences scattered throughout that still show Spielberg’s innate talent, though they are often drowned out by the lifeless story around them. Perhaps the most intriguing sequences come from the subplot featuring Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen, where Matheson’s Army officer is trying to get with Allen’s reporter by appealing to her airplane-related arousal. This was the funniest subplot of the film, and noticeably one of the kinkiest things in Spielberg’s filmography, but aside from that the film’s place in Spielberg’s filmography is mostly a cautionary tale to a still-young filmmaker in managing his ambitions and staying in his comfort zone a little longer.
Six years later, after further refining his talent on instant classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Spielberg was ready to take another jaunt outside his comfort zone with The Color Purple. With this film, Spielberg took his first step towards becoming the serious, adult filmmaker that would produce films like Schindler’s List and Lincoln, and right away it’s clear that he is much better suited to this sort of filmmaking than he was to comedy. Here we see Spielberg playing in a very different cinematic sandbox than he ever had before, but unlike 1941 this gambit is a solid success. A huge part of that success is that Spielberg’s emotional earnestness is in full force here, this time in a much harsher and more sobering setting. And it’s that unrestrained desire to feel alongside the characters that makes The Color Purple so impactful, and that makes Spielberg such an effective and accessible filmmaker. Spielberg is at his best when he uses all of his cinematic tools and talents to engage the heart and soul of his audience, and in this film that gift reached new levels of nuance and maturity.
But if The Color Purple represented a new level of adult filmmaking for Spielberg, then Always represents this new phase of Spielberg’s career run amok, with the result being a misfire on par with 1941. In this case, despite having one single plotline, Spielberg still winds up making a meandering, scattershot film that can’t decide if it’s an adrenaline-charged aerial adventure, a relationship melodrama or a supernatural fable. Nevertheless, as is often the case with Spielberg, the one thing that Always does have going for it is an incredibly tangible emotional side. Aided greatly by the charisma and chemistry of Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and John Goodman, Spielberg makes these characters very likable and relatable, even in their faults. Unlike with some of his other subpar films that would rely on action sequences to arrest my attention, in Always it was the characters that kept me invested in the meandering narrative way past its expiration date. While the film remains another rare letdown from Spielberg, it’s at least one that attempts to stay true to the storytelling principles that define his career, and shows that even in his missteps it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to fall completely on his ass.
While it’s very uncommon for Spielberg to make an artistically unsuccessful film, it’s even less common for his films to be released without being noticed. And yet there’s The Terminal, a film that came and went with very little fanfare, either positive or negative. This is Spielberg at his most larkish, but no less emotionally affecting or well-crafted; for such an outwardly-different effort it feels like he’s been making films like this for years. The fact that he accomplishes this change of pace with such ease proves how far he has come from the missteps of 1941 and Always, and how the nuances in his work that began with The Color Purple have fully blossomed in the present day. The film retains Spielberg’s trademark earnestness, balanced between a sobering backstory and a sly, restrained sense of humor and embodied beautifully in Tom Hanks. Much like the rest of Spielberg’s early-to-mid-2000s efforts, The Terminal sees him taking his fully-matured talents and continuing to take risks with them, and more often than not finding success in the process.
This is what makes Spielberg a true genius of film. Throughout his career, almost from the beginning, Spielberg has continued to take chances on different kinds of films. And rather than be cowed by his failures, he learned from them and continued to take chances, with the end result being a career of exciting and impactful classics that more than drown out his ambitious failures. While many talented filmmakers will find a certain type of film and keep making it, Spielberg has always made an effort to keep taking chances with his art to become better as an artist. I’m sure he will continue to do so for a very long time, and I know we will all be better for it.