I was watching Jaws last night and got to thinking about some of the things that have made Spielberg so successful. I am a firm believer that film is an emotional medium. It works its best magic when it is trying to make you feel something. This isn't to say that the collision of images doesn't create ideas and tickle the cerebral, however first and foremost it makes you feel something - anger, laughter, sadness, terror, melancholy, excitement, fear etc. There are few filmmakers that have a better knack for this than Steven Spielberg.
Critics accuse him of being sentimental and manipulative and I think there is something to be said for that. His dramas are most often in the realm of fantasy. He isn't Sidney Lumet or Igmar Bergman whose films are gentle, honest and made in the style of realism. And it certainly isn't the verite style of Vittorio De Sica and 'The Bicycle Thief'. Moredcai Richler once wrote an article called 'Why I Hated Schindler's List'. In the article he calls Spielberg a comic book maker and states that he lacked the dramatic depth needed for such delicate material. A rather harsh criticism but again, not without merit. His films often feature archetypes who are either good or evil. The brilliant exceptions that come to mind are John Malkovich's character in 'Empire of the Sun' (one of my favourite Spielberg films) and Ralph Fienne's character in 'Schindler's List'. Who knows how much this had to do with writing, directing or performing but rarely does a character in a Spielberg film have such depths. Does this make him a bad filmmaker? Hardly.
Spielberg works on a gut level and is a master manipulator when it comes to sound, light, composition and performance. His focus is razor sharp and he knows exactly how to pull at the audiences heart strings. These images I've pulled from E.T. are a great example of how well crafted and how confident he is at telling his stories. There are all sorts of logic issues in this sequence. First of all, what is the source of all these lights? Why do the 'bad' guys walk over a hill pushing the plastic tent? Why don't they have a truck and how long have they been pushing that thing? Why are they in space suits?
All of these questions of logic can pull the audience right out of the story but Spielberg has such terrific instincts for this material. He is totally fearless and pulls it off. Every piece that I described above isn't meant for your brain, it's meant for your gut. And this is where film has its power, the brain is overpowered by emotion (manipulated or truthful).
E.T. is a great film. Yes it's manipulative, yes it's sappy, and yes it works. Spielberg juggles the feelings of dread, joy and melancholy and plays the heart strings like a world class violinist. It's also optimistic, unlike his rendition of 'War of the Worlds'. Like 'Close Encounters', E.T. looks up at the sky with wonder, amazement and hope that not everything in the universe is hell bent on murder.
**Notice the terrific compositions, particularly the Wellesian angle of the towering man in the space suit. This low angle shot is all about the feeling of intimidation and fear. Hitchock was a master at these kinds of compositions as well. Images tell stories and just as important, they make us feel.