NYFF 2017: Susan Lacy’s Spielberg

“When you make a movie called Spielberg,” begins Mike Hale in the New York Times, “and its subject agrees to sit for what turns out to be thirty hours of interviews—and his sisters sit down with you, as do his parents, and half the Hollywood mavericks including Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese—you’d better get it right. No one wants to be the director who screwed up the Steven Spielberg documentary.” Hale talks with Susan Lacy, creator of the PBS series American Masters and the director of this new portrait, who tells him, “If I had spent a lot of time thinking about: ‘How’s Steven going to feel about this? Oh my God, is he going to like this?’ I would have been absolutely frozen.”

“While well over two hours, Lacy’s film zips along,” writes Alan Scherstuhl in the Village Voice, “always onto the next thing, tantalizing with behind-the-scenes footage (watch him guide Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas through tricky E.T. reaction shots) and too-quick character studies.” Tom Hanks “speaks of Spielberg with the collegial reverence of a Kennedy Honors speech; [Liam] Neeson does so with the respectful distaste you might have for a hard boss who was eventually proven right. Only Dustin Hoffman seems to see the Spielberg that Spielberg purports to be hiding. ‘Steven’s like a guy who works for Steven Spielberg.’ . . . What’s most revealing, here, is [Spielberg’s] self-awareness, the way that he anticipates and acknowledges what we suspect about him just from viewing the films.”

“If exploring Spielberg’s childhood and revisiting his most lauded directorial works are the first two pillars of Spielberg, the third is most definitely a candid assessment of the director’s relationship to his faith,” writes Susannah Edelbaum at WhereToWatch. “In short: it wasn’t always easy. . . . The documentary reveals that it was his marriage to Kate Capshaw (meeting her was like hearing ‘bells ringing,’ he tells the camera) and her conversion that brought Steven back to Judaism. . . . Crediting his second wife with a renewed focus on authenticity in filmmaking, he says he got to a point where ‘truth began to upstage make-believe.’”

Lacy’s told Variety’s Dave McNary that “there was enough material for a six-part series. ‘It was delightful to find out that he really is as nice as I thought he was,’ she added. ‘He never asked for a single change. A lot of artists can’t talk about their own work or they’re reluctant to do so. He talked about film as intelligently as anyone I’ve ever talked to.’”

On the latest Film Comment Podcast (55’21”), Molly Haskell, author of Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films, Michael Koresky, editor of the Reverse Shot book Steven Spielberg: Nostalgia and the Light, and FC digital producer Violet Lucca discuss “Spielberg’s big marquee titles and his less appreciated works.”

Spielberg premieres today at the New York Film Festival and screens once more tomorrow night before HBO presents it on Saturday.

Update: Lacy “makes the case that Mr. Spielberg is an artist of the popular,” writes James Poniewozik in the New York Times. “On the one hand, this simply means that Mr. Spielberg isn’t worried he’ll sully himself by making movies that people like. But it also means that the popular—the normal, the default, the American mean—was Mr. Spielberg’s fixation since childhood, and in many ways it has been his subject this entire time.”

Updates, 10/7: “Spielberg is a master of the obvious, and that’s exactly how director Susan Lacy chooses to present him,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club. “As for the real nuts-and-bolts of the artistry—say, what makes a Spielberg movie shot by Janusz Kamiński different from a Spielberg movie shot by Dean Cundey or Douglas Slocombe—forget about it.

Writing for Rolling Stone,Noel Murray notes that “despite all the Oscars and the box office billions, some critics still doubt that he’s the right person to tackle certain subjects (like, for example, terrorism in Munich). This has been Spielberg’s story since he broke into the business. In the doc, Scorsese sympathizes with his friend’s plight . . . but only to a point. He says that anyone who can make back-to-back smashes like Jaws and Close Encounters has set the bar so high that he’s going to be compared to that for the rest of his career. But what choice does he have? As Scorsese says, ‘You get yourself into shape, and you jump over the bar again.’”

“While the movie is, not surprisingly, mostly laudatory, it doesn’t skip over Spielberg’s failures and disappointments either,” writes Jen Chaney at Vulture. “He speaks about the misguided hubris that led him to make the famously panned comedy 1941; his disappointment about the fact that his first marriage, to actress Amy Irving, ended in divorce; and about how unequipped he was to handle certain aspects of The Color Purple, specifically the sexual relationship between Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) and Shug (Margaret Avery), something only hinted at gently in the film. ‘I might have done that had I made the movie ten years later,’ he says. ‘I was just timid. I was just a little embarrassed. I just wasn’t the right guy to do that.’”

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “a Spielberg believer,” is delighted: “It’s full of rare home-movie footage that captures Spielberg on the set, and his emergence from the directorial rat pack of the New Hollywood, more intimately than I’ve ever seen those things portrayed.”

“Spielberg has always felt like an honest filmmaker telling heartwarming stories, so to go in expecting scandal would be ridiculous,” writes IndieWire’s Ben Travers. “But for as sincere, well-made, and entertaining as Lacy’s documentary is, it ultimately feels like Spielberg is filling in minor gaps that were more rewarding to discover while evaluating the movies themselves.”

Spielberg crosses the line into hagiography regularly and with reckless abandon,” warns Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com. “Given how much I adore his films and respect him as an artist, if this felt like fan service to me, those of you with less tolerance for his work should probably skip it.”

Update, 10/8: “As Spielberg touts the impressive roster of repeat collaborators he’s assembled such as composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, Lacy gives the impression of a director as the conductor of an orchestra, in complete control of every element of the blockbuster film experience and able to call on any technique at will,” writes Joe Blessing at the Playlist.

Update, 10/9: “Like a lot of Hollywood lore,” writes Sean Fennessey at the Ringer, “the Steven Spielberg creation myth is difficult to resolve—an unconnected middle-class nerd from a non-prestigious school took his opportunity and made more of it than any person in the history of show business. Los Angeles is chockablock with legacy kids, privilege mongers, and thriving hacks. Spielberg was none of these things. . . . Hagiographies are typically tidy, stress-free renditions of a life. Spielberg isn’t quite that—it interrogates the failures of movies like 1941 and The Color Purple, and especially prizes the pain of his parents’ divorce. The story of their marriage and its end is the most tensile thread in his work. But Lacy found an artist trying not to think too hard about where the creativity comes from in the first place.”

Update, 10/11: “What’s disappointing about Spielberg,” finds the Atlantic’s David Sims, “is that it does far less digging into the intriguing later acts of his career; it doesn’t strive to move past the mythos and into the mind of an iconic artist who continues to make bold, challenging work.”

Update, 11/3: “Almost no one would argue that Spielberg’s films are good, and yet he continues to make them with impunity.” This ridiculous assertion comes from Jonathon Sturgeon—senior editor of The Baffler. Tweets Bilge Ebiri: “I've read plenty of eloquent, critical pieces about Spielberg over the years. The issue isn't the contrary opinion, it's the smug presentation of that opinion as if it were a basic fact upon which everyone clearly agrees.” Matt Zoller Seitz: “I liked that Spielberg takedown better when I read it in 1984, 1994, 1997 and 2006.” Some tweets are far more cutting, of course, and Sturgeon hasn’t been able to resist firing back: “It's amazing to write a piece about how Spielberg turns viewers into children & watch as the mad boys of film twitter come out for Daddy.”

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