The Master Showman

By John V. Brennan

"I dream for a living."
      -- Steven Spielberg

      In the film In a Lonely Place, screenwriter Humphrey Bogart berates a colleague for pandering to audience tastes, remaking the same kind of picture over and over.  "You know what you are?" Bogart asks rhetorically. "You're a popcorn salesman!"

       As a director, Steven Spielberg has helmed several of the most popular movies of all time, such as Jaws, the Indiana Jones films, E.T. and Jurassic Park. As a producer, he has brought us many other fan favorites such as Gremlins, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Spielberg, along with his friend George Lucas, invented the summer blockbuster. When ticket prices are adjusted for inflation, the man owns four of the top twenty spots on the All Time Box Office list, with two in the top ten.

     Steven Spielberg has probably sold more popcorn than any person in history.

    It is all too easy to write Spielberg off as nothing more than Bogart's despised "popcorn salesman".  Because there is a sameness of style in many of his most popular films, they sometimes feel as if they were mathematically calculated to do nothing else but produce pleasure in a movie theater.  Yet couldn't we say the same about other directors, including some we honor on this site?  Surely Alfred Hitchcock was a master entertainer, Billy Wilder wanted to make movies people liked and Akira Kurosawa was well aware of the need to create "hits".  The most successful director of all time, Steven Spielberg is rarely mentioned as one of the greats. People think there is no "there" there.  Despite common themes running through many Spielberg films, his films don't collectively feel like a unique individual's world vision.  For the most part, they are not "thinking man's films".

     Yet movies are meant to entertain, and few people have ever entertained on such a mass scale as Steven Spielberg.  Certainly a book about Martin Scorsese's or Woody Allen's "visions" might be more thought-provoking than one about Steven Spielberg, but neither of these directors have even come close to the financial and popular success Spielberg has attained. From the 1970s through the '90s, most of what he attempted turned to gold.  His failures, such as the all-star comedy 1941, are easily dismissed.  His successes continue to be popular - I defy you to find one family in America with a decent home video collection who does not have at least one Spielberg DVD or VHS in their collection.  The two films for which he won Best Director - Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan - rank with the most important and impressive films of all time.  And any director who can come up with such amazing little gems as Duel or Catch Me If You Can simply cannot be written off as merely a purveyor of exploded kernels of corn.

    Spielberg's golden age is surely in the past, but if some of his more recent films such as A.I., Minority Report or The Terminal are anything to go by, his most interesting films may still be ahead of him.

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Copyright © John V. Brennan,  2008. All Rights Reserved.

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Copyright © 2008 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee