The master


The weather was bleak and blustery, typical of an early winter in the British Midlands. But that didn't prevent some 50 academics from huddling together in a conference room at the University of Lincoln for the first-ever academic symposium on the work of Steven Spielberg.

Titled "Spielberg at Sixty," the November 2007 event invited participants to ruminate on such subjects as "'A.I.,' Mourning and Simulacra," and featured speakers from San Francisco to Southampton. None of the attendees disputed the conference's basic premise: Spielberg is a filmmaker of immense importance.

It's hard to know what is more surprising -- that Spielberg, a member of the generation of directors once derided by Billy Wilder as the "kids with beards," is now in his 60s, or that he has been so enthusiastically embraced by the intellectual establishment that for so many years resisted him.

Joseph McBride, one of the first critics to champion Spielberg's work and the author of "Steven Spielberg: A Biography," says this acceptance is only fitting, if belated.

"He's a great filmmaker," McBride argues, "and the reason I wrote my book in 1997 was, it was shocking that a filmmaker of his magnitude was still being dismissed by many critics."

Not anymore. At least six new books have appeared on Spielberg in the past three years, with titles like Andrew M. Gordon's "Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg."

While acknowledging Spielberg's importance is easy, defining the essence of his work is much harder. Moments from his movies have become central to our culture -- from the girl floundering at sea as a half-seen shark approaches in 1975's "Jaws" to the young boy whose bicycle sails in front of the moon in 1982's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" to the bleak assault on the beaches of Normandy in 1998's "Saving Private Ryan"-- and yet their diversity can make the man behind them seem as much a chameleon as a visionary. Often, his heart seems to belong more with classic Hollywood showmen like Michael Curtiz and Cecil B. DeMille than with some of the celebrated film auteurs.

"He's like some of those great craftsmen of Hollywood's Golden Age in that he isn't married to one genre or one point of view," says critic Leonard Maltin. "But he puts himself wholeheartedly into each new project and brings the same level of skill to everything he tackles."

One close collaborator believes Spielberg's versatility confounds critics who try to pigeonhole him. "Steven has an understanding of the language of film that is singular and unprecedented," says producer Walter Parkes, who for many years headed DreamWorks' film division along with his wife, Laurie MacDonald. "And having that ease and fluency allows him to access a wider range of material than any director ever has."

Identifying the essence of Spielberg's work is further complicated by his knack of moving from the personal to the impersonal -- and often blurring the lines between the two. Within the same year, he can make pictures like "E.T." and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1982 and 1981, respectively), or "Schindler's List" and "Jurassic Park" (1993), or "War of the Worlds" and "Munich" (2005). He moves from films that seem to touch his most private being to ones that are unabashedly crowd-pleasing.

Newsweek's David Ansen, who regards Spielberg as "the most gifted director of his generation," also believes "he is divided against himself. The artist in him and the commercial showman are sometimes at war with each other."

Perhaps that is because Spielberg has always been linked to his audience by an umbilical cord, which is somewhat ironic, given how at odds Spielberg felt with the society around him, according to McBride's biography.

Born in Cincinnati in 1946, Spielberg early in his life moved to Phoenix, where, McBride writes, he was a Jew who felt he didn't fit in with the Waspy world he encountered there. Further alienated by his parents' split-up, he found refuge in film, discovering a precocious gift in his teens and even screening his first full-length feature, 1964's "Firelight" (widely seen as a predecessor to 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") at a local movie theater when he was just 16.

After being rejected by USC's film school on three separate occasions, he briefly attended Cal State Long Beach, but left when Universal's Sid Sheinberg offered him a job as a director.

Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote Spielberg's "1941" (1979), remembers how amazed he was when Spielberg screened his feature "The Sugarland Express" at USC in 1974. It was a movie made at a time when Spielberg was ambivalent about whether he saw himself as a mainstream or art house director. But that didn't matter to Zemeckis; what mattered was the skill.

"He immediately became my hero, because this kid had done this huge $2 million movie, and because the picture was fantastic," Zemeckis says.

But Zemeckis' response wasn't echoed by the public at large, and "Sugarland" flopped. It wasn't until Spielberg's second Hollywood feature, 1975's "Jaws," that he became a sensation.

The story behind "Jaws" is well-known: how trouble with the mechanical shark created such problems that he was forced to rely on hints of menace rather than the real thing; how Lew Wasserman, then chairman of Universal parent MCA, insisted on a TV advertising blitz that was unprecedented at the time; and how the movie became one of the biggest hits in history.

What is less known is that Spielberg almost turned the project down: He had wanted to make another picture, "Lucky Lady," which was subsequently directed by Stanley Donen and fizzled, despite starring Gene Hackman, Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds.

If "Jaws" was a work for hire, two of Spielberg's next projects -- "Close Encounters" and "E.T." -- would be far more heartfelt.

Each film became famous within Hollywood for its interplay with studio politics. "Close Encounters" helped turn Columbia around and cast a god-like aura over its chief, David Begelman, who secretly was defrauding the company; and another Columbia executive, Frank Price, became notorious for turning down "E.T." after market research indicated there would be no audience for it other than small children.

"Close Encounters" and "E.T." have become so familiar, it's easy to overlook their originality. Before Spielberg, science-fiction films were full of menace and fear, and the outside world they represented was a place of danger. He turned that on its ear, showing in effect that the source of our most deep-seated fears could be something to embrace.

Spielberg's boxoffice success proved unrivaled in the 1980s and 1990s, with films like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and its sequels, along with 1985's "The Color Purple" and "Jurassic Park."

But the director's interests were changing, his attraction to more adult-oriented material becoming stronger. An early foray into such material, 1987's "Empire of the Sun," wasn't entirely successful, but six years later his ambitious "Schindler's List" earned raves from even the most dismissive critics.

"Schindler" was one of the few feature films to tackle the Holocaust directly. So convinced was Spielberg that the film wouldn't be a crowd-pleaser, he restricted its budget to $20 million. Despite that, he refused to shoot in color, even knowing how this might limit its commercial appeal.

"Schindler" shows Spielberg's creativity functioning at its best -- especially in the work he did with writer Steven Zaillian. Though Zaillian finished two drafts for Martin Scorsese before Spielberg came on board, when he did he asked for radical changes, notably expanding a ghetto liquidation sequence into a 16-minute emotional tour de force.

That showed a willingness to probe a scene with a richness and depth that few directors would have risked. It was something Spielberg himself would not do again, perhaps, until "Saving Private Ryan."

Just as "Schindler" reminded skeptics of how powerful a director Spielberg could be, so "Ryan" forced those who had underestimated his cinematic inventiveness to reconsider him -- particularly with the D-Day invasion on the beach at Normandy that opens the movie. There, Spielberg again expanded the sequence until it took on new weight and power.

"What hooked him was probably the opportunity to shoot the invasion," Parkes says. "On a micro level, it was, 'Now I can do something filmically that has never been done before.' But on a macro level, this was a unique way of presenting a war film: It's about saving one man's life and saying, 'What is that worth?' "

In "Ryan," Spielberg tackled deeper moral and ethical issues than he had in most of his earlier work, other than "Schindler."

"There was an enormous process of working with writers to stitch the visceral invasion with the larger implications of the movie," Parkes recalls. "It was relatively late in the picture, shortly before we shot, that (writer) Frank Darabont did some work on it and wrote a line where Tom Hanks' character says, 'If we all get out alive, it may turn out that saving Private Ryan is the one decent thing we can take out of this mess.' These guys were doing one pure thing, and that trumped (losing so many soldiers)."

When Spielberg discovered this root issue, Parkes says, he was confident about the project. "Both as a director and as a partner in DreamWorks, there are questions he often asks: 'What's the raison d'etre of the film? What's the point? What is the big picture?' "

The big picture has come to interest Spielberg more, certainly as it relates to the modern world and the things that have shaped it. It's paradoxical that Spielberg's films have been less commercially successful as he has engaged the modern world more. But that might also be because his vision is growing darker. Increasingly, he appears to be embracing material that veers away from the mainstream, like "Munich."

True, he continues to maintain that umbilical cord of old, with recent hits like "War of the Worlds" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," and hopefully his next film, the motion-capture adventure "Tintin," based on the popular comic strip created by Belgian artist Herge. But it might be that Spielberg is in transition, heading into a new era where his interests lead him in unexpected directions. Certainly he craves the challenge.

"I remember him coming back from a holiday, when he had achieved what no director had done -- come off 'Jurassic Park' and then 'Schindler' and soon followed it with 'Ryan,' " MacDonald recalls. "And he said, 'I'm worried. I just don't get up in the morning and feel sick to my stomach.' He said, 'I need that feeling of taking something on that I'm really scared of.' "

"What he looks for is a sense of being both excited and scared," she adds. "Steven purposefully pushes himself onto a ledge with the movies he decides to make."