BOOK REVIEW | Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films (Molly Haskell)

How do you chronicle the life of someone like Steven Spielberg? An ever-present, but nonetheless elusive, public figure who has long cited himself as being a year younger than he actually is, Spielberg is difficult to pin down, rarely granting probing interviews and carefully cultivating his public persona. The first writer to produce a comprehensive study of his life was Joseph McBride, and due to lack of information out there, most works that have followed struggle to step out of the shadow of his 1997 offering. Sadly Molly Haskell’s new release (which frequently cites McBride) doesn’t buck the trend.

One of the great voices of modern film criticism, Haskell by her own admission, has a mixed relationship with Spielberg’s work. Critical in the 70s but more accepting of his later work, it’s fascinating for Spielberg enthusiasts, and indeed fans of great movie writing, to see her revisit the likes of JawsClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark with a modern eye. Some she still seems hesitant about, while others she seems to have grown fonder of, and witnessing this process of re-evaluation is one of the better things about the book.

Such opportunities, however, seem relatively limited. For all her admiration of Spielberg’s skill, she doesn’t offer anything particularly new to the conversation. Like many of the biographers who rushed to review Spielberg’s life after the success of Schindler’s List, Haskell can’t break the popular narrative that the Holocaust drama marked a watershed in Spielberg’s career. While there are notable pre-Schindler’s displays of maturity (The Color PurpleEmpire of the Sun), Haskell argues, things changed in 1993: Spielberg matured and left behind the childish blockbuster toys of his youth.

A closer inspection of Spielberg’s work proves this to be untrue, and writers such as James Kendrick (whose study, ‘Darkness in the Bliss-Out’, is one of the finest Spielberg books of recent years) have explored this in great detail. While Spielberg’s early films may have dealt in populist genres and been made, on a superficial level, ‘to entertain’ rather than ‘to educate’, it’s incorrect to suggest they lack darkness or maturity. Jaws and Close Encounters, for example, fit neatly alongside 70s paranoid thrillers such as The Conversation and All The President’s Men, whileRaiders of the Lost Ark is an early example of Spielberg exploring his Jewish identity. There’s plenty to enjoy on a deeper level in these films; it’s not all runaway boulders and hungry sharks.

The book is a part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, but it offers little by way of probing insight into Spielberg’s heritage. Instead, it’s much more of a feminist study. On these terms, Haskell excels, analysing Spielberg’s work through a lens she excels in, and drawing conclusions that are never less than fascinating. She produces great insight into The Sugarland Express and The Color Purple, for example, and argues that Karen Allen in Raiders and Terri Garr in Close Encounters are ‘de-glamorised’ by a young Spielberg uncomfortable with sexualised women. It’s hard to understand how glamorising Garr’s broken portrayal of a woman confronting the breakdown of her marriage would serve the character, but it’s an interesting view nonetheless.

Delving deeper, Haskell focuses on sex as a representation of maturity (which is where the ‘de-glamorisation’ argument comes from) and continues the point into her study of E.T., which she accuses of freezing Elliott in a pre-pubescent immaturity. She wonders why Spielberg doesn’t turn Elliott into a “horny teenager” in a bizarre passage that ignores both the boy’s age and the obvious journey to responsibility that he undertakes. Reading passages such as this, it’s difficult not to feel that Haskell is a little out of date. Her view of sexuality ignores the new awareness of asexuality and aromance, and suggests that those who don’t accept overt sexuality into their lives are somehow doomed not to mature.

And sadly that’s the core problem with the book. While there is re-evaluation, Haskell feels stuck in the past, something not helped by her decision to dedicate just 20 pages to the run of films between Catch Me If You Can and Bridge of Spies. For a period that witnessed the likes of Munichand Lincoln in a stretch of eight movies, such brevity simply isn’t acceptable, and it leaves you wondering why she wrote the book at all. Film fans are in desperate need of another great Spielberg biography, but this isn’t it. Haskell joins Richard Schickel as another great film critic to flub their opportunity when covering one of the great film makers.

A fitfully insightful study, Haskell’s book ultimately offers too little by way of new analysis to stand as the essential work it could (and should) have been.