Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds' is Empty, Pointless--as Reviewed by John Steppling

[It's a great pleasure to add John Steppling's name to the growing list of contributors at CM/P. We have collaborated, Holmes and I, for almost 35 yrs now--all kinds of collaborations, not all them as salubrious or insightful as this review of Spielberg's latest, and almost unwatchable, paean to the American family, warts and all.

H knows about film--these days he teaches at the Film School in Lodz, Poland--having grown up in LA and worked most of his life in The Industry. His screenplay for John Frankenheimer's 52 Pickup was perhaps the first really successful adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel. It was so successful and so effective that it got the Dutch Meister out of Detroit and right down to H'wood to get a co-writing credit on the picture. Claimed the punctuation was off.

In fact, one of my favorite riffs in Be Cool (the book, not the movie, which was a fuckin mess), the sequel to Get Shorty, I'm sure was inspired by Leonard's experiences with Steppling on 52 Pickup. Here's a taste of some of Dutch's sour grapes:

From Be Cool, Dell, 1999:

(Chili Palmer, shylock turned movie producer, is talking to his old Bay Ridge homeboy, Tommy Athens, once a gumba, now owner of a record label, about making movies. Chili wants to make one about a young woman works at an escort service when she's not singing with her band.)

Tommy Athens: "An escort service. Yeah, I ran one for Momo."

Chili Palmer: "Tommy, this isn't hookers, it's legit. They bring couples together, match 'em up."

Tommy Athens: "I thought you were seeing that broad from the studio, Sharon something?"

Chili Palmer: "Karen Flores. She married a writer."

Tommy Athens: "You're kidding me."

Chili Palmer: "Fuckin screenwriter. Those guys, most of 'em don't even know where the commas go. You have to rewrite half their stuff."

Maybe, if you want half the writer's card, you do. Leonard, who is far and away my favorite writer of English language fiction (his latest, The Hot Kid, is delightful), has more than one moral blind spot. His treatment of the events in Rwanda and the vast majority of the Rwandan people in his novel Pagan Babies, with the RPF 'rebel' leader described as Jimmy Stewart-like, with not a drop of innocent blood on his hands, leaves one wishing that our master crime scibe had done a little research beyond The New Yorker's shock'n awe shucks pieces.

But I digress. Here's H biting back at H'wood--and even drawing some of that anemic blood they got out there. --mc]

War of the Worlds

One of the recurring themes of critical theorists like Adorno, Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse, was that much cultural product, advertising itself as radical or progressive or even simply liberal (let alone revolutionary) was, under the surface, both reactionary and ahistorical. A petit bourgeois activism, at best.

Steven Spielberg probably thinks of himself as a liberal -- and the far right press in the US certainly denounces him in this name. Such is the depressing rightward lurch of public discourse over the last twenty-five years. Spielberg's latest blockbuster, War of the Worlds (a remake of the 1953 George Pal/Byron Haskins film, and Orson Welles’ famous radio adaptation ... and taken originally from an H.G. Wells story) is a fascinating study in just those warnings from the Frankfurt thinkers.

War of the Worlds is a film without a point. The references to 9-11 are clear enough, but probably not as important as its essential emptiness. Spielberg, in Minority Report, created a police state gone into hyper-drive. The resolution of that narrative was to restore the police state (with Tom Cruise now an expectant father ... a strangely disturbing image, actually) but without the egregious excesses. A kinder, gentler police state. Spielberg has always posited a world of equilibrium into which conflict is dropped -- from "out there" somewhere. Never does conflict come from within the heart of man. Never is it connected to historical forces or personal histories (not even in Schindler's List). In WoW we have aliens attacking "us" ... the family of Man (one of Spielberg's favorite tropes) and "we" must fight back. The family of Man idea is deeply reactionary and ahistorical -- scratch the surface of history it says, and you get "mankind" underneath, when, of course, if you scratch the surface of Man, what you get is history. But history means questioning, and Spielberg senses how uncommercial that practice is. There is a curious absence of a 'world' in this film -- for all its crowd shots and endless scenes of mass death, the film exists in a weird non-world of unreality (notwithstanding bits like Cruise's son writing a paper on the French/Algerian war). There is also, as there always is in Spielberg, a love affair with the military. They may, as individuals, be cannon fodder ... or alien fodder ... but collectively, as signifiers of society, they are to be revered. Speaking of signifiers, this is a director (and this has never been clearer) whose aesthetic is linked to a reductive feel for complex questions and issues. Spielberg simply resorts to signifiers -- a vast array of standard camera angles ... crowds gazing skyward, apprehension etched on each face (and there are always faces of many colors)... or police and army personal repeating "move along now" almost compulsively, and to sentimental resolutions of a decidedly ahistorical nature, and decidedly awash in pop-psychological explanation. In other words the question of alien invasion is reduced to Tom Cruise taking care of his family and trying to reach his ex-wife (that, I must admit, is an odd bit of narrative detail ... why "ex"?). The larger questions of the world's militaries and nuclear weapons, Imperialism, and so forth -- how geo-politics might play into this -- well, no, that is too ... uhm ... well, political (compare Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or The Thing, both wonderful cold war parables). Not to say such a focus couldn’t elucidate bigger issues, but for Spielberg and writer David Koepp, it does nothing of the sort. Also, there is little in the way of character -- that is, Cruise's Ray Ferrier has no real world vision, no ideological POV, and seemingly little personal baggage. He is a stock father character, with stock "working class" signifiers (baseball cap, t-shirt, job on the docks, etc). Is he a union organizer? Is he Republican? Why did his wife leave him? The working class, as is usually the case in Spielberg, is treated in short hand. Like Mystic River, the working class and their struggles are kept at a safe distance from specific historical forces. There is simply nowhere for this film to travel to. Aliens attack and, essentially, kill themselves. Cruise survives, through no real fault of his own ... though one might see his new-found embrace of responsibility as a factor. I suppose there is in this fact a kind of simplistic 'family- will- prevail' theme, but I'm not sure. It should also be noted that as an actor, Cruise is forever the puer eternis -- forever boyish -- and this, in part anyway, explains his popularity. He simply cannot express adulthood.

Marcuse once wrote that the real horror of the system lies more in its rationality than its irrationality. Spielberg's universe is one of rationality -- on the surface. Beneath lurks the totally administered society, the utterly adjusted world of societal domination and emotional hollowness (interesting to note that nobody's house in this film contains a single book). I was thinking of directors like Pontecorvo or Ken Loach, Werner Herzog or Godard, and how they would treat this material. It’s an interesting question. Or even if Welles had made a film version. What would be different?

In the end one feels only the tedium of this film. The endless CGI and the endless noise. We learn nothing, NOTHING, about anything (which I was struck with in Jurassic Park, where I had expected at least a junior high school intro to the world of dinasaurs). Whatever ambivalence lurks around the edges of this film (Cruise kills one man with his bare hands, and then alerts a soldier not to shoot.....ambivalence to be sure) is an ambivalence that is eclipsed by the larger love of sentimental spectacle and ersatz horror. Spielberg is a reductive thinker and artist. He seems unable to resist the sound bite solution and the cheap emotional distraction (Cruise learns the value of fatherhood -- never mind half the planet is dead). Spielberg's populism is really just garden-variety reactionary pabulum. Avoid at all costs.

A final side bar note. Tom Cruise walks exactly like George W. Bush. I draw no real conclusions from this -- we report and you decide.


The Thing (also released as The Thing from Another World) 1951, Director Christian Nyby (although it’s really Howard Hawks ... who was on the set every day!!). Starring James Arness. A wonderful cold war fable -- and a deeply menacing film on all levels. On a shoe string budget this film manages to do about a thousand more things right than Spielberg has ever done. Worth trying to find!!


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