some thoughts on why I’m doing this at all

scooterjockey   writes:

“I understand this is a blog about the story of films – but for some reason with Spielberg movies, the movie can’t be judged on story alone. Obviously visuals are the cornerstone to every film (otherwise, we’d be satisfied with simply reading the stories) and few can match the perfection that Spielberg brings visually.”

The main body of Mr. Jockey’s comment is about the importance of John Williams’ music in Spielberg’s movies, but his preamble set off a chain of reasoning in my head that became too complicated to be confined to the comments margin.

There is no mysterious “some reason” that Spielberg movies can’t be judged on story alone. No movie can be judged by story alone. A screenplay is, as they like to say in story meetings, only a blueprint. The “meaning” of the movie may be consonant with the blueprint or it may comment on it, or contradict it. Visuals can compress, expand, redact, re-arrange, re-value, devalue and undermine whatever is in the script. The screenwriter is helpless before the primacy of the visual, and the smart screenwriter finds a director who more or less shares his vision and lets him do the job of bringing the screenplay to visual life — which involves changing things. As John Logan said about writing The Aviator (I paraphrase) “I learned that a crease in Leonardo DiCaprio’s brow says more than a page of description.”

Movies are, of course, about the visual. Spielberg’s movies, with their stunning images and masterfully choreographed action, tend to be more about the visual than others. (The reader will note that he is not putting his hand to his ear in the above photograph.) The visual fluency of Spielberg’s movies is so abundant and seductive that I can easily get caught up in a compelling camera move, a bit of editing, a spectacular effort of production design, a dazzling piece of choreography, and lose track of the blueprint entirely. The purpose of this series is to track the protagonists of Spielberg’s movies through the narratives of their respective movies, relying as much as possible on their simple actions, that is, “what they do” as opposed to “how they are shot” or “what is the cumulative impact.”

(Or, for that matter, “how is the music.” And let me just say right now that I’m sick and tired of people who are sick and tired of John Williams. What position for a composer to be in — his talent and sensibility are so well-matched to his director that people take him as a given and pretend to disdain him — “Ho hum, another score by John Williams.” Where would Spielberg be without Williams? More to the point, where does Spielberg end and Williams begin? That’s how closely married their sensibilities are, you can’t imagine Spielberg’s movies without Williams’s music and you can’t hear Williams’s music without seeing the visuals they accompany.)

(One thing I’ve learned, for instance: the “three-act narrative” has become such a rule of Hollywood development that anything else is looked upon with suspicion or dread, yet few of Spielberg’s movies have a three-act structure. His most popular movies have four, and some even have five.)

The purpose, for me, of this Spielberg series is specifically to examine the blueprints of his movies and figure out how they’re designed and built — before the dazzling visuals come into play. Since the dawn of my moviegoing days I’ve known that Spielberg’s movies work, now I want to know why they work.



13 Responses to “some thoughts on why I’m doing this at all”
  1. Agreed.

    thats pretty much it… agreed. I hope you don’t mind if I use this statement before I speak to ANYONE in the world about movies, it captures feelings any cinefile has when speaking to the average “goin’-to-a-movie” Joe. Very well written – no surprise – and I only had to look up one word! (for the record it was: “primacy”)

    So, Todd, Thank you (I think… – honestly not sure if you’re ok or upset by my comment) and here’s to more (many) dissections in the future.


    • Todd says:

      Re: Agreed.

      Oh, I’m totally okay with your comment. Your comment was not only fine, it was helpful in focusing my intent.

  2. goodtoast says:

    While I think Williams isn’t the most talented composer, nor my favorite, I cannot think of any two people who are better at the musician-director relationship than him and Spielberg. Although I know it must be the former, I can not always tell whether Williams has molded the music around Spielberg’s film, or visa versa. For me, it’s always a treat to discover Williams has done the score. (and as a musician myself, I have to say–his music is always fun to play)

  3. ogier30 says:

    Thank you for what you do.

    • travisezell says:

      God, yes. I wanted to say the same. Thank you. I’m loving this approach to these films. Very helpful for me as a writer and a reader.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I continue to enjoy this blog greatly, for precisely the approach you take to writing on films (and other interests on occasion of course). After reading this I am left wondering about your comment considering that “three-act narrative” convention and Spielberg. That does surprise me, actually. That would be great if once you could elaborate on that somewhat further. Is he still keeping the three-acts as a core, just adding plus two? Or like, three acts in the center, with bookends on either side?

    And thanks to this post I have this ridiculous desire to see Spielberg posing with is hand over his ear!

  5. the_stalwart says:

    And here I thought you were doing this so my wife could wonder why I laugh like a madman when you compare the aliens in Close Encounters to an interstellar art academy. I guess this is a good purpose, too.

  6. bassfingers says:

    Mamet would disagree, but then again, Mamet doesn’t get the box office numbers that Spielberg does.

    • Todd says:

      What do you think Mamet would disagree with?

      • bassfingers says:

        I would argue that unlike Spielberg, Mamet would choose simplicity over “stunning images and masterfully choreographed action”.

        From On Directing Film:

        The answer to the question “where do you put the camera?” is “what’s the shot of?”

        The fairy tale is a great teaching tool for directors. Fairy tales are told in the simplest of images and without elaboration, without an attempt to characterize. The characterization is left up to the audience.

        The less the hero of the play is inflected, identified, and characterized, the more we will endow him with our own internal meaning—the more we will identify with him—which is to say the more we will be assured that we are the hero.

        The acting should be a performance of a simple action…The script is doing that work. The more the actor tries to make each physical action carry the meaning of the “scene” or the “play,” the more that actor is ruining your movie. The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of a nail, it has to look like a nail.

        What he says about actors he says about camera work and visuals as well.

        Not that I necessarily agree with him, but that’s how he & Spielberg differ in opinion.

        • Todd says:

          Mamet is in agreement with Tarkovsky, who felt that a pan was “cheating.”

          I think Mamet’s dicta work very well — for Mamet. And, although there is much to be learned from On Directing Film, Mamet The Young, I’m guessing, would find himself somewhat at odds with Mamet The Middle-Aged. I find that Redbelt has very little to do, visually, with House of Games.

          Mamet has, somewhere else, mentioned how the audience are always ahead of the film narrative. This is, I think, a function of the director’s hand — the visuals always tell the audience what’s happening faster than the writer can whip out his descriptors. That’s why, dramatically speaking, we can “read” a scene without hearing the dialogue at all. Anyone who’s ever watched a movie with the sound off, or watched a foreign-language movie without the subtitles, will testify that this often improves the moviegoing experience.

          Mamet also once referred to Schindler’s List as “emotional pornography.” He wasn’t being complimentary.

          • teamwak says:

            I once watched Romper Stomper (with a young and scary Russell Crowe) in it with the sound off at a party. It was stunning and engrossing. I remember being able to follow the whole story visually, and it packed a real punch.

            I later watched it with the sound and it felt lacking somehow lol

          • Anonymous says:

            Mamet is full of hooey. Except about Schindler’s List.