You know what you are likely to get from Make Spielberg Great Again given the title: sheer, fearless provocation.
Armond White doesn’t care. He knows full well your mind will immediately venture to the outgoing President of the United States, as an appropriation of the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan the Republican Party have adopted over the last four years, and much further beyond that if you know your political history. Not that MGSA is a book driven by Trumpism, or about Trump’s America, but the title very clearly wants you to understand that White’s social and cultural politics might not align with your own, even if you will take from this book a shared passion: the work of Steven Spielberg.
One aspects of White’s reviews from The Press Gang, which I reviewed last year and compiled a number of White’s pieces on film for the New York Press across many years which stood out, beyond his refusal to be pigeonholed into any kind of traditional cinematic lens, was his frankly unexpected adoration of Hollywood’s premier directorial titan. Most people think Spielberg is a great director, even if not all of his varied array of pictures are success stories, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect White to line up alongside Spielberg adherents, given how frequently he will discard aspects of cinematic culture others hold in high regard.
White’s rationale for making Spielberg ‘great again’ is one of the most interesting aspects of a typically divisive, fascinating collection of essays chronicling the director’s entire career to date.
Make Spielberg Great Again is a combination of fresh work from White and repurposed essays from previous publications for outfits such as the aforementioned New York Press, Wayne State University’s The South End and the National Review, where White remains chief film critic.
It is tempting to suggest, based on the latter, that White’s writing is mere conservative polemic but this would be unfair. He arguably leans right, there’s no question. He considers MAGA a slogan of optimism. He charts a direct line between Spielberg’s cinematic brio and the showmanship of D. W. Griffith, the now controversial director of pioneering silent film—and to many a white supremacist tract—The Birth of a Nation, and repeats this assertion at regular points. White believes Spielberg has lost his way by appealing to liberal biases, that his increased homogeneity in particularly the 21st century is a consequence of pandering to the landscape of unoriginality that has infected modern culture and storytelling.
Whether you agree with this matters less than the compelling arguments White makes, applying a fascinating lens, fuelled by many years of criticism and cinematic thought, on the work of a director who has been dissected and dismantled to death over the years. White commits long sections to The Color Purple and Amistad as he deconstructs Spielberg as an advocate of black reparation, of highlighting stories of periods of American history which many other filmmakers shy away from. He makes a case that The Lost World is the better Jurassic Park film. These are just a few examples of White’s intriguing, even pugilistic assertion that Spielberg is heading, as a creative, in the wrong direction. It’s unfortunate he resorts to quoting right wing imbeciles like Paul Joseph Watson to do it but if you can place these aspects to one side, White’s insights are filled with depth and from a perspective which challenge and inflame in equal measure.
You won’t necessarily agree we need to Make Spielberg Great Again, but you will be left questioning whether you should.
Armond White was kind enough to answer a few questions about the making of the book…
A. J. BLACK: Tell us why you consider Steven Spielberg worthy of an exploration like this, in the context of modern cinema, politics and entertainment.
ARMOND WHITE: The facts are that Spielberg is one of the most successful and popular filmmakers in cinema history. He’s a figure to deal with whether or not he has detractors, especially because his detractors, going back as far as Close Encounters, are so wrongheaded.
AJB: You are famously—or infamously here—dismissive of Jaws as manipulative entertainment, but you seem to thaw on it as time passes. What changed?
AW: This book is an opportunity to be totally upfront about my evolving responses to a great popular artist like Spielberg, which means coming to understand his art and my own responses to it. There’s never been another book that takes this approach—it’s the first of a its kind as far as I know. Jaws never appealed to me but, as you say, I have “thawed” to it and come to recognize its signs of extraordinary skill and visual genius, although I still think it’s less than a great film. It’s a work of undeniable popular appeal.
AJB: A lot of time is devoted to The Color Purple, which feels transformative to you in what Spielberg was doing in the mid-80s. Is this his masterpiece that people don’t always discuss?
AW: Yes, The Color Purple is a major—and complex–work of popular art, comparable to D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm. It’s also a great example of Spielberg’s detractors being proved wrong by the popular audience’s affection and black feminist academia eventually coming around to defend it.
AJB: You seem to be unconvinced by Spielberg’s sojourn into the heavier fare of Schindler’s List. Do you feel this was a turning point or does it steer away from the purveyor of entertainment he is in pictures such as Jurassic Park?
AW: Spielberg has said that he could not have made Schindler’s List without having made The Color Purple first. Both films demonstrate his showmanship and his seriousness. The Color Purple was a bigger stretch artistically and, in artistic terms, a far more imaginative film. Of course, the media and the Oscars prefer the more obvious example of “the indomitable spirit of man.”
AJB: Amistad was critiqued by Spike Lee among other films of the time made by white filmmakers about black history and culture as wrong, but you seem to stand by what Spielberg was trying to do. Do you still feel this way?
AW: Maybe Spielberg could not have made Amistad without making Schindler’s List first but Amistad is a far more sophisticated movie. It challenges mainstream media’s racial and ethnic and historical biases. Race hustler Spike Lee doesn’t understand any of that. MGSA also chronicles Lee’s self-serving turnabout praising Schindler’s List, a careerist move that predicts the current so-called “diversity” trend that calls for segregated art.
AJB: You describe The Terminal, War of the Worlds & Munich as Spielberg’s unofficial ‘9/11’ trilogy. How do you think that moment changed him as a filmmaker?
AW: It’s clear that 9/11 shook Spielberg, as it did most of us. The event also clarified his understanding of his own artistry and its purpose and potential. Jaws intimated this in the U.S.S. Independence sequence, but after 9/11 Spielberg consciously lived up to that potential. It’s a totally splendid group of movies.
AW: Crystal Skull is imperfect (no film is perfect, except maybe Minnelli’s The Band Wagon) but the detractors were always laying in wait. They just don’t get it.
AJB: You seem disappointed in what you consider a partisan streak running through his more recent political pictures – Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post. Is he directly focusing on American political history in the last decade as he grapples with personal anxieties?
AW: Spielberg’s recent politicized films reflect an event as traumatic as 9/11. That’s why the fourth section of the book is titled “OBAMA.” Spielberg’s sense of history, and America’s place in the world, was changed—disturbed—by Obama’s ideological revolution. So far he has not recovered.
AJB: You end by considering the future and whether Spielberg can regain the through line to D. W. Griffith you frequently mention. Will West Side Story see the beginning of that or continue the trend?
AW: We’ll have to see what West Side Story offers. It’s not a good sign. At least he didn’t make Hamilton (although I’m sure he would have made it cinematic). But if he was going to do a musical remake it should have been A Chorus Line which needs remaking. Imagine the movie-musical know-how in 1941 and Temple of Doom applied to that show! Who knows, maybe an all-out movie musical will make Spielberg great again.
Huge thanks to Armond for his time.
Make Spielberg Great Again: The Spielberg Chronicles is now available from Resistance Works WDC.
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