Spielberg invades Bayonne

In the Spielberg hot seat

On-line there is a curious game that puts the player in Steven Spielberg's director chair - like the War of the Worlds version pictured here at the Howell Township shoot in early November.

The game apparently seeks to give a better appreciation of Spielberg's craft, while teasing would-be Dantes, Capras and Hitchcocks with the mistaken notion they might someday be able to do the same thing.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I'm not one of those people.

The chair you see at the top of this page scares the living crap out of me, and for good reason. To make a movie the way Spielberg does takes vision I just don't have. For me, the complexities of moving making remain one of the great wonders of the world along side Pez candy and Leave It to Beaver lunch boxes.

I've never pretended to be a film critic, or even a student of the movie-making craft. Still much of what Spielberg does with his camera amazes me, creating a language that manages to convey meaning to me in a way few other film-makers have.

This is particularly true of passages which some critics have accused of being bland or uneven. Spielberg has been accused of a lot of things by a lot of people, from being too frivolous, unromantic or even boring.

One critic attacked Jurassic Park in such a way, making me wonder if I had seen the same piece of film this critic had, or if critics looked for things in film which I could not or would not look for.

I suspect that critics blamed Spielberg for flaws that inherent in the original novel, and misunderstood the handicaps that any filmmaker would have had in attempting to translate book into film.

These limitations in Jurassic Park may have actually proven to me just how brilliant a filmmaker Spielberg is - not because of the spectacular effects or the intense action he presents us, but over how he handles the most mundane scenes.

One such scene in Jurassic Park remains among my favorites - despite lacking the usual Spielberg dramatics such as his inky skies or tricks of illusion.

A closer look at some of these techniques for relieving lagging passages may not be necessary in a film like War of the Worlds - since the early works of Wells tend to be the most sensually stimulating, as opposed to later books in which he - believing his audience missed his points - hit people over the head with his uncompromising lectures.

If Jurassic park has parts that lag, the blame should be laid at the feet of the book's author and co-script writer Michael Crichton, who despite his brilliant ideas and his far-reaching visions is among the most long-winded and preachy writers in Science Fiction, and rivals only Arthur C. Clark for being depressing.

You might well imagine the fist fights co-script writer David Koepp must have had with Crichton in the fruitless effort to rid the scrip of long lecture scenes and moral diatribes Crichton insisted on injecting into an otherwise potentially action-packed film, giving us instead his version of television's perpetually talking heads.

Spielberg, stepping gingerly over the spilled blood and eradicated pages of script, might well have needed his extraordinary talents to liven up those dead passages that Crichton could not be parted from.

Thus for me comes some of the most visually poetic passages in Spielberg's entire film lexicon.

In fact, Spielberg - with all of his magical film tricks, special effects and moody moments, will be hard pressed in War of the Worlds to impress me more than one sequence of shots he filmed to help liven up perhaps the most boring passage of Jurassic Park - a sequence as visually poetically as any of the words Wells could weave.

To fully understand my otherwise casual observation of the scene, you must know how I'm using several technical terms such as shot, sequence, scene and objective/subjective camera angles.

I'm defining shot as a continuous filming without termination (sometimes called a take). This can last a matter of seconds, minutes or longer before a new shot starts.

A sequence is a series of shots that define a particular moment or action the total of which equals a scene - or what might be a chapter in a novel - before breaking off to some other place, action or geographic location. The security camera at the local 7-11 that runs 24 hours non-stop counts as a single shot.

An objective camera angle means different things to different people. For me, it is a godlike view, one that is not coming from any of the characters in scene. Subjective camera angle is one that creates the illusion that the movie-viewer is looking out of the lens. In Oceans 12, for instance, a conversation in a doorway between two characters has the camera alternating from behind each of the actors, first framing the shot of the other actor with the head and arm of the first. This gives you the illusion that you are inside the head of the one actor looking at the other.

In scene from Jurassic Park I'm talking about, Spielberg uses subjective camera angles with such mastery that he managed to create without words sympathy and agreement for the film's moral compass played by actor Jeff Goldblum.

The story line of Jurassic Park runs roughly like this: Richard Attenborough plays a one-time flea circus owner who has built a theme park where real dinosaurs have been cloned back to life. He has brought together a group of scientists in order to convince the insurance company that the park is safe - despite the recent death of one of the employees.

These scientific notables are played by Sam Neil - as a dinosaur bone digger-upper, his love interest and dinosaur expert Laura Dern, and Goldblum as a mathematics expert.

The scene come ironically after the group has watched the feeding of a live steer to one of the more vicious breeds of dinosaurs and opens on a close-up shot of a plate of food and Dern's shocked expression as the camera pans out to show her face. This is immediately followed by a shot angled down at an oval table from ceiling height, depicting the group of people - metaphorically hinting that they might soon become food for the dinosaurs they are discussing.

This sequence making up the discussion scenes uses a total of 32 individual shots with some slight panning over a time frame of about four or five minutes.

To enhance the visuals, Spielberg surrounds the rooms with screens upon which images on constantly being projected. What is being project no doubt has meaning also, but more important are the beams of light that slice the air around the characters - or as in some shots - provide a visual balance to each frame the way objects are sometimes situated deliberately in still photography.

Goldblum is the king of this sequence because 90 percent of the shot revolve around him, ether giving us his view to the right or left at the table, of picture him during the height of his pontificating. We are seeing and hearing the scene from Goldblum's point of view, not by logic, not by act of great courage, but by camera angle.

Spielberg uses three basic shots in this sequence, interjecting external objective shots at intervals to break up the monotony of the back and forth. The timing of shots varies but seems to be connected to intensity of the discussion, shorter shots switching often as the conversation heats up, ending in a final glorified halo effect as Goldblum delivers the powerful punch line of his character's philosophy.

The lawyer shot looks to the right at the insurance lawyer, but is framed by Goldblum's forearm along the bottom of the shot and his upper arm to shoulder along the right edge. Spielberg uses this almost any time the lawyer is speaking.

A similar shot is used for when the park owner is speaking on the other side of Goldblum, but in this case, the fame of Goldblum's arm and a section of his face shows along the other side of the picture.

When Goldblum's character pontificates, the camera looks slightly up at him and at a slight angle, giving him dignified elevated appearance that is often accentuated by the lights projecting around his face. We can not help but take his side of the argument, even if we disagree intellectually.

Spielberg being Spielberg is not content to merely alternative between these three shots. On several occasions, he interjects objective camera shots of other characters, in particular of Dern in the foreground framed by the slightly out of focus or somewhat misty faces of her lover and the lawyer - or even a shoulder high shot of all four characters seated at the table, but divided in the picture frame with two on one side and two on the other.

The sequence of changing shots creates a tension that echoes the verbal and philosophical disagreement between the characters, creating a kind of conflict most viewers are unaware of except on some deeper psychological level, a back and forth that keeps interest in the scene despite it being mostly all talk.

The scene ends when the flea circus owner stands up.

I don't know if War of the Worlds will require such a remarkable sequence of shots. But the man seated in the directors chair pictured above will know, and anyone who wants to sit in that chair will have to have the same remarkable control of scene and shot as Spielberg has in order to sit in that hot seat.

I know I never will.

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