Spielberg invades Bayonne

Making a mountain out a of mole hill

God help me, I've begun reading "real" criticism of Stephen Spielberg films.

I guess I'm just a sucker for punishment.

And if you wanted to boil it down to a literary metaphor: God gave us Spielberg; The devil gave us critics. Hopefully when all is said and done both end up in the appropriately designated places in eternity.

I started with a piece call Language and the Music of the Spheres by Charlene Engels, only because that's where I opened the book.

Roughly speaking, Engels seems to paint Spielberg's Close Encounters as the equivalent of Rapture - which moment in time some Fundamental Christians believe God will come and take them to Heaven, leaving the rest of us to rot and watch reruns of Gilligan's Island.

Spielberg's Jewish so the second coming of Christ won't mean as much to him, of course, since the savior hasn't yet made a first appearance.

Engel, of course, drags in other critics who quote Bible and verse for what "Close Encounters" really means. While denying that the Dreyfus character is Moses and Devil's Peak is Mt. Sinai, Engels brings a body of evidence to show the theme of salvation Spielberg has installed in this and other films. One quoted critic even alluded to the climb up Devil's Peak to the Lot's wife tale in the Old Testament, but of course, for me the logic tends not to turn into a pillar of salt but rather a load of crap.

Of course, Spielberg's films are thick with images of salvation, of helpful characters lending their aid to the hero in order for the hero to accomplish his or her mission - such as the army of kids on bicycles leaping to the aid of the hero in saving ET.

Engel apparently doesn't get out to the movies much or would otherwise notice every film of this kind has Santa's little helpers.

They are mythological archetypes contained in nearly all western fiction.

Lust for gold or power, abuse of the masses, and the fight for right can also be found in the pages of any local newspaper - and not because the editors intentionally install such symbols or have any secret message they intend to convey.

Admittedly there is a difference between Spielberg (and other literary figures) and newspapers, in the conscious and deliberate use of such symbols for effect.

Art is deliberate manipulation.

In great art - to which some of Spielberg's film aspire - the manipulation involves many intertwined themes.

But unfortunately for critics, artists often use these symbols for more practical reasons.

Perhaps the critics are right in that Spielberg is constructing some religious institution through which he can convey some moral message and giving us a lesson we can live life by. These critics may seen Spielberg construction houses of the holy in which the human spirit might fly high and find salvation while Spielberg may be more concerned with putting in a foundation and walls so that the building stands - leaving the decorations until later.

Let's take on of Engle's operations how the fact that Cecil B Demille's "The Ten Commandments" was playing on television the night the Dreyfus character had his first encounter (something akin to Moses stumbling upon the burning bush in the dessert).

Did Spielberg really put that film on the screen to send us a message?


But Spielberg is to movie-making what Bob Seeger is to pop music, both draw on the past of their genre for inspiration. Spielberg's films are rich with allusions to other films, because in many ways, he is remaking every scene he has viewed in other films as a kid, transforming them into his own by clever, even genius manipulation of details. The basic plot line can be found again and again, and he often insists on making reference to the films from which he derived his inspiration.

It is very likely that the inspiration for Close Encounters was the movie, not the Bible to which so many critics have referenced (though I'm sure Spielberg's education made him familiar with original source).

Spielberg also appears to draw on another tradition of western literature: the use of past stories to echo the plot of a new tale. Homer (and nearly everyone since) frequently used mythological tales to emphasize particular points in his hero's quest in the Odyssey.

Close Encounters is a quest tale. But it is also a story of obsession. If the Dreyfus character is Moses, then he is a Moses that was willing to sacrifice his family, his reputation among neighbors and his means of living on a religious quest for personal salvation.

Critics, making Mt. Sinai out of a mole hill, might like to paint the character in religious terms, but more likely Spielberg meant it as a movie homage - a detail that has multiple meanings enough to lend texture to a contemporary story.

This is not to say that Spielberg was completely ignorant of the impact of the reference. You can well expect War of the Worlds to contain numerous references to the Nazi holocaust and 9/11, drawing heavily on the similarities between those atrocities and the alien's mistaken presumption that human kind is inferior intellectually, morally and physically.

But such references are metaphors added to pull together the film like the draw string on a tobacco pouch. Spielberg isn't saying Dreyfus is Moses or that the Aliens are Nazis. It is a convenient tool to enhance a fictional tale, a subtle prop designed to create the illusion of reality in the same way sets work to create a more visual reality.

Critics - and I'm included in this - insist on turning Spielberg's references into the Word of God, when in reality, all we're supposed to do is go along on the imaginary ride.

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