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Sep 8, 2011

A Good Year: But was 1993 really a good year for Spielberg?

Welcome to the second episode of mine and Robert’s series “A Good Year”. We are very excited to a have a special guest for today: Jose of Movies Kick Ass. In this episode, we look back at 1993 when the iconic American director Steven Spielberg had two critical and commercial hits in Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park.
*Catch up with the idea of the series here.
Amir: I have a feeling this conversation is not going to be as focused as our last one because, well, these two films are completely different. So let me start with asking you guys this: how do you think these two films have aged? It's been 18 years. The 90s are now so long ago.

Jose: I'm in the minority who thinks Jurassic Park is a much better movie than Schindler's List. Spielberg knows how to make entertainment better than he knows how to make art. The years have been much kinder to Jurassic because regardless of the truly awful sequels, the film manages to remain fresh and exciting. The effects are still state of the art and it's one of those few movies (King Kong and Lord of the Rings are others) that still feel timeless in terms of these effects. Like this year’s Super 8, I feel Jurassic Park embodies that same childlike spirit with which we embrace cinema. Schindler's List on the other side has become cornier and preachier with each passing year.

Robert: Jose, I thought I was alone in thinking that Jurassic Park was better than Schindler! The effects are absolutely timeless and there's so much else right with it.

A: "Preachy" is my biggest problem with Schindler's List. Since the emotional impact of my first visit of the film has worn off for several years now, repeat viewings only make its punch less effective; not a good sign for any film, let alone an emotional one centered on the Holocaust. I don't want to start knocking the film from the get-go, I recognize its many merits, but isn't it also incredibly repetitive in some stretches?

R: I, too, think the "preachiness" is the problem. It was only the first viewing for me, but I definitely felt the length, and in the same vein, my biggest problem with the film was the informative title cards. It almost seemed like a pedantic cop out, as though the screenplay didn't trust itself enough to explain the material. That's not to say that I wasn't extremely moved by the film, I was crying like a baby for the last twenty minutes, but it can definitely be clunky. Perhaps we should talk about its merits though? I feel bad being this dismissive so early on in our conversation!

A: We should. And speaking of merits, Raise your hand if Ralph Fiennes isn't the first thing that comes to your mind!

R: *raises hand* I was so disappointed, actually, because I really like Ralph Fiennes! I think his biggest issue was the accent, which seemed almost satirical. But how about Liam Neeson? His recent filmography left me totally unprepared for how good he was in this – his characterization is complex and a bit cold, and at the same time, completely real and effective.

Jose and I think he's the standout. Robert prefers Liam Neeson.
J: I think Ralph is the greatest thing about this movie (yet the Oscar that year...seriously?) and it reminds us about the power of great acting, I love how lacking in self-consciousness he
is in this movie. He just lets himself get lost inside this monster of a man. His scenes are chilling.

A: Somehow I always feel like that with Ralph. I'm aware that I’m watching him on the screen, like in In Bruges, but he's fully so immersed in the role. But isn't the 1993 best supporting actor line-up an impossibly brilliant one? I mean we're talking about that category, always filled with "should have been nominated before, so why not now?" nominees and then in 93, all five are amazing. I don't think Jones is as good as Fiennes, but if anyone's gonna take it from Ralph...

J: Despite its many merits, though, I have never understood why it ranks so high in those AFI top tens. And like most of Spielberg's oeuvre it shines for its use of corniness and extreme emotional manipulation (the sequence with the survivors is tacky manipulation at its worse!)

A: I assume you're referring to the last scene at Schindler's shrine? If so, then yes, it’s incredibly manipulative. By that time I'd become completely disappointed in the film's ending though. The scene before it, where the survivors are looking for a home to settle in, ruins the movie for me because ideologically, what I appreciate in the film is that it shows how the morally conscious man can escape political restraints. I like how it distances itself from politics. But there, it comes back and throws a huge political statement at us and it sort of breaks the film's construct.

J: Like he did with Munich and the Twin Towers finale, the man cannot for the love of him let an audience try to figure out metaphor and allegories on their own. He just has to digest the meaning of the movie for them every single time.

A: My idea is that there's no side-taking when it comes to the holocaust because, well, who isn't on the victims’ side, right? So why end the film on such an openly political note like the issue of the settlement, when the whole time our focus has been not on the politics of the war, but on the hardships that these victims had to go through; and we were "emotionally" manipulated. In a way I wish we'd been controlled, but hadn't steered away from that direction.

J: I agree. It's the same with the little girl in the red dress thing! We get it, these people suffered, there's no need to highlight an innocent child to keep on proving himself right. Despite of the superb cinematography, I feel that the film goes out of its way to punch our proverbial emotional guts in order to make us condemn anyone that even dares to question the nation of Israel.
The gorgeous cinematography of Schindler's List is one thing we all agree on.
A: The more I try to explain this, the more trouble I'll be in though. I don't mind having political statements in the film. A film like The Pianist for instance, (also about the Holocaust, also emotional, but infinitely stronger and subtler than Schindler in my opinion) makes political statements as well, but in Polanski's hands, it seems more coherent with the rest of the film than it does in Schindler.

J: The Pianist is infinitely better because other than the political statements made by Polanski, it becomes almost unbearable because of its excessive humanity. You wonder what Polanski knows that Spielberg doesn't, about the way in which emotions do not have to be attached to cheap sentiment. I have always wondered why it is that he's so good at working with children who are unarguably tougher at figuring out and then he's so terrible at "encoding" the ideas behind his movies using figures of speech or symbols.

R: Amir, you put it perfectly. I think the problem lies in what you mentioned earlier, that Spielberg is more of an entertainer than an artist. There's nothing "entertaining" per se about Schindler and so he feels as though he really has to spell it out. On the other hand...I was really impressed with how brilliantly successful Jurassic Park was in tackling complex issues without even once being preachy. For example, it deals with humans' relationship with nature so gracefully, whereas it could have easily taken the Avatar route and beaten you over the head with it. It's Spielberg's stronger area and it just seems to work automatically better.

J: I have to say, I was so sad when I read on The New Yorker the other day that in purely scientific terms Jurassic Park would never be possible, because the film makes science seem so exciting and brimming with promise that you actually expect dinosaurs to be waiting outside after you watch it. 

A: Spielberg has a deft hand in making "entertainment" as opposed serious dramas. Perhaps because under the guise of entertainment he doesn't feel the pressure to send messages across and keeps his themes subtle. Before re-watching Jurassic Park for this discussion, I wondered if I'd enjoy it as much as I did when I was a kid. But it doesn't feel different at all. There's something to find under the layers here that feels fresh so many years on.

J: The funny thing about him is that it's in his silly "entertainment" films where some of his most complex ideas can be found. See for example how Close Encounters and E.T. both tap onto the absence of parents to deliver extraordinary observations that would've made Freud himself squeal with delight. 

A: I watched E.T. again a few months back when Toronto's Bloor cinema screened it. It was extraordinary. Aside from the pleasure of watching its marvels on the big screen for the first time (another Spielberg film that still looks state-of-the-art), I was blown away by just how mature this film is. I wish he'd stick to making films like that. I want to talk about the specifics of Jurassic Park but before that, I'm curious what you think of his films this year. He's done the "two films: one artsy, one pulpy" trick three times since 93. 1997: Amistad and Jurassic Park 2, 2002: Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, 2005: Munich and War of the Worlds. His fifth time would be this year. Ignoring the fact that we picked 93 because of the acclaim of both films, which one of the four is your favourite? And do you think 2011 can top any of those years for him?
State-of-the-art effects of Jurassic Park
J: I never can figure out which one's the artsy and which one's the commercial one when it comes to 2002. Both movies are exquisite genre flicks (one a moody sci-fi noir, the other a delicious retro caper) and they both succeed precisely because they don't take themselves too seriously. I honestly think they might be the best two films the man has directed since the 70s and 80s. War of the Worlds was an utter fiasco and Munich albeit stylish and sort of intriguing, was yet another preach-fest.

R: Gosh, that's tough, because I'm missing a lot of those films from my repertoire. However, I'm going to say that probably '93 is my favourite, because I do really like Schindler and I adore Jurassic Park. I'm not a big fan of Catch Me if You Can and War of the Worlds is just horrendous. I have a feeling this year might just be the best though. War Horse looks like it could be the perfect balance of art and entertainment.

A: I admit that I haven't seen War of the Worlds yet, simply because everyone has the same reaction to it as you guys. But ‘02 might just take my vote too. Minority Report (probably the artsier of the two) is one of the smartest Sci-Fi’s of the aughts, and Catch Me If You Can gave us Amy Adams, aside from being amazing entertainment.

R: Oh gosh! Where would we be without Amy Adams? She was so great in that movie (and in pretty much everything else).

A: I don't know if Tintin was ever that big a deal in North America, but where I grew up, it was a huge deal and as a big fan, I was disappointed by that trailer. The comics never hide their playful childishness, but it seems like Spielberg has made it too dark. I always felt uncomfortable with the idea of his adapting them to films.

R: I wasn't familiar at ALL with Tintin until the trailer, so I can't judge based on the source material, but I do think it looks extremely interesting. Anyway, I think now's a good to bring up the man behind a large part of Spielberg's magic - John Williams. Would Schindler have been half as heartrending had it not had the elegiac violin score? And the score for Jurassic Park is perhaps my favourite of Williams’ work, if not in the top three. The fact that it didn't get an Oscar nomination that year is atrocious.

A: Hah, Robert, you’re such a music nut. I was wondering how long it would take you to bring him up. I do listen to both soundtracks from time to time though. I had no idea he didn't get nominated that year. So weird! I like the Schindler soundtrack a lot, but Jurassic part is real pop culture staple. It’s instantly recognizable.

R: Haha! I was itching to say something about him. As far as the Jurassic Park snub, I was surprised too. I mean, Schindler’s score won that year, but I was totally taken aback when I saw that Jurassic wasn't even nominated. They play it over the speakers at Universal Studios here in Florida and so it also brings back a lot of memories of going there will my family and it has real sentimental value. Not only that, but it's just a plain exhilarating score - it totally captures both the beauty and the horror of that darned island.

J: So, do you think Jurassic Park would've been a better Best Picture contender than Schindler's List?

R: Well, I mean, if by "better contender" you mean "had a better chance to win" then absolutely not. But if you mean "you would have picked to win" then absolutely! It seems strange to pick a movie about dinosaurs over a movie about the holocaust but I'm getting the idea that we're all unanimous about which one we prefer.

A: Well, there's no reason to be embarrassed at preferring dinosaurs when it comes to movies. We ALL bitch about the academy always going for the same things every year. Mot that they didn't in 93, but you get the point... when it comes to best picture winners though, Schindler's List looks like a respectable winner to me, despite all its flaws. It’s not exactly an embarrassment in the way, say, Around the World in 80 Days is. Compare it to A Beautiful Mind and then Schindler hasn't even aged a day.

R: Picking A Beautiful Mind is so effective for me in your metaphor as it's easily the worst Best Picture winner I've seen. And like you said, Schindler is a respectable winner. It hasn't aged gracefully, and it's imperfect, but there's a lot going for it and the Academy has made worse decisions. Honestly, that cinematography alone makes the film completely worthy of all of its praise - it's so unbelievably gorgeous.

J: I'll have to go with Crash as worst Best Picture ever...but anyway if it had been up to me that year The Piano would've won the Oscar and Jane Campion would've beaten Kathryn Bigelow to the first female Best Director by a good 16 years... sigh.
I still think that basically the biggest problem with Spielberg and his filmography is how hard he tries to be important. For example take 1998 when people were shocked that Saving Private Ryan lost Best Picture to a "sentimental movie". If you ask me, the weep fest that year was Ryan and not Shakespeare in Love which romance and all was still a cerebral celebration of art.

A: I love The Piano! And on that note, did any of you notice what a great year Sam Neill had, too?  I mean the year's biggest blockbuster here, plus Cannes winner and Best Picture nominee? Whatever happened to him?

J: Only god knows!
Sam Neill in Jurassic Park
A: I think it's important to note the difference between Oscar's relationship with Spielberg, and Spielberg himself though. I mean yes, he does try to be important, but we already mentioned that he can let loose and actually make better films. When it comes to the Oscars though, they want to reward his "weep fests" as opposed to his lighter fair. I'm honestly surprised the academy gave E.T. a BP nomination. Anyway, before we finish up the conversation, I wanted to ask you guys about your favourite scenes from each film.

J: Schindler's: I complained about it I know, but the red dress sequence is bewitchingly beautiful. Jurassic Park: the brontosaurus and the trees and sunset! It's pure magic!

R: Schindler’s: This is kind of an off-kilter choice, but I think one of the best scenes was the one with Ralph Fiennes and Embeth Davidtz, where he is trying to seduce her. I was dissing Ralph earlier but he and Davidtz are both so great in this scene and the tension is impeccable.
Jurassic Park: There are so many great moments but I love when Drs. Grant and Sattler see the dinosaurs for the first time. Laura Dern and Sam Neill are so great, and their absolute wonderment in beholding the mythical creatures they studied for so long is absolutely moving.

A: I love your choices.  I’m trying hard to remember the guy's name from Schindler's List, but I’ve already returned my DVD so I can't check. Anyway, I’m talking about the old man who Amon Goeth is trying to kill but his handgun doesn't work, and then his assistant's doesn't work and the man survives.  I also love the scene after his "reform" when he realizes he just can't control himself and shoots the cleaning kid after he lets him leave his house.  In Jurassic Park my favourite is probably the second last scene where the tyrannosaurus rids them of the raptors. Such an exciting scene that one is. 

R: Oh, those are fantastic choices Amir! The scene with the faulty handgun is superb. 

A: One last question! I’ve been thinking about this since we started the discussion. For better or for worse, Spielberg left a huge mark on American cinema and reshaped blockbusters. Not with these two films, but long before.  If the list maker in you were called to task, would you rank him in the top 5 most influential American directors of all time? Top 10?

R: I would say that Spielberg absolutely does belong on a list of at least the top 10 directors. Sure, his films aren't all brilliant masterpieces and there are plenty that I personally dislike - but he's made such an impact on cinema for such an extended period of time that it's impossible not to recognize his influence on others. No matter how you feel about current Hollywood blockbusters, how could they even exist if it wasn't for movies like Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park? Again though, it's his ability to entertain that has made the biggest impact, not his artistry. I can certainly understand how that distinction would cause some to dispute his impact on cinema as a whole.

J: Influential? By all means but so are Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich in the economic matter of things.
I actually got to thinking the other day if in fact Spielberg and George Lucas didn't actually screw the extraordinary road filmmaking was taking during the 70s when you had the films of Coppola, Fellini, Bergman, Lumet, Truffaut, Weismuller, Allen and Altman actually being successful at the box office while contributing to the art form. Then came silly Steven with Jaws and Lucas with Star Wars and they changed the game turning it into a "who will deliver the biggest blockbuster" contest... 
There is no way Spielberg should ever rank among the greatest directors of all time, as a businessman hats off though.

A: I agree with both of you and my question was "influential" too, not "greatest". I don't think Michael Bay is influential in the way Spielberg was, Jose. Spielberg, as you put it, came along and changed the definition of blockbusters. To imagine films by any of those directors you named could be box office hits today is inconceivable. But it's equally difficult to imagine Michael Bay changing the medium the way Spielberg did, even if we think the change was for worse. Bay is just feeding off what Spielberg left him, not to mention that Spielberg actually produces Bay's films.

R: I definitely don't think Spielberg belongs on a BEST directors list, but a most influential one. Jose's argument is totally spot-on, but I still stand by what I said.

A: Well, Let’s wrap this up. It’s been a pleasure talking to you both. Are there any final notes you want to make? Something that didn’t come up earlier?

J: All good on my side.

R: I think I've said all I want to say. It was so great discussing such an interesting and different pair of films with you guys!

*You can read the previous episode here.

3 comments:

  1. Gah, I still STILL haven't seen Jurassic Park but the ruminations on Schindler's List remind me that though we occasionally (okay, oftentimes) disagree when we do agree Jose has a knack for saying just what I think but better. I've never gotten on Spielberg bandwagon, and though the film is good I've never quite managed to understand the massive love for it. The only film of his I completely love is Minority Report, my favourite of his.

    1993 was all about the other period piece, Age of Innocence, Remains of the Day, and The Piano even though Ralph should have won that Oscar (him or Leonardo DiCaprio or Pete Postelwaite at least).

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  2. I didn't really think of it at the time, but that would have been an amazing topic for 1993 as well: period pieces.

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  3. I can't believe you guys hate Schindler's List. It is NOT corny or preachy or manipulative. You guys seem to forget that it's about a real life event. How heartless can you get.

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