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SUMMERS WITH SPIELBERG – What makes Spielberg, Spielberg?

SUMMERS WITH SPIELBERG – What makes Spielberg, Spielberg?

Keegan O'Brien

August 17th, 2015


Steven Spielberg is regarded by many to be the father of the modern blockbuster.

During the 1960s, Hollywood was struggling to find its audience. Television was slowly overthrowing movies, and Hollywood was stuck in the old ways of the classical studio system and its cultural sensibilities. Essentially, this new generation was bored by what Hollywood had to offer, and television had become a suitable alternative, one that didn’t require traveling to a theater, either. By the 1960s, Hollywood’s box office receipts were half what they were before the war. Their solution was to go for big spectacle with films such as Cleopatra or Tora! Tora! Tora!, throwing money on screen that a television show simply could not compete with. This failed, miserably, producing some of the biggest flops in cinematic history.

Hollywood was at a loss, and needed a radical change. In their desperation, they turned to people like Arthur Penn (whose Bonnie and Clyde was the first step towards Hollywood’s revival), Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Martin Scorsese — people who understood this new generation’s sensibilities and were brimming with ideas on how to satisfy these senses in the cinema. While Spielberg wasn’t on the initial front lines of this revival in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he certainly  paved the way for what we expected out of big-budget movies in 1975, with the release of Jaws, which solidified Spielberg as a major player in this New Hollywood.

With the 1970s and 1980s came a plethora of landmark titles in blockbuster filmmaking: Jaws, Alien, The Terminator, Ghostbusters, The French Connection, The Godfather, etc. But to save myself from digression, I’ll target just two: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars. Both were the brainchildren of George Lucas, who directed Star Wars and tapped his friend Steven Spielberg to direct Raiders. It’s no surprise that Spielberg and Lucas got along, since their “special blockbuster sauce” was almost the same. Other than its masterful filmmaking and world-building, what attracts people to Star Wars is its call to adventure. You hear the iconic theme, you see the Millennium Falcon zoom past a Star Destroyer, the buzz of a lightsaber … it’s a call to have fun, an invite to another world with characters who are larger than life but somehow make you feel as if you could be one of them.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which came out the same year as the original Star Wars, 1977) is brimming with this kind of sensation, which is what made Spielberg the perfect directorial partner to George Lucas’ creative mind. Thus, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark was born. A movie made in the 1980s by filmmakers forged in the fires of this new kind of Hollywood, Raiders is a combined effort of two directors who had stumbled upon a new kind of blockbuster sense in the same year and decided to team up to create one of Spielberg’s most fondly remembered films.

While this summer’s mini-Spielberg retrospective in Kesey square is a tribute to that call to adventure, let’s not forget that that’s only half of what makes Spielberg Spielberg. This is the filmmaker who directed Jurassic Park the same year as Schindler’s List, and The Adventures of Tintin the same year as War Horse. He’s a multi-dimensional talent, who can easily turn out a compelling character drama with one of the best screen actors of all time (Daniel Day-Lewis), right before jumping into pre-production on Ready Player One, his upcoming young-adult novel adaptation.

Very few filmmakers can shift gears like that and do it so successfully. Steven Spielberg is Steven Spielberg because of his ability to both call us to adventure, and make us emotionally weak at the knees while Lincoln rides off to be murdered, or while Schindler puts his life on the line in attempting to save Jewish lives in a concentration camp. He’s one of the biggest names in cinema, and rightfully so.

The Eugene Film Society and the City of Eugene Cultural Services proudly present Summers with Spielberg, a weekly series of free screenings of Spielberg’s landmark films. Summers with Spielberg begins with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aug. 19 from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Kesey Square in Downtown Eugene.

Keegan O'Brien is a Eugene native in his senior year of film production at Portland State University. While filmmaking is his primary focus, film writing and analysis is a hobby that he deeply enjoys. Check out his blog, Cinematic Ramblings, to read his spontaneous thoughts on movies.

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