Spielberg & DePalma’s Evolution

Spielberg has always been defined as a visionary whereas DePalma has typically been perceived as somewhat backwards by the average movie-going audience. Spielberg has continued to dazzle audiences with films such as A.I and War of the Worlds where he paints a vivid portrait of the world that we have yet to create. His name had become synonymous with science fiction and the escapism that cinema offers. DePalma, once again, differs from Spielberg in the sense that by and large, DePalma’s films are considered dated in thematic relevancy whereas Spielberg’s are only in terms of technology. DePalma sought to shock audiences with many of his films. However, as time goes on, American fears and American values shift thus making the shock of DePalma, at times, less potent. However, it is not fair to describe these labels as “accurate” or “inaccurate” as some of Spielberg’s finest work deals with issues of the past and DePalma’s latest work has allowed him to examine more universal themes than are not commonly found in DePalma’s films. In films such as The Color Purple, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Jurassic Park as well as The Untouchables, Casualties of War, and Carlito’s Way both Spielberg and DePalma rebel against the names they’d made for themselves in Hollywood.
The Color Purple is a fantastic example of one of Spielberg’s re-defining films. It’s quite possibly one of his most groundbreaking films, not only due to the graphic nature of the story but also in a sense that it represented uncharted territories for Spielberg as a director. Not only was this his first film which dealt with issues of femininity, but it was the beginning of his handling more sensitive subjects such as topics of race. However, there is a sense of familiarity in the topic in his choice of material to adapt. The film is based off of the novel of the same name by Alice Walker detailing growing up black in the early period of the 20th century. In a way, Spielberg can relate on the most basic level of feeling different growing up as a Jewish boy in Ohio. The two are not remotely on the same plane, but Spielberg manages to balance the graphic nature and his own personal feelings on growing up as an outsider. Although it is groundbreaking for Spielberg, his choice of material is still somewhat safe because there is an undeniable element of Spielberg in the film. For example, although the father figure is present in the film which is somewhat atypical for him, he is also demonized as Spielberg tends to do to other father-like figures in his films. There are other examples, such as the sex scene in The Color Purple, where Spielberg manages to break his own pattern, but in a somewhat safe manner by having a sex scene, but also distracting the viewer from it by voice-over. This does not change the fact that Spielberg took a chance on the Color Purple which in some ways backfired on him, but also allowed him to break out of his Hollywood entertainer role and allowed him to establish himself as a more serious film maker.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is another example of a film that defied Spielberg’s conventions at the time, but in a much more subtle way than he did with The Color Purple. Although it is undeniably a popcorn flick, it explores some roles that Spielberg perhaps purposefully left untouched until this period in his work. By this point in time, something was expected of Spielberg due to the first 2 Indiana Jones films and in a way, Spielberg couldn’t fail his public. He had to provide them with something light which they could enjoy, but at the same time, Spielberg was no longer the same director that had created Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a sort of compromise, something for the public, but also something that showcased the personal evolution Spielberg was experiencing at the time. For example, Spielberg doesn’t include many strong female characters, up until he directed The Color Purple and certainly not in the Indiana Jones films. Although there is the example of the love interests in the previous Indiana Jones films, both were somewhat stronger characters than was typical of the serials that Spielberg was referencing, but still fairly one dimensional in terms of modern cinema. Hence their inevitable weakness at one point in the movie and Indiana Jones saving them. Elsa breaks free from the constraints women had been bound by in previous Indiana Jones films. She represents in some ways, Spielberg’s newfound respect for women while still keeping alive his traditional fear of the fairer sex. He establishes her as an excellent sidekick and later foil to Indiana. He does this by making her a Doctor and essentially, intellectual equal to the protagonist. However, in the end, it is not her intellect that results in her death. It is her moral priorities that keep her from taking both of Indiana’s hands and instead, reaching for the Grail. Her greed, not her intellect, was her inevitable downfall. In The Last Crusade, Spielberg’s fear of women manifests itself in a variety of ways. There is the obvious choice of Elsa as a villain, but perhaps more interesting is Elsa’s fate. Even though it is in every sense her fault for not taking both hands, it represents a masculine insecurity in both Indiana and Spielberg. He was not able to save the woman. No matter how good or how evil, Hollywood convention dictates that the guy saves the girl. Spielberg takes quite a risk by abandoning this common practice, but compensates for it by making Elsa a completely unlikable character. Although Spielberg demonstrates a new understanding of women by making Elsa an intellectual equal of Indiana’s, he also illustrates his classic fears of the female sex by making her evil and making Indiana unable to rescue her.
Both the Color Purple and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade accentuated Spielberg’s dealings with women, but all the while, he was also working through a variety of other personal issues which we see in these movies, but take back seat in comparison to his handling of women. One of Spielberg’s first movies that can be cited as one of his first “post-feminine” movies is Jurassic Park. Although undertaking a great deal, the undeniable central conflict is once again a return to Spielberg’s issues with the father figure. At the center of the film is Alan Grant who is a victim of circumstance and forced to act as a pillar of strength and essentially a father figure for Tim and Lex in desperate times. Spielberg shows Grant’s evolution from a man who hates kids and even delights in terrifying them as in the beginning, to a man who is able to care for these children perhaps more than he’s willing to admit. Although commonly praised for its effects and stirring soundtrack, Spielberg is at heart a much more personal film than the blockbuster it became. It shows a maturity in his work by being more direct about the issue of what it means to be a father than he had been in previous films. In a way, Jurassic Park is made more interesting by examining Spielberg’s relationship with the concept of fatherhood. It’s almost as if Spielberg is directly calling his own father out, stating that this is what a father should be and this is where you failed. This film is also interesting from the standpoint that it’s the first time Spielberg has been perhaps indirectly vocal about his own stance on fatherhood. His marriage to Kate Capshaw was still relatively recent at the time that Jurassic Park was being filmed and with her, she brought into the marriage an already somewhat formed family. It is by no accident that Spielberg firmly states that Tim and Lex are not Dr. Grant’s children. That’s part of what makes Dr. Grant such a strong figure as he cares and risks life and limb for children that are not even his own. Spielberg has proven himself time and time again to be an emotionally stunted man. Though Jurassic Park he is stating that a father doesn’t necessarily have to be a biological figure, it is someone who is there in times of need. Spielberg is bearing himself, saying that he is willing to be that man, while criticizing his own father for not being that man. In a way, Spielberg has used all of his films to progress his own personal character in a way that many accuse DePalma of abandoning.
The Untouchables is a prime example of DePalma revamping his style thematically while sticking to his tried and true methods that define a DePalma film. Up until the point that The Untouchables was made, DePalma was best known as an exploitation filmmaker, a misogynist, and more frequently than not, a bit of a conspiracy nut. What DePalma gave to audiences everywhere with this film was an utter contradiction of his previous films. What he produced was a conventional and understandably forgettable take on the American crime drama. Although DePalma had succeeded many times in the area of the crime drama, he had done so by providing epic bloodshed and disturbing violence. DePalma took a different route to comply with the Hollywood system but more realistically, he did so that he could survive in the Hollywood system. It is for this reason that the Untouchables focused on the battle between the law and the outlaws. It no longer glorified the outlaw, but focused on the law man as he worked within the system to bring Capone to justice. However, DePalma also allows his own personal touch by criticizing the system as he has done in previous films. He does so by showing the other police as corrupt beings, hampering Ness’s efforts to do right in a world gone wrong. The handling of the other corrupt officers was subtle enough to differentiate from other DePalma films while, once again, providing America with what audiences have craved since the days of the Western, the lone hero. Ness is portrayed as a man struggling against the odds and personifies the American “can-do” spirit when he shows he will do whatever it takes to see that justice is served. The Untouchables illustrates a time of insecurity both in DePalma’s values as he struggles against his instinct to provide an acceptable Hollywood film. What results is a somewhat convoluted statement on America’s corruption and doing the right thing in a time where the right thing was both rare and difficult to achieve.
Casualties of War is another statement on American culture and American values, but far more graphic than The Untouchables and therefore not as well received. It shed light on the cruelties that mankind was capable of when faced with the atrocities of war. Although it clearly condemns Meserve for his actions and the actions of the other men, it explores a great deal more than this. It shows how war transforms a man into something entirely irreversible. Although very effective on a visual level, it is different from most other DePalma films. There is no denying that the rape of Than Thi Oanh is an incredibly emotional scene which surpasses the intensity of most war films, but it is the course of action that transpires afterwards that defines this film. When Erikkson returns to the United States, his superiors adopt an unethical attitude that most Americans refuse to see in themselves. His superiors opt to ignore it and in fact, attempt to cover it up. While this attitude is expected of Meserve and the rest of the men involved in Oanh’s death, DePalma reveals a certain truth to his audiences about themselves in showing that the cruelty that was observed and practiced in the Vietnam War is something that is something that is normally swept under the rug, even today. Vietnam remains the war that is most taboo in American culture, refusing to be discussed by most people and even History textbooks. However, DePalma uses his newfound talent as a thematic filmmaker to face the horrors witnessed in this time and to make Americans question themselves. Rather than show the desensitizing violence that is primarily synonymous with a DePalma film, he chooses to use violence economically, making sure that when he uses it, it counts for something. He gets under the skin of the audience. This is an aspect of the old DePalma that is still very much alive. DePalma has always been very involved in causing discomfort in his audiences, but what he does in this film is he forces viewers to experience the pain that both parties felt. However, DePalma’s methods of doing so represents a transformation for DePalma who establishes an emotional trauma by creating a very real connection with the victim as opposed to his victims in films such as Body Double and Dressed to Kill. DePalma proves himself as a more political and emotional figure than he’d allowed himself to be with his other work, signifying a change.
Carlito’s Way is once again DePalma revisiting his roots. Carlito’s Way was in the same vein of the gangster film that he had re-popularized in 1983 with Scarface. However, it is easy to say that DePalma made his audience far more aware of his message than he did with his previous film. Although Scarface was not a glorification of the gangster lifestyle, people had begun to interpret it as such and continue to do so to this day. Carlito’s Way has an ending that is in no way unclear in what DePalma is saying. He is condemning the gangster lifestyle in a way that he had never done with Scarface. Whereas Tony Montana got the material things that he wanted at least before he died in a blaze of glory, the gangster lifestyle provided nothing for Carlito but misery. As we begin the movie, we see Carlito being released from jail. We never see him enjoy the spoils of his gangster lifestyle. As a matter of fact, it is through what DePalma does not show us that he makes his message clearer. The gritty nature of Carlito’s lifestyle makes it entirely unappealing to the viewer making DePalma’s stance on the gangster film clear in no uncertain terms. However, it’s also a statement on what the American dream has become. He is stating that the American dream is just that, a dream. Carlito’s want is to leave his past behind him, but as DePalma lets us know, that is absolutely impossible. Although Carlito has gone through an internal change, his environment and the people around him have not changed. Combined, they hold him back and drive him into an early grave. However, atypical of DePalma he ends the film re-stating his message, but gives it a sense of peace in Carlito’s death. Carlito is not given everything he wants, he is unable to redeem himself even in death, but he is shown as a victim of circumstance. Although Carlito’s Way is conventional in many sense of a DePalma film, he takes a risk by ending the film with a negative event, but also with a strong sense of resolution, minus the trauma and disturbing visuals that made DePalma famous.
Spielberg and DePalma are both firmly established filmmakers, but have allowed themselves to work outside of the names they had built for themselves. Spielberg did so with several of his films, working outside of the typical crowd-pleaser and allowing himself to evolve through his films by exploring his own past. Through his exploration of the past, Spielberg allowed himself to grow more comfortable with things outside of his typical realm. DePalma also explored his craft through a variety of films, although most are not very recognizable as DePalma’s work. He began to work more with themes and statements on American culture. His work became more political and thematic than they were shocking, as his previous work would dictate. Regardless of commercial and critical success, these films represent an undeniably influential period in both of these film makers lives which would impact their later works.

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4 thoughts on “Spielberg & DePalma’s Evolution

  1. I’m on a serious DePalma bender right now. He’s just exceptional. I am rewatching Femme Fatale, which for some odd reason got a bad rap. It’s remarkable stuff, very much in line with his late 70s early 80s work. My favorite by him is still Obsession, but Blow Out is a close second and gaining fast.

    I would love to make a mash-up film of all the great trademark scenes he’s done. Start with the 15 minute tracking shot in Snake Eyes, follow it with the audio editing scene in Blow Out, then the Odessa Step Sequence homage in the Untouchables, then the mirror split screen sequence in Dressed To Kill…and on and on. The fact that I could probably get an hour and a half out of his best sequences tells you everything you need to know about his work!

    • I would totally watch that movie haha
      I love Femme Fatale! I don’t let people knocking it bother me much. It’s just a lotta fun.
      If you want some seriously intense DePalma, have you seen Redacted?

  2. Yeah! I saw Redacted for the first time last month. I was very impressed. It reminded me of a weird hybrid of The Wire and Casualties of War. He’s got something coming out next year. Remake of an old French thriller. Cannot wait!

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