Steven Spielberg On the Couch
In the early nineties, Steven Spielberg was floundering. He had enough success in the previous decade to establish himself as a movie mogul. But his attempts to “grow up” as a filmmaker did not yield the desired results. Following the critical and commercial failure of Always, Spielberg returned to the childlike wonder of Peter Pan. But Hook was an odd take on the fairy tale in that it envisioned its protagonist as a middle aged man grappling with his own childhood and his role as a parent. The parallels to Spielberg himself are painfully obvious.
Dr. Harvey R. Greenberg put the director on the metaphorical couch for a little psychoanalysis in this article from the Dec 1991 issue of Movieline Magazine.
There is only one film director alive today whose name is a household word. Steven Spielberg achieved that status at an astonishingly early age by creating a series of movies which managed to appeal to that most elusive, yet massive, audience, “children of all ages.”
With an illustrious oeuvre that was sometimes marred by syrupy stories and trite characterizations, and often top-heavy with spectacle, he turned the glorification of childhood into a gold mine that lent him enough clout to do virtually anything he wanted. But when what he eventually wanted to do was stretch his creative dimension and make a series of films that appealed to “adults of all ages,” he floundered–and consideration as a high auteur on the order of his heroes Welles and Truffaut eluded him.
In fact, more than that eluded him: Although he received many tokens of industry recognition, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences persistently–some would say, perversely–denied him its coveted Best Director Oscar. Now, close upon the box-office disaster of his third “adult” effort, our grown-up whiz kid has made his own version of Peter Pan, the definitive celebration of developmental arrest. In it he transforms J.M. Barrie’s pubescent highflyer into an out-of-shape, angst-ridden yuppie who can’t remember his past, fears heights and open windows, and is alienated from his wife and kids.
One may legitimately ask why, when he still has a great deal of creative freedom, former prodigy Steven Spielberg decided to make Hook, yet another exercise in regression, and one that seems, at least in early script form, especially infantile. What can the 44-year-old director be dreaming of to want to transform Tinkerbell into a feisty, foul-mouthed Pretty Woman, and The Lost Boys into streetwise hip-hoppers? Does Spielberg identify with his kid-hero dwindling into middle age? For that matter, what have the director’s visions been all along? And what forces in his background have compelled such visions?
If movies are a kind of dream within the public domain, who better to interpret film and its dreamers than the psychoanalyst, professional decoder of restless, extravagant fantasies? Of course, limits should be respected in close-encountering Spielberg or any other director. All too often, analysts have been guilty of reducing subtle art and its creators to a few simplistic subheads–penis envy, breast fixation–with inane results. “I have a nameless fear,” says patient to therapist. “Don’t worry,” replies the shrink, “we have a name for everything.”
A patient in therapy provides thousands of biographical details, often over hundreds of sessions. Artists, however, sometimes reveal very little information about their lives (like Spielberg), or embroider shamelessly, reinventing biography as they go along (Fellini is notorious for this). An educated guess about the relationship between a life event and an artistic theme is often the best the cineanalyst can come up with. After all, art isn’t a symptom, nor is every artist an automatic couch candidate. Many artists’ personalities are as healthy as can be found in this bruising world. By almost every account (except, perhaps, Julia Phillips’s), Spielberg’s is one of them. So what if he has a big ego–how else are you going to persuade all those other giant egos to do what you want, on and off the set? Psychoanalysis does, however, theorize that even reasonably together artists will keep returning to long buried childhood/adolescent trauma and conflict for inspiration, and that you can identify the telling and persistent themes in their work.
My interpretations of Spielbergian motifs and motives are grounded in another basic assumption that may raise some objections–that Spielberg’s movies are chiefly the product of Spielberg’s mind. It can be argued that cinema is a collective art–Spielberg himself has frequently (and generously) made this point. But Spielberg is, in fact, one director who does enjoy sufficient control and charisma to imprint his unique psychological concerns on all his films. He was given strong creative control even before he became famous, and his collaborators–writers in particular–have always appeared to consciously or otherwise identify with his themes (the most definitive case of this is Melissa Mathison’s screenplay for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial).
Spielberg has yet to write his autobiography, but the image he has presented of himself over the years in interviews reads as if his childhood were straight out of a Thomas Mann novel. Like the classical Mann hero, he pictures himself torn between a father solidly anchored in business reality and a mother immersed in artistic concerns.
Arnold Spielberg had a background in electrical engineering and helped design early computer technology. Steven Spielberg portrays his father as a pragmatic, hard-driving man, passionate about his scientific work, eager to reveal the wonders of the universe to an impressionable, admiring boy. A crucial early memory (brilliantly retrieved in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) was of being awakened at an ungodly hour by his dad, rushed into the family car, and driven to a hill where several hundred people had gathered to watch “a magnificent meteor shower.” The only instance of open conflict between father and son also centered on a scientific enthusiasm: When Spielberg was 11, his father gathered everyone in the kitchen and “held up a tiny little transistor he had brought home, and said, ‘This is the future.’ I took the transistor from his hand–and I swallowed it …it got very tense. It was like the confrontation scene between Raymond Massey and James Dean in East of Eden. One of those moments when two worlds from diametrically opposite positions in the universe collide. It was as if I was saying, ‘That’s your future, but it doesn’t have to be mine.'” (It is interesting to note how the director filters his own life experience through a Hollywood lens.)
Spielberg describes his mother, Leah, as a tiny lady with formidable energy–“like a little girl who never grew out of her pinafore … she left a large wake.” She was a talented classical pianist, and through her influence, her son developed a passion for music at an early age. (Musical choices would prove to be exceptionally important across his body of work.)
According to Spielberg, the contrast between these two intense personalities got oppressive at times. His mother held chamber concerts, “while in another room my father would be conferring with nine or 10 other men in the business about how to build a computerized mousetrap. These opposite lifestyles would give me circuit overload. My tweeters would burn out and my only insulation would be my bedroom door, which remained closed for most of my life. I had to put towels under the jamb so I couldn’t hear the classical music and the computer logic.” (In his films as an adult, Spielberg would frequently present a kid’s room or closet as a fortress against a jangling, frightening adult world.)
Whatever their differences, Spielberg’s parents were united in their immense love for him. He was eventually able to draw upon a double wellspring of affection, identifying healthily with his mother’s art as well as his father’s business/technical interests to become what he is today: director-producer-entrepreneur extraordinaire, skillful at Hollywood’s rough-and-tumble dealing, passionate about advancing the art and science of cinema, eyes fixed literally and figuratively upon the stars.
Spielberg became involved with movies as a child, quickly showing precocious talent. His father seems to have launched his career when he handed over his home movie camera to his son after becoming “fed up” with the fledgling director’s barrage of criticism over the “shaky camera movements and bad exposures.” The family was tremendously supportive of disruptive shoots which converted the house into a miniature back lot. Spielberg soon passed from recording family outings to staging his own scripts, starring his parents and three sisters.
Away from the comfort of a reasonably affluent home, Spielberg had the kind of Catcher in the Rye problems experienced by many superbright, creative people during adolescence. Apparently, he sometimes felt excluded by other youngsters, and was spectacularly unathletic and a bit of a dreamer.
Contrary to popular misconception, psychoanalysts are wary about pinning subsequent problems or developments on a single life event unless it’s highly traumatic. I speculate that the divorce of Spielberg’s parents during his mid-teens represented this sort of influential catastrophe. Typically, he has very little to say on the subject, beyond briefly noting his pain and describing his distress at suddenly becoming the man of the house. Watching movies, and especially making them, redeemed the young Spielberg’s loneliness, gave him strokes with peers and grownups, and probably helped him endure whatever difficulties existed between his parents. By 17, he had completed an embryonic war film and a two-hour exploration of UFOs, and received several local prizes. He improvised his own cinema curriculum at California State University, crafting 16mm shorts. Disguised by a suit and briefcase, he roamed Universal Pictures unnoticed for several months, picking up the trade firsthand. At 21, his 35mm film Amblin‘ attracted Sidney Sheinberg’s attention at Universal, and the rest, as they say, is celluloid history.
For the cineanalyst, two major themes emerge in Steven Spielberg’s particular stretch of celluloid history. First, the director places childhood on a very big pedestal. And second, he shows an overwhelming concern with family unity and disunity. In tandem, these themes constitute the great strength of Spielberg’s best movies. That said, it can also be pointed out that they sometimes operate as preoccupations that have significant negative fallout.
With the enormous love lavished upon him during his youth, it’s understandable that Spielberg should view childhood (and the suburbs he grew up in) through a rosy glow. Quite possibly his early years acquired greater shimmer from having been set against the adolescent trauma of his parents’ divorce. Others have observed that Spielberg’s childhood might very well embrace the “realest” reality he’s ever experienced, and I think that makes sense. He plunged into Hollywood barely out of his teens, and he’s been immersed in Lala-land’s artificial–and often infantilizing–environment ever since. His recollections of childhood’s golden time and its pop culture artifacts may thus be all the more compelling in shaping his vision. Spielberg himself often comes across in interviews as a grown-up kid with a loopy enthusiasm I think thoroughly genuine.
The Spielbergian vision of Tom Sawyeresque innocence is essentially pre-Freudian. His kids may have dirty mouths (the ultimate putdown in a Spielberg film is “Penisbreath”), but their hearts are pure, with hardly’a trace of the casual cruelty, exuberant narcissism or sexual curiosity often discovered by psychiatrists in children. Interestingly enough, Spielberg “grownups,” like Roy Neary in Close Encounters, frequently exhibit the same disarming innocence and project little sense of sexuality. Several of these child-men have been played by Richard Dreyfuss, who may be viewed as Spielberg’s diminutive double– perhaps some sort of projection of the child-Steven.
Spielberg’s glorification of childhood has some very positive aspects. His ability to work with children is legendary–he probably succeeds because his nature so easily touches and is touched by them. The director particularly treasures youthful openness to new experience, the child’s awe before unexpected revelations, and he is brilliant at conveying it. His masterful shot of a backlit Cary Guffey, crowing with delight before the incandescent alien presence in Close Encounters, is a perfect example. At transcendental moments in his movies, Spielberg often shoots people from above, from an imaginary giant’s perspective. His characters’ faces are turned upwards in childlike wonder, as in the appearance of the mother ship in Close Encounters, or when Shug Avery and friends dance down the road to an exuberant reunion with the churchfolk in The Color Purple. The director wants us to become like little children ourselves, awestruck with Neary as he ascends into the spacecraft, filled with Elliott’s longing before E.T.’s enchantment. At Spielberg’s eternal Saturday matinee, it’s “Oh, Wow!” time for all us kids.
The next best thing to being a child in Spielberg’s universe is being a young adolescent–specifically, a boy who has not yet been hit by the hormone riot that forces you to get tangled up with those darn girls who only get in the way of buddy bonding. Indiana Jones may be interpreted as a disguised adolescent–brash, bold, forever testing the limits, secretly ashamed of his fears and gun-shy of women. My guess is that Spielberg’s awkward, “outsider” adolescent spirit found a special comfort in identifying with square-jawed, white-bread serial heroes who usually contended with stereotyped villains for weird scientific/supernatural gizmos that would save Western culture. I read Indy as an updated repository of the teen Spielberg’s dream-of-glory fantasies. Indy has his whip; Spielberg has his camera. And everywhere Indy goes on his quest to put the treasures of the Third World where they rightfully belong (in American museums), so goes his creator.
But Spielberg’s nostalgia does not always stand his cinema in good stead. Perhaps the most significant negative fallout from the director’s unreflective child worship stems from his failure to grasp–or at least film– a child’s less appetizing features–selfishness, insensitivity, scapegoating, and so forth. In denying the shadow side of his kid (and adult-kid) heroes, Spielberg resorts unwittingly to the classic defense mechanism of reaction formation (we have a name for everything). With this strategy, “bad” feelings or impulses residing in the psyche are denied by being unconsciously converted into their opposite feelings. Thus, the occasional “bad” you expect to see in kids you don’t see in Spielberg kids, while what you do see is uncompromised “good.” I suspect Spielberg’s reaction formations are responsible for the cloying sweetness that often taints his movies.
Spielberg is never better than when he’s sensitively capturing a child’s native intuitiveness. But the wholesale recommendation of intuition over rational thinking sometimes lends even his more ambitious projects a strange shallowness. And all too often in Spielberg films, gut-wrenching spectacle exists solely for its own sake. I wonder if this no-brainer tendency originates in Spielberg’s personal suspiciousness of the head compared with the heart, a vague counterculturish preference for “feelings”–wah, wah, wah–over intellect that is shared by many of his generation. He admits he’s not much of a reader,- nor has he otherwise shown any great interest in the life of the mind, beyond solving cinematic technical problems. At his ditsiest, Spielberg seems to tap into the simpleminded me-ism that’s been abroad in the culture for some time.
Spielberg’s young protagonists often exist within fragmented families that reflect their creator’s concerns as much as they themselves do. Although Spielberg has never talked about the reasons for his parents’ divorce (he seems to fault neither of them), from as early on as The Sugarland Express he has shown an imagination specifically haunted by the specter of paternal inadequacy or loss, and the resulting destruction of intact family life. The Indiana Jones cycle eventually turns upon Indy’s quest for reunion with the scholar father whose criticism and neglect drove him away during his teens. Roy Neary destroys his own family to travel to the stars in Close Encounters. Elliott of E.T. and little Barry in Close Encounters both bear the scars of a father’s abandonment. (For both boys, help is provided by supremely benevolent alien substitutes.) And for that matter, E.T. has much of the lost child about him as well.
In another take on the debate over paternal presence or strength, Spielberg films depict “ordinary” fathers rising above weakness, doubt or fear to protect their families. Significantly, they always combat a savage outside threat to the middle-class hearth, rather than internal family discord. Chief Brody struggles against hydrophobia to kill the giant shark of Jaws, the skeptical real estate salesman of Poltergeist snatches his family from the jaws of supernatural evil; Duel‘s timid businessman protects his loved ones at home against the trauma of his death by successfully vanquishing the killer truck.
Even Bob Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (a film Spielberg executive-produced, and one that shows how powerfully Spielberg’s concerns influence colleagues and proteges) reads as a screwball essay on failed fatherhood. Marty McFly journeys into the past to help his ultranerd dad woo his own mother, dodging the lure of incest so he and his siblings can be born. He’s guided by Christopher Lloyd’s wacky but competent Doc, another good father substitute.
While the father’s role in making or breaking the unity of the family is the more pervasive theme in Spielberg’s films, another intriguing motif possibly connected to Spielberg’s relationship with his own father surfaces in many of his movies. The director’s childhood anecdote about scarfing down the transistor that his father put before him as “the future” makes one wonder if Spielberg’s enormous love and admiration for his father may have been tinged with stubborn resistance and latent competitiveness. If so, perhaps these mixed emotions later found expression in the pervasive ambivalence about high technology one finds in Spielberg’s films. Thus, Spielberg’s camera dwells lovingly on man-made and alien machines in Close Encounters, and on Lacombe, the luminous scientist/director of the secret mountain project; but then, the officers who try to keep Neary and his fellow visionaries back from the stars are painted as impersonal authoritarian oppressors. Likewise, in E.T. the government scientists dispatched to apprehend Elliott’s “visitor” at first seem like a gang of cold-hearted fascists, but as the tale unfolds, their leader becomes increasingly sympathetic. The cineanalyst interprets these various “split” characters, and the “splitting” within the same character, as bad or good father substitutions.
By his mid-thirties, Spielberg had established his fortune as an immensely successful director and producer. Befitting the creative restlessness that often comes as an artist bellies up to middle age, he now turned from kid-oriented blockbusters to make three films presumably pitched to more mature audiences. In attempting to appeal to more adult sensibilities, Spielberg was, I believe, also attempting to gain critical recognition as a major auteur rather than merely as a gifted rejuvenator of pop genres. But the post-prodigy director’s desire for recognition as a mature artist called for psychological and creative resources quite different from the ones that had earned him his reputation.
Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, a gritty vision of Southern African-American women doubly oppressed by racism and sexism, was new territory indeed for Steven Spielberg. It did have an uplifting emotional quality to it that suited the director’s gifts; but it took place in a world he had never shown the slightest interest in or even awareness of. Little surprise, then, that the finished film came off as Tobacco Road meets Song of the South.
In Spielberg’s The Color Purple, the audience’s sense of outrage over the brutal lash of Mister’s tongue and fist on Miss Celie’s spirit is undermined by the director’s panicky lyricism, the luscious sweep of his impossibly pretty visuals. One gets the eerie sense that Spielberg has unconsciously imposed the pleasures of his bourgeois childhood Eden upon the harsh realities of subsistence farming. Celie is just another Spielbergian abandoned waif; her lesbian love for Shug is softened to the vanishing point.
Spielberg made no great leap forward to auteur status with The Color Purple, but he didn’t embarrass himself either–the film made money (not, however, blockbuster bucks), and it received Oscar nominations, though it didn’t win for Best Picture, and Spielberg wasn’t even nominated for Best Director.
The director next made Empire of the Sun (1987), based on J.G. Ballard’s novel about an English colonial preteen swept from doting parents and wealthy surroundings by the tides of war and launched on a perilous struggle for survival. All of Spielberg’s familiar themes were there for him to work with, but he wisely relied upon Tom Stoppard’s supple screenplay and avoided any of his own habitual sweetening up of childhood. The resulting absolutely unsentimental take on the young hero’s shifting loyalties in the winds of circumstance combines Spielberg’s touching idealism with an appreciation of the child’s cold pragmatism and fascination with adult sex. The boy’s courage and compassion are tempered with the realities of greed and terror. Empire of the Sun is Spielberg’s best film to my mind, one of the truest accounts of adolescent character forged in the press of desperate events.
But for this accomplishment, this genuine artistic growing-up, Spielberg received neither his usual reward (that is, box-office success), nor the Oscar he aspired to and deserved. (A separate article could be written about the psychology of Spielberg’s Hollywood judges, analyzing their jealously of his gifts and cynicism about his purposes.)
He then embarked on his long-planned pet project Always (1989), which turned out to be a major failure on every count. Always is Spielberg’s most private–and oddest–picture. His father served on B-25s during World War II, and that war, one of his most fertile nostalgic sources, appears in four of his films (including his only other box-office disaster, 1941). Spielberg had been enchanted by Victor Fleming’s WWII tearjerker A Guy Named Joe since adolescence. He decided to remake it with contemporary forest fire fighters flying planes like his father’s.
Spielberg worked out virtually none of the challenges involved in updating this material, if indeed it was updatable at all. Fleming’s original was a slim, workmanlike piece of business about a dead airman resurrected as a ghostly teacher to a new pilot who falls in love with the hero’s girlfriend. But A Guy Named Joe did have a strong propaganda mission based on the concerns of its day (stressing the value of teamwork, denying the fear of combat, calming the guilt of women who found new lovers after old ones were killed). Spielberg’s version has nothing more on its mind than the love story (feelings over thoughts again), which is undermined by Spielberg’s own oddly juvenile idea of sensuality. It also suffers from dialogue that features New Age chatter about commitment, your thing, my thing. And, quite apart from those problems, compared with the powerful star chemistry of the original foe’s Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter have the sexual spark of Peanuts kids.
Always is further crippled by the surprisingly competitive spirit of the director’s “homage.” Spielberg’s borrowing from earlier movies in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark was warmly unobtrusive. But he and his writers tamper clumsily with Fleming’s story in an unnecessary effort to pump it up with a near-bombastic soundtrack and overwrought visuals. Remember the director’s childhood story of taking his father’s camera away to make better home movies? Perhaps in Spielberg’s psyche there was a similar competition with Fleming, a favorite studio director of his, to “make it better.”A guilt-ridden oedipal struggle for “ownership” of a Hollywood classic with a filmmaker he wanted both to honor and eclipse may be part of the explanation for Spielberg’s astonishing bungling of his own gifts, his sinking to the level of Raider of the Lost Text. Intriguingly, the film’s main theme is the struggle in its dead hero’s heart with a live rival over the same girl.
Though Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade renewed Spielberg’s credibility at the box office during his unsuccessful adult film period, signs of creative fatigue can be found even in this blockbuster. Beneath his boyish facade, Indy is far more insensitive–and violent–than a generation before. But perhaps more important, a hollow, fragmented gigantism pervades the film. In trying to exceed the thrills and spills of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg seems to be competing with himself to once again “make it better,” by piling one impossible cliffhanger upon another. It’s action-porn, too many chocolate chips. And, more grating than before, there’s the same juvenile flight from sexuality and intellect we’ve seen so much of (“Nazis? I hate those guys!” is Indy’s political analysis of his enemies).
Reaching his mid-forties in the turbulent setting of having his best recent work cruelly neglected and his most recent work cruelly scorned, Steven Spielberg has now undertaken his own version of James M. Barrie’s (and Walt Disney’s) Peter Pan.
Hook‘s premise, at least in the early script I read, is that our ageless fairy flyboy has joined the mortal world, forgotten his origins, and become an uptight married-with-children middle-aged Manhattan investment banker. Business pressure combined with the strain of repressing his fabulous background have diminished him to a distant shadow of his former self. Estrangement from his son troubles him. Then his wicked piratical persecutor resurfaces to kidnap his children. Peter returns to his Neverland roots, sheds paunch and mid-life blahs (but not his ’90s garb), and rescues his kids with the help of Tinkerbell and his other old pals. Getting in touch with your inner child is hammered home with the relentlessness of a Bradshaw codependency rap. I foresee enough F/X to keep ILM types in lasers and golf shoes into the next century.
All the important–and tried-and-true–Spielbergian psychological themes are folded into Hook: childhood as paradise, heart over head, the middle-class family menaced from without and within, a father who has to rise above his failings to save the day. One wonders if Spielberg identifies with his hero (perhaps with Pan Junior as well), if he’s trying to rescue himself from mid-life stall, to deal with being a one-time whiz kid who wants recognition for trying to grow up and can’t get it. I speculate that the director views Hook somewhere in his mind as his most significant return to childhood yet, to his familiar wellsprings of creativity and conflict, his golden youth and later family breakup. In artistic terms, Hook may have represented to Spielberg an opportunity to work through childhood trauma, as well as to heal wounds caused by the failure of Always–by making another pop blockbuster.
Then again, Hook could be a sign of the failure of inspiration that has stricken many other artists at Spielberg’s vulnerable age. Certainly, the project grants Spielberg every opportunity to indulge in the sentimental shtick and roaring, mindless spectacle that have tainted his work before. Amblin does sound like some kind of Neverland off the Universal Studios tour, a magic hideaway filled with scripts and Nintendo games instead of pirates and Indians and populated by Lost Boys who may too closely share their leader’s enthusiasm and be unable to help him see potential problems.
On the other hand (analysts like playing their other hand; it dances you out of trouble), how mafy times in Hollywood history has sentimental material been transformed into terrific filmmaking (think of Casablanca)? It can happen here–the director rising out of his own whiz-kid ashes, transcending his mid-life slump to make E.T. for the ’90s.
But what about afterward? Will Steven Spielberg’s phenomenal talent remain persistently wedded to juvenile themes, or bogged down in juvenile treatment of adult themes? I would like to think not. He’s been struggling to find a new artistic maturity since 1985. His serious films reflect that struggle, from honorable failure (The Color Purple), to triumph (Empire of the Sun), to turkey (Always). Success or failure, Hook may ultimately turn out to embody his farewell to this difficult creative period.
Some boys just take a long time to grow up.
Harvey R. Greenberg, M.D., author of The Movies on Your Mind, has a private practice in psychiatry and psychoanalysis in New York.
Posted on December 9, 2016, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged Close Encounters, E.T., Empire of the Sun, Hook, Indiana Jones, Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.