Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster

Warren Buckland,
Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.
Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
ISBN: 0 8264 1691 8
US$19.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Continuum)

Within the last eight years or so, the body of scholarship on contemporary Hollywood cinema has grown exponentially. Prior to this, a few key works, like Timothy Corrigan’s 1991 A cinema without walls, Justin Wyatt’s 1994 High concept, and Thomas Schatz’s essay “The New Hollywood” (in Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins’ 1993 anthology Film theory goes to the movies), attempted to contextualize contemporary American blockbuster production within trends in the industry from the late 1960s on; only Robin Wood’s 1986Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan examined American films from the 1970s in any real detail. From the late ’90s on, however, there has been a veritable deluge. In 1998, Peter Biskind drew popular attention to 1970s Hollywood in Easy riders, Raging bulls. The market for more scholarly studies of this period undoubtedly benefited from Biskind’s romantic mythologization of the 1970s as “‘the last great time'”[1]  in American cinema, but by then academics too had begun to produce detailed examinations of the relative freedoms and underlying constraints of the “Hollywood Renaissance” in books like David Cook’s 2000 Lost illusions, Peter Krämer’s 2006 primer The New Hollywood, and Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, and Noel King’s 2004 anthology The last great American picture show. Anthologies like Steve Neale and Murray Smith’s 1998 Contemporary Hollywood cinema[2]  and Jon Lewis’ 1998 The New American cinema integrate work on Hollywood from the late 1960s straight through to the present. Work on mainstream Hollywood during and since the 1980s has proceeded apace, and includes Kristin Thompson’s 1999 Storytelling in the New Hollywood, Stephen Prince’s 2000 A new pot of gold, Geoff King’s 2000 Spectacular narratives, and David Bordwell’s 2006 The way Hollywood tells it.

This trend in film scholarship, then, can be taken as the immediate context for Warren Buckland’s new bookDirected by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster, and it is in that context that both its strengths and its (relative) weaknesses become most apparent. Much of the work on contemporary Hollywood has looked at the economic and cultural trends that have shaped both its industrial operations and its characteristic production trends, with relatively little attention paid to aesthetics. This has just begun to change, partly in response to assertions from Schatz, Wyatt, and others that since the studios have become divisions of massive, diversified media conglomerates, their distribution and promotion strategies now encompassing all manner of new secondary markets (VHS, cable, DVD, video games, theme-park rides, etc.), so their product has inevitably grown more fragmented, with spectacle replacing narrative at the core of filmmaking practice. This widespread conception has prompted counterarguments from King, Thompson, Bordwell, and Buckland himself, all of whom maintain that some form of classical narration persists, despite, or even through, the spectacles on offer. If this spectacular excess is so critical to recent Hollywood cinema, one might reasonably expect scholars to offer some detailed discussion of film style; after all, what is cinematic spectacle but a product of visual style? Yet, excepting Bordwell’s discussion of “intensified continuity” in The way Hollywood tells it, the academic bookshelf is strikingly lacking in precisely this area. Buckland’s Directed by Steven Spielberg, too, is an attempt to begin to redress this by providing a fine-grained analysis of, arguably, the most historically important and influential Hollywood filmmaker of the period.

In his introduction, Buckland explains that this book is not a biography, but rather a study of Spielberg’s “filmmaking practices”, examining “the choices he makes”[3]  in filming his blockbusters – thus from the start leaving aside Spielberg’s artier efforts (from The Sugarland Express to Munich) in favour of precisely those films most widely excoriated by critics and claimed by academics to exemplify the spectacle-over-narrative aesthetic. As he writes in his conclusion, this book is meant to demonstrate “that Spielberg’s popular and entertaining blockbusters are ‘serious’ films in terms of the way they are made”; that is, in terms of the complexities of the stylistic and narrational strategies he employs in making them.[4]

In his first chapter, Buckland mounts an argument for Spielberg’s status as auteur in terms of the director’s position within the industry: “In the age of mass production, internal authorship – mastery of the creative process – is no longer sufficient in the creation of authorship. External control – that is, control of the immediate organizational and economic environment- is also necessary.”[5]  Buckland here provides a highly redacted overview of contemporary Hollywood history, encompassing new generations of directors, conglomeration, saturation releasing, high concept narratives, and the like. But from this point, he shifts to a consideration of poetics, defined as an approach attempting to “reconstruct the artistic reasoning behind the creation of an artwork.”[6]  Buckland argues that an “organic unity” of story and technique functions as a basic principle and criterion of filmmaking from the perspectives of critics like V.F. Perkins, scholars like Bordwell, and filmmaking manuals like those by Steven D. Katz, Bruce Block, and Michael Rabiger. It is when this unity is achieved that form gains significance. To demonstrate the parameters of this unity, Buckland looks at both narrative patterns and stylistic techniques by drawing on the terminology of these manuals, always linking analysis to evaluation, so that any given use of a technique must be judged according to “how it is used to represent content, and how[it] works (or does not work) in relation to other mise-en-scene and narrational strategies in a particular shot or scene.”[7]  This frequently leads him into uncomfortably prescriptive terrain, as in those sections of the Duel (US 1971) analysis titled “How to…”, and in a general tendency to deem any use of style lacking in clear narrative motivation as, essentially, incorrect. He thus dismisses such instances, rather than viewing them as part of a significant tendency not only in Spielberg’s films but in the contemporary blockbuster more generally. Rather than comprehensively accounting for the many and variegated functions of visual style in Spielberg (including those demonstrating a sense of stylistic play for its own sake), Buckland concentrates on defending his subject by noting those instances where Spielberg’s films successfully fulfill the “rules” as established in directing manuals.

Buckland’s basic assumption here, then, is that a consistent, coherent unity is in fact achievable, and he contrasts his stance with Noël Carroll’s attempt to distinguish a functional “relative unity” (Carroll’s theoretical object) from a notion of “totalizing unity” accounting for “every detail” of the films under examination, which Buckland claims is analogous to his notion of organic unity.[8]  This seems an oddly radical claim; if Roland Barthes can find stray meanings in such a tightly controlled piece of filmmaking as Ivan the Terrible (Soviet Union 1944), it is hard to imagine how one could posit an absolute unity of meaning and style for any film, including Spielberg’s. Yet this is what Buckland aims to demonstrate in the balance of his study, with Perkins’Film As film his most obvious exemplar.

From there, each chapter begins with brief discussions of “Precompositional Factors” (i.e., the circumstances behind the production of the films) before centering on extremely detailed looks at narration, editing, composition, and “blocking” (a term he borrow from the manuals, and which conflates mise-en-scene, staging, and camera movement) in selected scenes from across Spielberg’s oeuvre, from the short film Amblin (US 1968) to War of the worlds (US 2005). Arguably, by concentrating on particular passages from Spielberg’s blockbusters, rather than attempting exhaustive (not to mention exhausting) analyses of whole films, Buckland’s claims of totalized unity are rendered superfluous. At the same time, of course, such a concentration strengthens the persuasiveness of his arguments for the unity, integrity, and “productive relations”[9]  between story and style in those passages. He is particularly strong on narration in Spielberg’s films, including the play between omniscient and restricted narration in DuelJaws (US 1975), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (US 1981); analogies between the narrative structure of Raiders and those of the serials that inspired it; character development not despite but through the action set-pieces in Jurassic Park (US 1993); and the deft handling of chronology in Minority report (US 2002). It is in such cases that Buckland most successfully shows that Spielberg’s blockbusters are not mere “rollercoasters”, but in fact demonstrate complex and sophisticated storytelling.[10]

Though the issue of authorship in the case of Poltergeist (US 1982) seems less urgent than it once might have (and one should question the aptness of applying models of statistical analysis developed to determine literary authorship to the first acts of films), Buckland does help clarify the relative inputs of Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. Indeed, Buckland’s analysis of the narrative functions of Spielberg’s stylistic techniques is consistently rigorous and acute. In the course of this, Buckland continues to make use of the technical terminology he borrows from the film-making manuals. This can be useful, as in the distinction between internally and externally focalized shots (that is, camera placement inside or outside the central sphere of the action in a given scene). But often, too, why he feels the need to adopt these terms, rather than those which would be more familiar to a film studies audience, is unclear, as in his description of “internally focalized shots (surface) – that is, POV shots.”[11]

If the strength of Buckland’s analysis is in its close, careful look at film style in the work of this stylistically most influential director, its flaws stem from his lack of attention to Spielberg’s evolution in the larger historical context of contemporary Hollywood aesthetics (exactly the sort of question raised by the broad fetch of so much of the aforementioned scholarship on recent American cinema). For example, Buckland posits an unusually rigid differentiation between generations of directors, including the “New Hollywood” directors he sees as emerging from live TV (Penn, Frankenheimer, et. al.), and the “Movie Brats” who pioneered the contemporary blockbuster (Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg). In doing so, Buckland fails to account for the affinities between the documentary and art film-influenced work of the former, and the attempts of the latter to incorporate such influences into the generic frameworks of Hollywood production in the 1970s – a strategy clearly visible not only in Sugarland Express (US 1974), but also in Close encounters of the third kind (US 1977) and even Jaws.[12]  Buckland is correct to note the importance to Spielberg’s career of the director’s relatively late engagement with the “New Hollywood” quasi-art-film trend, but, arguably, that engagement remains significant to his subsequent evolution.

One may wonder to what extent the concentration on elucidating the specific narrative motivations for the use of specific devices here works against finding larger patterns across Spielberg’s films both in themselves and in relation to larger trends. Buckland does make a case for distinctive, and increasingly refined, uses of camera movement and off-screen space, but certainly the evolution of Spielberg’s techniques needs more attention, particularly given the director’s penchant for visual experimentation (and his adaptability to various generic and narrative approaches). Further studies of the development of Spielberg’s approach to visual style might account not only for the differences between Jaws and War of the worlds in themselves, but also in relation to the likes of George Lucas on the one hand and Michael Bay on the other. Of course, one must always be careful in criticising a book for what it doesn’t do. What this one does do makes it a valuable intervention in the scholarly debates on contemporary Hollywood, as one attempt to correct a glaring oversight by carefully tending to those questions of aesthetics which so far, for the most part, have been left to the side.

Paul Ramaeker
University of Otago, New Zealand.

[1] Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998): 16-17.

[2] That volume includes an essay by Buckland on Raiders of the Lost Ark that forms the basis of his chapter on that film in the book under consideration.

[3] Buckland: 1.

[4] Ibid: 228.

[5] Ibid: 14.

[6] Ibid: 30.

[7] Ibid: 51.

[8] Ibid: 40.

[9] Ibid: 105.

[10] Buckland argues this most explicitly in his summary to the Jurassic Park chapter (191), as well as in his concluding remarks (228).

[11] Ibid: 76.

[12] One might further argue that this sort of strategy returns, in different forms, in later Spielberg prestige pictures like Schindler’s ListSaving Private Ryan, and Munich. By limiting himself to Spielberg’s blockbusters, Buckland doesn’t attempt to look at any interplay between the director’s approaches to those varied sets of films.

About the Author

Paul Ramaeker

About the Author

Paul Ramaeker

Paul Ramaeker lectures in Film and Media Studies at the University of Otago. He is currently working on a manuscript about the influence of the international art cinema on American film from the late 1960s.View all posts by Paul Ramaeker →