No critic has ever distinguished more harshly, or more narrowly, between the notions of "entertainment" and "art" than official Hollywood; a mere glance at the Academy Awards nomination lists over the years will confirm that. If you want recognition from Academy voters for something other than longevity or public charity, the best way to get it is to propose a glib cinematic resolution to a fashionable social problem, preferably (and safely) from the recent past something Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, to name two non-Best Director winners, never did. The Color Purple, with its tale of a rural black woman victimized by sexism, racism, and poverty, fit the Oscar bill to a tee and was duly rewarded with twelve nominations, one in virtually every major category. Except Best Director. If Steven Spielberg had never understood he was marooned on an intellectual island before, he surely must have realized it then. A keen student of Hollywood's cinematic prescriptions, he had followed the formula for Oscarhood exactly, yet wasn't adjudged worthy to be among the five finalists (Hector Babenco, for Kiss of the Spider Woman; John Huston, Prizzis Honor; Akira Kurosawa, Ran; Peter Weir, Witness; and winner Sydney Pollack, for Out of Africa). And this despite the fact that The Color Purple, in its early reels at least, had passages of Griffith-like beauty. In Academy minds if you'll pardon the expression Spielberg was firmly positioned in the "entertainer" category, and no amount of artistic kow-towing was going to budge him.
How this slight affected Spielberg, an insider to the core, is impossible to judge. But it is a fact that after The Color Purple his movies even a putatively by-the-numbers Indiana Jones sequel became increasingly less formulaic and more complex, less self-consciously virtuosic and more personally expressive. The first half of Empire of the Sun ('87) was the most venturesome filmmaking Spielberg had essayed till then. The adaptation of J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel was carried out by playwright Tom Stoppard, with some uncredited help from Menno Meyjes, who had adapted Purple. It is unusually faithful, not just in plot terms but also, unlike Purple, in tone and attitude. But though there was an intersection of interest among Spielberg and the British ironists Ballard and Stoppard, the director made his own particular adjustments. Instead of using the character of a boy as a vicarious vessel of feelings, he actually invited the viewer to step back and examine rather than identify. The adventure was not just mounted for affect, but scrutinized for effect.
The boy in question is 12-year-old, Jim Graham (Christian Bale), a member of the Western elite ruling the industrial-commercial precincts of prewar Shanghai from the comfort of their exclusive community. Jim's security is forever violated when the Japanese invade the city. He is separated from his parents and, following a period when he roams the streets and works with a pair of American freebooters (John Malkovich and Joe Pantoliano), he and they end up spending years in a prison camp. Jim's captivity and the film reaches a climax following a long death march, at the end of which he is given the choice of going off with his piratical Yank friends or starting his return trip to his parents.
Aside from once again repeating the broad, overarching Peter Pan structure, Empire of the Sun also contains Spielberg's heaviest use of flight since E.T. However, for a change, the protagonist himself doesn't fly, he watches others fly; and it isn't so much flying, as the idea of flying and its metaphorical possibilities, that dominates. What matters is the sense of freedom and escape that aircraft represent to Jim, who has decorated his room to ensure that as he drifts off to sleep, models of airplanes are the last things he sees.
More importantly, Spielberg brings a profound ambivalence to these heretofore unambiguously presented notions: freedom from what? Escape to what? This reconsideration is crucial in an early scene that also develops a major plot point. While chasing a glider during a party on the grounds of one of his parents' wealthy friends, Jim stumbles across a gully full of Japanese soldiers. This is a brilliant sequence in which, typically, Spielberg working once again with Alien Daviau presents us with a huge landscape in gorgeous deep focus. It looks as if we must be seeing everything for miles around when, suddenly, new elements the Japanese soldiers appear in the middle of the frame and turn the dramatic situation completely on its head. We have come a long way from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when such revelations served only to wow the audience, since the characters in the frame already knew the true nature of the landscape. Here, Jim learns for the first time what the actual nature of his and his family's predicament is. Even more significantly, the stylistic flourish informs the film thematically: increasingly, things that appear obvious and straightforward will turn out to have hidden, even inexplicable, meanings. Jim can propel his glider into the air, but he cannot control its flight.
For Empire also comes to terms with ways of not-knowing. After having indulged himself with racial stereotypes in the Indiana Jones movies, Spielberg suddenly presents the intellectual and historical origins of those stereotypes: colonial domination. As Jim is chauffeured through downtown Shanghai, he gazes safely out the windows of his limousine at the crowded masses surging through the streets; later, with similar detachment he looks out at the beggar who resides at the foot of his mansion's driveway. We look at Jim looking more than we look at what he looks at. We don't share his viewpoint, we examine it.
These opening sequences, when Jim's world falls apart, are far superior to the prison-camp episodes. Having indicated the metaphorical importance of the airplane, Spielberg overworks it with scenes of Jim worshipfully watching Zeros take off from an adjacent airfield. These passages plunge quickly into bathos (though later scenes of P-51s buzzing the camp and bombing the field are so technically accomplished that they reinvest the image with some belated exhilaration).
Worse are the prison camp's GIs, impossibly cocky wisenheimers who act like overdrawn rejects from wartime propaganda a far cry from the more realistic figures in Ballard's novel. They do retain some value, however, by serving as counterpoint to the film's other band of prisoners, the English civilians of Jims old neighborhood. Both groups react to imprisonment by retreating to childish behavior. The Americans become naughty Lost Boys, ever plotting against their brutal Japanese warders. The English are still more perniciously infantilized. They become passive, whiny, dependent on whoever is willing to do them a favor or kindness. As he briefly did in Twilight Zone, Spielberg now depicts reversion to childhood as something less than the unmitigated joy it is in his other films. The swaggering exaggeration of the GIs' personalities, one of the major divergences from Ballard, suggests that Spielberg particularly wanted to emphasize this ambivalence.
Sex intrudes into childhood more directly, if only briefly, than ever before. Although, Pan-like, Jim leads a separate existence as the camp ragamuffin, he is nominally under the charge of a proper English couple, the Victors (Peter Gale and Miranda Richardson). From his nearby cot one night and many other nights too, for all we know Jim surreptitiously gazes on the couple as they begin the arduous struggle of locking their starved bodies together in love. Mrs. Victor, a waspish version of the slim, wan-faced Spielbergian mom, catches Jim at it and quickly puts an end to the proceedings.
The film's most disturbingly beautiful moment also refers indirectly to Jim's perceptions of mother. While still free on the streets of Shanghai, he had lured his shady American benefactors back to his house, holding out the lure of forgotten cash left inside. Arriving at night, Jim glimpses revolving figures dressed in what looks like chiffon silhouetted behind the windows of his home and assumes his old way of life has rematerialized as suddenly and mysteriously as it disappeared. Jumping off the Yanks' truck, he runs joyfully to the door, shouting to his mother; the door bursts open and gowned samurai run out to seize him and his friends. The scene plays as dream sliding into nightmare, and points ahead to the increasingly neurotic preoccupations that will underlie Spielberg's later films.
After Empire of the Sun, Spielberg returned for a final adventure with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ('89). Clearly dissatisfied with the series at this point, Spielberg and his writers tried to broaden the character of their hero, with a prologue of his derring-do adolescence and the presence of his father as a major character. As ever, though, idiocies competed hot and heavy with the now-superlative technique. Indy's father (Sean Connery), a Moses-like figure of knowledge and instruction, totes what looks for all the world like a Jungian dream-book. Unfortunately, this record of recalled oceanic memory is a guide to an unholy conflation of the Grail myth with the actual history of the Crusades, a combination that stays mired in the pulp in which it was born. And the Nazis, in a return engagement as the bad guys, are more out of Clampett and Jones than Sturm und Drang.
On the other hand, a scene in which Indiana has to scramble around the outside of a speeding tank, though rhythmically monotonous, at least adheres to a realistic, and consistent, physical environment. And Indiana has more than a treasure at stake; he wants the respect of his father. Most intriguing is the fit of sexual jealousy Indiana experiences when he discovers that his father has already slept with a woman whom Indy covets; that the woman (Alison Doody) turns out to be a Nazi who betrays them both only adds to the Oedipal mix.
A sense of relief hangs over the final image, surely the longest ride off into a sunset ever put on film. As Indiana and crew canter toward the horizon, it's easy to imagine Spielberg standing next to his camera, waving goodbye and making sure they're gone.
For if Last Crusade was deliberately outward-looking, a calculated audience-pleaser, Spielberg's next film, the 1989 fantasy Always, would be the filmmaker's most idiosyncratic. It is a film that can be appreciated only on its own terms, lovingly crafted in an archaic Hollywood language nearly forgotten now but classical in its time. Watching Always is like witnessing the liberation of a consciousness, as the film skips gracefully back and forth between ideas about friendship, death, inspiration, art, imagination, and love. The tone ranges nearly as far, its medley of humor, nostalgia, wistfulness, and poignance shifting in emphasis from one unsettling moment to the next.
Aside from being so damn good, Always is also an anomaly in Spielberg's oeuvre, the most thematically and stylistically distinct of his works. And so it might appear tangential, even inconveniently so, in an essay devoted to continuity in the filmmaker's output. However, in terms of character, emotional realism, and an appreciation of ambivalence, it is absolutely key the leap in sophistication that would make Hook's eloquence possible.
Building on the Forties romantic fantasy A Guy Named Joe ('44) with Dalton Trumbo's screenplay reworked by Jerry Belson and Diane Thomas Always tells the story of Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss), the star member of an elite corps of firefighters who douse forest fires with water and chemicals from low-flying, converted B-26s. Pete has just succeeded in bringing his long-simmering romance with air controller Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter) to the brink of marriage when, following a night of prenuptial love, he dies performing spectacular heroics saving the life of his best friend and fellow pilot, Al Yackey (John Goodman). In death, Pete is returned to Earth where he serves as guardian angel and inspiration to Ted Baker (Brad Johnson), a clumsy and tongue-tied would-be pilot. Pete not only saves Ted from flunking out of firefighters' flight school, now being run by Al; to his chagrin, he also helps direct handsome Ted into the arms of a mourning Dorinda. His dander up, the dead pilot uses every considerable trick at his disposal to hold on to Dorindas now-impossible love until an angel, Hap (Audrey Hepburn), upbraids him for his selfishness. In the climax, Pete guides Dorinda through a suicidal firefighting run, helping her not just to save the lives of trapped firemen on the ground, but also to regain the will to live and love again.
This fairly detailed plot synopsis evokes a likely Spielberg project, complete with the familiar wish-fulfillment fantasies and adventures. Yet none of his other films' climaxes had ever pivoted on a change of heart by the hero; to the contrary, previously everyone and everything else might change but the hero's essence was set in concrete. In Always, Pete undergoes a profound spiritual change in death, to be sure, but nonetheless triumphant for that.
Even the most apparently modest action sequences are richer, more expressive, and consequently more beautiful. In one scene Ted and Dorinda are driving to town on an errand. Dorinda still doesn't know what to make of the good-looking but clunky pilot and has been keeping him at arm's length, despite an inchoate attraction. As they motor along, Ted tries to soften her up, indulging in a pisspoor John Wayne imitation while the spirit of Pete sits in the backseat and alternately comments on and encourages Ted's gaucherie.
Up ahead of the car, Ted and Dorinda see a school bus veering all over the road. They pull past it and, as it stops, rush back to see the driver stumble out and, clutching his chest, fall to the ground. As Ted provides CPR, the driver's double obviously his spirit suddenly appears standing next to Pete. Pete congratulates him on pulling the bus to the roadside in time to save the kids on board. But the body on the ground begins to stir. The spirit disappears, the driver comes back to life, and Dorinda, who has witnessed Ted performing competently for the first time, gazes at him with new admiration.
By the end of this scene, the relationship among the three principals has undergone a sea-change, all accomplished through an economically limned bit of action. Whereas earlier Spielberg might have pounded us with shots of terrified kids on the bus, here he respects the points of view of Pete, Dorinda, and Ted, never wandering from their perspectives; he shows us the kids just enough to indicate that the bus is full. Initially, the tone is set by the needling dialogue and the easy manner of its delivery, then shifts to confusion, terror, anxiety, poignance, excitement, and relief a veritable record for Spielberg. Most of all, the scene has no meaning except what it derives from the participants; they imbue the action with significance, not the other way around.
However singular an achievement Always is, it does clarify ideas and motifs that Spielberg had been grappling with and would pursue in Hook. For one thing, love is depicted as a potentially dangerous and selfish emotion, as destructive as it is nurturing. And in the presence of women, men are childish, almost willfully so. Action is no longer enacted for its own sake, but as an indication of some internal change. And finally, although he had at least temporarily abandoned the attempt to re-create historically or sociologically accurate environments, Spielberg had discovered that fantasy was a fit setting for psychological insight. Indeed, as the settings and actions in Always and then Hook become progressively more fanciful, the characters and the emotions they express become more acutely human.
Having discovered the sense of psychological realism necessary to make his fantasies not just plausible but, in a larger sense, true, Spielberg next took on the modern-day fairy tale that had been the central animating motif in his work. (A note here: I have an immense aversion to the way the word myth has been so glibly abused and cheapened in discussions about film; at Hollywood lunches it's probably the most frequently uttered word after "money" and its synonyms, while in criticism it has become indistinguishable from "stereotype." So, while the Peter Pan story may have some mythic resonances for Spielberg in the sense of revealing an aspect of the world or explaining a natural phenomenon fairy tale, children's story, and fantasy are more than adequate terms for the matter at hand.)
Our serialized format obliges me to recapitulate the plot here: Peter Banning (Robin Williams), successful head of a mergers-and-acquisitions firm, has been unable to take time from work to give to his children, Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and Maggie (Amber Scott). Together with his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall), he takes them on a trip to London and the home of the woman who was his first foster mother, Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith). While Peter is giving the keynote speech at a dinner honoring Granny Wendy who has spent her life helping orphans and who, as a child, was one of the children for whom J.M. Barrie spun his tales his kids are mysteriously kidnapped. The police can find no clues disregarding as a hoax a note signed "James Hook" and Granny Wendy tells a disbelieving Peter that he is in fact Peter Pan, and that his children have been seized by his arch-nemesis Captain Hook. Finally, Peter is surprised in the nursery by the fairy Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts), who transports him to Never Land. There he confronts Hook (Dustin Hoffman), meets the Lost Boys, and, after much deliberate work and some accidental inspiration, recovers the memory and magic he can fly of his childhood as Peter Pan. He fights Hook to regain his children whom the Captain is trying to brainwash into becoming his wards and, bidding adieu to the Lost Boys, brings his family back together.
As we have seen, the plot itself is enough to throw every previous Spielberg film into an overarching pattern. Here, in one form or another, is every characterization, every story structure, and every emotional development from Duel ('71) to Always. Yet what strikes the eye at first is how different Hook is from earlier Spielberg. After plumbing the most distant depths of deep-focus cinematography with Mikael Salomon in Always, the director, here working with cameraman Dean Cundey, gives Hook an unprecedentedly, pointedly flattened visual field.
Not that things begin that way. Using closeups and open-ended compositions, Spielberg commences the action with a scene of parents and children enjoying a school production of Barries Peter Pan. A series of shots that start from the back of the stage unites the smiling audience with the amateur performances until Peter Banning comes into view, answering the portable phone in his pocket and literally turning away from the stage. Throughout the film, art, in its various guises, is depicted as part of life's very foundations: school plays, children's stories, and ornamental decor are some of its overt manifestations, but shadow play, dress-up, and make-believe also adorn the action. Peter's growing ability, or willingness, to engage in these activities is part of his salvation.
Far from being a tough-minded entertainer, in Hook Spielberg reveals himself as a radical aesthete. Banning, who has had extraordinary problems tolerating, never mind enjoying, his children, can do so unconsciously through the screen of art. Before he goes off to the testimonial with Granny Wendy, he finds the old woman huddled under a sheet with his Jack and Maggie in the nursery. They're huddled around a lamp, their shadows forming distinctive silhouettes against the white sheet something like figures on a movie screen and Peter, who had screamed at the children to leave him alone not long before, smiles in teary affection. Not that that stops him from taking Granny Wendy away.
When Wendy fruitlessly tries to persuade Peter that he is Pan, not Banning, she holds up a copy of one of the Pan stories turned to an illustration in the style of (if not actually by) F.D. Bedford. The striking, fore grounded figure of Peter, arms akimbo, stands against a fuzzy, somewhat impressionistic background. When Peter gets to Never Land, that make-believe world looks exactly like that: fore grounded figures boldly colorful, backgrounds smeary and in quieter tones.
When Peter tumbles from the sky into Never Land, he ends up underneath a burlap cloth and peers out through a convenient hole, one that looks exactly like a peephole in a stage curtain. And no sooner does he come to, than Tinkerbell has him costumed, dressing up and acting as a pirate.
This preoccupation with art comes to suffuse every detail of the film. One of the key transformations is Peter's ability to imagine, as the Lost Boys do, a make-believe feast. After the food, or the illusion of food, appears, Peter and the boys get into a food fight; what they throw are not actual morsels but brightly dyed handfuls of something with the consistency of mud fistfuls of pure color, as it were. And when Peter has finally vanquished Hook and, after a bow, takes his leave of Never Land, he vaults off into the sky. As he disappears, an invisible dissolve and a track back reveal the sky to be the illustrated wall panels of his children's nursery. Peter, who could not even look at a play before, has merged with art's memorial power. After his return, the focus begins to deepen once again, to become more naturalistic, more "real."
But art's therapeutic value is not the only, or even the principal, concern of Hook. Peter Banning's problematic relationship with his kids is only the most overt and undesirable symptom of a deeper problem.
Although Spielberg's films are usually described as warm or even exhilarating and euphoric, their most prevalent temper is anxiety. Every Spielberg hero from Duel onward is, to one extent or another, worried that he is failing at some essentially male role, either lover or father. In Hook these twin fears are merged in Peter, who is plainly a poor father and who, less conspicuously, wants to retreat from the issue of sex in general.
We never see Peter Banning in a home where he is the head of the household. We do see him at the office, running late for one of Jack's Little League games; there he is acting like a child in a mock game of quick-draw. And we see him in an airplane, all nervous with fright. When he does enter a house it is Granny Wendy's. Greeted at the door by the maid, he blusters into the hallway barking out orders to his kids until suddenly the camera tilts up. There, looming at the head of the stairs, is the dimly lit Granny Wendy saying "Hello, boy." In one small camera move, Peter changes from a dominant to a subordinate player; with one line of dialogue he goes from a man to a child.
Not that he seems to object. Earlier, his lapses as a parent were mainly failures of omission: showing up late for a ballgame, not paying mind at the play. In the home of his stepmother these become sins of commission: Peter pulls, pushes, yells at, and actively rejects his kids. In fact, the whole purpose of his trip is to commemorate his childishness by speaking at Granny Wendy's testimonial. There, in a huge banquet hall barely lit by spooky green table lamps, Peter addresses a roomful of middle-aged adults, all of whom glory in their status as children former wards of Granny Wendy. And Peter is the pet, the most loyal and effusive of all.
But of course, Peter cannot be a child while he is also a parent. So back at home, Peter's kids are done away with, vanishing on the wind that heralds the arrival of Captain Hook. That wind also blows in on the testimonial dinner, throwing an alarmed Granny Wendy to the floor, but not seriously disturbing a giddily happy Peter.
Jack and Maggie are gone because Peter has wished them gone. Hook is merely the agent of Peters most secret, repressed desires, and as such is his mirror image. When Peter first confronts Hook and is taunted by the mustachioed pirate into attempting a rescue, his failure to do so is deeply ambiguous, the result partly of physical shortcoming but also partly of nerve and, hence, desire. Tinkerbell brings Peter to the island of Lost Boys, where Peter Banning should remember his youth as Peter Pan. That memory should restore his powers.
Although Peter attempts a physically exhausting initiation into the Lost Boys' company, what finally provokes his childhood memory is that food fight. It begins when Peter and the head Lost Boy, the suspicious and foulmouthed Rufio (Dante Basco), get into a shouting exchange of scatological invective. The fecal consistency of the thrown food confirms the combined regressive/progressive nature of Peter's development.
But the topper comes later still, after Peter has been hit on the head by a long-traveling baseball he had earlier witnessed Jack hit in a buccaneer baseball game. After seeing his childhood image reflected back at him in some water, he stumbles over to a thick tree where he finds his long-ago hideaway. Inside, with the help of Tink, Peter casts back to the days when Wendy wasn't Granny Wendy but Wendy Darling. He remembers leaving his mother as a baby and being unable to fly through her bedroom window when he tried to return to her as a boy. But he found Wendy's bedroom window open, and for years played with her, until the time when he suddenly realized she wasn't his age anymore, but a grandmother. Immediately upon learning this, he had turned to a bed in her room and seen a girl sleeping there Wendy's granddaughter Moira, Peter's future wife. Seeing her, he kisses her and his childhood comes to an end.
Wendy had always represented mother and lover to Peter, a conflict that kept him locked in an eternal prepubescent childhood. But the discovery of Moira, a veritable double for Wendy, puts him in the best of all possible worlds, one in which his lover is the mirror image of his mother. The discovery of Moira enables Peter to begin his untroubled passage into sexual maturity; he leaves Never Land forever. In fact, he entirely forgets his life as a child and his ambivalent, yet innocent, love for Wendy. However, Moira's position as Peter's mother/lover is upset when she has children of her own. Not only must they evoke in Peter a vague memory of troubling feelings they usurp his privileged position in his own household. His trip to Wendy's house, and his sub sequent aggression towards his children, is an attempt to reassert that position. For before he shows up in London, he had not seen Granny Wendy for ten years or virtually the entire lifetimes of his children.
This time around, Peter comes to terms with his sexuality. By remembering his childhood at the same time he realizes he is a parent, he is able to fly again, to soar over his problems and acquire the power that will eventually allow him to rescue his kids. And when the boyish Tinkerbell assumes human-sized dimensions and offers herself as a playmate for a whole new eternal childhood, Peter declines, announcing his preference for Moira's more adult and womanly charms.
Hey, but Hook doesn't just have sex it has death, too.
After an ersatz suicide attempt, staged to provoke mothering by his first mate Smee (Bob Hoskins), Hook gazes in an array of mirrors and muses aloud, "After all, who can imagine a world without Hook?" Well, anyone can imagine a world without Hook, unless of course he is Hook. A world without oneself is no world at all.
This emphasizes Hook's role as Peter's dark double; Never Land is the world of Peter's unresolved desires, and Hook, who wants to steal Peter's children, and thus relieve him of the burdens and reminders of his and especially Moira's parenthood, is as surely a projection of Peter as the rest of the psychic landscape. As long as Peter exists in this unresolved state, Hook must exist as well.
Hook is an obsessive enemy of time. Once literally hunted by time in the form of the crocodile that had swallowed a ticking pocketwatch, Hook has erected a museum of smashed timepieces, all forever halted. Hook knows his very existence depends on stasis, on stopping Peter's emotional clock, so that he remains a symbol of fixed adulthood. As the head of a band of muscular, rough-and-tumble pirates, he embodies potent masculinity, and in pursuit of that embodiment he spends an inordinate amount of time on his appearance, waxing his mustache, caring for his highly polished hooks, and brushing dust from his clothes. Even when he tries to demoralize Jack and Maggie with stories of how they annoy their parents, it is by contrasting the parents' carefree youth with their careworn child-caring years.
In fact, during his climactic duel with Peter, Hook turns out to be a very old man indeed; his aging is a function of Peter's actions, which reflect his own internal growth. And Hook's death finally comes in the jaws of that very crocodile, now stuffed and mounted in the shape of a clock tower.
In the naturalistic way symbols interact with characters, the way landscape and decor both define the people within them and serve as projections of the interior states of those people, and in the way the camera glides through the action with a somnambulist's dreamy vision, Hook recalls the work of Vincente Minnelli. Spielberg definitely shares Minnelli's conviction that truth is to be found in dreams and hallucinations, that plain truths are to be discovered in extraordinary states.
What Hook, Always, and Empire of the Sun tell us is that what we want is what we have; that no matter how frightening or impossible or extravagant our desires may appear to be, we can manage to fulfill them without harm if we maintain a generosity of spirit.
Peter Banning did have a great and wonderful adventure, but it took a flight of fancy to assure him that he had it in the nursery, in the bedroom, and in the family rooms of his own households. By revisiting a classic children's tale, Spielberg has shown how what is born within us as children guides us through maturity, if we are just willing to use art to remember and to reconcile. And that is a theme rich enough, and put so eloquently, as to be worthy of any artist.