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An ode to Steven Spielberg
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15 November 2015

I love this new Spielberg! He taught filmmakers flair, panache and imagination when the movies were all about straightforward storytelling. He created the blockbuster genre and showed the world how to pull millions and millions into theatres. He mounted spectacles on film like absolutely no one in the world could. Quite simply, he was the very best in the world at making the kind of films he made. He and his friend Lucas all by themselves multiplied the revenue potential of American films in the global market. They conjured up on screen characters that no one had the guts nor the creativity to attempt create. More importantly no one had the technical know-how to bring to screen. These two were absolutely blazing tremendously exciting new trails and world audiences watched with gaped mouth! From sharks to extra-terrestrials to androids in faraway galaxies to professor-cowboys to even dinosaurs... What these two were putting on screen gave cinematic entertainment a whole new meaning! It was exciting times. People around the world were flocking to theatres in utter disbelief and fascination! Mass hysteria and gargantuan, barrier smashing box office numbers followed.

The inflation adjusted revenues of Jaws and E.T are upwards of one billion in the American Box-Office alone! The biggest box office hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s are all either Spielberg or Lucas films. The top five would typically feature two or three Spielberg films in each decade.

And all this was done with a lot of love. A lot of passion and devotion. He had his own unique flavour and identity. A lot of blockbusters often don't have long shelf-lives. Never can one accuse a Spielberg blockbuster of this weakness. His films don't just go down as blockbusters. They are earmarked pages in American film history. He went on to earn as much respect as his films did money. In fact, some curious films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind were very offbeat, slow paced films mounted on huge budgets. Just how they became superhit money-spinners only Spielberg will know. I remember watching Close Encounters.. in my early teens and being terribly bored after a point. Never dared to revisit it again. I probably should. But you'd think appealing to kids and repeat value are two hallmarks of any blockbuster. Well, Spielberg at that point was so on top of his game that he must've had audiences eating out of his hands! Only he can explain how he Pied-Pipered audiences to theatres with not necessarily Box office friendly material like Close Encounters. I suppose the scale, the spectacle of aliens and the climactic Alien Vessel all helped.

The legend started out with an edgy, out of the box, small film... 'Duel.' Happens to be, till date, my favourite Spielberg film. After the mind-bender that Duel was, he went on to discover the power of a spectacle and putting on a show. He continued doing so well into the Noughties. A bit edgier sometimes like in 'Minority Report' and on sweeping scale sometimes like in 'War of the Worlds.' But always grand.

Cut to 2015... When many have learnt the trade that Spielberg plied. Some even more swashbuckling and grander than him. Technology in Hollywood, which visionaries like Spielberg nurtured and constantly kept improving, is so advanced now that a director can imagine absolutely anything and it can be brought to life on screen. With stunning results. Every second director in Hollywood makes a spectacle these days. Very few do it like Spielberg used to. But everyone does it.

So what does Spielberg do? He seems to have gone the other way. He is a true born mould breaker Mr Spielberg. Never the herd, ever the shepherd. He has, on the evidence of his last two films, switched the game and gone on to no frills, no fancy, solid old fashioned storytelling. No showboating whatsoever. Just brass tacks storytelling... With compelling dramatic arcs, riveting writing, solid staging, great performances helped by wonderfully written characters.

Spielberg always did have a penchant for drama. There were the much feted and celebrated dramatic departures like The Color Purple, Schindler's List and Munich as well as the commercially and critically misfiring Amistad. But his last two films are markedly different in many ways. This Spielberg is a secure, maybe even a bit weary, legend who's seen it all. He's not trying to put his stamp on his latest films. Nothing at all. And it doesn't even feel like restraint on his part. It just feels like it's his flavor now.

Am talking, of course, about Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. Lincoln was just fantastic! You can add a dozen other superlatives of your choice and it was all that. Just terrific storytelling featuring an actor who was touching artistic divinity with his portrayal of Lincoln. Daniel Day Lewis really was in the 'zone' in the film. Abraham Lincoln was a true hero.. A champion of society who deserved nothing less than the film Spielberg made about him.

Bridge of Spies is nowhere near as good as Lincoln. But it was a rock solid movie on its own. The ever reliable Tom Hanks was superb as expected. The movie is on a slow boil for long parts. But always engaging if not entertaining. And it eventually grabs you by the end. But just the seasoned, assured control with which the master spins his tale was a treat to watch.

I hear his next film is a fantasy based on Roald Dahl's 'The BFG.' I hope it's only a minor detour from Spielberg's current course. I hope he makes many more such back to the basics dramas. There are plenty of his disciples and doppelgängers out there who can mount blockbusters. But very precious few who can make a Lincoln like he did. Master of all genres, Jack of none.


- Rahul Ravindran (Andala Rakshasi, Ala Ela and Tiger)

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