Film & TV

Spielberg Recovers His Political Courage

Director and producer Steven Spielberg attends the European Premiere of Ready Player One in London, England, March 19, 2018. (Henry Nicholls/REUTERS)
The Netflix lemmings howl as the legendary director prepares to take a stand for cinema.

Hysteria has erupted over Steven Spielberg’s intent to challenge the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences’s practice of giving its Oscar awards to live-streaming content rather than movies. The Internet is crazily enraged that Hollywood’s youngest titan hasn’t bowed down to the latest mode of content delivery like everybody else.

Few people can think for themselves these days, and pop-culture consumption is one of the most pathetic examples of the public rendered susceptible to media suasion. This is the same non-analytical, TV-loving mania as left-wing journalists blaming themselves for promoting President Trump’s election, the same irrational conception of media’s impact. The anti-Spielberg protests are ridiculous first of all because Spielberg hasn’t even made his statement yet. Why have the Interwebs jumped the shark?

Spielberg’s recent box-office flops lost him cultural clout, especially with those who easily fall for the latest trends. In his earlier pronouncement on what’s artistically distinctive about theatrical cinema, he dared to oppose the speciously labeled “Golden Age of Television.” He has riled the lemmings who gave in to binge-watching (what academics call “corporate autism”) and devoted themselves to cable presentations. They don’t appreciate the heightened visual and sensual awareness that makes Spielberg’s particular art form — the cinema — special.

I have not been a fan of Spielberg’s recent politically influenced films (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The B.F.G., Ready Player One), so it surprises me that he appears to be going against the progressive mob. But Spielberg’s plan to address the Academy’s board of governors (of which he is the most prestigious member) and propose changing the awards criteria indicates that he has beliefs that go deeper than populist politics. The anticipated articulation of these beliefs (that cinema, unlike television, is an irreducible, visually kinetic art form and is inseparable from the mass human experience) reminds true Spielberg fans that some spark of artistic valor still remains.

Maybe Spielberg can no longer woo ticket buyers in the vast numbers he once did, but he seems to have found some testicular fortitude.

Could this be Spielberg’s proudest moment? It nearly makes up for his succumbing to stupid political correctness in 1997, when the Directors Guild of America chose to remove D. W. Griffith’s name from its awards, thereby betraying the movie pioneer whom Spielberg recalls at his best and to whom he, and all of us, are most indebted.

Spielberg may be “on the wrong side of history,” but that was always a specious axiom, favored by the dictator mentality of the previous administration, which Spielberg, like many others, fell for from 2008 to 2016.

When Spielberg actually makes his appeal to the board of governors, his opponents may find that he fights for more than the organization’s prestige. He cannot ignore that television and electronic media have beaten the movies in the popularity contest. But neither can the fact of cinema’s kinetic, spatial essence be ignored. That essence has also lost popularity, degraded by aesthetically inert films such as The Lord of the Rings series and any Marvel Comics blockbuster you can name, which I think is implicit in Spielberg’s complaint.

The Academy’s erratic protocol is obviously full of mishaps and contradictions. It has fallen for new-media trends and P.C. activism and ruined its former standards, as in the embarrassing case of ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America TV series, which won Best Documentary Feature in 2016. But when the aesthetics of film presentation are forgotten, so is the phenomenon of filmgoing, which once upon a time was literally, socially unifying. In the upcoming political-revolution epic Peterloo, director Mike Leigh yearns for unity through an intense, fascinated concentration on faces and an emotional sweep that would be imperceptible on television or computer screens. (Peterloo is being released by Amazon Studios, a misnomer that pretends to Hollywood tradition while, actually, opposing it. At least Peterloo is experientially superior to anything so far released by Netflix.)

Movie-review shills never educate audiences about aesthetics. They simply provide hype, going along with the cultural collapse: film = TV. If an egghead critic argues against this, the point gets dismissed. When Spielberg makes the point, even dummkopfs must pay attention.

Consumers who are suckers for the independent-movie trend are complaining that Spielberg is against them; they don’t realize how few indie films keep the promise of Griffith, Eisenstein, Sternberg, Welles, Cocteau, Visconti, and Godard. They don’t understand that Spielberg, for the first time in recent years, is thinking independently. They don’t see that independent thinking is the rarest, most necessary attribute in this political era. Spielberg may be fighting a losing battle, but it’s an honorable one.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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