Spielberg, Lucas films cater to our taste for childish toys

On the heels of a recent column about Steven Spielberg and his latest “Indiana Jones” feature, I don

On the heels of a recent column about Steven Spielberg and his latest “Indiana Jones” feature, I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but as the mindless spate of summer films descends upon us, I want to pass on observations made 28 years ago by Pauline Kael.

They concern “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but mostly the astute, pointed comments concern the advent of an anti-intellectual movement spearheaded by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I believe Kael’s take is not only accurate but prophetic.

Writing in the New Yorker, Kael, who achieved stature as the dean of American film critics, ends her so-so review of “Raiders” with an observation about Lucas, who three years earlier made movie history with “Star Wars.” The same Lucas wrote the story for “Raiders.”

Says Kael:

“Behind ‘Raiders’ is the soft-spoken George Lucas, who says things like ‘I’m really doing it so I can enjoy it. Because I just want to see this movie.’ I believe him. I wish I didn’t. I wish I thought he talked that way just as a come-on for ‘Raiders,’ because if Lucas, who is considered one of the most honorable people who have ever headed a production company, weren’t hooked on the crap of his childhood — if he brought his resources to bear on some projects with human beings in them — there’s no imagining the result. (There might be miracles.)”

What it is

The key word here is “crap,” because, folks, for an adult, as in grownup, that’s what childish entertainment is. Crap. It’s fun, and I will be the first to acknowledge days in which I stood up with my friends, cheering Roy Rogers as he rounded the bend on his glorious palomino Trigger, chasing down outlaws.

To my kids’ annoyance, I revel in these stories about movie yesteryear. But even in my most delirious moments of nostalgia, I recognize it’s all drivel.

Remembering and retaining childhood memories, especially the happy ones, is a delightful experience. Being obsessed by them is something else altogether. That is when they become “crap,” for moviegoers and especially for artists. There had to be a time when Picasso left his crayons at home and Beethoven grew out of his German folk song stage and Louis Armstrong figured out that there’s more to jazz than tooting “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Talented people, i.e. artists, not only have an obligation to say something significant, but possess a duty and inclination to grow, if for no other reason, than they are more blessed than most of us with extraordinary ability. Artistry is a gift no creator should take lightly.

In America, where popularity is often falsely equated with excellence and where profit or success is regarded as a standard of excellence, the temptation is to degrade intellectual and artistic growth. “Hey, if the people like it, it can’t be that bad.” What a copout. What an easy way to avoid an intelligent discussion about taste and quality.

Artist’s duty

Like many of us, Kael admires the talents of Lucas and the new breed of filmmaker making escapist entertainment. She also knows that, as adults, they owe themselves and us more than souped-up editions of childhood fantasies. If Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman combine for a virtuoso rendition of “The Sound of Music,” it may sound fabulously rich, but it is still a dumb tune, or as Kael once described it, one of many “sickly, goody-goody tunes.”

So are the Saturday matinee serials to which Lucas and Spielberg are paying homage with their adventures. What I say will sound anathema to a lot of you but, as I look back, I begin to conclude that movies such as “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” were incredibly accomplished “crap,” the escapes a country needed from almost two decades of hard-hitting, socially poignant and politically astute films from “The Graduate” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “All the President’s Men.”

Even so, ranting on about it borders on snobbery, and it is, in fact, pretty callous to come down hard on movies that gave so many millions fabulous, ingenious entertainment. Nothing wrong with having fun with childhood memories or pop tunes. (I bet Brahms hummed a few, even when he was composing). But for adults to make a career out of reliving childhood memories and for adults to buy into them, forsaking or ignoring far superior offerings, is another issue.

Real motive

And why do guys such as Lucas keep on producing movies with elaborately drawn cardboard characters?

Here’s Kael once more:

“I don’t think the deterrent to his producing movies with human characters is just financial risk. Lucas, who keeps a tight rein on budgets, probably wouldn’t stand to lose too much of his own or other people’s money. The bigger deterrent may be Lucas’s temperament and tastes. It’s not surprising that he takes pride in the fine toys that “Star Wars” generated and controls their manufacture carefully; essentially, George Lucas is in the toy business.”

Kael nails it, and maybe in the prophetic process, defines a generation of American tastes. Can it be that we are a nation of children who want to be entertained not by artists but by genius toymakers?

Categories: Life and Arts

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