Essay About Steven Spielberg Kids

“Who am I?” Steven Spielberg asks in Spielberg, a new HBO documentary about Steven Spielberg. He pitches this question as the great theme of Lawrence of Arabia, the movie that made him want to abandon the art of filmmaking because of its overwhelming experiential power. But then he watched it again, a week or two later, and recommitted himself to directing. Why? No one knows. In Spielberg, no one knows anything about Steven Spielberg, and when one perspective threatens to harden into a judgment, it is undercut by a counterclaim from another talking head.

Martin Scorsese invokes John Cassavetes to describe Spielberg as “fearless” not long after Spielberg himself confesses to being full of fear on the set of Jaws. Superproducer Kathleen Kennedy promises that Spielberg does not “overintellectualize things” before critic J. Hoberman compares him to a “public intellectual.” Ben Kingsley assures us that on the set of Schindler’s List, Spielberg transformed his cast into “actor-warriors” who “heroically” avoided sentimentality; yet in describing Empire of the Sun, playwright Tom Stoppard suggests (non-pejoratively) that Spielberg is, in the end, a sentimentalist. Harrison Ford promises that Spielberg, unlike other film artists, directs his films for the audience, while Bob Balaban asserts that Spielberg makes “big, personal films.” This is not in itself a contradiction—a director can see himself as an audience member; yet earlier in the documentary Roger Ernst claims that Spielberg is the one director who understands that the true audience of Hollywood cinema is its film executives.

Conflicting mythologies aside, the question of Spielberg matters because he is one of Hollywood’s more persistent and lucrative technologies, a kind of self-correcting artificial intelligence who balances immersive dreamworlds with non-cynical, if grossly sentimental, appeals to critical favor. Hence Spielberg’s annus mirabilis in 1993, the year of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List.

Which is to say that there is no longer any obvious material difference between Spielberg, or Spielbergism, and Hollywood itself. Nor is there an easy way to separate Spielberg from, say, Silicon Valley; known for shrewdly merging new technologies with high design and a broad appeal to culture, he is a semiotic kissing-cousin to Steve Jobs. It’s no surprise to learn that Apple, as part of its billion-dollar investment in original content, has just signed Spielberg to reproduce his Amazing Stories series from 1980s television. And, anyway, it’s doubly unsurprising if you consider that Netflix’s Stranger Things is a nonliteral remake of The Goonies.

There is no longer any obvious material difference between Spielberg, or Spielbergism, and Hollywood itself.

Who is Spielberg? Hollywood’s vanishing mediator, Spielberg is hard to know, but it’s not hard to know why. Susan Lacy, the director of the HBO documentary, has been candid about the lack of crisis in the director’s personal history, which began in a benign suburb of Phoenix. His dad was an important computer scientist, and his mom was a concert pianist. The climacteric of his entire life, Spielberg says, was their divorce, which he long blamed on his father’s lack of vigor; his frustration once boiled over when he repeatedly shouted “crybaby!” at his dad, who wept silently at dinner. (The scene was later recreated in Close Encounters of the Third Kind). In what would amount to the greatest irony he’d ever know—which may explain the near-total lack of irony in his films—it turned out that his mother was in love with his father’s best friend, which led her to ask for divorce.

Rather than be honest about the humdrum inscrutability of Spielberg, Lacy follows Spielberg’s own example and mythologizes childhood—Spielberg’s childhood. The idea is that Spielberg, a lonely child from a somewhat broken family, withdrew into a fantasy realm of ameliorating make-believe which inspired his later filmmaking. (It is never considered that Spielberg could simply afford a camera at an early age, or that family connections may have helped him get an early start in Hollywood.) Spielberg then reproduced this sense of childhood wonderment in the many young protagonists and aliens and adventures of his franchises. This narrative seems true to me, at least in one respect: the Spielberg model of childhood is very much with us today, and it demands that children prefer robust “worlds” and escapist fantasies and formulaic genres to art that finds weirdness in our own shared world. Even now the vacuous franchises that were offered to Gen-X children by New Hollywood are being forced on their own children, who are now babysat with the idea that full-bodied worlds can substitute for the missing love from a mother or a father.

Almost no one would argue that Spielberg’s films are good, and yet he continues to make them with impunity.

Twenty-first century Hollywood, too, acts as a child of divorce—its imagination thrives in the dead zone of separation between a dwindling filmgoing public and any idea this public might have of a collective project (or meaningful social life). And it acts as a child of divorce because it is, like many of us, the progeny of Spielbergism. The opportunistic self-referencing found in the current Marvel superhero “universe” films descends from comic books, yes, but it’s also an evolution of the ultra-successful experiment in cross-referencing hatched by Spielberg and George Lucas, who made entertainments together, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and alluded to each other’s work in their films. “The walls of the children’s bedrooms in Poltergeist,” noted critic Andrew Britton in the 1980s, “are festooned with Star Wars memorabilia.”

This penchant for escapist self-referencing mocks all of us in the trailer for Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One. The film, a spectacle of digital animation that should remind us, if we cared to remember, that Spielberg gentrified cinema with Jurassic Park’s radically animated dinosaurs, appears to be a work of intense contemporary realism, though it’s supposedly set in 2045. The trailer’s voiceover begins:

I live here in Columbus, Ohio. In 2045, it’s still ranked the fastest growing city on Earth, but it sure doesn’t seem like it when you live in the Stacks. They call our generation “the missing millions.” Missing not because we went anywhere; there’s nowhere left to go. Nowhere except the Oasis. It’s the only place where it feels like I mean anything. A world where the limits of reality are your own imagination.

This voiceover could not better describe Spielbergism—and life under the sway of total entertainment—if it meant to. “The Stacks,” a trashscape of stacked mobile homes and broken-down vehicles, very much describes the rural Midwestern landscape in 2017. And it’s clear that we’ve already lost not one but two generations to “the Oasis,” a “world” defined by “imagination.” The Oasis is just any given Spielberg film, a fact driven home by what follows: a procession of characters and images from a Spielbergian dreamscape, from Back to the Future’s DeLorean to the giant from Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. Spielberg is a net of crisscrossing references to Spielberg and his collaborators.[*]

Almost no one would argue that Spielberg’s films are good, and yet he continues to make them with impunity. This is the fault of film critics like David Edelstein and A.O. Scott, who defend Spielberg in Spielberg by shortchanging his detractors: What’s the point of criticizing Spielberg? What’s so bad about being a director of quality entertainments? This defense comes from Spielberg himself. When asked to respond to one unnamed critic’s assertion that his films shouldn’t be confused with art, Spielberg gets about as mad as a rich man can. “Sometimes,” he says, “I think that statements like that are pretentious in themselves because it says that art is serious and that art can’t move you; art can’t be on a bicycle and fly across the moon—that that can’t be art.” It’s mesmerizing to behold: Spielberg’s self-defense becomes self-reference. Why can’t art be E.T.? Why can’t E.T. be art?

Contemporary Hollywood films, like all of Spielberg’s films, get worse with repeated viewings. Yet almost any person you talk to will attempt to justify the intake of Hollywood garbage by way of the Spielbergian defense: What’s so wrong with consuming expensively made trash? This suggests that there is indeed something drug-like about twenty-first century entertainment, and it’s frustrating to admit that the comparison between Hollywood and “our national addiction to foreign oil” is a worthwhile one. (If it’s not Hollywood, it’s “binging” on streaming TV.) And this druggishness explains in part why filmmakers like Spielberg and Christopher Nolan (another child of divorce who reconvenes broken families in his films) rely heavily on the idea of “the cinematic experience”; if their films can drown you in wonderment—loud sounds, 70mm images, fully realized worlds—the first time, you’ll revisit them over and again, even though they are bad, in a bid to reclaim the original high. The high inevitably diminishes, and the dependency grows.

Still, Hollywood pumps out the snacks, giving us all diabetes of the mind; it recreates the same franchises and experiences ad nauseam, even as it turns out that this interminable child’s quest to replace the love of Mommy-Daddy has consequences in the world outside the world. Spielberg’s cinema has made us all into children of divorce.


In Sweden in 1982, a seemingly unassuming movie raised the ire of the country’s censors. The film had been released widely elsewhere and found huge success, but Sweden believed its content to be so incendiary that it placed an 11 rating upon it, meaning nobody under that age could watch. The decision proved controversial and provoked protests; not from adults, but children, who took to the streets with placards reading “Away with the 11-year-limit” and “Children’s films are made for children.” The film in question wasn’t Blade Runner or John Carpenter’s The Thing, but Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming E.T., and the Swedish censors’ rationale for keeping it away from youngsters was that it portrayed adults as their enemies.

There’s something faintly ludicrous about this story and it’s gone on to become an urban legend (the legend, of course, making it seem like E.T. was outright banned rather than just restricted). It does, however, highlight something often overlooked about Spielberg’s films: they’re not all sweetness and light. Spielberg’s family-friendly reputation (perpetuated, in part, by E.T.) has glossed over the darker elements of his career, which recur in everything from the bloody horror of Jaws to the saccharine sentimentality of Hook. It’s meant that we tend remember the majesty of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but overlook just how violent and disturbing the T-Rex’s attack on Tim and Lex is. Such tonal complexity doesn’t sit well with culture’s desire to provide simplistic readings of the films we consume.

The narrative has persisted though and it informs the way critics explore Spielberg’s treatment of children. One of only a handful of great directors to tackle the childhood experience in significant depth, Spielberg has nonetheless been criticised for ignoring the more troubling side of growing up in favour of a sentimental portrait of innocence and wonder. “It can prove challenging to throw one’s hat in the arena of Spielbergian delights without feeling a twinge of cinephilic guilt,” Eric Kohn wrote for IndieWire in 2011. “His movies not only frequently center around children but inhabit their perspective, tapping into a juvenile sense of imagination that explains the profound impact his work tends to have on younger viewers.”

"[Spielberg is guilty of] reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle..."Peter Biskind
'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls'

Going further, some critics have suggested Spielberg’s focus on children corrodes the audience, giving us a view of the world that’s more comforting than the complex reality we need to live in. Spielberg is guilty of “infantilizing the audience,” writes Peter Biskind in his book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ and “reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection.” Focusing specifically on E.T., Ilsa J Blick adds: “Instead of simply invoking the memories and associations of childhood, Spielberg consistently aims to infantalise the viewer. Thus, if the viewer is not looking through the eyes of Elliot or ET, he/she is looking at Elliot or ET looking up, just as children look to their parents or wonder at the stars.”

Ingrid E. Castro is kinder in her assessment, accepting that in his earlier films, Spielberg’s depiction of childhood was richer and more empowering. However, she also notes in her essay ‘Children, Innocence, and Agency in the Films of Steven Spielberg’ (which is available in the compendium ‘Children in the Films of Steven Spielberg’) that as he’s got older his films have begun to portray children as more innocent and in need of protection. This, she argues, has robbed them of their sense of empowerment. “In Spielberg’s films,” she writes, “the preservation of children’s innocence, a characteristic which is integral to adult redemption and character development/affirmation, transforms childhood into a “protectionist experience” for adults.”

Spielberg undoubtedly sees childhood as a magical state worthy of protection; it’s why Elliott in E.T. and Barry Guiler in Close Encounters of the Third Kind are open to the transcendental alien visitations those films depict. But it’s a magic that needs to be fought for and earned. Elliott is chased by the FBI and has to suffer through the apparent death of his new friend, while Barry undergoes a traumatic kidnapping after opening the door to the aliens. Even in Hook, one of Spielberg’s most maligned and apparently sentimental films, Peter Banning’s children are told the ultimate nightmare by Captain Hook. “Before you were born your parents would stay up all night together just to see the sun rise,” he insists. “Before you were born, they were happier. They were free.” Judging by Banning’s actions during the film, such a damning assessment might just be right.

Even as he’s got older and associated less with the child and more with the adult, Spielberg’s tenacious kids remain. In The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly gleefully battles Raptors using her talents in gymnastics. In A.I., David refuses to give up in pursuit of the Blue Fairy despite the odds being against him. In The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, the eponymous boy reporter is steadfast in his pursuit of the story. And in The BFG, Sophie refuses to be intimidated by the mean giants who make her friend’s life a misery. Spielberg’s children are all fighters and they have to be considering the odds against them. “I would not want to be a child in a Spielberg film,” James Kendrick, author of Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg, has noted. “They are constantly being abducted, enslaved and traumatized.”

Where does this come from? Like a lot of Spielberg’s cinema, it’s partly autobiographical. Spielberg was an anxious child who found fear everywhere and he’s hung on to that as he’s got older. “I use my childhood in all my pictures, and all the time,” he’s said. “I go back there to find ideas and stories. My childhood was the most fruitful part of my entire life. All those horrible, traumatic years I spent as a kid became what I do for a living today, or what I draw from creatively today.” Horrible? Traumatic? Surely not saccharine sweet Spielberg? But it’s true. “I was terrified by the tree. It was a huge tree,” Spielberg’s explained of a tree outside the window of his childhood bedroom (which almost certainly inspired the one that snatches Robbie in Poltergeist). “Every single night my imagination would find something else to fear. There was just something about bigness that scared me when I was a kid.”

“Every single night my imagination would find something else to fear. There was just something about bigness that scared me when I was a kid.”Steven Spielberg

Indeed, such ‘bigness’ recurs in many of Spielberg’s most significant films. The truck in Duel, the shark in Jaws, the Mothership in Close Encounters, the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the Tripods in War of the Worlds and the mean giants in The BFG are obvious examples, but others can be seen elsewhere, particularly in geographic locations. The wood the alien ship lands in E.T. is vast and intimidating, the temple in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an endless labyrinth of hellish pits and broken tunnels, the sunken New York of A.I. is a vast and desolate ocean, the forests of Always are infernos that humble and challenge the characters, and the airport in The Terminal seems to engulf Viktor and make connection with others impossible. Bigness lurks over everyone and that bigness is always a source of awe and wonder, fear and danger. It’s the thing that Spielberg’s characters have to counter, and it’s even more significant for his child characters, whose smallness it’s sharply juxtaposed with.

Adults are undoubtedly one example of the “bigness” that Spielberg feared and to understand his depiction of childhood, it’s important to understand how he portrays adulthood. Though his attitude to his adult characters has softened over the years (think of the kind father figures played by Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can and Bridge of Spies, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Mark Rylance in The BFG) he’s remained consistent in portraying adult characters with deep flaws and vulnerabilities. Spielbergian adults are weak (Martin Brody, David Mann), wild (Lou-Jean Poplin), morally dubious (Oskar Schindler, Keys), cowardly (Alan Grant), irresponsible (Roy Neary, Pete Sandich), ineffective (Jim Graham’s father), mercenary (Basie), destructive (John Anderton, Ray Ferrier) or selfish (Peter Banning). They’re rarely evil, but they do prove those Swedish censors right: they’re the enemies of children and throw down obstacles our youthful heroes must counter to get what they seek.

The subversion of social norms is how Spielberg’s children fight these monstrous adults. Think, for example, of Elliott breaking the formality of the dinner table by screaming obscenities (“penis breath!”) at his brother and friends in E.T, or Short Round showing disrespect for Indy by cheating in their card game during Temple of Doom. These are childish moments, and intentionally so. Spielberg isn’t interested in patronising his child characters by talking down to them, or elevating them to the point that they’re little more than miniature adults. That’d undermine the point. Instead he wants his child characters to revel in their childhood — their immaturity, their low status in society — and to show how those things make them more mature than the so-called mature grown-ups around them. When Sophie proudly describes herself as “an untrustworthy child” in The BFG, it’s a rallying cry for all Spielberg’s children. Being dismissed in such terms is a badge of honour.

Objects play a key role in this rebellion as well. Sometimes it’s just for mischief: the children in Jaws, for example, raise a false alarm on Amity’s beaches when they use a fake fin to convince beach-goers that a shark is lurking by the shore. At others, it’s more serious. In A.I., David’s toy Teddy helps guide him on his path to the Blue Fairy, offering the sort of comfort and acceptance he lacks from his parents. Meanwhile in Schindler’s List, The Girl in the Red Coat’s jacket helps her stand out in the chaos of the Holocaust and force Oskar Schindler into action. These are all childish items: toys or objects so small only a kid could own them. But Spielberg weaponises them by using them as tools of transformation and imagination. This is most apparent in Hook, where Peter Banning taps into his childhood by imagining an empty table is filled with colourful food that he and the Lost Boys use in a food fight. Another moment where the adult and childhood worlds clash. Another moment where social norms are undone by childish immaturity.

What else is the sight of E.T. and Elliott flying across the face of the moon on their bike but an updated version of the nursery rhymes of old?

It’s telling that Spielberg owns two key objects himself. In 1982, after the success of E.T., he won the Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane at auction, while in his Amblin office at Universal, he’s hung Norman Rockwell’s famous ‘Boy on a High Dive’, which pictures a small child peering over the edge of a tall diving board with fear and excitement etched across his face. For Spielberg, these objects are sources of inspiration and in that way they’re similar to props in a film (literally in the case of the Rosebud sled): items that encourage him in his endeavours. He sees the objects he gives to his children in a similar way. They’re playthings designed to ignite the imagination, totems that are to be used to inspire a wider narrative that’s deeply childish in nature. After all, what else is the sight of E.T. and Elliott flying across the face of the moon on their bike but an updated version of the nursery rhymes of old. Just like the cow, the alien and his human friend jumped over the moon.

It’s another autobiographical trait of Spielberg’s film-making that connects him back to his own youth. A prankster always looking for attention, young Spielberg would use practical jokes (a form of comedic storytelling) and associated props to win power. In one incident, he applied tomato ketchup to his face to convince people he’d been brutally beaten in a fight with another child, while during another he concocted a terrible blend of foods to act as fake vomit that he dispatched at a cinema in an incident that would be immortalised through Chunk in The Goonies. Not even his family could escape his inventive wrath. At home, he once used a fishbowl to recreate a character from a science fiction film his sisters found scary, and later cut the head off a doll and presented it to his sister Anne on a silver platter surrounded by a bed of lettuce. A lone boy among three sisters who struggled to fit in at school, Spielberg found strength his ability to use imagination to reclaim strength.

Most significantly, this also stretched to his interest in film. A bully had been tormenting the young Spielberg for months, but when putting together his latest amateur effort, the budding director saw a chance to win the boy over. Noticing that he bore a striking resemblance to Clint Eastwood, Spielberg asked him to join the cast of a war movie he was making, and suddenly their dynamic changed.

“Even when he was in one of my movies I was afraid of him. But I was able to bring him over to a place where I felt safer: in front of my camera. I didn’t use words. I used a camera, and I discovered what a tool and a weapon, what an instrument of self-inspection and self- expression it is…I had learned that film was power.”

Now he’s older, Spielberg recognises the need to pass the gift of storytelling on to this generation of kids. Speaking to Tom Shone during promotion for The BFG, he discussed the stories he tells his grandchildren and how he aims to empower them:

“They’re all stories of empowerment, and being magical or able to read your mom and dad’s mind, or your best friend being a Tyrannosaurus Rex that only you know about and he lives in your backyard. Only one time, you got on his back and he took you to school, and he scared all the kids, but when you brought him in for show-and-tell, they realised that he was a nice T-Rex. They all sat around and listened to his stories. It’s all about making kids feel like they can do anything. That nothing’s impossible.”

By granting his young characters objects and a language that only they can understand, Spielberg imbues them with power. It’s a power that means they’re able to craft their own lives and forge their own identities: ultimately taking back control of who they are. So those Swedish censors back in 1982 only understood half of the equation. Yes, adults are an enemy, but what makes Spielberg’s films truly inspiring and truly empowering is that his children, and by extension the children watching, are quite capable of taking them on. They’re untrustworthy children, one and all, and they’re not scared.  ?

Learn More…

Find out more about the films mentioned in this essay by visiting From Director Steven Spielberg’s Filmography section. A list of the books and sources referenced can be seen below, alongside other recommended reading.

Articles

  • ‘When Scandanavia banned E.T. for the under-11s’, Ryan Lambie, Den of Geek. Published May 23rd 2017.
  • ‘Inside the Mind of Steven Spielberg, Hollywood’s Big, Friendly Giant‘, Jon Mooallem, Wired. Published July 2016.
  • ‘The Darkness of Steven Spielberg‘, Interview with James Kendrick by Landon Palmer, Film School Rejects. Published 20th October 2016.
  • ‘Steven Spielberg: “It’s all about making kids feel like they can do anything”‘, Tom Shone, The Guardian. Published 16th July 2016.
  • ‘Family-friendly aliens and psychotic sharks: how Spielberg cast his spell’, Ian Freer, The Telegraph. Published 7th April 2016.
  • ‘Kids On Bikes: The Sci-Fi Nostalgia Of ‘Stranger Things’, ‘Paper Girls’ & ‘Super 8’, Glen Wheldon, NPR. Published 27th July 2016.
  • ‘The Peter Panning of Steven Spielberg’, Henry Sheehan. Originally published in Film Comment, May-June and July-August 1992. Part 1 and Part 2 archived online.
  • ‘The Screenwriter of “E.T.” and “The BFG” Says Goodbye‘, Tom Shone. The New Yorker. Published on 29th June 2016.

Books

  • ‘Darkness in the Bliss-Out: A Reconsideration of the Films of Steven Spielberg‘, James Kendrick. Published by Bloomsbury Academic, 3rd July 2014.
  • ‘Children in the Films of Steven Spielberg‘, Adrian Schober, Debbie C. Olson (eds). Published by Lexington Books, 15th April 2016.
  • ‘Empire of Dreams: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of Steven Spielberg‘, Andrew M. Gordon. Published by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 15th October 2007.
  • ‘Steven Spielberg: A Biography (Third Edition)‘, Joseph McBride. Published by Faber and Faber, 1st September 2012.

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