Friday, June 25, 2004

STUCK IN THE TERMINAL

Spielberg is in a quandry. It's not unlike the quandry faced by the Tom Hanks' character in Spielberg's current offering The Terminal. The greatest populist director of our time, Spielberg has achieved everything most people could dream of in Hollywood. (Which is part of his problem. There is no greater stunt to creativity than actually getting everything you want.) He has a stack of blockbuster films. Household name. More money than Charles Foster Kane. And with Schindler's List, he won the "You're important! Yes, you are!" moniker from the industry (which, as Medved is always saying, ultimately drives the Hollywood elite more than Porche). But, just like Hanks stuck at Gate 67, Speilberg can't seem to buy the ticket for the one thing he wants most: To be a great cinematic master - an artist more than a populist. And what separates the craftsman from the artist? Theme. Spielberg wants desperately to say something original and important, but he doesn't seem to have it in him. Even Shindler's List failed in this. It was horrific, compelling, memorable -- but also devastatingly obvious.

How else to explain the cinematic meandering that Spielberg is engaged with in his last couple of cute little movies? Catch Me if You Can and The Terminal are both over-produced little stories that have elements of sweetness and light, but which ultimately feel hollow. There just isn't any there, there.

Don't get me wrong. I gasped at the beauty of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and am in awe of the suspense-building technique. Spielberg s exceptionally good at what he does. But I think "what he does" just isn't enough for him anymore. So, he is wandering around, trying out little movies, to see if that is where meaning may be found.

The director has desperately tried to make himself a brilliant reputation with films like AI, (Pathetic attempt to appropriate Kubrick's spiritual distortion. On Spielberg it just felt embarrassingly pretentious.) Minority Report (Fun film. Too bad the real minorities here were the deep insights.) and Saving Private Ryan (The battle scenes are amazing. The insight into men at arms was awol.) All of these faltered under Speilberg's facile gremlin. Borrowing from Flannery O'Connor, Speilberg just can't seem to give up finding cause and effect solutions for every human problem. He has no comfort with mystery - and so his movies all end up feeling pretty pat.

The Terminal is yet another well-produced - really over-produced - vehicle that never really gets off the runway. Hanks does a great job of being cute and sympathetic, but ultimately, just like his character, he has no journey to make. The film takes more than an hour to establish the stakes for Hanks, and then, they are, well, silly.

This isn't the first time, Spielberg tries to cover a lack of conflict with the musical talents of composer, John Williams. I remember Amistad also had a swelling score in the background of what one critic described as "basically a two-hour seminar on property law." Catherine Zeta-Jones is so lovely here -- but her character too is stranded.

Speilberg is a good enough director to know when he isn't hitting the marks, so there are smatterings of atttempts to generate conflict by creating a contrived villain, and to heighten the stakes by suggesting a love-story -- but ultimately, the film fails because it never becomes what it is essentially about. That is, it should have been about being a man without a country, but these issues are skirted over completely. (There was a cool movie, Man Without a Country that I saw in high school. Made a huge impression on me.) It was like Jurassic Park never really got to the issue of "When Man Tries to Be God, He Ends Up Making Monsters." Or, in AI, the movie never gets deep into what should have been its fundamental question: "So, What Makes a Human Soul?!"

So, like most of Spielberg's recent projects, The Terminal feels just kind of episodic - Speilberg creating lots of delightful little moments that ultimately add up to very little.

Oh, if only Spielberg could, like, lose all his money, spend a few years in some public opprobrium and enter into some dark night of the soul. But, I don't think he is going to be that lucky.

I can't recommend The Terminal. Unless you like getting on two hour airplane rides that end up bringing you right back where you left.

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