The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays – Charles L. P. Silet, Editor

Written by:
Eva Hunter
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Orson Welles was the wunderkind of his film generation, having achieved significant success and critical acclaim at an early age with his Mercury Theatre productions, followed by the films, Citizen Kane, The Magnificant Ambersons, and others. A generation later, Steven Spielberg was the contender who took Welles’s title. Only 25 years old in 1971 when he made Duel, his first feature film, Spielberg had already been directing segments for television series as diverse as Marcus Welby, M.D., Night Gallery, The Name of the Game, and Columbo for three years.

Like Welles before him, a significant portion of Spielberg’s work has received serious critical attention, in the latter’s case mostly in specialist publications and professional journals that are not always easily accessible. In The Films of Steven Spielberg, Charles L.P. Silet, a professor of English at Iowa State University, compiles 15 critical essays covering Spielberg’s work from Jaws, released in 1975, through 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. This compilation includes critical essays on—among others—Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List, and Amistad.

In a selection addressing Jaws, Jonathan Lemkin, himself a screenwriter whose credits include Devil’s Advocate, says:

"It [Jaws] is not a standard science fiction film, or a monster movie about giant exploding cockroaches. For unlike…other monster movie, Jaws is not a film set in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., or even the plains of the Midwest; it is about America—perhaps an America that does not exist and never did, but one the audience recognizes nonetheless."

Lemkin claims that the films of Steven Spielberg are films exploring the "symbolic landscape of America," and goes on to explain, "…the landscape in the film is an environment that never really existed, except in the archetypal American coastal town—absolutely the earliest American image, the settlements of the pilgrims on the coast of New England. It is the predecessor of the American rural ideal, and in that sense, the truest America. It is also a creation of nostalgia, a pure American community which is nothing less than mythic."

Other essays in the collection deal with Spielberg’s father fixation as manifested in films like Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Empire of the Sun (1987); or the puer (eternal child) aspect of much of the complete body of his work.

What the collection lacks, however, is a sense of the continuity and growth of the entire set of Spielberg’s films, and it is unfortunate that editor Charles Silet did not take this assignment on. Much of the analysis of Spielberg’s films in this volume has a decidedly Freudian tone. Although certain aspects of looking at the films in this way can be fascinating, often the prose and general approach in the essays is rather didactic. As such, the book would have limited appeal to the general reader. It is recommended, however, in an educational setting or to cognoscenti of twentieth century American film.

– Eva Hunter

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