The Turner Classic Movies documentary Spielberg on Spielberg has two strikes against it from the very start, and they're both right there in the title. To begin with, there's limited value in having any artist handicap his or her own work; too often, he or she ends up displaying a blithe unawareness of failings everybody else has long since spotted. And intellectual rigor isn't a quality one would automatically associate with Steven Spielberg, who has no serious challengers to his status as cinema history's most monetarily successful middlebrow.
That said, this TCM outing is more worthwhile than it could have been. Though Spielberg is more of a craftsman than an artist, nobody could deny that he has plenty of interesting entries on his résumé. And as an interview subject, he's at least capable of simulating introspection. But like most of his movies, it's an endeavor best appreciated on the surface.
Pompously advertised as "A film by Richard Schickel," the special is essentially a bunch of clips from Spielberg's movies, interspersed with talking-head shots of him seated in a nebulous theater setting and explaining his life and work. (To break up the monotony, he is sometimes shot from the side and staring into space, making it seem as if our Greatest Living Director can't find the red light.)
Even when Spielberg's stories are familiar, they're fun to listen to: how he spent a summer as a teen stowaway on the Universal Studios lot. How a nonfunctioning mechanical shark forced him to make Jaws a scarier, more suggestive picture. How he struck a deal with George Lucas for points on a little movie called Star Wars. We don't, however, get to hear how Spielberg cut all ties with John Landis after the latter's contribution to Spielberg's Twilight Zone feature yielded little more than Vic Morrow's disembodied head. You can't have everything, I guess.
At least in passing, the doc acknowledges the most common criticism that has been leveled against Spielberg: that he's a sultan of schmaltz who can't resist giving a movie a happy ending, even when one is less than appropriate. That tendency comes up in a discussion of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Spielberg's lambasted completion of a project begun by the late Stanley Kubrick. Defying the general assumption, Spielberg maintains that the movie's incongruously sunny denouement had been part and parcel of Kubrick's initial story treatment — which is fascinating, but doesn't explain away the smiley face Spielberg has been accused of stamping on the more "serious," historically based material that has comprised so much of his latter-day focus.
The selective treatment of that supposedly more mature fodder sometimes borders on the racist. While a good chunk of the special is devoted to Schindler's List and Spielberg's subsequent efforts on behalf of Holocaust documentation, The Color Purple is lauded mainly for facilitating his entry into the realm of big people's cinema, thus making the likes of Schindler and Munich possible. Yes, those cute little dark folk make for a great warm-up when you're on your way to genuinely important business.
Other imbalances have less worrisome, more personal implications. In a post-mortem of the 1941 debacle, Spielberg tells how seeing himself humbled on the world stage helped him learn to be a less controlling but more controlled filmmaker. Yet there's no mention whatsoever of later stumbles like Hook and Always, thus preserving Spielberg's apparent thesis that a single screw-up taught him never to screw up again.
When it comes to the work of others, at least, the star of Spielberg on Spielberg comes off as quite the gracious guy, lavishing praise on collaborators like composer John Williams and writer Richard Matheson, who penned Spielberg's white-knuckle 1971 TV drama Duel. Naturally, having a suspenseful blueprint like Matheson's to work from doesn't mean much unless a filmmaker understands how to translate it technically. And on that front, Spielberg can hardly be faulted. Even the snippets we see here of films he shot as a teenager display a better sense of pacing and composition than can be found in most of what currently pass for event pictures.
Give the man his due: Few if any commercial directors better understand how story, character and visuals are supposed to converge in a piece of popcorn entertainment. And while none of his observations on the subject proves more sophisticated than the script notes the Zanucks used to distribute to their house directors, it's insight far deeper than what we've learned to expect from today's crop of hairdressers-turned-moguls and their megaphone-wielding toadies.
To devotees of so-called art film, the downward trajectory implied therein might not seem steep enough to matter much. But it will in 20 years, when you're watching Ratner on Ratner and wondering how things ever came to firstname.lastname@example.org