Steven Spielberg

A Life in Flms

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Molly Haskell
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     2018.
     248 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780300234473.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Why would Reading Religion publish a review of a short biography of Steven Spielberg? Two answers present themselves. First, this book is part of Yale University Press’s ongoing series “Jewish Lives” which also includes Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch (by Yair Zakovitch, 2012), Moshe Dayan: Israel’s Controversial Hero (by Mordechai Bar-On, 2012), and several dozen other titles.

The less obvious reason is that the author, Molly Haskell, takes note of any and all religious motifs in Spielberg’s films. Two examples, drawn more or less at random, include her analysis of Empire of the Sun, in which she writes that “in another sign of redeemer humanity, an amoral hollowed-out boy has somehow found his way out of mere selfish survival into compassion, maybe to some kind of God” (122). In the next chapter, Haskell writes of the Indiana Jones series, noting that “the Lucas-Spielberg films are a mash-up of pop cultural mythical, and religious motifs and archetypes, with Lucas more into Jungian figurations and Steven of a more mystical bent” (129).

I find it rare and refreshing to see this type of religious-studies-influenced analysis in a mainstream film book; I particularly appreciate how attuned Haskell is to the mythological patterns of American life present in both Spielberg’s life and in his films— the outsider looking into the suburban home, the broken family restored, the search for transcendence.

Haskell’s techniques are revealed in the double meaning of the book’s subtitle: A Life in Films. Yes, Spielberg has spent his entire life making films—from his first feature film Firelight (made at age 16 with a budget of $500) to his thirty-odd studio films and counting. But more significantly, in this volume his life is described to us through his films, using both overall themes and specific scenes to illuminate Spielberg’s personality and concerns. So this book works as a psychobiography, allowing Haskell to indulge in light Freudian analysis throughout: childhood trauma giving rise to Spielberg’s pattern of adult obsessions, the father figures in his films deriving from his own father. The book’s early chapters focus on Spielberg’s boyhood as the grandson of Jewish emigrants from Ukraine. Spielberg was born in Cincinnati in 1946 (before moving with his family to New Jersey, Arizona, and then Northern California) and this fact allows Haskell the opportunity to present us a short history of Reform Judaism, complete with a cameo appearance by Isaac Mayer Wise. These chapters tell us of Spielberg’s fascination with Christmas, and his preference for attending Boy Scout meetings over Hebrew School. Haskell’s point is that Spielberg grew up with a double message—“you’re assimilated, but don’t forget you’re Jewish” (17)—and this doubleness is reflected throughout his filmography.

Less convincing is how Haskell quotes Spielberg recounting his first memory—a visit to a synagogue at six months of age where as an infant Spielberg viewed the Ark of the Torah. “For all we know that Ark may have triggered a primary anxiety attack” (13), Haskell speculates. Certainly, the famous climax from Raiders of the Lost Ark is anxiety-producing, but is really also, as Haskell calls it,“a call to transcendence that speaks in a universal language to audiences of every nation, tribe, and religion” (13)?

After a chapter on Spielberg as a striving prodigy at Universal Studios, which may be less useful to the religion scholar, Haskell settles into a format that she maintains for the rest of the book: each brief chapter covers between one to three films (up to and including 2015’s Bridge of Spies), each of which is thoughtfully reviewed. I particularly appreciated Haskell’s passionate reevaluations of some overlooked or unjustifiably criticized films, namely Empire of the SunAmistad, and A.I. Judaism disappears until the chapter on Schindler’s List and The Shoah Foundation, dedicated to recording the testimony of survivors of genocide, on which Spielberg spent three years and millions of dollars. This was when Spielberg “had now fully confronted his own Jewishness,” argues Haskell (149).

While 1982’s E.T. is embraced as a “religious parable” (99), the film Haskell subjects to the most explicitly religious analysis is 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, writing that it “makes us feel the power of a religious calling, a vocation summoning one out of the blue in a leap of faith leaving all behind” (71). A more teachable moment, perhaps, is when Haskell compares Close Encountersto another movie that came out the same year: Star Wars, created by Spielberg’s friend George Lucas. “In their nostalgia for the sci-fi films, the Westerns, the TV shows (and books) of adolescence,” writes Haskell, “they were out to create, or refashion, a peculiarly American set of myths” (79). When Lucas and Spielberg team up to create the Raiders series, Haskell notes astutely that “the nostalgia—this wistful mythologizing of a synthetic past—is not just for old movies but for the young selves that loved them” (89). Even more astutely, Haskell notes that “this wistful mythologizing” applies not only to the pop-pastiche of Raiders (or Ready Player One) but also to more “serious” films like Lincoln (or The Post).

That this book takes religion and mythology so seriously should not be surprising: Haskell, in addition to having a long career as a film reviewer, and to writing one of the earliest books of feminist film analysis (1974’s From Reverence to Rape, Penguin Books), contributed an essay to the important 2003 collection The Hidden God: Film and Faith (Museum of Modern Art).

I recommend this readable book for anyone interested in researching or teaching on the subjects of film and Judaism (for which it might be paired with Neal Gabler’s An Empire of the Their Own [Anchor, 1989]and Michael Rogin’s Black Face, White Noise [University of California Press, 1998]), or American mythology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elijah Siegler is Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Molly Haskell is a film critic and the author of five previous books, including From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, and Love and Other Infectious Diseases. She writes and lectures widely on film. She lives in New York City.

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