Steven Spielberg's first films were made at a time when directors were the most important people in Hollywood, and his more recent ones at a time when marketing controls the industry. That he has remained the most powerful filmmaker in the world during both periods says something for his talent and his flexibility. No one else has put together a more popular body of work, yet within the entertainer there is also an artist capable of The Color Purple and Schindler's List. When entertainer and artist came fully together, the result was E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, a remarkable fusion of mass appeal and stylistic mastery.
Spielberg's most important contribution to modern movies is his insight that there was an enormous audience to be created if old-style B-movie stories were made with A-level craftsmanship and enhanced with the latest developments in special effects. Consider such titles as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the other Indiana Jones movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Jurassic Park. Look also at the films he produced but didn't direct, like the Back to the Future series, Gremlins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Twister. The story lines were the stuff of Saturday serials, but the filmmaking was cutting edge and delivered what films have always promised: they showed us something amazing that we hadn't seen before.
Directors talk about their master images, the images that occur in more than one film because they express something fundamental about the way the filmmakers see things. Spielberg once told me that his master image was the light flooding in through the doorway in Close Encounters, suggesting, simultaneously, a brightness and mystery outside. This strong backlighting turns up in many of his other films: the aliens walk out of light in Close Encounters, E.T.'s spaceship door is filled with light, and Indy Jones often uses strong beams from powerful flashlights.
In Spielberg, the light source conceals mystery, whereas for many other directors it is darkness that conceals mystery. The difference is that for Spielberg, mystery offers promise instead of threat. That orientation apparently developed when he was growing up in Phoenix, Ariz. One day we sat and talked about his childhood, and he told me of a formative experience.
"My dad took me out to see a meteor shower when I was a little kid," he said, "and it was scary for me because he woke me up in the middle of the night. My heart was beating; I didn't know what he wanted to do. He wouldn't tell me, and he put me in the car and we went off, and I saw all these people lying on blankets, looking up at the sky. And my dad spread out a blanket. We lay down and looked at the sky, and I saw for the first time all these meteors. What scared me was being awakened in the middle of the night and taken somewhere without being told where. But what didn't scare me, but was very soothing, was watching this cosmic meteor shower. And I think from that moment on, I never looked at the sky and thought it was a bad place."