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There are two important elements there: the sense of wonder and hope, and the identification with a child's point of view. Spielberg's best characters are like elaborations of the heroes from old Boy's Life serials, plucky kids who aren't afraid to get in over their head. Even Oskar Schindler has something of that in his makeup--the boy's delight in pulling off a daring scheme and getting away with it.
Spielberg heroes don't often find themselves in complex emotional entanglements (Celie in The Color Purple is an exception). One of his rare failures was Always, with its story of a ghost watching his girl fall in love with another man. The typical Spielberg hero is drawn to discovery, and the key shot in many of his films is the revelation of the wonder he has discovered. Remember the spellbinding first glimpse of the living dinosaurs in Jurassic Park?
Spielberg's first important theatrical film was The Sugarland Express, made in 1974, a time when gifted auteurs like Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, De Palma and Malick ruled Hollywood. Their god was Orson Welles, who made the masterpiece Citizen Kane entirely without studio interference, and they too wanted to make the Great American Movie. But a year later, with Jaws, Spielberg changed the course of modern Hollywood history. Jaws was a hit of vast proportions, inspiring executives to go for the home run instead of the base hit. And it came out in the summer, a season the major studios had generally ceded to cheaper exploitation films. Within a few years, the Jaws model would inspire an industry in which budgets ran wild because the rewards seemed limitless, in which summer action pictures dominated the industry and in which the hottest young directors wanted to make the Great American Blockbuster.
Spielberg can't be blamed for that seismic shift in the industry. Jaws only happened to inaugurate it. If the shark had sunk for good (as it threatened to during the troubled filming), another picture would have ushered in the age of the movie best sellers--maybe Star Wars, in 1977. And no one is more aware than Spielberg of his own weaknesses. When I asked him once to make the case against his films, he grinned and started the list: "They say, 'Oh, he cuts too fast; his edits are too quick; he uses wide-angle lenses; he doesn't photograph women very well; he's tricky; he likes to dig a hole in the ground and put the camera in the hole and shoot up at people; he's too gimmicky; he's more in love with the camera than he is with the story.'"
All true. But you could make a longer list of his strengths, including his direct line to our subconscious. Spielberg has always maintained obsessive quality control, and when his films work, they work on every level that a film can reach. I remember seeing E.T. at the Cannes Film Festival, where it played before the most sophisticated filmgoers in the world and reduced them to tears and cheers.
In the history of the last third of 20th century cinema, Spielberg is the most influential figure, for better and worse. In his lesser films he relied too much on shallow stories and special effects for their own sake. (Will anyone treasure The Lost World: Jurassic Park a century from now?) In his best films he tapped into dreams fashioned by our better natures.