“I always like to
think of the audience when I am directing, because I am the audience.”
Perhaps this quote, which adorns the collectible booklet in the recently-released “Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection” gets at the core of why Steven Spielberg is one of our most critically divisive artists. For every film lover who bows at the altar of Indiana Jones and E.T., there’s one who will tell you that Spielberg is overly sentimental and crowd-pleasing to a fault. Some critics would argue that a director shouldn’t make a movie for the audience but for their art or for some other inner purpose. Spielberg is admitting that he makes films to please the people sitting in a darkened theater, staring up at what he still embraces as the magic of movies. And this set, to a certain extent, captures that eagerness to please through various phases of his career. For the record, I’m a huge fan. Always have been. I understand the criticisms of some of his work, and see more of them as I get older, but I was raised in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and so my love of cinema can really be tracked with a lot of Spielberg’s work. I’ve possibly seen “Jaws” more than any other film, and consider it one of the form’s best, ever. I wanted to be Indiana Jones more than Luke Skywalker. And I’ll debate the merit of his later work as well, considering “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” “War of the Worlds,” “Munich,” “Minority Report” and “Lincoln” to be among his best films, and some of the best of their individual years. So, the “Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection” is aimed at me. And it connects. Well, mostly.
As with any 8-film collection of a filmmaker with as lengthy of a resume as Spielberg, the first thing people are going to question are what’s included and what’s missing. As this is a Universal-produced set, only their films could be included, but they chose to exclude “Schindler’s List,” perhaps because it’s a more serious film than the eight in this set. Instead, we get four films that were previously available on Blu-ray—“Jaws,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World”—along with four debuts—“Duel,” “Sugarland Express,” “1941” and “Always.” While my dream Spielberg collection would probably replace about six of these eight, it’s still a solid sampler set that offers plenty of evidence of its director’s lasting power. And the transfers are uniformly solid (some more so than others) while the great special features on films like “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” have been imported. The new films lack any truly notable special features (other than the restoration of “1941”) but just having these “more obscure” Spielberg flicks in your collection might be enough.
More than enough has been written about “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “The Lost World.” They’ve all been available on Blu-ray for some time and they’re all well-worth owning, especially “Jaws” one of my favorite movies of all time. There are no new special features on any of them, but they round out this set nicely, serving as the foundation for the release of the four films new to Blu-ray, which we’ll discuss individually:
For a lot of fans, “Duel” is going to be the standout new addition. Long-admired as a lean, mean thriller, “Duel” was a TV movie that announced the arrival of a major new filmmaker. It’s fascinating to watch now as an overture to the rest of Spielberg’s career, including the films in this set. In many ways, the truck that terrorizes our woeful traveler is not unlike the shark in “Jaws,” unstoppable and menacing. Dennis Weaver plays an everyman in the mold that Spielberg would reuse in films like “Jaws” and “Close Encounters.” And there’s such confidence to the visual storytelling here from such a young director—a headlight in a mirror, a camera angle that seems like it’s the POV of the actual road, close-ups of speedometers and whirring pavement. Spielberg conveys such a keen sense of movement, making the dynamic so much more terrifyingly relatable. I think Weaver overplays a few beats (and love the special revelation that it was his wide-eyed fear in “Touch of Evil” that got him this part) but it’s a minor complaint. I wish there were more TV movies like this in 2014.
The sense of movement in “Duel” transitions nicely to “Sugarland Express,” a film in which Spielberg would hone more of his skill with actors than his technical prowess. “Sugarland,” based on a true story, is a deceptively simple film (arguably too much so given its somewhat-bloated running time) but it’s quirkier and cleverer than I remembered. It feels now like an ancestor of “Catch Me If You Can” with its representation of people who refused to be average. I love how these two felons never quite understand the seriousness of their situation. They are Bonnie and Clyde without the fatalism. Again, I feel like “Sugarland” needed a bit of tightening in the editing booth but I like the double feature of “Duel” and “Express” as an introduction to themes and techniques that Steven Spielberg would use for his entire career.
Then we get to “1941,” a film that has arguably been more debated and reconsidered than any in Spielberg’s career. When it was first released, it hit the movie theater floor with a thud. Looking at it again now, one can only imagine what that was like to experience this kind of star-studded disaster in theaters. Look at that cast! And Spielberg had just made “Jaws” and “Close Encounters.” He was on top of the WORLD. It’s easy to say to yourself that “1941” was doomed from the start by high expectations created by its comedy all-star cast and its director. It’s tempting to say “people didn’t get it.” And that has led to the commonly held theory that “1941” is Spielberg’s lost masterpiece. I’m not quite willing to go there. It deserved a better fate than the complete dismissal history granted it on its release but revisiting it now (I watched the theatrical, for the record, and not the extended), one can still see its flaws: It’s bloated, the timing is often off, the themes are underdeveloped, it feels slapsticky instead of smart, etc. As a kid entranced with Spielberg’s fantasies, I HATED “1941.” As an adult, I see why people have dug it out of the bargain bin of history and reassessed it. I’m just not quite ready to put it on the pedestal yet. Give me another 30 years.
Finally, there’s the oddity that is “Always,” one of Spielberg’s most unabashedly old-fashioned and sentimental films. It’s not just the “Love Lasts Forever” aspect of the film that’s old-fashioned. I had forgotten how much the dialogue, humor and tone of the entire piece feels like a film that should have been made 40 years earlier (and it is a remake of the 1943 romantic drama “A Guy Named Joe”). “Always” is an unusual film in the Spielberg legacy in that it’s probably the one that’s least discussed. Now that “1941” has a robust following, this one feels like the “forgotten” Spielberg. It’s not his worst film, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking it’s his best. And the Blu-ray won’t change that. It has a soft, gauzy transfer that could be intentional or could be lazy and not a single special feature outside of the trailer. It’s the afterthought in a great collection. But almost every Blu-ray collection has one.