Volume 16, Issue 3 / March 2012

The Art of Science Fiction: Kubrick, Tarkovsky, and Spielberg

In this issue

For this issue Offscreen returns to the theme of a 2010 issue, cinematic science fiction, featuring two of the ‘purest’ and most intellectually stimulating (yet substantially diverse) films, Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s poetically infused Solaris (1972); and a mini-spotlight (a first for Offscreen) on Steven Spielberg. As different as Solaris and 2001 are, Saunders, in his essay on the latter film, hints at something important they both share: the belief that humanity cannot know everything there is to know about the world and the universe. This “limitation” leads to different consequences for the respective characters in these two films. First time writer Elena V. Rodina gives a splendid and highly detailed close reading (including statistical analysis) of one key scene from Solaris, the “Berton Report” sequence (the scene where scientist/pilot Berton shows a video tape to Kris Kelvin). As someone who has used and appreciates statistical analysis when used alongside appropriate interpretative meaning (as is the case here), there is much to learn from Rodina’s narrowly defined (in terms of the single sequence analysis) but ambitious essay. The next three essays deal with Steven Spielberg. Although a good part of the positive critical discourse around Spielberg’s work has circulated around his more socially aware and serious works (The Color Purple, Amistad, Schindler’s List, Munich, The War Horse, etc.), his larger fan base is centered on his more popular genre works, specifically his groundbreaking (for many reasons, including technical and economical) work on the fantastic, horror, and science-fiction. From his first directorial effort, the episode of Night Gallery starring Joan Crawford, “Eyes” (1969), to his first two made-for- TV features, Duel (1971) and Something Evil, Spielberg demonstrated an assured directorial skill in the art of achieving suspense, horror and a sense of wonder (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark (and its many sequels), Jurassic Park, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, The Adventures of Tin Tin). Many critics are divided across appreciating either Spielberg the Entertainer or Spielberg the Social Commentator. Where some directors attempt to achieve both popular genre and social awareness in their films (for example George Romero or Larry Cohen), Spielberg is more an either/or director (though it would be foolish to even suggest that popular genre films do not aspire to or reflect more than ‘just’ entertainment). The book treated in Daniel Garrett’s review, Steven Spielberg’s America by Frederick Wasser, deals (among many other things) with this discourse. In fact, as Garrett notes, Wasser argues against the either/or view of Spielberg by noting “that early Spielberg films contained some social and political aspects that audiences ignored.” My own piece on Spielberg indirectly deals with this discourse by incorporating the impact of the Kubrick/Spielberg ‘duality’ of the film’s life history into my discussion of the film’s ‘meta-narrative’ centered around its many cinematic allusions. I must confess to feeling apathy toward Spielberg’s “serious” films, partly because I have always disliked overt sentimentalism in my films (of which some of his films are guilty). The “serious” films that I have seen without wholly liking are, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, Schindler’s List (Munich, which remains an uncompromising film, I admired). I have never felt the urge to see E.T., Empire of the Sun, The Terminal, or The War Horse. I’m of the mind that Spielberg is in his true milieu when dealing with the worlds of the wondrous and the fantastic, where his sentimentalism does not get caught up in history or realism. While his serious films are clearly striving for something high, I find they are more likely (than his pure popular genre films) to be greatly compromised by one misstep or another. Garrett’s second (largely appreciative) piece on Spielberg deals exclusively with perhaps the Spielberg film that has strove the highest (and is for that reason, his most contentious) Schindler’s List. (Donato Totaro, ed.)

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