Sunday, October 8, 2017

SPIELBERG documentary on HBO

I have blogged numerous times about my frustration with the decades-long lack of racial diversity in the field of film critics and movie historians that are presented to us on network TV news programs and syndicated entertainment news programs. SPIELBERG, the documentary that premiered on HBO last night, unintentionally underscores my point.  Ironic because, however critics may feel about the filmmaker, you can't deny that his works -- and even his family man home life -- embrace diversity and inclusion.  I have been a Steven Spielberg fan ever since I was in high school.  I am now in the AARP category.  I vividly recall seeing DUEL when it was a 1971 ABC Movie of the Week.  Here in America, the man versus truck thriller was a made-for-TV movie.  Overseas, it was a theatrical release. (That's something you don't learn in the documentary).  The next day at school -- in the Watts section of South Central L.A. -- a few of us guys in homeroom and during lunch were buzzing about this new young director dude named Steven Spielberg.  He was just a few years older than we were.
So, I remember when summer was a relaxed season for new Hollywood releases and TV shows.  In the summer, you saw the repeats of shows that you missed in the fall because you had to do homework and such.  Summer vacation was for TV repeats and often for networks airing pilots of shows that didn't get picked up.  One that stood out to me was YOU'RE GONNA LOVE IT HERE.  This was a comedy pilot starring...Ethel Merman.  She played a larger and louder than life character named Lolly.  Merman also sang the show's theme song.  Summer movies were mostly light.  Fall was for the possible Oscar contenders to be released.  Spielberg's JAWS changed the Hollywood box office game in 1975.  The book had a been a best-seller.  Young moviegoers lined up to see JAWS again and again.  It was like an amusement park thrill ride.  The tremendous financial success of the film many felt would be a flop started the Hollywood shark feeding frenzy for other action-packed movies to be released in the summer.  JAWS gave rise to the Top 5 Box Office reports on how well movies did over the weekend.
I also remember all the entertainment reporters and film critics I saw on TV in those days ... and now.  The director of SPIELBERG is Susan Lacy who wonderfully gave us the AMERICAN MASTERS documentary specials we saw on PBS.  I've met Ms. Lacy.  When AMERICAN MASTERS: LUCILLE BALL premiered, I was a guest host on New York City's PBS station to talk about the time the comedy legend invited me to her home -- and to urge viewers to pledge to PBS/Channel 13.

As one would expect, friends and film critics talk about the uniqueness of Steven Spielberg in the documentary.  There were six film critics seen on-camera in it -- Janet Maslin, David Edelstein, A.O. Scott, J. Hoberman, Gene Shalit, Todd McCarthy -- and a film historian.  All white folks.  Not that a white journalist can't review a film about African American life or one that stars African American actors.  However, just like I noticed on New York City TV back in 1985 when it came out, there wasn't one black film critic in the HBO doc talking about THE COLOR PURPLE.  From 1985 to 2017.
Steve Spielberg and actress/wife Kate Capshaw have more black people in their family than you see in the half dozen film critics giving comments on his career and work in the HBO documentary.  You will see for yourself when you see footage of Spielberg's sweet home life and his kids.

The documentary runs 2 and half hours.  For me, it flew by because -- as I mentioned -- I'm a big Spielberg fan and he rarely does interviews on TV.  As they probably did for him, classic films helped sooth my heart when I was in middle school and our parents divorced.  I was a good kid, a lonely bookworm who didn't know how to express his loneliness.  I didn't see my father about 20 years.  Characters in classic and new movies voiced what I had no language for.  Spielberg's youth were underscored with loneliness that a love for classic films healed.  I was politely jealous of Spielberg in my youth.  I wish I had his access to opportunities. A guy like young Spielberg could sneak onto a Hollywood studio lot and talk his way into a job.  The same with young actor Steve Guttenberg who, the story goes, claimed he knew someone on a Hollywood lot and that moxie led to auditions.  The late Garry Shandling got a gig as a writer for the SANFORD AND SON sitcom.  Like Spielberg, I was on the cusp of my teen years when I knew that film was my passion. I wanted to be on camera in films or on camera talking about them and talking to the folks who made them.  But, unlike Spielberg, a black or Mexican-American guy from South Central L.A. could not sneak off a Universal tour bus, hide and later talk his way into a job at the studio.  A young black guy in South Central L.A. could not go over to NBC Burbank and get a gig writing for SANFORD AND SON, even though the sitcom was placed in South Central L.A. and focused on black life.  Garry Shandling would have better luck getting that gig.

We young males of color who were just as passionate about film as Steven Spielberg had already learned that, for us, the playing field was not level.

I would love to interview him, of course.  I've met him but I've never interviewed him.  Steven Spielberg has reminded me of two movies characters.  During my VH1 years, I had the great opportunity to tape a half hour interview of genius voice actor Mel Blanc in his Hollywood home.  Off-camera, Blanc was blunt in telling me how much he disliked the young, talented but bratty Steven Spielberg.  As you know, Blanc was the famous voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and several other classic cartoon characters.  Spielberg, a producer on 1988's WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, wanted Blanc to do cartoon voice work.  But he wanted Blanc to audition.  Mel Blanc was furious.  He was world-famous for doing cartoon voices before Spielberg had grown pubic hair.  Blanc reminded me that 1985's THE COLOR PURPLE got 11 Oscar nominations including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Picture.  But not for Best Director.  Blanc, who gave me a fabulous interview, said that Spielberg would have to embrace his roots and learn humility before Hollywood gave him an Oscar.  Think of THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL when the veteran film director tells producer Jonathan Shields (played by Kirk Douglas) that he would need "humility" if he wanted to take over the production and replace him.  That's what a good director needs.  Humility.  When the high-powered producer takes over as director, he comes to realize the veteran director he fired was absolutely right about the humility.
I thought of that watching the documentary.  Especially the strong, heartbreaking section about 1993's SCHINDLER'S LIST, winners of Oscars for Best Picture...and Best Director.
The other character Spielberg reminds me of is the top Hollywood producer that Joel McCrea plays in the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy classic, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS.  He's known for pleasing millions of moviegoers with his comedies.  His films are mass market entertainment.  But he yearns to make a movie with a serious message about the stark realities of life.  Then the rich producer winds us suffering a short case of amnesia far away from Hollywood and experiences the stark realities of life in the poor South without his wallet and identification.

Some critics still carp that Spielberg gives us mostly popcorn movies, mass market entertainment.  But it's that kind of entertainment I always sought when I had a heavy heart.  I didn't rent Ingmar Bergman's CRIES AND WHISPERS.

At the loopy happy ending of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, the rich producer is on his way back to Hollywood with a new outlook about his work.  What he says is what some of those pretentious critics should realize when they disrespect Spielberg's body of entertainment:

"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh.  Did you know that that's all some people have?  It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

I have years of movie critic work on TV and in print to my credits.  If I was one of the critics in the SPIELBERG doc, I would've mentioned that reference from SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS in regards to why Spielberg matters.  Look for repeats of the documentary on HBO.


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