Bill Wyman went on Slate’s Facebook page on Tuesday to chat with readers about his complete Steven Spielberg rankings and respond to questions about his critique of Spielberg’s career. He was joined by Slate culture editor John Swansburg and senior editor Dan Kois. The following transcript of the discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Bill Wyman: Greetings everyone. I thought this “Spielberg Completist” would be an immensely fun project, but I have to say after the first dozen or so movies it started to feel like a slog.
Bill Wyman: Besides watching Steven Spielberg’s two dozen or so films I read everything else I could about him, including a biography and a lot of Empire of Light, a terrific distillation of his moviemaking.
Bill Wyman: I’ve really enjoyed the comments in the three Slate articles; I’m happy to hear your thoughts.
Charles Gustine: You list many films that you think are profound or that only haters could complain about. Would you say sitting through all the lesser movies in one “sitting” and rediscovering all the quirks lessened your esteem of those sublime films, or did it just affect your image of Spielberg as filmmaker on the whole? If you’re still willing to call some of his work sublime, then, in spite of your objections, you’re still probably on Team Spielberg to some extent, right?
Bill Wyman: It might have made me more dyspeptic. I think I got cranky as I started seeing those tics emerge in so many films
Bill Wyman: It’s hard not to like his great films. But you have to notice that there are very few films in the last 20 or 25 years you’d willingly go back to.
Charles Gustine: I could see dyspeptic. More than anything, I was shocked at how anti-Spielberg much of it was, but that didn’t make it all invalid. It did seem that more than anything that could be gleaned from your rankings and your essay, you came away with a strong distaste for “Serious Spielberg,” perhaps stronger than you went in with? And yes, while I think Munich is a very good film most of the time, since Saving Private Ryan, or even since Jurassic Park, we’ve been getting a VERY uneven (though sometimes brilliant) Spielberg. Thanks for taking the time to answer by the way. This is really cool.
Will Dixon: Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders, and E.T. are so good … and there’s really not much else worth holding up on high in 30 years since (though Jurassic Park deserves praise). I’m not saying having five great films on your résumé isn’t noteworthy, but why SO much meh and mediocrity since?
Philip Poyner: I only ever watched Saving Private Ryan once. You would think, what with my being a veteran and all, that I’d consider it a favorite. I hated it. The first 20 minutes just seemed like an exercise in “I’m just trying to gross you out, but I’ll say I was just trying to be realistic.” And through it all I never really gave a hoot about any of the characters. Band of Brothers (on which Spielberg was executive producer) was a much more satisfying experience. At least it was to me …
Sean Trani: Bob Dylan once asked an interviewer why everyone always compared Dylan to Dylan and not to other artists. Seems like something is lost when comparing Spielberg to Spielberg, especially considering the monstrous amount of bad that comes from Hollywood. Thoughts?
Bill Wyman: Interesting. I think if you compare Spielberg to Spielberg you do him a favor. On his own terms, he’s impressive. Dylan on the other hand, is incomparable, so it’s almost a waste of time to compare him with others, unless they are titans or iconoclasts or jesters in other forms … Picasso, Fo, whoever else.
Dan Kois: BILL!!!! I really enjoyed the piece. And I am excited about how angry everyone will get about your rankings! Like for instance I am angry about you ranking Minority Report so low—that’s a movie that I thought was deliciously gross and weird and exciting and very UN-Spielbergian. Why did you spurn it?
Bill Wyman: Minority Report bothers me because it’s so lazy. The visuals are pretty good, I guess. (I still think he just says, “Make everything gray!”) But it’s so indolent. Cruise is surrounded by a bunch of guys but then he just … gets away!
Dan Kois: You seem super hung up on what you view to be narrative elision that I feel like is just part of the language of moviemaking. Is it that Spielberg pays such attention to everything else, so that things like that (which you would maybe let slide in, say, a Michael Bay movie) drive you extra crazy in Spielberg?
Bill Wyman: He takes it to a new level, one, and two, he’s not Michael Bay. He’s a distinguished and applauded master of the form. The enormity of the plot issues really roared at me after a while. And they run the spectrum of major plot holes to the “false tension” moments I noted, like Avner being roused from bed.
Webster K. Hodges: I second Dan’s comment on Minority Report, which is far and away my favorite Spielberg film. Deeply imaginative, heartbroken at its core, with a spectacular performance by Samantha Morton. The scene where she “sees” their dead son as he would be now (like the comparable scene in Ulysses, now that I think of it); the precog asking, “Is it now?”; the jailer in the wheelchair; Max von Sydow; I could go on and on. I agree that Spielberg often comes off as chilly and “technical,” but not this movie. Not by a long shot.
Bill Wyman: There are fun moments in Minority Report. Another Spielbergian tic is movies with nice premises that go off the rails in the second half. My feeling is that he doesn’t pay enough of a narrative foundation early one to bring it home coherently later. This was the big failing in Super 8 and Cowboys and Aliens, too.
Charles Gustine: I agree with Dan Kois. I felt like, if those were Spielberg’s MOST egregious jumps in narrative logic, over 40 years, then he’s doing pretty good. You probably left plenty out, of course, and it was an overall feeling you got, but as you point out, Spielberg is the Master Manipulator. If too many of those moments had truly rung false in some way with too many people in the audience, we wouldn’t have the Spielberg we have today. Those narrative jumps barely register to many people. People are willing to let a crowd disappear every once in a while because the filmic language is taking them somewhere. That’s why Spielberg is who he is.
Bill Wyman: Good point. As I said early on, much of this is axiomatic; he’s the most popular filmmaker ever, so of course by many standards what he does works.
Bill Wyman: As I wrote to one of the commenters, though, the idea that his work is not overwhelmingly given a pass by critics is dead wrong. He should be held to a higher standard.
John Swansburg: Was there one scene that you saw in the course of your viewing that just made you put down your notebook and say, “Damn, this guy kind of drives me crazy, but that was awesome/moving/magical”? Something you’d forgotten, or maybe never seen before embarking on this project?
Bill Wyman: Oh yeah. The obvious one is the bikes rising in E.T. What a conception, wonderfully set up and executed. You can’t not be affected by the force of the dinosaur attacks in Jurassic Park.
Bill Wyman: I love the deep focus landscape shots in Sugarland. There’s a great camera move in the hallway of the kid’s house in Sugarland, as well.
Bill Wyman: So much of Schindler’s List is beautifully shot; there’s a genuine bleakness in some of the compositions involving the cruelty of Fiennes. The assault on the ghetto is unforgettable.
Bill Wyman: And a few of the action sequences in Munich are of course powerful, though I thought all of the Olympic assault footage was stagey looking. And the sex scene montage is of course unforgivable.
Dan Kois: I thought your point about Spielberg’s directing of actors (and even his recognition of good acting) was interesting. What’s the best performance you think anyone’s given in a Spielberg movie? Are there performances that struck you as coming out of nowhere—as being delivered despite Spielberg’s inattention? (Samantha Morton comes to mind for me.)
Bill Wyman: There are good performances throughout his early movies. And in some of the later ones actors do what they are paid to do. I disagree with you about Morton; she looks to me to be overdirected. “Look afraid! Look scared!” Emily Watson is similarly wasted in War Horse.
Jaime Christley: I can’t wait until the “Ozu Completist” project! Three dozen of his films and all the available literature … that’ll be a pip!
Bill Wyman: See, that would be fun. Or Renoir!
Jaime Christley: “After Record of a Tenement Gentleman, it started to feel like a slog. I mean, what was he **trying to say**?”
Philip Poyner: Never mind that!! What was it like playing with the Stones? (I had to do it … couldn’t resist)
Bill Wyman: The Stones’ Bill Wyman and I have an uneasy relationship!
Wendy Fox Weber: I love Always! :(
Bill Wyman: Really honestly?
Bill Wyman: That’s so true. We were watching and entirely unmoved. Filmic flop sweat.
Bill Wyman: Thanks much to everyone who took the time to sit in. The comments sections to the articles are quite lively as well. I’ll be back on them later today.
Bill Wyman: The interaction with other film fans makes writing these things worth it!
Bill Wyman: Bye!