The Dilemma of Man and Family: Examining the Ordinary Man and Family Dynamic through the Influence of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock on the films of Steven Spielberg
Paper by Jesse Reid.
The art of achieving your “voice” or self-identity in art, as in life, involves years of experience and learning through trial and error. The cinematic experience terms this ability to find your “voice” or identity as a director The Auteur Theory. As stated in Film Archives (P.G Neil, 2016) this principle of director making films that bear his unique and distinctive fingerprint is that, “They’re films are very stylized and often have an underlying theme that socially challenges one’s perspective. Everything from Mise-en-scene to choice in music or production design is often that of the same as afar as tone in each director’s inventory of work. Auteur directors usually have a body of work that maintains a certain level of tone and style that is easily identifiable to that of the director’s brand” (1). Though the auteur director is unique in his vision to craft his cinematic narrative, those that are seen as truly great have examined and integrated influences from the auteurs that preceded them. To truly understand the filmmaking expertise of the auteur Steven Spielberg, an analysis of those that influenced his narrative content must be undertaken. The styles, and themes of master filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock continue to remain relevant and have an impact on the art of motion picture production. The impact that their combined talents have had can be seen in the narratives of contemporary cinema, most notably in the narratives of their modern day equivalent Steven Spielberg. Through an analysis of the ordinary man and family dynamic in scenes from the Spielberg films Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975),Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005) a direct lineage to this convention of narrative will be ascertained, which has allowed the influence of these masters of film to become the foundation for this convention of narrative in present day cinema.
The styles and narrative conventions of both Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock featured similarities that set them apart from their contemporaries. Through the use of individual methods of filmmaking regarding the use of Cinematography, Lighting, etc., as well as in narrative content, Hitchcock and Kubrick achieved the pinnacle of their respective artistic visions, a “holy grail” sought after, but elusive, to all but a few dedicated filmmakers. This achievement of an auteurs vision oftentimes would receive acclaim without the accompanying commercial success. Regarding Alfred Hitchcock in Jeanne T. Allen’s response to R. Barton Palmer’s “The Metafictional Hitchcock: The Experience of Viewing and the Viewing of Experience in Rear Window and Psycho” (Winter, 1985), she asserts that, “Hitchcock’s classic Hollywood realist style made him attractive to a mass audience” (54). This similarity of commercial appeal can also be seen in the success of Steven Spielberg. Conversely, regarding the filmmaking style of Stanley Kubrick, as contended in Sense of Cinema: Stanley Kubrick (Keith Ublich, May 2002), “Controversy surrounded many of his projects. On a surface level, Kubrick seemed willing to alienate the audience for his desired effects. Yet the constant control and manipulation of all things surrounding his work also freed it up to interpretation. One knows for the most part, that one is watching a Kubrick movie-its authorship is clear” (4). Though Kubrick focused more on an “Art-Cinema” aesthetic to achieve his artistic vision, the ability to court controversy is a common thread with all three auteurs, for Spielberg, Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and for Hitchcock in his opus Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). The influence of strict control thereby freeing up the work to allow individual interpretation also runs through the narrative of all three auteurs, this allowance for individual interpretation is the cornerstone for audience engagement, an attribute this innovative trio were, and are, renowned for.
The films of Steven Spielberg have evolved over time, allowing him the “voice” in film that is the infrastructure of the commercially and artistically successful narratives that compose his cinematic catalog. Sense of Cinema: Steven Spielberg (Stephen Rowley, February, 2002), examines this when it states, “He is, in box-office terms the most successful director ever, and there are few things quite so damaging to the reputation of an artist than extreme popularity” (3). Though his films have achieved commercial success, much like his predecessors Hitchcock and Kubrick, (though Kubrick’s films gained much more popularity after his death), his initial films were only stepping stones to pave the way for the eventual innovative cinematic experience that he presents today. Beginning with his first theatrical releases Duel (1971), and The Sugarland Express (1974), the pathway was laid for the commercial and artistic success he would eventually achieve. As contended in Sense of Cinema, concerning the argumentative approach that his popularity has somehow diminished his “artistic merit”, “What such an approach forgets is that the typical pre-Jaws audience wasn’t sitting with a martini glass in hand soaking up McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) and Amarcord (Federico Fellini,1973). Instead, the list of the top ten grossing films of 1974 includes such exemplars of irony and aesthetic self-consciousness as The Towering Inferno (Irwin Allen, 1974), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), Earthquake (Mark Robson,1974), Benji (Joe Camp,1974), Young Frankenstein(Mel Brooks, 1974), and Airport 1975 (Jack Smight, 1974)” (3). Being a periphery player in the “Film School Brats” collective that formed during the tumultuous 60’s and 70’s and after a brief stint directing television films, far from following the counter-culture aesthetic of his contemporaries, (much like Hitchcock and Kubrick during their respective eras), Spielberg reimagined a tried and true formula of cinematic convention and made it his own.
The influence of Hitchcock and Kubrick on Spielberg can be seen in their distinctive use of Cinematography. As stated in, From The Writers Chair: An Exploration Into The Works of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, “As writers, producers or directors their pictures are considered masterpieces. The movies of both directors are visual feasts with vast social connotations”. These vast connotations, (primarily in regards to the ordinary man and the family relationship in the films of Spielberg), will be explored more in detail as the influence of Hitchcock and Kubrick is examined. From The Writers Chair also states, “The visual styles of both directors were different. Kubrick, for example preferred wide shots often with the camera place along one side of a wall as on Full Metal Jacket (1987), or the hotel corridors in The Shining (1980). Kubrick also favored close-up shots of intensely emotional faces. This is well displayed in The Shining when we see numerous shots of all the actors’ faces, mostly portraying the distress of the situation. Hitchcock’s approach in the majority of his pictures was different. As in Rope(Alfred Hitchcock, 1948), Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), and Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), the story evolves in a singular location. This being the case the camera shots are more singular; a sense of claustrophobia is felt by the audience” (11). The influence of these respective shots can be seen in a variety of the films of Steven Spielberg. Wide Shots can be seen in films from Jaws, (Final encounter with shark, various open ocean scenes), Close Encounters, (Alien contact scene at the conclusion), to Jurassic Park, (scene where protagonists first encounter dinosaurs). The influence of the emotional close-up is also a favorite in the cinematic repertoire of Steven Spielberg. From Jaws to Jurassic Park, this type of shot has become a staple of the films of Spielberg. The claustrophobic singular shot has also been reimagined. This shot can be seen in War of the Words, (basement conflict scene), Jaws, (scene where protagonists enjoy swapping scar stories and drink before shark attack), and Jurassic Park, (scene involving scramble down tree to escape car). The use of these conventions by Spielberg, and their mastery by Kubrick and Hitchcock, gives a clear blueprint to Kubrick and Hitchcock’s influence on the Cinematography of this renowned director.
The influence of Kubrick and Hitchcock can also be discerned in the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances and the family dynamic that are pillars of the Spielberg cinematic narrative. As Warren Buckland contends in Citizen Spielberg, Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster (Warren Buckland, 2006), “Spielberg has evolved into a director of thought and spirit, demonstrating a stunning intellectual growth and emotional maturity that was once impossible to imagine” (53). This growth and maturity is the backbone for the innocence and naiveté that Steven Spielberg’s characters project from the silver screen. Mr. Buckland also contends in Citizen Spielberg that, “Spielberg’s blockbusters have their own complex structure, and their popularity does not preclude them from being considered worthy of serious study in themselves as films”. Though Spielberg has perfected the art of the “childlike innocence aesthetic” in his commercially successful works, as Warren Buckland asserts in Citizen Spielberg, “Once we go beyond the content and focus on their form, the camerawork, editing, off-screen space, and narrational techniques are as complex and sophisticated as any European art film by Dreyer, Fellini, or Rivette” (59). This seriousness of narrative and conventions can directly be attributed to Kubrick and Hitchcock, whose films, in content and form, were influenced and nurtured by the attributes and philosophical tenets of European “Art-Cinema” and German Expressionism respectively.
The ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances is a common theme in the narratives of this trio of imaginative auteurs. Throughout the narratives of Steven Spielberg his use of camera and technique highlight the circumstances surrounding these men and the surreal events that befall them. As Mr. Buckland further asserts in Citizen Spielberg, “Spielberg combines a visceral camera movement and thematic implication, the shifting background (of scenes), implies that we live in a dangerous, uncertain universe where terror can leap out at any moment” (57). In the films of these three auteurs this danger, uncertainty, and terror is exactly what we see propagated in their various narratives. The ordinary man scenario is the backdrop for the film War of the Worlds, where the protagonist Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his family flee an extraterrestrial race that threatens the inhabitants of earth. As contended earlier in the essay concerning the vast social connotations of these auteurs’ narratives, this is further explored in Futures End: Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (Jason Vest, 2006), when it states, “Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is more than an adaptation of H.G. Wells classic 1898 novel and more a remake of Byron Haskin’s excellent 1953 film. Spielberg and his screenwriters, Josh Friedman and David Koepp, have reimagined Well’s apocalyptic story for an American audience still recovering from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and the continuing violence of postwar Iraq. The result is a film that dares to criticize, subtly, but surely the patriotic fervor that has characterized the United States in recent years” (67). This reaction to the events that are pertinent to society at the time is also ingrained in the films of Kubrick and Hitchcock. Dissecting the ordinary man attributes ingrained in the films A Clockwork Orange(Stanley Kubrick, 1971) where an ordinary protagonist Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) receives an extraordinary psychological medical treatment, the rise of the counter-culture subculture and their disdain for authority can clearly be seen. This is also visible in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) when the “seemingly” ordinary protagonist Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), commits extraordinary acts under the guise of his mother. The black and white verisimilitude of the film is a stark and accurate depiction of the world at the time as the tensions between East and West continued to escalate. This use of film as metaphor for society, shows another link of influence that binds Hitchcock and Kubrick to the films of Spielberg.
The narrative convention of family and ordinary man situations through the influence of Kubrick and Hitchcock can be discerned in scenes from the films Jaws, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, and Jurassic Park, by Steven Spielberg. An examination of the Basement conflict scene involving Ray and the antagonist Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) gives the audience a subtle insight in to the minds of these three auteurs. Connecting War with Close Encounters, Jason Vest states in Futures End that, “The most common assessment of War of the Worlds is that it operates as a monstrous, terrifying inversion of Spielberg’s 1977 Close Encounters” (69). This assertion can be confirmed in that in both Lo-key lit, wide to close-up framed scenes, we see our protagonists, (Ray and Roy Neary(Richard Dreyfuss), both of whom are fathers to troubled families that attempt to overcome the surreal events that have overtaken their lives. Ray attempting to protect Rachel (Dakota Fanning), while Roy attempts to answer the High-Concept question “what if”? This dynamic also underlies the narrative in the films of Kubrick and Hitchcock, most notably The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), as Mitchell Brenner (Rod Taylor) attempts to regain control of his life from an avian attack while placating his domineering mother and saving the woman he cares for. In The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), our protagonist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), in another Lo-key lit, wide-framed scene steps fully into the haunted footsteps of the previous caretaker and attempts to recreate the horror that he inflicted on his family at the Overlook Hotel. This ordinary man, family dynamic is also visible in the Lo-key lit Tyrannosaurus Rex scene from Jurassic Park. The inherent paternal instinct becomes dominant as our reluctant “father”, Dr. Allen Grant (Sam Neill) attempts to save, and ultimately begins to care for, the children left in his charge as events in the dinosaur park take an extraordinary turn. These attributes of family and extraordinary events can also be ascertained in films such as Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960), and Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940).
In conclusion, through an examination and analysis of the conventions of narrative form connected to the ordinary man and family dynamic, a direct linage of influence from Hitchcock to Kubrick culminating in the innovative vision of Steven Spielberg can be ascertained. This influence reinforces the philosophy of the distinctive and unique attributes connected to the auteur principle and the continued relevance of the directors who have been gifted with the mantle in respect to the artistry of their cinematic visions.
Futures End: Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (Vest, Jason. Fall 2006) University Press, 2006 (pg 67-9)
Citizen Spielberg, and Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster (Tomasulo. Frank P.) Winter 2011 (pg 53, 57-9)
From The Writer’s Chair: An Exploration into the works of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. (Online Blog, 2016) (Pg 11)
Sense of Cinema: Steven Spielberg (Rowley. Stephen) February, 2006 Issue 38 (pg 3)
R. Barton’s “The Metafictional Hitchcock: The Experience of Viewing and the Viewing of Experience in Rear Window and Psycho. Allen, Jeanne. T., (Cinema Journal, Winter 1985) (pg 54)
Film Archives (Neil P.G.) (Online Blog, 2000) (pg 1)