You might have missed it, basking in the glow of entertaining masterpieces such as Jurassic Park, Jaws and E.T., but Steven Spielberg, the architect of your childhood, is old. The director turned 71 in December and that does not, by itself, indicate he is old. Jane Fonda, for example, is 80-something and talks about social justice like a Tumblr teen. No – Spielberg’s descent into old-man-yells-at-cloud territory became apparent in the last two weeks as he’s entered the public eye to plug something beyond turgid historical dramas.
Illustration: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo), Universal Pictures
Last week Spielberg wrongly asserted that streaming-first movies, such as the two-hour films produced by and for Netflix, belonged at the Emmys and not at the Oscars. It seemed as though he might have been complaining about movies that screen for a few days in bought-out theatres so they can amass specific qualifications (necessary for not just Oscar eligibility but some union requirements). That’s a totally noble class of films to rally against. But then the old man went and said films screened on services such as Netflix “deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar”.
That’s a geriatric kind of statement that suggests movies are still significantly better and more prestigious than dramas such as The Americans and Westworld. It’s an outmoded way of considering film versus television that most of us assumed died out around the time Tony Soprano plugged Big Pussy.
I mean for God’s sake, Meryl Streep, who has more Oscars than Spielberg, is signing up for season two of Big Little Lies, and CBS sitcom Mom continues to star Oscar-winner Allison Janey.
But Spielberg isn’t only hating on streaming flicks. He also has a bee in his bonnet about the bleeding edge of entertainment: Virtual reality. In an interview with Fandango – where he also claimed he’d like to go back to the 1960s to document slavery and the Civil War with a camera crew – Spielberg briefly talked about the challenges of creating a cinematic language for VR after he was asked if we’d ever see a real VR movie from him.
I think it’s harder to tell a narrative story in VR because you can’t keep the audience’s attention directly where the director needs them to be focusing. It’s very hard to get an audience not to look where they want to look, and they have so many options to look around and therefore miss the point completely. It’s a harder delivery system to support narrative entertainment.
These are valid complaints. A director can’t control the visual story in VR like they can with traditional film. Directors right now perceive the world as if it were presented on a proscenium stage, but VR demands you perceive the world much more immersively. Only Spielberg, long hailed as a cinematic visionary and one of the most influential filmmakers working in the business, can’t be bothered to conceive of this new cinematic language.
VR narrative filmmaking is in its infancy right now. It’s at the stage of The Great Train Robbery – you know, the movie where a train came directly at the camera and audiences screamed and jumped out of the way. It isn’t sophisticated or fascinating quite yet, at least beyond the cheap and easy thrills it can provide. But it could be something, and Spielberg is too damn old to even really consider it.
He’s that parent who gets mad about how his computer works and wonders why everyone streams music when cassettes were just fine. We all worry about that moment when tech surpasses us – when we no longer have the energy to care. It looks as though Spielberg careened into it.