Sunday, October 25, 2009

Empire of the Sun (1987, Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s cinema of consolation has an unusual way of dodging all my usual defenses, which is just another way of saying that I’d buy more schmaltz from Spielberg than from any other director. But in case of his Empire of the Sun (1987) I remained more resistant than usual. The story of Jim (Christian Bale), a British boy who gets separated from his parents in WW2 Shanghai, had some very strong points, but I think Spielberg was trying too hard to avoid hopelessness the material ultimately provokes. The result is very strange: a downhill slide towards moral numbness caused by war, played out like a boy’s adventure tale (Jim’s father wears Captain Hook’s outfit at one point: a prelude to a movie that will come 4 years after).

What I consider Spielberg’s biggest talent, and what comes off well even in this movie, is his ability to desexualize child's imagination to the point of reaching a moral clarity that belongs purely to the mythical. Puerility is Spielberg’s big theme, yes, but it’s never contaminated by sexual confusion. When Jim sings a song late in the movie, his falsetto isn’t broken by any signs of mutation – even though he matured in every other way in the course of the action.

It’s not an accident that Spielberg sanitized so much of Bob Zemeckis’ and Bob Gale’s raunchiness when he was making 1941 (1979). What’s wonderful about him, though, is that his shrinking from sex doesn’t feel like bailing out on adulthood as such – it’s not a neurotic denial. His drive towards what’s pure is genuine and has a religious dimension to it that I deeply revere, even though it takes him far away from any territory one would label as realistic.


  1. Great point about Spielberg and sex, Michal. I still have some unhappy memories of the sex scene intercut with images of the massacre in MUNICH...

  2. Thanks for nice words, Alex! I would have to rewatch MUNICH to be able to comment on it. But as far as desexualizing goes, I thing CLOSE ENCOUNTERS... (paradoxically, given its title!) is the movie that takes this strategy to the extreme.

  3. Intriguing indeed. Would this kind of puerility be linked to not threatening? As opposed to the darkness of Disney for example. I would love for moral clarity to be the most (excuse the word) seductive to the Spielberg’s consumers. Yet, perhaps he only sells feeling safe. With “only” he is still a cinematic giant.

    Also, it would be very interesting to hear your take on his serious movies as well. So yes, MUNICH please!

  4. Paweł, Alex: you leave me no choice, I think I will revisit MUNICH soon. Gotta investigate, gotta check if guiltless, mature sex is possible at all in Spielbergland.