So apparently there’s a Spielberg Blogathon going on, starting today. I just found out about it, and wasn’t planning on writing anything, but then it occurred to me to discuss something I’ve always found intriguing about Spielberg’s films. Plus, it gets me to discuss what is one of the guy’s most underrated films, Empire of the Sun. Specifically, this above scene near the end, in which young Jim (young Christian Bale) finally loses it and begins to think that he can bring his dead Japanese kamikaze friend back to life. As he pumps away at the dead boy’s chest, Jim intones, “I can bring everyone back…everyone…”
Needless to say, he can’t – and I especially like the fact that it’s John Malkovich of all people who pulls him away from the corpse and yells, “Didn’t I teach you ANY-thing??!?” (If only John Malkovich were always around to say such things to all of us.)
So, why do I find this scene so fascinating and heartbreaking, aside from what’s specifically happening in the context of the film? Well, because it seems to me that a lot of Spielberg’s cinema seems to turn on this fantasy of “bringing everyone back,” of reversing great traumas (be they historical or personal) and this film was, on some level, the first time he acknowledged that he could do no such thing.
Consider the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which the spaceship opens up and lets out all these vanished people from over the years, including missing airmen from WWII. This is a boy’s fantasy – that there’s a power out there that can reverse great wrongs and belch the dead back out into the world of the living. This is Spielberg looking at his magic hands and deciding he can bring everyone back, like Jim – only Spielberg succeeds. A similar thing happens in that garish climax to Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the Ark of the Covenant opens up and melts an army of Nazis – basically, the Holocaust in reverse.
I suppose one could also include E.T.'s coming back from the dead here as well, but that film seems to treat this kind of dream of reversal in a more particular way: It's really a dream in which you have a secret friend who can right all the perceived wrongs of childhood -- who mind-melds with you and makes you kiss the girl you always liked, makes you free all the frogs in dissection class, brings your family together, etc.
The later films have elements of this, too. Munich is, of course, all about retribution for an act of terrorism – but it isn’t simply about vengeance, it’s also about the notion of reversing this image of Jews being weak or unable to fight back. And, in a way, its notorious sex scene, in which Eric Bana’s character has a vision of the Munich Olumpic murders while having sex with his wife, is an analog to Jim’s big scene in Empire of the Sun: He realizes he can’t bring anyone back, and that all he’s done is perpetuate the cycle of killing. (Man, I wish I liked Munich more…) Something similar is going on, I’d argue, when Liam Neeson breaks down at the end of Schindler’s List, realizing that he could have saved more souls from the Holocaust. And that film also contains a somewhat bitterly ironic representation of this kind of historical reversal, in that somewhat controversial scene when a group of Jewish prisoners are crowded into a shower and cower in fear until the water comes on and they realize it’s not gas.
The reversal is sometimes personal, of course: In Catch Me If You Can (still my favorite of Spielberg’s later films), Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is trying, in a way, to bring his family back together by trying to recreate families with other people – and finds an unlikely father figure in Tom Hanks. And, of course, one of the most touching treatments of this comes in A.I., with David's dream of a mother brought back -- just for one day -- from the dead. (This finale was a part of Kubrick's original vision, by the way, and I'm convinced it's why he thought of Spielberg as the ideal director for this film; I'm torn on the final results of the film itself, but I think this ending is one of Spielberg's finest moments.)
So, what does this reveal about Spielberg? In a way, it’s one of the keys to his success: Bringing our loved ones back, reversing great tragedies, etc…that’s probably the ultimate wish fulfillment. But in the way that he’s complicated it over the years, it shows a vision that has grown more complex and wise. Indeed, one could argue that this is why some of his later pop movies, like the fourth Indiana Jones movie, or (I’d argue) War of the Worlds, haven’t quite had the youthful verve of his earlier works: He can’t quite dream like a child again. His dreams are those of a man who finally understands that time marches relentlessly on.