There's an ongoing debate, in entertainment-critic circles, over whether there's better-quality fare these days in the movies or on TV. And it isn't hard to make the case that, pound-for-pound, TV is better -- richer, deeper, more ambiguous, more consistently entertaining.
"Spielberg on Spielberg," the TCM documentary that airs tonight , makes an unintentional case for what movies can do and television can't. Steven Spielberg may have started his career directing TV shows such as "Columbo," but he is absolutely a movie director; he requires the size and scope of the medium. You can see it in the clips: these are big, bombastic events that put the small screen -- and even the bloated home theater -- to shame.
This 90-minute special, directed by film historian Richard Schickel , is filled with clips; for the most part, it's the movies and Spielberg himself, talking with the air of an athlete recalling his triumphs. He tells a striking early story about filmmaking ambition: As a high school student visiting cousins in Los Angeles, he took a bus tour of the Universal lot and, during a sanctioned bathroom break, hid in a stall until the bus drove away. Then he roamed the soundstages on his own and charmed a company employee into giving him a three-day pass. When that expired, he'd go to the lot every day, wave at the security guard , and walk on in.
That's the sort of drive that wins you a directing contract after your sophomore year in college; Spielberg must be as hard-charging as they come. Still, waxing nostalgic in a pink shirt and leather jacket, he manages to come off as a mensch. He's generous with credit, delivering tributes to screenwriters and, notably, composer John Williams. But he also understands his significant power as a filmmaker. After praising the screenwriter of his first full-length TV movie, a thriller called "Duel," he says, "I think that was the first time I realized, 'Hey, if I have a good script, and I'm a good director, I can make a pretty terrific movie.' "
It's defining "good director" that's the trick, and Spielberg's stories suggest some common threads in his work: an attraction to childlike expressions of emotion, an impeccable visual instinct, a willingness to trust himself. (The D-Day opening sequence in 1998's "Saving Private Ryan"? He made the whole thing up as he went along.) He learned the value of spontaneity early, when his mechanical shark sunk to the bottom of the sea during the early days of filming 1975's "Jaws." He had to improvise, creating tension without showing the threat itself, and he's well aware of how the results affected his career.
"That shark not working when we needed it to work," Spielberg says, "probably added $175 million to the box office."
That's the other trick to Spielberg: His commercial sensibility isn't far removed from his artistic center. "Jaws" is reviled, in some circles, for launching the age of the summer blockbuster; "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Jurassic Park" helped to make the world a little too safe for sequels. But Spielberg talks about money as if it's an unabashed good. "Jaws," in his view, bought him freedom. "Schindler's List" bought him the chance to create the Shoah Foundation, which collects first-person testimonials about the Holocaust.
Then again, Spielberg doesn't seem the type to have many regrets, and his detractors won't find much satisfaction in Schickel's film. This is a first-person account, so we have to rely on the director -- and the clips -- to speak for Spielberg's critics. The celluloid tells its own story; Schickel includes one of my least-favorite Spielbergian images, the "When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth" banner falling amid the chaos in "Jurassic Park." For his own part, Spielberg addresses some complaints with a good-natured brand of defensiveness.
He stands by the moral questioning of "Munich," saying that he knew it would draw outrage in some circles. He wouldn't change the sappy end of "Saving Private Ryan," saying it was a tribute to his father's generation. He sounds especially brittle defending his honor over 2001's "AI: Artificial Intelligence," insisting it was Stanley Kubrick's idea to attach that third act set 2000 years into the future. (It's unclear whose idea it was to make the ending quite so maudlin, but we can guess.)
Spielberg wouldn't change much, it turns out -- save, tellingly, the ending to 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." He says that today, as a father, he wouldn't let Richard Dreyfuss board the spaceship and leave his family behind.
The documentary doesn't get to everything; it ignores "Amistad" and "Catch Me if You Can," and, in an act of kindness to its subject, skips completely over "Hook." Still, a few duds aside, it's hard not to look with awe at how many of Spielberg's films have endured. Criticize the man's penchant for happy endings, his love of the schmaltzy image and the schmaltzier coda, his laser-guided aim at viewers' heartstrings. But give him this: His movies are still reaching people. TCM, in fact, is airing "Close Encounters" and "Jaws" after the documentary. But they won't be quite the same on that little TV screen.