Steven Spielberg may be the most beloved filmmaker alive, but this has rarely stopped critics from patronising him. ‘Such moods as alienation and melancholia have no place in his films,’ the New Yorker’s David Denby wrote on the occasion of Spielberg’s seventieth birthday – a sweeping claim that could hardly be more wrong. In truth, these moods have always been central to Spielberg’s unsettling Romantic vision. Think of the telephone linesman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) yearning to escape his family in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); the trick-or-treaters roaming suburbia at sunset in E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982); and all the Lost Boys – and sometimes girls – who wander through subsequent films from Empire of the Sun (1987) to Catch Me If You Can (2002) to The BFG (2016).
Happily, Molly Haskell is a more sensitive observer than Denby. Steven Spielberg: A life in films has the virtue of paying attention to the films themselves, not merely to their maker’s public image as a cheery, wholesome entertainer. This is doubly impressive considering that Haskell has never been an ardent fan. In her introduction to this compact book, she admits to doubting whether she was the best writer for the job, given that Spielberg’s ‘great subjects – children, adolescents – and genres – science fiction, fantasy, horror, action-adventure – were stay-away zones for me’. This is an understandable statement coming from Haskell, a pioneering feminist film critic best-known as the author of the classic study From Reverence to Rape (1974), which belongs on every buff’s bookshelf. Far from sharing Spielberg’s boyish interest in gizmos and extraterrestrials, Haskell regards such fixations as straightforward symptoms of arrested development, grounded in fear of adulthood and especially of adult relationships with women.