Monday, March 3, 2014

Steven Spielberg: The King of Child Exploitation Cinema?

A look at the most successful director of all-time’s peculiar interests in celebrating (or is it abusing?) child actors


Many, many years ago, Adam Parfrey wrote an essay titled “Pederastic Park?” The piece made a fairly shocking -- but convincing -- claim concerning the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg; namely, the fact that his films allude to a staggering amount of seeming paedo subtext.

Now, I’m not really the biggest Spielberg fan out there; generally, the only two films of his that I can say that I truly enjoyed were “Schindler’s List” and “Lincoln,” whereas the totality of his filmography I would describe as flippantly overrated. With Parfrey’s little thought nugget in mind, however, the cinematic works of the most acclaimed Hollywood director of all time becomes something a bit more interesting -- and without question, more unnerving as well.

To begin, pretty much EVERY movie Spielberg has directed or produced has had a pretty huge emphasis on child actors. “E.T.,” “Hook,” “The Goonies,” “Super 8” -- all films rife with young thespians, whom frequently find themselves coming into close contact with older male characters. Whether it’s Roy Scheider kissing his son on the lips in “Jaws,” Sam Neil giving that one kid mouth to mouth in “Jurassic Park” or even Daniel Day Lewis draping his son over his back and lugging him around like a potato sack in “Lincoln,” there’s certainly an aberrant amount of adult-on-young person touching going on Spielberg’s movies.

Similarly, a large portion of Spielberg’s oeuvre relies upon the same motif: a young child encounters a “magical” grown up who, to some extent, helps them in the uneven transition from adolescence to adulthood. In “The Temple of Doom,” Indiana Jones became “guardian” of Short Round, John Malkovich shows Christian Bale the ways of manhood (in the absolute creepiest of tones, no less) in “Empire of the Sun,” Chunk in "The Goonies" forms an unsettling intimate bond with mutated man-child Sloth and in "A.I.," the robotic facsimile of a youngster is shepherded by what, for all intents and purposes, could be adequately described as a real-life “pedo-bear.” Of course, the ultimate example rests within perhaps Mr. Spielberg’s grandest work: the bald, wrinkly, loose-skinned E.T. becoming Elliot’s literal savior via the power of skin on skin touching. Hell, Spielberg even takes this thing trans-species, with the peculiar mentor-mentee relationships of both teenage soldiers and thoroughbreds in “War Horse.”

If you’ve ever taken a class on film theory (or, unfortunately, any kind of "gender studies" course), you’ve probably heard of something called the “male gaze” before. In essence, it’s the concept that the camera that records the film itself is a male, and as such, has a tendency to linger on the female form during scenes. Well, needless to say, there is not a whole lot of lingering on the female form in Spielberg’s works, but there sure is hell is a lot of lingering on the form of the child. Who can forget the obsessive lock on Haley Joel Osment in “A.I.,” or the way the lens basically fawned over 12-year-old Christian Bale throughout “Empire of the Sun?” Word has it on that last one, more than FOUR THOUSAND boys were screened before Spielberg found the right “lead” for the picture, too.

Similarly, have you ever noticed how much bare skin Spielberg has his younger actors showing in his films? Elliot in “E.T.” spends half the movie shirtless and hooked up to medical equipment, the “Lost Boys” in “Hook” merrily prance about in their skivvies and even in “The Goonies,” executive producer Spielberg has an overweight kid rubbing his fat much to the amusement of his abusive colleagues…and, perchance, the man behind the camera, as well?

While Spielberg seems to have a fixation on the male child form, he seems to have an opposite obsession with the young female, with an over-representation of child actresses in his films serving as terrorized objects. Carol-Anne in “Poltergeist,” the girl that’s almost turned into a velociraptor chew toy in “Jurassic Park,” Dakota Fanning in “War of the Worlds” -- and of course, the little girl in the red dress in “Schindler’s List,” who ultimately found herself heaped upon a tower of dead bodies sans a single line of dialogue. In Spielberg’s works, the boy (or at least, the image of the boy) is endlessly celebrated, while the young female is perpetually imperiled. Even in Spielberg’s animated forays, such seems to hold true; main character Fivel (via the assistance of an elder cat voiced by Dom Deluise) embarks upon epic adventures in the “An American Tail” films, while his sister is constantly on the (usually, unacknowledged) precipice of death. Taking things a step further, there doesn’t even appear to be female children in the director’s lackluster “The Adventures of Tin Tin” from 2011.

That’s not to mention the heavy amount of incestuous overtones in Spielberg’s films, be they directly stated (“The Color Purple”) or slyly implied -- lest we forget Michael J. Fox’s  played for laughs spit-swapping session with his mama in the first “Back to the Future” flick. Even more damning are the ideas that Spielberg never got off the drawing board; an ill-proposed sequel to “E.T.” would’ve consisted of Elliot being tortured by menacing alien creatures throughout the film, while an early draft of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” made mention of Indiana Jones’ proclivities for bedding minors. If nothing else, it definitely gives a less enthusiastic ring to the Spielberg produced spin-off "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," to be sure.

Of course, none of this is to say that Spielberg himself has a thing for young actors and actresses. Maybe, just maybe, the guy does have a huge “Peter Pan” hang-up, and he finds it easier to capture that iconic “Spielbergian” glow through child actors. But, with such unusual recurring themes playing out through his entire filmography, it does make one wonder a bit.

Perhaps, or perhaps not, the following may be worth noting. According to Wikipedia, among other properties Spielberg has considered turning into film projects are the titles “Chocky” and “A Steady Rain.”

“Chocky” is about a young boy whose mind is possessed by an alien spirit, who hails from a planet with only one sex. Meanwhile “A Steady Rain” is a drama about a young Vietnamese child who is ultimately killed and eaten by a Jeffrey Dahmer analogue.

Needless to say, it’s hard to think of an auteur better suited to handle the material at hand, no?

No comments:

Post a Comment