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Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Greatest Artist Alive Today

Steven Spielberg filming Lincoln.
I've often written about my admiration for the man, including him on my list of this century's most influential artists, however it occurred to me just this morning that I'd never actually given the man his due, despite having written about hundreds of lesser creative minds. (Not that he needs me to tout his accomplishments.) To begin, his first professional art endeavor cost $500. He made a profit of one dollar. It was a science fiction adventure film called Firelight. This first commercial "success" was later to inspire a second attempt, his somewhat more successful, Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Since then, Steven Spielberg has made three films which have set box office records in their time, Jaws, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, and Jurassic Park. Collectively, his films have earned $8.5 billion. Forbes estimates that he's been able to hang on to $3.2 billion of that--not bad for a kid who shot his first film in 8mm to earn a boy scout merit badge.
The Oscars are only the beginning.
Of course making lots of money in the movie business is not necessarily the mark of a great artist. Even his Academy Awards for Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), while certainly indicative of the high regard in which he is held in Hollywood, would not, taken alone, elevate him to the lofty realm of my "Greatest Artist Alive." A great artist must move people. Many years ago I taught a survey course at a local community college--Introduction to Film. Schindler's List was one of the newer films shown and discussed in class. The final scene in which the descendants of those on Oskar Schindler's list each laid a stone on his grave in Israel caused me to choke up with emotion in class. That had never happened before. For many WWII veterans, Saving Private Ryan had the same effect.
The film that earned Spielberg his first dollar.
Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1946 to Jewish parents, his mother a restaurateur, his father a very early computer engineer. He spent his childhood in New Jersey and Scottsdale, Arizona, where he began playing with motion pictures as a teen, filming model trains and cowboy epics. More than just earning a photography merit badge, by the time Spielberg graduated from high school in Saratoga, California, he was an eagle scout. After high school Spielberg studied film and theater at USC and Cal State, though it wasn't until he became famous that USC awarded him an honorary degree. (Nothing if not persistent, 35 years after starting, he finally earned a degree from USC.) A stint as an unpaid intern at Universal Studios got his foot in the industry door. A short time later, Spielberg became the youngest director ever signed to a long-term studio contract.

Spielberg directed Peter Falk in
the premier episode of the TV
series, Colombo. The show
ran for seven seasons.
Spielberg paid his dues directing episodic TV, Marcus Welby,  Night Gallery, Owen Marshall, and Colombo. From there he moved on to a number of made-for-TV films, which led to his first feature film, Sugarland Express, though the film fared poorly at the box-office. Then came the shark attack. Jaws was a film maker's worst nightmare, technically challenging, over budget,  behind schedule, and more than once nearly shut down. However, $470 million and three Academy Awards later, the film was an enormous hit. Spielberg went in search of a "bigger boat." He turned down King Kong and Superman in favor of his own screenplay, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, nominated for six Academy Awards and winning two. The Indiana Jones series and E.T. followed, cementing Spielberg's name in the history books as among the top two or three money-making film artists of all time.
No one ever deserved it more.
On a par with D.W. Griffith, David O. Selznick, John Ford, Orson Wells, Stanley Kubrick, and Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen Spielberg not only entertains, but makes an impact on the world outside Hollywood's hills. He's tackled the Holocaust, the slave trade, the Civil War, WW II (both in Europe and the Far East), racial injustice, artificial intelligence, not to mention a rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rex or two. Beyond all this though, the mark of a truly great artist is seen in those artists of similar caliber which he or she influences. The mark of Spielberg can be seen in the work of James Cameron (Titanic), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down), and Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich), among others. Moreover, the man hasn't lost his touch, his most recent film, Lincoln is nominated for 12 Academy Awards. Spielberg has promised to make the movie available free of charge to high schools and middle schools once it comes out on DVD.

Spielberg's Lincoln--I've seen it; I highly recommend you do too.

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