Thursday, December 1, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.9: Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with December dedicated to his “mature” films. First up, 1985’s The Color Purple.

Grade: 52 (C+)

Every great director wants to branch out. Steven Spielberg spent the majority of his early career captivating the minds of critics and audiences alike with his spectacular adventure films. Acclaimed as they were, Spielberg was pegged as an escapist director, one who made lighthearted popcorn films while his contemporaries (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola) made relevant, artistically challenging films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now. Spielberg’s first chance to prove his critics wrong and show he could make an adult film was The Color Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the hardships of black women in the early 20th century and their triumph over adversity. The film was a critical and commercial success, but while it features many of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker, it also doubles as a showcase of his greatest weaknesses.

Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) has had a hard life. By her 14th year, she had given birth to two children by her father, both of whom were taken away from her. She is married to Albert Johnson (Danny Glover), whom she knows only as “Mister”. Mister mistreats Celie and sees her as a maid to clean his house, watch over his kids, and lie still as he has his way with her. “Mister separated Celie from her beloved sister, Nettie, after she resisted his advances. Celie is so downtrodden that she can barely speak up to anyone. But there are two women in her life who give her hope: Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), Mister’s strong willed daughter-in-law; and Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), Mister’s brassy blues-singer mistress. Sofia refuses to let her husband, Harpo (Willard E. Pugh), beat her. Shug has Mister wrapped around her finger. The three women comfort and help each other over the course of thirty years as they struggle to find their place in the world.

The Color Purple introduces a major theme to Spielberg’s filmography: how man’s selfishness blinds them to their mistreatment of others. Mister is a man without a strong foothold in the world. He’s a poor, black farmer who no doubt faces adversity and lack of control at every corner. His father, a withered old misanthrope (Adolph Caesar), towers over him. It is his father’s disapproval and mistreatment that keeps Mister from marrying Shug, a woman he truly loved and doted on. Now, the only place he has control is in his own home, and his best way to keep control is to mistreat and tower over Celie, a woman he doesn’t love he married for convenience’s sake. When he can’t dominate Nettie, he casts her out of his home and does everything in his power to keep her and Celie apart. He doesn’t care how hard Celie’s life has been, or that he’s done to Celie what his father did to him (she later says that he might have made a good man if not for his father); his own place in the world is more important. Celie is similarly abused by her father, who rapes her and takes her children away to avoid his guilt.

Celie isn’t alone. Shug’s father, a preacher, casts his daughter out of his home because of his view that she is a sinner; her love for him is overpowered by his shame for her alternative lifestyle. Sofia, meanwhile, has to fight her own husband’s need to dominate her. Later, when she insults the white mayor’s callous wife, he hits her. She returns the favor, and is brutalized and imprisoned for her actions. The mayor’s wife then forces her to be her maid; in one scene, she allows Sofia to go home for Christmas and visit her children, but when a driving mishap frightens her, she cuts the reunion short and forces Sofia to drive her home. Spielberg’s handling of this theme is frequently strong, and it would reappear in films as diverse as Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, and Jurassic Park.

With his women-focused storyline, Spielberg abandons the classic “man on a mission” storyline. His Old Hollywood influences turn towards old melodramas and period epics like Gone with the Wind and Wuthering Heights; the sets, costumes, and shots are meticulously crafted and often floridly colored. Spielberg combines those old films with his love for three master filmmakers: David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. The landscapes and visual storytelling are often as powerful as anything Lean designed, and Spielberg’s mastery of Hitchcockian suspense remains in a nerve-jangling scene where a frightened young Celie shaves Mister. Welles, meanwhile, shows up in several deep-focus shots that frame the characters with brilliant precision. Mister towers over Celie and Nettie; his father towers over him; Celie is frequently a listener removed from men’s conversations. Several of The Color Purple’s time transitions are straight out of Citizen Kane.

One of Spielberg’s greatest talents lies in his combinations of Old Hollywood filmmaking with New Hollywood subject matter and truth. That talent is to some extent present in The Color Purple: the world of the film is one of cruelty and thoughtlessness, where men and women alike struggle to find their place in the world. The film is full of life and vivacity; a sequence in a juke joint is particularly strong. But that talent only goes so far.

What the film gets right is frequently undermined by everything it gets wrong. However admirable Spielberg’s ambition and risk are for handling such dicey subject matter, he frequently shies away from real pain. The film’s harshest, most harrowing moments are intercut with terrible, forced, out of place slapstick throughout. Mister and Harpo are inept without their wives; that’s fine, but the countless scenes of the two bumbling without them are overplayed. The film has Spielberg’s usual untrustworthy authority figures, but turning them into fools takes away their power and makes it more difficult to buy the cruelty they’re capable of.

Similarly, the film’s meticulous craftsmanship is too polished for such a down and dirty place. Give credit to Spielberg for not overplaying the misery, but he sells it short while overplaying the solace characters find in their hardship. Several shots, while beautiful as standalone moments, take on an Old Hollywood picture-book feel incongruous with the harsh setting. The film sometimes feels outright nostalgic, and while Celie is another sympathetic mother character in Spielberg’s work, she’s treated too much like a child yearning for escape, a far too simplistic a reading of a complex character.

The Color Purple marks the only time in nearly 40 years that Spielberg worked with a composer other than John Williams to score his film. Quincy Jones agreed to produce the film on the condition that he could do the music. It wasn’t worth it. Jones’ legendary collaborations with Michael Jackson may have produced three of the finest pop albums ever recorded, but his glossy, upbeat style brings one of the most cloying and invasive scores ever recorded. The sickly sweet sounds undercut Celie’s suffering, frequently giving upbeat sounds to otherwise horrifying scenes. It’s telling that the most powerful scenes in the film have no music.

Spielberg’s handling of the characters and actors is mostly strong; Goldberg, Winfrey, and Avery would never find such depth again, and Glover cuts an intimidating figure when he’s not made out to be an ass. But Spielberg’s affection for old melodramas gets the best of him again: the buffoonery on display recalls the comic-relief African-American characters that frequently poisoned old classics. Worst of all is Rae Dawn Chong as Squeak, an embarrassing caricature akin to Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy from Gone with the Wind.

As for the character’s relationships to each other, Spielberg comes up short. Too many characters come, have big moments, and disappear for large chunks of the film, only to return like they were never gone (Nettie, Sofia, Shug). It’s almost as if Spielberg didn’t know what to cut and what to keep, so he instead trudges through the biggest scenes and relationships in the book without a solid through line. It’s usually counterproductive to compare how a film handles its subject matter compared to its source material, but Celie and Shug’s relationship is very poorly transferred. In the novel, it’s clear that Celie is in love with Shug, and the two embark on a sexually and emotionally charged relationship. Homosexuality in the 80s was nearly taboo in film, so that relationship is mostly changed to a friendship. Fine, but when Spielberg gives the two a moment of tenderness, it’s mostly unmotivated and far too reserved for a story that should be filled with carnal sexuality. The relationship can be a friendship or a love story, but Spielberg tries to have his cake and eat it.

Spielberg’s greatest critics have often asserted that he often has trouble ending his stories, a flaw that’s rarely as all-encompassing as his detractors claim. Some examples have been exaggerated (Minority Report, Munich), while some stem from serious misinterpretations (A.I.). With The Color Purple, the criticism is dead on. The whole film has a rushed, lumpy feeling, and it only gets worse near the end. Major revelations land with a thud. Shug and Mister’s stories, while great in the novel, are distractions in the film; it’s not necessary to show their redemptions. Celie’s story, meanwhile, speeds through too many years with too many good things happening to her too quickly. Every major scene involving Celie is treated as a climax, and by the end everything becomes one note. It’s admirable that Spielberg wanted to fit as much of the novel into the film as possible, but a more streamlined approach would have made for a more successful film.

The Color Purple is not a bad film, but an immensely frustrating one. Spielberg makes undeniable advances as a filmmaker, but he also shies away from the moral haziness of the film and tries too hard to give the film a happy ending. Somewhere along the line Spielberg lost his nerve, almost as if he forgot how harrowing his earlier films could be. Jaws and Raiders feature mayhem and death. Close Encounters has childhood abduction and abandonment. Even E.T. has several frightening scenes near the end. None of these films undersold their characters pain. If nothing else, The Color Purple serves as a warm-up for more successful films such as Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan. These films retain Spielberg’s hopefulness, but their optimism is hard won. The sense of wonder that permeates The Color Purple is as far off as can be.

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