27 September 2017

Young Spielberg

The young [Steven] Spielberg seems a picture of an unsettled personality darting about internally in search of its own borders. He was a brilliant child whose intellectual curiosity did not motivate him to be more than a desultory student; a nerd who shunned athletics and the outdoor life yet found his greatest social fulfillment in the Boy Scouts; a Jewish kid uncomfortable with his identity, fantasizing about the communal joys of Christmas. He yearned, apparently, for the mainstream American life evoked by the paintings of Norman Rockwell (of whom Spielberg would become a major collector) and from which his Jewish identity seemed to exclude him. “Being a Jew meant that I was not normal,” he would explain, “I was not like everybody else. I just wanted to be accepted. Not for who I was. I wanted to be accepted for who everybody else was.”

The sense of a barrier was heightened by the communities in which he found himself living—especially after his family moved to Arizona when he was nine, to a suburb on the edge of the desert, an environment of (in Spielberg’s words) “kitchen windows facing kitchen windows facing kitchen windows,” precisely analogous to the freshly built development so thoroughly devastated by the angry dead at the climax of Poltergeist (a film, written and produced but not, at least officially, directed by Spielberg, that as [biographer Molly] Haskell notes serves as a repository for some of his darkest fantasies).

Not long after the move to Arizona his father gave him an 8-millimeter movie camera, and a life still nebulous came abruptly into focus. At first he took over responsibility for filming the family’s vacations, complete with retakes and carefully elaborated setups, and discovered that “staging real life was so much more fun than just recording it.” By the age of twelve his ambition as a filmmaker was fully formulated, and with it the conscious construction of his own legend. Filmmaking defined his social life, reinforcing his ties with his fellow Boy Scouts and classmates, as he roped everyone in his circle (including of course his parents) into increasingly complex projects.

- Geoffrey O'Brien, 'Spielberg: The Inner Lives of a Genius', New York Review of Books, 23 February 2017


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