THERE ARE PITIFULLY FEW critical works worth reading about Steven Spielberg. The most successful filmmaker of the last 40 years, Spielberg’s influence is felt not only in individual movies, but also in the very structure of Hollywood film production and distribution. The only indispensable volume is Joseph McBride’s massive biography (most recently revised in 2010); only a few others are even worth consulting. A return to movie criticism from one of the great living practitioners of the form, Molly Haskell’s new book, Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films, seeks to remedy this remarkable oversight in cinema studies.

To speak only of Spielberg’s influence and business triumphs is to considerably short-change his artistic achievements. His style has aged better than many of his baby boomer contemporaries. Beginning in Universal’s film library in his very early 20s, he was eventually able to snag assignments working on the company’s nascent television unit. In many ways, this resembled the kind of production environment that allowed classic-era directors, such as Spielberg’s beloved Victor Fleming, to flourish: the TV unit produced studio-bound, tightly scheduled, mass-produced entertainments designed to appeal to the broad mass of domestic audiences. Its style prized maximum clarity and economy of expression. Working in a similar system a generation earlier, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and the other usual suspects were able to forge distinctive styles and points of view; like them, Spielberg learned from his time in the workaday trenches to make this classic style speak in his own tones while still obeying the craft’s traditions.

Haskell herself is also partial to classic Hollywood but doesn’t find much overlap between her own tastes and Spielberg’s. Though she regards herself as a guarded admirer of his work, she plainly admits in the book’s introduction that the qualities that attract her to films — “brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings, things left unsaid, and the erotic transactions of men and women” — are largely absent from his work, and the emotions that he trades in — the “gnawing, liberating” anxieties of a male adolescent — tend to leave her cold. This is not only refreshingly honest, but it also frames much of what is to come next, particularly her criticisms of his early work, and promises a serious analysis to the reader, rather than a puff piece.

Haskell’s main focus is Spielberg’s life story, with — as per the imperatives of the “Jewish Lives” series, under which this is published — a special focus on his relationship with Judaism. Spielberg’s gradual acceptance of his Jewishness and his decision to integrate it into his life is, for her, a part of his broader maturation as a person and as an artist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the decision to take religious matters more seriously coincided with his work on Schindler’s List, and Haskell finds his Jewishness to be a pronounced influence on his subsequent work — both as an explicit subject but also as a kind of broader creative sensibility.

That said, Haskell is much better with regards to his early, pre-Schindler’s work. It is primarily these films from the first half of his career that she’s referring to in the beginning of the book as the sort that she doesn’t care for, and if she isn’t quite able to convince herself of their merit, she does perform the far more interesting critical task of describing exactly what it is that she believes is the motivating creative force behind them. Here, too, she is careful to follow the mission of the book, discovering a connection between the younger Spielberg’s religious observance and the character of his films — though in this case she finds that his indifference in the former finds its reflection in the deficiencies of the latter.

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As a young adult, Spielberg seems to have taken no great interest in religious matters, partly out of a wish to assimilate into the WASPy American society of the postwar years. Haskell also seems to imply that a single-minded devotion to his art excluded any other theism — in effect, filmmaking was his religion. She quotes a line in McBride’s biography that pretty much says it all: “Spielberg once said he wanted to be a gentile with the same intensity that he wanted to be a filmmaker.” Always conscious of his status as an outsider, Spielberg demonstrated with his early films a pronounced affinity for similarly marginal characters, as well as — the flip side of the wish for acceptance — an uneasiness with the trappings of mainstream society. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we find Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who escapes suburban life to chase space aliens; in E.T., the lonely Elliott (Henry Thomas), who finds in a friend from space the understanding denied to him in early 1980s kid life.

If these and other characters can be read as signs of alienation from a dehumanizing social life, Haskell also finds in other aspects of his early work evidence that the religious and cultural traditions that set him apart were as confounding to him as was the suburban environment of his youth. In a passage from the book’s first chapter, Haskell cannily connects an early childhood memory of an evening in a synagogue — seeing for the first time the Ark of the Torah — to Spielberg’s pictorial fascination with light:

He described the dazzling experience — a sudden blast of red light and sound, seemingly of supernatural origin. […] Framed by a marble arch, inlaid with gold and blue; a red light burning in front of it, the Ark’s wooden doors hidden by a curtain shimmering in candlelight. On high, a bronze chandelier hangs from the domed skylight, and from it a Star of David. The Ark in its fearful glory will have an amazing plasticity through all his metaphoric reworkings, a call to transcendence that speaks in a universal language to audiences of every nation, tribe, and religion.

Reading this passage for the first time, I assumed that Haskell was laying the ground for an interpretation of Spielberg’s works as animated by crypto-Jewish parables, as though the luminance of his frames was directly inspired by a particular, if unconscious, religious sentiment.

Her actual argument is more subtle. As impressive as the scenes of wonder and awe are in his films of the 1970s and 1980s — scenes that elicit what Kevin B. Lee refers to as “the Spielberg face” — there is, for Haskell, something about them that is not entirely convincing. Based on Close Encounters, she concludes that despite his general religious indifference at the time, “Spielberg seems to have been born with a religious sense of awe the way others are born short or gregarious or curly-haired.” She adds, “He bows not to God or orthodoxy, but to the otherworldly and the ineffable.” As beautifully realized as this is in Close Encounters — or E.T., or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or any of his other works from that era — Haskell finds something in it that’s aimless and inchoate, cut off, as it was, from religious motifs that might have channeled its expression. Unable or unwilling to tap into any of the traditions that might give shape to this yearning, Spielberg, famously a very poor student, gravitated to pulp fiction and new-age UFO baloney. Haskell, for one, isn’t buying it. Her description of the alien enthusiasts in Close Encounters could also be applied to the audience that made it a hit: “A more skeptical viewer might see this rag-tag group of misfits and loners as potential ISIS recruits, malcontents ripe for a cause, but to Spielberg they constitute a benign brotherhood of nonconformists like Roy, childlike in their yearning to believe in something ‘larger’ than themselves.” That he was able to imbue this lowly material with such emotion testifies, for her, to both his innate ability and to the sadly deracinated spirituality behind it.

Haskell’s attack on Spielberg’s humanist universalism — often regarded as his finest quality — is not that it evacuates all forms of difference, but that it elides his particular, Jewish difference. She sees the “spiritual-but-not-religious” orientation of his earlier films not — or not only — as a symptom of a broad-minded appreciation for transcendence in all its varied forms, but also of an unwillingness to wrestle with the specifically adult concerns that come with established religion. There are sound business imperatives for being vague on this score, especially in an industry seeking to appeal to the broadest demographics. Spielberg excels on this score: a producer, for example, championed Close Encounters for its “crossover appeal, plugging into both the family audiences and the counterculture.” For Haskell, Spielberg’s avoidance of religion is part of a larger pattern of immaturity. If he was able to bluff his way into putting together a convincing picture of spiritual longing devoid of any religious influence, Haskell suggests that he was likewise ignorant of other, more worldly matters, to the detriment of his work. The political perspective that emerged from his early films, for example, was a basically incoherent, reflexive liberalism.

Not surprisingly, Haskell’s most nuanced critique of this period concerns Spielberg’s treatment of women, along with the attendant questions of domesticity, sex, and glamour. In the past, Haskell has taken the “movie brat” directors of New Hollywood to task for their disregard for women in their films, finding in their work a general lack of interest or aptitude, if not outright antipathy toward their actresses. Please consult her essential From Reverence to Rape for the fullest statement of this argument, but her brief relitigation of this matter here is delightfully pointed:

The seventies and eighties were, in the eyes of many reviewing from a feminist perspective […] a nadir for women in the movies. There were a few interesting roles […] but for the most part babes and sidekicks and sex objects ruled, and serious actresses, no longer having the studio behind them, went begging. The ‘cool’ films of the seventies, from The Godfather on, were mostly male affairs, representing the nerdy unsexiness of the movie brats.

Haskell’s subject does not escape condemnation here, but for her, the most insidious, and most typically Spielbergian, sin against the women in his films seems to spring from the same ignorance that mars his films in other ways. Spielberg isn’t explicitly sexist but seems, more often, almost pre-sexual.

In his early films, Spielberg simply doesn’t seem to know what to do with women. Haskell discovers this by giving some of his weaker films fuller consideration than they’ve probably ever had, or deserved. Her hackles are (understandably) raised by the ghoulish violence visited on Willie Scott, the only significant female character in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (played by Kate Capshaw, the future Mrs. Spielberg), but she is careful to point out that Spielberg’s worst crime against the character is to make her irritating — a caricature of “featherbrained helplessness.” She writes, “The voice that warbled Cole Porter quickly turns shrill, becoming Spielberg’s most nerve-wracking version of the Shrieking Woman. At one point [Harrison] Ford, voicing audience exasperation, tells her to shut up.” She points also to Spielberg’s habit of deglamorizing otherwise gorgeous actresses, sometimes as a means of diminishing a character’s appeal for narrative reasons (Teri Garr is the butt of this in Close Encounters), but often because he doesn’t seem to understand how to make actresses sexually appealing, or even, most alarmingly, because he doesn’t understand sexual appeal in general: “He may have loved old Hollywood movies, but was deaf and blind to the language of love at their core, the visual and verbal, the eros of the ‘look.’” In her view, films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. did more than explore the adolescent’s view of the world. By virtue of their wild success, such a perspective became the default for mainstream popular cinema, stunting the psychosexual growth of a generation of viewers.

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In Haskell’s estimation, Spielberg’s stock rises in the second half of his career, beginning in the mid-1980s with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. She devotes a whole chapter to making the case for Empire, which she still regards as the best of his career. The tale of a young boy’s adventures on the road in China during World War II seems readymade for the sort of adolescent pandering that annoyed her so much in E.T., but she delights at what is instead an almost complete thematic reversal. Rather than finding a kind of purity of spirit in the childhood encounter with brutality, the film revels in the thrills of combat: “Viewers may have been uncomfortable with the terrible and exhilarating awakening of a child who welcomes the war with open arms.” Haskell suggests that it was this sort of thing which kept Empire from the critical and popular acclaim it deserved, but she finds these kind of thematic ambiguities to be a sign that Spielberg’s outlook had finally begun to mature.

Unfortunately, just as Spielberg’s films continue to improve in Haskell’s estimation, she seems to run out of interesting things to say about them. As the earlier part of the book demonstrates, Haskell is the rare critic who is able to write in very strong terms about what she finds clumsy and unacceptable in a film without defaulting to an out-and-out hatchet job. Much of her other work has shown her to be an adept critic of enthusiasm as well, but that instinct seems to fail her in the final third of Steven Spielberg. This is particularly so for his 21st-century films — a shame, since I think that it’s the work of this era that will be remembered as his best, rather than the smash hits of the 1970s and 1980s. From Schindler’s List on, Spielberg (and, as importantly, his production team consisting of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams, and editor Michael Kahn) has boldly experimented with the look, sound, and structure of cinema, turning in films that are much richer visually and narratively than they’re initially given credit for. Obviously, these departures from the norm are hemmed-in to a considerable degree by the Hollywood system, but if there has to be a commercial film industry, it may as well produce films like A.I., War of the Worlds, Catch Me If You Can, and Munich.

Sticking to strictly biographical interpretation, Haskell finds in many of these movies echoes of the various anxieties that accompany parenthood, including the urge to reconsider one’s own upbringing. But her takes on these feel much more superficial than her interrogations of his older films, and she doesn’t do much more with this theme than simply point it out where it occurs. The movies that don’t fit this pattern are almost ignored altogether, receiving only brief, paragraph-length descriptions before being passed over. This section feels more like a disjointed collection of short reviews than a part of a sustained treatment of the man’s work. Perhaps Spielberg’s 21st-century movies are still too new and strange to her, and the period too recent, to be able to assimilate them into any kind of deeper thinking about their merits and defects.

McBride’s is still probably the one essential Spielberg book, but Haskell’s refreshingly contrarian, feminist reconsideration of his work has a value of its own. The generation that counted the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Close Encounters as formative moviegoing experiences have since aged into their role as gatekeepers, and, still in thrall to the emotions of their inner children, have seen to it that these films have assumed their place as stuffed-and-mounted classics. I like those movies, but if there’s a point to the study of films and their history, it’s to disturb critical complacency whenever possible. This is usually the job of the young and brash, but it’s heartening to see that Haskell, slightly older than the subject of her book, can convince us to take another look.

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Dan Erdman is a video archivist at Media Burn Archive. His writing has appeared in Public Books, Senses of Cinema, and The Moving Image, and he is currently working on a history of pornography on film. He lives in Chicago.