In the Critics this week

Richard Mabey on summer, Leo Hollis on London’s tech transformation, Will Hutton on a new kind of capitalism and Toby Litt on Elizabeth Fraser.

The New Statesman’s special London issue this week celebrates the vibrancy and complexity of our capital. In the Critics section, our critic at large Leo Hollis explores London’s attempts to transform itself from Victorian capital to futuristic metropolis. Hollis considers Songdo, a new city being built outside Incheon, Korea, and the way it represents a new kind of metropolis: “the smart city, built according to the new rules of the information age”. Can London, “with its Roman street plan, Victorian infrastructure and endless sprawling suburbs”, become “a connected city in which monitors and sensors relay real-time data to regulate the urban fabric”? Reality, Hollis observes, seems to be getting in the way. Furthermore, smart technology comes with a warning. Hollis notes that the big players “such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Accenture and Mckinsey are all entering the debate on the intelligent city, the smart grid and next-generation buildings”. With this kind of packaged retrofitting of London for the 21st century, “one can’t help imagining a dystopian future (think Blade Runner) in which software companies have taken over the city”. What if London’s information were in the hands of its people rather than software companies? “London can never be like Songdo but the capital should define its own criteria for being a digital city and use its indigenous expertise to make the city a better place.”
 
The third essay in Richard Mabey’s series of seasonal diaries turns its reflections on landscape and nature towards summer. Mabey considers John Ruskin’s fear of utilitarian explanations for plant behaviour: “No one looked at plants with such loving attention, and no one disrespected more their integrity as living things”. With the extreme weather this summer generating a floral phantasmagoria, “we’ve all become a bit Ruskinian, eyes widened and imaginations frozen by prodigious growths and precocious appearances”. Mabey laments the fact that, as a species, we have never been good at delving into the lives of plants: “We like their looks and enjoy the masterfulness of cultivating them, and yet, like Ruskin, we don’t want to believe that they might have intelligent agendas of their own”. “Green things fed and sheltered Paleolithic people,” Mabey observes, but “among all the acutely observed and brilliantly comprehended animals that prowl the cave paintings of southern Europe, there is not a single plant to be seen.”
 
In Books, Will Hutton urges economists to give us a convincing vision of a new kind of capitalism. How do you break the intellectual consensus that Britain is a front-line developed economy, and must lower its public and private debts simultaneously and dramatically as a precondition for a return to growth? “To deleverage simultaneously is to invite protracted depression,” Hutton writes. “The challenge instead is to develop our economy as much as make it grow”. Hutton considers Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, with its thesis that “such epic economic mistakes have been made over the last generation, compounding those of the past 100 years, that the productive sinews of Britain’s economy – and its ability to renew that productive capacity – have shrunk to such a degree that Britain can no longer be considered a developed economy”. Meanwhile Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now! demolishes the intellectual framework behind the coalition’s “self-defeating attempt to eliminate the structural public-sector deficit in four years, with roughly four-fifths of the task assumed by indiscriminate spending cuts”. The non-strategy has been a disaster, and yet one predicted by only a minority, “although anybody with a sense of economic history, an understanding of how markets can get locked in upward and downward spirals and a willingness to recognise that both private and public sectors cannot unwind their debts at once could have arrived at the same answer”. A reckoning is imminent, Hutton warns: “Inability to pay one’s way in the world means that the country’s buying muscle for scarcer food, energy and raw materials is under continual pressure”. And yet Krugman, Elliott and Atkinson find themselves in the same predicament. They “describe what has gone wrong brilliantly but their economics is descriptive rather than purposefully analytical,” Hutton writes. “They lack a solid political economy with an accompanying vision of what a good British economy and society would look like”. How Much Is Enough? by Robert and Edward Skidelsky argues that Western societies have lost their moral bearings. And until Krugman, Elliott and Atkinson can better answer the Skidelskys' question – what is this wealth for? – “they will do no better than draw with their opponents”.
 
Elsewhere, novelist Toby Litt pays homage to Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. Litt looks back to the summer of 2006, when he was asked to help Fraser out with some lyrics: “Writing lyrics for Elizabeth Fraser was the dream job and couldn’t be anything other than a gift from God”.  “A lot of writers have attempted to describe Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and have ended up writing what ex-NME editor Steve Sutherland once called 'mind’s-eye gibberish',” Litt writes. “And a lot of listeners have tried to work out what words Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is singing and have concluded that it’s 'mind’s eye gibberish'”. Since posting Fraser his lyrics six years ago, Litt is still waiting to hear back. “Since the Cocteau Twins split up in 1997, Elizabeth Fraser’s fans have become extremely used to nothing happening,” Litt laments, “there’s been a deliberate avoidance of public exposure”. With Fraser now taking part in Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown line-up at the Southbank, at last Litt is days away from being in the same room as that otherworldly voice.
 
Also in the Critics: Kate Mossman lists her top ten London songs, from the Clash to the Kinks; Ryan Gilbey names his top ten London films including Oliver! and An American Werewolf in London; we list our top ten London novels, from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent to Martin Amis’s London Fields;
Sarah Churchwell on the “real” Hollywood; Talitha Stevenson on Amy Winehouse; Douglas Alexander on Labour in Scotland; Ryan Gilbey reviews Searching for Sugar Man; Rachel Cooke reviews the BFI’s season “The Aristocracy on TV”; and Will Self on the lingo needed to order fish and chips in Wigan.
Can London become a smart city? (Photo: Getty)
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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era