Once I Was An Eagle by Laura Marling: Whenever power emerges, there’s a sense of innocence lost

Her voice, once so English, has turned into a slip-slidey American lilt, half-speech, half-jazz, frequently yoyoing to a deeper register ... In Marling, we’re watching an accelerated transition from youthful talent to artistic sophistication.

Once I Was An Eagle (Rough Trade)
Laura Marling

Laura Marling’s album titles have a certain ring: Alas, I Cannot Swim; I Speak Because I Can; A Creature I Don’t Know, and now, the meter-wrecking Once I Was An Eagle. Perhaps they represent her journey from introspective teenager to ruling pontiff of contemporary folk. Her new album starts with a 20-minute suite of acoustic jazz, miles from the kick-drum thrum of the folk that makes it into the UK top ten: this is a return to the dextrous sound of Bert Jansch or Davey Graham.

Marling’s aura of self-possession has allowed her to make a major change to her singing style in the past two years without anyone saying anything. Her voice, once so English, has turned into a slip-slidey American lilt, half-speech, half-jazz, frequently yoyoing to a deeper register. She has always done things you wouldn’t expect – a Vogue photoshoot for her last album, a relocation to Los Angeles. She’s smart and practical, recognising the potential in the US just like her former peers and boyfriends, Marcus Mumford and Charlie Fink (Noah and the Whale). Now, the boys of the “Notting Hill folk scene” are free to play music somewhere that neither knows nor cares they weren’t born working class, while the scale of the country keeps them in a constant state of touring triumph.

Marling – less commercial than Mumford, more advanced as a musician – hovers on the edge of celebrity but her appeal has always been the unadorned purity of her songs, which seem to come out of her automatically, amid downcast eyes and fingers in perpetual motion, like the strange, unconscious talent of a choirboy. It never appealed to me. I always found her persona too chilly to allow me to engage with the music – but suddenly I’m getting all nostalgic for the Marling of five years ago. Which just goes to show how developed – and developing – this artist must be.

On the album’s overture (“Take The Night Off”/“I Was An Eagle”/“You Know”/ “Breathe”) acoustic guitar and double bass flit between simple and jazz-time signatures. Marling’s voice curls like a Solid Air-era John Martyn – a close-miked, intimate presence (there are only two other people playing on most of these songs). “Little Love Caster”, a Spanish guitar elegy, is a successful twist in her style. “Where Can I Go” may be her tenderest moment yet, with a rolling accompaniment just like Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game”, little wisps of Hammond organ and a sharply drawn picture of a girl who is utterly lost. Elsewhere, Marling writes with the selfawareness that often makes her sound aloof, life experiences merely ammunition for her songs: “Thank you, naivety, for failing me again – he was my next verse” (“Saved These Words”). Across the course of this 16-track album, there’s the sense of a dramatic role being played out and shrugged off. By the time you reach “Little Bird”, with its flutes and unusual melodic shifts, you’re struck by her exceptional lightness of touch.

Only “Master Hunter”, the single, is a total shocker. A turbulent tale of some folk femme fatale featuring Marling’s “new voice” at its most mannered, its accompanying video shows the singer performing to a woman throwing herself around in a leotard. There are plenty of tributes to Dylan in the song – in the line “it ain’t me, babe”, or complex chords that sound just like “Tangled Up in Blue” – but oh, how I wish she wouldn’t try to do Bob’s voice as well, sliding up and down the notes. You are too English, Laura, it will never work! “The Muse”, the first single from her previous album, was equally stagy – the rest of the stuff felt so much more natural.

In Marling, we’re watching an accelerated transition from youthful talent to artistic sophistication: whenever power emerges, there’s a sense of innocence lost. I interviewed her around the time of her first record, which came as a limited-edition box set – Marling, like many other artists around at that time, had designed various bits of ephemera to bring out the physical pleasures of a CD versus an invisible download: a snakes-andladders- style board game, some postcards, all of which she’d drawn herself. You’d never get Laura Marling for a quick phoner on handicrafts now. She was just like any other young singer, in love with her parents’ record collection, sad for the “good old days” of vinyl and a bit starry-eyed. But we wouldn’t be talking about her now if she’d stayed that way.

On the road: Laura Marling in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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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