A man (not Will Self) surveys an array of spoons. Illustration: Jackson Rees
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The changing fortunes of my family can be measured in our use of the humble spoon

When it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do.

For the past fortnight or so, I have been much exercised by the handsome “personalised spoon offer” that Kellogg’s has had blazoned on its Rice Krispies boxes. My youngest and I decided we very much wanted a spoon with our own slogan engraved on it and he began working on the words while I set about eating enough of the desiccated little blebs to justify buying the two further boxes we needed to obtain the “secret code numbers” required to unlock the spoon trove. On the back of these boxes are winsome pictures of happy new spoon-owners – but we were dismayed at their lack of ­imagination. All their spoons were simply personalised with their names (Carol, Keisha, Tarquin, et al) and the Kellogg’s cartoon brand mascots, whereas we were thinking of something surreal and subversive, such as: “Which orifice? Your choice.”

Actually, when I saw quite how innocent the other spoon-personalisers had been – how untainted by corrosive irony – I wondered at the depths of my psyche. What is it about cutlery that spoons up from my unconscious such anatomically perverse thoughts? I meditated on my childhood. Our American mother often used to remind us of her childhood in the Great Depression and used this early experience of privation to justify her habit of nicking cutlery from hotels, restaurants and even transatlantic liners: for years, we stirred our hot chocolate with some particularly chunky Queen Mary-monogrammed teaspoons.

My father brought different cutlery to the table (what a pleasure it is for once to use this expression both metaphorically and literally). An epigone, he entered the marriage with several canteens of old family silver. As a child, I was fascinated by these polished, hardwood boxes, with their green-velvet-lined interiors in which lay odd-shaped fish knives, pinioned in rows, and spoons personalised with family crests. But he – and therefore we – were on the social down escalator, so there were few occasions that merited the deployment of the entire shiny complement: knives, forks and spoons arranged in descending order of size so as to parenthesise the placemats. In truth, such was the queered problematic of my mother’s snobbery that she regarded certain forms of tableware as hopelessly non-U, reserving the full weight of her contempt for those petit-bourgeois families that cinched their serviettes (“napkins” is the acceptable term) with personalised rings.

Hmm, personalised rings . . . I feel rather like the young Freud – the Freud of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life who discovered such rich seams of suppressed psychic content hidden beneath quotidian tongue-slips and semantic glitches. It would be a simple enough spoonoanalysis were I to have grown up intent on repairing the fortunes of the House of Self so that once more, as in days of yore, a quince spoon was required at every meal – but I didn’t. True, I am a reader of Private Eye’s Me and My Spoon column and I also have a fascination with sporks, the liminal status of which is a constant reproof to our collective obsession with cookie-cutter categorisation, but as regular readers of this column will be only too aware, the last thing I want is an amuse-bouche served in a china spoon.

What I do like is the thought that the ancestral cutlery will continue to tinkle and clank down through generations of Selfs and that, at some point in the distant future, one of my descendants will peer wonderingly at the faint letters incised in the handle of a spoon they’ve known since birth but never properly examined; and with the assistance, perhaps, of some late-21st-century optical technology of which we can have no ken, painstakingly decipher: “Which orifice? Your choice.” I would further like it if my hypothetical descendant was then visited with a similar epiphany to Shelley’s “traveller from an antique land”, so apprehending the folly of not just personalised spoons but all human endeavour.

It is a factoid oft retold that the flimsy fork is a comparatively late addition to the solid British table. Right up until the early-modern era, even the highest in the land were perfectly happy to eat with knife, spoon and fingers-in-lieu-of-tines. Were William Burroughs to have written Naked Lunch during this period, he would presumably have chosen a different title for it, given that this one was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s insight that a naked lunch is “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. Forks are evil instruments, stabbing weapons comprised of four or five épées welded together. Knives are often the subject of amnesties but a spoon amnesty would be whimsical. As for fingers, there’s no telling what they might get up to.

No, when it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do. Only the spoon is rounded and smooth and often brimming with milk like a lactating breast. Only a spoon will nurture you and care for you and love you unconditionally. So there’s nothing in the least surreal or subversive about our personalising slogan, because that’s the thing about a spoon: it doesn’t judge you, it accepts you for who you are unreservedly and equally it accepts whatever it is you want to do with it. Which is just as well, because I for one take a dim view of extra-cutlery relationships. Running off with a dish . . . ? Hey diddle-diddle, Spoony, what are you like . . .?

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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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