The Spielberg Touchscreen

Curator's Note

“The Spielberg Touch” is difficult to define, as it indicates a characteristic set of techniques already contained within popular norms. Defining Spielberg’s cinema is to locate the extraordinary within the familiar, to analyze emphases and flourishes rather than experimental or unconventional modes.
Scholars and critics have tended to divide his work thematically along a spectrum of “light” and “dark.” Oscillating between escapist entertainments and conscientious melodramas (represented most starkly by Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, released only six months apart in 1993), the films defy thematic coherence, except perhaps as phenomena of Hollywood-American populism. This raises the question of why films on opposite ends of the spectrum have drawn such wide audiences.
The Spielberg Touch, like “The Lubitsch Touch,” must therefore be a matter of form that is at once commercial and inimitable. Previous video essays, such as Kevin B. Lee’s The Spielberg Face (2011) and Tony Zhou’s The Spielberg Oner, (2014) have illuminated two recurring devices that engage mass audiences: close-up reaction shots and long takes.[1] Warren Buckland’s book Directed by Steven Spielberg (Continuum, 2006) also considers Spielberg’s visual style as fulfilling a blockbuster aesthetic. However, these audiovisual and written works have concentrated on elements of mise-en-scène, cinematography, and editing that are in many ways reproducible. If the Spielberg Touch were limited to those techniques, to the spatial arrangements of the two-dimensional screen and the timing of the shots, then certainly more filmmakers would have succeeded in copying them.
What seems endemic to Spielberg’s films, and what The Spielberg Touchscreen attempts to define, is a remarkable calibration of tensions between optical and tactile visuality—something we can feel as well as see (and hear). Spielberg designs impact and texture with as much concentration as multiplanar, deep-focus mise-en-scène. The performers contribute their expressive bodies—not just their faces but their hands, reaching out to objects that accelerate narrative while fixing our attention.
The Spielberg Touchscreen collects these moments of “reach-out-and-touch” as representative of Spielberg’s tactile cinema.[2] Significantly, the objects that are touched have an almost universal tactility: faces, hands, books, windows, maps, dirt, photographs, TV screens. Even if we have no understanding of the subjectivity of dinosaurs, aliens, or robots, when they touch things, we generally know how those things feel.
Spielberg’s “touchscreen” is distinguished from that of other directors who periodically fixate on scenic details or textures. David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Oliver Stone, for example, change the levels of focus, grain, or exposure, to highlight the “material presence” of images (as discussed by Marks, 163), and not necessarily their representative or story-derived functions.[3] Spielberg, conversely, highlights the surface qualities of objects in order to clarify characters’ identities, fears, and desires. This narrativized tactility stimulates our most active senses while providing vital story information.
This audiovisual essay gathers material from almost every work directed by Spielberg: all features and television projects from Duel (1971) to Lincoln (2012).[4] I use split screen technique throughout the essay to isolate concordances between the “two Spielbergs”—the fantasist and the melodramatist. We can see similar shots across dissimilar works: 1941 (1979) next to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001); Amistad (1997) next to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982); The Terminal (2004) next to Poltergeist (1982); and so on. Also, by placing earlier work next to later work, the split-screen format collapses the linearity of chronologically-based analysis. Further study may reveal some periodic gain or loss in the intensity or characteristics of Spielberg’s tactile visuality, but this essay treats the technique as fully developed in his early work, and as recurring, in varying degrees of visibility, in all of his subsequent work.
My purpose is not to re-position Spielberg within the experimental, art, or intercultural modes of haptical cinema. His work remains, at a near-prejudicial level, within conventional modes of narrative commercial cinema. We identify with the one who touches, comprehending the narrative significance of the gesture. But the camera’s occasional lingering on the surface details of universal-tactile objects is stimulating to our collective touch-memory. This technique, a product of finesse rather than invention, by turns mesmerizing and overbearing, is indicative of the Spielberg Touch.
Ken Provencher is Associate Professor of the Faculty of Media Studies at Josai International University in Tokyo, Japan. His written work has appeared in The Quarterly Review of Film and Video, The Velvet Light Trap, Film Quarterly, and The Blackwell Companion to Wong Kar-wai (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016). His Ph.D. dissertation, Japan in Transnational Hollywood: Industry and Identity, 1985-1995, was conferred in 2013 at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. The Spielberg Touchscreen is his first video essay.
[2] :: kogonada’s video essay Hands of Bresson (2014) exemplifies, to an extent, the kind of tactile visuality I am exploring in Spielberg’s work. A significant difference between Bresson and Spielberg is the shallow depth of field in Bresson’s films.
[3] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000). See also Antonia Lant, “Haptical Cinema,” October, v. 74 (Autumn 1995): 45-73. Both Marks and Lant refer to definitions of opticality, tactility, and hapticality, in art-historical writings of Adolf von Hildebrand and Aloïs Riegl in the late 19th, early 20th century, which were later adapted into film theories by Walter Benjamin, Noël Burch, and Gilles Deleuze. Across these different writings there is no one consistent definition of “haptical cinema,” but I find Marks’s usage most helpful in framing Spielberg’s tactile visuality as distinct from both commercial and noncommercial haptical modes.
[4] I was unable to include selections from Bridge of Spies (2015), but at least three scenes stand out as exemplars. 1) In the opening scene, the camera follows the hand of Abel (Mark Rylance) as it feels under a park bench to collect a coin. 2) Donovan’s son Roger (Noah Schnapp) touches a hand-drawn map to show Donovan (Tom Hanks) the distance between their home and the Empire State Building. 3) In extreme closeups of the hand of Powers (Austin Stowell), he strains to activate the destruct mechanism of his plane during a freefall. The second scene is a notable reversal of moments in other Spielberg films where Tom Hanks is the one gesturing at maps to indicate locations and their relative distances. Spielberg's next film, The BFG (2016), already has a significant tactile-visual moment in the teaser trailer: a giant hand reaching into the window of a girl's bedroom.