Along with Wes Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Spielberg is a director who draws the attention of video essayists: the peculiar thematic and stylistic aspects of his cinema and the prominent, consistent visual features in his films seem to encourage the cinephile to exercise his “connoisseurship”, “seeing in the details of a mise-en-scène marks of distinctive, individual authorial presence.” (Keathley, 2006:16). And the cinephile connoisseur finds in the videographic form of criticism a privileged means to convey his argument, an ideal instrument to prove “beyond any reasonable doubt” the authorial status of a film director. Therefore, Spielberg’s work has become the subject of many fascinating video essays: Kevin B Lee's The Spielberg Face, Steven Benedict's The Passions and Techniques of Steven Spielberg, Tony Zhou's The Spielberg Oner, Steven Santos' five-part series Magic & Light – The Films of Steven Spielberg and the recent, viral Spielberg in 30 Shots, by Jacob T. Swinney.
In this heterogeneous production, one that addresses both the visual and the thematic issues of Spielberg’s filmography, Ken Provencher’s The Spielberg Touchscreen stands out for the novelty of his argument and the compelling way in which he presents it through its audiovisual form.
The voice over commentary is essential and well calibrated, with effective moments of close correlation between words and images. For example, the sentence “we can isolate this design element to a motif in Spielberg” is accompanied by the shift from split screen to full screen; and the full screen passages function as moments of punctuation that are necessary to balance the audiovisual richness of the split screen composition. In fact, in The Spielberg Touchscreen the amount of visual and auditory information that the viewer receives is considerable, especially given the fact that the excerpts selected and placed side by side are often marked by the development of fast actions and events. Provencher succeeds, however, through the use of split screen in establishing an intense, energetic dialog between the two images, each time reinforcing a concept through the repetition of similar gestures or situations, or conversely producing small frictions that highlights the heterogeneity of forms in which this tactile visuality manifests itself.
The video engages the viewer in a fruitful tension between grasping (the main argument) and being (sensorily) grasped, a tension that perfectly mirrors the one between optical and tactile visuality addressed by Provencher. A sequence of micromotifs structures the video: the introduction of the tactile dimension through hands; the touching of visualization tools (maps, drawings, displays) that leads to a “cognitive grasping”; the seizing of objects that has a narrative function; the affective, emphatic dimension represented by the face touching. Finally, the last part is constituted of screens, glasses and membranes that crack, that break, that are hit by spurts of water, mud, blood, that function both as dividers and as thresholds. Through this crescendo, Provencher succeeds in proving how Spielberg’s cinema, despite being reassuringly narrative-driven, can evoke a sensuous response, thus reminding us that, like in Poltergeist, the distance between us and what is beyond the screen is shorter than we think.
[Work cited: Keathley, Christian, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).]
The Spielberg Touchscreen begins by informing the viewer that analyses of Steven Spielberg’s films normally center on two things: first, thematic interests like parent-child relationships and significant events in Jewish history; second, visual style, specifically the director’s manipulation of deep space within the film frame. But looking at Spielberg’s oeuvre from these two angles is somewhat limiting, the author claims. Rather, we should also consider the filmmaker’s tactile visuality, or the way his characters consistently trace and/or place their hands over objects within the mise-en-scene.
From here, the viewer is immersed in copious shots of Spielberg’s actors raising and pointing their hands, writing on paper and chalkboards, touching books and picture frames, caressing faces and lips, engaging with maps, pecking on glass, and even wiping their fingers on and across the camera lens. Well-known pictures like Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), and Schindler’s List (1993) are featured alongside lesser-known works like Duel (1971) and The Sugarland Express (1974), indicating that Spielberg has long been interested in transferring to the screen the sensory experience of touch.
The argument of “The Spielberg Touchscreen”—tactile movement in deep space is a way to make images tangible—is worthwhile, and one that should circulate nicely alongside video essays/compilations like The Spielberg Face and The Spielberg Oner.