The Spielberg Touchscreen

The Spielberg Touchscreen by Ken Provencher

[The below peer review reports comment on the final, amended version of the video as embedded above]


Creator's Statement

“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.

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.