Posted 20 April 2014 - 09:20 AM
Read this, Steef!
Empire of the Sun: Spielberg's Overlooked, Misunderstood Masterwork
excerpted from "The Outsider: A Shadow On the Sun", 12/7/1999
EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)
(d. Steven Spielberg, scr. Tom Stoppard, ph. Allen Daviau)
I was dreaming about God.
What did he say?
Nothing. He was playing tennis. Perhaps that's where God is all the time -- [in our dreams] -- and that's why you can't see Him when you're awake, do you think?
I don't know. I don't know about God.
Perhaps He's our dream...and we're His.
In the short documentary, The China Odyssey, Steven Spielberg talks about his take on author J.G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun. Ballard's book details the author's own true-life experiences as a British child of privilege separated from his parents by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941, and one of Spielberg's boldest opinions of the work was that half of the book was a lie -- half of it true in the broad strokes, certainly, but it was Spielberg's belief that the details and vignettes were completely warped by Ballard's childhood perception.
This is crucial to understanding Spielberg's work on the film - which has long been dismissed or completely, fundamentally misread - not a single shot can be trusted.
Consider the scene referenced in italics above. Spielberg concludes this passage with a shot of Jamie in bed while his mother and father look on fondly. Spielberg's editor Michael Kahn then does something strange - he performs a quick dissolve of this same shot onto itself, which at first glance appears to be a gaffe. It isn't a gaffe. It's intentional. Spielberg wants you to remember this shot for an important reason.
Only later - and only if you remember that odd dissolve - do you see the payoff to this moment. Jamie becomes separated from his parents and spends the remainder of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp. He's spent years idealizing his parents to the point where he finally admits - in a scene of tremendous power - that he can't remember what his parents actually look like any more. Subtly illustrating this point, hanging next to Jim's makeshift prison bed is a Norman Rockwell painting torn out of the pages of LIFE Magazine. The painting is of a Mother and Father looking fondly at a child in bed.
It is the exact same image from earlier in the film.
The implication here is that the earlier scene never happened, or at the very least didn't happen in the way Spielberg presented it to you -- the reality of the moment has been skewed by Jamie's fantasies. Either way, Spielberg's camera lied to you, and in 1987, there wasn't a film critic in America who noticed.
Spielberg's camera is a font of dishonesty in Empire of the Sun, a blazingly original, criminally ignored film. Nothing in the frame can be trusted. Consider the first appearance of John Malkovich as the stranded maritime con man, Basie. When we first meet Basie, he is one cool customer, strongly backlit, his face obscured by dark sunglasses and a G.I. cap. This is all fine and good, except Basie's appearance has already been foretold by the cover of the "Wings" comic book Jamie reads in the first moments of the film. The cover of the comic details a back-lit G.I., wearing dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed cap. When the camera sees Basie, we see him as Jamie sees him -- a figure of salvation and skill. Spielberg even cuts from this version of Basie to the image of the figure on the comic book when Basie first meets Jim. If there is such a thing as blatant subtely, well, that's Spielberg.
In the closing moments of the film, Jim confronts Basie, and finds him a thin, shell of a man with bad skin, still pursuing his dream of being the pirate "lord of the Yangtzee". Is his physical condition simply the result of malnutrition? (unlikely, since at this moment Basie is in seemingly ample supply of Hershey's Chocolate bars)? No - this is the real Basie. Not the idealized Basie, but the real Basie. Jim's days of hero-worship are over. We finally see him as he is.
The truth is that Steven Spielberg made a film that toyed with reality as much as Rashomon or Blow Up. In 1987 he was critically regarded as a sort of live-action Walt Disney, a commercial filmmaker who distilled complexity down into mass-market product, and so Spielberg's work in Empire was taken at face value, and the film was dismissed as a pointless failure. No one looked deeper because no one thought they were supposed to look deeper.
In retrospect, the film is so loaded with provocative and startling irreverance, it would seem to be almost sitting up and begging for analysis -- it is stuffed to overflowing with visuals of fantasy and reverie in the midst of suffering. This film - ultimately - is about the human need for escapism and denial in the face of a harsh reality, and how that escapism is pounded out of a child forcing him to become an adult. The tragedy is that critical prejudice led many to view the film as a Shanghai version of An American Tail by way of a David Lean imitator suffering from Peter Pan syndrome. This was incorrect. Wildly incorrect. Many critics, in fact, directly faulted Spielberg for the unreality of Empire of the Sun and they took him to task for it. They missed the point.
Spielberg literally lifts the subconscious interpretation of events by a 12 year-old boy and prints those memories onto film. The prison camp - which was criticized for being a fantasy construct and not a real environ - exists as the child remembers it. Since children can have quite a fine time with a cardboard box, you can imagine how much fun Jamie had living next to an airfield. Spielberg puts that interpretation on film.
It is said that there are two types of media -- lean-forward media and lean-back media. Lean-forward media asks you to participate, to do your own work, to sort things out. Lean back media does all the work for you, the film acts upon you. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a lean-back movie. E.T. is a lean-back movie. Jaws is a lean-back movie. Even The Color Purple is a lean-back film.
Empire of the Sun is a lean-forward film -- but because Spielberg had created so many masterful films in the classic lean-back mold of Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Ford, and Walt Disney, lean-back films were what people expected from him. Empire of the Sun was something completely new from Steven Spielberg - a film that worked on multiple levels of reality, with one informing the other. Audiences and critics did not know what to make of it, and few went back to the film for the answers. The film was dismissed as a stunted failure.
Spielberg had become a victim of his own success. Having proven himself a master of fantasy and special f/x, audiences and critics took his visuals in the film - some of them subtle, some of them wildly abstracted - at face value. Empire of the Sun is jammed full with impossible moments that clearly are not happening, including a toy glider that stays impossibly aloft, the aforementioned scene involving the family, a trio of pilots who salute the young boy in a hail of welding sparks, a pilot of a P-51 who waves to Jim, a refrigerator that bursts open revealing - instead of food - glitter and toys...there's a gesture that Jim sees his father perform, rubbing his finger across his upper lip. Later, Jim will have a new father figure, Dr. Rawlins, who will repeat the same gesture. Film critic Patrick Taggart actually asked what the point of this gesture was. Ten years later, I'm happy to tell him the gesture is the result of Jim's fading recollection of his parents. Dr. Rawlins becomes his "new" father, Dr. Rawlins continually repeates the gesture, and so the father we see in the beginning of the film is a corrupted memory -- Jim's memories are corrupted by his later experiences, and they superimpose themselves onto the reality "seen" as the beginning of the movie. Again, nothing can be trusted.
Spielberg reveals to us this inner life in an enormously subtle way. The standard practice is to clue the audience in by the use of hazy wipes and dissolves, or cross cutting between "interior pov" and "actual "pov". Spielberg discarded these devices completely, trusting in the intelligence of his audience. He does use slow-motion and the occasional absurd image to try and drive his message home, but in Empire of the Sun, he's more apt to lead you to the truth from the edges. One quick throw-away spotlights the British POWs reading from "A Midsummer Nights Dream" as Jim races by, a little clue to the movie's intentions that Spielberg slips by you, almost subliminally.
The film is about escapism, how immature fantasy and hope can kill, and how escapism and childish hope must be hammered out of Jim in order for him to survive. Time and time again, Spielberg and his screenwriter Tom Stoppard serve up an entire cast of characters who choose to ignore the reality of the world around them only to end up emaciated shells of their former selves or worse. In the face of a serious reality, denial and escapism are deadly, and the world must be dealt with on its own terms. Jim's Great Dream - other than flying - is to reunite with his parents, and he carries all of his childhood memorabilia in a small suitcase. Jim must forsake this fantasy and grapple with reality - this suitcase that contains his dreams will later be seen floating alongside the dead in the Shanghai Harbor.
Because of his pre-occupation with exploring this theme, Empire of the Sun is unique in the Spielberg canon in that it is a film less concerned with plot than it is with examining an idea - the danger of denial and escapism, how children suffer in war, and all the ways the human animal lies to itself. The unfortunate result is a film that winds down emotionally by the end of its 2nd hour, and it has been called a somewhat distant film. Movies are things we go to for many reasons, but, as Roger Ebert says, primarily we go because we want to feel something. Works like Empire of the Sun in the wrong hands can funtion like a parlor-game -- they're a great work-out for the left-side of your soul and a litmus test for how you view film, but they're also a bit emotionally cold. Spielberg escapes this distance through passion and a point of view on the subject matter that can only be called transcendant. The oft-repeated criticism of Empire of the Sun - that it fails to engage in its latter scenes - isn't something so easily dismissed away. But Lawrence of Arabia also sported a hole in the center of its drama in the shape of a man who was a total enigma. Citizen Kane has the same dilemna. Empire of the Sun - which David Lean himself was attached to at one point - has a protagonist at its center who is emotionally distant, keeping the viewer at arm's reach. In Lawrence and Kane, you had a men of fathomless contradictions at there fore, and in Empire of the Sun, you have the corrupted memories of a spoiled child who loses his innocence. Jamie simply can't compete with Charles Kane and T.E. Lawrence, but he gives it his best.
To me, Empire of the Sun represents the death of the Spielberg I grew up with, just as much as it tells the tale of a child who must shuck off the best parts of childhood in order to survive. It’s my personal belief that the failure of this film was a giant blow to the man, whose career went into an artistic tailspin even as it was generating ever-higher box office returns. Spielberg's public quotes around this time are the most self-loathing of his life, referring to works like Hook as "hamburgers" and himself as little more than a McDonald's fry chief.
Spielberg would be reborn in 1993 with Schindler's List, and he has since proven beyond little doubt that he is at the top of his game when he tackles new and challenging material, at his worst when he is making films that are familiar to him - like a gifted student sleepwalking through 6th grade reading. Works like Last Crusade, Always and Hook clearly show a man who had grown frustrated and/or dissatisfied with his own style. In 1993, he would find his passion for his own voice again.
The great thing about video is that it gives films a second chance, and it is never too late to rediscover a buried classic. Empire of the Sun deserves your attention on home video, but what's more, I think Spielberg's work in the film deserves your open mind and your further contemplation.
Television is way more interesting than cinema now. It seems like the art-house has gone to cable. - David Lynch