The Spielberg Transition #1

One of the things Steven Spielberg vocally admires about David Lean is his imaginative scene changes, of which the most celebrated is the “match cut” in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Spielberg has emulated the technique a fair bit, often with enjoyable results. But sometimes he gets it wrong.

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK is the kind of thing Spielberg is supposed to do well, but it’s an oddly confused film, from its back-asswards title on down. I don’t think his heart was in it.

How do you know when there’s a tyrannosaur in your tent?

The first JURASSIC PARK is, on the whole, really good (haven’t bothered with any of the non-Spielberg sequels). It’s fairly faithful to Michael Crichton’s page-turner, though most of its departures are disimprovements. And while the novel is very clear that bringing dinosaurs back to life would be a disastrous idea, you get the sense that, even though this plot point is ported over from the book, deep down Spielberg thinks it would be awesome (which is why the park’s creator doesn’t have to die, despite being responsible for all the other deaths). I don’t necessarily disagree (there’s a weird meme in popular culture, particularly Doctor Who: whenever dinosaurs get revivified, the wonderment is promptly quashed by a sentimental death scene. Dinosaurs can come back, but only for a few minutes. It strikes me like giving a kid a toy and then taking it away again.)

Well, Crichton wrote a follow-up book that wasn’t worth filming, so screenwriter David Koepp threw it away and came up with a story that flatly contradicted the thrust of the earlier film: now Jeff Goldblum, the anti-dino rock ‘n’ roll chaos theoretician of the previous film, wants to save the poor T-rex, just about the scariest threat he faced (it ate a man on the toilet, ffs). The last tenth of the film abandons the titular location to run amock in America, a clear violation of the Platonic unities as well as various traffic statutes.

But the rot sets in early on: with the introduction of the hero, in fact. The threat is set up efficiently in scene one. Spielberg had listened to the criticisms of little kids (really?) who didn’t want to wait so long to see the thunder lizards, so he brings on some miniature CGI beasties to attack a child right at the outset (maybe he didn’t really take too kindly to the criticism?). Mom runs up and sees daughter in trouble, and SCREAMS ~

And we CUT TO Jeff Goldblum yawning against an unconvincing tropical palm background. The scream continues but now it’s something else: the roar of a subway train.

Goldblum steps screen left and the pan takes us away from his backdrop, now “revealed” to be a backlit holiday advertisement, and we learn he’s in the subway.

These kind of gags, where a background turns out not to be real practically never work, because the background practically never looks real. Our initial reaction is likely to be “That looks cheap and fake as hell,” and though the reveal provides an excuse for the phoniness, it fails to provide a pleasing surprise.

And the yawn? It’s hard not to see it as a gesture of contempt towards the material or the audience or both.

But the worst thing is the fanciness. Remember, the LAWRENCE cut has only a few elements, really. Lean doesn’t try to align the match with the rising sun, pictorially. The connection is merely conceptual: the desert is, in some way, like a flame that can burn you, and a man like Lawrence might enjoy that. The sound of Lawrence’s breath extinguishing the match carries across the edit. And that’s it.

Whereas LOST WORLD has the audio transition of the scream/subway, the visual match of the screaming woman/yawning man, and the fake background of blue sky and palm trees. It’s all busy, and all ugly, and all ineffective and fighting against itself. In the words of Dorothy Parker, “This isn’t just plain awful. This is fancy.”

There’s maybe an actual artistic principle here: the more artful a transition, the more simple it needs to be.

More Spielberg awful soon!

5 Responses to “The Spielberg Transition #1”

  1. I think the main reason is it makes no emotional sense either; with Lawrence, it’s from his dreaming to the awesome reality of the desert, with Spielberg, it’s the horror of a kid getting eaten (a really ghastly scene for him) to…Goldblum yawning? As a kid, I always though this coded him as a villain.

    And yet, the weird thing about this misfire is how well it still conducts itself as it lumbers along (there’s a one take shot full of sound with Goldblum and his adopted daughter that reveals even at his worst, Speileberg is probably still the most intuitive vsual storyteller in America). It’s also so uncharacteristically cold for him. Even jaws still has a bit of wonder and sentimentlaity.

    I must seriously rewatch this: it’s still probably a mess, but a mess better than a lot of other post 90’s monster movies

  2. Randy Cook Says:

    More in line with some old B&W British Hitchcock which I can’t recall, where a woman screams upon discovering a ghastly murder or something, cuts to a train whistle. Better done in the Hitchcock, as there was a sound overlap, w/ the whistle sound over the woman screaming. The gory opening of JURASSIC PARK 2 echoed the opening of Crichton’s original JP novel, where the one of little critters ate a baby in its crib. As to the title inversion, it seems to confirm a suspicion of Jim Danforth’s: Universal had a version of the real LOST WORLD, Conan Doyle’s, in development for some years, so they appropriated the title to get that un-filmed project “off the books”. An accounting decision, as much as an artistic one.

  3. The scream-whistle is in The 39 Steps:

    Yes, that’s a funnier sound trick than the woman’s scream in TLW:JP, where the scream merely fades into the train sound.

    And yes, Andre, you nailed it. Unusually for Spielberg, the trick is emotionally wrong.

  4. I think The Lost World is unusually sadistic for what we think of as typical Spielberg.

  5. Hmm. Check out Jaws, Temple of Doom, and the first film in the series, all rather nasty. TLW:JP may be a similar case to the Indiana Jones sequel: emboldened by a fairly savage first film, the director is encouraged to go further.

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