Spielberg and Burne Jones – a consideration after viewing Minority Report – Steven Spielberg (2002; USA) Tom Cruise
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 27 Jan 2019; ticket £6
Image as an art form
Seeing Tate Britain’s large exhibition of work by Edward Burne-Jones, followed a few days later by viewing Steven Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’, triggered a consideration of the similarity of these two respective successful image moulders, whose working lives were separated from each other by about one hundred years.
They are both selling something.
Looking at paintings such as King Cophetua, the Golden Maid, Love leading the Pilgrim, it seems to me that Burne-Jones’ (B-J) must have produced these works to sustain and promote the self belief and interests of the powerful strata of high Victorian society that sponsored him. The form taken by B-J’s work is mostly his idealised gloss on classical Greek representation of themes drawn from mythology. The flowing vestments, the sensuous tresses, the dramatic gestures are integral to the appeal of B-J: that those who bought and gazed upon these paintings were direct descendants of the culture of classical Greece.
The classical elements of form and content enabled B-J to direct his work at the explicit conceit of the British political class, that their legitimacy derived from their claim to be the inheritors of the inventors of Western civilisation. They were the new civilising force.
This self image of the civilising mission (also extending into versions of muscular Christianity) provided the British ruling social class with justification for the presumptuous power with which they exercised their superiority over women, the other classes, in particular the lower orders, and their colonial subjects. Although for the most part omitting to mention the institution of slavery in the Greek cities, the Victorians believed in a close imperial equivalence between Athens and Brittania. Both were sea bourne empires founded on stable civic ‘democratic’ governance, state religion and rule of law; both drew on a cultural provenance of philosophy letters and art. Both cultures held themselves in high regard, and foreigners in low esteem. The Greeks did invent the word: ‘barbarian’.
B-J’s work locates the Victorian male at the heart of his classical project, validating the confident claim made on the world by a small ruling elite. It seems to me that B-J had little understanding of the relational undertones of Greek mythology. The myths, as he painted them, were simply a world of artistically beguiling backdrops into which the Victorian male psyche might heroically project itself. The works endorsed values of superiority and ownership of action and superiority, in particular of the male over the female.
Overall B-J’s women are not only passive but often depicted as in a state of innocence, like children. And this representation of male-female relations as relations between adult to child, by extension provided a rationale for the Victorian male’s authority over the other social classes and the denizens of the burgeoning colonial empire.
B-J is selling: idealised identity.
Viewing Spielberg’s Minority Report, it is clear that sci-fi novella by Philip Dick has been re-purposed if not sabotaged by the Spielberg. Dick’s original story revolved around notions of autonomy and free will. But in Spielberg’s adaptation of Minority Report, Dick’s core concerns are filleted out of the body of the film. Spielberg stitches into his script an alternative thread of relevance, which increasingly dominates both the behaviour of Tom Cruise and re-shapes the story. Minority Report is rendered as a saga of the family and its redemptive powers.
As in B-J’s myth telling paintings, the role of Spielberg’s story is to provide a background to his prime purpose of validating the family as a source of identity. The ‘precogs’, the strange aqueous medium in which they float, the gadgets and futuristic paraphernalia exist in the Spielberg world only to offset the role of the family.
Time was when the heroes of movies were loners, detached from society. As outsiders they were often acidic observers of the culture from which they were re-moved. From the lone male perspective the family was a trap. The wife and two kids life was something that the mugs signed up for. For the outsider, seeing life as it was, the truth as a metaphysical concept, and winning were what counted.
But as American cultural confidence declined, things changed. The certainty of truth eroded. The emptiness of winning in a society where the trophies were delusional became apparent. America as a matrix of rural and inner city ethnic communities that had sustained people was transformed in a series of heterogeneous suburbs. As community faltered the family, both as consumption unit and psychic centre became the dominant ideological nexus. Now outsiders are more likely to be depicted as serial killers than Philip Marlow clones.
As seen by Hollywood and reinforced by the advertising industry, the family is now the redemptive force. Spielberg’s scripts reflect this. His scenarios are built about the proposition of the family as an heroic unit. The family, both actual and virtual, real or lodged in memory, is something to fight for, something for which we have to overcome. And this overcoming maybe either internal, within ourselves, our fears inadequacies, or external, outside forces aimed at destroying our family. The scripts revolve about either fighting forces that would sunder the family unit, to to bring the sundered unit back together. The redemption is in the psycho-emotional pay off of completion.
From both the political and consumerist field of perception, the idea of the complete family opens up the possibility of stratagems of interventions manipulations that exploit the concept of what is, outside of the movies, an unattainable ideal.
Spielberg is selling the heroic.