Last night I watched 2017's Spielberg—a rich, intimate, lovingly-crafted documentary about Steven, his vision for cinema, the ups and downs along his journey starting with shooting simple neighborhood films using a hand-held camera growing up in Phoenix through to his colossal blockbusters including Jaws (which grossed at the time more than any film ever had in the history of cinema, bested only by Star Wars two years later), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, and so many others that you'd need more fingers and toes than you possess to count 'em all.
Heck, in the five years since this documentary first aired, IMDB shows Spielberg's either directed, produced, co-produced, partially written, financed/funded, distributed through Dreamworks, or announced [literally, precisely, exactly] 50 new films (!), The Post, Ready Player One, Jurassic World, West Side Story, and Indiana Jones 5 among them.
No slouch, this guy.
As prolific and passionate as filmmakers come, the bar Spielberg sets for himself is surely highest of all, yet he never seems to lose his sense of childlike wonder, innocence, and 'Peter Pan as man' (obviously experienced as the maestro he's become with five decades of work behind him, yet evergreen in his hopefulness, optimism, and sentimentality, be it his joy for his craft, for the now USC Shoah Foundation, or all that came veterans' ways following Saving Private Ryan because of how Spielberg captured the sheer terror, sacrifice, bravery, humanity, and fortitude displayed by U.S. soldiers storming Normandy's Omaha Beach).
But if we rewind a bit, way back to the very beginning, actually, we hear from Steven himself a description of the genesis of his life's work, when and where and how he found the first bar worth leaping over, and the personal grit he mustered in his own Arizona desert required to get going already:
“A movie came into town called Lawrence of Arabia and everybody was talking about it. I’d never sat in a fancy theater before—premium ticket price, 70mm projection, stereophonic sound—and when the film was over I wanted to not be a director anymore because the bar was too high!
It was the first time seeing a movie I realized there are themes that are not just ‘story’ themes; they’re character themes, they’re personal themes, that David Lean had created a portraiture, surrounded the portrait with a mural of scope and epic action, but at the heart and core of Lawrence of Arabia is 'Who am I?'
I had such a profound reaction to the filmmaking [that I] went back and saw the film a week later, and I saw the film a week after that, and I saw the film a week after that, and I realized there was no going back [for me now]…that this was going to be what I was going to do, or I was gonna die tryin’, but this was going to be the rest of my life.”
Not everyone experiences (like Steven did) such a clear, epiphanic, clarion call to purpose in life (much less so young), but I do find time and again that high performers (be they directors, professional athletes, opera singers, or fabulous parents) really understand one's "reach should exceed his grasp," and that fact doesn't dissuade the striving, it doubles it.
The screensaver on my iPhone, "The right thing is often the hard thing," testifies to my belief in this fact, and I shudder to think of all the storylines and beautiful movie moments billions of us would have missed had Lawrence of Arabia left Spielberg in a fetal position on the cinema floor feeling too daunted to try. After all, everyone starts at zero.
In time, Spielberg eventually found his own tribe among similar upstarts (Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, and De Palma among them) who encouraged his work, challenged it, and ultimately both elevated and refined it. Together, this motley crew set increasingly higher bars for one another, upped both their individual and collective games, and within a matter of one single decade (namely 1975 to 1985) altogether recalibrated Hollywood's high waterline mark and accompanying expectations for art combined with commerce.
As I watch JAKE, a short yet emotive, atmospheric, beautifully scored film by upstart Silas Pierce (starring Jack Telepak and co-starring Zach Ogulnick) that is conceived as a prequel to a future feature, I see the very same forces at play that cajoled young Steven off his couch and down the street to capture on film what he saw in his mind's eye. In Steven's childhood films (shaped as he was by his father's and father's friends' tales of war), we see gangly neighborhood boys running around in oversized army fatigue britches, crisp white t-shirts, green helmets, and dodging dirt-clod landmines interwoven with and spliced alongside actual war footage, a great deal of which had been filmed by none other than John Ford himself.
We are all creatures of our times, and the history of cinema is nothing else if not the tale of moxie and wanderlust and damning convention while standing atop the shoulders of giants who stood atop the shoulders of giants before them. In this tradition, Pierce has grown up in an era bookended by societal forces and wars very different than those of Spielberg's childhood, specifically our contemporary Twin Towers coming down on 9/11, an ambiguous, noble, yet unwinnable 'war on terror' occurring in stone age dirt as well as digitally, and a surreal global pandemic that interrupted education, togetherness, momentum, and sometimes even the sense of progress and possibility by putting each of us on the other side of fabric masks that covered whatever natural, fleshy masks already hid our truer, more vulnerable selves.
So what we see in JAKE is not action and gunfights, but rather that sense of ennui mixed with longing, two sensations with which teenagers have been intimately familiar for time immemorial, though perhaps even more so today than ever before thanks to social media, influencers, and the ceaseless sensation of falling further and further behind some fictional, unattainable, probably-not-worth-reaching-anyway mirage. In our era when the 'good guys' and 'all the money in the kingdom' are never enough to decidedly win a war nor unite a nation, what good is striving when I can so easily fade behind a blue screen or drop out altogether?
I agree with the sentiment All that is required for evil to triumph in the world is for good people to stand by and do nothing and further believe that opting to remain passive equates to forfeiting the fight before it's even begun. It's scary being what Teddy Roosevelt described as "the man in the arena" and even scarier once you've been bopped on your actual nose, but precisely because the right things are often difficult things doesn't mean we shouldn't try, it simply means we should try harder, and always, and bigger each time.
As Jake ponders his present and his future, it's his restlessness, moodiness, borderline brooding that I love—that gap I'd describe as the What Is nestled awkwardly between What Was and What Will Be and which cannot be ignored, extended, nor abided for intolerably long. Where's Jake going? What does he want to do? Where does he want to be?
Anywhere but here is the short answer, but behind that is the thornier question Lean pursued in Arabia, O'Toole in the character of Lawrence, Spielberg for more than a half-century now, and which remains an open question for the ages told and retold from hieroglyphs to the Bard to randos on Snapchat: Who am I, indeed.
Perhaps triangulated into corners by three opposing walls represented by flipping burgers, continuing his education, or hitting the jackpot, Jake is also surrounded by quiet fellowship, community, connection, and the most gorgeous (if fading) magenta sky. Taken together, most of us react to these walls around 18 years of age by leaving 'em in the dust, in our rearview mirrors. But then, on the other side of mid-life some 20 years later, a great many of us proceed to spending very nearly everything we possess to rebuild what we eagerly forsook earlier only to find there's no going home again, ever. That place exists only in the swirling eddies of memory and is 'Exhibit Infinity' reproving the original maxim that Youth is wasted on the young.
On my 52-year-old side of said ennui, longing, and restlessness I find wistfulness, nostalgia, and missing what can never be reconstituted nor rematerialized, but such acceptant wisdom is hard-won only through gain, the loss of it, and perspective leavened by time. There is no rushing adulthood; there is no skipping the hard parts nor leaping over the rough patches. Everything must become scar tissue for it to really exist.
We must each come to this truth ourselves, in our own ways, in our own time, along our own journey.
With hindsight, Jake's vision may near 20/20, but his calling, his contribution, and his eventual answer to the question Who am I is not one to be easily located, unearthed, then brushed clean for all to see so much as one cobbled together painstakingly through trial and error, through advances and retreats, or maybe stitched together like a patchwork quilt comprised of those precious few remnants that survive, or resembling something scorched or forged in fire, or perhaps akin to sliding across green felt toward the center of the table every last chip he owns in the hope that This is what I was put here to do and I shall either succeed at doing it or die tryin', exactly as Spielberg surmised.
Such are the elusive yet essential natures of purpose and talent and putting one's good things to use. Like great whiskey and fine wine, however, after some initial mashing these things can no longer be forced; they must be awaited.
And so I shall await patiently (but with bated breath!) Pierce's presentation of Jake's next steps in the world because they will very likely begin with Jake rising to his feet, dusting himself off again, then steeling himself before pursuing his passions and rousing the crowd no matter the cost.