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Steven Spielberg

David Roche

The Poetics of Steven Spielberg

1941: Spielberg and the Energy of Chaos1

Vincent Souladié
Traduction de Caitlin Vanessa Smith

Texte intégral

  • 1 Translated by Caitlin Vanessa Smith.

1It is possible to identify a recurring chaotic regime in Steven Spielberg’s films, and this regardless of the genre he is working in; though its intensity varies, it is expressed in multiple and contradictory ways through speech, figures, shape, scale and energy. As such, 1941, his fourth feature film, is an early oddity in Spielberg’s body of work, because it is the one that best expresses an interest in the sowing of chaos in familiar environments. One week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army has fortified the bay and streets of Santa Monica to protect the coast from a potential air raid. A sardonic sergeant and his troop of feckless infantrymen have taken over the backyard of a family home sitting on a bluff, using it as an outpost and installing an anti-aircraft gun there. The father of the family is determined to take his patriotic duty seriously. Meanwhile, his wife frets about unrest at home, while their daughter takes advantage of the annual dance contest to flirt with the soldiers at the garrison in town. The California sky is also being watched over by an insane fighter pilot, a sex-crazed journalist, a myopic deer hunter and a General with an affinity for Dumbo (1941). However, nobody notices the surfacing of an enemy submarine, controlled by a Japanese commander and a German captain, whose absurd mission is to destroy Hollywood. Divided between insouciance and paranoia, the civilians and military personnel alike unleash a wave of anarchic insanity on the town while awaiting the outbreak of conflict.

2It is difficult to summarize more precisely the narrative stakes of this ensemble film, a comedy animated by an abundant and destructive energy. This chapter aims at circumscribing the elements that characterize 1941’s particular chaos, as Spielberg attempts to channel the overwhelming anarchic power of chaos and disorder through the framework of a classical mise-en-scène. Rather than letting the unhinged nature of his fictional universe put the narrative or diegetic consistency of his film at risk, or submitting the harmony of his images to the effects of visual excess, the filmmaker attempts to balance out the visual and rhythmic powers in a constant effort to promote aesthetic coherence. How does Spielberg’s direction control the unfolding of chaos? What types of conflict are likely to generate a formal paradox by confronting disorder with the order of objective representation?

3Spielberg remains faithful to the aesthetic principles of classic Hollywood cinema, that is to say “notions of decorum, proportion, formal harmony,... mimesis, self-effacing craftsmanship, and cool control of the perceiver’s response” (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson 4). The fictional world is thus organized as a cohesive whole: it is made semantically, symbolically and morphologically homogeneous. Yet the filmic universe in which 1941’s action occurs seems to be regulated by a precise and complex internal mechanism that is responsible for the film’s tight sequencing and logic. I wish to analyze this phenomenon through the lens of the activity of the images in the film, through their movement, modulation and flexibility. I argue that the flow of actions through the film make up a model within the images and between both, that is at once mechanical and electrical, a structured and calculated system on which the composition and editing are based.

Organizing the Chain of Events

4Teresa Faucon has put forward a theory of film editing using mechanical terminology: “similarities in structure and function enable one to take the mechanical models chosen as analogical models in the editing process with energy as a common denominator” (22, my translation). Searching for, and analyzing elements of, tension between order and chaos in Spielberg’s work offers an interesting illustration of this theoretical notion. By definition, chaos produces an entropic energy—shifting, rising, uncontrollable—which scatters objects and complexifies forms in illogical, disordered ways. Yet despite “the narrative and tonal chaos of 1941” (Kendrick 87), from an aesthetic point of view, the film avoids any of the disorder or inconsistency provoked by the chaotic nature of the narrative. This is the source of the main formal tensions of the film, notably the filmmaker’s decision to coherently arrange the disparate elements at the root of disorder.

  • 2 The film poster, by David McMacken, even imitates the style of Rick Meyerowitz’s poster for Animal (...)

51941 marks the young Spielberg’s first foray into both the historical film and pure comedy genres, adapting a story by Bob Gale, John Milius and Robert Zemeckis, screenwriters and directors whose careers were taking off at the time. The cinephile director has claimed to have been inspired by zany slapstick comedies such as Hellzapoppin’ (H.C. Potter, 1941) and It’s a Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963) (Friedman and Notbohm 72). Many of 1941’s feature players (Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Tim Matheson) were also cast members of Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975–), evidencing Universal’s desire to repeat the recent success of Animal House (John Landis, 1978), which also starred Belushi and Matheson, by moving the “anarchic and childish” (Morris 189) humor of that student-oriented ensemble film into a new environment.2 While Spielberg did not initiate the project himself, the film tied in to many of his concerns, namely the legacy of the Second World War and military worship, the revival of 1940s Hollywood cinema and the fantasy of American suburbia. But his recent status as a “golden boy” conferred to Spielberg a power that ended up overwhelming the film; he tackled the comedy genre with a cumbersome and complex approach, which resulted in a 247-day shoot (exceptionally long for a comedy) and the film going substantially over budget (McBride 290). In the end, 1941 stands out in Spielberg’s work as an unclassifiable oddity and was his first critical and commercial failure (Morris 216–226). This reversal of fortune temporarily shook both his confidence and reputation, making him turn his back on the comedy genre. Spielberg subsequently remarked that “[he’d] spend the rest of [his] life disowning this movie” (Davidson 21). The filmmaker has spoken on many occasions about the difficulties he encountered in making the story his own and capturing the comedic tone of the picture (Friedman and Notbohm 79). One could say that Spielberg approached the direction of the film with a “technician’s concern” to balance out any artistic hesitations he may have had during the shoot, which is shown by the technology available to film the interwoven, event-filled actions imagined by the screenwriters, namely his multi-camera setup and the use of the Louma camera crane.

6To shoot the most eye-catching scenes (such as a fighter plane landing on Hollywood Boulevard or a Ferris wheel rolling down a pier into the ocean), Spielberg used up to seven cameras positioned around the set, which simultaneously filmed the action with a minimum of movement, using different angles and types of shots (from very long shots to medium shots). This method, regularly used for Hollywood super-productions of the classical era, allows several shots to be filmed at the same time, thus guaranteeing that, if the camera angles are complementary, they will fit together perfectly, as they are from the same take. Yet in the case of 1941, the simultaneous use of seven cameras proves overwhelming and reveals some contradictions. First, it suggests the demiurgic control that the filmmaker wished to have over the action and the multiple events taking place, in order not to miss a thing. The dynamism of disorder generated by the madcap chaos brought about by the events of the film is confined to the diegetic boundaries provided by an over-investment in the visual setup. Secondly, the use of multiple cameras also attests to the filmmaker’s anticipating, perhaps, a certain indecisiveness during the editing process. This camera setup allows for a sort of deferment: by increasing the number of takes, the filmmaker is able to put off several formal choices to a later date during post-production. The luxury of a big budget seemingly allowed Spielberg to compensate for his discomfort with the material.

7Near the end of 1941, at the height of the escalating chaos, one of the final climactic sequences depicts the crash of the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk piloted by Captain Wild Bill Kelso in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, after having been shot down by two spotters who have mistaken it for a Japanese plane [79:54]. In terms of editing, the shots of the nosediving plane and the crash are organized in a way that channels the energy (the speed, the impact) as if through a mechanical circuit. An army battalion sets up their position on Hollywood Boulevard after a long sequence depicting a brawl among young civilians. The street empties, and calm has been restored when a final incident occurs. Casually leaning against a tank in the middle of the street, a young officer gazes toward the camera and stares at an odd event occurring offscreen. In an insert, the flaming wreckage of Kelso’s plane is shown heading straight for the ground between the rows of buildings in a deep-focus very long shot. The narration returns to the dumbstruck officer, who quickly moves toward the camera into a close-up, still looking in the direction of the airplane in front of him. In the next shot, a lively camera movement energizes the editing, as a low-angle oblique shot, panning left, follows the descent of the airplane to the ground, with horizontal beams of light emanating from the buildings in the background intensifying the speed of its downward flight. We then see a series of close-up reaction shots of six people in the street. Each of these static shots is animated by the internal movement of their faces, each individual turning toward the oncoming aerial threat. Six new shots then show the progression of the plane crash from six different points of view, none of which correspond to the locations of the intradiegetic spectators.

8Speaking of Spielberg’s cinema, Paul Warren criticizes the use of reaction shots, which he sees as a technique meant to manipulate the audience that is frequently exploited in Hollywood films:

The strategy of the majors has been, since the dawn of Hollywood, to fill the screen with reaction shots in the place of a reaction from the audience, as an audience stand-in. This substitution, this mimetic transfer of “spectatorial reality” to the screen, makes the identification process work through diverse forms of manipulation.

  • 3 These two analyses refer to the first brontosaurus scene in Jurassic Park.

9We can compare this Marxist-inspired analysis to Pierre Berthomieu’s more lyrical interpretation; he defends Spielberg’s reaction shots by invoking the idea of a “visual epiphany” (Berthomieu 533, my translation), particularly his signature shot of slowly zooming in on the face of a character observing a spectacular event taking place offscreen:3 “The tracking shot underlines the act of watching and amplifies the effect on the spectator. At the same time, in a way, it renders palpable the transcendent’s point of view on man” (Berthomieu 555). Warren’s position posits a uniform way of understanding the work and a viewer who is alienated by the sequencing of the images. On the other hand, Berthomieu believes in the power of the cinematic imaginary and its ability to put a spell on the audience. Perhaps some middle-ground can be found between the two views, both of which, while contradictory, relegate the viewer to a submissive position in relation to the dominant filmic object. If the reaction shot of a stunned actor plays such a strategic role in the emotional investment of the viewer, it should not be totally dependent on the viewer’s role. The look does not represent the emotions of the fictional onlookers discovering an unexpected event. Rather, it represents the combined values of the event and the emotion.

10The ethics of Spielberg’s aesthetics can be understood in the following manner: it is not simply a passion for emotional manipulation, but rather a passion for figurative and rhythmic rigor, a careful organization of the imaginary universes he creates. This interest in disorder is palpable in this sequence from 1941. Perhaps an example will help further illustrate this point. In The Birds (1963), a film that is energized by its aesthetic approach to modernity, Hitchcock embraces the reaction-shot strategy in his own way, in the staging of the gas-station explosion scene in Bodega Bay. Pressed up against the window of a restaurant, Melanie Daniels and a group of extras become the diegetic spectators of the drama. In a series of shot/reverse shots, we watch them observe the sudden appearance of birds in the frame, the gas station attendant’s fall, the flow of gas at the customer’s feet, the customer tossing a match, then the explosion of his car as the flames rise up to the gas pumps, followed by the final catastrophe. The shot/reverse-shot scheme spatializes the spread of chaos, while the editing expresses the emotional horror of the event. Using what Deleuze would later describe as the principle of the “sensory-motor break” (266), Hitchcock alternates between shots of the movement of the flames inevitably spreading and static images of Melanie Daniels’s face to express the feeling of impotency against the ineffable as the situation unravels. In this case, chaos becomes a true formal operator, expressing its power through the editing while unseating the kinetic continuity of the shots.

11While Spielberg borrows some of the compositing of Hitchcock’s sequence for 1941, notably some ground-level shots for his own gas-station explosion scene earlier in the film, he distances himself from the same editing scheme in order to put forth a different aesthetic technique. In 1941’s crash scene, the act of the plane nosediving leads to a series of six reaction shots, followed by six shots of the plane sliding along the street right before shattering a store window. More than an insidious ideological scheme or a desire for theatrics, it seems to me that this sequence in 1941 subscribes to a technical rationality, which can be interpreted in strictly mechanical terms through the editing of the film. The panoramic movement following the plane unleashes a burst of energy, triggering the reaction shots of the six faces, one after another, much like switches being set on. The total effect maintains both the dynamic unity and the circulation of an invisible energy that catalyzes the impact of the upcoming shock. The six shots relating to the plane crash prove how useful the dailies filmed by the six cameras on set were, but more importantly, they are employed to highlight a symmetric and rigorous chain reaction (six close-ups of the actors’ faces, six shots of the crash), even though their respective positions are not aligned spatially. The cumbersome and arbitrary logistics of the shoots is made worthwhile by this editing solution, the ideological nature of which, with respect to its prudent and measured mastery of the real, is more accidental than knowingly manipulative.

Perpetual Motion

12The use of the Louma camera crane likewise broadens the magnitude of the filmic space, while containing the movement of all of the action within the frame. The Louma is a small remote-controlled crane that allows the camera to rotate very smoothly, with a high precision of movement on a smaller set. Spielberg immediately took to the French device, which he had discovered at Cannes one year before the filming of 1941, and was given an exclusive model for use on the film (Spielberg 1251). The shots that were filmed with the Louma stand out because of their length and the fluidity and variety of the camera movements. The most notable use of the Louma in 1941 is in the pivotal sequence in which a dance contest turns into a brawl on the cramped dance floor. James Kendrick describes the precise choreography of the dance number in the sequence thus: “The camera moves about the enormous dance hall in a series of long takes, gliding over tables and stairs and all around the dozens of jitterbugging extras, which gives the sequence a sense of weightless exuberance” (86). Berthomieu remarks on how Spielberg, “giddy from his enormous studio set and his Louma, limitlessly choreographed the spectacle of chaos” (714). The notion of choreographing chaos is inherently antithetical, as it opposes regular movement dictated by the rigor of calculated rhythm to anarchic impulses freed from the authority of the machine. Spielbergian chaos expresses itself not as the overflow of an uncontrollable power, but as the demonstration of the strength of a high degree of filmic mastery with respect to the control of an excessive number of characters, the logical and rhythmic unfolding of micro-events, and the transformation of frenetic action into a lively and harmonious spectacle.

13During the dance sequence, two main events take place. Wally Stephens, a young sailor, swing-dances with Betty Douglas, whom he’s trying to seduce. Meanwhile, Corporal Chuck Sitarski, who is enamored of the same woman, stalks the young man through the mob of dancers to accost him [43:51]. Wally switches back and forth between swing-dancing and acrobatically fleeing the Corporal across the dance floor, devoting an equal amount of energy to both activities. He lets loose on the dance floor in front of the other party-goers with his comically elastic body, escapes suddenly to the mezzanine by climbing onto a dinner table, passes over his foe by walking along a wall vertically, then jumps back down and spins his girlfriend around. In order to evade Sitarski, Wally tries to get closer and closer to Betty. This musical number places the bodies in a whirlwind of energy (Fig. 1) [44:06], offering at the same time the conditions of avoidance (dancing as a method of evasion), the conditions of a romantic union (dancing as a bonding action), the conditions of violence (dancing as the act of bumping into others) and the conditions of release (dancing as a euphoric celebration). In the end, the personal conflict between the two men sets off a commotion that quickly spreads throughout the dance hall and triggers a brawl among the sailors and soldiers.

Fig. 1 — 1941: the dancers in a whirlwind of energy.

Fig. 1 — 1941: the dancers in a whirlwind of energy.

14However, amid such confusion, Spielberg makes use of the fluidity of the Louma’s movement to harmonize and maintain rhythmic continuity. The back-and-forth movement of the camera aims at capturing the sum of the entangled action in a consistent way, with the least possible amount of cuts and transitions. At the time, Spielberg was attempting to pursue a fantasy of uninterrupted movement. He would finally realize this dream thirty-three years later, in the digitally animated film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. If 1941 was the precursor of Spielberg’s attempts at a long-take dynamics, it seems to have brought along its share of experimentation, dissatisfaction and conundrums by confronting the filmmaker with very pragmatic formal questions, most notably concerning editing. As it happens, the choreography of the bodies and the transformation of the dance into an orderly brawl could not all be captured at once by a single camera, no matter how mobile. The filmmaker, therefore, relied on the Louma crane to film very lively long takes depicting several disparate activities. One shot that appears right in the middle of the dance sequence neatly illustrates this. In a medium shot, two trumpeters, whose profiles are shown split on either side of the frame, blare out swing numbers, accompanying the wriggling dancers, blurry in the background [45:43]. The camera swoops up over these musicians just as the focal point shifts, then moves down closer to the dance floor, which is now shown in a long shot. While the men synchronously grab their partners by the waist to catch them in an acrobatic manner, the subsequent shot, introduced through match-on-action, allows us to see the décor from a more central point of view, with the same scale. The camera then swoops down into the middle of a circle formed by the dancers and stops in front of Corporal Sitarski, who is reframed in a medium shot following a slight pan, looking rigid and robust, while his surroundings become blurry (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 — 1941: the camera swoops down upon the dancers before framing Corporal Sitarski in a medium shot.

Fig. 2 — 1941: the camera swoops down upon the dancers before framing Corporal Sitarski in a medium shot.

15The upward then downward movement of the Louma crane cuts almost imperceptibly from a low-angle medium shot (of the musicians) to a high-angle very long shot (of the dancers), from descriptive detail to a generalized view of the setting, in order to re-establish a visual balance between the movement of the bodies and the surrounding space. The camera then narrows in on a visually disruptive detail that serves as a dramatic announcement, topping off the shot. The unity of movement is not committed to any other narrative, rhythmic or emotional performance, but acts as a fuse or a catalyst to an upcoming action. However, the obstacle that Spielberg’s direction faces in these long takes filmed with the Louma crane is the difficulty of sequencing the shots. As the amplitude of tracking shots is not specifically indexed to the movement of a single character, but rather to the general movement of a crowd, the narrative weight of these shots is always put into perspective by the surrounding chaos that bombards the image. The shot thus fails to capture a dynamics that is not simply descriptive or introductory. Armed with his Louma, the filmmaker moves the camera forward into close-ups of the bodies several times, but the editor often decides to cut them to insert reverse shots, with a concern for spatial and narrative contextualization, e.g., the long track-in on Sitarski as he punches Wally [47:26]. In so doing, the many Louma tracking shots constantly announce the spark of an action that, in the end, is only depicted by using tightly framed insert shots, which interrupts the momentum of the camera movement.

16In seeking a feeling of sensory vertigo, this notion of “perpetual movement and of speed as a quantity of movement” (Amiel and Couté 31) is contrasted with its own narrative vacuousness and runs up against the logic of spatial legibility. We cannot know whether the palimpsestic nature of the filmed material can be attributed to Michael Kahn, the editor of the film, or to Spielberg himself in post-production. In any case, it is clear that the aesthetics of uninterrupted energy and the ideal of the long take that at first enlivened the direction are, during production and post-production, corrected by the rationality of classic narrative norms which the use of the Louma cannot replace.

The Mechanics of Body Movements

17Inspired by burlesque cinema, Spielberg tries to renew with slapstick, which Arthur Asa Berger defines as a “physical humor, often involving degradation by action” (51). The principle of slapstick lies in its conflictual relation to narration, as a “complex system of alternation of spectacle and diegesis” (Crafton 113). In 1941, Spielberg instrumentalizes the clumsiness of gestures more as a cog in the mechanics of action than as a disjunctive factor. The boundaries of the fictional world introduced by the film are also made clear by the concrete physical actions performed by bodies within the universe, which seems to be powered by manual movement. The movements that the characters make always represent an action followed by an effect. For instance, hands and feet are constantly working to pull on the levers, turn the cranks and push on the pedals that activate the machinery of the enormous periscope, the appearance of which sets the narrative of the film into motion. Hands and feet also maneuver a heavy military tank down Hollywood Boulevard, press the buttons of the complex fighter jet equipment, and arm and put into motion the pulley of an anti-aircraft gun, actions illustrating a literal mechanization of the filmic universe. The bodies themselves become cogs in the machine, for instance the two snipers in a look-out post in the basket of a Ferris wheel [97:00]. These gestures often provoke mechanical reactions with farcical consequences. The final disaster in the film is caused by an unfortunate action by Ward Douglas, who causes his house to slide into the cliff below by hammering a single nail into its front door. As early on as Duel, Spielberg began developing the idea of an individual being one with his machine, this synecdochic concept propelling the narrative forward. Yet 1941 disincarnates the individual in the gears of the narrative, which in this case results in giving the filmic mechanism alone the privilege of dramatic power.

18Moreover, in most of the disorder and excess caused by the actions of the characters, we can see the sexual energy being transformed into mechanical energy, laying aside any amoral overtones. For example, a love scene between a journalist and a young pilot that takes place in the cockpit of a plane does not feature direct physical contact, but rather an erotic interaction between the female body and the flight instruments: her hand caresses the fuselage; she squeezes a lever between her thighs; and her fingers stroke the control stick [16:04]. The plane itself becomes the operator of desire and brings about a climax through a burlesque chain reaction, with the awkward romp in the cockpit leading to the accidental discharging of a bomb on the tarmac. The pure mechanics of the joke is grounded in deviation and diversion, thus legitimizing and tempering the amoral dimension of sexual urges, which are rarely depicted in Spielberg’s movies.

The Fictional World as a Light Machine

19If mechanical energy offers a productive analogy to analyze the use of action in Spielberg’s works and his strategy to contain rhythmic disorder, whether narrative or moral, the electrical activity of the images offers another example of the circulation of energy in search of internal unity in the filmic universe. The depiction of the city of Santa Monica best illustrates this, through the electrical energy that it is constantly radiating, which is expressed by the many luminous elements that pass through the images of the film. Spielberg’s visual style is largely characterized by his candid and unrestrained use of electric blue artificial lighting, especially in scenes including overexposed silhouettes, radiant fog or the glare of harsh spotlights (placed next to the lens of the camera). At the heart of the nighttime ambiances that the filmmaker is so fond of, it is possible to notice a large quantity of spotlights that create a contrast between darkness and phosphorescence, and subject the movement of images to what Nigel Morris calls a permanent “climax of light” (44). Yet if this light can contribute to the narrative and have a strong symbolic or emotional dimension (evoking mysticism, dreaminess, enchantment, sorrow, the sublime), its figurative character in 1941 should also be considered: that is, the expressions of light that signal the autonomous activity of the images.

20The otherworldly, enchanting nature of urban space and nighttime suburbia is a recurring trope in Spielberg’s work, present in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Hook, A.I., in the last sequence of The Terminal and The BFG. In 1941, Spielberg reuses on several occasions two very long descriptive shots of the city of Santa Monica, that convey the idea that this diegetic space functions as an electrical device producing its own internal energy. During the nighttime dogfight sequence in the last act of the film, two American bombers fly over the California city. Initially filmed from afar, the city rests in the bucolic nest outlined by the canopy of trees bordering the foreground of the frame. In deep focus, the city appears as a sparkling horizon in the night, from which the beams of the aerial surveillance spotlights point up vertically. Later in the same scene, a wide high-angle shot follows one of the planes flying over the same cityscape. The plane resembles a small horizontal shape crossing the frame from bottom to top, while the camera drifts slowly to the right to allow the urban landscape to fill the frame. We then see a very large cross of small yellow points of light, tiny and close together, drawing never-ending geometric lines that stretch out beyond the borders of the frame (Fig. 3). Filmed from these two positions, the geography of the city not only appears as an immense topographical surface, but is also transformed into a luminous abstraction resembling the layout of an exposed circuit board. Spread out geometrically on the hidden and flat surface of the scenery, the luminous dots resemble diodes that signal the internal energetic activity and thermal tension of this small mechanism. Its soft light produces the harmonious, otherworldly and peaceful effect of a night-light, calling to mind a summer night in which the stars are aligned in tight rows.

Fig. 3 — 1941: Santa Monica at night during the dogfight.

Fig. 3 — 1941: Santa Monica at night during the dogfight.
  • 4 John Hammond, the amusement park owner in Jurassic Park, describes the flea circus he built in his (...)

21Close Encounters of the Third Kind revealed Spielberg’s fascination with immense and mysterious brightly-lit machines powered by their own energy, their dazzling appearances becoming show-stopping visual events within the film. In 1941, these very long and slow takes soaring over the flatness of the illuminated city allow the scenery to serve three figural purposes: (1) literalization, as the artificial character of the scenery is accentuated by its similarity to an electronic device; (2) reduction, as the confusion in scale of the urban model in a long shot highlights the artificiality of the cinematic spectacle, using visuals to restore the cosmic balance;4 (3) interiorization, as the geometric composition of the frame contains the disorder that is brewing within the scenery, which only light can reveal.

Fig. 4 — 1941: the Christmas decorations downtown emphasize depth of field by creating vanishing points.

Fig. 4 — 1941: the Christmas decorations downtown emphasize depth of field by creating vanishing points.

22When the camera follows the action into the heart of the city, the narration explores the depth of its interior layout by using permanent electrical elements to breathe life into the city. Setting the story during the Christmas season enables Spielberg and cinematographer William A. Fraker to lay out a massive amount of tinsel and festive lights, running horizontally and vertically all over the urban setting. These decorations trace the geometrical outline of the city and accentuate the depth of the field of action by creating vanishing points in the shot compositions (Fig. 4) [69:15]. Moreover, during the exterior night scenes, an ambient background is produced by luminous sources, sometimes unidentified, to flesh out the universe. The backlight produced by the spotlights, combined with the fog filters, creates a dense, moonlit fog from which silhouettes stand out, imbuing a sense of materiality and isolation to the setting. Finally, the numerous beams of light hitting the camera lens “inscribe the cinematic apparatus onto the films” (Morris 38). As Morris shows, the streams of light sometimes fill up the screen to accompany an emotion, for instance to symbolize a character’s sudden realization: “[m]etaphors for cameras, screens, projectors, audiences and cinema as an institution inform many sequences. The typical Spielberg identification-figure is a spectator, often also a surrogate director” (38). Morris asserts that these reflections of light create a mise en abyme, mirroring the act of seeing and relating to spectatorial pleasure by revealing the presence of the device and taking on its spectacular nature. While this effect is both dramatically and emotionally powerful, the use of these flashes of light, first and foremost, regulates the shape of the image. During the scene on the tarmac at the military airfield, the actors move through the shot by passing in front of spotlights several times, creating an intermittent flashing effect (Fig. 5) [50:09]. At other times, a panoramic movement suddenly makes an intense beam of light appear from offscreen, thereby drawing an illuminated straight line on the screen [53:32]. These light techniques endow the action with rhythm and/or trace a line that accentuates the artistic dynamism of the composition. The light, then, works in the service of the cinematic apparatus, establishing a rhythmic determination that draws attention to the internal activity of the images.

Fig. 5 — 1941: the actors passing in front of the spolights.

Fig. 5 — 1941: the actors passing in front of the spolights.

The Flow of Lines of Action

23However, the electrical activity of the images is not solely expressed by luminous events; it also connects all the rhythmic determinations of the action by circulating throughout the filmic space. As we have seen, the presence of the hanging Christmas tinsel in the scenery allows the film to draw linear junctions between different types of architecture in order to highlight the unity and organized nature of the topography. Spielberg repeatedly uses this effect and makes it one of the film’s central motifs. High-tension lines, pipes, clotheslines, a tight-fitting underwear elastic band, tinsel, nautical rope, model train kits, parachute cords—all of these items tie the body to the space between them, making the action circulate like a flow of electrical energy intrinsically connecting all the components of the filmic world. Kelso is pulled back by the cords of his parachute [81:12]; a sailor swings across the dance floor grasping onto tinsel as if it were a vine [48:52]; another sailor is carried away by a firefighters’ ladder as it is rolled out horizontally [59:13], etc.

  • 5 The motif of the electric cable and its linking function also occur in a famous scene in Jurassic P (...)

24Several decades after 1941, Spielberg would use the circulation of lines more precisely in The Adventures of Tintin, in a scene where the title character follows a thieving eagle in the streets of a Moroccan town by sliding down a zip-line [83:46]. The spatial unity of the town materializes before our very eyes: the continuous movement of the body is spatialized as it moves down the outstretched wire. During the making of 1941, Spielberg had yet to enjoy such technical freedom, but the aesthetics of his craft were already driven by the same ambition, in which we can observe a contradiction in tone with the chaotic nature of the film. As previously discussed, Spielberg has cited It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as one of his main influences for the epic and crazed staging of 1941. Certain motifs and situations are found in both movies, notably scenes depicting a paint-can explosion [89:02] and a firefighters’ ladder destroying everything in its path [59:13]. The recurring image of the electric wire, which Spielberg makes regular use of in order to transition between locations and actions,5 is also featured in Stanley Kramer’s film. A couple, played by Sid Caesar and Edie Adams, are locked in a basement and attempt to free themselves. When the husband hooks up two electric cables to unlock the door, this act produces a devastating short circuit, which is represented by an over-the-top explosion of blue lens flare that resembles the future Spielbergian motif discussed above. Conversely, in 1941, while the action strives to introduce confusion into the scenery, the current driver introduced by the line motif never produces a short circuit in the chain of events, but instead allows Spielberg to continue to circulate a constant movement of energy that contrasts with the discontinuous nature of chaos. From an aesthetic point of view, the filmmaker seems to refuse to fully embrace his subject—the anarchic upending of the common world by an irrepressible force—as the foundational elements of the electrical energy are a part of the principles of order that maintain the organic unity of the filmic machinery.


251941 evidences a conflictual conjunction between the artistic discomfort felt by Spielberg due to a genre (the screwball comedy) he knew well but had little mastery of, and the artistic freedom due to the new technical and financial means afforded to him by his recent box office hits. Despite its lack of commercial success and Spielberg’s distaste for the film, 1941 is not a complete anomaly in his filmography. Rather, the formal asperities of the film (hesitations related to cutting, rhythmic conflicts) reveal what is, incidentally, one of the greatest paradoxes of his work: the conflict between his attraction to imaginary chaos and his desire for order and rigor, which the formal organization of his films demonstrates shot after shot. This is connected to a large and static circuit—narrative, visual and rhythmic—underpinned by mechanical and electrical paradigms that the formal analysis above has endeavored to reveal. Whether focusing on a private space eroded from within or a public space ravaged by external forces, Spielberg confronts familiar environments to antithetical forces capable of destroying the harmony. Jaws, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, as well as films he produced including Poltergeist, Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Super 8, are constructed according to this principle.

26Yet the defining feature of 1941, which is without a doubt one of the reasons for its failure, is the use of this single spectacular and dramatic notion as its entire reason for being. Unknowingly working against the aims of the film, Spielberg fails to express the aesthetics of chaos, as it would entail an elimination of all formal, structural or signifying order, in which abstraction would supplant figurative determinations, or maybe even produce a continual reconfiguration of visual markers, the permanence of the transient, the advent of a discontinuous and unpredictable system which would enable an array of possibilities. On the contrary, the formally organized nature of 1941 attempts to control the unhinged expressions of chaos, even though this expression is spurred on by the catastrophic events in the narrative. In a way, Jurassic Park would later corroborate Spielberg’s approach to chaos. The narrative scheme of Michael Crichton’s novel is, in effect, arranged in a complex way to mirror the uncontrollable forces of chaos, as theorized by mathematician Ian Malcolm. Spielberg’s film adaptation reduces chaos theory to abstract, arrogant and ultimately tautological verbiage rather than reproducing its own way of expressing formal order. Spielberg’s films therefore maintain systemic boundaries through the success of their choreography, the rhythmic organization of the visuals and movements. 1941 is a fitting example of this, as the chaos does not appear as a formal operator that brings the images to life with an autonomous and manic impulse, or inspires disruptive latencies into the coherency of the filmic structure. Rather, it appears as an impalpable source of energy, which Spielberg’s mise en scène consistently seeks to channel for its potentially visually aggressive effects. In sum, the entropic energy of dramatic events is fettered by the geometry of the compositing and the clockwork nature of the editing. Chaos thus becomes an object of representation, but fails to be a force that overtakes the order and rhythm of the images.


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1 Translated by Caitlin Vanessa Smith.

2 The film poster, by David McMacken, even imitates the style of Rick Meyerowitz’s poster for Animal House, which itself is reminiscent of Mad magazine’s graphic style.

3 These two analyses refer to the first brontosaurus scene in Jurassic Park.

4 John Hammond, the amusement park owner in Jurassic Park, describes the flea circus he built in his youth as a small motorized device that gave spectators the illusion that insects were controlling the attractions. The story evokes not only the art of suggestion that is specific to spectacle, but also the confusion of macrocosm and microcosm, the concentration of an autonomous unit of energy in a tiny space functioning as a world unto itself.

5 The motif of the electric cable and its linking function also occur in a famous scene in Jurassic Park: Tim is electrocuted while hanging on to an electrified gate, which is caused by the reactivation of the park’s security system.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 — 1941: the dancers in a whirlwind of energy.
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Titre Fig. 2 — 1941: the camera swoops down upon the dancers before framing Corporal Sitarski in a medium shot.
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Titre Fig. 3 — 1941: Santa Monica at night during the dogfight.
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Titre Fig. 4 — 1941: the Christmas decorations downtown emphasize depth of field by creating vanishing points.
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Titre Fig. 5 — 1941: the actors passing in front of the spolights.
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Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès.

Vincent Souladié is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès where he teaches the history and aesthetics of Hollywood cinema. Following a PhD dissertation on the aesthetics of post-9/11 America cinema, his research focuses mainly on the contemporary forms of American cinema, with special interest in the motifs of the event, the catastrophe and the concept of defiguration. He has published articles on the films of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann and Paul Verhoeven.

Caitlin Vanessa Smith (Traducteur)

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