Thursday, April 24, 2003

Catch Me If You Can

I know its long gone from American theaters, but I just saw it a few days ago, and I thought it was a really fascinating movie in a lot of ways. First of all, its very much a Spielberg film. All of his trademarks are there: the main character with the dysfunctional family, the furious pace, the rendering of totally unbelievable situations in a manner that gives them a believable veneer of realism, and, which really interested me, a violent love/hate relationship with American culture. The movie is filled to the brim with Americanisms, the cars, the '60s decor, the ethos of material success, the suburban tract housing, the televisions around every corner, and its quite clear that, on the surface at least, the film has nothing but contempt for them. One can quite easily read the whole film as an attack against America's materialistic, consumer culture. A culture so shallow and empty that a 19 year old can manipulate it seemingly at will. The ease with which the film's central character flits in and out of the most prestigious of occupations--doctor, lawyer, airline pilot--and steadily masses enormous amounts of money by playing on the vapidity of the American service industry--where a secretary naturally assumes a man is a pilot so long as he is in a pilot's uniform--is almost enough to convince you that Spielberg is ultimately attempting a broad, almost Swiftian parody of modern American middle class life.
The problem is, Spielberg is quite clearly entranced with this life, even as he recoiles from its more obviously ludicrous aspects. Spielberg was born into this very world he is deconstructing, he was brought up, personally and professionally, on television, and the truth is that his career is unimaginable without it. Can you conceive of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or AI without their obvious riffs on The Twilight Zone? The Indiana Jones series is essentially nothing more then a big-budget, two hour version of the Saturday morning adventure serials that transfixed Spielberg as a child. Even the breathless sense of being taken on a two-hour rollercoaster ride that is Spielberg's trademark comes much more from television--where people must be kept in their seats after the first commercial starts--then anything one might rather pretentiously call "cinema".
The truth is, Spielberg is in love with the world he is attempting to parody, and in the end his character's strongest desire is to find some means to return to it. Indeed, even the slippery ease with which he morphs from one identity to another is a dazzling process possible only in a place like modern America. What good are such skills in a country where everyone must carry his passport at all times? It isn't a coincidence that his long odyssey finally comes to naught in France, a country where the remaking of self so central to the American ethos simply does not exist. And Spielberg's cinematography bears this out, foregoing the brilliant lights and colors of America for a grey, metallic green hue.
In the end, most ironically of all, the main character's redemption is wrought through that most iconic of American squares: the FBI agent. A man dedicated to the defense of that mad, mad, mad, mad world Spielberg had been tearing into shreds for the previous two hours. Although a figure of fun for most of the movie, he proves in the end to be a startlingly resilient, even admirable character. By the film's anti-climactic final half-hour, one cannot escape the conclusion that, in Spielberg's eyes, he, and his slightly off-kilter America are not really so bad after all.


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