Monday, July 29, 2013

Early Spielberg

AMBLIN' is generally regarded as Steven Spielberg's first professional directorial effort. The short film was produced by an independent producer, and Spielberg used the film as a "calling card" short. What's interesting about AMBLIN' in terms of Spielberg's body of work is that - for as much as it's held up as an example of his early genius for filmmaking - it is so atypical. The story involves a young man traveling through the American Southwest who hooks up with a young woman, also traveling the highways and biways of the deserts in search of freedom.

Visually, the film is gorgeous, shot by Allen Daviau, with whom Spielberg would collaborate again in the future. Daviau's cinematography captures the ambience of the Southwest desert with a palpable intensity. (On a side note, circulating copies of the film tend to be very poor transfers that fall far short of doing justice to Daviau's cinematography, but one can look past the flaws in the transfer to see what he was doing).

The problem is, for all the stunning visuals, the story is actually rather shallow, and feels artificial in some respects. AMBLIN' is a film that is ostensibly rooted in the counterculture of the late 1960s, and yet it does not feel like it was made by a director with any particular convictions about the political or cultural climate of the period. When the film hinges on this subject matter, its lack of anything particularly profound to say about it becomes a problem. The available clips from Spielberg's earliest childhood film productions, and his ambitious 1964 effort FIRELIGHT, seem to foreshadow his mature work much more directly than AMBLIN' does.

That said, AMBLIN' is an admirable effort, if an impersonal one. It demonstrated with certainty that Spielberg could direct a Hollywood-style production, and served to propel him in to new opportunities for studio directing work.

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