Recently I’ve been thinking about when it’s appropriate for a director to take responsibility for the artistic failure of their film, or at least admit it its failure. This also got me thinking about whether it’s okay to take pride in a film despite its failure. Last week, The New York Times published a piece that included an interview with John Lasseter regarding the critical response to Cars 2. Let me be the first to say that the article is very poorly conceived and written. Much of it is purely speculative, and though it attempts to portray Lasseter as a man stuck in a difficult corner, defending his film from attack, his response actually seems quite open and honest. He clearly acknowledges that the film didn’t take with critics, but the film is very much his baby and he’s proud of it, and he’s proud of the ability of the series to connect with young boys.
He dismisses the claims that Cars 2 was only made for the merchandising profits, saying, “I make movies for that little boy who loves the characters so much that he wants to pack his clothes in a Lightning McQueen suitcase.” The cynical people reading this might read it as a contradiction, but I don’t see it. Lasseter is saying that the merch is not the important thing, but that it’s a reflection of how much young people love the films and their world and characters.
Cars 2 was a critical failure, and at the domestic box office it landed well below the first film and expectations for Pixar films. But so what if it’s a “failure”? What definition are we using anyway? John Lasseter made a film that he considers very personal. It is important to him, and he feels that he made the best film he could out of that. He’s takes pride in whatever successes the film had, and he takes pride in a film he considers to be quite good. There is nothing wrong with that. Should we really expect every director who makes a film we don’t like to come out and say that they admit it is was shit?
Today, Empire published a piece about Steven Spielberg, which included some choice quotes on how he feels about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. On his opinion of the film he says,
I’m very happy with the movie. I always have been… I sympathise with people who didn’t like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin. George and I had big arguments about the MacGuffin. I didn’t want these things to be either aliens or inter-dimensional beings. But I am loyal to my best friend. When he writes a story he believes in – even if I don’t believe in it – I’m going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it. I’ll add my own touches, I’ll bring my own cast in, I’ll shoot the way I want to shoot it, but I will always defer to George as the storyteller of the Indy series. I will never fight him on that.
Again, you could say that this is an admission that the film is not very good. Or you could take it as deflecting the blame. Either way, you might not be totally wrong. But I think the key here is that Spielberg likes the movie he made, and that though he clearly agrees it has some problems, he is willing to explain why those problems exist and why he let them slide. Now, maybe he shouldn’t have let them slide, but I don’t begrudge him the desire to work with Lucas and Ford on another Indy movie.
His next quote, though, is much more telling. When asked about some of the specific things people didn’t like about the film, Spielberg says,
The gopher was good. I have the stand-in one at home. What people really jumped at was Indy climbing into a refrigerator and getting blown into the sky by an atom-bomb blast. Blame me. Don’t blame George. That was my silly idea. People stopped saying “jump the shark”. They now say, “nuked the fridge”. I’m proud of that. I’m glad I was able to bring that into popular culture.
Spielberg doesn’t just like the movie he made, he take the criticisms of it with good humour, and actually takes pride in the things he contributed on his own that people have taken issue with. That nuking the fridge scene is completely ridiculous, but it’s also pure Spielberg: the grown up director who’s still a child at heart. In my opinion, that scene is the highlight of the film. A moment of pure, childish, playful glee. And not only did Spielberg put it in the film, he takes pride in it. He takes pride in it despite so many people hating on it. And he actually takes pride in the way that people have responded to it.
Guys, there is nothing wrong with this. Spielberg should take pride! He made something that he likes. Sure, the audience is the ultimate judge, but I always reflect back on the old adage at Pixar. “We make films that we would want to see ourselves.” This is the guiding principle at Pixar, and it has paid off commercially and critically with almost every film. And even when it doesn’t work, there is still some pride left to be taken in the end product. The same can be said of Spielberg. He admits that there are elements of the film that were not to his liking, but he took the story he was given and made out of it a film that he would want to see, that he thought he’d enjoy. And guess what, he enjoys it. He deserves to take pride in that.