Hook-1For a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg, financially speaking the most successful director of all time, serious critical evaluation is best approached with as little elitist baggage as possible. After all, nobody else has made more money making movies than he has, and like it or not, critical circumspection is often a byproduct of commercial success. But Spielberg has been more than successful—he’s been a company man. His work is virtually synonymous with the Hollywood machine, witnessed in the direct line between today’s blockbuster business model and Jaws. There’s no denying the influence he’s yielded over the American film industry, and for certain cinephiles, Spielberg represents the effective dumbing down of the American cinema. Along with his peer and frequent collaborator George Lucas, he’s viewed in some circles as the consummate movie brat, guilty (as Pauline Kael famously noted) of infantilizing the audience, wowing them with spectacle at the expense of supposed artistic integrity. People rarely referred to movies as magic before Spielberg, but then that’s just it—magic isn’t real.

In other words, where do we locate the personal in Spielberg? Is it found in the lumbering T-Rex in Jurassic Park? The flying bicycles in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial? The CGI gophers in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? The answer to all three is yes. Present in Spielberg’s most phony films is a daring sense of caprice, of pushing cinema (the most beautiful fraud in the world, as Godard once put it) to its quixotic limits in the name of not merely entertainment but experiential investigation. At his most lively, Spielberg virtually dares us not only to suspend belief, but to also consider the most inane concepts of fantasy and myth equally as plausible as genocide (Schindler’s List), slavery (Amistad), discrimination (The Color Purple), and war (Saving Private Ryan). Spielberg is a dreamer, and he’s almost certainly a magician, but more than anything, he’s a fervent aesthete, one of only a few directors to recognize the materiality in the unreal, the personal in the machinery, the truth in fantasy.

hook2Experientialism is the key to unlocking Spielberg, just as it is to one of his most underappreciated films, Hook. What we have in Hook is the perfect coalescence of the themes, visual quirks, and characterizations that had been swirling in his work since Jaws. In his own way, Spielberg seemed to embrace his most maligned qualities—the hokey sentimentality, the formal grandstanding, the studio bootlicking—by embedding them in the very fabric of the film. Make no mistake—Hookis a goofy film, but it’s goofy in the way a Minnelli film is goofy—that is, eager to please, overflowing with style, and completely sincere in its absurdity. The film’s populist inclinations certainly provoke cynicism, but Hook, like the rest of Spielberg’s best work, is first and foremost an abstract property that resists the literal yet assumes its assets. It’s a film that doesn’t benefit from being watched but from being experienced.

The story concerns Peter Banning (Robin Williams), the platonic ideal of adulthood—suit and tie and all—whose anxiety and occasional indifference toward parenthood make him an ideal patriarchal figure, at least in the Spielbergian sense. When his children disappear in a most fanciful way, the dubious Banning, reluctantly accepting the help of a chipper fairy, is whisked away to the magical island where they’re held captive. Long story short: Banning finds out he is actually Peter Pan, and the villainous Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) has captured his kids in hopes of luring him back to Neverland so the two of them can duke it out one more time.

It’d be one thing if Hookwere simply a continuation of the Peter Pan story, a mere sequel to a familiar brand. But the story of Peter Pan exists in the world of Hook, as is noted in the film’s opening scene, which finds Banning kinda-sorta watching his kids in a grade school production of the original J.M. Barrie story. Art, in its various forms, plays an important role throughout the film, depicted not only as part of life but a source of annoyance for Banning. School plays and children’s stories appear nominally at first but gradually come to contextualize the action; meanwhile, Banning comes to embrace the apparent “make-believe” of his circumstances and, more significantly, his past. He rises to Hook’s challenge, which is also Spielberg’s challenge to us: to embrace the fantastical by way of the self-actual. Banning thus completes the consummate Spielberg character arc: despite being a grown man, he’s still something of a boy, and it isn’t until he embraces his boyhood that he becomes a man. In committing to fantasy, Banning discovers the real—“make-believe” is his salvation. (In this way, it’s impossible not to consider Banning as a stand-in for Spielberg, whose businesslike persona—the guy’s worth billions, after all—belies his childlike spirit.)

This fixation on the properties of “make-believe”—of art—pervades the film’s every detail, particularly in the Lost Boys, a motley crew who appear in Barrie’s stories but are the precise manifestation of Spielberg’s irreverent imagination in Hook. The film’s best scene, in which the Lost Boys goad Banning into enjoying a “make-believe” meal, plays like a gleeful middle finger to hardened pragmatists. Their plates are initially empty, but when the food finally appears, it isn’t so much food as it is globs of paint ripped from an Adolph Gottlieb canvas—fists of pure color used in the subsequent “food fight.” And in the film’s transformative climax, after Banning defeats Captain Hook and takes off into the sky, an invisible dissolve and slow pull of the camera shows it’s the wallpaper of his children’s room, demonstrating the successful merger of his “make-believe” past with his “realistic” present. As he does so often, Spielberg uses movie grammar to illustrate the inherent fantasticality of moving image art in both its most audacious and naturalistic forms—indeed, seeing is believing.

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2 Comments

  1. Ashley

    November 17, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    I love the movie Hook Robin Willams and Dustin Hoffman make a great team when it comes to comedy they both brin there own flare to thus movie and I woundt have chosen any other actors to play these rolls

    Reply

  2. Charlie Clements

    May 9, 2016 at 1:39 am

    My favourite movie of all time.

    Reply

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