The Greenhouse Effect
Michael Koresky on Always
Significantly, Spielberg’s is a green world. The trees, plants, flowers, tall grasses, and forests in his films convey an otherworldly rapture, radiating a transcendent, decidedly unnatural glow. There’s something highly spiritual in the way the director harnesses this beauty. The triangular relationship between God, man, and nature this implies was perhaps best expressed in Jurassic Park, when Jeff Goldblum’s adorably sarcastic “Chaotician” laid bare that particular cautionary tale’s dilemma: “God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.” The quote’s ultimately creationist stance would seem to conflict with its more Darwinian trajectory. If nature “selected” dinosaurs, as Goldblum later says, for extinction, is there room for God in the equation? Time and again, Spielberg’s characters try to control nature, only to find themselves controlled in turn by a much greater power. When the scientists first lay their eyes on Jurassic Park’s prehistoric beasties, their mouths are agape, jolted by the possibilities of science and man’s Godlike, almighty ability to use it for his own purposes. It’s a decidedly Spielbergian moment, as they stare in awe at something offscreen, an acknowledgment of the divine manifest right in front of their eyes.
Throughout Spielberg’s filmography, man’s attempts to harness nature’s gifts incite religious inquiry. Think of Richard Dreyfuss mutilating his backyard shrubberies to reform them into a likeness of what has become his Mount Sinai in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; E.T. abandoned by his race of benevolent fellow beings after attempting to collect plant life surrounding the majestic California redwoods; think of The Color Purple’s Celie and Nettie finding spiritual solace in an infinite thicket of sunflowers; think of former President John Quincy Adams and rebellious slave Cinque bonding over the discussion of African violets in Adams’s self-made plant nursery in Amistad, and also Lois Smith’s reiteration of Adams’s assertion of man’s survival instinct in Minority Report, dictated as she presides over her greenhouse full of serpentine, poisonous blossoms and weeds. Not always a botanist’s dream, Spielberg’s landscapes can turn malevolent when the sun goes down, as in Elliott’s flashlight journey through the cornstalks; the gnarled, hellish oak that crashes through a child’s bedroom window in Poltergeist; the fairy-tale nightmare forest of A.I.; or the spectral shafts of light whipping through the quivering branches in the opening shot of Jurassic Park, awaiting what Goldblum later dubs “the rape of the natural world.” If we cannot control our natural environments, then our place in the universe is undefined; we merely dwell on a plane between earth and a greater consciousness.
Spielberg’s concerns may not be classically existential, but, in terms of popular American cinema, his spirituality questions our existence as much as, say, Woody Allen’s cold atheism. And both American directors’ works are deeply informed by a Judeo-Christian tradition that gets displaced onto conventional American mores, even if the former often lapses into Christian symbolism and the latter is just, well, lapsed. In 1989, both directors, in fact, made films essentially about God: Spielberg’s Always, a remake of his favorite film from childhood, Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe (1944), could be the inverse of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Both films reach a working definition of life on planet Earth, and what lies in the empty recesses of each room: Allen sees God nowhere, while Spielberg’s film implies that God is everywhere. The latter stems from the Judaistic belief that God manifests in all things, and that He is eternally watching. But the triangular relationship is most clearly defined in Always because it’s also true that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God’s will is understood to work through the laws of nature, and that humans have both moral claims on nature and nature has moral claims on humans. There must be a balance between the privileges of nature and the needs of man. In transposing A Guy Named Joe’s story of a WWII bomber pilot’s journey into the afterlife onto that of a forest firefighter, Spielberg raises more philosophical environmental concerns than he probably even intended.
Rejected by critics and audiences upon release and now a largely forgotten footnote in the director’s career, Always came thanklessly wedged between the third Indiana Jones movie and Hook, the latter arguably Spielberg at his most transparent and self-regarding. Always was not and is not taken seriously, seen as little more than a remake and therefore more of a tribute to a bygone sensibility than as a thoughtful examination of moral responsibility and faith. It should be re-viewed as a quintessential Spielberg film; it depicts the belief that our choices are at once motivated by a greater power and a distinct set of humane ethics. That Spielberg filters it all through classical Hollywood narrative tropes is wondrous. Here, all the director’s recurrent stylistic motifs become one with theme: the shafts of heavenly light that appear to emanate from everything, the delicate multiplane framing that both unites and separates the actors, the pop-cultural references that somehow function outside of time.
Always exists within an intermediary zone, an environment of indeterminate chronology, space, and geography; as photographed by Mikael Salomon, the whole film floats between earth and sky, mirroring the neither-here-nor-there realm the characters inhabit. The relationship between hotshot forest firefighting pilot Pete (Richard Dreyfuss) and tenacious air-traffic controller Dorinda (Holly Hunter) is one of limitless warmth and humor, their romantic yearning is so urgent that their early scenes together flit by all too quickly. The characters simply glow, and Spielberg uses the actors’ personas to carry the film along; Dreyfuss’s earnest jocularity and Hunter’s eccentric, squirreliness are always ready to segue into an outpouring of emotional reckoning. Following Pete’s death in a fiery midair explosion after a daring rescue of his firefighting partner Al (John Goodman), both Dreyfuss and Hunter must switch into a different mode, their doubt and confusion at odds with the unyielding faith at the film’s core. Pete and Dorinda are now caught in a space between one world and the next, Pete in the afterlife and Dorinda in a timeless, geographically disorienting earthbound sphere. Pete must return as a guardian angel and act selflessly to aid apprehensive flyboy Brad Johnson and also to help Dorinda move on from her emotional stagnancy; his words become his friends’ subconscious thoughts.
Prior to Pete’s death, Spielberg already stages the romantic union of Pete and Dorinda as less a concrete “relationship” than as an intuitive dream state from which they will soon wake. They even communicate while she “shops in her sleep,” breathily rattling off supermarket items—awake, Pete responds, their dialogue revealing a nearly subconscious connection. A fireside chat in the wee hours of the morning attains a heavenly composure, the dramatic ethereal lighting making this their crucial scene; unaware of his imminent death, Pete discusses his own mortality, that he wants Dorinda to attend his funeral should it soon take place. An ominous blue chills the room, until the phone rings, calling Pete to his final mission. In one slow tracking shot toward Dorinda, Spielberg depicts her terrible growing awareness; as the camera creeps closer, the morning sun breaks through the window, bathing the top of Hunter’s face in a warm, red glow.
From this point on, much of the film seems to take place at the break of dawn, with beams of light shooting through morning clouds. The blazing oranges, gleaming blues, and lush greens of Always elevate it way past the level of a mere genre piece. After Pete’s demise, he finds himself surrounded by the burnt remains of the forest for which he had attempted to extinguish a raging fire. Amidst the collapsed tangle of charred branches and ash remains a patch of verdant green meadow and white flowers. This is where he meets the angel Hap (Audrey Hepburn’s final screen appearance), who informs him of his spiritual destiny; Pete is sent back to the mortal realm to linger as a ghost. A year seems to pass in the blink of an eye, dead surround the living, earth meets sky. The temporal confusion is further complicated by the timelessness of Spielberg’s pop quotations: while the acting styles are memorably contemporary, there is a distinct forties sensibility to the repartee recalling A Guy Named Joe’s era (“Gosh!” exclaims Pete, “You big lug!” declares Dorinda), while “their” song is the Platters’ 1958 version of Jerome Kern’s thirties standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” and Dorinda is seen, zombie-like, watching a skit from a seventies episode of Saturday Night Live. The costuming at times also reflects this tendency toward anachronism, as Brad Johnson’s dated flyboy outfit, complete with leather and goggles, makes him something of an apparition out of Twelve O’Clock High. There’s never a shot of an urban landscape; the middle-of-nowhere Northern California setting is cut off from any outside contact.
In re-establishing a WWII–era melodrama within the world of forest firefighters, Spielberg de-emphasizes genre heroism and integrates concerns more philosophical than ideological. The blistering ferocity of the forest fires invokes something greater: it’s “nature’s burn,” says Goodman’s Al. The director’s environmental-spiritual discourse doesn’t stop with Always, especially if one regards Spielberg’s later A.I. Artificial Intelligence as a pseudo Bible story, complete with flood, one instigated by the melting of the polar ice caps. A.I.’s world is drowned (literally) in a cosmic joke, while the acres of thriving forest and plant life in Always burn with a universal wrath (this comparison reflects the Torah’s recognition of the inherent duality within man’s relationship to his environment). Biblically, nature is at once a source of life and a threat to humanity, represented by the malevolent force of the flood, the test of human will in the face of natural fury that is in turn initiated by God’s indignation.
Then the smoke clears. After self-destructively stealing a plane and attempting to put out a forest fire herself, Dorinda looks up in awe through the cockpit windshield. What she sees is a signature Spielberg shot, as indicative of a greater spiritual presence manifest on earth as that iconic image of Elliott’s bicycle soaring over the face of the moon. The noxious clouds part like the waves of the Red Sea, and beneath is the clear, brilliant night sky. Dorinda’s plane glides through a celestial orbit as expansive and crystalline as the ocean. She crash-lands in the water, her plane sinking and lodging to the ocean’s bottom, later mirrored in what is the most powerful scene of Spielberg’s career, the entrapment of A.I.’s “amphibicoptor” beneath the waves of our drowned universe, where robo-boy David comes face to face (literally, in a gorgeous superimposition) with the Blue Fairy, and prays to his hopelessly unresponsive God figure, remaining there forever and the next day and the next . . . always. Divine intervention frees both from their oceanic fates. On the verge of drowning, Dorinda sees Pete beside her in the cockpit, where he has always been watching over her. He releases her from his netherworld, guiding her to the water’s surface. Dripping wet, and left on an expanse of runway that leads into the great unknown, Dorinda is reborn into a new, concrete world.
Air, wind, fire, water—Always is elemental in its rapture. Spielberg has many times remained reverent and even humbled while questioning man’s free will in the face of violence and political injustice (Amistad, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Schindler’s List, A.I. ). It has been noted that on film, Spielberg’s methods are decidedly pantheistic (this is certainly indicated by the mix of Christianity and Judaism in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and the Christlike imagery that abounds in Close Encounters, E.T., and Amistad). Whether it is done as a nondenominational tactic or as a means of reaching the widest possible audience is difficult to ascertain; either way, the director’s spirituality is firmly rooted, waiting to grow into something awesome. This natural wonder, realized through an elegant set of cinematic gestures, is what defines his output, and is part of what scares off many viewers hoping for a glint of irony. As a fairy tale, Always is an ephemeral flight of fancy as innocent and yearning as the ripples in a wishing well. Yet it has an undeniable conviction, and attempts to explain just what is off-screen, what lies beyond the corners of the frame, what all those slack-jawed Spielberg characters are really staring at with that gaping astonishment. Whether divine or ruled by chaos, it’s right here on Earth.