Don't expect films to teach lessons of life

Movies: While accepting a medal for his humanitarian accomplishments, director Steven Spielberg said filmmakers need to act responsibly, but violent films can't be blamed for fostering climates of violence.

August 12, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Even as he was being honored last night at the Smithsonian Institution for his filmmaking and humanitarian efforts, Steven Spielberg reminded his audience that all the well-intentioned movies in the world are of little consequence when intolerance reigns and guns are readily available.

"Unless we can get the guns off the streets," Spielberg said to growing applause at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, "no movie is ever going to be able to fix anything."

Responding to a question from Time film critic Richard Schickel, who led a discussion with the director before a packed house in the museum's Baird Auditorium, Spielberg said he was grateful for the feelings of patriotism and honor instilled in many Americans by his most recent film, the World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan."

But such feelings last only a short time, he added, and are quickly overwhelmed by the sort of anger that helped provoke the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and a Jewish community center Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Spielberg came to Washington to accept the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal. Previous recipients of the medal, named for the founder of the Smithsonian, include Sir Edmund Hillary, Walter Cronkite, George Lucas, Lady Bird Johnson and Muhammad Ali.

The Pentagon also honored Spielberg yesterday with the Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the military's highest civilian honor.

Last night at the Smithsonian, Spielberg refused to echo critics who blame violent films for fostering a climate of violence. For most people, he said, a movie is only a movie and not a lesson in how to act.

"The arts always stimulate something inside of us," he said, "and any sort of stimulation can harm people who are already on the edge."

Need a balance

The trick, he said, is striking a balance between censorship and total abrogation of social responsibility.

"I don't want to see the ugly head of the Hays Commission," he said, referring to the old Hollywood censor board. "But we do need to take responsibility for what we put out there. We need to meet in the middle somewhere."

Besides his film work, Spielberg was cited for his humanitarian efforts, including establishment of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an outgrowth of "Schindler's List" that seeks to preserve the recorded recollections of Holocaust survivors so future generations can learn from them.

In presenting the Smithson medal, Smithsonian Provost Dennis O'Connor praised the director for his "clear-sighted sense of morality and a quiet activism."

In films such as "Private Ryan," "Amistad" and "Schindler's List," O'Connor said, Spielberg "makes people stop and honor the lives of those who have suffered and those who have sacrificed."

The discussion of censorship and social responsibility made for a rare moment of introspection in what was primarily a breezy affair.

After receiving the medal, and with gentle prodding from Schickel, Spielberg spoke of how he broke into the movies -- by sneaking onto the Universal lot -- and commented briefly on several of his films.

Typical was Spielberg's response to a written question from the audience, in which he noted there actually were similarities between "Ryan" and "1941," his 1979 comedy (although audiences and critics found little to laugh at) about a feared Japanese invasion of Southern California.

"At the end of both films," he said, "You could hear a pin drop in the audience."

`Emotional catharsis'

During the Pentagon ceremony, Defense Secretary William Cohen called "Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg's graphic re-enactment of the Allies' invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944, an "emotional catharsis" for all who saw it, particularly World War II veterans.

" `Ryan,' I must be quick to point out, is not a recruitment promotional for the Pentagon," Cohen said. "It speaks to us, however, about the importance of values, discipline, determination and sacrifice."

Spielberg, 52, told those gathered at the Pentagon that his goal in making the movie was to "remember unsparingly the sacrifices of my father's generation. I think that today's youth have a tendency to live in the present and work for the future but to be totally ignorant of the past.

"I feel that in my experience as a filmmaker, lightning has only struck twice in a way that has filled me up with such pride," Spielberg said. "One of those times was `Schindler's List,' and the other time was `Saving Private Ryan.' "

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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