They dimmed the lights, just as you might expect at an event saluting Steven Spielberg. And the audience cheered at the scenes from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "E.T." And they applauded roundly at the excerpts from "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan."
But quickly the film clips faded, and the stage at the Smithsonian Institution's Baird Auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History was turned over to something almost Jurassic, an old-fashioned conversation with Spielberg. And then it was the director himself, who talked about his mother and father and about the vision "Lawrence of Arabia" instilled in him when he was young, who pleaded for gun control and who saluted the Holocaust survivors and the generation of World War II fighters--it was the man who got the cheers and the applause.
His views on the impact of movies stirred the audience to the crackling applause that rewards a politician when he hits his best line. Movies don't instigate, or cure, violent behavior, said Spielberg, the most commercially successful director of his generation. "Arts stimulate something inside of us," he said, and any kind of stimulation can excite people already on the edge.
Reflecting on a question about the public display of intergenerational bonds that "Private Ryan" sparked, Spielberg said, "I think there is temporary focusing. But everything wears off after a couple of months, and then you know, Columbine High School and what happened the other day at the Jewish community center in Los Angeles. Unless we get the guns off the street," he said, the violence will continue.
Spielberg shared the stage with Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, the evening's interviewer, who gently hammered away at what stimulated Spielberg's creative impulse and sometimes sounded like a William Buckley-style psychiatrist.
This exchange was taking place as a wrap around the presentation to Spielberg of the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, which since 1965 has commemorated the British scientist whose bequest started the Smithsonian. Spielberg represents a strain of distinguished citizens, said Dennis O'Connor, the Smithsonian's provost. "His gifted imagination and deeply humane characters are brought together in a body of work that stands alone," said O'Connor, who cited the most serious of Spielberg's long catalogue.
The forum was organized by the Smithsonian Associates, which ended up with all of the auditorium's 585 seats filled.
Though it is often Spielberg Day at the box office, and the director has an annexful of awards, official Washington decided yesterday that he needed a few medals. Defense Secretary William Cohen placed the department's Medal for Distinguished Public Service on Spielberg's lapel yesterday afternoon. The civilian honor was prompted by the public's enormous response to "Saving Private Ryan," the World War II epic that won five Academy Awards this year. Cohen said the movie had opened up feeling, as well as knowledge, about history. "I think one of the most remarkable results of that film was not only that it prompted us to go back into the past, but that it prompted so many of the veterans to come forward," he said.
Spielberg, whose father was a radio operator on a B-25 plane during the war, quipped, "I'm in the Army now" and added, "My goal was to remember unsparingly the sacrifices of my father's generation and to try to get my children to honor the past and to understand the importance of what World War II did for all of us and did for the world."
But what about those movies that are not uplifting, but upchucking? "What blame can be assigned to the movies? Do we need new ratings?" asked Schickel at the Smithsonian's evening event.
"I think the ratings system is solid," Spielberg said, "but I think enforcement is lax. I think we have to take responsibility for our content, and parents have to take responsibility."
The filmmaker's talk ranged from the problems during the filming of "Jaws," to the "combat photography" style he wanted in "Private Ryan" to his stories of "lost boys" such as Elliott in "E.T." and why it took him a decade to get ready to do "Schindler." When asked to compare "1941," a 1979 critical flop, and "Ryan," Spielberg said, "With both films, you could hear a pin drop."
In the end, Spielberg promised not only to keep making movies but to keep making them the old-fashioned way. He's not going to box everything in a computer. "I'm going to make all my films on film until they close the last lab down," he said to more cheers.
CAPTION: Steven Spielberg admires the medal presented to him by Smithsonian provost Dennis O'Connor. Earlier, the director was honored by the Pentagon.
CAPTION: Steven Spielberg with the Defense Department's Public Service Award.