Prizing the Popular: Steven Spielberg and Style by Stealth

James Mairata

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


During his career, Steven Spielberg has both created and facilitated the creation of a remarkable quantity and range of popular entertainment. With two of the films he has directed in the top ten all-time box office revenue list and seven in the top one hundred, his popular success as a director of narrative cinema remains unrivalled in Hollywood and possibly in the world. Spielberg is clearly very good at recognising and telling stories that appeal to a wide audience. Critics and scholars have written extensively on the thematic, semantic and symptomatic aspects of his films but little analysis has been devoted to examining how he constructs narrative - how he makes use of style and its role in enhancing the popularity of his films.

This thesis argues that Spielberg utilises stylistic strategies that are both unique and innovative when considered within the context of the classical Hollywood system. I identify two distinct systems at work in Spielberg’s application of style. One is the use of deep space compositions and staging, a form that was commonly seen in Hollywood cinema until the rise of the “New Hollywood” in the early 1970s. The other system is based on the ubiquitous shot, reverse shot arrangement most commonly used for dialogue scenes, and which Spielberg has modified into what I label as wide reverses. Through the integration of both systems, Spielberg is able to create a more “complete” visual sense of scenographic space and a more comprehensive world of the narrative, while still remaining within the conventional boundaries of classical style. The wide reverse system also permits him to present a more highly developed version of Hollywood’s conventional practice of rendering style as transparent or unnoticed. This, together with the wide reverse further enables Spielberg to create a narrative that offers the spectator both a more immersive and more affective experience.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Macquarie University
  • Potts, John, Principal Supervisor, External person
Award date16 Apr 2016
Publication statusPublished - 01 Apr 2016


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