There’s a propulsive, roller-coaster quality to the way Steven Spielberg energetically discourses on his movie career in film critic Richard Schickel’s documentary Spielberg on Spielberg, running on Turner Classic Movies. Cinema’s most successful director clearly hasn’t lost any enthusiasm for what he does — and what he’s done — and it makes for an infectious chatter-and-clips program. At 60 he still sounds like he can’t believe he finagled his way into wandering around the Universal lot for a week when he was a high school kid, and you realize that tapping into that youthful brio and wonderment is what keeps him vital as a filmmaker.
But what, however, would he make of the Spielberg wannabes on his executive produced Fox reality series On the Lot? My guess is he only sees himself in gawky 23-year-old Vancouverite Zach Lipovsky, who quickly established himself as an effects-savvy original before deftly subverting that tag with a nimble office-doldrums comedy in which bored cubicle workers decimate each other with invisible weapons. Most of the two-minute movies the contestants have to make feel like commercials rather than film-festival shorts, but at least Zach’s are the kind you call your friends into the room to rewind and watch again.
We’re admittedly a far cry from the days when a wunderkind could unleash something as taut, sophisticated and supremely confident as Spielberg’s made-for-TV chiller Duel over the rigidly unaesthetic airwaves and launch a feature career. Innovative TV direction is not unheard of now, especially with cable, and the real surprise is the number of studio filmmakers who want in on pilot jobs. (Establishing the look for a series must give a cookie-cutter mainstream director that old auteur feeling.) On the Lot is dispiritingly hacky — Garry Marshall is a judge, after all — and what I can’t figure out is why it doesn’t mold its tasks in the likeness of Spielberg’s early rise. His first behind-the-camera job at Universal was working with notoriously difficult diva Joan Crawford on an episode of Night Gallery. So why aren’t these aspiring megaphone holders being told they have to direct a scene from Desperate Housewives? And throw in Faye Dunaway for kicks?