Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Thoughts on Steven Spielberg's Duel

Duel is Steven Spielberg's debut made for TV feature film. It is a film about a man who encounters a psychotic truck driver along a sparse California highway. The film works for commercial television because of its high concept. Middle class suburban man versus truck driver.

Steven goes to extra length to strip the story down to its bare essentials. He doesn't want to concern you with the answers to those superficial questions: Who is the truck driver? Why is he so crazy? Steven's refusal to answer our questions heightens the tension. The identity of the driver is almost completely obscured in shadow except for his arm, which he uses to menacingly beacon David to pass.

The dialogue is sparse. Obviously, dialogue is unnecessary to tell the above story but the addition of language gives us some subtle clues as to how to interpret the story of David's Plymouth Valiant versus the giant Peterbilt 281.

In the introduction scene, David is listening to the radio. We hear an advertisement for some gentleman's product like hernia creme or something. Then we jump into a talk show in which a man is confessing his embarrassment of not being the head of his household. The female talk show host assures the man that there is no shame in being a stay at home dad. When we realize this conversation is within the context of a census form, we begin to see the full scope of the themes discussed in Duel. That is, unbridled masculinity versus the industrial system.

Coming out of Christopher Voler's book The Writer's Journey, I was looking for the character archetypes. David is on a journey into his repressed animal nature and the truck driver is his shadow mentor. The people David encounters on the road are brought in to benchmark David's descent into his manhood. And David's wife acts as a threshold guardian, reminding him to come home in time to receive his visiting mother.

Issues of gender power dynamics are most apparent when David attempts to discuss with his wife, the situation in which a man made sexual advances towards her. The manner in which she avoids open discussion illustrates her low expectations of him. I don't want to talk about it, she says, because then you'd get upset and we wouldn't want that.

This is the only scene that feels real to me. It is almost as if this one dramatic scene is a separate short film surrounded by a surreal thriller about a man up against something larger than life, something he cannot control. And the only way to defeat the thing is to...

You get the idea.

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