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One morning when I was five, I opened the newspaper and suffered the most jarring fright of my childhood. It was 1975. An ad for the movie Jaws filled up a quarter of the page.

The infamous 'Jaws' poster

The infamous 'Jaws' poster

You know the poster: A razor-toothed predator rises like a missile toward the ocean's surface, where an oblivious woman is swimming.

The space between the beauty and the beast, that incredible unresolved tension—it set me to shaking. I was too young to see the movie, so I resolved my anxiety another way. I drew my own picture book, a series of sketches in which a fanged sea monster advances on a stick-man swimmer. At the last possible moment, the swimmer does what any good diver would do—he draws a sword and slays the shark. (Insert "x" for the dead creature's eye.)

That was my first encounter with the work of Steven Spielberg, who has two new films releasing this holiday season—The Adventures of Tintin, now in theaters, and War Horse, opening Christmas Day.

Little did I know in 1975 how influential Spielberg's films would become, or important his films would be to me. The shark was just the first of the scares that would shower the theatre floor with popcorn. But more importantly, he's inspired many of us to open-mouthed, wide-eyed wonder on more occasions than I have room to recount. And at his best, he's resisted his habit of happy endings and left us wrestling with hard questions and unresolved tensions.

Much has been written about Spielberg's directorial weaknesses. As a young fanboy, I defended him. But as I grew up and became a student of cinema's greatest artists, I eventually had to agree that Spielberg often soaks scenes in sentimentality until they're soggy (Hook); that his happy endings sometimes feel contrived, insufficient, even inappropriate (War of the Worlds, A.I. Artificial Intelligence); and that he has, at times, kept going when he should have called it quits (digitally revising E.T. for no good reason, or making Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

But let's not let that get in the way of acknowledging his strengths. I come to praise Spielberg, not to bury him.

Instilling a love of cinema

I could write about his influence as a producer, a studio executive, and a philanthropist. But I'd rather consider how he has instilled a love of cinema in generations of moviegoers, giving us many of the big screen's most wonderfully memorable sights and sounds.

Many directors have paid obvious tribute in their own films, most clearly in last summer's Super 8. J. J. Abrams' valentine to Spielberg's early blockbusters recreated the veteran's early '80s style even as it took inspiration from his childhood filmmaking adventures. (As a kid, Spielberg made a Super 8 movie that involved a simulated train crash using a model train.)

I suspect that most of us, like Abrams, could list many indelible images from the Spielberg films we've seen in theatres. Other than that shark fin breaking the surface of the water, what images come to your mind?

The director with his famous alien

The director with his famous alien

Maybe you close your eyes and picture UFOs swooping over an awestruck community. A leathery extra-terrestrial lifting a luminous fingertip. Indiana Jones carrying a treasure like a tailback carries a football and sprinting one step ahead of a tumbling boulder. A furious Tyrannosaurus Rex seeking the chewy center of a tour-guide's truck.

Or maybe you recall more serious moments, those drawn from the shadows of the past. After all, Spielberg moved from visions of bloodthirsty monsters to far more fearsome revelations of humankind's own capacity for evil. You probably remember the little red-coated girl who caught Oskar Schindler's eye and broke his heart right open (Schindler's List), or the vision of American soldiers staggering through blood-clouded water, desperate to reach Normandy beach (Saving Private Ryan).

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