SPIELBERG’S BLOCKBUSTER POETRY
A paper by HENRIQUE DE OLIVEIRA GUERRA
2. SHALLOW SPIELBERG
3. SUBSTANTIAL SPIELBERG
In order to achieve these goals, I structured this paper in three parts. First section deals with general, sociological aspects concerning the film industry and its impact on mass culture. Some books about the subject are quoted, mainly regarding the question of how movies have been influencing culturally and socially the audiences since the 1890s. This initial part is important because it will give the basis to the following discussions on Spielberg’s films.
The second part investigates why some Spielberg’s movies are considered superficial and why some scholars and “intellectuals” consider most Spielberg’s movies shallow. The emphasis on this section is to quote reviews which stress negative aspects of his work as a whole. Some aspects of Spielberg’s biography will be covered, mainly when these life facts can throw some light to Spielberg’s so-called “superficiality”.
The third part is dedicated to a new way of considering Spielberg’s films. Since 1993 – the year Schindler’s List gained huge audiences, and the Academy finally awarded Spielberg an Oscar –, Spielberg’s films started to be seen with more attentive, thoughtful eyes. Nowadays his work is being increasingly studied. Every aspect of his movies is being explored, from technical to sociological and even philosophical.
Last but not least, a brief section called “Final considerations” sums up the main ideas of the paper, followed by a list of references.
1. FILMS AND SOCIETY
From its very beginnings it was clear that the “seventh art” had an amazing ability to both awe and move audiences. Those first days when movies had no sound going to theaters became a habit to millions of Americans. Steven Ross, in his preface to Movies and American Society (2002), gives astounding numbers: by 1914, all American towns with over 5,000 inhabitants had movie theaters; by 1920, there were 15,000 theaters all over the USA, and 50 million Americans (nearly half the population) flocked to one of them weekly; by 1930, almost 100 percent of the nation’s population were moviegoers. People from every class had access to the cinema. Robert Sklar, one of the first authors who investigated social influences of the film industry, with the book Movie-Made America (1975), points out that this “new medium of entertainment” was discovered by “the urban workers, the immigrants and the poor”.
Another author, John Belton (American Cinema, American Culture, 2005), explains that industrialization and the rise of mass culture gave rise to two movements: populism and progressivism. The roots of populist ideology were the very ideals of Jeffersonian tradition. The contact with Nature and association with land were the main virtues of the American citizenry. Ownership of property meant power and independence. Populism opposed big business, industrialism and commercial agriculture, and believed that progressive ideologies hampered the individual’s pursuit of happiness. John Belton argues: “Much of American cinema can be mapped in terms of its relation to notions of political, social, cultural, and economic reform articulated by populist and progressive ideologies” (Belton, 2005).
Belton continues his analysis by giving examples of how “American masculinity survived the onslaught of modernity”. One of the instances he chooses is Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), where the character portrayed by Roy Scheider (Chief Brody) “opposes civic corruption and battles a great white shark, proving that in modern America one man could still make a difference”. Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), by Frank Capra, represent the “‘lost Eden’ of small-town America”, while movies like Taxi Driver (1976) show the nightmares of urbanization. In other words:
The boundaries of the American cinema are defined by these two diametrically opposed visions—the utopian vision found in Capra, Spielberg and others and the dystopian vision found in film noir, Scorsese, Lynch, and others. These two visions constitute a single, larger, more complex vision that represents the deeper contradictions within the American psyche (Belton, 2005, p.xxii).
That movies can move audiences nobody has doubts. But can movies change people’s behavior and way of thinking? Are movies really culturally and socially influential? Robert Sklar provides a good answer: “American movies, through much of their span, have altered or challenged many of the values and doctrines of powerful social and cultural forces in American society, providing alternative ways of understanding the world” (Sklar, 1975).
Not so different is Steven Ross’s opinion. For him, more than just entertainment, films are “(…) historical documents that help us see – and perhaps more fully understand – the world in which they were made” (Ross, 2002). He holds that movies both reflect and shape changes in society. Movies not only show people how to dress, look and buy, but also teach them how to think about relevant issues such as race, class, ethnicity, politics and gender. Besides, Steven Ross adds that the cinema is a medium which combines entertainment and politics in a form highly accessible to world audiences. He exemplifies how movies help to raise public consciousness:
Movies depicting the evils of child labor, the demand for women’s suffrage, the financial hardships of the elderly, the tragedy of racism, and the problems of sexual discrimination helped raise public consciousness and in so doing helped ease passage of bills aimed at remedying these problems (Ross, 2002, p.4).
Another important question mentioned by Ross refers to audience reception. Initially, scholars assumed that movies acted as “hypodermic needles”, that is, audiences interpreted movies through filmmakers’ intentions. According to this view, movies helped to maintain the status quo instead of making people question the fundamental tenets of their societies. Nowadays, a new generation of scholars demonstrated that moviegoers were not blank slates and did not passively accept everything that was shown on the screen.
Among this new generation probably is Tom Stempel, who published the book American audiences on movies and moviegoing (2001). Through questionnaires, Stempel collected opinions and impressions of many moviegoers about movies in general. He devoted one chapter to Spielberg’s movies. The chapter starts with this sentence: “The most commercially successful director, and certainly the best known to the public, since the seventies is Steven Spielberg” (Stempel, 2001). Moviegoers tell how they were impressed, surprised, marveled, thrilled and even bored by Spielberg’s movies. No matter the reaction of the audience, most people emphasized the importance of Spielberg in their future relation with the cinema. It is interesting to think that the same respondents to the questionnaire are probably people who grew up in the 1970s and the 1980s watching Spielberg’s movies – the same generation which today occupy important positions in firms and governments.
On his own turn, John Belton believes that there is extreme complexity in the relationship among American cinema and American identity. “Each shapes and is shaped by the other in a constant process of mutual determination” (Belton, 2005). This reasoning could be applied in more international terms, if we consider the nowadays cinema globalization. The relation between world cinema and world identity is extremely complex. Each helps to determine the other in a never-ending flow.
More specifically, Belton is worried with how the American cinema contributed with national identity. According to him, films act as a cohesion element in periods of cultural transition and instability. While I quote the following Belton’s words (which emphasize the important of American cinema to American identity), I wonder how this same American cinema influences national identities other than American:
More importantly, the American cinema plays a crucial role in assisting audiences in negotiating major changes in identity; it carries them across difficult periods of cultural transition in such a way that a more or less coherent national identity remains in place, spanning the gaps and fissures that threaten to disrupt its movement and to expose its essential disjointedness (Belton, 2005, xx).
Does Spielberg’s filmography span gaps and fissures of American identity? In the next topic I turn my attention to Spielberg, his background, some criticisms he has been receiving, and prejudices evoked by his work. Some of these prejudices help to explain why he is sometimes considered “shallow”.
2. SHALLOW SPIELBERG
If movies can change society, one logical assumption is that the movies of the nowadays most influential director have been shaping moviegoers minds, and therefore, their cultural and social standpoints since the mid seventies. Just to give an example of Spielberg’s importance, let’s consider one easily found (and incredibly shallow) guide called 501 Movie Directors. Anyone who briefly takes a look in this guide in a bookstore can verify: Spielberg (besides being on the cover) receives four pages, while other important filmmakers – such as Australian Peter Weir – deserve only one page. And I defy any creature in the whole world to prove me that Peter Weir is shallower than Spielberg.
What is to be shallow, anyway? I mean, cinematographically speaking. A good explanation is found in one of Pauline Kael’s fine essays about movies. More specifically, On the future of the movies, originally published in The New Yorker magazine, in 1974, and later compiled in Raising Kane and other essays. Kael – one of the most respected movies critics of all times – suggests (even though she does not actually use the word ‘shallow’) that shallow movies are those which people cannot discuss after the lights are on. In other words, shallow movies are those consumed entirely in the movie theater, those movies that do not provoke further thoughts and debate. She criticizes the new generations of high school and college students who enjoy movies that make the whole job for them; and she sadly concludes that people more and more prefer what is obvious and easy to swallow (Kael, 2000).
How would you classify, for instance, Spielberg’s latest movie as a director, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)? Have you seen this movie? If the answer is yes, do you remember anything about the plot? Does the movie convey any social message? After watching it, did you go to a bar with your intellectual friends and discuss its many aspects? Is anything worth discussing in it, by the way? Now, apply the same questions to Munich (2005). By this reasoning, one could label (at least in a shallow look) the former as a good example of Spielberg’s “shallowness”, and the latter of his “substance”.
The same way one can ask himself “Does being popular mean be shallow?” he or she can add the question “Can talent be measured with school grades?”. The common sense answer for both questions would be “Not necessarily”. No wonder that in Portuguese common sense is “bom senso”.
Spielberg’s biographers are almost unanimous in affirming that Spielberg had poor grades in high school. That’s why he had problems with getting a position in a good cinema college. These poor grades would arise from Spielberg’s poor abilities in reading. Through his childhood, he preferred watching TV to reading literature (Powers, 2005). The only type of “literature” he enjoyed was comic books. Maybe this could help explain the visual strength of his movies.
The purpose of this paper is not to make a Spielberg’s profile. But I find pertinent to mention just two more facts: when he was a 6-year-old kid, his father woke him up late at night. They both drove into the countryside to watch a meteors rain (Powers, 2005). This experience was never forgotten by Steven. In my point of view, this memorable night explains some of the Spielberg’s fascination for everything that comes from space. Another important fact in his childhood occurred when he showed his Boy Scouts group a movie that he had made. The reaction of acceptance thrilled the little Steven in a way he would never forget.
In a book of interviews, Spielberg comments this event: “For me nothing’s changed from the first day when I was a twelve year old and showed a 8 millimeter movie I had made to Boy Scouts” (Friedman & Notbohm, 2000). The relevance of this emotion is emphasized by the authors of Steven Spielberg: interviews. A collection of various interviewers, 1974-1999:
Spielberg’s psyche remains indelibly stamped by this childhood image of himself as a perpetual outsider and of filmmaking as the key to acceptance. His aesthetic sensibility, therefore, is almost always bent to his ongoing need for us to like his films – and by extension the man himself (Friedman & Notbohm, 2000, Introduction, xi).
However, sometimes not even Spielberg manages to please audiences. Sometimes, even his most passionate fans and movie critics who generally appreciate his work are let down by his movies. Referring to Hook (1992) and Always (1989), two of the most unsuccessful Spielberg’s movies, Friedman says: “It’s more fun to talk about Hook and Always than to watch them. Neither offers a sustained sense of pleasure or the complexity of Spielberg’s finest works.” (Friedman, 2006).
Jean Tulard, in his Dictionnaire du Cinéma – Les Réalisateurs (Dicionário de Cinema – Os Diretores, L&PM), speaking of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), classify both movies as “neither innovating regarding the script, nor convincing regarding the interpretation”; both movies are “highly puerile, mainly in the moral they convey” (Tulard, 1996).
Pauline Kael was on the top of her career when Spielberg was starting (the seventies). Julie Rigg, writing a tribute on Kael’s work, quoted a Kael’s review on Spielberg’s first cinema movie (he had already directed Duel  for television):
The Sugarland Express is like some of the entertaining studio-factory films of the past (it's as commercial and shallow and impersonal) yet it has so much eagerness and flash and talent that it just about transforms its scrubby ingredients. The director, Steven Spielberg is twenty six, I can't tell if he has any mind, or even a strong personality, but then a lot of good moviemakers have got by without being profound.
While considering worth studying Spielberg’s work, other authors acknowledge the scholarly despise and prejudice that his movies inspire. Warren Buckland, author of Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster (2006), comments: “Just as traditional critics in the 1950s did not consider the work of Hitchcock, Hawks, et al. to be worth as analyzing as films, film scholars today do not consider Spielberg’s film style and narration to be worthy of study.” Friedman and Notbohm, in the interviews book mentioned above, confirm that Spielberg is seen with contempt by “most film scholars”, who “contemptuously dismiss Spielberg as little more than a modern P. T. Barnum, a technically gifted and intellectually shallow showman who substitutes spectacle for substance.” They regret that too little efforts are made “to analyze the components of his essential worldview, the issues which animate his most significant works, the roots of his immense acceptance, and the influence his vast spectrum of imaginative products exerts on the public consciousness.”
Stephen Jay Gould accepted an invitation by Mark Carnes to analyze one of Spielberg’s most stunning successes: Jurassic Park (1993), based on Michael Crichton’s book. Gould’s essay appears in the collection Past imperfect: History According to the Movies. Gould criticizes two mistakes of the movie (while highlighting that he, as economist Pareto, prefers a fruitful mistake to a sterile truth): 1) insufficient acknowledgment of Nature complexity; and 2) stereotypes of science and History. These mistakes are even more frightful when you consider that some science teachers (for instance, in Porto Alegre, Brazil) showed the movie to their students without pointing out the scientific weaknesses of the movie. One Spielberg’s defender could reasonably argue that despite the scientific superficialities of Jurassic Park, the movie had the merit of calling attention to biological and paleontological studies, and to provoke ethical discussions about cloning.
To end this section of the so-called “shallow” and “puerile”, it would be appropriate to add some comments regarding two at first sight shallow Spielberg’s movies: Jaws and E. T. Prized by Pauline Kael as “the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made”, Jaws (1975) combines classical Hollywood genres (monster movie, slasher film, thriller, buddy film, chase film). Based on a novel that sold 7 million copies, the movie ends stressing the friendship between three men. Because of its fantastic action and suspense sequences, the movie became a “must-see” movie in 1975. The proof that the white shark not only attacks in “shallow waters” but also makes his way in “deeper”, bluer sea, is this very paper. I could write an essay only about Jaws if I wanted to. The movie inspired a lot of publications, even one of Brazilian cartoonists. I think it would be not stupid to say that Jaws both thrills and provokes some (at least superficial) thoughts.
As for E. T. (1982), although superficial in form, it has the merit of showing to whole generations how big (and deep) the universe is. Rolf Jensen (1999, quoted by Buckland, 2006) identifies six basic types of emotions that are essential to advertising: adventure, love and friendship, care, self-identity, peace of mind, and beliefs and convictions. According to Buckland, Jensen’s list of six emotions can easily be found in Spielberg’s films – and, taken together, they seem to sum up the emotions conveyed in E. T. (Buckland, 2006).
Ten years have passed since Friedman & Notbohm regretted that too few books have been made seriously addressing Spielberg’s work. During these ten years, I think, the situation has changed. As one can see by mere looking at some references of this paper, interest in Spielberg’s work is increasing. His movies have recently inspired a lot of research and books, even philosophical essays! (One of them, by the way, entitled What is wrong with cloning a dinosaur? Jurassic Park and Nature as a Source of Moral Authority, by James Spence). Next section will explore what gives substance to Spielberg’s movies and discuss some of the latest developments in the way his movies are seen.
3. SUBSTANTIAL SPIELBERG
Last section I quoted Jean Tulard and Pauline Kael criticizing some aspects of Spielberg’s work. However, both Tulard and Kael’s general opinions about Spielberg gradually became favorable. Despite his “shallow” and “puerile” movies, he would be a talented filmmaker after all. Tulard affirms that “his fabulous recipes make him an accomplished producer-director” and that Schindler’s List is a “profound, dramatic vision of the Jew holocaust” (Tulard, 2000). Kael acknowledges Spielberg’s talent in her essay On the future of the movies.
As for the question if a movie can be popular and deep at the same time, according to Spanish writer and reviewer Javier Ortega, author of Diario de un cinéfilo distraído (2001), the answer is yes. In his book Spielberg, el hacedor de sueños, he holds that there is a class of moviemakers who both entertain the audiences and make them think. These directors manage to produce honest, extremely delightful movies that can be enjoyed by great audiences and at the same time be full of interpretations and meanings of no little substance. “Among this class of filmmakers, Steven Spielberg is, in my point of view, both commercially and artistically speaking, the most talented and brilliant” (Ortega, 2005, my translation from Spanish).
Warren Buckland (2006) analyzes Spielberg technical virtuosities. “Spielberg does not invent a new film language, but manipulates the existing language in a distinct and completely effective manner to create a quality specific to his films.” For Buckland, Spielberg’s long takes display a mastery of vision similar to poetry. “Spielberg’s poetics is based on his internalization of a series of highly ritualized skills and habits, which constitute his tacit knowledge. This tacit knowledge enables Spielberg to make a series of (usually consistent) choices in the construction of his blockbuster films” (Buckland, 2006). Buckland tells that the “blockbuster era” became dominant from 1975. The Movie Brats are a group of blockbuster directors, usually college educated, such as Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg. These guys recycled classical B-movie genres using A-movie budgets.
Buckland also emphasizes the task of the director: “Like the orchestra’s conductor, the film director manages the film’s total design.” The director’s job, according to Buckland, is to create what is absent in film’s discrete parts – an added value that emerges from the combination of parts into an organic unity. Through organic unity the parts reach their best possible level of integration. “In an organic unity, all the parts interrelate to create the whole” (Buckland, 2006).
To which extent can Spielberg be considered an auteur? According to Buckland, together with a handful of contemporary directors, Spielberg is an auteur, but not because he works against the Hollywood industry (as the auteurs in classical Hollywood). Instead,
(….) Spielberg is an auteur because he occupies key positions in the industry (producer, director, studio co-owner, franchise licensee); he is therefore attempting to vertically reintegrate the stages of filmmaking – but, unlike classical Hollywood, the integration is under the control of creative talent, not managers (Buckland, 2006, p. 15).
Friedman (quoting Scott) agrees with this vision: “Ironically, it is Steven Spielberg, the child of the studio system, who has become America’s truly ‘independent filmmaker, able to do his work with minimal creative interference and with very little budgetary constraint’” (Friedman, 2006).
This same author, together with Brent Notbohm, cites that five Spielberg movies are among the 100 best films of all time recently identified by an American Film Institute poll. These five movies are: Schindler’s List, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They conclude: “Given the totality of his input into our national consciousness, the combined products of Spielberg’s imagination represent a ubiquitous cultural force whose influence extends far beyond the confining screens of local metroplexes” (Friedman & Notbohm, 2000).
But when in Spielberg’s career did people start to take him more seriously? According to Nigel Morris (2007), “the shift came after Schindler’s List (1993).” Lester Friedman totally agrees with this standpoint, considering what he wrote in Citizen Spielberg:
While earlier films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. emerged from deeply personal needs and obsessions, his latest productions turn toward broader social concerns such as racism and prejudice (Amistad and Schindler’s List), historical and cultural memories (Saving Private Ryan), humanity’s place in a technological world (A. I.), governmental intrusion (Minority Report) and restriction (The Terminal), invasion and annihilation (War of the Worlds), and personal identity (Catch me if you can) (Friedman, 2006).
All these films cited by Friedman were released after 1993, therefore confirming Morris’s opinion. Friedman then divides Spielberg’s movies in four categories: Action/Adventure Melodramas, Monster Movies, World War II Combat Films and Social Problem/Ethnic Minority Films.
For Dean Kowalski (the author who compiled essays to publish in 2008 the book Steven Spielberg and philosophy: we are going to need a bigger book), “no film director has had more impact on popular culture than Steven Spielberg.” By the way, the subtitle of the book makes a paraphrase to Roy Scheider’s comment in Jaws (we are going to need a bigger boat). Kowalski first mentions the controversy in the philosophy of film and in the philosophy of pop culture about whether a film “does” or no philosophy similarly to trained philosophers. “If ‘doing philosophy’necessarily requires constructing arguments and defending their premises via logical analysis”, explains Dean Kowalski, “it seem unlikely that popular film accomplishes that. But it cannot be denied that movies raise philosophical questions and sometimes offer suggestions about their answers” (Kowalski, 2008).
Steven Spielberg and philosophy: we are going to need a bigger book covers different philosophical topics, such as: the recovery of childhood and the search for the absent father, the paradox of fictional belief, ethics of alterity, the tragic sense of life, cloning, ethics of the family, human rights, terrorism. For Joseph McBride, one Spielberg’s biographers, the publication of this book is a “sure sign that Steven Spielberg has finally been accepted into the academic canon after many years of being unfairly disparaged as a superficial entertainer”.
All in all, since 1962, when he won “Canyon Films Junior Film Festival”, with a 40 minute World War saga titled Escape to Nowhere, Spielberg has been building a solid career as a filmmaker. After 1993, his movies became more preoccupied with deeper issues. But (with a little effort) even his first movies can be thought-provoking. I would like to appropriately close this section with a quote:
The Steven Spielberg who emerges through these interviews is a complex amalgam of businessman and artist, of arrogance and insecurity, of shallowness and substance. For good or for ill, Spielberg has emerged as a larger than life figure within American society, a cultural force that shapes our times and inhabits our dreams (Friedman & Notbohm, 2000, xiii-xiv).
Writing this paper was both an exercise of academic skills and a labor of love. Not that I love Spielberg, I would not put it that way. But if I said I love the movies I would not be far from the truth. And if I said that Spielberg is in my Top Ten Directors list I would not be lying either. As a cinephile, I enjoy every phase of his career. I think this must have become clear to the reader even before I am actually writing it.
Writing this paper gave me new insights about important topics, such as social relevance of the movies. I was surprised that this is already a broad field of study and that there are plenty of books that one can read about it. Furthermore, I became aware of things I did not know concerning the subject of paper, such as details of Spielberg’s life and technical decisions. And I came to know a lot of books written about different aspects of his work. Throughout this process, my admiration for Steven Spielberg did not specially grew. Instead, my comprehension of his works as a whole and his evolution towards maturity certainly grew a lot. I can see some things clearer now.
As for the questions I asked myself in the introduction, I would not dare to say that now I have the answers for them. But it can be said that according to the readings and quotations of the first section, it is generally agreed that yes, films can actually influence people’s opinions and standpoints. Some scholars around the world despise Spielberg because of his power, I think. Is success incompatible with a deeper, more intellectual culture? A lot of people do no think so. Are Spielberg’s movies worth seriously discussing? Again, considering the amount of books and essays recently published concerning this very topic, the answer is yes.
As far as I can see, Spielberg will continue to intertwine shallower movies with more substantial ones. After Munich (2005), Spielberg made a new Indiana Jones, and prepares for the next year a movie about Tintin, the memorable reporter created by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. At first sight, it is only one more product of Spielberg’s “blockbuster poetic”. However, everyone who read Tintin albums as a kid knows that Tintin travels every country, pilots every vehicle, and fights every villain. But I can assure you one thing: there is nothing shallow about Tintin.
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This paper was originally written for the course American Culture, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, first semester of 2010. This version contains the changes suggested by Professor Marta Oliveira.