Summer Blockbusters

Summer Blockbusters, Part One: Who, When and Why

This is part one in a five-part conversation between editors Peter Labuza and Andrew Welch. Peter has the first post.


Andrew,

When I was growing up, I went to the multiplex every weekend during the summer (sometimes more than once) to see the latest blockbusters--films brimming with good looking actors and even better looking explosions. I remember films like Twister, Jurassic Park and Independence Day—I couldn't get enough of films like these, but I also couldn't tell you what made one better than another; some just had more explosions and guns than others. Some, I now realize, are quite terrible (I have fond memories of Waterworld, after all), but they’re also what originally got me into movies, which is why I’m curious about the so-called “crisis” in summer blockbusters.

Last month, I caught a couple of TV personalities on MSNBC linking the poor box office returns of Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger with the death of the summer blockbuster (never mind the international success of the former, the success of others they didn't mention, or the fact that every summer for at least the past two decades has seen its share of flops). While I found their remarks rather tedious, something did strike me--I used to be the first in line to see the summer’s big movies, but this summer I made it to only a handful, and often over a month after their release. Yes, I saw Star Trek Into Darkness, The Lone Ranger and World War Z, but none of none of them did for me what those films released at the height of the Spielberg-Bruckheimer era did. And there’s so many others I flat out skipped: R.I.P.D., Red 2 and almost every one of this year’s superhero movies. So at least based on that MSNBC piece, I’m not alone in this feeling. But is it really the blockbuster that's changed, or is it us?

The Lone Ranger / Walt Disney Pictures

The Lone Ranger / Walt Disney Pictures

Not all recent blockbusters have missed the mark, of course. Some have shown signs of life--there's the Hawksian camaraderie of The Avengers, Andy Serkis' emotive motion capture performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and, though I'm not particularly fond of them, I'll at least tip my hat to the ambition of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy.

And yet, I'm not alone in saying I'd rather watch Die Hard, Terminator 2 or Point Break before any of today's blockbusters, which can be exhausting. I don't want to ignore the problems I see in these films to find my inner nine-year-old, as Matt Zoller Seitz remarks in his review of Pacific Rim; I just want cinema at its most visceral and imaginative (though let's avoid that phrase "pure cinema," shall we?).

So, in trying to answer the question of which has changed--us or the movies--let's cross out as many myths as we can. We can't blame it on Jaws (though we need a better defense than what Heather Havrilesky provides), nor am I going to pin it on a preference, for my part, on "cultural vegetables"--Johnnie To's Drug War may have been given a small, art house release, but it's an electrifying action picture whose pleasures represent the best of "blockbuster" filmmaking. I won't even lay the blame at the door of special effects and casting, because a.) there's plenty of artistry happening within special effect departments and b.) most of this summer's performances are no worse than those who populated blockbusters of the 80s and 90s.

Mark Harris, whom I respect tremendously, calls out the corporate model that now dominates the studios, but it's not impossible for those models to produce interesting work. One might point to the Marvel "Phase One, Two" model as proof of Harris's thesis, but is that any worse than the old studio models, like the Arthur Freed unit at MGM in the 1950s?

 If any theory is worth discussing, it might be David Bordwell’s examination of intensified continuity, though that doesn’t explain why I’m still more willing to bet on Michael Bay than Guillermo Del Toro.

Jaws / Universal Pictures

Jaws / Universal Pictures

Generally, searching for an approach by looking at what came before is a poor solution and will only lead to surface comparisons. Instead we have to ask a better question: not what is a summer blockbuster, but why is the summer blockbuster. And to answer that, we have to look back at who watched movies when

 Before United States V. Paramount Pictures, Inc. (1948), studios booked their own theaters directly. After that landmark case, there was greater competition within movie houses and some studios turned to non-traditional screens to show their films. This, combined with the rise of teenagers with cars, gave birth to the drive-in, the only place where the "double feature" continued to thrive into the 1960s. Notoriously considered “immoral cesspools,” the programming at these outdoor theaters slowly changed, leading to Roger Corman, American International Pictures and, eventually, the first set of literally summer movies: the beach movie genre.

There’s no doubt the B-movie industry changed under AIP. Filmmakers realized the best way to make a hit was to scare the pants off the audience, with movies like Night of the Living Dead, for instance. Cut to 1975 and it's no wonder the opening of Jaws looks like a scene from Beach Blanket Bingo, until that grisly night swim. Since then, younger moviegoers have always been the target of blockbusters.

Beach Blanket Bingo / American International Pictures

Beach Blanket Bingo / American International Pictures

But let’s imagine an alternate history, one where the other supposed blockbuster of the summer of ’75 ends up making $100 million: Nashville. In J. Hoberman’s exquisite piece “Nashville Contra Jaws: Or ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ Revisited,” (collected in The Last Great American Picture Show) he notes that Nashville was seen and advertised as much as an “Event Movie” like Jaws. Altman even screened a rough cut to Pauline Kael four months before the release, which is like a highbrow version of showing Star Wars footage to Harry Knowles. If we had to give it a genre, it might as well be a 1970s disaster film--a star-filled blockbuster like The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno--crossed with a musical. Just on the surface, Nashville feels like it could be a blockbuster.

But in reality, Altman's film only grossed around $10 million dollars; three times its budget, but hardly a “blockbuster”. A sly and strange social critique, it has arsenic running through its veins--no one was going to walk away from it the way they would walk away from Jaws. As Hoberman notes, “Nashville was about the entertainment machine. Jaws was the entertainment machine--the very post-TV multi-media Gesamtkunstwek that Horkheimer and Adorno had predicted.” I don’t want to discount the politics of Jaws, but Altman’s film proudly wears its on its sleeve. Fitting for a movie about the integration of politics within the world of entertainment--move the camera ever-so-slightly and rack focus, and you’re no longer looking at a country singer but a congressman. Nashville's world is as confused as the different ideologies of its characters, and the better for it. If there’s one thing about the blockbuster, it’s defined by its appeal to a mass audience. People walked out of Jaws brimming with emotions--delight, fear, terror and elation. What one walks away from Nashville with is a bewildering sense of nihilism (and hopefully the sense that its a masterpiece).

Nashville / Paramount Pictures

Nashville / Paramount Pictures

I’ve gone on too long already, so I hope you take some of these threads and run with them. I’m curious how you see the relationship between changes in audience and how blockbusters are formed, and whether that can account for the problems we see today. I’m curious to get into the political identities of blockbusters and counter some of the myths critics have relied on for too long. I’m curious if you share the same reservations about today’s blockbusters--whether they are that different from two decades ago, or if I'm simply not part of the target demographic anymore. Mostly though, I’m curious as to where you would place the issue of today’s blockbuster, and why it is how it is.

- Peter