Summer Blockbusters

Summer Blockbusters, Part Two: A Matter of Intimacy

This is the second post in our month-long conversation on summer blockbusters. If you missed the opening post, read it here.

Peter,

Like you, how I feel about blockbusters has changed. Especially this year. I had high hopes for Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel, but those feelings you listed alongside Jaws--delight, fear, elation--I didn't feel any of them. What I did feel was weariness. Detachment, too. Instead of being immersed in a story,  the experience was more like window shopping, with the awareness that I was sort of half admiring something, but from behind a barrier.

Still, I share a sense of nostalgia about previous summer movie seasons. Growing up, my interest in movies outstripped what I could see, either because of ticket prices or what something was rated. When my family did go to the movies, it was often during the summer, and typically something by Spielberg. Specifically, I remember getting sweaty palms to The Lost World, Minority Report and War of the Worlds. I also bawled my eyes out over A.I., one of the first movies I remember anticipating well in advance, thanks to the rumor mills on the Internet.

Minority Report / Dream Works, LLC

Minority Report / Dream Works, LLC

If I'm nostalgic for other blockbusters, it's less because I value them as movies than for recognizing them as markers of change in my life. Like those teens you mentioned going to drive-ins, there's the freedom that comes with a driver's license, or with a job that gives you money to waste on a Pirates of the Caribbean or Superman Returns. I wouldn't have said any of them were great works of art, but they were diverting enough to make me laugh or give me that rush of excitement you expect from a "thrill-ride."

But beyond all that, it was about the experience of seeing them--that's what I really valued. Going out with friends, or my girlfriend-now-wife and having a communal response with a roomful of people in the dark. How you respond to a movie at home versus how you respond to it in a theater may not be all that different, but it's the communal experience that's unique.

That, before I start tearing into this year's crop of movies, is my defense of the summer blockbuster and why I think it's worth fighting for and talking about. A good summer blockbuster--and Jaws is the quintessential example--creates a mysterious and almost tangible web of tension and excitement linking you to everyone else; everyone in the room is sharing in something, and what you're sharing (ideally) is fun

Star Trek Into Darkness / Paramount Pictures

Star Trek Into Darkness / Paramount Pictures

But there's no question the summer blockbuster season has become more and more dour. Christopher Nolan proved that serious sells, and both J.J. Abrams and Zack Snyder have followed his lead. What's more, this year's movies have been very similar in terms of the level of destruction on display. You see it in everything from Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel to Star Trek and Pacific Rim. We're supposed to be awed by what we're seeing--and occasionally we are--but the experience is exhausting more than exhilarating.  

Now, to shift gears just a bit, you brought up the subject of politics at the end of your post. Both Star Trek and Man of Steel evoke 9/11, either overtly or through their images, and they're far from the first; this has been going on for years. But to what effect? Star Trek tried to say something about the might-makes-right response to terrorism, but in the end it was more worried about matching the plot points of The Wrath of Khan. Meanwhile, Iron Man 3 turned one of its villains, Ben Kingsley's the Mandarin, into a Bin Laden figure only to neuter him completely. There's no reason Hollywood has to ignore the past 13 years; the problem is their business model dictates feeding us what we're familiar with--in this case, terrorist attacks and American exceptionalism--rather than giving us something different.

Iron Man 3 / Marvel / Walt Disney

Iron Man 3 / Marvel / Walt Disney

That model is nothing new, of course. Consider Hollywood's relationship to World War II, or the fact that studios have always looked for pre-sold properties (according to Thomas Schatz's excellent The Genius of the System). In the early 20th century, those properties took the form of biblical epics and classic literature; today it means sequels and comic book movies that raise the specter of national tragedy. As cynical as it sounds, what could be more unifying than that?

For a director who's followed this path but has also done things on his own terms, we have to consider Christopher Nolan.

Last summer saw the release of The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in the Dark Knight trilogy. Many critics slammed it based on Nolan's inconsistent use of Occupy imagery. Was he appropriating familiar images to make his film look more topical than it was, or did he have a consistent political message? Generally, it was found to be the former. And when Nolan spoke to Rolling Stone, he confirmed that he wasn't out to put forward a personal perspective: 

We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things.

Whether such a stance is a poor one is debatable, but even with this critique in mind, at least the first two films of the Dark Knight trilogy can be read and appreciated outside of 9/11 or Occupy. Because Nolan was echoing the crime genre, a larger focus can be put on the universal questions of right versus wrong the movies raise.

The Dark Knight Rises / Warner Bros. Pictures.

The Dark Knight Rises / Warner Bros. Pictures.

The second reason Nolan stands out, and it's related to what I've just mentioned, is that he understands the importance of intimacy to the action movie. The Avengers, Transformers and Man of Steel emphasize the destruction of cities at the hands of powerful beings, with the entire world at stake. The stakes in Nolan’s Dark Knight movies movies are so much smaller. It's never the world that's in danger, but a single city, the life of a single man or, at times, the preservation of an ideal. The set pieces (regardless of what Jim Emerson says about the editing) feel direct and intimate, where the set pieces in the former are bigger but, paradoxically, feel much smaller. A good summer blockbuster should make the audience hold its breath collectively, and I think Nolan is one of the few directors today who can do that.

But he’s just one example, and not even the best one. Spielberg, Brad Bird, Edgar Wright or, why not name Hitchcock as well, even though he predates the summer blockbuster season as we understand it. These directors know that intimacy is key to creating effective action. When Tom Cruise runs from the sandstorm in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the only thing at stake is Cruise’s own life--and that’s enough. Or, to go back to Jaws, think of Robert Shaw's terrifying death scene in the film's climax. How much more intimate can you get than being chewed up by a shark?

Similar to both, the action scene I most enjoyed this summer didn't involve superheroes, just five miserable drunks fighting for their life in a pub’s bathroom. That scene, from The World’s End, is over-the-top, energetic, and fluidly filmed. For cinephiles who are sticklers about spatial relationships, Wright makes the action clear with extended shots expertly choreographed and cleverly framed. (As an aside, I love how Nick Olson describes Wright as "localizing" the end of the world in a way most other movies this summer have, reinforcing the importance of intimacy.)

That’s my two cents for moment.  What do you think, Peter about the politics of summer blockbusters and their lack of intimacy? Have we come closer to diagnosing the true problem? And if you haven’t gotten much about of this summer’s biggest movies, are there movies off the beaten path you've enjoyed more?

- Andrew