Department of Theatre and Film
Forum on Hollywood Movie Blockbusters Essays - Part One
Darin D. Kerr
“‘You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat’: Expanding the Boundaries of Critical Practice”
Thomas Schatz’s essay, “The New Hollywood,” makes a compelling case for the way in which Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), while clearly exemplary of a trend in Hollywood filmmaking, benefited from the developments of the decades immediately preceding its release. Moreover, Schatz’s nod towards an analysis of the film’s importance provides a model for the integration of formal and industry analysis, a kind of vertical integration of criticism. For example, describing the movie, Schatz explains that the “performances, camera work, and editing are all crucial to [the film’s effectiveness], as is John Williams’s score” (25). Reckoning with all of the film’s elements (or at least as many as possible), Schatz unites analysis of form and narrative to account for the position the film has in relation to the “blockbusters” that both preceded and followed it. Concerned also with charting the development of new paradigms for production and exhibition, Schatz undertakes to write a brief history of mainstream Hollywood cinema in relationship to the blockbuster, a move that necessarily positions the resulting product as part of a global discourse, certainly, but a discourse that originates in American film practice. Thus, both film history and national cinema are critical modalities operative in Schatz’s essay. Schatz positions the film as an example of the “chase” film, squarely establishing it as a genre film, though one curiously hybridized by the filmic choices made by its director, Steven Spielberg. Likewise, Spielberg himself is characterized in relationship to his larger oeuvre, as well as those of contemporaneous directors; the essay thus incorporates auteur theory into the larger critical model at work in the essay. In addition to considering formal detail, Schatz’s mention of critical response to the film’s “political critique” points towards ideological analysis. As a result, Schatz’s explanation of industry politics is necessarily imbricated with other forms of analysis, suggesting that form and content are, at some level, indivisible from the circumstances in which they were created. A full explication of a film’s “meaning” must necessarily account not only for those things found within the frame, but also the film’s relationship to those things outside the frame.
While this is not a uniquely innovative way of analyzing film practice, Schatz effectively illustrates the benefits of using a multifaceted approach, in terms of its applicability to a specific film and as a means of using the features of a specific film as exemplary of a larger trend. In doing so, Schatz provides a framework through which spectatorship might be more fruitfully examined, that is, as an act coproduced by the relationship between the text and the larger “social, industrial, and economic” milieus in which it is created (26). To say that Jaws is a blockbuster, then, is also to say that it is indicative of shifting viewing habits and that the blockbuster (even if we do not posit Jaws as the first instantiation of such a category) inaugurates another “way of seeing” film, that movie blockbusters and the ways in which they interact with spectators (and vice versa) foreground cultural shifts intimately and inextricably implicated in a network of practices that moves well beyond the movie houses in which those practices are showcased.
Beyond the Hollywood Blockbuster: Theorizing a Culturally-Specific Genre Studies Practice
Blockbusters, like bestsellers, occupy a strange position in terms of analysis – they usually cause the critical nose to crinkle in, at worst, disdain or, at best, apathy. Whatever the case, these are the films that have, for the last three decades or so, kept Hollywood going, as the various articles in Part 1, “Industry Matters,” of Movie Blockbusters inform us. They are, therefore, if for no other reason than this, worthy of sustained analysis.
The blockbuster is primarily imagined as an economic genre, that is, money and its dynamics are critically intertwined with the notion of the blockbuster, whether it is the figures at the box-office or the expenses that go into making the film. The difficulty of actually defining exactly what a blockbuster is is a thread running through all the essays, and this seems to situate blockbuster studies on the margins of a much more mainstream strand of film studies, the study of genre/s. And indeed, if a category like cult film, which after all is a pigeonhole dependent on audience reception rather than any internal characteristics particular to the films populating it, can merit much critical discourse, then it is no wonder that the blockbuster should too.
Warren Buckland’s essay “The Role of the Auteur in the Age of the Blockbuster: Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks” aims at some sort of implicit combination of the study of industry processes with a more traditional film-as-text centric approach in analyzing the status of the auteur in the Hollywood of the last thirty years. His classification of the three different kinds of auteurs – internal, external and a combination of the two – is remarkably useful for situating an authorial figure in the blockbuster age. Buckland therefore points towards a useful method for thinking about those kinds of films (and filmmakers) who have been both commercially successful and critically acclaimed, someone like Hitchcock, for instance.
The problem of definition crops up again and again – the reference to cult films above brings to mind the status of a film like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), which, originally released as a “midnight movie,” is still in limited release almost thirty-five years after it was made, making it the longest running theatrical release in the history of cinema. Add to this the fact that it remains among the top one hundred highest-grossing films of all time in the United States (if the rates are adjusted for inflation), and we have a critical conundrum on our hands – is The Rocky Horror Picture Show a blockbuster, then?
In many ways, therefore, Movie Blockbusters is a compelling addition to genre studies, and it makes one think about the economics of genre – what is the relationship of genre to the larger economic framework of the film industry? Do blockbusters as a genre maintain the economic status quo (Judith Hess Wright suggests something similar when referring to genre in terms of politics and ideology)? Or does Buckland’s discussion of Spielberg as a complete (i.e., both external and internal) auteur offer some hope (arguably, somewhat restrictedly) against the depressing thought that industry processes and the necessities of catering to expectations of formula might subsume the creative process altogether?
The fact that a discussion of movie blockbusters raises so many questions, particularly in the field of genre studies, not to mention other, more varied areas of scholarship, is a testament to the need for historical and theoretical analyses that consider a large field of discursive practices. For example, Part IV “The blockbuster in the international frame” brings to mind the complexities involved in applying standard, Hollywood- or European cinema- centric modes of filmic discourse to non Euro-American cinema. Andrew Willis’s formulations on the Bollywood blockbuster are particularly useful because they reveal what is involved in attempts to locate the Hindi blockbuster outside of Hollywood’s dominant framework. Interestingly, his essay, “Locating Bollywood: Notes on the Hindi Blockbuster, 1975 to the Present,” fails to create a vocabulary that can adequately grapple with the implications of a cinema that is truly detached from the Hollywood system, both in terms of its modes of production and stylistic, aesthetic and ideological stance.
It is important to realize that Indian cinema is viewed very differently from most classical definitions of cinema-viewing. Madhava Prasad’s commonly-accepted thesis, articulated in Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, is that Indian cinema does not posit the individual viewer as isolated within the audience gazing through the voyeuristic frame of the camera. Indian democratic statehood is a post-Independence, post 1947 conception, imposed at one go in the beginning, and then gradually imposed through filtration from above. India’s political interface with modernity and individualism has therefore always been an uneasy truce with the older community-oriented religious-social-political power groups. Until the mid 1990s, private space in India has always cohabited territory, with a communal gaze whose sanction it has implicitly sought time and again. Indian films are thus a strange phenomenon of both a pre-capitalist and a capitalist mode. Hence, for instance, Prasad notes the uneasiness in classical Bollywood with depictions of the individual “modern” couple formation embodied by the private moment of the kiss, but the relative comfort in accommodating communal lust over sleazy item numbers. This culturally specific film practice and audience experience is why Willis’s formulations must “by necessity” take a schematic approach, for Willis and by extension much of Western academia have very little vocabulary with which to encounter and adequately theorize Indian cinema in general and the communal yet individuated in-between-ness of the Bollywood blockbuster in particular.
While the subject at hand is Indian cinema, similar cases in terms of an inadequacy of vocabulary could be made for mainstream analyses of much of Third Cinema. The kinds of criteria by which a Bollywood filmmaker from the 1970s would theorize his/her art would likely be irreconcilable with dominant Euro-American academic discourse. Different cultural practices create different theoretical norms and traditions, and it becomes a “necessity” for Western scholars to reduce complicated and theoretically disjunctive practices to familiar formulas.
The need to find a global theorizing language for such heterodox applications is perhaps symptomatic of a larger change in film practice today. On the one hand, there is the overarching shadow of global homogenization in which films from different national/cultural frontiers are beginning to blur and bury their differences. Thus, it is becoming more difficult to separate the look, sound and feel of, say, the latest Brazilian blockbuster from the latest Hindi blockbuster. On the other hand, precisely because global cinema is being influenced by film practice from around the world, it seems imperative that scholars from different cultural backgrounds work together to reconcile, theoretically and linguistically, different models of production and spectatorship and to find ways to analyze culturally specific film practices so as to avoid a concomitant cultural loss.
Prasad, Madhava. Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Kevan A. Feshami
Cinema Studies Outside the Art/Commerce Binary
I find myself pondering what exactly it is that we—and by “we” I mean academics, critics, and student—are doing with film. Film studies appears intent, even hell-bent, on treating film as an art form; something to be carefully scrutinized, dissected, and discussed for its supposedly “artistic qualities.” Meaning is the end all, be all, of film analysis; we strive to uncover how films make meaning, how their meaning is received, and why it is received as such. Anything that does not warrant such artistic (or perhaps artful) examination, or does not produce “meaningful” meaning, is scoffed at or relegated to the academic dustbin of popular culture, free to be studied, but not quite taken seriously. Hollywood blockbusters certainly fall into this category. Indeed, if, as Jon Lewis suggests, “studio owners prefer to treat Hollywood movies as products….unique only in the amount of money at stake in their production and distribution” (65), then surely this commodification means these films are neither meaningful nor art. Such fare should thusly be left for Richard Schickel’s “subliterates” to mindlessly consume while the enlightened among us weep for the “los[s] or abandon[ment of] the art of narrative” (qtd. in Schatz 39), right?
Pardon the frankness, but such an idea is bullshit. I am far from convinced that anything remotely resembling our Romantic conception of art has been produced since capitalism sank its fangs into humanity’s social and economic relations centuries ago (and, I think, one can argue that art has never existed free from some form of commodification process). What we term “art,” as it relates to film, is really a highly commodified product that exists to generate capital. If film also functions to stimulate the senses or the intellectual faculties, that is an unintended consequence of its role as a “money machine.” Even so called “independent” fare cannot escape the designs of the market. Independent films define themselves as, essentially, “what Hollywood is not” (see Baron 33-38), therefore creating a sort of economic “can the subaltern speak” dilemma (to borrow a phrase from Gayatri Spivak). In other words, if independent films exist to cater to the niche markets Hollywood overlooks, how can it be considered free of the dominant film industry’s economic processes?
Thus it is important, I think, to explore film, all film, in its economic context; not simply as a piece of art that may be shaped by economic consequences, but as a commodity existing in a complex world of vertical monopoly, horizontal synergy, and ancillary markets. Film studies would benefit greatly from an infusion of scholarly economic theories, bolstered perhaps by psychological and sociological considerations, in an effort to engage with what these films actually do in the marketplace as consumables. If film is indeed a true “mass media,” where the masses interact with and produce meaning in films on an individual basis, should we not then be focusing on how these films are marketed to the masses, how their appeal is constructed to induce people to purchase tickets, rentals, DVDs, and merchandise? The success or failure of these films to do so is a much more empirically measurable effort than attempts to explain in blanket terms how films make meaning. Certainly such pursuits are not as academically “sexy” as endeavoring to uncover which filmic characters are tragically unable to withdraw their libidos from a lost object and thus suffer from Freudian melancholia, yet their inclusion seems a necessity for film studies in this age of media conglomeration. As exploitation filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis once said, “I see filmmaking as a business and pity anyone who regards it as an art form.” Such an assertion is instructive in understanding how and why film studies needs to account for the significant role economics plays in our experiences with movies.
Baron, Cynthia. “Sayles between the Systems: Buck ‘Industry Policy’ and Indie Apolitical Chic” in Sayles Talk: New Perspectives on Independent Filmmaker John Sayles, eds. Diane Carson and Heidi Kenaga. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006. pp. 16-50.
“Herschel Gordon Lewis: Biography,” available online at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0507267/bio (accessed September 24, 2009).
Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 2001. pp. 24-28.
At the Intersection of Commerce and Culture: The Movie Blockbuster
My interest in the economics of major industry is growing, and I wish it would stop. I’m finding it harder than ever to stop reading about why it is American universities and colleges operate on a consumer service model, and why the auto industry is being forced to innovate by the bottom line while simultaneously claiming a heritage of innovation. The fact that capitalism necessarily breeds risk aversion as a long-term survival strategy falls to the margins when pundits and consumers talk about what the products they buy actually mean. Body styling is innovative – pay no attention to the 20 year-old four cylinder power plant under the hood. The next big Hollywood spectacle is a must-see movie, no matter that the plot is as featureless and sterile as a piece of glass, considered only when it can serve as another spectacular element.
The attitude is so pervasive industry hacks whose job it is to write about films even divorce franchise films from their larger narrative context. Just recently, a reviewer looking at the new Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009) commented, “The script feels remarkably fresh, no small achievement in itself, and takes an ingenious turn with the introduction of a time travel theme…” (Tookey). A fresh script is not only welcome, but it is necessary for a franchise fast approaching its fiftieth anniversary. But there is absolutely nothing new about time travel in relation to Star Trek. The product, the spectacle, the event takes precedent over the meaning and message of the story before it even comes out, reducing the plot to another effect to be seen, commented on and forgotten by everyone save the most die-hard fans. (Fans who are never the target audience for these “event films,” and are also never satisfied.)
Many of the essays in Movie Blockbusters pay particular attention to the industry’s economics. It may therefore be unreasonable to expect direct engagement with the cultural aspects of blockbuster films, what they mean to an audience as cultural products. But however true I feel the economic analysis is – indeed, I find it fascinating – the cultural studies part of my brain bristles when obvious connections are missed, when important relationships are whitewashed. In his essay “The New Hollywood,” Thomas Schatz details how Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), a “resolutely plot-driven” film, diminishes character depth and development to the point of irrelevance at best, absence at worst. He goes on to say that the spectacular nature of the film and films like it are “increasingly plot-driven, increasingly visceral… increasingly ‘fantastic’ (and thus apolitical), and increasingly targeted at young audiences” (29). I’m no fan of Frankfurt School mass culture theory, but if there was ever a place in an essay to deploy it successfully, its here. Schatz misses an opportunity that I believe is vital to take – to say that film is inherently political, both because of the means of production and the vagaries of audience reception.
Jon Lewis’s essay “Following the Money” is described as notes on political economy, and perhaps for that reason I’m more charitable considering its failings. But Lewis, too, misses the chance to illuminate the power relationship between studios and their audiences and the attendant cultural assumptions inherent to their business models. Lewis writes: “As studios have discovered over the past several years, it doesn’t matter whether or not blockbusters have playability. The key to their promotion and release is a marketability that is factored into the project from the very start of development” (65). Lewis ties this model historically to the advent of conglomerate Hollywood, but ignores the most important result of this conglomeration despite his indirect reference to it in his subtitle. Political economy explores the ways production and consumption are structured through a number of different social and cultural institutions. I can stand a singular focus on a particular industry, but Lewis drops half the equation when it comes to the product itself. Nothing is made to simply exist; it needs to be purchased to complete its purpose. And the ways in which the industry works to create a product that is easily consumed is at once a power relation and a cultural value.
Tookey, Chris. "Out of This World! The Mail’s Critic Gives His Verdict on the New Star Trek Movie" available online at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/reviews/article-1172164/Out-world-The-Mails-film-critic-gives-verdict-new-Star-Trek-movie.html (accessed September 24, 2009).
The Cultural Space of Movie Blockbusters
The nature of the movie blockbuster is accompanied by a far-reaching economic, cultural, and socio-political complexity. While the motion picture itself forms the central entity, it is surrounded by many extra-textual components. Thomas Schatz identifies movie blockbusters as cultural commodities that generate vertically integrated business sectors such as theme parks, merchandise like posters or toys, and soundtracks. For instance, Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, 1990) was released in conjunction with three soundtracks (Schatz 35). One extra-textual component whose complexity is oftentimes unconsciously accepted, and thus its significance remains unrecognized, is the public space of cinemas. In “The Best Place to See a Film: The Blockbuster, The Multiplex, and the Context of Consumption,” Mark Jancovich and Lucy Faire focus on multiplex cinemas and argue that the blockbuster and multiplex cinemas “are intimately related” (190). In doing so, they highlight the broader cultural complexity of the multiplex cinema as a space of mass consumption and venue that is best understood as involving practices that extend beyond watching movies.
As a prime example of their case study, Jancovich and Faire discuss the Nottingham Showcase, which is particularly interesting as it embodies an American cultural entity implemented into a non-American culture. On the one hand, the Nottingham Showcase is, as the management claims, meant to be a space of “spectacle, comfort, and luxury”; on the other hand, as Jancovich and Faire explain, it is “organized around a series of related concerns about Americanization” (192).
Although the Nottingham Showcase was not the first multiplex cinema in the U. K., its eleven screens allowed it to compete with London’s multiplex cinemas. The abundance and variety of blockbusters the Nottingham Showcase offers points to its spectacular character. In terms of “comfort” and “luxury,” Jancovich and Faire direct readers’ attention to the vast amount of parking spaces (room for 850 automobiles), a convenience of special import since geographical space is highly limited in the U.K.
Although some of Janovich’s and Faire’s respondents considered the multiplex atmosphere “visually impressive but also welcoming,” others “suggested that the place lacked identity” (196). Customers complained that theatres were cold due to overuse of air conditioning and that the architecture itself created an impersonal atmosphere. Other respondents criticized the lack of audience interaction, with the multiplex setting failing to facilitate conversations after screenings. Jancovich and Faire also explain that Nottingham’s planning officer was concerned that the Showcase would limit the public’s choice and bankrupt smaller independent theaters. In the eyes of critics, American modernity, represented by multiplex cinemas, came to “signify the negative features of materialism and mass production” (197).
Jancovich’s and Faire’s observation points to an interesting conclusion: “Cultural distinction ranks not only films, but also places within which they are consumed” (199). Movie theaters have a stronger impact on cultural consumption than one might assume. Different spaces of theatrical exhibition appeal to different social groups. Multiplex cinemas, especially in junction with movie blockbusters, appeal to the consumption patterns of certain audiences. While this connection is not surprising, Jancovich and Faire expand understanding of film audiences by providing evidence that movie goers’ experiences are “far more diverse and differentiated, and may even be fractured and opposed to one another,” for it may be the space as well as the movie that determines the audience (199).