Department of Theatre and Film
Forum on Hollywood Movie Blockbusters Essays - Part Two
Cinema Studies and Questions of Taste
The first several chapters of Movie Blockbusters point out how the pursuit of money has generally taken precedence over artistic quality since Hollywood became focused on blockbuster films in the mid-1970s. While for the most part I would not disagree with this, I question how many of the authors approach their subject, especially if one assumes that their goal is to improve the state of the film industry. Schatz’s chapter on “The New Hollywood” is filled with quotations from critics who lament the current state of film and long for some mythical golden age of film that I am not convinced ever truly existed. No doubt there were better times, but surely every age had its share of terrible films. Moreover, as Neale points out, the blockbuster is not an entirely new concept, but instead has existed since the earliest days of film.
The complaints about blockbusters seem akin to those of social conservatives who long for a time when people had “traditional” values and were paragons of morality. Scholars who object to blockbusters not only seem to be fooling themselves about the existence of some magical time in which all movies were both artistic and entertaining, they also seem misguided in their belief that complaining about the quality of contemporary movies to other like-minded people is going to change things. Lewis points out that Hollywood is filled with more than its share of crooks; I find it difficult to believe that a bunch of self-important critics voicing their distaste for contemporary films is going to convince these folks to improve their product when it is not in their best interest financially. At the same time, I refuse to believe that these critics are not intelligent enough to be aware of this, which leads me to believe that perhaps all they really want is to be the purveyors of taste and to have their opinions be the ones that carry on in the public consciousness. If their true aim is to reform the film industry, it seems that their efforts would be better placed making quality films themselves or trying to rally support for government action toward breaking up the conglomerates that run this system. The latter of these seems particularly worthwhile to me, as the government has intervened to hinder monopolistic practices in the film industry in the past. Certainly, the studios found a way around this and as Lewis points out, “In twenty-first-century Hollywood it’s just like the old days, only better” (68). However, I cannot help but wonder if Hollywood can return to its old ways, could not the government also repeat its previous actions? Perhaps that is a bit naïve, but surely it must be a more effective approach than crying about how bad films are today.
I did not find Lewis’s discussion of the cold, calculating methods of the New Hollywood conglomerates to be particularly earth-shattering. It actually reminded me a lot of practices within the music industry that have existed just as long. He describes the process of “sequalization” in which the studios try to maximize profit by not only designing blockbuster franchises with sequels, but also creating other films that essentially imitate those franchises. The music recording industry has been doing both of these things for ages. They have tried to force their artists to follow up enormously successful albums with similar albums, so as not to deviate from the successful formula. Recording companies also try to jump on successful trends by flooding the market with similar bands, whether it was a slew of subpar British bands in the wake of the Beatles or Seattle grunge bands on the heels of Nirvana. I suppose none of it should come as a surprise, since both industries are operated by the same people. In some ways it is rather disconcerting to think that the same small group of people can control nearly everything and rake in endless wealth by using the same old tricks.
Various chapters in the second half of Movie Blockbusters point out how our perceptions of films in terms of artistic quality can be easily shaped by contextual elements that are entirely separate from the actual content of the movies themselves. Gillian Roberts shows how Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) managed to rise to a status beyond that of simply another technologically impressive visual effects blockbuster. She explains how its December release set it up for more serious Academy Award consideration than if it had been a summer blockbuster with a June release as originally intended. Her discussion of how the Oscars are essentially a commercial for Hollywood reminds me of its analog in the music industry, the Grammy Awards. The albums that get nominated for the major categories always see a surge in sales immediately following the Grammys, particularly if they win awards. Albums that have been out for months sometimes sell more copies in the wake of the Grammy Awards than they did in the months after the initial release. Within the past decade or so, record companies have even started marketing compilations of songs from Grammy-nominated albums in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. Similarly, there always seems to be a tendency to give the major awards, like Album of the Year, to albums that are perceived to have more artistic merit, even if another nominated album is more popular. In recent years, the Grammy Awards have taken some flack for choosing albums like Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters or Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature over some of their more popular competitors.
In their discussion of how the context in which films are consumed affects the ways in which they are perceived, Mark Jancovich and Lucy Faire write, “It is not the film itself that is the problem but specific contexts of consumption. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) might be shown at the Broadway, but only in an educational or intellectual context” (191). This reminded me of how certain cult films with notoriously poor production values sometimes get celebrated in an intellectual context. Considering the fact that certain distinctions like this can be made that totally change the way that a movie is perceived in terms of value or artistic merit, it seems to me that discussions of taste, like that in the chapter by Gillian Roberts, become a bit moot. If seemingly any film can be elevated as long as it is shown in the proper context, then matters of taste become meaningless.
The criticisms of multiplexes that Jancovich and Faire examine can be compared to the objections to blockbusters discussed by Schatz. For in the same way that film scholars long for a mythical past when everything was presumably perfect, as Jancovich and Faire explain, criticisms of the multiplex often involve objections to the soullessness of suburbia and implicit expressions of the mythical belief that everything was perfect when people lived within the city limits. It is possible that these ideas about taste and authenticity are linked to issues of cultural status. By defining other people’s taste in film as lowbrow or middlebrow, and by criticizing their venue(s) for film viewing as lacking authenticity, arbiters of taster can become superior without accomplishing anything of which to be legitimately proud. Rather than producing something worthy of merit, they give themselves an elevated status simply by demeaning the tastes of others.
Carolyn J. Sweet
Epic Heroines in Hollywood Blockbusters
While seen as indefinable, blockbusters have a common accomplishment – the gorging of the senses. The extensive and costly advertising campaigns that precede the theatrical release of a potential blockbuster establish a rubric of audience expectations that determines whether a film will flop or flourish in the many lucrative markets of potential profitability. So what are the components of this rubric, what does the audience expect when the lights go down and the music swells? Impressive special effects and mind-blowing sound of course, but such filmic elements do not necessarily ensure a film’s success, the desires of the general public, in most cases, are not so easily satiated. In addition to the clear cut means of sense stimulation, a blockbuster must also tell a story, not necessarily a creative or intricate story (although they occasionally do), but a good one. Thus, in alignment with Geoff King’s essay, “Spectacle, Narrative, and the Spectacular Hollywood Blockbuster,” it is the intention of this essay to propose that blockbusters saturate the senses not just with sound, special effects, elaborate mise-en-scene and other elements of spectacle, but with a certain type of narrative formula as well. Where this reflection on blockbuster narratives diverges from King’s discussion will be in its consideration of blockbuster narratives as descendents of the literary tradition of the epic hero, which began with the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. Additionally, this essay will reflect on the role of heroines v. heroes in blockbusters, considering the ways in which Hollywood’s leading ladies are depicted in such narratives.
The basic components of the epic hero/heroine cycle can be summarized as follows: the main character embarks on a quest to a supernatural or unfamiliar land during which his/her worthiness will be tested. During this quest the central character will be assisted along the way by human (and at times, mythical) companions and inhibited by villains. At some point in the narrative the hero/heroine will come very close to defeat or death but will overcome and eventually triumph. These components are easily adapted to King’s description of blockbuster narratives in that “they tell carefully organized, more or less linear cause/effect stories organized around central characters” (120). Audiences expect a straightforward three or five-part narrative structure with some intense suspense and a happy Hollywood ending. It is no secret that blockbusters are primarily marketed towards men, yet there have been a number of films with female protagonists that have captured women’s attention and garnered blockbuster status throughout film history: The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965), Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994), Titanic (James Cameron ,1997) to name a few.
Each of the films mentioned exhibits at least a few characteristics of the epic cycle. In each narrative a journey is undertaken by the heroine: Dorothy travels to Oz (One might note that Dorothy’s journey takes place in her imagination); Scarlet lives through the Civil War; Maria goes from the convent to the Von Trapp home and then through the Alps to freedom; Annie careens through Los Angeles on an out of control bus; and Rose travels across the Atlantic Ocean. Each woman has one or more companions who assist her on her journey: Dorothy has Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion; Scarlet has Melanie and others; Maria has God; Annie and Rose have their respective Jacks. Each heroine is inhibited along the way by their own ominous villains: the Wicked Witch; the Yankees; unruly children and Nazis; a terrorist; and an iceberg. Desperation is reached at some point in each narrative, yet in most cases the outcome is a happy one, although Jack sinks with the Titanic while Rose escapes with her life, and Rhett’s frank abandonment leaves Scarlett unhappy but likely gives many audience members a twinge of happiness at her much deserved comeuppance. Regardless of whether or not women in the audience admired these heroines, they likely identified with their trials and tribulations and no doubt were glad to see female protagonists on the big screen.
In recent years women have played less than adventurous roles. Of the top twenty grossing films of 2007, only three had a leading female character, with one a princess (Enchanted [Kevin Lima]), and two victims of unplanned pregnancies (Knocked Up [Judd Apatow], Juno [Jason Reitman]). Enchanted can be considered an epic narrative as Giselle travels from the fictive world of Andulasia to New York City where she embarks on a quest to find her true love and, while inhibited by Queen Narissa, in the end saves the day and, in the spirit of Disney, goodness and true love triumph over evil. Knocked Up and Juno offered their protagonists very little action apart from the horrors of pregnancy and childbirth, which are always so eloquently depicted in Hollywood films. Recent filmic representations have relegated women to romantic comedies where their supporting roles have left much to be desired. As we look ahead to another summer blockbuster season, what heroines will Hollywood have to offer?
In December 2008, Firstshowing.net, a site that proposes to “connect Hollywood with its audience,” published a survey of 2000 people conducted by Fandango to evaluate the most anticipated blockbusters of 2009. Interestingly, Fandango divided the results in the following manner: “Most Anticipated Blockbusters of 2009 – According to Women,” and “Most Anticipated Blockbusters of 2009 – According to Men.” The results were as follows:
Most Anticipated Blockbusters of 2009 - According to Women
1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
2. New Moon
3. Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen
4. Angels & Demons
5. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
6. Star Trek
7. Public Enemies
8. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
9. The Lovely Bones
10. Where the Wild Things Are
Most Anticipated Blockbusters of 2009 - According to Men
1. Star Trek
2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
4. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
5. Terminator Salvation
7. Angels & Demons
8. Public Enemies
9. G.I. Joe
10. New Moon
Thus, of the thirteen films that made the cut, only two feature female protagonists: New Moon, which is number two according to women but barely makes the men’s list, and The Lovely Bones, which is low on the women’s list and does not make the men’s top ten. (In the Harry Potter film, Hermione is a major character but far less important than Harry.)
One might notice that several of the films on the women’s list are geared to children or young audiences: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, a sequel to the 2007 film, and Where the Wild Things Are, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s popular children’s book. New Moon’s teenage Bella has potential as a relevant heroine yet, as with most literary adaptations, the filmic character will not be developed in the same degree of depth as when she was in Stephanie Meyer’s novels. The Lovely Bones, another adaptation, tells the story of Clarissa, a murdered fourteen year-old who seeks vengeance for her death from heaven.
A striking feature in the 2009 Hollywood lineup is that Bella, Clarissa, and Hermione are all teenage girls. It seems that this year, women protagonists are not a component of the blockbuster rubric, even though films with women as epic heroines can generate enormous profits; Titanic is the number one grossing film of all time – worldwide. Thus, while there are no leading ladies at present, female protagonists have been able to fit the narrative formula of the blockbuster, which leaves hope for the future.
“Fandangos Most Anticipated Blockbusters of 2009," available online at http://www.firstshowing.net/2008/12/26/fandangos-most-anticipated-blockbusters-of-2009-list/ (accessed September 24, 2009).
The Intellectual Blockbuster: Robert Zemeckis’s Contact
The first time I saw Contact (Robert Zemeckis ,1997), I was with a friend who liked films by director Robert Zemeckis. He told me that Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (1994) represents the outward search for truth and meaning in a simple, American-centered world, with Gump being an extroverted character who seeks knowledge through relationships. He said that by comparison, Ellie, the central character in Contact, is an astrophysicist who eschews religion and chooses to search for meaning by means of radio signals from outer space. My friend explained that even though Ellie’s is an extremely outward search, Contact is actually a more internalized, introverted metaphor of truth-seeking. I was intrigued by this comparison and whenever I watch Contact, I return to that original framework. Seeing Contact for the first time initiated my interest in Carl Sagan, a high profile astrophysicist who wrote many popular science books, including the original Contact and the screen play, which was completed just before he died. I mention all this to introduce the themes I hope to examine in this essay: auteur criticism, films as metaphors for deep spiritual longing, and the confusing definition of a blockbuster. Essentially, how does the involvement of an auteur like Zemeckis relate to a film being classified as a blockbuster, even when the movie seems to carry implications of deeper meaning, as in the case of Contact?
Peter Krämer addresses many of these concepts in his essay. He seems especially interested in the ways Contact stretches and challenges our definition of what a blockbuster is and what it can be expected to accomplish. Krämer explains that from the very beginning of the film, “the shot suggests a significant self-reflexive dimension” as the camera zooms out gradually from earth to the atmosphere, outer planets, stars, etc. (128) It is a very powerful and humbling opening shot. It ends by fading out of the extreme edges of the galaxy and fading into a young Ellie’s eye. Clearly, the movie is going to address “the relationship between mankind and the universe…personal longings and technological and scientific endeavors” (128). Krämer suggests the film is an updated version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick 1968) in that both address space and intellectual questions (129). With 2001 serving as a precedent for thoughtful movies being blockbusters, Krämer notes that Contact has been related to “what is perhaps the most powerful critical metaphor for contemporary blockbuster cinema – the rollercoaster ride” (129). Contact certainly is a rollercoaster ride, for from the beginning the viewer is pulled into a ride that culminates with nearly an hour of frenzied resolutions.
The adventure, however, is a more than just “a purely sensual ride” for Ellie because its deals with “the very foundations of her being, her individual existence, her relationship with parents and others, and her conception of her place in the universe” (130). Contact uses CGI and other special effects, not as ends in themselves, but as vehicles that reinforce the gravity of the metaphor. That is, space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life is closely related to humans’ inner angst and feelings of inadequate spiritual connection on earth. While Ellie is deeply rational and skeptical of religion, the questions that drive her are not very different from those a religious person might ask. Krämer argues that the film is not only a portrait of “Ellie’s journey across the universe,” it also takes the audience members on similar journeys of their own (130). It seems fair to conclude that Contact is a blockbuster, albeit an intellectual, multilayered one.
Much of what drives Contact into the realm of the blockbuster is the status and reputation of Robert Zemeckis. Amazingly, all but one of Zemeckis’s movies from 1985 to 1997 became one of the top ten grossing films for that year (131). With the exception of Steven Spielberg, Zemeckis has more films in Top 25 and Top 100 lists of highest grossing films of all time than any other director. Krämer labels Zemeckis “Hollywood’s most consistently commercially successful director since the mid-1980s” (131). Zemeckis is typically very involved in editing and rewriting the scripts for his movies (131). This is similar to how James Cameron wrote the script for Titanic (1997). Being involved in the entire production process perhaps leads to these directors’ success. At least they know how an audience comes to be enthralled by a certain kind of story told in a specific way. It is not surprising that Zemeckis was able to fine tune Sagan’s already excellent script – which is very close to the end result – in a way that made the story engaging without sacrificing its depth or seriousness. The result is a rich narrative that can reach disparate viewers on many different levels and in many different ways.
Contact appeals to women in a very direct and open way. Even though the target demographic for most movies is the 18-30 year old male, Contact stars a female protagonist who is smart, resourceful, and an all around intriguing, complicated character that changes her views and outlooks as the film progresses (132-133). At the beginning of the story, Ellie is deeply disturbed, even as an adult, by her father’s death when she was young. Much of the film is comprised of her recollections of him, missing him, and meeting a series of men who remind her of aspects of her father. While Ellie is perhaps looking for a replacement of the “supportive male figure” that she lost as a child, she is a strong, confident character whom young female viewers can admire (133). Moreover, like many “successful family-adventure movies…the loss of the father…provides the focus for the story” (133). In Contact, this operates on many levels. The metaphysical relationship between Ellie and her father is a metaphor for her relationship to questions about the existence of God, which find resolution, according to Krämer, when “at the end the protagonist’s original familial issues are resolved and peace of mind is regained [for] although the lost father never really returns, he is present as a memory…indeed…as a spirit” (135).
Contact is able to succeed as an intellectual, mass-market film because it “foregrounds intellectual issues and the ways in which the film’s protagonist negotiates her intellectual worldview with her emotional and spiritual needs” (135). The question becomes—is the film too intellectual? No. Could it have been a bigger hit if it played more to the excitement and scope of the images rather than using them to engage deeper, spiritual questions? No, and it need not be, for as Krämer points out, Contact is similar to the successful family adventure Biblical epics of the 1950s and 1960s in which “audio-visual spectacle” facilitates audience members’ “spiritual experiences” (139).
It is elitist to argue that popularity is necessarily inversely proportional to seriousness or depth or complicated content, but that is what some critics seem to do. The establishment tends to create criteria for a ‘quality’ movie that necessarily eliminates blockbusters from the discussion. Not surprisingly, Contact has been discussed in these terms. It has been assumed that regular moviegoers cannot understand the film and so have a satisfying experience—much like what would happen, the argument goes, if these audiences were to attend a symphony orchestra performance. In other words, Contact has been seen as an “unabashedly esoteric” movie that will surely not meet success because the fans are not smart enough to understand it (136). This idea suggests that film critics feel it is their responsibility to be social gatekeepers by defining and packaging cultural products. In this packaging, products are misrepresented or even discarded; either way gatekeepers are led by the assumption that erudition and dedication enable them (and only them) to truly understand a film. This arrogant approach is repulsive to individualist conservatives as well as anti-censorship liberals, and yet even the Internet has not completely unseated such culture police. The common fan empowers critics by responding to movies that receive ebullient praise (“Oscar-worthy performance”) and being increasingly skeptical of movies judged to be “bombs.” It is this elitist dilemma that is at the core of any substantive blockbuster conversation; questions of taste and audience manipulation must be addressed. I believe Zemeckis understands this tenuous situation and as a consequence works to produce films that probe deep questions in material that makes it possible to label the movie a sure-fire “blockbuster.”
Blockbusters and Transcendence
Geoff King draws on the work of Richard Dyer in his attempt to analyze the pleasures that Hollywood “spectaculars” provide for viewers, for he notes that “abundance” and “intensity” in a movie contrast with the “scarcity and banality that characterizes much of the typical reality of everyday life” (118). In the past, I have thought of this abundance and intensity as the “WOW! Factor”—a desire to encounter something beyond ourselves, an effect outside the chronological dreariness that life can too easily devolve into. Going to the movies certainly offers an escape option from the weight of daily living, although some film content might weigh us even down more, but it can also serve a greater purpose than simple diversion/distraction in our particular cultural moment.
In spite of the overwhelming shift from a theological to a secular worldview, we are nevertheless still a people longing/searching for access to transcendent experience. German theologian and comparative religion scholar Rudolf Otto wrote in 1917 of the human draw toward the “numinous,” a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” This experience involves what he called the “mysterium tremendum et fascinens,” a power that attracts while creating fear, fascinates while confounding. Humans produce different ways to talk about this desire, and until recently the Gods of formal and informal religion functioned as the main texts for discussion. Otto suggests we might stifle this desire or attempt to satisfy it through any number of lesser means, but we cannot deny its basic presence in our lives.
Essentialist problems notwithstanding, humans do seem to gravitate towards spiritual satisfaction, an expansion of the soul, a desire to be united with something greater than ourselves. Denying this desire seems counterintuitive. The purpose of raising this position here is not to debate its merits or to consider best approaches to satisfying its demands, but to suggest that movie theaters (along with sport stadiums and music halls) have perhaps replaced the church/temple/mosque as primary worship venues and that movies themselves are texts through which we attempt to encounter a divine “Other,” to experience a transcendent moment that sweeps us away, absorbed within the engulfing darkness of the theater, the stereophonic surround sound, the mysterious light both projected onto and simultaneously reflected off a multi-storied screen. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that we give a certain measure of worship to these mediums of story and spectacle, both the sites and the people contained within the text broadcast at those sites.
Perhaps “stars” take on god-like status because we need them to be gods. When those gods are put in a narrative that includes sex, love, evil, strength, suffering, destruction, weakness, depravity, redemption, then perhaps out of that cauldron of raw humanity comes a moment that transports us to a deeper place within ourselves. Can these gods and their kingdoms ultimately satisfy? Absolutely not; but that is hardly the point, except to suggest that the entertainment industry (like the funeral business) will always have an audience, especially as formal religion is moved to the periphery of our experience. “Abundance” and “intensity” open the possibility of encountering something beyond the “scarcity and banality” of everyday life. Might blockbusters offer an opportunity, however weak and fleeting, to touch/taste a form of “transcendence” offered through secular cultural experience?
The Culture Shaping Effect of a “Common Experience”
In discussing the incredibly widespread success of Titanic (James Cameron,1997), Gillian Roberts asserts that after the movie garnered its near sweep at the Academy Awards, around the world “hundreds of millions of people will eventually have this experience in common” (162). To what effect; I ask this question not directly of Titanic, but of any movie that is seen by “millions.” I find myself reflecting on movies and their worldview shaping potential. Of course, we all take different things from movies, but that only proves to secure my point here: we all take something from movies and are different (however slightly) as a result.
While we might easily write off those who suggest there is always a direct cause and effect relationship between what is seen on screen and immediate subsequent behavior, it is equally ridiculous to deny the ideology influencing effect of a movie text. No movie ever comes to us neutrally. A screening of director interviews backs this up as they try to explain why they made the movie and how it reflects their vision of the world or how they would like some aspect of it to be. Movies become the site of ideological exploration and we are always changed in some way for having viewed a movie, if for no other reason than we have met characters and vicariously experienced their “lives.”
A little self reflection produced this slightly embarrassing history from my first few years of movie watching: from Rocky (John G. Avidesen, 1976) I learned to compete against all odds; from Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) I learned notions of “cool”; from The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming,1939), Willie Wonka (Mel Stuart, 1971), and Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) I learned to imagine; from Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) I learned to fear the water; from West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961) I learned about race, love, and hate; from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) I learned to distrust the government; and so on. Over the years I have met people who haven’t seen these movies and it strikes me that we view the world very differently as a result.
Yes, an abundance of other experiences and texts have shaped my perspective and theirs, but we should not underestimate the molding and altering effect of movies (especially on minds not yet full of text like mine when I first saw those movies). We too quickly run to place “value” on this idea, whether it’s “good” or “bad” that a certain movie is consumed, and then the discussion crumbles into polarized conceptions of “what is good/bad.” As a result, I don’t think most people take a serious enough inventory of the movies they’ve seen and their resultant view of “reality” and how the world around them works.
“Tell Us If We Should Like It or Not…”
Emanuel Levy’s observation that the Academy members “function as peers, critics, and tastemakers” is quite provocative (155). We know about Hollywood’s control over what gets seen or not seen (including their threatened position regarding indie/foreign films), their conglomerate control over production, distribution, and exhibition of movies and products. We know that the Academy Awards are really about Hollywood celebrating itself. However, what hit me during of our reading (and what is likely obvious to anyone paying attention), is that Hollywood also tells us, largely through the awards ceremonies and advertising, which movies are “good” and worthy of our viewing. While it makes sense that the industry would do this, it’s intriguing to me because EVERYONE has such a different explanation for what makes a movie “good” or not. I can’t list the movies others have told me were “good” that I hated or friends said were worthless that I had to see twice. Clearly, we are all bringing different expectations to the movies; it would be useful to better understand what standard Hollywood is using at any given time to say this is “good.” The industry’s assessment seems to change over time, which makes sense since the notion of “Hollywood” we use so flippantly is comprised of individuals who exist in changing relations of power.
James Cameron’s reticence to label Titanic as either a “movie” or a “film” is instructive. I don’t think the average movie watcher has any idea what the real battles are regarding prestige films and blockbusters—that is an academic or insider/trade journal issue that the common press and reviewer doesn’t usually bring to the attention of Joe Moviegoer. While forty-one and having watched thousands of movies, until now I had no sense of the gap between the Cineplex at the shopping mall in Beavercreek and the art house theater in downtown Yellow Springs. I did not understand why Yellow Springs never showed movies I had heard of, or why those movies never made their way to the mall. While this could be chalked up to my ignorance, the point remains: most people don’t realize they’re being told what is good/bad and certainly aren’t aware of the politics behind such determinations. I’m not entirely sure what difference knowing will make in my life (other than making me annoying to those in my circle not yet “enlightened”), but I’m glad I now know nonetheless!
Darin D. Kerr
A Genre of "Ideas": The Science Fiction Blockbuster
Tonight I intend to see Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009). Before I see the film, I will attend a Star Trek party thrown by a friend (who will wear a costume, undoubtedly with accompanying accoutrements, probably his replica phaser and tricorder). The menu will be comprised of “dishes” drawn from a Star Trek cookbook, including gagh, filet of tribble, hasperat, chum loesh, ribs of targ, Vorham rolls, Pak Tor grains in Storish style, vole in yamok sauce, desert raptor in citrus and flash root, and lagora paste with flat bread, each a dish with an accompanying interplanetary origin. Beverages will include blood wine, Romulan ale, Bajoran spring wine, chipa punch, Saurian brandy, and Aldebaran whiskey, all guaranteed to work their intoxicating magic on any alien physiognomy. Though guests are invited, even encouraged, to wear costumes, I doubt that many will. We will then all proceed to the Levis Commons multiplex to view the film in all of its digital splendor. Clearly, this evening is, from my friend’s point of view, intended to be an “event.” Indeed, the movie itself is poised to be an “event,” a “blockbuster.” Julian Stringer articulates our relationship to such films in the introduction to Movie Blockbusters:
We are all experts on movie blockbusters. “Event movies” target the mass audience, making lack of knowledge of their existence virtually impossible. We may as individuals choose to consume them, or we may choose to avoid them, but either way we share in common the simple fact of knowing something about them. (1)
One can hardly not feel targeted (“Set phasers on stun!”) by the marketing blitz accompanying the revamped Star Trek franchise. The movie’s television advertising campaign has been quite aggressive, and now ancillary marketing, as in the Burger King television ads touting Star Trek glasses and featuring the “King”ons (essentially Klingons with Burger King masks), has begun to saturate the air waves, as well. When one combines this with the franchise’s storied history, a history that dates back over forty years, one would be hard pressed not to find someone who is at least familiar with the film’s name, if not more intimately connected with the franchise in some way (if only via catch phrase – Beam me up, Scotty!). I go into the experience tonight as an expert: on movie blockbusters, on Star Trek, on science fiction, on my own personal taste, and it is precisely this expertise, particularly in the final category, on the parts of millions of viewers that will make of this blockbuster, and of many others like it, an example of the shifting of the margins in American culture.
Star Trek, of course, has its origins in Gene Roddenberry’s television show from the 1960s, a show noted primarily for its remarkable longevity and vociferous fan base. Though Roddenberry publicly touted the series as a Western transposed to a science fiction milieu, referring to it as Wagon Train in space (utilizing known quantities in an attempt to manifest market appeal, like any good Hollywood huckster), he confided to close friends and associates that it would have as its true model another adventure story, though one that served as philosophical exploration, Gulliver’s Travels. This dual identity, the attempt to serve multiple constituencies, often in a somewhat surreptitious fashion, might be seen as the ongoing aspirational struggle of the contemporary blockbuster. Roddenberry wanted to offer his audience more than just another “television show”; for better or worse, he wanted to offer moral instruction, and there is often something of the high-toned, not to mention the occasionally pedantic, to be found in the lessons of the original series. As time went on, however, the series’ popularity grew, as did the mainstream appeal of science fiction. Eventually, Star Trek, and science fiction itself, became big business, and moral instruction is often something that finds itself relegated to the scale of the Lilliputian in blockbuster terms.
Michael Allen describes the typical blockbuster movie as “made up of several elements – a large budget, enhanced production values, star presence, large-scale story material, and display of technical virtuosity – not all of which may be present in any one instance” (101). In the case of the new Star Trek film, the estimated budget of the film is 150 million dollars, a large percentage of which undoubtedly goes to the production values and “display of technical virtuosity,” particularly given that none of the film’s stars are marquee names. The story material, strangely for a genre obsessed with the future, essentially returns us to the characters’ pasts, telling an origin story (a move that aligns it with the successful reboot of the Batman franchise with Batman Begins [Christopher Nolan 2005] ). Of course, there’s a world threatening plot to be foiled, ensuring that lots of things will explode in suitably grandiose fashion, but what seems truly remarkable about the film (prior to a viewing, of course) is the way in which it seems to encapsulate the internal tensions of the contemporary blockbuster.
The Star Trek franchise, despite its intermittent successes on the big screen, has largely been characterized as a television success, and its fan base has often been laughingly depicted as composed largely of overgrown man children who take themselves (and the utopian ideals of Gene Roddenberry) far too seriously. It will almost undoubtedly make money this weekend, however, and a large part of that success can (and should) be attributed to the auteur name that accompanies the film, an auteur whose career has much more to do with television than with film: J.J. Abrams, creator of such hit television shows (and genre mainstays) as Alias and Lost. Star Trek is a classic example of the complexity of the circulation of contemporary taste. Is it low brow? Is it middle brow? Is it low brow aspiring to be high brow? Is it high brow with a low brow patina? How does genre factor in to the equation? What exactly is going on here?
Few would argue for Star Trek as high brow entertainment, but I would suggest that the ways in which we process high brow and low brow are undergoing constant redefinition. As science fiction has made its ascent from the cultural basement, tastemakers have had to, on some level, reckon with the genre’s intellectual history. For the most part, science fiction is often characterized as a genre of “ideas.” Mary Shelley, when she wrote Frankenstein, couldn’t possibly have guessed that her musings on the relationship between science and mortality would have kick started a genre that could offer us both Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and the most puerile Spock/Kirk fan fiction. Science fiction’s current uneasy position in the mainstream means that it has to navigate carefully around the anti-intellectualism America is well known for. The Sci-Fi Channel increasingly moves away from what might be considered “core” science fiction programming in an attempt to broaden its audience. The blockbuster wants to exploit the widescreen potential of science fiction in terms of effects and scope, but doesn’t want, for the most part, to have to deal with the pitfalls of being associated with a social underclass. Geek is only chic up to a point. Star Trek wants to play both ends against in the middle in the service of a bottom line.
In almost all publicity for the film, it is touted as a “reboot.” From this point of view, it clearly isn’t meant to be a standalone enterprise (pun intended). Rather, after letting the fields lay fallow for a few years, Paramount has come to see what harvest it can reap from this perennial cash crop. We can look forward to the inevitable sequels, and presumably, Constitution class starships will grace the spaceways of television once more. The real question, however, lies in whether a new generation of American consumer, one coming of age under different circumstances, is willing to embrace a slight variation on an old vision. In this respect, the film’s timing is perhaps as close to perfect as it could possibly get. Roddenberry’s vision of a bright (or at least shiny) future in which humanity works together to solve its social ills seems perfectly geared to appeal to an America under Obama. Outer space escapism at the cinema seems the perfect answer to the country’s economic doldrums, and the blockbuster Hollywood film, with its “Yes, We Can…blow it up” know how shows us that Americans still have the wherewithal to produce top quality imperialism on a galactic scale.