Film Literacy

In which Bart attempts to expand his film knowledge, both the history and the methodology, by sticking his nose in a few good books. Having no background in film outside of an intense love and amateur curiosity, nevertheless his goal is to find something, anything, to recommend to you, the constant reader. Suggestions are certainly welcome, with the understanding that this column will be a once-a-month thing, allowing Bart to read and then, loving, review each book.

blockBlockbuster. That’s a loaded term in 2013, but it’s funny to think how it has evolved over the years. In 2004’s Blockbuster, film critic Tom Shone tackles the history of the Hollywood term, starting with the granddaddy of them all Jaws and ending with The Return of the King’s sweeping of the Oscars. Little did Shone know at the time how that particular movie, the first and only fantasy film to win Best Picture, would change the cultural landscape of film for the next decade plus. Regardless, Shone’s book is a brisk 339 pages, offering clever inside-baseball interviews with the likes of Spielberg, Cameron, Scott, Lucas, Zemeckis, and more, but even more insightful is his analysis of what makes the blockbuster work, and how and why it has changed over the years.

The most fascinating aspect of Blockbuster is the adversarial relationship he creates, and encourages, with Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. If you’re not aware, this classic of film literature was published in 1998 and chronicles the rise of New Hollywood in the 1970s in the wake of the bloated 1960s. A part of Biskind’s thesis in that tome, that I have not read and plan to for a future column, is how the collapse of the Old Hollywood guard paved the way for the “movie brats” of the late ‘60s through to the early ‘80s, with big names like Coppola and Scorsese exploding onto the scene with their youth and passion. More importantly, however, and what Shone contends with, is the idea that Spielberg and Lucas spoiled everything for the auteur and the artist when they sprung Jaws and Star Wars onto an unsuspecting public.

Although Shone approaches the blockbuster with a degree of irreverence, it’s also clear that he isn’t quick to dismiss its thematic depth or cultural importance. He pits himself against Biskind’s argument that the blockbuster broke Hollywood, changing its priorities forever, painting that contention as revisionist history. Instead, Shone thinks outside the box, defending the merits of the blockbuster (at least in the early days) not just as spectacle but as art in of itself.

First of all, he excels at placing a cinematic text within the context of the time, showing how it reflects the values and fears of its release date. Jaws, for instance, is not just a movie that takes place in the summer but is about the summer for the baby boomer generation. For them it was a relatively new thing to have such leisure time, with systematic public education, the five-day workweek and the very concept of vacation being available for the middle class being a product of the post-WWII boom. The imagery of vast crowds and sweaty young people was just a prophecy of things to come, but the creeping violence of the shark itself coming up from beneath to devour the masses was certainly emblematic of the Vietnam War era.

Secondly, Shone’s real insight comes from how he positions these movies as being about movies. The crowds in Jaws were also the crowds lining up to see the movie, just like the awed faces and gaping mouths in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Star Wars, as it’s been well documented, was every suburban kids’ cumulative pop culture upbringing splattered across the screen, while Batman (1989) is, according to Shone, about a PR battle between two celebrities. That movie, in particular, is the crux of Shone’s own thesis. While Jaws and Star Wars were lightning in a bottle, the studios attempting to capitalize on the unexpected, Batman was the studio creating a phenomenon.

Unfortunately, like most Hollywood blockbusters, the book goes off the rails a bit in the third act. Shone’s light tone and popcorn –chomping attitude is always highly readable, but it starts to lose focus and stops backing up its claims with empirical evidence. There’s lip service given to doom-and-gloom predictions about the collapse of the blockbuster as early as the late 1980s, but Shone goes too broad with his analysis. After the beefcake heroes of the ‘80s, the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, dried up in the early ‘90s, Shone spends a lot of time arguing how Independence Day represented a shift toward special effects over stars but then trails off without really cementing the second half of that decade. There’s no mention of The Matrix and its legacy, instead opting to end with The Lord of the Rings series proving that the geeks have won.

It’s a shame that Shone doesn’t devote more time to the fallout from 9/11, and he doesn’t even attempt to predict the future of the blockbuster after 2004. He muses briefly on the appropriate amount of tact when it comes to blowing up the White House on film in the 21st century, but it feels tacked on. He also, in retrospect, seems naïve at the impact the superhero would have on film. Surely X-Men (2000) and Spider-man (2002) would’ve lent some indication at the time of where things were going, but I can’t hold it against Shone that I’ve written a new, last chapter in my head. If anything, it’s to his credit that I wanted to read more.

Considering the rumblings recently from Soderbergh and Spielberg, and the amount of flops in summer 2013, Blockbuster should be required reading for even the most casual cinephile. Check it out.

Next up: William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade