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Saturday, July 9th, 2005


Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer

by Tom Shone

A review by Chris Bolton

Tom Shone's Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer is a direct rebuttal of Peter Biskind's magnificent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, an ode to the first (and to some, including Biskind, the last) truly independent period of American film: the 1970s. Biskind details the decade that simultaneously allowed brilliant filmmakers to express their personal vision and enabled drug-addled narcissists to wallow in their masturbatory excess. Shone took exception to Biskind's vilification of two filmmakers in particular. I quote from my own review of the Biskind book:

While the directors themselves can be blamed for their spectacular collapse in the latter half of the decade, amidst drugs and sex scandals and inflated budgets (and egos), the industry also turned against them. The blame for that rests primarily on the shoulders of the two least likely auteurs: a couple of nerdy, antisocial boys in the ill-fitting bodies of grown men, named Steven and George.

Blockbuster takes up the story where Biskind left off, at the dawn of the '80s, the era of the blockbuster film, arguing that the self-styled auteurs of the '70s had managed to alienate mass audiences with relentlessly downbeat, self-aggrandizing films that felt like homework to sit through, while Spielberg and Lucas told personal stories in a compelling, entertaining way that brought moviegoers back to theaters.

Which side of the argument you land on has everything to do, I'm sure, with whether you embrace or reject the zeitgeist. If the prevailing taste of the American public is anathema to you, you're likely to dismiss Shone's argument. But, if you believe people flocked to Star Wars and E.T. because of relentless media and marketing campaigns, then you really should read Blockbuster, because Shone does a terrific job of dispelling this theory.

For one thing, the present-day marketing machines were nowhere in place. Twentieth Century Fox was so certain Star Wars was pure folly that the studio handed Lucas the sequel and merchandising rights without another thought. The Christmas following the film's release, Kenner Toys sold certificates that could be redeemed for a Star Wars action figure once they'd actually gotten around to making them. A few years later, Universal was so unprepared for the phenomenal success of E.T. -- the executives' response to the very sight of E.T. was a simple "Ugh" -- that initially the only merchandising came from a wave of foreign knock-offs.

What drew the masses, argues Shone, wasn't the marketing or some form of mass hysteria induced by gigantic corporate monoliths (in fact, Columbia Pictures needed the success of Close Encounters just to keep from going bankrupt), but the overwhelming power of entertainment. People saw Jaws for the first time because of the shark, and they were duly scared. But you can only be jolted by surprise once; what brought them back again and again were the characters, the sense of adventure, the satisfaction of great storytelling, and the feeling of communion they shared with the strangers in the theater.

To his credit, Shone doesn't shy away from criticizing the assembly-line mentality of money-hungry, blockbuster-happy studios churning out lousy product. In fact, it could be argued that Shone and Biskind are actually putting forth the same, pro-auteur thesis, albeit on a very different scale. The films Shone champions -- Spielberg's output from Jaws to E.T., minus 1941; Star Wars; Back to the Future; and the James Cameron oeuvre -- are guided by the overriding vision of a single artist (or a pair, in the case of Back to the Future, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and directed by Zemeckis).

Meanwhile, those would-be blockbusters that are cynically cobbled together from well-worn commercial elements by a committee largely consisting of studio executives receive their due scorn. The most notorious example may be the 1998 Godzilla remake, which was rushed through production by Sony executives eager for a cash cow on par with Independence Day, whose director and screenwriter reteamed to out-dinosaur Jurassic Park. They made their first splash in May of 1997, attaching a teaser trailer to Spielberg's The Lost World, in which the skeleton of a tyrannosaur is crushed by the giant, green foot of a much larger lizard, followed by the slogan, "Size Matters." The tagline earned laughs and built anticipation. Sony proceeded to run its own hype into the ground over the course of a year, and then delivered a bottom-feeding spectacle that thrilled no one (not even the filmmakers), leaving retailers overloaded with worthless toys and other unwanted merchandise.

While perceived as a failure, Godzilla grossed $376 million worldwide, which makes it difficult to deem it an outright disaster; Shone calls it the "Flop That Wasn't."

How bad do these things have to be to properly fail, anymore? A lot worse than Godzilla evidently....When movies that critics hate make money, you just put it down to grumpy critics, or the madness of crowds....But when movies that nobody likes -- not even its creators -- make $375 million, then something is seriously wrong with the art of popular moviemaking.

Ultimately Shone's lament isn't all that different from Biskind's: They don't make 'em like they used to. Shone has a perfect opportunity to illustrate the deficiencies of popular moviemaking with a side-by-side comparison of Jaws and Jurassic Park, of which Spielberg admits, "[W]ith Jurassic I was really just trying to make a good sequel to Jaws. On land." Shone's dissection of Jurassic's flaws is a precise and perceptive one, all the more so because Shone seems to be one of the few who wasn't mesmerized by the awe-inspiring sight of dinosaurs brought to life -- or the cinematic semblance of it. I sheepishly admit I was awestruck by the splendor of those CGI creations, but Shone makes a more-than-credible point that Spielberg was lazy about the whole affair, even the first appearance of the dinosaurs:

The cast dutifully adopt their regulation-issue shock-and-awe expressions, although how [the dinosaur] crept up on them, given that it is as large as a house, standing in a field so wide and open you expect to see people practicing their golf swings, is anyone's guess....[David] Koepp's script had [the protagonists] walking in a forest, coming across a tree trunk, then three more, the trunks turning out to be legs -- a much more Spielbergian alternative to the version Spielberg gives us...

And so the man who essentially created the blockbuster falls victim to its many traps, turning in an inferior product, made in a slapdash manner, that nonetheless dazzled enough people to make it one of the all-time top-grossing films. Compared to the dizzying, head-spinning thrill ride of Jaws, Jurassic Park is the kiddie coaster that rolls back and forth on the same length of track, never building enough momentum to carry its passengers anywhere. Then again, compared to some of the more recent spectacles unleashed on the moviegoing public -- Van Helsing, Armageddon, Wild Wild West, the Star Wars prequels -- Jurassic Park looks positively masterful.

In a bit of uncanny serendipity, Blockbuster has been published in the midst of a box-office slump that has lasted all year. Even the dynamos of Batman Begins, Lucas's Revenge of the Sith, and Spielberg's War of the Worlds can't stop the landslide, thus far making 2005 the first year to not out-gross the previous year's earnings in... who can remember? Are we on the crux of some cinematic uprising, wherein audiences stay home and force the studios to put more artistry into their products? Or is the next Titanic right around the corner waiting to rake in a billion dollars and save the entire machine?

Regardless of its timing and the validity of its argument, Blockbuster is spellbinding. For film lovers, this kind of book is its own allure: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and its follow-up, Down and Dirty Pictures, were as thrilling to me as the finest cinematic cliffhanger, and even Sharon Waxman's comparably slight, poorly edited Rebels on the Backlot provided a fast, pleasurable read. Writing in a personable style similar to Biskind's, Shone has crafted a book that is so addictive it required forcible restraint to make me put it down. He packs in the anecdotes -- from Zemeckis replacing Eric Stoltz with Michael J. Fox as the lead in Back to the Future, forcing him to reshoot almost half the movie, to James Cameron using three separate desks to simultaneously write Rambo and Aliens while revising The Terminator, each in rotating four-hour shifts -- and like the best concession snacks, one makes you crave more.

When Blockbuster had ended, I was only disappointed that it wasn't longer, covering even more movies. Shone expertly encompasses the extremes of the blockbuster spectrum, from the highs of Jaws and Star Wars to the pitiful lows of Last Action Hero and Godzilla, and somehow makes the exhilaration of the highs as enticing as the gossipy thrill of the lows.

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