Review of “Blockbuster”, Tom Shone, SAU Blog, February 2005

 

Here is the original. Tom Shone’s big idea seemed more radical in 2005 than it does now –  indeed now it is pretty much mainstream. The triumph of what is still sometimes called pop culture in taking over the commanding heights of cultural discourse has been remarkable. And yet, it has been at the cost of how genuinely popular it is.

Twelve years later, as a father of three, the point about children making their own toys inspired by, for instance, Star Wars – rather than being in thrall to whatever Official Product emerges  – still stands!

 

blockbuster

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

by Tom Shone

Pp352. Simon and Schuster, 2004

Hardback, £18.99

 

There’s what must be a deep-rooted human need to frame history in terms of easily digestible narratives. For instance, the benighted Dark Ages gave way to the glories of the Renaissance and the freethinking inquiry of the Age of Enlightenment. Subtleties, nuances, inconvenient facts and interpretations – all discarded as we form a smooth narrative of the light overcoming the darkness.

 

Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls has become a bestseller by articulating what has become the dominant narrative, to use a post-modernist-sounding phrase, of recent cinematic history. In this account the venal capitalist illusion factory that is Hollywood, was, for a brief glorious sunlit spell in the early seventies, taken over by visionaries who made individual, witty, personal films. Then Jaws and Star Wars happened, and the golden era ended. Vapid blockbusters and movies aimed at adolescents of all ages were churned out by the studios.

 

The book Blockbuster could be called Shone Contra Biskind – indeed the subtitle refers not only to Dr Strangelove but also to Biskind’s Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying and Love the 50s. For Tom Shone the double whammy of Jaws and Star Wars was not the end of cinema, but the beginning. He is bracingly irreverent of the pretensions of the early Seventies, quoting with evident approval the young Robert Zemeckis’ appraisal of Death in Venice as “one of the most boring movies ever made” and filling his work with sideswipes at poseurs suffering through retrospectives of post war Hungarian cinema to achieve some kind of “cool” kudos. For those for whom the words “arthouse” and “independent” threaten boredom and promise pretension rather than any guarantee of quality, this will be an enjoyable read.

 

Shone begins with the young Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis and Cameron, growing up in the suburban sprawl that would be derided by any good Biskindite, beguiled not by films but by TV. Films had become pompous and ponderous, with studio executives believing that treacly, worthy spectacle was the only response to the growth of television. The future prophets of Blockbusterdom all made their own fun, with elaborate science experiments and inventions generally attracting the attention of the local fire department.

 

Shone’s own childhood also features in these early stages. He recalls the shattering impact of Star Wars, and pace the sundry bores who thought the merchandising of the film was the work of wicked manipulative capitalists, shows how it was simply a response to a massive public demand. Shone and his friends made their own Star Wars memorabilia while waiting for slow-footed toy companies to actually make the official toys. So often children are portrayed as passive consumers, tabulae rasae pliable to the suggestions of advertisers and therefore requiring protection from this noxious breed. Shone’s experience would suggest that children are more in control of the market than the market is in control of them.

 

Writing in a witty, conversational style, Shone is nevertheless a shrewd critic whose insights never fail to provoke some thought, some reconsideration of one’s own lazy pseudo-high brow prejudices. He writes on something I’ve often noticed – how there are no positive portrayals of capitalism in Hollywood movies, despite the fact that the studios are all owned by capitalist conglomerates. Here he is on why “quality” critics and academics are usually clueless in writing about genuinely popular movies:

 

It is a congenital defect of critics at the higher end of the brow when faced with appraising popular movies, whose very smoothly oiled efficiency can seem suspect, hence the perennial appearance of Vertigo on Sight and Sound’s list of best ever films: Hitchcock is a director who delights in getting his plot mechanisms buffed up to a nice humming shine, and so the Sight and Sound team praise the one film of his in which this is not the case – it’s all loose ends and lopsided angles, its plumbing out on display for the critic to pick over at his leisure.

It turns out that Shone is as nostalgic as Biskind, but his nostalgia is for the early days of the blockbuster boom. Today Variety can blithely refer to a “failed blockbuster”, a phrase that would have been oxymoronic thirty years before. Once, a blockbuster was defined by its box office success. Now a blockbuster is a certain type of spectacle-driven, “event” movie.

 

An interesting feature of Easy Riders, Raging Bull was how little of it was about the films themselves, and how much about deals, about producers, about the business and politics of moviemaking rather than anything about them. This is a continuing strain in highbrow (or rather would-be highbrow) writing about Hollywood. Witness Christopher Silvester’s The Penguin Book of Hollywood, an initially very enjoyable anthology of writing about Tinseltown that gradually wears thin. There are only so many appalled anecdotes recounted by rather precious writers making mock of the philistinism of Hollywood folk that one can take. And any book ostensibly about Hollywood that contains one passing reference to Singin’ in the Rain and pages and pages on Ishtar and the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra is certainly more interested in the attendant tittle-tattle than the films produced by the philistine studio executives et al.

 

Shone, unlike Biskind, actually discusses the movies he adores as movies. Or rather he does at the start of his tome. After E.T. there is a noticeable change in tone. We read more and more about the producers and their deals, and less about the end product of all this effort. Shone is as appalled as any Biskindite at a world in which widely hated films like The Phantom Menace and The Matrix Reloaded, disliked even by fanatics of the “franchise” they are part of, take enormous sums at the box office and ascend the ranks of all-time highest grossing movies.

 

For a place always portrayed as in thrall to profit at all costs, money doesn’t matter in Hollywood, or rather it matters hugely but not in the way one expects. Rob Long, one of the writing team of Cheers who later documented his absurd adventures in Tinseltown in Conversations With My Agent, wrote of the “Hollywood Inversion Principle of Economics”, the principle by which most of the truisms of everyday business are reversed in Hollywoodonomics. Other businesses live by net profits; Hollywood is transfixed by the gross. Far from being the put-upon peons of popular consciousness, the “creatives” have power in Hollywood unmatched anywhere except perhaps in Silicon Valley, able to delay projects indefinitely by simply hanging around watching cartoons.

 

Following from that point, one can discern a more general point about artistic creation of any kind from this book. George Lucas griped that the original Star Wars featured only 50% of what he wanted to achieve, and was proud that his vastly increased clout allowed him The Phantom Menace to meet 90% this target.

 

Faced with the amazingly insipid films that were the recent instalments in the Star Wars “franchise”, who could claim that advances in technology or in the power of directors have improved filmmaking? Computers have made special effects so ubiquitous that there’s nothing special about them anymore. The Matrix sequels also support the contention that, contrary to the widespread prejudice against “the suits” cramping the creative vision of directors, directors need to have something or someone to rein in their extravagances.

 

Spielberg, too, later admitted that Jaws would have been far inferior with the technology of fifteen years later – the frankly ludicrous-looking shark was kept until the right dramatic moment. Shone contrasts this with the first sight of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – a resounding anti-climax as the wonderful technology allows Spielberg to show the creatures in their glory, munching passively in a field. Again and again, bigger does not mean better. Jaws – sprightly, irreverent, even gritty at times – seems closer to Taxi Driver than Jurassic Park, more successful at the box office but much less a part of any collective cultural consciousness (think of the theme from Jaws, and now try to think of the one from Jurassic Park).

 

Jurassic Park’s release coincided with the round of GATT talks that considered European quotas limiting the release of American movies. Shone is strong on the irony of all this, as Hollywood itself was increasingly a trans-national identity. “American movies” were never less American than in the 1990s, as German and Dutch directors, Canadian locations, and money from all over the globe combined to produce the potent blockbusters.

 

The subtitle of the book should perhaps have been something like “The Rise and Fall of the Blockbuster”. Anthony Powell once said of Kingsley Amis that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension”. Anti-pretension for its own sake becomes limiting and confining, just as eccentricity for its own sake is just irritating, and non-conformism for its own sake the worst form of conformism.

 

Tom Shone’s argument is anti-pretension through and through, yet he cannot bring himself to the ultimate pretentious anti-pretension stance and learn to love the Hollywood of Godzilla and The Matrix Reloaded. Blockbuster is an enjoyable, witty guide to the Hollywood mainstream of the last thirty years, and how it has been the most prominent victim of its own extraordinary success

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