"We entered the bicentennial year having survived some of the bitterest times in our brief history. We longed for something to draw us together again."
-- America's Bicentennial Report, 1976
"She was the first..."
-- Jaws poster, 1975
The final cut of Steven Spielberg's Jaws was unveiled to the world on the night of March 28, 1975, at the Lakewood Theater, in Long Beach, California.
It wasn't the first screening of the film; a rough cut had already been tested in Dallas -- as far away from salt water as possible, to see how the movie would play in the mainland. "There was a driving rain," remembers producer Richard Zanuck, "and we were concerned that nobody would show up. In those days we didn't use recruited audiences. We used regular audiences. Somebody from publicity would tell a local disc jockey to drop a rumor once or twice during the day." A nervous Spielberg hovered at the back by the door, biting his nails and watching the audience, having taken a Valium to calm himself. His producers, David Brown and Richard Zanuck, had fortified themselves with a couple of stiff drinks. About twenty minutes into the film, one audience member got up and started walking out, and Spielberg thought to himself: "Oh My God, I went over-the-top with that blood." The guy then ran to the bathroom, where he promptly threw up before returning to his seat. That's when Spielberg knew he had a hit. "The audience was screaming and the popcorn was flying in the air," he remembers. "I thought someone had hired 650 clackers, and had paid them a lot of money to scream at all the appropriate moments and laugh at all the appropriate moments." Afterward, Spielberg, Zanuck, and Brown rushed back to their hotel suite, to read the test cards excitedly to one another, drinking champagne until four in the morning. Brown remembers "one card which said, 'This is a great movie, now don't fuck it up.'"
Naturally, Spielberg wanted to improve it. The Dallas screening had shown that the picture had one big scream -- when the shark comes at Roy Scheider while he is chumming at the back of the boat, at the eighty-minute mark. Zanuck and Brown had been delighted. "David and I grabbed each other's arms, and just clutched each other," says Zanuck. "It was at that moment that we knew we had a giant hit. They bought it! They bought that dummy shark!" Spielberg, though, wanted more -- for there to be two big screams in the movie. He asked his editor, Verna Fields, if he could borrow her swimming pool, clouded it up with Carnation Milk, shot a scene where a head swings out of a sunken boat, and cut it into the movie, just in time for the preview in Long Beach.
"Everything played even bigger than it had in Dallas," remembers Zanuck. "People were ripping out the seats. The place went crazy." In the gap between the two screenings something fundamental had changed, and not just the movie. What had happened at the screening in Dallas -- all the raw shock and relief -- was now, in Long Beach, taking on something of the nature of a science, hastily improvised and impromptu, but a science nonetheless, as the film's makers set about calibrating the mysterious alchemy that seemed to have sprung up between Jaws and its audience. "Nobody knew that Roy Scheider saying 'We're going to need a bigger boat' was going to get an enormous laugh," said editor Verna Fields. "It didn't read that way in the script. It didn't sound that way in the dailies, and I don't think as we ran it any of us ever thought of it in terms of a huge laugh. But we had to go back and try to raise the volume; otherwise, nobody would ever get to hear that line thoroughly because the audience is still mumbling from the shock of seeing the shark come out of the water."
Second time around, in Long Beach, Fields taped the audience response to check they could hear the line. They could. The tapes also revealed that Spielberg had gotten what he wanted: one scream at eighty minutes, when the shark lunges at Roy Scheider chumming, and another at fifty minutes, when the head pops out of the boat (see graph). He had his two screams -- and yet, as he noted wistfully, "with the audience now so distrustful of me because of that end-of-the-first-act fright, the scream that had previously gone off the Richter scale in Dallas was only half as intense in Lakewood. The audience was put on such defensive behavior because of the first surprise; they were looking for something to pop out from that moment on. When the shark came out of the water, it wasn't as dynamic as it was in Dallas. But I left it like that, yeah. And we got two screams." The comment contains a rather telling diagnosis of the problems to which the blockbuster would be heir -- all its inflationary drives, gratuitous escalations, Pyrrhic redundancies. Spielberg had gone for two screams, and got them, but somehow they didn't top the one scream he started out with.
It didn't matter: the response was still so loud that Universal's executives had to pile back into the men's room, the only place they could hear themselves think, in order to hold an excited emergency meeting about their release strategy. According to Zanuck, the chairman of Universal, Lew Wasserman, looked first at Hy Martin, head of marketing, and asked him: "Hy, how many theaters do we have?"
"Lew, I'm very proud," replied Martin. "There's been such excitement, particularly after Dallas, that I've had to beat off the theater owners. Everyone wants the picture, and I'm very proud to tell you that we've booked the picture into an unprecedented nine hundred theaters on June 20."
"I want you to drop three hundred of them," said Wasserman. "I want this picture to play all summer long. I don't want people in Palm Springs to see the picture in Palm Springs. I want them to have to get in their cars and drive to see it in Hollywood."
"He was so fucking clever," says Zanuck, "because that's exactly what happened."
The nicety of Wasserman's ploy -- artificially reducing supply in order to create demand -- would soon get lost in the crush. Jaws would soon be credited, and blamed, with having pioneered the trick of opening a film "wide," which is to say, in as many theaters as you possibly could. Traditionally, this was a tool of the exploitation industry -- you opened a film in as many theaters as possible before word of mouth could kill it -- but starting with The Godfather in 1972, it had become a way for studios to announce their faith in a movie's blockbuster ambitions. The same with the use of heavy TV advertising, also credited to Jaws, but also a revolution that had been waiting to happen: when Warner Brothers used TV spots to promote a rerelease of Billy Jack in 1971, and were rewarded with box-office of over $30 million, Variety called it "a revolutionary new tactic." Universal devoted $700,000 to promoting Jaws -- the largest such expenditure in the studio's history. Eight months before the film opened, Zanuck, Brown, and author Peter Benchley began appearing on TV and radio talk shows. Three days before the opening, they unleashed a massive national advertising blitz, centering on the image of the shark's mouth pointing vertically up at a swimming girl. "One thing that David Brown and I insisted on," says Zanuck, "was that that symbol be carried on the hardcovers and the softcover [of the book] and the ads for the film and the movie poster so there was consistency. People on beaches -- wherever they were -- were seeing that symbol. We didn't have to say 'Jaws' to let people know what it was."
Jaws opened on June 20 in 409 theaters, and in its first three days had grossed $7,061,573. Spielberg's secretary walked into his office and handed him the figures on a slip of paper, saying, "Here's the opening figures," and Spielberg just stared at the number. "Then I kept waiting for the next weekend to drop off and it didn't, it went up and it went up and it went up, and Universal kept taking ads of the shark on the front page of Variety. The Godfather was the film to beat in those days, at about $86 million in theater rentals -- and then we started to do, like, $130 million in rentals." Within a few weeks Jaws had beaten The Godfather's $86 million, and The Exorcist's $89 million, to become the first film to break the $100 million mark -- Hollywood's sound barrier, the one nobody said could be beat. One evening that summer, Spielberg pulled into a Los Angeles ice cream parlor, Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors on Melrose. "There was a line when I walked in, and they were all talking about Jaws. They were saying 'God, it is the most frightening film I ever saw. I've seen it six times.' It was just like the whole 31 Flavors was talking about it. I got my ice cream cone, pistachio, that's my favorite kind, and I got back into my car and I drove home. I turned on the TV set, and there was this story about the Jaws phenomenon on network news. And I realized -- the whole country is watching this! That was the first time that it really hit me that it was a phenomenon. I thought this is what a hit feels like."
What manner of beast was Jaws? A "hit"? A "phenomenon"? Nobody knew what to call it. In the mid-seventies, The Wall Street Journal had alerted readers to a new age of "spectaculars," while Variety opted for "super-blockbuster," and The New York Times, in 1978, plumped for "super-grosser." Michael Eisner, then head of Paramount, attempted a definition: "The super-grossers are things that become cultural phenomena. There is no way that you can work out on paper what a cultural phenomenon should be." Forget working out on paper what they should be: what were you to call the damn things? Hollywood was about to embark on a lexical inflation game that was the equal of its economic one, resulting in today's bewildering array of terms -- blockbuster, event movie, franchise film, tent pole picture. Even the term "blockbuster" has been subject to a strange sideways drift: once a purely economic term, with no generic preference, it was conferred solely by a movie's box office returns -- and, by default, the audience. Thus The Sound of Music was a blockbuster and Fiddler on the Roof and Kramer vs. Kramer. Today, it has -- to paraphrase Julie Andrews -- become the name a movie calls itself, before it is even out of the gate. Thus Variety will speak today of a blockbuster "failing" at the box office -- which would have caused endless confusion to someone from 1975: a film was either a riotous success, in which case it was a blockbuster, or else it wasn't. Now, it signifies a type of movie: not quite a genre, but almost; often science fiction but not necessarily; something to do with action movies although not always. Most definitely not Kramer vs. Kramer, though. Wherever in the movie universe films about the pains of recently divorced New Yorkers come from, the post-Jaws summer blockbuster sits in the opposite corner, burping on bathers.
To the postwar generation, things were much simpler. If someone asked them what a blockbuster was they simply pointed to Gone With the Wind -- the very definition of a blockbuster, if only because for several decades it was the only one they had. Occupying an unparalleled hold on the number one spot from 1939 to 1972 -- almost forty years -- Gone With the Wind was the Hoover of blockbuster movies, both brand leader and one-movie monopoly, sucking up the competition on all sides. "The business of Gone With the Wind was not just steady, it was an economy unto itself," writes David Thomson in his biography of producer David Selznick. Selznick had ambitions for Gone With the Wind from the word go: he used the casting call to find his Scarlett O'Hara as a nationwide publicity gimmick; and once he had secured his participants, everyone in the production -- Selznick, director Victor Fleming, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable -- took up their positions for what amounted to a four-way group snarling session that lasted almost a year. "It was a case of utter chaos. They burned themselves, and out of the ashes rose this Phoenix of a picture," said Marcella Rabwin, Selznick's assistant at RKO. "I have never known so much hatred. The whole atmosphere was so acrid. Leigh hated Fleming, with a passion. Fleming hated her. He called her the vilest names. Clark Gable hated David." As the picture neared completion, Selznick knew what he had on his hands and wrote to Metro's head of marketing, invoking D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and saying, "The picture is turning out so brilliantly that its handling will have to be on a scale and of a type never before tried in the picture business."
By far the most interesting thing about Gone With the Wind, though, at least to today's eyes, is what happened after its release: which is to say precisely nothing. Nobody started manufacturing Rhett Butler dolls. Nobody tried to copy it, or make it happen again; it didn't spawn a sequel, let alone an entire industry. Selznick tried to follow it up with Duel in the Sun, a film for which he pioneered an interesting new trick of opening the film wide -- as wide as he could, in thirty-eight theaters. "If the public's 'want to see' for a forthcoming picture samples higher than the reaction of the test audience's," noted one critic, "you sell your picture in a hurry before the curious have a chance to get wise." But the tactic -- which would turn out to be one of the mainstays of today's blockbuster industry -- failed, along with the picture. It was back to Gone With the Wind, whose reign at the top was further boosted by reissues in 1947, 1954, 1961, 1967, 1989, and 1998. The American people had spoken: they had their blockbuster, and occasionally they would take it out of its display case to have another look at it, but then they would pop it back in again, with a satisfied sigh. The first serious competition it faced came from Cecil B. DeMille's remake of his own film, The Ten Commandments, which took up a close second position in 1956; while the arrival of Ben-Hur in 1959 made it a three-chariot race, and from 1960 to 1965 those three films took up a neat triangular stranglehold at the top of the box office charts, until Julie Andrews vaulted up the mountainside and joined them in 1965 with The Sound of Music. Box office statisticians, you can't help but feel, had an easy life back then. Sat atop the pyramid, their feet up, occasionally glancing down to see what dim jockeying they could see down below but basically filing the same report, every year, like the BBC's royal reporters: yep, still there.
The reason they had life so easy was that the habit of going to the movies was dying. When Gone With the Wind was released, a full 46 percent of the American population went to the movies every week, as a matter of course -- not to see this movie or that movie, but simply to go to the movies, to see what was playing -- but this habit had been slowly eroded by television and the population exodus away from the big city centers toward the suburbs. If you wanted to strike terror into an average movie executive's heart in the fifties and sixties, all you had to do was give him a rough précis of Steven Spielberg's childhood: the vision of a suburban mall-rat, glued to the television, was pretty much his worst nightmare realized. "Today people go to see a movie; they no longer go to the movies," observed one distraught movie executive in 1967. The question was: what sort of movie would get them out of the house? Throughout the fifties and sixties, the studios kept up a steady stream of biblical epics and DeMillean spectaculars, on the logic that whatever TV did, Hollywood had to do the opposite -- if TV was fast, dumb, and morally nonnutrient, the movies would be long, slow, and good for you -- but it hadn't really done anything other than make for bloated money losers like Cleopatra and The Robe. They weren't TV, but they weren't much else, besides not being TV, sometimes for hours at a time, and audiences soon learned to stay away. Flush with the success of The Sound of Music, Fox had tried its hand at a series of spectacular musicals -- Hello, Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon, Doctor Dolittle -- only to see them fail, too, pushing the studio to the brink of insolvency. By 1971, both attendance levels and profits had reached an all-time low, leaving many of the studios plunged deep in red ink, desperately seeking new management -- like MGM, Warner Brothers, United Artists -- or else, like Universal and Columbia, teetering on the edge of liquidation. The studio system was close to collapse.
Then you hit the seventies, and all hell breaks loose. The box office statistician is groggily awoken, his slumber ruined forever. In the course of the first half of the decade, there are a series of new number ones, each breaking the others' records -- first Love Story, in 1970, and then, in 1972, The Godfather, whose producer, Robert Evans, told Time magazine, "The making of blockbusters is the newest art-form of the 20th-century." The future was clear: the studios could draw audiences out of their homes by packaging movies as gala "events" -- often adapted from a best-selling book, like The Godfather, and presented with a flourish by the studio ("Paramount is proud to present..."). The blockbuster as it emerged in the early seventies was a decidedly high-end, no-expense-spared, red-carpet affair; even 1970's Airport -- the first of the disaster flicks, and the model for all the flame-grilled blimps that followed -- received no fewer than ten Oscar nominations. The idea that these things might be simply fast and thrilling -- rather than weighed down with prize-winning intent, like marrows -- hadn't really occurred to anyone. The penny finally drops at the very end of Airport, when disaster finally deigns to strike, or rather, when disaster threatens to strike before being narrowly averted by Captain Dean Martin, thus leaving Airport just what it says it is, a film about an airport: two hours of air traffic control, weather reports, and marital discord, as Martin and his crew chew their way through their leaky marriages and furtive infidelities. The seventies were the Decade of Divorce -- the era when the topic emerged from the bedroom and into the spotlit glare of public debate -- but it is still disorienting to find the disaster flick, of all things, at the vanguard of that debate.
By the time of Airport '77 the producers had learned their lesson, crashing the plane after just forty minutes, but for the most part, watching these early blockbusters now is a little like watching a time-lapse image of man trying to invent fire: a false trail of half-strikes, yelps, and scraped knuckles, as producers attempted to wow us with the seriousness of their dramatic credentials, while their sense of fun sat, shriveled and unnoticed, in the corner. It was a straight knockout victory for theme over thrills. In Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure ("Hell. Upside Down"), priest Gene Hackman leads a tough-minded investigation into the value of Faith in a Godless universe, when all audiences had bought tickets for was a tough-minded investigation of the value of foot ladders in an upturned boat. Allen was the king of this middlebrow marshland, valiantly attempting to represent every tier of society in his films, from janitor to president, on the basis that if you wanted half the Western world to attend your film, you simply cast the other half. By the time of The Towering Inferno, in 1974, however, audiences had worked out the basic math of these pictures for themselves: the number of A-list stars alive at the end of the picture equaled the number of A-list stars alive at the beginning of the picture, minus one for realism, or in the cause of noble self-sacrifice.
So what was so different about Jaws? In one sense, nothing at all. "This is Universal's extraordinary motion picture version of Peter Benchley's best-selling novel..." intoned the trailers, with the sort of silver-platter flourish that now seems as quaint as three-color disco lights: they thought Benchley was the attraction? The book? Benchley's novel was that most curious of seventies artifacts: the misanthropic best-seller, full of such loathing for the common herd, you wonder why on earth the common herd bothered with the thing: "They had no body odor," notes police chief Brody of the bathers he watches over. "When they sweated, the girls smelled faintly of perfume; the boys smelled simply clean. None of which is to say that they were either stupid or evil." Peter Benchley, step forward and accept the 1975 People's Friend Award! Spielberg cut out the sourpuss posturings and gave the part of Brody to Roy Scheider, telling him, "I don't want to feel that you could ever kill that shark." Charlton Heston had wanted the part, but as Spielberg's screenwriter Carl Gottleib pointed out, Heston had just saved a jetliner in Airport 1975 and he was going to save Los Angeles in Earthquake, so "it just didn't seem right for him to be wasting his time with a little New England community." The blockbuster would eventually become synonymous with the effortless accomplishments of singular superheroes, but Jaws, from the outset, was an exercise in dramatic downsizing, attuned to the scruffy, low-slung heroism of ordinary men, engaging in pitched battle with just a single shark, which kills only four people in the entire movie -- and not at a single stroke, like an earthquake, but in four separate courses, from soup to nuts. It was, in other words, a repeat offender, in whom Spielberg had found a perfect reflection of his own restlessly kinetic instincts as a director. When the Orca is going at full throttle to catch up with the shark, Richard Dreyfuss's admiring headshake of disbelief is entirely genuine: "Fast fish!"
He should know. Dreyfuss's reaction times -- the flash flood grins that light up his face, the octave-vaulting scat of his line readings -- are the second fastest thing in the movie, and from the moment Dreyfuss set foot in Jaws, he told audiences all they needed to know about how different a movie this was going to be. He steps onto the jetty, while all the bounty hunters are heading out in their overcrowded boats to hunt the shark, laughs that Daffy Duck-on-helium laugh of his, and says to no one in particular, "They're all going to die!" -- a prognostication of doom sung in the happiest of singsong lilts. And there you have Jaws, a film buoyed up by more high spirits than any movie about killer sharks ought by rights to be. Barreling along beneath cloudless skies that are a perfect match for its director's temperament, Jaws picked up its audience, wiped them out, and deposited them on the sidewalk, two hours later, exhausted but delighted. What stays with you, even today, are less the movie's big shock moments than the crowning gags, light as air, with which Spielberg gilds his action -- Dreyfuss crushing his Styrofoam cup, in response to Quint crushing his beer can, or Brody's son copying his finger-steepling at the dinner table, both moments silent, as all the best moments in Spielberg are, and both arising from the enforced improv session that arose while he and his crew waited for his shark to work. You simply didn't get this sort of thing from The Poseidon Adventure: no ironic machismo moments involving Styrofoam cups, no tenderly observed finger-steepling at the dinner table. This didn't feel like a disaster movie. It felt like a day at the beach.
To get anything resembling such fillets of improvised characterization, you normally had to watch something far more boring -- some chamber piece about marital disintegration by John Cassavetes, say -- and yet here were such things, popping up in a movie starring a scary rubber shark. It was nothing short of revolutionary: you could have finger-steepling and scary rubber sharks in the same movie. This seemed like important information. Why had no one told us this before? Spielberg had completely upended the pyramid of American film, ridding the blockbuster of its rather desperate bids for "prestige" while also visiting on it the sort of filigree dramatic technique normally associated with films much further up the brow. The effect on audiences was properly electric, for now we knew, and we would never go back, willingly, to the old system of cinematic apartheid that had existed before, dictating that popular movies must be dumb, and highbrow films boring. Spielberg had upped the game for everyone. Now, there would be very little excuse for the sort of middlebrow ponderings we had accepted in the name of popular entertainment up until this point, and at the other end of the spectrum, even art films would have to have a very good excuse not to try and entertain us just that little bit more. An entertainment revolution was underway.
It seems worth pointing out: the art of popular cinema was about to get, at a rough estimate, a bazillion times better. The era in which dedicated thrill junkies had to make do with Rollerball and Death Race 2000 and The Hindenberg and Rollercoaster and Meteor was about to give way to the era of Alien and Indiana Jones and Superman and Die Hard. Yes, Martin Scorsese would find it harder to find the money to make his movies, and yes, it was goodbye to films featuring hippies and bikes, and yes, a lot of studio suits were about to get very rich and buy themselves obnoxiously fast Ferraris, and dope would make way for cocaine, granted. But the art of popular cinema -- the art perfected a generation before by the likes of Selznick, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock -- that tradition was about to get a huge boost in the arm from the release of Jaws. Hawks found most moviemaking in the seventies abysmal; asked what he thought of The Night They Raided Minsky's and The Boys in the Band, "lousy" was Hawks's reply. "Make a good chase. Make one better than anyone's ever done." The result was The French Connection. What Hitchcock thought of the seventies is sadly not on record, but it is not too hard to imagine him recoiling, slack-jawed in horror, from the narrative desert of Zabriskie Point, and alighting with something like relief on the polished narrative clockwork of a film like Back to the Future or The Terminator.
None of this was immediate, of course. The next decade would still find time for expensive crud like The Wiz, Honky Tonk Freeway, and Raise the Titanic, whose title never ceases to amaze: they were going to undo all the good work done by that iceberg and then shout about it in the title? An anti-disaster movie! Excitement in reverse! That's the sort of thing you want to keep quiet about, surely. Eventually, though, people would catch on and popular entertainment would raise its game. Even leaving aside the obvious examples, we'd get An Officer and a Gentleman, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Big -- not movies that would change the way anyone looks at the world, perhaps, but solid, four-square hits whose breezy sense of fun would have been, if not inconceivable without the gale of high spirits that blew through cinemas with Jaws, then certainly harder to pull off if Spielberg had chosen to make Lucky Lady instead, and it had been Nashville or At Long Last Love that had made $100 million that year. "Jaws changed the business forever," writes Peter Biskind. "As costs mounted, the willingness to take risks diminished proportionately. Moreover, Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws." Still, it could have been worse. It could have been The Stepford Wives. If you're going to remodel the entire industry on a single movie, Jaws is, on balance, a pretty good movie to pick: it is fast and funny and tender and oblique and exciting in an intriguingly non-macho way, although most critics at the time, needless to say, didn't see it like that. "A coarse-grained and exploitative work which depends on excess for its impact," wrote the Los Angeles Times. "You feel like a rat being given shock treatment," said The Village Voice. "A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons," intoned the critic of Commentary. It's not too hard to understand their dismay. The upper registers of the box office had, until 1975, remained completely free of great whites, man-eating or otherwise, for close on a century; the top ten had been a matter of biblical mountains, parting seas, the rise and fall of Rome, all supplanting one another with the speed of a glacier; and suddenly here was this rubber shark, devouring all before it. The response had to be a fake -- an instance of moviemaking voodoo, mass hysteria. "Its symptoms are saucered eyes, blanched faces, and a certain tingle anxiety about going near the water," wrote Newsweek of "Jawsmania," with the tone of concerned doctors at a 1964 Beatles concert. Elsewhere, the cynicism took on a more seventies, Watergate-era tinge. "Audiences who think they made Jaws a success are pitifully naive about the mass media," wrote Stephen Farber in a New York Times article entitled "Jaws and Bug: The Only Difference Is the Hype," a theme later continued by Michael Pye and Linda Myles in their book, The Movie Brats, which claimed Jaws effected "the transformation of film into event through clever manipulation of the media." For of course, all manipulation of the media is "clever" manipulation of the media, particularly if you happen to work in the media, for what other sort would get past your finely tuned radar?
What is most striking about "Jawsmania" today, however, is what a grassroots operation it was, driven not by the studio but by private profiteers, pirates, or just entrepreneurs with a single goofy idea. A Jaws discotheque opened in the Hamptons, complete with a wooden shark; a Georgia fisherman started selling shark jawbones for $50; a New York ice cream stand renamed its staple flavors sharklate, finilla, and jawberry; a Silver Spring specialty dealer began selling strap-on Styrofoam shark fins, for anyone who wanted to start a mass panic in the privacy of their own beach. Meanwhile, up and down the coast towns of America, hotels reported a spate of canceled bookings, as people caught wind of the sudden rise in reported shark attacks: which is to say, commercial interests lost actual money because of the release of Jaws. So much for synergy. In fact, the official Universal merchandising was minimal -- T-shirts, beach towels, posters -- and when Spielberg proposed a chocolate shark, he was turned down -- the first and last time in the career of Steven Spielberg that he would be refused a merchandising opportunity by a studio.
"It was a chocolate shark with cherry juice filling, so when you bite the shark, blood comes out, but edible blood," says Spielberg now. "That's where my head was at in 1975. My first experience with merchandising, based on a phenomenal blockbuster, came with Disney's Davy Crockett when I was a kid. I went out and my mom bought me a coonskin cap and a plastic flintlock rifle resembling Davy Crockett's rifle, Old Betsy, and a little plastic powder horn, ostensibly to load the powder into your flintlock. So I was no stranger to being caught up in a national craze. Sometimes it's about a film, sometimes it's about a hula hoop, or a Slip 'n Slide by Wham-O. It doesn't necessarily have to be the film media that creates a national rush to be part of a phenomenon, and God willing you won't be left out of it. It's a great way for kids who aren't popular to be momentarily popular, to be in support of a new national pastime. In the early days when I was making Jaws, I looked upon all this as something we had no control over. The blockbuster was created not by the film director or the studio's marketing machine. The blockbuster originally was made by the general public."
"Jaws opened up a vein in the public consciousness," says David Brown. "Movies used to be a solitary experience. You sat in the dark, alone, no matter how many people surrounded you. But with Jaws people started to talk back to the screen and applaud shadows. On a screen that couldn't hear them. The whole notion of applauding a movie would have been ludicrous in the twenties and thirties....Zanuck and I could walk by a theater and know what reel was playing by the sounds that came out. That was a new experience. Audience participation. The new word is interactive I guess." It marked a crucial advance on the decade's previous blockbusters. Say what you like about Love Story but it was not really an audience participation film, unless you counted the synchronized smooching going on in the back row; nor was The Godfather, which was essentially a study in collective isolation; you watched it alone, no matter how full the cinema was, and you left the theater eyeing your fellow moviegoers with new unease, uncertain whether you would care to share a theater with them again. But Jaws united its audience in common cause -- a shared unwillingness to be served up as lunch -- and you came out delivering high-fives to the three hundred or so new best friends you'd just narrowly avoided death with. And then you came back the next day to narrowly avoid it again. For here was the second major defining mark of the summer blockbuster: you watched it again, and not in the spirit of sepia-tinted nostalgia with which audiences ambled along to see Gone With the Wind a decade after its release, but in a time frame condensed by the sheer viscerality of the experience: you watched Jaws again for the same reason that people head back into a thrill ride, or keep doing bungee jumps. Thanks to these repeat viewings, Jaws stayed around all summer, becoming in turn the thing millions of Americans most remember about that summer -- a multi-million-dollar madeleine. A Colt 45 Malt Liquor commercial offered the first of many Jaws parodies; Bob Hope quipped that he was too scared to take a bath: "My rubber duck was circling me"; while political cartoonists seized on the shark as representing -- variously -- taxes, unemployment, inflation, male chauvinism, Ronald Reagan, and the Hawaii Media Responsibility Commission. That's what America did in the summer of 1975: it watched Jaws.
"One of the wonderful things about Jaws was that the cultural impact was greater than you could make today," says Sidney Sheinberg, Spielberg's mentor at Universal. "Nowadays, the release of movies most resembles a television show: the whole idea is, get all this money, get all the people you can to see it the first weekend. I'm not sure you could make that sort of cultural impact with today's blockbusters, which everyone sees so quickly and which then disappear from consciousness. Compared to the impact you could make when it sits there all summer, and more and more people are seeing it, and it's feeding on itself, as Jaws did." If you went back to the film, in fact, as many were doing that summer, you noticed that it told two stories, only one of which happens to be about a giant shark. The shark eats the girl, then the boy; but then look what happens: the town reacts as if school was out. It erupts into a boomtown of petty profiteering and casual lawlessness; kids start scrawling graffiti on billboards; bounty hunters head out to sea in a big crazy flotilla, shooting guns into the water; and Spielberg is on fire -- hopped-up on the whole crazy spectacle, just as he was by the flotilla of cars in Sugarland Express, and the media circus that trailed his outlaw couple. Spielberg's fascination with the echo-chamber of the mass media receives further amplification in Jaws; for the bounty hunters come back with a shark that does get their picture in the paper, and the next thing you know, the story has gone national. The national networks arrive, and are soon crawling all over the beach with their cameras, just in time to catch the next shark attack, which turns out to be a hoax: two small boys, wearing a wooden fin, who are pulled, dripping, from the water. If you want a trenchant analysis of Jawsmania, in other words, your best bet has always been to check out Jaws itself. It's all there, up on the screen -- the hysteria bleeding into hoopla, the hoopla into hype, and the hype into hoax.
"We need summer dollars," pleads the mayor, anxious to play down the threat. "We depend on the summer crowds for our very lives. You yell 'shark' and we got a panic on our hands on the 4th of July." Which is when Dreyfuss delivers his great speech. "What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim, eat, and make little sharks." For those who care to see it, there was an allegory there for what was about to happen to Hollywood: "Panic on the 4th of July" would, henceforth, be the motto pinned up on the door of every marketing executive, while a "perfect engine" for making more sharks the dream of every producer. The first July 4th movie was also a prescient allegory for all the other July 4th movies to come. It's one of the reasons why Jawsmania, with its nod to Beatlemania, was always a bit of a misnomer, unless Newsweek meant mid-period Beatles, around the time of Sgt. Pepper, when Paul McCartney fabricated an ersatz supergroup to deflect and channel back into the ether some of the Beatles' own fame: Jaws is of exactly the same order of self-conscious pop craft. The object of national hysteria, national hysteria was also its subject, its object, its very method. When audiences honked their horns at drive-ins, or strapped on their fake shark fins, they weren't buying into the hype; they were buying into the movie, which contained its own hype within it, like an echo waiting to be born in the summer haze that hovers above Spielberg's island.
"Inside the movie, it's a national media event," says the director. "I know. And I was the last to have predicted that that was what was going to happen with the film's release. I had no idea. All of us, including Richard Dreyfuss, who never believed this film would float, we were phoning each other reporting these experiences we were having in all these previews wondering what went right, because for nine months of principal photography, everything went wrong, and we could not believe that some chord was about to be struck. Lew Wasserman was showing the movie in fire stations and barns -- anyplace they could put up a projector. I actually thought Lew had lost his mind when he told me he was going to go out in almost five hundred theaters. That hadn't been done by any Universal film before. Today, art films are released in 409 theaters, and Jaws certainly was not an art film. I never took that story so seriously as to think I was making Melville. I wasn't."
Jaws's breezy divestment of all the usual guarantees of blockbuster "prestige" caused no end of crossed wires come Oscar time, with nominations for the film and its editing, but not its director. "I didn't get it! I wasn't nominated," complained Spielberg at the time, having made the mistake of inviting a camera crew to watch his reaction to the award announcements. "This is what is called commercial backlash. When a film makes a lot of money, people resent it. Everybody loves a winner, but nobody loves a winner." Here, then, was Jaws's final contribution to the newly emergent art of the summer blockbuster: whatever happens, and unlike their predecessors, they do not win Oscars. Jaws's failure to win anything but technical awards -- 1975 was the year of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- would be echoed by Star Wars's loss to Annie Hall in 1977, by Raiders of the Lost Ark's to Ordinary People in 1981, and E.T.'s to Gandhi in 1982, as fine a series of upper-cut injustices as can be imagined, Ordinary People and Gandhi having long since ascended to the ranks of the Great Unwatched in the sky, while Raiders and E.T. have turned into much-loved classics that the Academy should have been falling over itself to reward. Their prejudice against blockbusters would prove hard to shift -- not until Forrest Gump in 1994 would any film that made over $100 million win a Best Picture statuette, thus opening up the corridor for Titanic in 1998 -- although money is only half the story. Certainly in the case of E.T. versus Gandhi, the Academy was faced with a clear choice between two leathery, twinkly gurus: one selling peace, love, and understanding, the other selling peace, love, understanding, and Reese's Pieces. But the real key to understanding the Academy Awards is the state of pure aesthetic terror in which the voting takes place: for 346 days of the year, the assorted members of the Academy -- actors, producers, directors -- devote every breath of their living being to the task of putting bodies into seats, and then, on just one day of the year, they are suddenly ambushed by the question, "Yes, but is it Art?" It's understandably terrifying. So what happens is that they don't vote for the best film, they vote for the film that most fully reassures them that they are not voting for the wrong film. Historical films are more reassuring than fantasy films (you're saying none of this stuff happened?), films that make a decent amount of money are more reassuring than films that make truckloads of money (that could be the clammy embrace of Mammon, or possibly the mass delusion of crowds, or both), and films that get turned into bumper stickers, like Jaws, are less reassuring than films that make a principled stand against the tyranny of the majority, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
The effect of Jaws's Oscar snub on Spielberg himself was divisive, opening a fault line that would run right down the next decade of his career, as he hankered for a respectability that never quite arrived and sought popular success that he then distrusted. It wasn't long before he was talking down Jaws to anyone who would listen, in an Uncle Tom-like ingestion of the standard critical line on the film. "Jaws is almost like I'm directing the audience with a cattle prod, it was the simplest movie I had ever seen in my life," he told one reporter. "It was just the essential moving, working parts of suspense and terror." And, a little later: "No movie had ever grossed $100 million in the U.S. and Canada. On its way to making what it eventually made, $400 million around the world, it was regarded by everyone as a kind of carnival freak. They said it must have been the heat of that summer that gave the shark legs, that took him inland so far, gobbling up the country like little Pacmen. So I began believing it was some kind of freak, and agreeing when people said it could never happen again. What vindicated me was when Star Wars came out and became the second film to gross $100 million." Note that careful notation of rank -- "the second film to gross $100 million." It's accurate, but Star Wars also took half as much again as Jaws; raking in $193 million after six months. Spielberg now had company. He also had a rival.
Copyright © 2004 by Tom Shone
When he was five, Steven Spielberg was taken by his father to see The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille's movie about the circus -- except he didn't hear his father say the word "movie," only the word "circus." He'd never seen a movie before, but he knew what to expect from a circus: elephants, lions, ringmaster, clowns...After a wait in line for an hour and a half, they entered the theater, and he laid eyes on the row upon row of chairs, all folded up, in front of a blank screen, "nothing but a flat piece of white cardboard, a canvas, and I look at the canvas and suddenly a movie comes on and it's The Greatest Show on Earth." He thought it the Worst Swindle in Town, couldn't believe his father had done this to him. "'Gee, that's not fair,' he thought, 'I wanted to see three-dimensional characters and all this was was flat shadows, flat surfaces.' I was disappointed by everything after that. I didn't trust anybody....I never felt life was good enough so I had to embellish it."
The embellishments took many forms, each requiring the sort of improvisational skills known only to those growing up in suburban Cincinnati in the fifties. There was the time he rigged his mother's pressure cooker to explode, splattering the kitchen with food, or the time he tossed one of her cherry pies to the ceiling and watched as all the pie filling glooped to the floor. He was fascinated by anything that had the texture of blood -- cherries, ketchup -- which he could then use to smear over the walls or the heads of his sister's dolls. He was a scrawny kid -- crew cut, ears out to here, like the kid on the cover of Mad magazine -- and ravenously curious, endlessly bombarding his father with questions relating to fire engines and things blowing up. Teachers worried about him; he seemed to go in such fits and starts, always starting one thing, then, getting bored, moving on to the next. "I didn't know what the hell he was," said his mother later. "Steven wasn't exactly cuddly. What he was was scary."
It was when the family moved from Cincinnati to Phoenix that the boy's experiments in pandemonium kicked up a notch. The landscape itself promised so much: on the one hand a suburban sprawl of lawns, backyards, and sprinklers, and edging it, the Arizona desert with its scorpions and Gila monsters. The perfect place to lock yourself in the upstairs bathroom, until the Phoenix fire brigade were summoned -- great red trucks tearing up and down the quiet suburban streets, much to the admiration of his neighbor's children. "I thought it was really neat," said one, "seeing the fire department coming through the windows and everything." By this time Spielberg had rediscovered the movie theater, and made the secondary, but equally important discovery that they needn't be just for watching movies. If they had balcony seats, for instance, they were also a perfect place from which to projectile-vomit a mixture of peas, cream cheese, and milk, as Spielberg did on the audience who had come to see Irwin Allen's The Lost World in 1960.
The only thing that seemed to induce anything like calm in the boy was TV. He would soak up as many episodes of The Twilight Zone and Science Fiction Theater as he could, and when his parents tried to limit his intake, he would sneak down at night and stick his eye right up to the snow on the RCA nineteen-inch screen, seeking ghostly communion with the black-and-white images that flickered past. "I was this far away from the TV set and there would always be some out-of-the-way channel, some far-off channel that was getting its signal through the station that wasn't broadcasting and there would be ghosts and images of some broadcasting station five hundred miles away."
Seven hundred miles away, in Modesto, California, the young George Lucas was tuned into much the same wavelength -- a pixilated blur of Adventure Theater, Flash Gordon serials, and Crusader Rabbit cartoons -- except this time, the TV was to be found around at his neighbor's house. This was the mid-fifties and TVs had only just reached Modesto, a strangely disoriented sort of place, sitting in the middle of the flattest California landscape, like a Midwestern town that had blown too far west. Come 6:00 p.m. and off the boy would scoot to his neighbor's house to watch whatever was on. When Lucas was ten, his parents bought their own TV set and saw their son practically disappear into it. It was large and rotatable, which meant he could watch it from any angle in the living room. "Movies had extremely little effect on me when I was growing up," he would say later. "I hardly ever went, and when I did it was to meet girls. Television had a much larger effect."
He was a tiny kid. At age six he weighed only thirty-five pounds -- a peanut. Fretful and anxious, he had a midlife crisis when he was eight -- "What is God?" he wondered. "But more than that, what is reality? What is this?" -- and was never very enthusiastic about the answers. But he loved TV, comics -- had a collection of over six hundred -- and building models. Not just puny little model planes, either, but complete ersatz environments fashioned from old dollhouses and cardboard boxes, using milk cartons for sofas and lipstick tubes for lamps. Unlike Spielberg, Lucas was a finisher -- always seeing every task through to its meticulous conclusion. He built a haunted house that he then charged the local kids to come see; and when some new phone lines were laid, he took the giant wooden spool the technicians had left behind and converted it into a miniature roller-coaster ride for his model cars. "That was my whole life," he said. "I lived, ate, breathed cars. That was everything to me." He decided he was going to be a racing driver, performing victory laps for the roaring crowds at Le Mans, Monte Carlo, and Indianapolis, and when he was fifteen, his parents bought him his first real car, a tiny Fiat Bianchina with a two-cylinder engine -- "a sewing machine motor" he complained. "It was a dumb little car. What could I do with that?" He found, though, that he could take curves much better than the bigger cars, and soon you couldn't tear him away from the go-kart track behind the foreign car garage on Main Street. "We'd be going like a bat out of hell," said one friend. "George could really drive. He was really good at that."
• • •
When the Chicago White Sox won the American League pennant in the fall of 1959 -- their first title in forty years -- the city fathers were so excited they switched on all the air-raid sirens, and Robert Zemeckis, then aged seven, sat back and drank in the whole crazy spectacle: "My parents and all their friends rushing out onto the street, wondering what was happening. It was surreal; everyone was standing around, convinced that we'd been invaded from Mars." In the late fifties, Richard Daley was mayor of Chicago, then a termite hill of political corruption and the perfect place for a naturally suspicious kid like Zemeckis to sharpen his cynicism. He noticed that when it snowed, the local alderman always got his drive plowed first on the street. Everything seemed like a ruse to him, a stunt, a trick -- or else just a straight kick in the head, neither good nor bad, just volatile, wild: ain't that something?
You could always track him down in a movie theater: he was the wiseacre who sat in the front row, going, "That guy's not really dead," or "That looks fake." He saw Death in Venice, which he thought "one of the most boring movies ever made." But when he saw Gene Hackman get shot in the head in Bonnie and Clyde, it had a blistering effect on him. He thought, "The director is doing something to me. How did he do that to me?" He always wanted to know how things were done. The films he loved best were movies like The Blob and 13 Ghosts, movies which gave you a shock through your seat, or you watched through 3-D glasses: such gimmicks seemed more honest to him, somehow, more up-front about cinema's innate powers of trickery. He watched The Tingler, and loved it when Vincent Price announced "The Tingler is in the theater," only to have the house lights in the cinema go dead. "And the screen we're watching goes completely black, and we all start screaming....It was absolutely great."
Growing up in Chippewa, Canada, with Niagara Falls thundering away in the distance, James Cameron used to lull himself to sleep by waging imaginary galactic wars. The only problem was, the special effects sucked and the score wasn't up to scratch: "I remember lying in bed at night and listening to awful music while choreographing epic space battles in my head. I was imagining both the battle itself on a huge screen and ways to film it. This was frustrating given the lack of technical knowledge I had at this point."
There being a shortage of people Cameron could fire, aged ten, he had to content himself with watching other people's movies and giving them a dressing down instead. He was "the archetypal small-town movie fan," spending his lunch money on movies on the weekend and living off Twinkies during the week. He caught one of the Godzillas and thought it the worst film he'd ever seen, then Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a bit more like it. It made him dizzy -- "I just couldn't figure out how he did all that stuff." Like Lucas, he was a comics reader -- learning how to draw by copying the Marvel draftsmen of Spider-Man, X-Men, The Hulk -- and a model builder, once sending some mice over the edge of the falls in a small submersible made from old mayonnaise jars, an Erector Set, and a paint bucket. And like Spielberg, he was a dedicated enemy of the public peace, building catapults that launched rockets at the neighbors' front lawns, and, most famously, a hot-air balloon out of an old dry-cleaning bag and some candles that flew right down the street. "It actually got to the point where the local fire department got called out to chase it," remembered his brother Mike. "We ended up making it into the papers because people thought it was a UFO."
The idea that you should look for clues to the identity of tomorrow's box office titans by checking in the records of your local fire brigade hasn't really caught on in Hollywood, but maybe it should, for apart from Spielberg's and Cameron's skirmish with their local fire trucks, there was little else to suggest that this generation would go on to direct the great landmarks in the next twenty-five years of cinema. Their first contact with the medium was entirely lacking the sort of hushed reverence one expects of one's auteurs, instead marked by disappointment and impatience: the movies seemed like just so many flat shadows, flickering on cardboard. They longed for something more visceral, more athletic, something capable of punching through the screen, through the fourth wall, and raising the public alarms outside the theater: films with all the excitement of firetrucks hurtling down your street. For the most part, they got their kicks elsewhere, in comics and on TV, wherever they could find them. There was no "popular culture" as we know it today. That phrase, with its charge of punkish, publicly endorsed glamour, was decades off. It was just "junk" or "trash" and to track it down required patience, dedication, and cunning, like being an enthusiast of postwar Hungarian cinema today. You had to go around to your neighbor's house, like Lucas, or sneak down at night after your parents had gone to bed, like Spielberg, and if that failed, then there was nothing else for it, you simply had to gather together your mayonnaise jars and telephone cable spools, and build your own thrills yourself. They were the boys who built pop culture in their backyards.
Both Zemeckis and Cameron, coming of age just a few years later, had things slightly easier, with Zemeckis soaking up the horror films of William Castle, then in his prime with The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill; while Cameron availed himself of the portfolio of characters loosed by Marvel Comics in the early sixties -- the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Spider-Man -- but even so, it was slim pickings. "The seventies were the last decade where movies were being made by people who didn't grow up on television," says Bob Gale, Zemeckis's writing partner on the Back to the Future movies. "Now my daughter is fourteen years old and she watches Friends and I Love Lucy and everything in between, Laverne and Shirley, all these different eras are coexisting in her brain, which is very different from the experience of my generation, which was deep, structured, rigid: once a show was off the air it was off the air. If a movie was out of release that was it, you didn't see it again. I remember, they would bring back The Godfather and Bob and I would go see it every night because we didn't know the next chance we'd get."
Bob Gale's daughter has things easy, you have to say. The dedicated thrill-seeker, these days, doesn't have to be that dedicated, and doesn't have to do that much seeking. What with their Terminator DVDs and their Back to the Future reruns, their Indiana Jones box sets and their Star Wars toys, their Alien video games and their tickets to the nearest Jurassic Park theme park, they're sitting pretty. The backyard is in their front room. They can download, plug in, rent, buy, surf, and sample thrills that are just hanging there, ready for the taking. Nestled within a spaghetti junction of wires and cords, leads and cables, they are treated like the consumer kings they most assuredly are -- the target of a billion-dollar entertainment industry that hops at their feet, desperate to catch their eye. Should they unplug themselves and saunter on down to the movie theater, a rotation of summer blockbusters will process past; if their heart is softened by partisanship or pity, they can keep tabs on the fates of these movies by tracking their grosses online; but ultimately, the fate of these behemoths will be decided by them, much in the way that the fate of the gladiators lay at the feet of the crowd at the Colosseum, where, in the words of historian Jerome Carcopino, the caesars "exhausted their ingenuity to provide the public with more festivals than any people, in any country, at any time, has ever seen."
The caesars never lived to see the blockbuster movie season in America -- one long canyon run, stretching between Memorial Day and Labor Day, into which the studios set loose one $150 million behemoth after another, in the dim hopes of finding public favor. Just as it was in Rome, the second-most-popular spectator sport is not watching these spectacles, but watching the crowds who have come to watch the spectacles, and ruing the imminent decline of the West. "Such sights are for the young," sighed Pliny the Elder. "These and similar things prevent anything memorable or serious being done in Rome," agreed Cicero. So, too, with today's blockbuster demolition derby, whose ever-increasing intensity shakes our more moralistic critics to their furthermost fillings. "The place where 'magic' is supposed to occur has seemed a lifeless pit of torn velour, garish anonymity, and spilled Pepsi," film critic David Thomson has written. "The medium has sunk beyond anything we dreamed, leaving us stranded, a race of dreamers." Writing on the centenary of cinema in 1998, Susan Sontag added her voice to Thomson's jeremiad: "Cinema's hundred years seem to have the shape of a life cycle: an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories, and the onset, in the last decade, of an ignominious, irreversible decline." So go the cries of our modern-day Juvenals: all Rome is at the circus, such sights are for the young, nothing but bread and games.
The industry's boosters, on the other hand, point to the ever faster blur of broken records -- The Lost World beats Jurassic Park, Men in Black beats The Lost World, Spider-Man beats Men in Black, The Matrix Reloaded beats Spider-Man -- and certainly, if you look at the list of all-time box office blockbusters, you'll find the block crammed to busting with movies released from the last five years or so. Cameron's Titanic leads from the front, prowline proudly jutting forward, closely followed by Lucas's The Phantom Menace and Spielberg's Jurassic Park. In the top fifty, a staggering twenty films are from the last four years, another twenty-three from the nineties, leaving only seven places for an entire century of cinema to fight over. The eighties get a showing of four films, the seventies three, but as for anything released before The Exorcist in 1973, well, I don't know how to tell you this but sit down and pour yourself a stiff drink. Everything else is gone, the fifties vanished, the forties a rumor, the Golden Age of Hollywood, kerplooey. Tomorrow may be another day, but for this list, it's yesterday that's having a few problems.
In fact, it's the list that has a problem, and it's a big one: it takes no account of inflation -- a dangerous thing to do with box office records, which are nothing if not the love child of rapacious inflation and an impressionable dollar. Adjust the list to today's ticket prices and it's a very different story, with Titanic dropping 5 places to 6th position, The Phantom Menace plummeting 16 places to 19th, Jurassic Park 12 places to 17th, Forrest Gump 6 places to 22nd -- and they're the lucky ones. Of films from the last fifteen years, only a couple more survive, Spider-Man clinging on by his sticky fingertips at 35, and Return of the King just avoiding the fiery Pit of Mordor at 47. All the rest -- all the sound and fury of Independence Day and Twister, the bluster and bombast of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor -- are wiped from the map. It's their turn to be history. It's like Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution, all the communist hard-liners on the run while the dissidents return in weary triumph. A big welcome back, if you please, for James Bond (Thunderball, Goldfinger), and for Walt Disney (Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, Fantasia, The Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, Bambi, Pinocchio). A big hand, too, for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and that other dynamic duo, Mary Poppins and Ben-Hur. The fifties now sweep back with seven films, as do the sixties. The forties are now represented by four films; hell, there's even a film from the thirties in there. Only one, mind you, but what a strike, in at number one again, after all these years: Gone With the Wind. Even bigger news, though, is the massive comeback staged by the seventies, now represented by a dozen films -- including Airport, Jaws, The Towering Inferno, Love Story, The Sting, Star Wars, Grease, and The Godfather. Who would have thought it? After all this time: the seventies turned out to be the golden age of the blockbuster, the era in which the ziggurat that is popular cinema reached its gleaming zenith.
This is not the story we have been told. The story we have been told -- in book after book, and in article after article -- has it that the seventies, far from being the golden age of the blockbuster, were the golden age of the American art house, cut down in its prime when the age of the blockbuster dawned at the end of it. In the early seventies, we weren't supposed to be queuing up to watch über-schlock like Love Story and Airport, we were supposed to be huddling in respectfully small numbers around films like The Last Movie and The Last Picture Show and wondering if their titles would come true when studio squares caught on and busted us. We weren't supposed to be forging such mass megahits as The Exorcist and The Sting, we were supposed to be comparing notes on whether Robert Altman or Arthur Penn had more artfully disabused us of our expectations as a mass audience, and as for Jaws and Star Wars, they weren't supposed to emerge from a crowded field of a dozen other blockbusters, they were supposed to rear up and bite everyone on the ass from out of nowhere. This certainly is the story we were told by Peter Biskind in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which ends with the great auteurs of the seventies numb with shock at their Judas-like betrayal by Lucas in 1977. "Star Wars was in, Spielberg was in. We were finished," Martin Scorsese told Biskind. "Star Wars swept all the chips off the table," complained William Friedkin. "What happened was like when McDonald's got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared...everything has gone back toward a big sucking hole."
This is, if you like, the "Magic Bullet" theory of modern film history: the conviction, shared by almost everyone -- but particularly those, like Friedkin, who had a film opening the same week as Star Wars -- that all it took was a single shot from Lucas's laser cannons to bring down the Camelot that was American film in the seventies. In which case, Biskind's book was the era's Warren Report, a prodigious body of research marshaled toward the end of straightforward frame-up. It certainly didn't feel like the death of cinema at the time -- A Star Is Born felt far worse -- and as for being dragged into a big sucking hole, well yes, but in a good way. I was ten when Star Wars came out. It first appeared on my radar in the form of some publicity stills, which appeared in a British comic called 2000 A.D., and which caused me to adopt a posture closely modeled on that of a pointer dog who has just caught wind of his first pheasant -- a position I held until my parents caved in and took me up to London to see the thing. That I remember. Of the film itself, I remember nothing -- I must have been in some sort of shock -- but I do remember the second time I saw it, and the third and fourth time -- that was when I watched two screenings, back to back, using one ticket, shrinking down into my seat and hoping the ushers didn't see me -- and by the eighth or ninth time, I had the film pretty well etched onto the back of my skull, and could replay it at will, on my walks to and from school; which is just as well because by then the forces of grown-up cinemagoing had gathered, staged their countercoup, and forced the local cinema manager to put something else on. It was back to orangutans and CB radios.
This story is not uncommon, as a quick glance at the vast fan literature that surrounds Star Wars will tell you. In his essay in the collection A Galaxy Not So Far Away, novelist Jonathan Lethem reveals that he saw the film twenty-one times that summer and only stopped at twenty-one because the number seemed "safely ridiculous and extreme...yet stopping at only twenty seemed too mechanically round. Adding one more felt plausibly arbitrary, more realistic." You begin to see what Friedkin's Sorcerer or any other of the other films released that year were up against, if fans called it a day at twenty-one simply in the interests of psychological realism. So if anyone killed the American film industry, let's be clear about this: it was me and Lethem, and the millions of other kids just like us, who gathered together in the summer of 1977, seized our chance, and staged a coup d'etat of our local movie theaters, thus launching Hollywood, in Biskind's words, on its course toward "infantilizing the audience...overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness, and critical reflection." Believe me, this took some work. Those suckers don't go down overnight. The toy manufacturers Kenner had, for example, been caught napping. Instead of Luke Skywalker action figures, all you could buy was a voucher that promised you Luke Skywalker action figures in the not-too-distant future. This didn't matter, though, because I set about merchandising the film on my own: I made a Jawa costume out of an old sack, a nylon stocking, and some LEGO car headlights; I made a Luke Skywalker costume out of a judo tunic -- I actually enrolled in a judo class and turned up for lesson one, solely in order to get my hands on the kit -- and I built little dioramas for the action figures, when they arrived, consisting of a cardboard box filled with some sand that a friend's mother had brought back inside a tourist knickknack from Tunisia, which of course was where Star Wars had been filmed.
Whatever else this tells you -- don't let your son's friends loose on your tourist knickknacks -- it shows you that the merchandising of Star Wars was not part of some Machiavellian bid to turn movies into toys: Star Wars was going to get turned into a toy by me and my friends whether it liked it or not. It was what you did with Star Wars: you turned it into a toy, so you could keep playing with the movie in your head, as Lucas had played with it in his head, in the years before he got to make it, sat in boring, flat Modesto while he dreamed up ways of escape. That was how Star Wars felt, too, arriving in our backyards like the droids do in Luke's -- as a clarion call to adventure, an invitation to another, impossibly glamorous universe where movies like Star Wars happened all the time.
Which is, of course, roughly what happened. Was there any better time to be young and thrill-hungry and going to the movies? The years that followed were all rather glorious. I suspect that in time, the generation who came of age in the early blockbuster era will come to be regarded with much the same hushed respect that attends those who caught the Beatles when they were seventeen. What a grand piece of historical luck it was to be in your early teens when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out -- when Spielberg and Lucas were in their prime and the very act of going to the movies seemed to come with its own brassily rousing John Williams score. Later on, we would learn to cuss and curse the infantilization of the American film industry, just like everyone else, but back then we were too busy infantilizing it to notice. We sat there like dauphin princes, while an entire industry devoted the best minds of a generation -- the best directors, the best writers -- to the task of making movies that stood a slim chance of finding our favor. Is there a more exquisite piece of narrative clockwork in modern cinema than Back to the Future? They spent three years writing it -- and here it was laid beneath the feet of squalling fourteen-year-olds, like a Fabergé football, or a filigree-silver chewing gum wrapper -- 24-karat popcorn. As for The Terminator, opinion is still divided on its exact contribution to the cause of World Cinema, but one thing is clear: anyone who thinks that but for the example of Lucas and Spielberg, James Cameron would have hung fire and called it a day -- like the wallflower we know him to be -- is dreaming. If Star Wars and Jaws hadn't done it, then The Terminator would have, and if The Terminator hadn't, then Top Gun or Die Hard, and if not them, then we had plenty more where those came from. It was going to happen. We were too many.
"Steven and I come from the visceral generation," said Lucas in 1997, when Star Wars was rereleased, "one of the things we tapped into -- not just Steven and I, but our whole sixties generation -- is that we don't come from an intellectual generation. We enjoyed the emotional highs we got from movies and realized that you could crank up the adrenaline to a level way beyond what people were doing." If Spielberg and Lucas did jump-start a revolution, it is one that has long since passed its makers. As much separates Jaws and Star Wars from today's blockbusters as once separated them from The Sound of Music. It's doubtful, in fact, whether either film would get released in today's filmmaking climate. "Star Wars would get pounded today. Some executive would get to the point where Darth Vader is revealed as Luke's father and he would say, 'Give me a break'" said Willard Huyck, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back, in 1997. The rerelease of Jaws prompted similar thoughts from its makers. Says Richard Zanuck, its producer, "Steven and I have talked a couple of times recently about had we had the ability to do a CGI shark, we probably wouldn't have made as good a picture. It would have been too perfect and we would have used it too much. The fact is we intended to show the shark in the first scene with the girl. We didn't have it, so in a weird way because we didn't have the tools we had a better picture. We had to invent things to keep the shark alive."
"Times have changed," says Spielberg now. "It's like when the first 747s landed at Los Angeles International Airport, everybody thought flying through the sky was the greatest marvel they had ever seen -- floating through the air, seemingly in slow motion. Today we never even look at 747s. They're a dime a dozen, and it's that way with the blockbuster. If there was one blockbuster every three years, it meant a lot more than when you have a blockbuster every three weeks. Everybody tends to go for the bleachers when they're hitting, everyone wants to be Sammy Sosa now, or McGwire, when they're batting and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just that audiences are starting to accept movies, some of which aren't really very good. It's the job of each of these studios to market these movies as the must-see movie of the year, so they go after blockbuster status by creating a grand illusion. Now sometimes they've got a real engine behind that grand illusion, meaning the movie is damned good and the audience will say they got their money's worth. Other times the audience comes on the promise of seeing something they've never seen before and it becomes just another sci-fi action yarn, and they feel disappointed, but it doesn't stop them coming back next week to see if the next studio can keep the same promise."
To some, this will call to mind the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which Indy, having plummeted over the cliff on the back of a tank, reappears behind his grieving father to wonder what the fuss is all about. But then one of the curious things about the idea that we are all plunging to our doom on the back of the blockbuster is not how many people think this about Hollywood, but how many people in Hollywood think this about Hollywood, which should be more than enough to make you suspicious. It is by far the most parroted opinion in Los Angeles. Everywhere you go you will meet filmmakers who will cheerfully opine that there are way too many comic book adaptations/sequels/merchandising cash-ins, before turning back to their mixing desks to put the finishing touches to Daredevil II: Double Dare, or whatever else it is they are working on, before busting the ceiling again with yet another record-breaking blockbuster, which everyone goes to see and then forgets about in a week. One of the more perplexing things about today's annual blockbuster binge, in fact, is that it has become very hard to determine which films are genuinely popular and which are not -- which is to say, films we would actively seek out, as opposed to merely sit through. Oftentimes, all we have to do is check that a movie is as bad as everyone says it is, in enough numbers, and -- poof! -- we've accidentally launched another blockbuster film franchise on an unsuspecting world. The heat generated by these things seems to have bent the light by which we see them, the very nature of popularity itself taking on a miragelike shimmer, and through the haze has risen an entirely new half-breed of film, neither a hit nor a flop, neither popular nor unpopular but just there, hanging in the sky like an untethered blimp or derelict space station: semipopular culture, or kind-of popular culture -- a culture of semisatiation, geared to the satisfaction of the mildly curious with the not-quite-boring: Curiosity Culture.
This is, needless to say, a very serious development, both for those who revere the art of popular filmmaking, but also for those who hate it -- those who think every chord struck in the public's breast rings false. For when the battle between the hard-core Biskindites and teenage thrill-junkies has raged and worn itself out, that was the one thing everyone could always point to, the one thing popular culture always had going for it: it was at least popular. That was part of the thrill of watching it, reacting to it as an audience; it was what allowed academics to study it, panhandling it for signs of the popular will; it was what gave independent movies something to be independent from, and Peter Biskind something to vent his righteous anger over, and go home muttering about lowest-common-denominator filmmaking. If only! One of the more disconcerting aspects of today's blockbuster industry is that the aforementioned pandering has no time or space to take place: the traffic on these things is just too fast. That world-famous Lowest Common Denominator doesn't even get a chance to kick in. (Did anyone ever work out, by the way, what denomination it turned out to be? Pounds, dollars, or yen? I'm keen to know before the market gives out.) All Biskind and the critics can do, in such a landscape, is point to a film we are all curious about and harrumph about lowest-common-denominator interest levels, and then proceed to endorse films about which nobody is the least bit curious, films as uninteresting, from the outset, as possible. It certainly explains a lot of what passed for independent cinema in the nineties, but it doesn't get you very far with the blockbuster.
We're going to have a tough time explaining it all to our children as we look back over the box office records of the last years of the twentieth century.
"So that was the big hit of 1998," they will say, curling up on our knee, pointing to Godzilla.
"Well, no, actually everyone hated it."
"But it did $376 million! Look, it was number three that year. It must have been great. And look at that one, Pearl Harbor...$450 million. That one was number five. I'm number five in my math class."
"Yes, well, your math class is kind of different. Hollywood does its math in its own special way..."
"Well...You see there are these things called marketing budgets and opening weekends and in the nineties they sort of ganged up and what happened was we all wanted to see what all the fuss was about and by the time we'd realized -- "
"Hey, look at these! Wild Wild West...$217 million...Waterworld...$255 million. And Last Action Hero, that took in $121 million all over the world! A lot of people in a lot of different countries sure loved those movies."
"Well, no, actually they were seen as catastrophic flops and globally reviled."
"I don't understand."
"Tell us again what it was like when you went to see movies you liked..."
This book, then, is for them: a book about the movies we really liked back in the time when liking them was relatively simple; a book that tells the story of how, after a decade of disconnect, American movies suddenly found themselves plugged into the popular will once again, and how the power surge sent Hollywood flying, before frying the nerve endings and brain cells of all concerned -- the story of how popular culture suddenly became very popular indeed, before the popularity went to its head and it turned into the global class clown. This story doesn't end with Spielberg and Lucas, it begins with them, and what a great beginning it was, for few films begin with as little fanfare as this anymore. It was preceded by just thirty seconds of credits -- in later films, the director in question would hone it down still further, not wishing to distract the audience with thoughts of this or that actor, and how big his or her paycheck was -- instead plunging us straight into the water, while it was still warm.
EXT. BEACH -- NIGHT: It is a pleasant, moonlit, windless night in mid-June. We see a long straight stretch of white beach. Behind the low dunes are the dark shapes of large expensive houses.
EXT. CHRISSIE IN THE WATER: Her expression freezes...She reaches underwater to touch her leg. Whatever she feels makes her open her mouth to scream, but she is slammed again, hard, whipped into an arc of about eight feet, up and down, submerging her down to her open mouth, choking off any scream she might try to make...
Copyright © 2004 by Tom Shone
How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer
How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer
The moment the shark fin broke the water in 1975, a new monster was born. Fast, visceral, and devouring all in its path, the blockbuster had arrived. In just a few weeks Jaws earned more than $100 million in ticket sales, an unprecedented feat that heralded a new era in film. Soon, blockbuster auteurs such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and James Cameron would revive the flagging fortunes of the studios and lure audiences back into theaters with the promise of thrills, plenty of action, and an escape from art house pretension.
But somewhere along the line, the beast they awakened took on a life of its own, and by the 1990s production budgets had escalated as quickly as profits. Hollywood entered a topsy-turvy world ruled by marketing and merchandising mavens, in which flops like Godzilla made money and hits had to break records just to break even. The blockbuster changed from a major event that took place a few times a year into something that audiences have come to expect weekly, piling into the backs of one another in an annual demolition derby that has left even Hollywood aghast.
Tom Shone has interviewed all the key participants -- from cinematic visionaries like Spielberg and Lucas and the executives who greenlight these spectacles down to the effects wizards who detonated the Death Star and blew up the White House -- in order to reveal the ways in which blockbusters have transformed how Hollywood makes movies and how we watch them. As entertaining as the films it chronicles, Blockbuster is a must-read for any fan who delights in the magic of the movies.
- Free Press |
- 352 pages |
- ISBN 9780743274319 |
- December 2004