Week 7: Behold, The Blockbuster!

This week we examined the emergence of the Hollywood blockbuster: how it came to be, how it changed the industry, and whether or not its lasting influence has helped or damaged cinema and filmmaking. We paid special attention to special effects and the role of spectacle, the use of music (particularly John Williams), the kinds of stories blockbusters tell (particularly the notion of the hero’s journey and the “high concept” pitch), as well as how blockbusters relate to dominant ideologies vis-a-vis the movie business.

We also looked at how the marketing of the movies changed in the mid-70s with respect to the advent of pay cable, television and foreign market rights, saturation vs. platform openings, television advertising, and cross-media merchandising.

Other topics for discussion included the blockbuster’s relation to genre, its emphasis on plot over character, its emphasis on linear narrative as a series of events or moments designed to dazzle the audience and top each successive scene (and, consequently, the blockbuster’s close relationship to and easy adaptation into video games), and its elevation of forms/tropes/characters/genres formally relegated to B-picture status.

Screenings:

Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

Questions to consider regarding Star Wars:

• What are the film’s politics? Biskind saw it as an allegory for Vietnam, while Guerrero finds it to be underscored by reactionary attitudes towards race…

• Robin Wood discusses how the film has an infantilizing effect, and claims that blockbusters have traditionally resisted critical scrutiny because they are “just fun” or “just entertainment.” He says that when we talk about how a movie “works,” it is because it corresponds “to our own social construction.” Pleasure, he writes, is ideological and culturally determined—automatic, mindless—but we can’t take pleasure for granted if we’re going to be adults…

• What about the issue of pastiche and appropriation? What are we to make of the film’s climatic scene, which is an homage to The Triumph of the Will?

• What is the relationship between spectacle and diversion from the real? In other words, what are the politics of spectacle? Is all spectacle bad?

• How does gender operate in the world of Star Wars? Race?

• what does Lucas’ continual tinkering and rewriting of the material say about the movies and future of cinema? Which is the “real” or definitive version of Star Wars?

• how do you account for the film’s continuing appeal? Is it nostalgia for the past, or something else?

…and, just for fun, “Ponda Baba’s Bad Day,” from Robot Chicken:

 

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