Category Archives: the Blockbuster!

Bruno’s Recitation 3/7 3:30pm

Bruno started class by going over the details for the next assignment:  It has to be 4-5 pages and is worth twenty five percent of the grade. Bruno stressed the importance of clarity in the paper. He does not have to agree with the argument, but it must be clear. We must argue the thesis and make sure to properly cite two sources. It should be formal writing and therefore not opinion-based. We are to choose one of the four topics on the prompt. Bruno then went over each of the four topics.  He wants us to cover the narrative, the context, and the aesthetics of the film for the argument. A student asked a question about the dates that are acceptable to choose a film from – Bruno said definitely not to pick anything from the 1990s. Bruno also went over the paper formatting. If we want to use an image, we can do so at the end of the paper. (Do not stick it in the middle of the paper.) Also, if we would like to reference an image or movie clip, we can post it here, on the blog. Bruno added that we should not just talk about one scene, but about the whole film. He let us know he is making himself available for any appointments if we have questions about the paper, which is due on March twentieth.

Next, we talked about the 1976 film Bacalhua by Adriano Stuart. “Bacalhua” means codfish. This film is a parody of Jaws and relies on the viewer having already seen the American film to understand the jokes, most of which are references to.  It follows the same structure as Jaws, although the production value is very low. They did not have much money, hence the use of a codfish rather than a shark in the parody (although this decision certainly works at a humorous device). The film is a commentary on the blockbuster genre. Bruno introduced a clip from it and we saw the satire at work. It was noted that Bacalhua was released just a year after Jaws, which certainly must have added to its pieced-together appearance. Still, it was an impressive parody.

Then Bruno introduced Scott, who presented on Star Wars and the article “Star Bucks” from Easy Riders by Peter Biskind. Scott began his presentation talking about George Luca s and his disapproving father; Lucas wanted to pursue filmmaking but his father was wary and not supportive. Scott showed us a clip from a scene in Star Wars that closely mirrors real life – Luke wants to pursue his dreams as well but does not have the support of his father. Scott quoted the article, which explained that George Lucas was obsessed with making money and finding a way to please the audience, believing that if he pleased the audience then he would make more money, and he equated money with power. Also, he wanted to make the simple bubblegum plot that a lot of audience members would enjoy. This changed how movies were made. He disagreed with the then-current culture of film in which violence, drugs, or sex were a part of the film. He believed that audiences should not have to think very hard, but instead follow a simple plot line and enjoy themselves. Scott also talked about how before the film was released there was a screening for the filmmaker friends of Lucas. They criticized Lucas’ film for being too low art. They believed that he should develop the script and the characters more so that the film would be more artistic. However, one fellow filmmaker, Stephen Spielberg strongly disagreed and told Lucas he would make upward of one hundred million on the film.

Scott went on to explain that although Star Wars did turn out to be a big blockbuster success, George Lucas had a negative experience making the film and was sure it would fail. His crew refused to work overtime and the characters in the film were ridiculed. He promised himself that he would never direct another film again. Of Course Lucas went on to make hundreds of millions from the film and the various licensing he had acquired – notably for action figurines and dolls that people would go on to collect. The studios had not thought of the potential for money –making such aggressive merchandise – creation could have, and Lucas changed Hollywood and did go on to direct other films.

Next, Scott talked about how people drew metaphors from the film. One proposed metaphor was the Vietnam War. Another metaphor idea cast Darth Vader as Richard Nixon. Lastly, and the metaphor that Scott mentioned most extensively, was that directors like Lucas (perhaps metaphorically “Luke” ?) and Stephen Spielberg are the good guys in the Empire of Hollywood and the studios and the more artsy directors were the bad guys. Indeed, Scott pointed out, Lucas and Spielberg forever changed Hollywood. Lucas was and is a director that was more focused on the visual and the imagery. He did not care about meaning in the script or dialogue. He just wanted to make people happy. Audiences no longer craved the movies that were close to theater productions. Audiences wanted Blockbusters. This continues today as the more artsy movies win Academy Awards, blockbusters like the “Ironman” continue to make millions. We all clapped after Scott’s presentation.

Next Bruno asked us to define blockbuster. One student said that the blockbuster must appeal to a vast audience, as opposed to arts/independent films that are generally more critically acclaimed, but much more difficult to understand.  Another student volunteered that blockbusters are usually films that feature heroes and are movies that everyone can relate to – they feature universal stories. We agreed that blockbuster films are movies that are simple. You can summarize them simply. Another student said that they are more about spectacle than artistry. Bruno said that each scene in a blockbuster is a “big” scene with spectacle, that blockbusters are crowd pleasers, with intensive marketing to make them more popular. We discussed the symbiosis between television ads and movies. Television ads have to draw people in, in just thirty seconds, so blockbusters must have action packed thirty second clips available. We touched on the economic relationship between the toy companies, the studios, television stations, and newspapers. We also talked about saturation –when a movie comes out,  it is released everywhere, so that everyone can see it, boosting opening weekend numbers as much as possible.  Another student mentioned the importance of volume and sounds in blockbusters, which lead to the importance of having quality sound systems in the movie theaters. Bruno expanded on this saying that as Blockbusters get more and more popular, movie theaters have to draw and entice audiences with more technology – he gave the recent 3D movie Avatar as an example.

We talked about how films in the blockbuster genre continue to follow the narrative structure and also produce spectacles in each scene. One student brought up that Lucas was using Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey structure-  a hero narrative – as most blockbusters do.  Bruno mentions that he does not connect with this film because the more action and spectacle scenes he sees, the more bored he gets. We talked about the depth of characters in blockbusters (or lack of). The less specific a character’s traits are, the broader the audience appeal and ability to relate to said character. The more specific the character has been written, the smaller the audience that will be that will be able to relate to him/her. A huge audience related to Luke Skywalker because his character was so one dimensional.

Another student argued that Star Wars is the perfect escapist film. He made the argument (contrary to the reading and what we would later discuss in the same recitation about the political implications of the film) that the film has no metaphors to relate it to real life, and that this makes it enjoyable.

Students then engaged in a conversation on why Darth Vader is “cool.” Even though he is an evil villain, students argued that he comes across as likeable. Other students argued the opposite. The students talked about how they view Darth Vader differently when he reveals he is Luke Skywalker’s father. Bruno argues that Darth Vader’s mask makes it hard to read his expressions. Yet other students disagree and believe his expressions come out in his iconic voice. The class discussed the Princess Leia character. The students argue different things, that she waited to be saved like Rapunzel, or that she took action into her own hands. The class also discussed the journey of Han Solo and how at the beginning of the movie he is very selfish but at the end he turns into a caring, giving, not so selfish person. We continued to discuss how distinct the characters’ appearances are and if that made them popular toys. Also we discussed the binary created by the film of the good (Luke Skywalker) and the evil (Darth Vader), with no grey in between.

Now Bruno asked us about the political implications of the film and we talked about how Darth Vader is the only character played by a black actor, James Earl Jones,  that he is dressed all in black and wears a black mask, and is evil. As another political implication, one student pointed out that the Jedis are rebels that fight against the dark Empire. This would seem to imply that Lucas was denouncing imperialism.  Also, the student pointed out that Princess Leia is also fighting a war with the rebels to free her people. But Bruno pointed out that Lucas may have not wanted to make the film about anything political. It could just simply be a modern, futuristic, fairy tale, since not many details are given about why the empire is bad or what the rebels want. A student mentions that Obi Wan Kenobi is like a martyr for his cause. He references the line, “You kill me and I’ll come back a thousand times stronger.” He relates this to Martin Luther King and JFK and how they were killed but their causes got stronger and prevailed. Bruno then asked, “where does the word ‘Jedi’ come from?” We learned it means “historical film” or a period piece from Japan. Bruno asked us to think about the word “Jedi” and its roots in Japan. This led us to talk about World War II.  Bruno introduced a clip from The Triumph of the Will, a Nazi documentary showing a rally for Hitler. This clip eerily shows that Hitler’s troops parading looked strikingly similar to the Empire troops parading in Star Wars. Bruno wanted us to think about what the similarities mean.

Finally, we ended class and went off to Spring Break!

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Bruno’s Recitation-March 7th- 2pm

Bruno started off recitation on 3/7/12 by discussing the midterm assignment. He suggested that you meet him ahead of time because is next office hours are Monday, the day before the paper is due.

Some suggestions about the midterm paper:

  1. write as clearly as possible
  2. make sure your argument is stated very clearly
  3. the body should develop your argument using sources
  4. must use atleast two sources from the readings
  5. this is not as informal as a blog post.
  6. Try not to use judements of value (I love this film!)
  7. Can use the blog to post related stills or clips
  8. No title page

Then we saw a clip of a 1976 Jaws parody, known as Bacalhou, or “Codfish.” The film by Adriano Stuart, was obviously of lesser quality than Jaws, and was meant to be funny to highlight the concept of the “blockbuster,” the New Hollywood, and profit. Using Jaws made sense, because everyone at the time knew about it.

We further discussed blockbusters in the film industry. Blockbusters were not only defined by having intense special effects, but also by having a big star name, like Jack Nicholson, attached to it. In many ways, blockbusters were a big move from great film to great spectacles. Through blockbusters, stars became hot commodities, and the plot of a movie became more important to its success than development of the characters. It became more about making a lot of money from movies, instead of creativity; if you could describe a movie in 25 words or less, people would go and see it. The rise of malls and multiplexes added to the rise of blockbusters, with people going to see more and more movies, and the money being made from them becoming greater.

Then we had three reading presentations:

1)    Malory on the Schatz reading:

This reading defines New Hollywood, which starts post 1975 with the collapse of studios and the end of the classical era. The entertainment industry at this time is fragmented and New Hollywood as a lot of new ideas. Advertising became more influential, with really shocking promotional photos, including an infamous poster of Jaws. It became difficult to distinguish quality from commercial. Independent films were no longer lucrative for investors. This was a very important time because it shaped Hollywood as we know it today. The plot of movies became much more important to its success than the characters. With plot driven films came the replacement of a character, with a big star. At this time also came film rentals, VHS, and TV. New Hollywood was interested in making money from films, and not take risks that could make a film’s quality better.

2)    Dom on Biskind

George Lucas advertised Starwars as being exhilarating for younger kids. Dom explained that the main character of George Lucas’s films like Luke Skywalker, do not go through as much change as the secondary characters in the films. Luke is an “”empty vessel,” which makes him an easy character for anyone to relate to. Then Dom showed us a clip of a critique on Starwars, which highlights the underdeveloped characters.

3)    Morgan’s  on Kael

The Kael reading discusses why movies are bad now, and the element of being spectacles. The movies are not being run by artists, but by business people who are only interested in making money. A films success began to be based on the amount of money it made, and not on the quality of the film. This makes it easy to predict what kind of movie is going to be successful. The only risk put into a film became going over budget, and so people who would not go over budget were hired instead of better artists.  Artists’ integrity is lost because after negotiations are done, the artist is demoralized. They have lost so much creative power. The essential argument of this reading is that the people in control are not the artists and this takes from the quality of the film.

We further discussed throughout recitation the actually meaning of blockbuster. The term is actually talking about numbers, or how much money a film is making. It refers to actual busting or breaking of a block because of the amount of people coming to see the movie and standing in line. We talked about sleeper hits, which are when low-budget films make a lot more money than expected, or are advertised more through word of mouth.

Bruno’s Recitation, 2 pm.

Our recitation started with a screening of “Codfish”, a 1975 Brazilian spoof for “Jaws” that illustrated an enormous success that “Jaws” had: it was generally assumed that almost everyone has seen it. This was a blockbuster, a movie that defined New Hollywood, something so big and popular it was nearly impossible to ignore.
We tried to define what a blockbuster is, or at least underline its key features. Here’s a list:
1)high production cost, largely due to…
2)special effects, and overall emphasis on visually stunning/impressive scenes
3)star cast. It didn’t use to be a rule for a blockbuster to have a star in it, but I think now for almost every “hit” movie having a big name in cast is a must.  Here we had a little discussion of what came first: stars or blockbusters, and our conclusion was that since blockbusters actually are star-making films they were first.
4)multimedia product. Blockbuster’s success is often ensured by an excessive radio/TV/print advertising prior to the film’s release. Media conglomerates do their best to nearly guarantee public interest in the film. This aspect is also what makes blockbuster an expensive film.
5)most importantly, numbers. As Bruno put it, “Blockbuster means numbers,” and high numbers are the ultimate goal of a blockbuster, everything else (stars, ads, special effects) is used to achieve this goal and sell the movie.

Melarie continued defining blockbuster and New Hollywood in general in her presentation on Schatz’s essay. Some features of this new system: new marketing approach (again, aggressive advertising), films that stress plot rather than character (not to be confused with star talent), new ways of distribution (film rentals, VHS, TV), international markets, and a decrease in the number of independent films. Overall, it seems that the New Hollywood’s mantra is to avoid risks as much as possible, and hence rely on ways of making a film that have proved to be cost-effective.

Melarie also brought up an interesting point: our generation has pretty much only seen this blockbuster-driven New Hollywood. In other words, this is the only system we now know, which raises a question of what kind of films will our generation of filmmakers make? Lucas and Spielberg come from a “TV generation”, and their films clearly reflect that: they are, in the first place, entertaining. So will new filmmakers continue producing blockbusters, or will they be tired of hit-movies and turn to something else instead?

Then we heard Dom presenting on Biskind and “Star Wars.” Among many things he brought up something that seemed especially interesting to me was the idea that “Star Wars” was meant to be made for kids, which affected a lot of its aspects, such as “blank” protagonist that kids could easily identify with, and so forth. And yet the film found its fans among adults. What was it so appealing to the adult audience? Why did people fall in love with an imagined universe full of silly characters? I think the answer would have to do with what Gregg talked about on Tuesday: the audiences got tired by films that dealt with political and social problems, they wanted to escape from a depressing reality, and blockbusters provided them with such escape, with a guaranteed happy ending as a bonus.

The last presentation we had was Morgan’s, on Kael’s article in “The New Yorker.” For Kael the problem with the New Hollywood and its “bad movies” is that “industry sharks”, i.e. people in power like studio executives, are businessmen, not artists. They don’t really care about stories, characters, or even what people will think of their film, as long as they pay money to see it. Profit has become the main factor of filmmaking, as oppose to creative vision. Producers don’t want to risk their money and strive to come up with a formula that can guarantee a film’s success. Sometimes there seems to be such formula (stars + money + visual effects + A-list director + publicity), yet as we all see even films that have every single reason to be successful often fail (which I actually find comforting).

Our recitation ended with a quick discussion of the ways TV influences films, and vice versa. In a lot of ways film industry has become similar to TV: lower quality of movies, aggressive marketing, pre-packaged and pre-sold films. Yet at the same time TV characters are becoming more interesting and complicated, like film characters, etc.

So this was what we discussed today. Sorry if I’ve misspelled  names.

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: