Sense of Wonder: Was Hollywood ruined by Star Wars and Jaws?

Star Wars (1977)

A couple days ago, R. Patrick Alberty weighed in on the subject of whether JAWS (1975) ruined the modern Hollywood blockbuster. The inspiration for Alberty’s piece was this editorial by Ross Douthat, defending JAWS and STAR WARS against charges made by John Podhoretz and David Edelstein. I wanted to weigh in on the subject, not to cast my vote for who is right or wrong but to “take the bull by the horns” – in the old fashioned sense that logicians use to mean navigating a narrow course between two opposing options. In my view, debating about whether STAR WARS and JAWS should be faulted for the current state of the cinematic arts assumes there is something to be faulted for – an assumption I take issue with.
First off, I can see both sides of the argument: You may like STAR WARS and JAWS but still believe that their influence on Hollywood was a net negative; on the other hand, why hold films from the 1970s responsible for the current state of cinema? My objection is that, whatever their disagreements, all sides in the blockbuster debate accept the underlying premise that there is something seriously wrong with today’s movies. Podhoretz, who comes across like a bitter old man, laments the lack of “seriousness of purpose…and adult themes” in current Hollywood fare. Edelstein, who comes across equally old and equally bitter, fondly recalls an earlier era of films like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, EASY RIDER, and BANANAS. Ross, who is not old and is only slightly bitter, merely opines that “blockbusters were arguably better in the 1980s, and they’re arguably worse now.” Even Alberty, the youngest and in no way bitter member of the debate, cites a move “away from the basic foundations of good storytelling” and a “lowering of quality.”
More or less, everyone agrees: “Today’s Hollywood movies – or at least big-budget summer tent-pole movies – really suck.” The only disagreement is about how much they suck, exactly when they started sucking, and who is to blame for the suckage. For me, this is the old Golden Age Theory rearing its ugly head once again: once upon a time, things were great, and now they’re not. After sitting through something like JONAH HEX, I can certainly understand why some would think we’re living in the cinematic equivalent of the Dark Ages, but as someone who was old enough to see it first hand, I can tell you that the earlier “Golden Age” was not that golden.
Basically, franchise film-making has been around since the silent era. Long before almost every sequel had a number after its title, there were countless movies about Ma and Pa Kettel and Francis the Talking mule – not to mention durable characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and James Bond. Not only that: big-budget blockbusters have been with us forever, and not all of them turned out as successfully as GONE WITH THE WIND. (CLEOPATRA, anyone?) In short, just about every complaint you could make about today’s Hollywood (recycling, overspending, glitz over substance) could have been – and has been lodged – for decades.
So, am I saying that nothing has changed since JAWS and STARS hit big in the 1970s? Of course not. Release patterns, as Podhoretz rightly points out, have changed from the days when Hollywood opened its movies in exclusive engagements and gradually rolled them out over the rest of the country. But I suspect this change would have occurred whether or not Universal had struck gold by debuting JAWS in wide release (on 400 screens – miniscule by today’s standards). The reality of home entertainment options like DVD and VOD have pretty much seen to that.
I think what really has Podhoretz and Edelstein riled is not so much bigger budgets and wider release patterns; it’s that genre films, once relegated to the low-budget ghetto, now receive prestige treatment. Once upon a time, a critic at a major outlet could ignore horror, fantasy, and science fiction films; they would be handed off to a second-stringer, if they were reviewed at all. But when IRON MAN 2 opens in thousands of theatres, there’s a certain obligation to assess its merits, for good or bad.
What’s funny about this is that JAWS and STAR WARS do not represent Hollywood’s first love with genre subject matter elevated to big-budget status. Back in the early ’70s, when young directors and writers were implementing the lessons learned in film school and trying to make artistic statements, William Friedkin was winning Oscars for THE FRENCH CONNECTION – a gritty police shoot-em up that became 1971’s Best Film of the Year. Unlike a filmmaker of today, who would probably feel some kind of obligation to justify that success by following up with some kind of serious “message movie,” Friedkin instead brought us a film version of THE EXORCIST, a big-budget horror movie, which also minted box office gold and earned multiple Oscar nominations.
In a sense, Steven Spielberg (with JAWS) and George Lucas with (STAR WARS) were following in Friedkin’s footsteps: taking genre material and giving it the lavish Hollywood treatment, with all the craftsmanship and artistry of a prestige production. I suspect this is the real crime in the eyes of critics like Podhoretz and Edelstein – critics who believe that art isn’t worth examining unless it comes wrapped in a blanket of heavy-duty seriositude, who believe that conventional, down-to-earth subject matter is somehow inherently superior to the amazing flights of imagination that can be achieved in the realm of cinefantastique. In short, critics who have allowed their Sense of Wonder to atrophy.
Seen from this perspective, I don’t think Ross Douthat is much of an improvement. Sure, he is not ready to pin blame on STAR WARS and JAWS for the current blockbusters that he dislikes (who can argue when he cites TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN and PIRATES OF THE CARIBEAN: AT WORLD’S END?). But still, like Edlestein and Podhoretz, he yearns for a return to a Golden Age; the only difference is that for Douthat the Golden Age is not the ’60s and ’70s but the ’80s.
For myself I would argue that our current era, despite its obvious lapses, need make no apology to the Hollywood of the past. Last year’s STAR TREK movie was as much fun as STAR WARS. The first IRON MAN was as good a movie as SUPERMAN (1978). AVATAR may not be perfect, but it pushes the envelope on film technology and uses that technology in a genuine effort to tell a story with some kind of thematic resonance, however heavy handed. Everyone seems to agree that Pixar’s animation blockbusters, like the current TOY STORY 3, deserve the millions of dollars they make.
Lastly, Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) belies every argument one could make against the Hollywood blockbuster. It fits the formula we are supposed to hate (a talented filmmaker wasting his time on a summer studio franchise flick based on an old comic book), yet it emerges not only as a great piece of summer entertainment; it is also a complex, dark, and thoughtful meditation on themes as profound as any you will see in a “serious” drama (which I explored earlier here).
Yes, STAR WARS and JAWS taught Hollywood that they could make a galaxy full of money during the summer months, and many bad movies have been made trying to replicate that success. But the silver lining to this allegedly dark cloud is that horror, fantasy, and science fiction films are no longer trapped in the low-budget ghetto, and some amazing, truly wonderful films have been made as a result.