Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Every movie is a product of its time, and yet somehow the best films transcend whatever reputation they may have had during their initial release.  Any reasonably intelligent viewer would value the work itself, not whatever trends it may or may not have inspired.

Yet when Jaws--by pretty much any standard, one of the greatest suspense films ever made--made its long-awaited Blu-Ray debut earlier this month, literally every single review I read of it, even by esteemed critics like Dave Kehr of The New York Times, took time out to lament the fact that this one film essentially gave birth to the modern blockbuster age, and somehow single-handedly (or perhaps in collusion with Star Wars, depending on which theory you buy into) brought the glorious director-dominated era of the seventies to a close.

This has been repeated so often it is now accepted as common knowledge, even by people who weren't even born when Jaws was released.  And it's just not true.

Let's consider some of the fallacies contained in this theory.

1) Jaws was the first big-time blockbuster, and its TV-dominated ad campaign and saturation release set the model for the future.

Yes, Jaws famously made a ton of money, and was at the time considered the most financially successful movie of all time.  But even that statistic is debatable--it made its fortune in the mid-seventies, when ticket prices had risen up to three times what they were in the previous decade.  If you count the number of actual tickets sold, it was far less successful than, say, The Sound Of Music or Thunderball.

(And if you want to talk about a widely-released blockbuster that was sold heavily on TV, hell, Thunderball is a great place to start.  There were toys, there were clothes, there were records, and there were tons and tons of crappy movies trying desperately to replicate its success.  The James Bond phenom of the sixties was a huge deal, and had a tremendous influence on mainstream cinema, yet even the most passionate Bond haters would never grant it the mythical power to ruin everything so routinely ascribed to Jaws.)

It's important to remember that Jaws was released by Universal, one of the canniest studios of the era in terms of maximizing profits.  Very few of the more artistic films of the seventies came from Universal; they cranked out schlock like Earthquake and the Airport series.  They invented Sensurround, for God's sake, a creation that by itself should destroy the notion that the pre-Jaws era was some sort of filmmaker's paradise.

To the suits at Universal, every movie was product.  Sometimes, when the product was actually good (The Sting, for instance), the audience responded with actual enthusiasm, and ticket sales were higher than had even been calculated.  They expected Jaws to be a hit before it even went into production--they even considered casting reliable disaster movie icon Charlton Heston at one point--but once they saw it, they realized it had breakout potential, and the ad campaign they whipped up ("Rated PG...But may be too intense for younger children", a COME-ON that would do Sam Arkoff proud) worked like a charm.  But really, the selling of it was just business as usual for Universal.  It's what they did.

2) Jaws brought the New Hollywood era of the seventies to an end.

Universal was a division of MCA, a company with major investments in TV and music, and it had been since the fifties.  Other major studios may have been bought by other companies--Paramount by Gulf + Western, United Artists by TransAmerica--or they may have still been independent entities, like Twenthieth Century-Fox and Columbia.  But they were all still all in touch with their glorious histories.  Lew Wasserman was at Universal, Daryl Zanuck still ran Fox at the beginning of the decade.  Jack Warner himself was still at Warner Bros. at the start of the New Hollywood age, and oversaw the production of Bonnie And Clyde, the movie that really started the era.

Even better, the studio heads who weren't left over from the forties and fifties knew what they were doing.  Paramount's Robert Evans may have been a terrible, terrible human being, but he oversaw the production of Rosemary's Baby and The Godfather and Chinatown.  John Calley at Warner Bros., Alan Ladd at Fox--these guys loved movies.  And as long as the budgets were kept relatively low, they were happy to sign unknown, promising talent.

And boy, did some great movies result.  Harold And Maude and The Last Detail, McCabe And Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye and Nashville, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and so on and so forth.

But the thing is, none of these movies set the box office on fire.  The popular movies of the era were disaster movies or schlock like Love Story or action movies with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.  (Amusingly, the fact that Eastwood himself was one of the best directors of the era was completely overlooked by critics at the time.)  In other words, studios then as now made movies they thought would be big hits.  Jaws may have made more money in a shorter amount of time than, say, The Godfather or The Exorcist, but it was part of a blockbuster trend those films had started.  (The fact that all three were also extraordinary films might have contributed to their success as well.)

The New Hollywood filmmakers who flamed out didn't do so because of the success of Jaws.  They did it to themselves.  The poster boy for this would have to be Francis Coppola, who followed up Apocalypse Now by pouring ridiculous sums of money into One From The Heart, a movie that had absolutely no chance of recouping its budget, and which, more to the point, is completely tone-deaf.  It's not a bad movie so much as a completely misbegotten one, and it's failure put Coppola in hock for over a decade, working as a director for hire on crap like The Cotton Club and--shudder--Jack

Finally, on this topic, how did Jaws exactly end the era of the filmmaker, anyway?  Martin Scorsese's immediate post-seventies movies included Raging Bull, The King Of Comedy and The Last Temptation Of Christ.  Two years after Jaws, Robert Altman dropped 3 Women, one of his best, and followed with A Wedding and A Perfect Couple, two of his least commercial movies ever.  But he got them made, and released.  How did Jaws destroy his ability to do that?

3) In the Lucas/Spielberg era, sensation is prized above everthing else.

When George Lucas made Star Wars, or more importantly, when Twentieth Century-Fox agreed to put up the money for it, expectations couldn't have been too high.  Lucas himself famously said he thought it would be "Disney successful"--popular with kids, maybe turn a profit, not much more.  Fox was probably expecting a somewhat higher-end version of Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad movies, which were wildly popular in the seventies.

But of course, it was huge--bigger than Jaws.  Honestly, though, it wasn't really designed to be a blockbuster.  The ad campaign was relatively modest, and it didn't have a saturation release--here in Iowa, it only played in one theater in the entire state during its initial release.

Movies in those days didn't open in 4000 theaters, or even 400.  If you wanted to see a movie right away, you had to make it an event.  If you liked it, and wanted to see it again, it wasn't going to be on TV for well over a year, much less on video.  You had to see it in the theater.  A studio could open a movie, but they couldn't make it a smash.  Only the audience could do that.

Audiences loved Jaws and Star Wars.  They made them hits.  Meanwhile, elsewhere in Hollywood, sinister forces were at work.  Michael Eisner was brought in from Paramount's TV division to run the movie studio.  Alan Ladd was forced out of Fox, which would ultimately become a mere cog in Rupert Murdoch's scary empire.  Coca-Cola bought Columbia, then sold it to Sony.

Almost overnight, studios were no longer being run by people who loved, or even understood movies, but by corporate types who cared only about the bottom line.  They wanted blockbusters because they wanted to make money, and nothing else.  This is what killed the movies, and it would have happened regardless of the success of Jaws or Star Wars.  Production costs rose so high that literally every big movie made these days is a co-production, which is why we have to sit through endless corporate logos at the start of every movie we see now.

And yes, it is true, some of the worst movies of the modern era were made under the aegis of Spielberg or Lucas.  (I say this as someone who saw both The Money Pit and Howard The Duck.)  So what?  That doesn't automatically render what they had made earlier as crap.  That just means they learned how to play the corporate game, to fit in and survive in an era that doesn't care about quality, a reality that was bound to happen with or without their earlier successes.

Some of the best filmmakers of the seventies may have crashed and burned, and some may have lost their souls, but many of them are still around.  (Brian DePalma has a new movie coming this fall, and I can't wait.)  The eighties and nineties saw the emergence of many great new directors--Joel and Ethan Coen, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Campion, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne and so many more.  And for God's sake, has any decade been kinder to a director than the eighties were to Woody Allen?  Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Hannah And Her Sisters, Radio Days--That's an astonishing run, made in the multiplex era, when the director-driven movie was supposedly no longer being made.

If Jaws killed a glorious era, why are there still so many good movies being made?

Thursday, August 23, 2012


1) Today happens to be Gene Kelly's 100th birthday, so in honor of the director/choreographer/star of the greatest movie ever made, some random thoughts on Singin' In The Rain.

2) Seriously, this really is the greatest movie ever made, outstanding at every conceivable level.  The three movies I always cite as my all-time favorites--this, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dumbo--all have in common the ability to reveal new facets with every viewing.  It may be something as simple as a slinky camera move you never noticed before, or a clever bit of editing (or, in the case of Dumbo, an unexpected hommage to Nosferatu), or just the fact that there are no bad scenes, nothing draggy that you fast-forward through on the tenth or twentieth viewing.  These three movies literally get better and better the more I watch.  And, God knows, I've watched them plenty.

3) In the first paragraph, I referred to Gene Kelly as the director/choreographer of Singin' In The Rain, but of course he co-directed and co-choreographed with Stanley Donen.  It's hard to say which of the two was the dominant voice.  Kelly's career as a director, aside from his work with Donen, was pretty dire (although I'm one of the few people on the planet with a soft spot for Invitation To The Dance),  but he'd clearly spent his career up to this point dreaming up inventive ways to put dance on film.

And Donen had been right there with him the whole time, as his assistant and finally as his co-director for On The Town.  Nobody really disputes that the actual staging of the dance numbers was pretty much all Kelly, but there's so much more to Singin' than just the dancing.  Donen would later direct such great comedies as Bedazzled and Movie Movie and such elegant entertainments as Charade and Two For The Road, so it's tempting to credit the crackerjack timing and perfect pacing to him.  On the other hand, Donen was also responsible for such utter shit as Surprise Package, Staircase and--shudder--Blame It On Rio, so let's not get carried away.

Most likely, it really was a joint effort, two guys really excited to see what they could do, bouncing ideas off each other right up until it was time to roll the cameras.  And even then, if either Kelly or Donen had a better idea, they'd use it.

4) Not to indulge in relentless superlatives, but is this the greatest screenplay ever written?  I think so.  Yeah, you might say, but what about The Rules Of The Game or The Seventh Seal or Chinatown?  Sure, I'd respond, but consider everything Betty Comden and Adolph Green do so perfectly in their script: They find an interesting setting, and evoke it perfectly, without ever making us feel like they're showing off the research they did; they tell a wholly original story, which seems almost impossible in the context of a fifties musical comedy; they pack in every conceivable type of joke, from pratfalls to sight gags to wordplay to plain old-fashioned one-liners, butthrough it all, manage to keep the humor consistently character-based.

And what characters!  One of the joys of Singin' In The Rain is the time it spends just hanging out with the people populating the story, and how it seems to like them all.  Even poor Lina Lamont, ostensibly the villain, has most of the best lines.  And she's not mean, not really, she's just acting out of her own best interests.  (Also, she's not very bright.)  When she finally gets her comeuppance, it's humiliating, yes, but not cruel--it's about what she deserves. 

5)  Let's have a moment of Lina, shall we?

How did Jean Hagen not become a huge star as a result of this, one of the greatest comic performances ever?

6) It's not my favorite number from the movie--not when you consider Moses Supposes or The Broadway Melody or Make 'Em Laugh or, of course, the title number, which is pretty much the greatest use of celluloid in the history of the medium, a blast of pure joy--yeah, anyway, this may not be as good as those, but this number perfectly demonstrates what is so great about this movie.

If done now, this would be considered post-modern: It deconstructs the elements of the very scene we're about to watch, it reveals the utter phoniness of the medium.  Then it puts those pieces right back together, and enchants us all over again.  That's Singin' In The Rain in a nutshell: It works every time.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Been down a lot lately, for various reasons.  Janie's abrupt departure from my life is the obvious one, of course.  There's also a particularly soul-depleting presidential race which will continue to play out through what promises to be a very long fall.  And most recently, the death at age 85 of comic book legend Joe Kubert, whose absolutely brilliant work on DC's vintage war comics taught be everything I needed to know about the art and craft of storytelling, all before I was even able to read.

Still.  No matter how bleak things may get, I do know that several times each day, I will be reduced to fits of helpless laughter, and my mood will lighten.  And what brings this life-affirming gift?

Isabella T. Beagle, of course.

At first, she was as bummed about Janie's absence as I was.  She'd leap into what was once Janie's chair, where she used to curl up in her friend's lap, and stare at me helplessly, her bewildered head tilted.  Poor little dog.

Beagles, though, are nothing if not upbeat.  She rebounded and, sensing my still-morose mood, set about cheering me.  The adorable behavior suddenly ramped up to previously unimaginable heights.  It was no longer enough to come sit beside me when I'm on the computer; now she has to leap over me as I sit here, like she's Evel Knievel and I'm a row of semis.  She can't just jump up and down to tell me she wants to go outside; now she grabs the leash in her mouth and brings it to me.  And stealing one sock isn't enough anymore, not when she can root through the hamper and pop her head back up with several socks draped over her snout, because overkill is always funnier.  Swear to God, if she could figure out how to do the "Sideshow Bob steps on the rakes" bit, she would.

Obviously, she knows she has an appreciative audience.  Like any comedian, she'll do anything for a laugh.  But I think, as her vet once told me, she also has a good heart, and genuinely wants me to be in a better mood.  (In this, she's in sharp contrast to the cats.  Staley's new thing is to perch on the highest places she can find--the top of the refrigerator, top closet shelves--apparently just so she can look down on the world from a godlike perspective.  And Delmar...well, God bless him, he's showing more affection for me than he ever has, but it's wildly misplaced.  Wrapping all four legs around my arm as I'm sleeping and squeezing tight doesn't make me feel loved, it just makes me wake up thinking I'm having a stroke.)  Life may, as Dawn and Wilbur Weston observed in the current Mary Worth storyline, be brutal, but it can also be wonderful, as long as you have a friend.

And if that friend has four legs and a wet nose, so much the better.

Friday, August 10, 2012


1)  Hey, remember when I used to pad this space with Random Thoughts posts?  How they seemed kind of lazy, because they were just half-formed ideas that I couldn't be bothered to turn into full-fledged essays?  And then how posting got so sparse around here that I couldn't even be bothered with something even that lame?

Anyway, yeah, this is one of those.

2)  Things are still weird here in my post-Janie world.  She lived here for more or less two years, so in addition to being alone in a relationship sense, I'm literally alone, with no one to talk to or greet me when I come home from work.

As you might imagine, it's kind of depressing.  In fact, my days and nights are pretty much as George Jones depicts in this song, only with a six pack of Grain Belt instead of Jim Beam.  Which might be even sadder, come to think of it.

3)  Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you have an inexplicable desire to do an impression of Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target, specifically his reaction to smashing his gas-leaking bike into a gun thug-filled SUV, then blowing the whole shebang sky high with one shot: A half-hearted fist pump and a full-throated cry of, "YAH!"

Well, sure.  Who doesn't do this on a regular basis?  However, if you happen to perform this in the company of a preternaturally excitable beagle, you're bound to set the poor dog into a barking jag that will go on and on and on for at least five minutes.  If, on the other hand, you have a dull, uninteresting dog--or no dog at all, for that matter--feel free to Van Damme away.

4)  This whole Chick-Fil-A thing...see, this is the sort of thing I once would have gone on about at some length, probably wrapped in a Star Wars analogy of some sort, but, as we've previously noted, I barely write at all anymore.

I'll just say this: If you want to boycott a fast food place because its owner is opposed to gay marriage, fine.  If you want to stage a counter-protest and eat all the crappy fast food you can because you, too, oppose gay marriage, that's okay, too.

But if your fast food choices have to pass some sort of ideological litmus test, you must have a tough time even functioning in this world.  Every major restaurant or department store chain is a wholly-owned subsidiary of some shadowy corporation or other, a corporation that almost certainly has contributed funds to a cause you oppose.  Most corporations routinely funnel funds into Democratic and Republican coffers, because they never know which party they'll need to lobby to get their way.

So if you want to be ideologically pure, hey, good luck.  Where, though, does your purity end?  Do you, I dunno, refuse to go to the hospital because it uses Stryker beds, and Stryker lets its equipment be sold to abortion clinics? Because that would be really stupid, and depending on the circumstances, you could die.

So maybe you should just relax and acknowledge that life is tough enough without worrying whether your lunch mirrors your belief system.  It's a sandwich, for crying out loud.

5)  I had a Dark Knight Rises rant ready to go, or more accurately, a rant about how the reaction to the movie was muted by the shootings in Aurora, and how that's not necesarily a bad thing, but you know, the dog is still barking, and I'm distracted.

6)  The cats, on the other hand, are still sleeping.  It's what they do.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


There would have been actual, honest-to-God New Content here the other day, but my computer glitched and...ah, it's not that interesting, trust me.

But I did want to pop in and acknowledge the passing of composer/songwriter/all-around musical genius Marvin Hamlisch at the age of 68.  He won every conceivable award, worked with everybody from Groucho Marx to Steven Soderbergh and wrote the music for a little show called A Chorus Line, the cast album for which my mom would have playing in the kitchen as she fixed our family meals.

This is the song that would reduce Mom to an absolute puddle of tears EVERY SINGLE TIME.  It's beautiful, devastating, sappy, melodramatic--perfect, in other words.