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?