In the Sunday edition of the New York Times, Manohla Dargis has written an excellent article about the evolution of the rocky relationship between critics and blockbusters over the last 30 years. Adopting a somewhat removed approach from this apparently intensifying struggle, Dargis articulates (in my mind, at least) a deep problem with criticism - both academic and journalistic. She writes:
"The negative rap on blockbusters is partly due to the literary bent of a lot of critics, who privilege words over images and tend to review screenplays, or what’s left of them, rather than the amalgamation of sights and sounds in front of them. But the sneers also suggest an underlying and familiar contamination anxiety. In the 1980s “Top Gun” wasn’t just a glib divertissement; it was evidence that MTV had infected the movies like a deadly virus. In the same grim light “300” isn’t just a shell of a movie; it’s proof that the movies have been infiltrated by an outside force, namely video games.
The threats have changed over the years — from television to music videos, comic books, digital technologies and so on — yet what has remained constant is the idea that the movies are under siege. But if the movies have taught us anything it is that they are brilliant adapters. They mutate and shift, stretch and adjust, and they neutralize those threats the way an organism absorbs nutrients, by assimilating them. We call some of these movie mutations comic-book flicks and compare still others to music videos, sometimes with a sigh, sometimes with a smile. We complain about car chases and forget that D. W. Griffith was among the first to put pedal to the metal on screen. And we condemn blockbusters for, if we’re lucky, doing the very thing we say we want from the movies: giving us a reason to watch."
Her thoughts seem to echo my own on these issues, since I too have written about the problem of the blockbuster that plagues film criticism. Interestingly, her article also touches on other issues that have received much treatment on this blog over the last few months, and that is digital cinema. Her last paragraph, quoted above, says it all. It points to the very hypocrisy of some critics and viewers, while also offering a new approach to how to view the movies.
In the age of niche markets, in which films seem to be split into very distinct categories appealing to certain demographics, Dargis' argument is stinging and necessary. It's impossible to sum up "the movies" in just a few words, although many have attempted to do so by focusing on the kind of stories associated with them. The only way to really speak for "the movies" is to forefront the fact that they represent a narrative fusion of sight and sound. We like to categorize them as blockbusters, indies, foreign-language, animation, etc., but in the sense that they all of them bind a story in space and time on a two-dimensional screen, they are all the same and all different. A great deal of movies are made by studios to appeal to their target demographic, focus on dollar values rather than cinematic quality, and ultimately embody the very pinnacle of commodification. And while I wouldn't think to pretend this doesn't exist, perhaps we overshoot its prominence. Perhaps, heaven forbid, that we are conditioned to approach and therefore see movies in a specific way, disallowing ourselves from seeing their subtle beauties. Inevitably, we must do some categorizing, but if viewers can break free from thinking of movies as commodities, then perhaps they may allow themselves to see the images of a film differently than they would from a consumer standpoint.
I know this approach sounds overly optimistic, as if all movies are beautiful and important. While I don't feel this way, I also don't think that there are inherently bad "types" of films. In the middle of her article, Ms. Dargis splendidly acknowledges some of the more dazzling moments in blockbusters over the years, in doing so proudly expressing her love for the movies and the vast array of emotions their images and sounds may create and forge within the consciousness of the viewer. Summer blockbusters may tend to showcase the overt exhiliration of movement and action in the form of simple storytelling, but sometimes this can yield great cinema. Critics must not ignore that spectacle has always been apart of the movies and is not limited to the birth of the box office blockbuster of the last 30 years.
The social and economic surroundings have no doubt shifted so as to allow greater commodification and consumption of the movies, but we tend to sometimes place too much emphasis on these factors, in so doing failing to really see the beauty and greatness - both of the subtle and grand variety - of some of these blockbusters. This is not to say that we should happily ignore economic factors in the mass production and consumption of movies. These things most definitely play a role and deserve their place in the evaluation of cinema and criticism. But just because box office numbers began rising to new highs at a certain time in the mid-1970's doesn't mean that these factors have always played a great role in the enterprise of filmmaking. It is likely true that higher budgets often correlate with broadly stated emotion and recycled images. But to shut oneself off to the many pleasures that movies of all kinds can offer is to misunderstand the fundamental beauty of the medium itself and the many narrative media and technologies that enabled its existence.
Movies are about what we feel from audiovisual stimulation. These emotions may be subtle and difficult to understand, or they may be outstretched fantasies of cultural myths of heroes and villains. To spare my own attempt to recount some of the undeniably memorable blockbuster moments over the years, Ms. Dargis puts it best:
Blockbusters that endure strike a balance between the spectacular and the ineffably human, whether it’s Peter O’Toole framed against the never-ending desert in “Lawrence of Arabia” or Keanu Reeves coming down to earth in “The Matrix” as he realizes that he knows kung fu. It’s the epic story of America refracted through one family in the “Godfather” films. It’s a mechanical shark and Robert Shaw remembering the U.S.S. Indianapolis in “Jaws.” It’s Tom Cruise hanging by a thread in “Mission: Impossible” and Christian Bale standing amid a cloud of bats in “Batman Begins.”
Absolutely crucial to understanding cinema and being responsible critic of it is an emphasis on those sights and sounds, not on economic or demographic categories. Blockbusters, like any other movie, can conjure emotions both big and small, genuine or superficial, deeply felt or overwrought cliches. But this is what the movies are about. No matter how sophisticated we may be about them in claiming to prize pure abstraction and rich character and dialogue, the much larger picture of the narrative power of moving images is comprised of movies of all shapes and sizes, including "blockbusters."
[For related ranting on these matters, check out my previous posts: "Summer of the Sequel"... again, Hollywood's New Genre Films, and Minority Report: Shameless Product Placement or Scathing Social Commentary.]