Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In (Qualified) Praise of Unobtainium

Oh, the sweet, sweet blockbusters of yore, pines Ross Douthat:

[N]o golden age lasts forever, and you know what? An awful lot of the middlebrow blockbusters of the 1980s were really, really good. If you just look at the 15 years after Spielberg’s great white shark first terrorized bathers and moviegoers, the legacy of “Jaws” and “Star Wars” includes the Indiana Jones saga, the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Ghostbusters,” “Top Gun,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Alien” and “Aliens,” Tim Burton’s Batman movies, “Die Hard,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “E.T.,” among other entertainments. That’s a pretty impressive roster of popcorn movies: Not cinematic art on the level of Coppola or Kubrick (though the supposedly-philistine ’80s were bracketed by Martin Scorsese’s two best films, “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas”), but a record to be proud of all the same.
Of the 1980s popcorn sales conduits listed, I can imagine rewatching two (Alien and the first Batman), and I could probably bring myself to sit almost all the way through one more, Aliens, but that only for morose nostalgic reasons, i.e., Aliens played for, I believe, seventeen straight months on one of Ponca City's precious few screens when I was in high school, so it became a matter of arithmetic inevitability that the teens would either embrace it or forsake the relatively protected under-age drinking space afforded by the local movie-plex.

The thought of watching the rest make me want to vomit with rage. I hate E.T. I hate Ghostbusters more. I don't think I can survive being drunk enough to locate the sparse good aspects of Die Hard, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, or The Hunt for Red October. The Back to the Future and Indiana Jones movies had a few fun moments here and there, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

So what? Well, not that I care either, but Douthat should know better than to prostrate himself before bygone golden ages of cinema -- even the bounded one he draws here concerning 1980s blockbusters -- because they didn't exist. For as long as the film industry has been prolific enough to produce a critical mass sufficient to abstract sensible evaluations of quality, -- say, the 1940s and beyond -- terrible movies have vastly outnumbered not-terrible movies. And movies that grasp at reaching the largest possible audience, the blockbusters that offer "something for everyone," have always clustered at the far, horrid end of the curve.

There's no reason to expect this to change. Filmmakers long ago realized that they put butts in seats with quality artistry but they attract even more with titillating mediocrity -- violence, boobs, toilet humor, slapstick, smart-ass chatter, visual whizzbang, violent smartass boobs, slapstick involving a toilet, visual whizzbang that includes long, lingering shots of boobs against a backdrop of gunfire and explosions and car chases.

We get the quality of movies we pay for, and we have been paying huge sums of money for trash. And this, in turn, is because we are morons, yes, but also because we aren't necessarily looking for deep artistic engagement when we go to the movies, and often we aren't.* It's a social activity (covert teen binge-drinking, for example; dating for another) and a functional social equalizer: some might grimace at the very mention of E.T. or Rambo, while others might cherish them, but we all know quite a bit about them.

Most blockbusters are bad, now and always. This is the way they roll. It's possible -- it's actually part of the social engagement and the fun of the experience -- to acknowledge and unpack the details of how they are bad -- I am still stuck on "unobtainium," (Cf.) and I plan always to remain so. A world with nothing but five-star movies would be, in its way, bland and colorless.

* Nothing in this post should be construed as a violation of, nor a defiance of, Moff's Law. Moff's Law is law on this precious, precious blog.


larryniven said...

"A world with nothing but five-star movies would be, in its way, bland and colorless."

Aiee - and this so hot on the heels of that post about art? If you want my head to explode, there are kinder ways of getting that done.

But I do have to agree with the Indiana Jones thing: those movies are way better in hindsight. Some friends and I rewatched those in I think college and it was a major letdown

larryniven said...

Well - speaking of trying to make my head explode...

If you can make heads or tails of this, you're a better man than I.

Dale said...

LN, trust me, it's not worth it.

As for my flagrant self-contradictions, Ralph Waldo Emerson who said something something I'm cool because I'm always contradicting myself something something or words to that effect. He was more eloquent.

But s'rsly: I'm just saying there's a certain value in shitty art. It's very, very bounded, and it's not for every mood. But there's a certain kind of fun attached to having something truly awful unfold before your senses. I *still* remember watching Congo back in the mid 1990s on a day when the weather trapped me indoors, and I've been feeding off the deep, broad, multi-layered, triple-decker, category-five horribleness of that film ever since.

So, there it is.

larryniven said...

Oh oh oh - okay, I see what you're saying. Point taken.