U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Star Wars: The Art of the Blockbuster

a-young-han-solo-not-harrison-ford-couldI am going to pick on Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times and a “frequent contributor” to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He provided what is probably the most irrelevant piece of movie criticism of all time. He told listeners that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the most anticipated movie opening since Gone with the Wind premiered in 1939. He followed that characterization with this bit of wisdom: “But can all those true believers – all the people who bought millions of dollars in advance tickets – could they be wrong? No, they’re not wrong – but they can be only half right.” Everything after his first statement regarding ADVANCED ticket sales is meaningless–not that Turan doesn’t have a valid point in his critique or that he is weak critic, just that he already laid bare why no-one would bother listening to him any longer.

In the early days of “moving pictures,” one of the original movie moguls explained why he was giving up a legitimate business to get into the movie business. I admittedly cannot find the quote just now, but the story goes that the future mogul (I think it was Adolph Zukor) explained that in movies buyers hands over their money before they received the product–it was the perfect business model. Indeed from the beginning movie critics have had they work cut out for them.

Obviously that business model has expanded to new dimensions with the blockbuster–a purely American invention that historians often peg to the run of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Jaws kicked off an era perfectly and maybe sardonically captured by the 1970s version of Adolph Zukor, Robert Evans. In light of the money being made primarily by films from Spielberg and George Lucas, Evans told a reporter for Time Magazine: “the making of a blockbuster is the newest art form of the 20th century.”

Indeed, Evans had conflated two trends: up to that stage in movie history, art required some sort of critical support. What Evans said, though, not only made sense, but made counter-intuitive sense. While critics often lauded the efforts of the whiz kids to create huge, flashy, sometimes even artfully crafted cinematic worlds, those same critics understood that their thought about such films had begun to matter less and less.

So back to Turan. He connected Star Wars to Gone with the Wind. They do strike me as nice bookends. In 1939, movie criticism barely registered notice in most intellectual circles and while there was intelligent criticism before 1939, the premier of Gone with the Wind began a period during which both the movies and movie critics garnered more and more respect–it was relationship that would bring an end to censorship and begin the institutionalization of movies in American art. With the release of the latest Star Wars movie to astronomical ticket sales that pre-dated previews for anyone, including critics, the blockbuster is not just an art form, but has made the need for it to be art irrelevant.

For decades, Americans have debated whether art can be popular and democratic. Movies appeared to be the quintessential example of a democratic art–the people’s voice was heard through ticket sales, they made movies significant not a museum or a critic. But the blockbuster experience is one that J. Hoberman, the long-time Village Voice film critic, identified in early 1980s as the “cinema of consensus.” With The Force Awakens it becomes crystal clear that there is no longer a position from which to critique this kind of blockbuster. Perhaps that doesn’t matter, but it used to.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. But, Ray, those buyers of advanced tickets do have—and know they have—the chance to be burned. The thing about the *Star Wars* saga, however, is that buyers have had six chances already to see Lucas-style stories. If the current production follows baseline historical standards, buyers are well-founded in thinking that advance purchases are low-risk (i.e. the worst they’ll get is Episode I, which was pretty entertaining in spite of certain weaknesses). So this film is not just about the blockbuster phenomenon in general, but about a historical train of blockbusters. So we have a new phenomenon with certain serial blockbuster productions like Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Terminator, Sherlock Holmes, MI, Bond movies, etc. – TL

    • The same can be said for any great director or series, I guess, but there seems to be a finality to this particular movie. It takes that anticipation to new heights and in that way utterly destroys the model of anticipation that GWTW ushered in. There is almost no world in which this Star Wars episode exists except the one it has created. At last, the blockbuster has become its own vacuum, not challenged or contextualized by anything. If these other series operate in the same way, I think the discussion around them would be different. But they don’t. The Force Awakens is like the birth of a new genre.

      • I see what you’re saying about a new level of hype. But there is still a role for the super critic in tempering hype, even if after the fact. A thoughtful critic can temper the reception, toning down the Hollywood pre-made blockbuster machine. Also, no matter the marketing, a move stands or falls on whether it delivers something smart, new, or technically fun. It has to *fulfill* the pre-made blockbuster hype. So maybe I’m hopeful about the role of critics in this new stage of “democratic art.” – TL

  2. I think this is very true from a synchronic view of history, not necessarily so from a diachronic one. I’m with you that the Star Wars movie creates an ontology for the moment, but I think it awaits a longer scrutiny. Will this world continue to exist on its own terms? If these movies will be flops maybe that world will quickly recede from our lives. I’m reminded of Avatar that exploded in theaters and in retrospect seems like a failure, at least as a cultural phenomenon. The world of Avatar does not exist anymore–thank god! Unfortunately Gone with the Wind is still very much with us, however.

    • I found this comment curious, so I may be misreading it. Star Wars/i> was released in 1977. It’s nearly 2016 now. So I’d say the world it created has both received longer scrutiny and continued to exist on its own terms. Avatar/i> did wither quickly. But that was because it never became a cultural phenomenon in the first place. The opposite is true of Star Wars. Its fate doesn’t rest on the fortunes of any one movie. And given the box office returns, it’s clear The Force Awakens won’t be a flop, at least not in financial terms.

      • I would venture to say the Star Wars I, II, and III were flops of sorts. If you ask millennials they might tell you that Star Wars is marginal to their world perhaps in some way because Star Wars I, II, and III were made. I feel that the hype around Star Wars might evaporate or at least substantially recede as it did in the wake of Star Wars I.

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