By Eby, Lloyd
The World and I , Vol. 13, No. 9
As success breeds success, blockbusters breed blockbusters, and Tinseltown's craze for special-effects spectaculars is crowding out more subtle fare.
More than any other art, cinema depends on technology, and from its beginnings Hollywood has commanded technical powers that exist nowhere else in the world. In his exquisite autobiography My Last Sigh, the great Spanish surrealist film director Luis Bunuel wrote of his astonishment at the technical capabilities he saw in Hollywood's studios when he arrived there in 1930 (by that time, with Salvador Dali, he had already directed two cinema classics, Un Chien andalou and L'Age d'or).
I remember marveling on the
back lot at an entire half of a
ship which had been miraculously
reconstructed in an enormous
swimming pool. Everything
was set up for a shipwreck
tanks were ready to spill their
contents down colossal toboggan
runs onto the floundering
vessel. I was goggle-eyed at the
machinery and the superb
quality of the special effects. In
these studios everything
seemed possible; had they
wanted to they could have
reconstructed the universe.
Since the existence of any capability tends to lead to its use, the elaborate technical facilities at Hollywood's command have influenced the kind of movies it is predisposed to make. Why these complex facilities developed in the United States more than elsewhere is a matter of speculation, but perhaps Yankee know-how (the genius for creating a habitable world out of "wilderness"), combined with Americans' optimistic belief in realizing their wildest dreams--together with the fact that this land basically escaped the physical ravages of world wars and twentieth-century revolutions--were factors. At any rate, throughout its history, Hollywood has tended to make films that utilize and even depend on its vast technical powers--movies that emphasize spectacle, special effects, or "universe reconstructions," to use Bunuel's felicitous terminology. Especially in the past two or three decades, Hollywood has had a proclivity toward making expensive, special-effects-heavy spectaculars that need to appeal to the broadest possible audience to recoup their production costs and make a profit--movies designed to become and that do become blockbusters.
This predilection for blockbusters has tended to change--to distort--the filmmaking process in Hollywood. First, the need for large box-office returns means that the stories in such films must both strongly appeal to a vast audience and be sufficiently innocuous not to turn off any significant segment of that audience. Second, the very success of the blockbusters creates a blockbuster mentality: Producers come to concentrate on repeating or even exceeding the success of the previous blockbusters, and they tend to think that to do this they must surpass what was done technically in previous pictures. Third, since actors, directors, scriptwriters, and producers tend to judge and rank their own status and merit on the size of the fees they can command, they tend to focus on the large, expensive picture as being the most desirable and most important, and to shun smaller, less expensive, more quirky or character-driven pictures as beneath them, as diminishing their standing in the filmmaking pecking order. All this tends to crowd out smaller, more thoughtful pictures. As in economics, where bad money drives out good, so in filmmaking special-effects-dominant blockbusters drive out more modest character-centered pictures.
It is ironic that Bunuel mentioned provisions to film a ship disaster, because the most successful megablockbuster film to date is Titanic, another ship-disaster film. Released in the United States on December 19, 1997, Titanic is the most expensive movie ever made, reportedly costing at least $200 million, and also the highest-grossing, having taken in more than $1 billion at the box office so far. …