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Book review: <i>Blockbuster</i> by Tom Shone

the cover of the book

If this was food, it would be a giant tub of fresh popcorn, covered in hot, molten butter, with an old-school choc top for dessert.


A photo of some great Midwestern mesa, taken at the magic hour, computerifically superimposed with the title text in the Ben Hur/Life Of Brian style. Quite nice, actually. Warm and cheekily pompous.


The subtitle will help me out here: "How American Cinema Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Summer". In short, Shone covers the Blockbuster era, from its progenitors Jaws and Star Wars, up to the present (although he focuses most heavily on the golden years of blockbusters, the late seventies to the mid eighties). He shows the way in which the counter-intuitive nature of blockbuster filmmaking (hire a movie-loving freak, then spend more to make more) was, originally, a positive force for cinema, and not the hype-driven bullshit behemoth it has now become, and is thus sometimes portrayed as always having been. In short that's actually short: Have you ever wondered why films like Indiana Jones, Aliens, Star Wars, and early Spielburg are so re-watchable when their modern-day equivalents, filmed with similar ultimate goals (spectacle, seats, arses) and similarly overblown budgets, are such vaporous guff? Shone lays it on ya, so stop, perpetrate and listen.

The good

I should warn you that this is the kind of book which takes my objectivity in a firm grasp and throws it out the window. I have passed the stage where I will foist my movie-related opinions on other people apropos nothing, but if you build me the creakiest conversational footbridge over to, for instance, the Aliens movies, I can bore with the best of them ("Bring me a drink, ya yellow bastards, while I enlighten ye as to the sequential feminist roles portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the quadrilogy. Arrr!"). AND I turn into a pirate.

The most interesting argument made by Shone is that, contrary to popular wisdom, the beginning of the blockbuster era was NOT a time of artistic drought, and nor were Star Wars, Jaws, Alien et al to blame for the snowballing ball of something brown that's not snow which has become the current summer cinematic season. In Shone's (and my) eyes the blame lies with the over-coked, under-brained, women-hating producers who created and rode the giant brown wave of something other than water which was the High (or "No") Concept school of filmmaking, beginning with Top Gun, the entire "concept" for which was... footage of fighter pilots on TV. That's it. That's the idea. That plus a hundred million dollars of somebody else's money became enough to start the movie machine in motion. And these people are still around, let us not forget, punching out Swordfishes, Bad Boys, The Islands and Pearl Harbours every Christmas. By contrast, Spielburg, Lucas, Cameron and Scott have real talent and a genuine love of the form in which they work. They're artists, but their art is born from a love of entertaining, which defines them against, of course, "Art" artists, but also against your Bruckheimers and Simpsons, in that Spielburg et al personally care about the quality of their work and the way in which the audience reacts to it, rather than just by the cash registers which measure the success of the mainstream cinema industry. You can argue that any and all of these directors have now gone to seed, but you can't deny that when they were young and hungry they did their best work. Shone is straightforwardly convincing in his argument, though when he has some of the best rollercoaster cinema of the last three decades to back him up and an extremely biased reader, it's hard to go wrong.

If you love the Alien movies, the Indiana Jones movies, the Terminator movies, the Star Wars movies, or eighties action movies in general (we're all friends here!) then you'll find buckets of well-chosen detail here. Shone has the eye of a journalist and the discerning aficionado (one each); he treats us as he would wish to be treated.

There's a photo insert in the middle of the book featuring shots relating to the best anecdotes - typically that of Lucas, Cameron, Spielburg and Scott at battle with their own crews, actors and producers to win their right to entertain us with a modicum of integrity, a love of the form (which always includes a loathing of hack-work), and, yes, a hundred million dollars of somebody else's money.

Shone is also generous in his realistic approach to the collapse of the era, as the money trees grew and the artists abandoned their goggle-eyed, popcorn-munching public for vanity projects of varying levels of self-manipulatory excess. As with most of the book, he lets the players and the figures speak for themselves, but it's nonetheless saddening to sense the inevitable rise of marketing and groupthink over individual artistic vision, and just as easy to grin with schadenfreude when a fickle public gets what they deserve/bites the hype monster on the ass (excepting Last Action Hero, of course, that's a misunderstood classic). So we travel from Jurassic Park through Jurassic Park 2, Jurassic Park 3, and alight on The Phantom Enormous Embarrassment For All Concerned, where Shone lets a little more of himself into the text on behalf of every reader who has been systematically shown how we got to this point and still can't quite believe what the fuck he is looking at.

Hmm. I seem to have gotten totally carried away, what a surprise. Look, if you like any of the movies mentioned above and wonder what the hell went wrong, then check this out. If you're a film fan and you want an alternate perspective on late-seventies, early-eighties moviemaking to Biskind's anti-blockbuster work "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls," then this is what you need. That's about as objective as I can be.

The bad

Well, Shone works wonders with quotations, stats and historic fact but I wouldn't have minded more of the author's opinion. This is a book with an angle, after all, and Shone plainly loves the subject, so why not a little more critical writing? I can't fault his restraint, but with a subtitle like this we know what we're getting into from the start, so why bother too much about objectivity? It's also tough when we reach the end of the book, because A- it's a necessarily downbeat conclusion, and B- Shone offers no reprieve in the form of hope for the future or advice for an audience wondering how many eyeball-only experiences they need to avoid before people who actually give a crap about the medium will, if ever, achieve positions of influence.

I loved this. Did I mention that? I actually re-read chapters the moment I'd finished the book, and I almost never do that. To the Nerdmobile!

What I learnt

Why Arnold Schwarzenegger's second-best movie "Last Action Hero" came to be so unfairly maligned by critics and audiences.

Just how popular Star Wars and Jaws were at the time of their release. It would be tempting to believe that such times have passed, but we must remember that, as J.K. Rowling so thoroughly demonstrates, it really is impossible to predict the next Big Thang.

In short

Title: Blockbuster
Author: Tom Shone
Publisher: Free Press
ISBN: 0743235681
Year published: 2004
Pages: 352
Genre(s): Non fiction, Cinema
Review Type: