Political Polarization and the New Hollywood Blockbuster

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College CUNY

The connection between politics and movies is continuous and yet murky. It is not to be found solely in the intentions of the creative team or in overt themes of the plotline. The once popular analysis of the link between politics and cinematic form that argued the jump cut is a blow against capitalism is now as a quaint reminder of the “60s.” Nonetheless the relationship between films and politics is immediate perhaps because both involve large populations and both appropriate more and more cultural resources. The rather dramatic change in the American landscape from the relative consensual mainstream politics of the post war era into the polarized, mutually incomprehensible positions of today are bound to be reflected in films. I think the reflection may even change the way New Hollywood does business.

The “blockbuster” movie was a term associated with the saturated bombing of World War Two and certainly there was mixture of shock and awe at the blockbusters of the past quarter century along with some concern over their excesses. I would like to treat the blockbuster as a genre although there is little unity of content. But there is enough sharing of formal features and marketing strategies to group these films together. Certainly they are all big budget movies attempting to achieve “event” movie status. (At what point did someone come up with the term “event movie?”) The event movie is defined as being that movie that I (and the rest of us) had to go to because everyone else was going to see it. Quite frankly despite being in the film business and now in the academic film biz and despite generally liking anything with sprocket holes and even things with time code, there are many, many event films I resent that I felt obliged to go to. Like Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces, I took some minor satisfaction in railing at the minor credits in event movies. But the satisfaction was only minor. It was a bit of circular logic; I went because they were important; they were important because everybody else went.

Thus these films were particular evidence for the social importance of film. The marketing campaigns and the various formulations of new Hollywood suffice to convince a population that this was a “must-see” movie. They were invariably from the major studios except for the annual noble independent low budget film that also achieved event status precisely because it was not from the majors. Think of Sex, lies and videotape (1989), The Crying Game (1992), and The Blair Witch Project (1999) to name a few.

Suddenly this year there are two event films and they have odd relations with the majors, neither one a major studio release and neither very independent. Both are driven by outside the box marketing strategies and both are raising fierce hackles as well as exuberant praise. The dual arrivals of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 911 inspires thoughts that we are at a sea change regarding the cultural status of movies or, at least, the blockbusters.

They revealed how much the film product of the last twenty, twenty-five years has been pitched at the entire audience, the entire globe. Media historians have asserted that the general movement for media is to go from general audiences to niche ones (Shaw). This statement only reveals how media historians constantly overlook films. The film industry had constructed niche audiences in the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to the loss of the habitual audience to television. But the 1970s new Hollywood blockbuster formula of cross media marketing was premised on attracting everyone everywhere. Statistics show that video and other ancillary markets meant that eventually all age groups were attracted back to the Hollywood product by the end of the 1980s. No niche audiences here as we headed into the apogee of Titanic (1997).

Yet Passion and Fahrenheit both struck like lightning bolts within a few months at the cultural cleavage of America and it is safe to say that only a few went to both movies (I did) and that even fewer liked both (I didn’t). Will new Hollywood be able to paper over this new culture war as well as it did with the old 60s cultural war?

Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11

Fahrenheit has little in common with the blockbuster. It is a documentary that is framed around the central everyman character of Michael Moore in a popularizing tradition that refers both to TV’s 60 Minutes (1968-now) and Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986). But the recent turn of the documentary genre towards the popular still rarely attracts production funding from a major studio. It was a sign of extraordinary times that Moore was able to find such financing when the Miramax division of The Walt Disney Company gave his project the go ahead. This division occasionally does revert back to the kind of marginal projects it was famous for when it was still an independent company 12 years ago. But the parent Disney showed mainstream timidity when it sold the film rather than release it itself. It was another sign of the extraordinary times that Disney anticipated a political retaliation from the Governor of Florida who is the brother of the sitting president. Is the breakdown of American polity eroding the nominal autonomy of popular culture?

Passion has many features that are in common with the blockbuster and many that are not. It was a relatively modest budget for a blockbuster but it was based on a well-known story that has been filmed many times before. Thus the production and the marketing needed to claim a unique status to compel a global audience to see this new version. Typically the New Hollywood Blockbuster handles this problem of universal appeal by promising the audience something new within a comfortable and well-known formula. They do this by giving an “A” budget to a “B” script. Thus great efforts are made to assure the audience that they will have to make very little effort to believe in the reality of such impossible things as contemporary dinosaurs, men with super-human powers, or even the end of the world. All the audience has to do in return is to show up in numbers that surpasses the usual clique of dinosaur fans or action hero enthusiasts.

In addition to a realism effect of heightened budgets, the new Hollywood likes to use universal villains such sharks, treacherous lions, serial murderers or creatures from outer space. While The Godfather (1972) angered some Italian-American groups and many action films have upset Middle Eastern groups for their choice of villains, these are viewed as lapses. After all the economics of the blockbuster dictates that it cannot alienate any sizable segment of the global audience. Even those few films that touch on real world controversies are designed to allow a great deal of flexibility of interpretation. Saving Private Ryan (1998) can serve as a recent example since it was interpreted as both a corrective to the jingoism of earlier war movies and as a continuation of the same themes. Dances With Wolves (1990) was an earlier example of correcting earlier Western movie attitudes towards Native Americans without challenging the audience.

Thus we have two measures of the new Hollywood formula: heightened believability and the attempt for universal appeal either through avoidance of cultural specifics or a polyvalent attitude towards cultural divides.

From Mel Gibson\'s The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

Passion of the Christ follows the former but not the latter.

Gibson placed heavy stress that the audience will believe in his film. Of course belief takes on added meaning when speaking of the gospel of a major religion. But Gibson didn’t just rely on pre-existing faith. He resorted to the tried and true tactics of new Hollywood to compel such faith. He emphasized action and he indulged in the use of a subjective camera. The combination of the two particularly during the flagellation scenes ensured the same kind of visceral roller coaster ride that is the feature of most of new Hollywood’s blockbusters. Many critics have commented on the bloody shots of Jesus, as Gibson portrays the beating in detail. In addition to what is being portrayed we should also know it is being represented with all the hyperrealism of the blockbuster. The sound effects, particularly in the opening fight in the Mount of Olives, follow the exaggerations that were initially popularized in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982). Gibson uses the camera in the blockbuster hyperbolic manner; even going so far as to turn the camera upside down to reproduce Jesus’ point of view of his torturers. This extreme visual along with an extreme overhead at the end of the film and others would not be tolerated in old Hollywood but is relished in contemporary big budget filmmaking.

The blockbuster’s commitment to visceral effects is well known. Jean Pierre-Geuens is convincing in his explanation of the motivation for such visceral effects. He borrows from William James’ psychology to note that there are two preliminary human reactions to stimuli before the human can reflect even emotionally on the stimuli. For example, with a fire, there is the feeling of fire, and the flight from fire, before there is the reflective reaction of the fear of fire. Geuens notes that contemporary filmmakers aim to cause the first two reactions in their audience without concern for the third stage of a reflective emotion. This is precisely my critique of blockbusters in general which give us little time to ponder the wonder of the worlds they create and for Passion in particular which gives us no time to reflect on the universal message of Jesus’ death. The extreme physicality bullies us into crying in reaction to the brutality, not in reflecting on the love of God’s only son undergoing the human pain of death.

So Gibson learned that lesson of the blockbuster but he deviates radically from the universal appeal of the blockbuster in his own marketing and positioning. He certainly took pride from his own radical brand of Catholicism and used it in the marketing of the movie. He did not seek compromise or consensus when scholars warned him that his script reopened old sectarian wounds. This is the only recent event film that purposefully drives a wedge between Christian and Jew, between fervent believers and rational religionists. This is not the formula of new Hollywood, which now goes to some lengths to attract audiences across social divides. Gibson’s deviation from Hollywood’s marketing is reflected in his self-financing, his use of the small independent distributor (Newmarket) and his extensive use of religious groups to give marketing clout to the movie.

Both Fahrenheit and Passion avoided the bland ambiguities and polyvalent plotlines of new Hollywood. They both became “must-see” movies despite major deviations from the blockbuster formula.

What is happening to the major studio blockbuster? Is it no longer an event?

Certainly not if we just look at the figures. Shrek Two (2004) and The Shark Tale (2004) are performing to the high standards of their studios. Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) has been as eventful as Star Wars (1977). Still I detect that the fractured American audience is a glimmer of the down slope of the blockbuster cycle. Peter Bart of Variety also confirms a downward trend when he reports that a certain zest for gamesmanship has gone out of the movie executive suites in light of the 1998 summer release schedule. It stands to reason that media moguls who own the corporations of Viacom, News Corporation, and Sony are tired of their filmed entertainment divisions which rarely contribute more than a fifth of revenue and yet never settle down to be a nice dependable steady flow of revenue. Instead these divisions continue to operate with low profit margins and high stakes. The atmosphere following the success of Titanic seems to be more one of relief than jubilation. In 2002 Disney announced to Merrill Lynch that it would try to discipline the budget levels. Hardly the mantra of blockbuster movie making.

The big movies since the turn of the current century have been full-length animations. Certainly these are the movies that inspire Wall Street to buy stocks and invest money. Animation audiences are typically bimodal with parents or grandparents bringing children to the theaters or buying the DVDs. These audiences are not the universal ones that blockbusters at the height of the cycle a decade ago attracted. The big live action films are also turning towards a youthful audience with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. J. Kapur noticed that Harry Potter represents the big budget movie genre turning towards “Englishness.” Lord of the Rings has the same quality albeit New Zealanders represented its Englishness.

It stands to reason that America’s embrace of unilateralism would limit American film exporting. Perhaps we exaggerated power of our appeal even before the latest Iraq invasion. Early reports, following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, were that a liberated population was storming the cinemas to see Hollywood films. Later reports clarified that they were actually anxious to see the latest imports from “Bollywood,” not Hollywood. Our grip is slipping. I suspect that even a favorable result to the upcoming election will not restore the universal global audience to Hollywood and that the fracture uncovered by Passion and Fahrenheit will lead to more niche audience marketing for American films than before.

Works cited

Geuens, Jean-Pierre. (2000). Film Production Theory. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

Kapur, Jyostna. (2003, Spring). “Free market, branded imagination — Harry Potter and the commercialization of children’s culture.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media Online: Jump Cut article visited September 5th, 2004.

Shaw, D. (1991, April 4). “Rise and Fall of American Mass Media: Roles of Technology and Leadership” second annual Roy W. Howard lecture presented at Indiana University Bloomington.

Links of Interest:

1. The Passion of the Christ

2. IMDB’s 100 worst films ever


4. Best Movies

Image Credits:

1. Fahrenheit 9/11

2. The Passion of the Christ

Please feel free to comment.