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Update:Ain’t it Cool have now posted the full Spielberg interview referred to in this post: it’s here and well worth a read for Jaws fans.
Ain’t it Cool have released some snippets of a forthcoming interview with Steven Spielberg that are at once infuriating and gratifying.
Gratifying, in that Spielberg confirms that the Blu-Ray of Jaws (forthcoming at an undisclosed date) will have no Star Wars Special Edition-style alterations. Spielberg, it should be remembered, practically invented the modern craze for re-cutting movies with his “Special Edition” of Close Encounters in 1980. That movies’ muddied history shows both the best and worst of this kind of thing. The cut he eventually came up with the second time he revisited the film, in 1998, is in my view the best version of the film. Yet between 1980 and 1998 he managed to keep the original version out of circulation, prompting Pauline Kael’s memorable complaint that “…when you remember something in a movie with pleasure and its gone, you feel as if your memories had been mugged.” George Lucas’ butchering of Star Wars has become the key example of this kind of chicanery, although Spielberg’s recut E.T. is very nearly as bad.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2006 issue of Senses of Cinema (here).
“You’re on to a much safer bet liking someone like Martin Scorsese, whose genius shows up in all the fully approved forms – plowing a lonely course outside the studio system, obsessively burrowing down into an identifiable subset of obsessions, tearing films from his breast like chunks of his own flesh – than you are liking someone like Spielberg: devoid of visible self-destructive impulses, alighting on film after film as if giving his imagination an aerobic workout, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another… if that guy also turns out to have been the most talented filmmaker of his generation, then what, frankly, was the point? What was the point of all those hours passed in the dark confines of the art house, boning up on Ukrainian cinema, watching the unwatchable? But there you go. What can you do. If you have to point to any one director of the last twenty-five years in whose work the medium of film was most fully itself – where we found out what it does best when left to its own devices, it has to be that guy.”
King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) and
King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005)
If you ever wanted to be reassured that it’s okay to like big special effects blockbusters, have a look at the reputation of the 1933 version of King Kong. The film is a solid, rolled-gold classic, and makes a strong showing in any of the dubious-but-fun movie popularity contests: it is in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 List; Christopher Tookey’s The Critics Film Guide cites it has having an average critical rating of 9.53 out of 10; the Internet Movie Database has it in its top 250 user-rated films; and so on. Received wisdom is a wonderful thing: once a film is a famous classic, and several decades old, it is easy to accept its status, and not think about why the film is so revered. Yet with King Kong it pays to ask the question. For the original King Kong is a forerunner to all the light-on-plot, big-on-special-effects blockbusters of recent years: as such, its continuing fame is something of a challenge to conventional critical wisdom, which tends to be dismissive of this kind of filmmaking.
Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong has certain quarters of the internet abuzz with anticipation. Which is only natural: Jackson is coming off an epic project that won both critical and audience acclaim, and moving on to a reworking of a much-loved classic. Sources such as Ain’t It Cool have been at their most openly slavering. (Here’s an Ain’t It Cool quote for the poster: “I am bonerized.“) This is the kind of “this is going to be huge” internet buzz that most other productions can only dream of. The producers of the remade Poseidon Adventure, for example, have engaged in an elaborate process of set visits for the biggest on-line movie sites that has resulted in series of dutifully impressed articles, but little of the genuine excitement that some of the fan community show for Kong.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (Eric Zala, 1989)
In 1982, three twelve-year-old fans of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark (released the previous year) decided to direct their own home made remake. Eric Zala directed and played the chief villain, Belloq; Chris Strompolos played Indiana Jones; and Jayson Lamb took care of the cinematography and special effects. The “Raiders Guys” filmed on and off for seven years, completing their “adaptation” in 1989, after the release of the second official Raiders sequel, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. After a well-received screening for the local community (many of whom had been enlisted in the project), they put the film away and forgot about it until 2003, when friends-of-friends passed the movie to Harry Knowles of the website Ain’t It Cool. Knowles played the film at his “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” film festival in Texas, and wrote a rave review, describing it as “the best damn fan film I’ve ever seen.” In 2004, a detailed article about the production followed in Vanity Fair. Despite very limited screenings – the film is a flagrant copyright violation, so both screenings and the circulation of copies have been tightly controlled – the legend grew. Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation has become one of the most famous fan films ever made, and it deserves all the praise heaped upon it. It is more than just a credit to its makers’ ingenuity and love of Spielberg’s original: what might have been expected to be just an amateurish imitation becomes a wonderful mix of loving tribute, comic riff, and childhood memoir.
iFMagazine has a really interesting update – brought to my attention by Dark Horizons – on the status of the sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s interesting not because I care about the sequels (I enjoyed the first film, but it screamed “fluke” to me and I always expected any sequels to resemble Cutthroat Island), but for what an overly candid director can let slip about the production process for Hollywood movies today:
Although the movies are shot back-to-back, Verbinski reveals they’re shooting both films simultaneously with both scripts constantly in flux.
“We’re shooting scenes in the third movie without even knowing what the hell we’re doing,” laughs Verbinski. “We actually have a pretty good second script and the third script is still on the operating table. And we’re in triage constantly, everyday. I don’t recommend making two movies at once. I think that we’re going to get there, but it’s just madness. You’re like building ships and the ships aren’t ready and you have four hundred extras. There’s a lot of fun and I think that the second movie is strong and clever and has a lot going on. The third movie we’re still working on.”
Verbinski did discuss shooting back-to-back movies with director Peter Jackson who did three films at once with his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and he did have one bit of advice.
“I did talk to Peter Jackson about it and he said, ‘Re-shoots,’” says Verbinski who adds that might not be a luxury the PIRATES sequels will have. “We don’t have time for re-shoots. We don’t have the time.”
Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Tom Shone, Simon & Shuster, 2004)
Tom Shone’s Blockbuster, which charts the rise of blockbuster filmmaking in Hollywood over nearly three decades (starting from the wild success of Jaws in 1975), echoes Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls in a number of ways. Just picking it up, you can tell the publishers must be hoping it can replicate the runaway success of Biskind’s book. It even replicates the insert of photos, each captioned with the snappiest, most appealing quotes that can be found in the text.
The most important link, however, is subject matter. Biskind’s book concluded with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas drawing an end to the “New Hollywood” era of the seventies, and Shone picks the story up at that point. Yet Blockbuster is also a reply to Biskind. For Biskind, the coming of the blockbuster was the triumph of barbarism over art: the death of good filmmaking, but Shone’s take is much more receptive to the way in which Spielberg and Lucas did things than Biskind. The beauty of his approach, however, is that he can embrace the pleasures of the blockbuster without giving up his critical faculties. Regular readers will know I’m sympathetic to the point of view Shone espouses here, but it is always a struggle to articulate a critical framework that allows appreciation of such films on their own terms, while still maintaining a distinction between art and trash.
Jim Schembri, the film critic for the EG section in The Age, published an interesting piece in that paper on Friday about Hollywood films. After apparently having an exceptionally unpleasant time with Mr & Mrs Smith – a movie I chose not to inflict on myself – he was moved to write a long piece on how Hollywood films really suck these days. (For the next few days it will be available here, although registration may be required.) The basic argument is that big “event” movies like Mr & Mrs Smith don’t actually need to be good: they open to enormous business based upon saturation marketing, and turn a profit before word gets out that they suck. The marketing media machine is, essentially, making quality irrelevant and thus making both Hollywood movies and their audiences dumber:
The intent is to blitz the eyes, rattle the ears and provide plenty of close-ups of those big, expensive stars. Pummel the audience with the package. Overwhelm them with starpower and firepower.
That’s what audiences are being sold now – not films, but deals.
This dumbing down of movies – it’s still very hard to believe that Miss Congeniality 2 actually does exist – has been accompanied by a dumbing down of audiences.
Is this it? Is this the sign that in America at least, every single thing that can possibly be released on DVD is already out? I refer to the news that Rambo: The Animated Series is to be released on DVD. I had no idea that such a show ever existed, and it truly boggles the mind. But then, having been about nine or ten when Rambo: First Blood Part II was released, I do recall that the film series had a lot of appeal for small boys. (Who knows what it did to their fragile little minds – although it could do a lot to explain the current political environment). The picture on the front of volume 2, in which Rambo punches out an indeterminate ethnic stereotype, is particularly disturbing. (And have Bruce Lee’s estate signed off on the use of the title “Enter the Dragon?”)
The Matrix Reloaded (Larry and Andy Wachowski), 2003
The Matrix Reloaded labours under mighty expectations. It isn’t that this is the most expensive and hyped movie of the mid-year round of blockbusters: we don’t have high expectations of heavily hyped movies any more. It’s that its predecessor, 1999’s The Matrix, is so well regarded. With that film, Larry and Andy Wachowski blended elements such as cyberpunk, comic books, Jet Li-style kung fu, and John Woo-style gunplay into a satisfying and exciting narrative. The elements that were mixed weren’t unfamiliar: indeed, many were already well on the way to hackneyed. But the film fused its checklist of geek favourites into such perfect harmony that it was a deserved critical and financial hit. Only four years later it has already staked a convincing claim as a modern sci-fi classic.