Best Summer Ever: The Social Responsibility of Velociraptors
In Best Summer Ever, Jeff ranks the last 31 seasons of summer movies using a complex mathematical equation largely biased toward his personal opinion. You can read about his methods here.
There was a key piece of information I withheld in last week’s Boys of Summer article. In ranking the five most lucrative summer movies stars (Ford, Hanks, Cruise, Murphy, Smith), I left out that all of them except for Murphy owe a significant portion of their box office success to Steven Spielberg.
Everyone knows Spielberg is the progenitor of the blockbuster. Since 1975, Spielberg’s fingerprints have been all over the summer season. He made Jaws - that’s all the background you need. He’s responsible for more than $5 billion in box office receipts. Since 1980, almost 10% of all summer tickets purchased were for a film directed or produced by Spielberg.
Almost single-handedly, this man has shaped what we Americans view as a popcorn movie. When I described Back to the Future as the prototypical perfect blockbuster, what I’m really saying is that it fits perfectly into the Spielberg template. It’s a grand spectacle, with just the right amounts of action and sentimentality. Exciting, but undeniably safe. Essentially, Spielberg creates the most visually thrilling brand of chicken noodle soup in existence.
I like Spielberg. I enjoy his movies, especially the loud summer offerings, specifically those from the 80s. But, if we’re discussing the massive influence he’s had on American movie-goers, I feel it’s important to provide a counter-point from someone that sees Spielberg’s influence as altogether malignant. So here’s a clip from an essay by Crispin Glover, which you should probably read in its entirety, because it’s awesome, batshit, and composed almost entirely of rhetorical questions.
Glover: “Does our culture congratulate itself for taking interest in the lack of original ideas personified by the name of Steven Spielberg? Do his films take chances or take risks in order to amplify, change or challenge the cultural thought process? Does Steven Spielberg take risks, or does he simulate the idea of taking risks? What risk was involved in making Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List, or adopting a black child? Was there any risk at all? […] Were the adoption of a black child and the subject matter of his movies actually business decisions for which he knew he would be congratulated?
“When Steven Spielberg clutched his Academy Award for Schindler's List, saying it's for the "six million," was he speaking of a quantity of people killed, or the quantity of dollars poured into his bank account? Did Steven Spielberg truly help the culture understand Stanley Kubrick's ideas at an Academy Awards eulogy? Or did he accuse Kubrick's films of being "hopeful" to make them seem as if they sell the same ideas as Steven Spielberg's movies? Was A Clockwork Orange about hope?"
First of all: damn!
Second: chill out, George McFly. Sure, a film like Schindler’s List from a director like Spielberg might strike the cynical as a little odd. But does making mindless blockbusters disqualify directors from authoring serious work? Anyway, it’s not as if Spielberg released Schindler’s List in the same year that he smashed all prior box office records with a movie about dinosaurs rampaging through an island theme park. That’d be sort of tacky.
Tickets Sold: 406.8 million (18 of 31)
#1 at the Box Office: Jurassic Park - 357.1 million
Most Critically Acclaimed: In the Line of Fire (#5) – 102.3 million
Biggest Opening: Jurassic Park – 86.2 million
From a 1994 Entertainment Weekly article: “Finally, MCA's Sheinberg gave Schindler's List the green light on one condition: Spielberg had to film Jurassic Park first. ‘He knew that once I had directed Schindler's I wouldn't be able to do Jurassic Park,’ says Spielberg. (He does plan to produce, but not direct, a Jurassic sequel.)”
Maybe, if we believe Crispin Glover, there’s a social price to pay for spending billions of dollars on Spielberg movies. MCA seemed aware of this – they didn’t want their golden cash cow to ruin everything by making some serious Jew flick. Conversely, there’s the fear expressed by Glover that Spielberg’s very presence diminishes the seriousness of something like Schindler’s List.
To all that, I say: who gives a shit? I want some raptors!
In the summer of 93, I was 10 years old. I wasn’t aware of the looming specter of calculated seriousness that would be Schindler’s List. I was, however, aware of how awesome getting chased by a T-Rex would be. Jurassic Park was the first PG-13 movie that I saw in theaters. I remember the experience as vividly as I remember anything from my youth – it was an afternoon matinee, I went with my Mom and my Aunt, both of them a little worried about the gore. The spitter killing Newman was the best part.
Beyond its awesome dinosaur rampages, is there a message in Jurassic Park? Not really. Maybe there’s a notion of not toying with nature, and maybe there’s a bit of a convenient anti-corporate streak in the way John Hammond resists his would be exploiters, but that’s all in service to the plot. Spielberg isn’t in the business of making movies with meanings deeper than “hey, this is awesome!” and “let’s make a lot of money!” Which is probably why Glover finds him so distasteful.
If you want context though, ’93 is a summer surprisingly chock full of it. Earlier that year, Bill Clinton began his first term as President. How does Hollywood respond? With two films where the President is put in mortal danger.
In the Line of Fire, which managed to finish 5th that summer despite opening within days of Jurassic Park, gives us Clint Eastwood trying to defend the president from John Malkovich and his awesome zip-gun. Eastwood’s Secret Service agent, Frank Horrigan, is the only remaining agent that was on duty the day that JFK was assassinated. Horrigan’s residual guilt, his depth as a character, is what allows In the Line of Fire to become more than a rote thriller/procedural.
On film, we have Horrigan trying to redeem himself for letting an exciting, youthful, Democratic President be killed in the same year that, in the real world, an exciting, youthful, Democratic President takes office. Is it overanalyzing to posit that Horrigan is a stand-in for the American people? Not to imply that Americans were guilty of getting JFK assassinated (it was Mickey Mantle), but that there’s a certain apprehension involved in electing a President like Clinton after JFK, as if the energy Clinton promised to bring to the White House was too good to be true and would be snuffed out by sinister forces. Horrigan’s fear of failure was our nation’s fear of disappointment. Of course, it’d be years before the sinister forces came for Clinton, and they’d be armed not with homemade zip-guns but with soiled dresses.
Our second presidential feature of the summer, Dave (#8), takes place in a whimsical world where no one’s trying to kill the President, just replace him with an impersonator. While lacking the immediacy of In the Line of Fire’s messaging, Dave does unintentionally (perhaps?) presage the extra-marital dalliances that would derail so much of Clinton’s presidency. Although, unlike Dave’s President Bill Mitchell, Clinton was always canny enough not to have a stroke while he was getting blown.
Unlike In the Line of Fire, Dave does serve up those tried and true elements of summer films – wonderment and wish fulfillment. It’s a comedy and a fairy tale, so of course Dave gets to end up with Sigourney Weaver’s scorned First Lady. However, it’s important to note that beyond Dave’s mistaken-identity hijinks and topical presidential philandering, the main conflict is essentially a coup d’état attempt by the White House Chief of Staff.
In ’93, you couldn’t trust anyone with power.
In The Fugitive (#2), you can’t trust the criminal justice system, and you can’t trust big-pharma not to murder your wife. In The Firm (#3), you can’t trust high-powered lawyers. In Rising Sun (#9), you can’t trust foreign corporations or kinky politicians. Hell, if you’re a black woman, in ’93 you couldn’t even trust your fertility doctors not to knock you up with some redneck sperm – that’s right, I just shouted out Made in America (#13).
There’s an upswing in conspiracy movies during the 90s, but they’re never as prevalent as they are in ’93. Films like The Fugitive and The Firm might seem like prototypical summer thrillers, but the villains in summer movies are usually more like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park – clearly monstrous forces of evil. It’s unusual to see so many big summer stars fighting battles against The Man (one-armed or otherwise).
So why was there so much paranoia in ’93? Because of the Rodney King verdict.
Admittedly, I base this argument on purely circumstantial evidence. But, a year after the baffling acquittal of four cops, we end up with a summer movie season where the biggest villains behind dinosaurs are the flawed criminal justice system, bumbling shoot-first cops, and corrupt lawyers. And we have some of our biggest summer stars – namely Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise – overcoming these corrupt societal forces, taking justice into their own hands, and succeeding. I doubt white heroes triumphing over adversity was much of a salve for the black community, but I’d argue that the prevalence of these conspiracy-minded criminal justice thrillers is in part a white-washed Hollywood response to the Rodney King trial and subsequent riot. As a 10 year-old, if I learned anything from The Fugitive, it was that sometimes the courts can get it really wrong, and you might have to take matters into your own hands.
Or maybe I’m a bad example. I mean, thanks to Rookie of the Year (#10), I still believe I’m just one botched surgery away from pitching in the majors.
All of this circles back around to Spielberg. Should we expect him to make films that are more than flashy sentimental entertainment? Should Jurassic Park have commented on race relations? Of course not. Summer movies don’t exist to make statements. We don’t just go to summer movies to escape the heat, we go to escape reality. Crispin Glover would probably argue that’s exactly the problem; our coddled nation of dummies would rather be pandered to with explosions and happy endings than actually do some real thinking, experience some real art.
I don’t have a counter-argument for that. Luckily, I don’t need one, because this has all been a rhetorical device and in a real debate with Glover I would’ve long ago been reduced to a bloody pulp by his army of trained rats. In defense not so much of Spielberg but of the blockbuster, a genre that Spielberg created and is thus somewhat responsible for, I can only offer ’93 as a year that, perhaps unwittingly, seemed unusually rife with cultural conscience and social awareness.