Shanti Escalante-De Mattei talks to Professor Charles Acland about his new book American Blockbuster: Movies, Technology, and Wonder (2020).
Professor Charles Acland espouses an affectionate view of blockbusters in his new book American Blockbuster: Movies, Technology, and Wonder (2020), a stance some film scholars may find difficult to empathise with. As Distinguished University Research Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University, Acland is invested in the macro effects and construction of our mediated worlds more than the individual critical success of any one film. Former editor of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Acland has published extensively on the intersections of communication and film studies. Acland plays with scale, at once focusing on the specifics of subliminal perception, “useful cinema”, and residual meaning while also preserving an interest in the broad stroke implications of a global, technological, and financial industry; his 2003 book Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture was his first attempt at capturing the international construction of film, while American Blockbuster marks a second foray into this megalithic, uber-capitalist entertainment mechanism.
Right off the bat, Acland acknowledges the commonly held hatred of blockbusters by many critics, that they are veritable “vacuums of meaning” which don’t just fail to offer something to the culture but even aid in its regression. To a certain extent, he doesn’t disagree that they’re often lacking in one way or another. Yet, his project’s aim is to push back on the assumption that these films aren’t worth engaging with seriously. He argues that critics shouldn’t write them off as “just” blockbusters when a huge amount of people derive “emotional, intellectual, and communal sustenance” from these films. There is also a genuine pleasure for Acland in watching these films for his research. One doubts that the multi-year undertaking that consisted of digging through archives for film budgets, correspondence, and other minutiae of the history would’ve been possible if he had a strong vendetta against the blockbuster and all that it, apparently, represents.
Acland is fascinated by the blockbuster’s mutable body. Each film is made to be re-contextualized and consumed across cultural, political, and geographical borders (a point Dr Iain Robert Smith also makes in an interview for this website). The narratives are formulaic, presenting us with ideological ambiguities that can be conveniently re-interpreted for a global audience. More importantly though, what makes these films move across space and make money doing it is their presentation as technological wonders. The theatre becomes the necessary enhanced space to absorb the loud sounds, bright colors, immersive 3D, and the use of new and ever-evolving CGI. It is this display and development of “technological awe” that provokes sensory thrill and the opportunity to process and expand our imagination around the role of technology in our own society – the fantasies, both wild and tame, of what the next generation of tech will do to our interactions, the ways we move through space, time, and meaning. The expression of technological awe doesn’t just sit in the theatre, the blockbuster becomes a selling point that ties different forms of media together to push them onto the consumer.
So the blockbuster is made by committee, by polling, formula and a belief in the returns existing intellectual property will rake in even at the expense of failing to create original content to feed off of in the future. The anti-capitalist argument is begging to be made; can art really just be reduced to vertical integration with a narrative and a strobe-light that lures people into paying for overpriced tickets, a $6 Coca-Cola, and a new TV? But it’s exactly this type of criticism that Acland is wary of—people like these movies, so why are we so disparaging? Why not appreciate these tentpoles for what they are? Acland asks us to be curious first and judgemental later. Maybe along the way, we’ll pick up his zen attitude towards the whole thing.
Electric Ghost Magazine: Could you clarify how you define a blockbuster? You say that they don’t encompass a genre but they typically share common elements. Most importantly, the blockbuster is associated with heavy financial investment. In my mind, Marvel films are blockbusters, but movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Blade Runner 2049, I have trouble putting them firmly in that category. These are movie franchises but don’t seem to have the same kind of merchandising and vertical integration, and also seem, to me, a bit more substantial—aesthetically and narratively. Would you say that these are also blockbusters?
Charles Acland: One of the things that makes blockbusters so interesting to write about is precisely the slipperiness of the term. It signals something that everybody kind of recognises but it’s also imprecise enough that it’s mobilised in all sorts of different circumstances. People will argue whether or not something is a true “blockbuster”. But, generally, one of the qualities is the “bigness” that’s associated with it. You can have a movie that is technically lower budget, [you] wouldn’t think of as a purposefully built blockbuster, but [it] receives promotional heft, so it’s presented as though this has the “bigness”, if you will, of films that have a production budget to match. Similarly, films like Blade Runner 2049 had an extraordinary production budget associated with it but didn’t have the returns. And we’re already beginning to see that there’s some variation in whether or not something like that would count.
“When you’re talking about blockbusters you’re not talking about movies, you’re talking about these industrial strategies that have as much to do with launching other commodities and other technologies.”
But you’re right, not all of them are billed as the same kind of corporate entity. The Marvel franchise is really bound up with a very elaborate corporate presence and one of the terms I refer to is “technological tentpole”. Sometimes these films are described as tentpole films because they figure very prominently in the annual corporate reporting, the fiscal health relies on individual titles. But underneath them are all sorts of other commodities, or films, or technologies, that ride along with the visibility of the film. With the Marvel franchise you could even look at the launching of the Disney streaming service Disney+. The access to that franchise, as well as others, is part of what allowed that to launch. They say ‘Okay, now we have a delivery format that is resting upon, or connected with, the franchises visibility.’ In a way, when you’re talking about blockbusters you’re not talking about movies, you’re talking about these industrial strategies that have as much to do with launching other commodities and other technologies.
Why focus on Avatar?
I think it’s very easy for us to take for granted what Avatar specifically did for the industry and how important and substantial it was for opening up something that many people thought was not going to be possible, which was the revitalisation of the theatrical environment.
Many people have made presumptions before about the kind of decisions that James Cameron makes which are so unusual, so out of the norm for the way Hollywood works. So when Avatar came along there was a lot more hesitation about making a judgement about the film until it was released. Still, Avatar was an incredibly risky endeavour because he was producing a motion picture for a technological apparatus that hadn’t been put in place yet. It was only just unfolding. If anybody else would arrive with that kind of proposal, you would say that there’s no way we’re going to support that. But he found ways to do it and it did end up, at least for a period of time, reintroducing some life and vitality into what many assumed was a dying strategy where you produce a few movies but you put a lot of money into them and you pin them to other kinds of commodities, media formats, technologies, that you also want to introduce.
“We’re seeing a display and a demonstration of what Lewis Mumford calls “technological exhibitionism”. These are technologies that are designed to show themselves off…”
You said we often take for granted the work that blockbusters are doing culturally. I was just wondering if you could expand on that—what does technological awe and this sensory experience give us?
At one immediate level, I think that we would have to immediately acknowledge the pleasure, the sensory engagement. For every audience member who finds blockbusters to be headache-inducing, there are others who thrill at the onslaught of colors and sounds and lights. When we are consuming the film itself, and I’m thinking now of the theatrical, movie-going environment, we’re not only consuming the film, we’re also consuming that space, we’re consuming the sound system, the projection system, we’re consuming all of these technological features. And these contemporary franchises you mentioned, the Marvel and the Star Wars, James Bond, they are films that are made for that particular environment. We’re seeing a display and a demonstration of what Lewis Mumford calls “technological exhibitionism”. These are technologies that are designed to show themselves off, and our contemporary blockbuster aesthetic is one that is built around that technological exhibitionism. The showing off of the technological prowess. Part of the cultural work that’s being done is demonstrating for us the object lesson in the grandness and the expansiveness of technological innovation. That feature is easy for people understand as it is transpiring elsewhere, too, like with our mobile devices, that is, the demonstration of technological facility and innovation we associate with our digital culture.
Another facet is [that] many of the blockbusters that we encounter today are strategically designed to have at least some element of ideological uncertainty, instability. There’s a way many of these films try to hedge their bets on political stances, on their ideological arrangements. They’re designed to move, encounter people in different circumstances, they’re built with that kind of variability, whether it has to do with international shoots or casting and or the personnel that’s used to make the motion pictures. They’re designed to have the space so people can read a variety of different elements into them.
Avatar is one of the better examples of this. On the one hand, it’s a movie that has relatively conventionalised representations or treatment about race, about difference, about gender roles. But from another side it’s also a critique of imperialism, it’s also a critique of colonialism, it’s also an environmentalist story. I think it makes the movie that much more interesting for being designed to have precisely that kind of ambiguity so that it can be not just enjoyed but mobilised by people differently. Those are the things that I would point to for the kind of work that high-visibility motion pictures have done. They kind of put things into a discussion and then the critics, the commentators, the various other actors, whether it’s activists or people who understand themselves as completely apolitical, use, mobilise, engage with the film’s variety in different matters.
“These films don’t just sit still, they’re there for people to do something with and you can see people doing it.”
I think I see a particular narrative repeated across a lot of different franchises which is typical—there’s a band of special people who are semi-revolutionary and they have to take on the establishment. What’s always astounding is finding out that the person on the other side of the aisle thinks that they’re not the establishment, they’re actually the little guys in the story trying to carve out their own space. It’s an incredibly mutable narrative.
It is. It is. It’s powerful, and it’s a very important American narrative too–though it speaks well to other parts of the world. But it is exactly as you’re saying, it’s one in which all sorts of different people from different political positions can interpolate themselves, can see themselves in that and be thrilled by it. Look, I happened to be at UC Santa Barbara 2016/2017, so I was there for the American election and was participating in the marches that followed in January. Then there was the Women’s March, right around the inauguration. At the time Rogue One was one of the biggest movies on the planet. It was a highly unusual movie; it’s a combat movie starring a woman with a strategically diverse, international cast. At the march that I was at, the use of that film and the idea of the “resistance” as a way to articulate a position and critique against an election was phenomenal, it was inventive and it was interesting. Did the filmmakers make it with that in mind? No, but it is designed in such a way that those kinds of mobilisations are possible, absolutely. It’s exciting. These films don’t just sit still, they’re there for people to do something with and you can see people doing it.
You mention in the book the kind of frictionless, fantastical, but also at times naturalistic representations of technology in blockbusters. Could you expand on what that looks like? What does it mean for representations of tech to be frictionless?
I think there is something to the process of often seeing technology being treated with this wonder as if it can provide these magical solutions to problems that maps on to the kinds of expectations we have of our world–that technological fixes are always just around the corner. You can’t watch one of the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible films or one of the James Bond films or the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and not see this kind of bleed between the genius of the technological hacker, or special device, that allows the person to find a way through an obstacle and a magical relationship to technological solutions.
I watched Skyfall recently and I think that typifies what you’re talking about exactly. There’s this one scene where he digs out this shrapnel from his shoulder and he’s just like “analyze this” and within seconds they have this graphic of how the bullet exploded as if that’s not something that would take an enormous amount of time and bureaucracy and paying someone to do it. There’s this kind of seamlessness to it even though the narrative of the film is about this distrust of tech–the old guard versus new technology, what are humans even good for, etc.
You put it so well. At the one level I point to this ideological uncertainty or incoherence/instability in the films themselves, but there is equally an ideological footing found in their relationship to technology. This gets reproduced over and over again. If you’re in the theatrical environment you are consuming the atmosphere of state of the art, and meanwhile you’re watching this magical technological solution unfold in front of you. In the Iron Man and Avengers movies, for instance, there are scenes that really seem to go on too long, where they’re in their command centre, they’re meeting and discussing action plans, but there are all kinds of technologies immediately available—and that’s where I’m thinking okay here is where ideological consistency is being reinforced.”
“We have seen the re-assertion of the single mass work that everybody shares as a true economic as well as cultural centre point for our world, for our age. I wanted to explore what it is that makes the American blockbuster such a perfect fit as an aesthetic object as well as economic object for our era.”
You mentioned previously watching these movies for enjoyment and in the book you mentioned that many cultural critics find blockbusters to be “vacuums of meaning”—but do you enjoy, uh, watching them?
I try to have, like many viewers, many different personalities and perspectives in the process of watching a film, and so you can like aspects of a particular film and be inspired by them, but other aspects are more than disappointing–they are insulting and offensive. I think that’s part of what makes it exciting.
I don’t have a blanket assessment. I think most people don’t. What I think is interesting, though, is the way that, on the one hand, blockbusters are so central to the way an industry operates and the way audiences understand motion-picture entertainment. Then, on the other hand, there’s a very quick assumption that they are these vacuums of cultural value. In and of itself, they’re simultaneously ordinary parts of our lives and something that we can easily dismiss as “Oh, it’s just a blockbuster.” In the book I’m more than a little critical of scholars who do that without actually taking the time to investigate what they’re writing about.
There has been a lot of interesting public discourse around blockbusters in the past year with Scorcese’s article on why he thinks they’re not quite movies and also the different attacks that the film critic A.O. Scott was under over the years for being “elitist” for not liking these films. What do you make of the conversation?
I think that that conversation has been repeating itself for the last 60 years. It demonstrates to me the ossification of this stratified notion of cultural value. And listen, A.O. Scott is a really really interesting critic. Scorsese’s critique is interesting. But I do feel there’s a way that the concept of a blockbuster has been taken for granted and the historical element in many ways is not fully recognised. Beyond that historical element, if you can’t appreciate them then you’re not seeing the cultural work that they do to organise what’s good and bad, to help us to understand our relationship to fellow fans. So that would be my immediate response to the persistence to these particular debates.
It’s not that long ago that there was a full acceptance of the argument that blockbusters were a thing of the past, that forms of mass entertainment were disappearing, and that we were now in the age, as Chris Anderson referred to it, of the long tail of the micro-niches. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, if anything we have seen the re-assertion of the single mass work that everybody shares as a true economic as well as cultural center point for our world, for our age. I wanted to explore what it is that makes the American blockbuster such a perfect fit as an aesthetic object as well as an economic object for our era.
I think a lot of the fear towards blockbusters comes from the analysis that we have all of these consumers who would rather invest in this kind of cultural production instead of mid-range films, or indie films, and now there’s actually going to be no space for anything other than blockbusters because Hollywood won’t take any risks. Do you think that’s a valid fear?
One of the terms that I was not aware of in the 1950s was the concept of the “in-betweener” which was the term that was used by popular critics as well as by industry insiders. There was a lot of discussion about the loss of the in-betweener, which referred to films that were not the low-budget gimmick films nor the big-budget blockbusters. These were often thought of as the mid-range, artful, middle-brow films. They might be where you would find a little more engagement with contemporary social issues, you might find a little more aesthetic experimentation, but there was a lot of concern that the in-betweener was going to disappear because there just wasn’t the support.
We see a very similar argument right now and it’s not wrong. But mid-range films haven’t disappeared; they’ve just moved to television. I would imagine that one of the things we’re going to see is that fewer and fewer films will be released into theatres and a higher percentage of those films will be the high-end, expensive, technologically enhanced blockbusters, the ones that you need a technologically enhanced environment to experience. We will still see those smaller budget films, those indie films, but the idea of seeing them in a common public circumstance–that is likely to be rarer and maybe even just more of an urban experience.
My immediate reaction is a little bit of heartbreak, but—
That’s the Scorsese reaction, right?
Yeah. It’s really only a special occasion to go to the theatre. But well, I guess things are always changing…
Well, listen, motion pictures and their relationship to public consumption and public engagement has had many different phases and it’s changed very drastically from decade to decade. For years the contemporary blockbuster in the 1950s was a radical shift from movie-going as a habit. Then there was a concerted and organised effort to get more money out of every visit–
Until it became unsustainable.
Exactly, so expensive that it’s only a small group of relatively wealthy people that have enough disposable income that they could spend money on the luxury of seeing something earlier in a public, theatrical environment. I think it will be the same thing as the smaller indie films, art films that end up catering to a much more select, privileged, constituency, and we’ve been seeing that for ages. It’s worth seeing not just the films themselves but the ways people get access to them, or not, are forces that organise who you congregate with.
American Blockbuster: Movies, Technology, and Wonder by Charles Acland, published by Duke University Press, is available now.