Lecture 7: The Concept of High Concept Professor Michael Green Beverly Hills Cop (1984) Directed by Martin Brest
This Lesson Hollywood in the Age of Reagan I: Industry and Technology Hollywood in the Age of Reagan II: Ideology ‘High Concept’ The Player The Player (1992) Directed by Robert Altman
Hollywood in the Age of Reagan I: Industry and Technology Back to the Future (1985) Directed by Robert Zemeckis Lesson 7: Part I
The Age of Reagan • “With a former actor in the White House, perhaps it was inevitable that the 1980s would be remembered, in movies as in politics, as the age of Reagan. It may be just as valid, however, to designate the decade as an age of Hollywood for the U.S. National government.” • Robert Sklar, “Hollywood and the Age of Reagan”
The Factors that Shaped the Age • Sklar argues that the relationship between two factors shaped the “Age of Reagan” for movies. • Technology • Ideology
Changes in Technology • The VCR (first Beta than VHS) became a ubiquitous appliance for recording television or playing rented movies. • Cable television vastly expanded the number of channels and the availability of both recent and older films on the screen. • Interactive video games and CD-ROMs further expanded delivery of images to the home.
Resistance is Futile • The movie industry’s reaction to many of these new technologies was resistance. • It soon became clear, however, that these new technologies expanded rather than contracted movie viewing and that the movie studios would realize greater profits. • VCRs especially opened a vast new market for sale and rental of movies in video cassette format.
Synergy • Synergy is the combined or cooperative action of two or more elements to enhance an effect. • Synergy has always existed in the movie business in the relationships between movies and source material. • But the synergy in the 1980s expanded the delivery of movies far beyond the theater screen without significantly altering their original form.
Synergy (continued) • Synergy also reshaped movie materials into new entertainment forms distinct from old-fashioned dramatic and narrative storytelling. • Video games (arcade, console, personal computer) • Toys • Theme and amusement parks • Fan conventions • Publishing • Home video
New Business Strategies • 1980s-style acquisition of movie companies and studios was driven by the goal of synergistic union between movies and other media, between software and hardware. • 20th century Fox/New Corp • Time/Warner Brothers • Sony/Columbia • Movies became more important than ever as detonating points, out of which flowed stories, characters and images that could be transformed into other media.
“Big Commercial Potential” • Building on the mega-hits of the mid-late 1970s (Jaws, Star Wars, Rocky, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), the movie industry of the 1980s was predicated on blockbuster filmmaking. • Much more of a film’s overall budget went to marketing. • Many more screens were built and success began to be defined by how well a film performed on it’s opening weekend.
1980s Top-Grossing Films • Unlike the “Golden Age” of the ‘70s, in which art and gritty realism was prized in American cinema, top films of the 1980s tended to be fantasies for children and adolescents. • As a group their dominant features included cardboard adventure heroes, comic book characters, space travel and breathtaking special effects. • The Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future movies • Batman, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop
A Different Breed • Among the notable aspects of these films is how little they share the characteristics of previous decades’ hits, which were drawn from novels, stage musicals and literature. • In contrast they seemed to draw inspiration from the commercial popular culture of the Great Depression and World War II years – the B movies, Saturday-matinee serials, pulp magazines and comic books that, for much of the postwar era, had been disdained and even suppressed.
Hollywood in the Age of Reagan II: Ideology Commando (1985) Directed by Mark L. Lester Lesson 7: Part II
Reagan and B Movies • Reagan had been a ‘B’ movie actor and there was “a revival of ‘B’ movie culture in the ‘80s – launched by Star Wars and expanded through Reagan’s election – that became a defining aspect of popular rhetoric in box-office hits and presidential politics.” • “It’s roots lie in reaction against the present: the nation’s military defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam, a perception of contemporary society characterized by divisiveness, selfishness and hedonism.”
Embracing a “Better” Era • “WWII-era pop. culture represented the values of the “good war”: unity, self-sacrifice for a higher calling, clarity of purpose against an evil enemy, implacable will toward victory.” • “For some, the films of Lucas and Spielberg [with their fascist and totalitarian villains] resurrected the WWII ethos in tandem with the president’s policies against the USSR.” • “Evil Empire” • “Morning in America” • “Shining City on a Hill”
Example Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Directed by Steven Spielberg
Other Retro Values • Unfortunately, in addition to reviving the WWII-era values of unity, clarity and heroic self-sacrifice, many of the Reagan-era hits trafficked in other no-so positive values. • Racism in relation to non-European peoples. • A believe in the efficacy of Imperialism (many 1980s films, even many comedies such as Stripes and Real Genius, depicted the might of the U.S. military. • Demeaning attitudes toward women and non-heterosexuals 18
Popular Images • The age of Reagan and the Age of Hollywood merged not only in policies and rhetoric but also in popular images. • A widely circulated parody poster of Rambo: First Blood Part II, attached Reagan’s head to Stallone’s muscled torso in the act of firing an automatic weapon. • This “Ronbo” figure rose above partisanship to speak parodic truths, above all that politics and entertainment had become fused. • Legacy
Rocky IV 21
Traditional Gender Role Crisis In the 1980s, traditional notions of maleness appeared to be under particularly severe challenge in the United States. Threats came not solely from military defeat (in Vietnam). In gender relations, they arose from a powerful movement for women’s equality, and in the realm of sexuality from the most open discourse (and display) in the nation’s history of alternatives to heterosexual norms.
The Hard Body Critic Susan Jeffords has defined the “hard body” image as the Age of Reagan’s answer to this masculine dilemma. “These hard bodies came to stand not only for a national character – heroic, aggressive and determined – but for the nation itself.” They were often loners locked in mortal combat with forces, powers and technologies more brutal, vicious and wily than themselves. 23
Examples Jean-Claude Van Damme • Arnold Schwarzenegger • Sylvester Stallone • Bruce Willis • Mel Gibson • Harrison Ford • Jean-Claude Van Damme • Steven Segal • Dolph Lundgren • Chuck Norris • Brigitte Nielsen • Grace Jones
Hard Body Limitations As movie characters, however, the hard bodies were thin and two-dimensional, and quickly lost their popularity. Narratives, however, forced the hard body characters to be vulnerable to prevent the simplicity of unequivocal outcomes. The figure also proved unstable as human or even superhuman, shifting into futuristic fantasy genres with elements of humanoid or robotic characteristics.
Example The Terminator (1984) Directed by James Cameron 26
High Concept Grease (1978) Directed by Randall Kleiser Lesson 7: Part III
What is “High Concept?” • “A striking, easily reducible narrative which also offers a high degree of marketability.” • “The high concept film is designed to maximize marketability and, consequently, the economic potential at the box office.” • “Frequently the term is used as ammunition in an indictment against the contemporary industry, suggesting a bankruptcy of creativity within Hollywood.” • Justin Wyatt • Justin Wyatt 28
High Concept vs. Low Concept • “While Grease and All that Jazz fit the musical genre . . . differences in content, marketing and reception between the two films illuminate one of the most significant forms of production in contemporary Hollywood . . . the contrast between ‘high concept’ and ‘low concept.’”
Grease as High Concept • “The mixture of elements within the star “package” explains the rationale behind Grease’s marketing formula, which could be articulated as a focus both on the young, drawn to Travolta and the subject of teen romance/music, and on the older audience segments drawn to the nostalgia.” • Pop music and tie-ins also play a big roll. The soundtrack to Grease was one of the most successful ever.
Selling Grease In addition to the stars, the music, and the merchandising, Grease also had the marketing advantage of being a pre-sold property, based on the long running musical, though the producers chose to discard the Broadway score to attract young audiences. Finally, it was sold through a simple, identifiable logo: 31
All That Jazz • All that Jazz did not have a big name star such as John Travolta and it aimed at being an unconventional musical. • “The movie had no marketing hooks, except for its high quality credentials which would place the film commercially into the marginalized “art house” category . . . Even classical musical fans could be alienated by the generic deconstruction, not to mention the frank language, nudity, and suggestiveness.” • Wyatt 33
Final Point “High concept can be considered as perhaps the central development within post-classical cinema, a style of filmmaking molded by economic and institutional forces. Through high concept, the diverse manner through which economics and aesthetics are joined together can be understood.” The irony, of course, is that high concept has often been thought of as low concept by film critics, scholars and certain movie lovers.
The Player The Player (1992) Directed by Robert Altman Lesson 7: Part III
Background Written by Michael Tolkin and directed by Robert Altman, one of the seminal American directors. Stars Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Lyle Lovett, Whoopi Goldberg, Dean Stockwell and Richard E. Grant. Features cameos by a number of prominent Hollywood stars. Routinely thought of as a great film and the pre-eminent satire of Hollywood.
Lamenting the End of an Era Altman had prospered during the 1970s “Golden Age” of filmmaking, along with such visionary directors as Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich. The blockbuster/high concept Hollywood of the 1980s relegated these directors to the sidelines and, many felt, destroyed an era of great art to make room for commerce. Pause the lecture and watch clip #1.
Satire The Player critiques the shallowness, hypocrisy, waste, incompetence and money madness that some believe typifies Hollywood and Los Angeles – L.A. as a location is prominently featured in the film. The movie is particularly savage in its critique of the way in which Hollywood treats not only writers, but writing as an art and profession. Pause the lecture and watch clip #2.