I wrote this today at the suggestion of a dear friend, who talked me out of another freak out session this afternoon. Remember when I thought I hit rock bottom on this whole thesis thing? Not even close. She told me to start by talking about why I’m doing this. Why I’m writing about what I’m writing about. And even though it won’t be clear to you what my exact topic is from this post, the idea is the same. This is why I love Hollywood blockbuster cinema, and why I’m going through this nonsense. If it makes any sense at all, here it is!
I am writing this paper because it is a combination of my loves – historiography, the United Artists, and the Hollywood blockbuster.
Growing up in Reno, Nevada, all we had was access to only one single multiplex that would showcase arthouse cinema. The rest were giant multiplexes where we would receive only the most mainstream of Hollywood movies. This is the way it had been for decades, and resultantly, tastes were very singular. It wasn’t until arriving in California that I even truly realized how many options there were. My views on cinema were extremely (and embarrassingly) naïve and shortsighted. Upon seeing the scope of films and filmmakers out there, I felt overwhelmed, but mostly irritated. My fellows, the people around me and my professors, all were speaking disparagingly of the movies I loved; blockbusters. They were waved off as nothing but trite, redundant, and base entertainment. Because of this feeling of ostracization for liking something so pandering and mainstream, I chose to focus my attention on the blockbuster as my final project in school ever. I sought to prove that yes, the blockbuster is worthy of attention. Yes, the blockbuster can be artistic.
It was only in these past few months did I realize the reason these films are so often disregarded: Film studies began as a means by which to legitimize the cinematic medium as an art form, not dissimilar to art history. It was through the application of theory and close, textual analyses that film was able to be considered a legitimate medium worthy of substantial critique and preservation. Mainstream Hollywood cinema (the kind I grew up with and fell in love with) went against this central tenant. Commerce, here, was the enemy of art, as Hollywood’s singular goal (to make the most amount of profit) was to be accessible to the most expansive and diverse audience possible, which usually meant forsaking challenging expressionism, politically charged content, or intriguing metaphorical language as expressed through aesthetic practices.
In the battle of commerce verses art, art wins in film studies. And this now is clear to me. However, what this means is that there is a lack of cohesive scholarship on the blockbuster. It almost seems like people are afraid of it. No one truly knows how to define it, so instead we only get very surfacey definitions that liken it to a phenomenon or a genre. I want to elaborate on this topic. It is undervalued, under-researched, and under-appreciated. I will bring scholarship attention back to the blockbuster through this paper by problematizing all previous conceptions of the blockbuster, proving that we are nowhere close to done yet with our research on this complex, ever-evolving part of the cinema.
This comes to a head with the United Artists. These people have followed me throughout my life, particularly Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. I have loved these two rivals equally since I was very young, and upon growing up and being able to work hands on with Mary Pickford’s foundation was the chance of a lifetime. I had her belongings in my apartment. I touched her dresses, her hats, her photographs. Fairbanks was the first president of the Academy, the one thing I have treated like the Super Bowl and have vowed to one day attend. I had the opportunity to travel to New York City and do research on D.W. Griffith. These opportunities have been absolute godsends. Even though their films might not speak to me the same way as a modern film does, I wholly recognize their contributions and realize that without them, the industry today as we know it would not exist.
The United Artists, the four of them, untied, together, created ripple effects that would change the industry forever. Their revolution against vertical integration, to make movies on their own terms, would ultimately lead to Hollywood’s salvation once the studio system collapsed post-World War II. It was their celebrity, their cinematic genius, their keen eye for marketing, that enabled their successes.
I love them and I love Hollywood cinema. I am doing this because I owe it to the people and the movies that got me here. I will defend and uphold them with my dying breath.