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A bunch of books

So lately I haven’t finished reading a lot of books. I keep starting them, picking up and putting down depending on my mood and returning. This is not an indictment of them (well, in most cases). My mind is scattered at the moment; my interests roam. However, I have finished three books recently.

I have gotten in the habit of keeping one book in my bag and reading it exclusively on the bus. The first of these is one I recently finished called Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer by Tom Shone. It starts off with some interesting statistics I feel like copying here. Hollywood these days is enthralled with itself for making more money than ever before. Shone starts with listing the top 50 money-making films of all time (I’ll just copy the first 10 for illustration here):

1. Titanic
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
5. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
6. Jurassic Park
7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
8. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
9. Finding Nemo
10. Shrek 2

This, of course, puts a lot of more recent films on top, due to increasing ticket prices. Then Shone goes back and adjusts the box-office take of the films for inflation. The change is drastic:

1. Gone with the Wind
2. Star Wars
3. The Sound of Music
4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
5. The Ten Commandments
6. Titanic
7. Jaws
8. Doctor Zhivago
9. The Exorcist
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Shone makes some salient points. When he is discussing the first blockbusters, i.e., Jaws and the first Star Wars, he describes the thought process and the quality aspect. Further, these guys (Spielberg and Lucas) were working largely without a net. They went overbudget, had no idea if they would recoup, and made movies to satisfy themselves. It’s interesting that these guys were both raised on television in happy homes. They cast off the idea of the artiste, the depressed artsy film types. They make happy movies that are driven by narrative.

I'm going to quote my favorite passage from the book, even though it's lengthy: "Hollywood would not be Hollywood if it didn't devote all its energies, every now and again, to the cause of making huge, vibrant Day-Glo mistakes, but everyone's inability to recognize the rough beast that was Star Wars, slouching its way toward the box office, feels right somehow - or at least eerily true to the sneaky rhythm of bona fide revolutions, which always seem to roll out in staggered fashion, following first a charismatic leader into the field - a Danton, a Trotsky, a Spielberg - while a quieter tactician - a Robespierre, a Lenin, a Lucas - brings up the rear. (And both then pave the way for a third figure: a Napoleon, a Stalin, a Cameron, the men who would be king of the world.)"

Today, the notion of quality in a blockbuster (or even a sense of concern in making it) is gone. There’s no need for it. If they market it right, the producers will make enough money in the opening weekend. They already have the tie-ins and the video and DVD rights secured beforehand. Godzilla made $376 million and was, by most accounts, awful. And it’s killing the theatre owners who are often tied by contracts to keep films for weeks, when it only makes its money in Week 1, and the producers typically take 100 percent of the total for that opening week. What keeps a film in the theatre for an extended run is word-of-mouth, getting butts in the seats that are there because they hear the film is good, not because they bought the hype. Hence, as Shone points, a theatre owner will take My Big Fat Greek Wedding over The Phantom Menace any day.

If you can market anything right and still make money, what incentive do you have to make something good? Especially in an industry where things are largely done by committee anyway?

I found Shone’s analysis a little bit gaping in the middle. He does an excellent job describing the rise of the blockbuster and what he considers to be its fall, i.e., the last ten years, pretty much since Independence Day (I would agree that that piece of crap marked a turning point), although there’s a good argument for Last Action Hero (which made money, too). One interesting theme Shone points out in blockbusters is the rise of people being more like God. In Jaws and Star Wars, the heroes are ordinary people, a small-town sheriff and a farm boy. Now, the characters/heroes of the story are more god-like, Herculean, endowed with unique gifts. Spider-man. Neo in the Matrix films. Even the new trilogy of Star Wars films – Anakin was supposed to be the Chosen One. The films reflect the mentality of the studios. When the blockbuster was rare or unheard of, the hero (and the film) was the underdog who ultimately triumphs. Now, the heroes are those for whom it is almost impossible to fail, because the film, as long as it’s marketed right, will make money.

The second book I have finished is Silverfin, a young adult novel that imagines the adventures of a pre-teen James Bond (it’s the first of a likely series). It’s a fun book. It does follow a bit closely the Harry Potter formula for a hero – parents killed under mysterious circumstances, a bullying schoolmate with a villainous father, magic (here in the forms of gadgetry), sporting events figuring prominently (cross-country running replaces Quidditch) and very properly British (actually, Bond is Scottish but in school in Britain). But the author clearly knows his Bond, incorporating classic Bond touches with a climax straight out of any of the films. He also removes the confident Bond swagger, clearly with a mind to show how it would develop as a teenager. Young Bond is a natural with the ladies too, but he can’t see it. The author, Charlie Higson, even incorporates the classic villain explaining his actions before dispensing with the hero, and does something wonderful with it, having Bond himself ask why the villain would tell him all this. It’s a blast.

The third book I have finished is Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. I read several reviews of this book in advance, and was fairly warned, but I have liked most of Palahniuk’s work in the past. This novel is constructed as a series of short stories told by a weird group of people brought together for a three-month writer’s retreat. Two of the stories had been published in Playboy so I had read them. It’s a very strange, disturbing and at times flat-out gross book. The author clearly mistakes the gross-out factor for horror. Some of the stories work well by themselves and a collection of short stories would have worked much better, edited wisely. The overarching story of the writer’s retreat crumbles by the end. While the idea of the stories within the novel is a bit of a contrivance, it’s also a good one, but NOT FOR PALAHNIUK. Anyone who has read any of his books (most likely, Fight Club) knows his style is very distinct. A collection of short stories that is meant to hash out characters is a bad choice for someone whose style varies little. I do give points for effort in this case, and, like I said, I think some of the stories stand well on their own, some with insightful social commentary. But I can’t recommend it.

Books read 2005: 44


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