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Hail to the Hollywood Blockbuster

Forget Francois Truffaut. Tom Shone wants a little respect for Spielberg and Lucas. With “Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer” (Free Press), the former film critic for the Sunday Times of London makes his case for an alternative golden era of filmmaking--the era of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” We talked movies with the 37-year-old Brooklyn resident after a recent book signing on the Sunset Strip.

What inspired you to write a Valentine to the Hollywood blockbuster?

I grew up with these movies. I was curious as to why the movies I loved were often pointed to as the start of all that’s wrong with Hollywood. Spielberg and Lucas are sort of routinely strung up in the rafters for having killed the American film industry. I also felt slightly guilty. I felt it was time to come forward and point out that if anybody killed the American film industry, it was me and the 10 million other children worldwide who staged that coup of American cinema in 1977.

How do you differ from the party line on blockbuster movies?

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The rule of thumb is that American cinema had this heyday until the blockbusters arrived, and then it went to the dogs. That one shot from George Lucas’ laser cannon brought down this great filmmaking of the ‘70s, the era of Peckinpah, Scorsese and Polanski. I argue the complete opposite. I had as much love for “Chinatown” as anyone. The slightly aberrant period when American cinema put on its French beret and tried its hand at art movies produced some magnificent films. But it was a detour that didn’t go anywhere. With “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” American cinema returned to its roots. Spielberg and Lucas were really in the tradition of Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and the golden era of Hollywood.

You’re calling summer movie product a high point in film history?

From ’75 to ’85 is the heyday. You had great film after great film. I was part of a lucky generation taken to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” At the time, I thought it was natural that every 10-year-old be given this fantastic parade of movies. Now I realize that there was something unusual going on, which was that Hollywood had discovered that market and was busy devoting the best minds of a generation to concocting for us.

But even you have to admit that things went downhill at some point.

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For me, 1985 is the cutoff. With the arrival of the [Jerry] Bruckheimers, [Don] Simpsons, “Top Gun,” and Peter Guber and Jon Peters, the producers started to dictate what went on the screen and the heroes started getting less like the underdogs and more like the top dogs. The more superhuman they became, it became more difficult to empathize with them. That sympathy for the underdog is something American movies are in danger of losing contact with.

What other dark forces poisoned the blockbuster?

The bigger these movies got, the worse they got. We think of “Jaws” and “Star Wars” as big movies, but they really were not. “Jaws” wasn’t a studio-driven operation. It was a grass-roots operation that the studio then cashed in on. “Jaws” is set [around] July 4th. Now we have “Independence Day,” named after its own release [during a July 4th week]. A parody of a parody. It’s curled at the edges at that point.

Has the gazillion-dollar mega-movie hit bottom?

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Things got really dicey around about the late ‘90s. You started to see really, really bad movies like “Armageddon” and “Godzilla.” [But] the studios woke up to the fact that these things need to be given back to the directors. They gave “Spider-Man” to Sam Raimi, they gave “X-men” to Bryan Singer, and they gave “Hulk” to Ang Lee, which didn’t work out, but you get the idea. They were choosing idiosyncratic directors often from the art-house or low-budget sphere. It was really kind of heartening. If there were to be a sequel to the book it would be, “How the Art House Saved the Blockbuster.”

So you’re upbeat about blockbusters these days.

The thing to remember is that good movies are still around. I think Pixar is one of the great reasons to be cheerful these days. It’s like being an audience for those early Disney movies, “Snow White” and “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia,” one great movie after another. Every time I’m feeling despondent about the summer blockbuster I think of Pixar and cheer up.

If you don’t mind our saying so, your relationship with the blockbuster seems very personal.

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As a kid I had my wall papered with so much “Star Wars” stuff you couldn’t see a square inch of bedroom beneath it.


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