What, there was room for other movies in summer 1975? Arguably the greatest American film of the Seventies, Nashville (it's chief rival: Chinatown) featured Ronee Blakley as Barbara Jean, Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton
No one could have foretold, in the lazy, post-Watergate summer of 1975, that the Spielbergian tide swelling on the horizon would forever wash away tried-and-true traditions in the summer movie business. Nor could anyone have guessed how the success of a single film about a fish with very big teeth would lead to the kind of movie lineup we face this summer, going on 40 years later.
Summer 2012 is overripe with superhero fantasies, pumped-up fairy tales, video game and board game adaptations, cartoon movies (in both senses of the phrase), umpteenth entries in brain-dead series and franchises. 'Tis the season of tentpoles, every one of them hankering to be this summer's Jaws. Really, is this all there is?
"But," some fanboy protests, "isn't that what summer at the movies is supposed to be?" Yes, according to the marketing mavens and dealmakers and packagers, that's the plan. But it wasn't ever thus. Leaving Spielberg's big fish out of it, what was the summer slate of '75 like? How was it different from the kind of present-day cinematic fare we credit (or dis) Jaws for spawning?
But first, how did the revolution begin? In 1975, against considerable odds and with myriad technical difficulties, the Zanuck-Brown unit of Universal Pictures and young hotshot director Steven Spielberg brought novelist Peter Benchley's summer 1974 page-turner Jaws to the screen. Universal opted for an unprecedented 450-theater release supported by a marketing blitzkrieg, and the Great White shark movie rose swiftly to become Hollywood's new box-office champion. Summer tentpole madness was born.
It's important to note a difference between Jaws and the vast majority of "high-concept" tentpole offerings that followed: Jaws was a really good movie. Spielberg and company didn't just deliver the requisite suspense and scares. They crafted a film rich in atmosphere, sense of place and situation, and above all, character—the sort of engagingly quirky humanity that has remained a hallmark of the director's best movies.
And yet already something was going amiss. During its opening week, audiences for Jaws sat riveted throughout the film, but by week two a new pattern had set in. Younger viewers, especially, spent a lot of time chatting, even getting up from their seats to move around the auditorium and visit with friends. Whenever the time drew nigh for the shark's next nosh, they'd pause, watch the screen, and whoop with satisfaction. Then the shark took a deepwater break and socializing resumed.
The movie, with its stellar performances and shrewd rhythms, had essentially ceased to matter—had been deconstructed into designated high points and dispensable filler. And a new style of film-watching had been culturally sanctioned.
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