The Great Summer Movies: A Perfect Engine

Written by Film

483065_Jaws-Summer-Blockbuster-Movie“In an era of mass marketing, product testing, audience research, and $20 million opening-weekend media buys, we still can’t tell the audience what they like. When the last ticket’s sold and the last kernel of popcorn is swept up, they tell us.”—Carl Gottleib, Jaws screenwriter

Maybe they should have given up after Jaws.

Maybe the first summer blockbuster is also the greatest. Maybe there has never been, and never will be, such a perfect engine, and every summer flick since that has attempted to capture the public imagination is just a pale echo.

Maybe so. But nothing will stop Hollywood from continuing to try.

They try out of greed, plain and simple. Actors and directors and screenwriters talk a good game, and they seem to believe what they say. But the guys writing the checks (mostly guys, right? All of them white and slick like cocaine on a mirror?) aren’t laying down $150 million to make art or delight people. They want to sell tickets, and the theater owners want to sell popcorn, and Target wants to sell toys.

When Jaws was released, of course, none of that infrastructure existed. A summer movie wasn’t a vehicle to distribute Happy Meal toys and exclusive blu-ray content over a six-month product cycle. It wasn’t the foundation on which a studio would build their entire financial forecast for years. It was just a movie—bigger, perhaps bolder, but still a flick.

In spite of the crass brazen greed that fuels Hollywood’s own imperfect machine, I’m a sucker for this stuff. The month of May rolls around and I start to smell the slimy popcorn, to feel the stick of day-old soda syrup beneath my feet.

I love summer movies. Always have, always will. I love the escape, being transported to a shark-infested ocean or an aircraft carrier helicoptering over New York City. I also love the immersion, the way a great summer flick penetrates the world around you. I realize it makes me shallow as hell and perhaps a little creepy. But I like the Iron Man 3 Slurpee cups, the Revenge of the Sith bedsheets, the E.T. pencil sharpener in the shape of his spaceship.

It’s communal, and hell, pop culture becomes less communal with every new on-demand instant delivery mechanism designed to give you only what you want, and only YOU, at any given second of any given day.

That’s really why it all starts with Jaws. It was a true communal filmgoing experience, more than just going to a movie—you were participating in a ritual, engaging not just with the action on the screen but with everyone elase in the silence.

Lester Bangs said we’d never agree on anything like we agreed on Elvis. When it comes to music, he may have been right, but we all agree on summer movies. They get shoved down our throats via every conceivable marketing mechanism, but if they strike a chord—if they create community—it’s only because there’s usually at least a single fleeting moment that brings an audience together in fear, wonder, joy, laughter, or all of the above.

**

This summer, I’m going to write about some of my favorite summer movies. I’m calling it “The Great Summer Movies” but I will confess out the gate that not all of these movies are actually “great.” Many of them are really, really good. A handful are unmitigated trash. They’re all true summer films, as I personally define them—big movies that struck a note in pop culture, even if just for a split second. Movies that offer a true escape; movies that transport; movies that create community.

I spent way too much time determining the movies I wanted to write about, and basically reviewed lists of every summer release from 1975 to 2013. It’s fascinating how the typical cliche of the “summer movie”—a testosterone-drenched, FX-dominated, loud crass invasive event—doesn’t hold up under close examination. There’s comedies here, most of them loud and crass in their own ways, but warm and gentle too. There’s coming-of-age stories, Oscar winners, and atmospheric horror.

“We live in a box of space and time,” Roger Ebert wrote. “Movies are windows in its walls.” Summer movies are gigantic holes blown through those walls, letting in way too much light but sometimes blinding you with their brightness. When something strikes a nerve, and it isn’t god-awful shitty (I’m looking at YOU, Transformers franchise), we should sit back and enjoy it. We deserve that much.

So let’s get started. Hang onto your butts.

Previous