With War Of the Worlds opening next week, it feels like an odd time for me to be wondering whether Spielberg and Lucas killed the movies. During the past few months, which have been unusually bleak for movie lovers (has anything flat-out wonderful opened since last year? Not that I can recall), I've been hoping against hope that Spielberg would return to form—that he'd become Steven Spielberg again rather than the impostor who used his name on The Terminal—and that he would save the movies, or at least give us the sort of huge, exuberant, and shrewdly conceived blockbuster that used to be a Hollywood staple every summer. Certainly Spielberg and Lucas changed the movies fundamentally, in some ways for the worse. But I'm with you on Jaws—if only we could see new films of such flair and power today—and I was even more excited than you were about the first two Star Wars films.
My first encounter with Spielberg's material predated the movie. I snatched the basic story from the jaws of Peter Benchley—who was a colleague and a friend at Newsweek—who was writing mainly about TV when I was the magazine's movie critic in the '60s and the early '70s. On long Wednesday and Thursday nights when we had to wait for dilatory editors to edit our copy, Peter would regale us with lurid facts and extravagant tales of sharks he'd heard about or maybe even seen on Nantucket, where his family had a summer home. I can't say I was entranced, but I did grasp the essentials—big, dumb, insatiable, pitiless, dangerous. (Four of those five adjectives describe many studio executives.) Then came Peter's novel, which I read, so I hardly expected to be surprised when the movie came out. Yet I was, to a degree that spoke—and I'd like to think still speaks—well for my childishness.
My first exposure to Star Wars was startling to a different degree. It was in 1975 in California, at the Avco Theater in Westwood, then a state-of-the-art fourplex. (Now it's something of a dump, even though it continues to be used for critic screenings by studios that don't seem to know or care what message of indifference they're sending about the movies they screen there.) I was married at the time to Piper Laurie, and we were there for a sneak preview of Carrie, in which she played Margaret White, Sissy Spacek's crazy, Bible-thumping mother. (In the crazy times we live in now, Margaret may be perceived as perfectly sane.) The preview went extremely well, but then a trailer came on the screen for a movie no one had heard of, and I thought that I would go crazy with delight. An ape at the controls of a space ship? A space ship the size of Rhode Island? The memory of that stunning newness is still with me, and I cherish it.
I also cherish my encounter with another movie I knew nothing about at the time, except that Steven Spielberg had directed it. My daughter was 10 years old when I took her to a screening of E.T. at the Motion Picture Academy. She kept her (strong) emotions to herself, but I completely lost it when the kids on their bicycles soared into the sky. (Which makes me think, if I may digress, of our dear and departed friend Pauline Kael sitting absolutely rapt, in a front row seat at the old 20th Century Fox screening room on 56th Street, as Planet of the Apes unfolded.) But that may not be a digression, because the theme here, I think, is newness, and surprise, and surprisability, qualities currently in short supply in many films, and in the people who see them. That's due, in part, to staggering marketing budgets that now, quite routinely, accompany every weekend's blockbuster wannabe—it's hard to sustain a sense of discovery when you pretty much know the whole plot from the TV trailers or the Web. But it's also due to the generally dismal quality of studio movies (with the singular exception, that I'll get to in a bit, of a studio that isn't really a studio). I don't think Spielberg and Lucas were the marauders they've been made out to be. For my money (which, mercifully, I don't have to spend to see movies), the Jeffrey Dahmers of today's feature-film business are the people who make the decisions at the entertainment conglomerates, vast and sprawling institutions which have perfected—or so it was thought until very recently—a manufacturing process for crudely made movies that can be marketed successfully via TV and the Web and that can recoup their increasingly absurd costs overseas (the best, or rather worst, recent example being Troy) even if they bomb domestically.
Now, as you note, things suddenly seem to be spiraling downward for the studios, as well as for the exhibitors. (Let's not forget, in our list of movie-business malefactors, the emergence of a vast network of multiplexes whose screens are given over almost entirely to mainstream studio output; so much for the early promise that one or two screens in each complex would be reserved for indie productions or worthy documentaries. And let's also not forget, while we're at it, to note that four years before Jaws, in 1971, The French Connection, which received the most Academy Awards that year, made its own significant contribution to the creation of the action-intensive blockbuster.) You wrote of 16 straight weekends in which ticket sales have declined in comparison to last year's box office. As I write this, Variety is reporting the likelihood of a 17th weekly decline, given the somewhat soft opening for Batman Begins, although the losing streak could snap when the studios issue their actual box-office tallies tomorrow.
That can't be blamed on Spielberg or Lucas, even though both directors seem to have lost their way in recent years as innovating entertainers. It's the consequence of the conglomerates starting to lose their audience by beating the Spielberg-Lucas formulas—along with most others—into the ground. The exception I referred to earlier is, of course, Pixar, a not-quite-studio, safely based near San Francisco, hundreds of miles from Hollywood, that has turned out six brilliant, and brilliantly successful, films in a row. Their winning streak will end some day—how could it not—but in the meanwhile Pixar's prodigious outpourings provide proof that even in these tumultuous times, when movies are losing traction to video games (and when moviegoers can't even watch movies without taking out their cell phones, BlackBerrys, or Nintendos whenever there's a sag in the action), strong entertainment values still bring customers into the tent and keep them there quite happily. The same values, that is to say, that Spielberg and Lucas pioneered and refined.