Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: Unchained Metaphor

You can find the full list of the top 100 blockbusters since 1972 here, as well as an index for other posts in this series.

The Godfather was the first modern blockbuster, but once can be forgiven for believing Jaws actually holds that title. For one thing, Jaws obliterated the records of historically huge performers like The Godfather and The Exorcist. For another, it remains the platonic ideal of the summer blockbuster. The outdoor setting, a huge threat to life and limb, numerous action sequences, the iconic score, the male bonding, the snappy dialogue, the unabashed design for thrills above all else. When mopey arthouse people like me moan about the way blockbusters press out more engaging films in the biz, I don’t think any of us are moaning about Jaws. No matter how tortured and ridiculous that production was, it’s a movie where the craft is absolutely undeniable. Steven Spielberg, the god of the blockbuster, made so many good choices in the production—he knew you couldn’t make this movie work in a tank—and then Verna Fields’ editing is as good as any other movie from the 1970s. Jaws is not necessarily a brainiac movie, but it’s a far sight from dumb, and it is endlessly rewatchable even as the thrills of the first few viewings fade a little bit. No matter how blunt Bruce’s force is, or how magnificently that blow-up float explodes under his bite, it’s a film which sings in perpetuity because the shark is an unchained metaphor. It is open to interpretation, to virtually any meaning that one wants to place open it. The shark is the Vietnam War. The mayor of Amity is Nixon and the shark is Watergate looming in the distance. The shark is Moby-Dick, who is Nature, unless, as Toni Morrison argues, it is whiteness as ideology. The shark is political malfeasance writ large which must be destroyed by a united fist made of law, education, and blue-collar force. The shark is a fill-in-the-blank, a Rorschach test for any kind of viewer.

The blockbuster doesn’t have to be brainless, and many of our best examples are whip-smart. But the blockbusters which I think of as relying on these almost too bold metaphors at the center of their texts are the ones which are most about feeling. Jaws is not an intellectual exercise at its best, because the historical metaphors for the shark are never as potent as a metaphor which finds this flesh-and-blood squalus to be embodied hunger, persistence, avarice, vengeance. In other words, when it’s more like the chainsaw itself from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, voracity for its own sake, then the shark is a greater and more terrifying entity than anything inflected by the Nixon administration. I don’t think there’s much call for the chainsaw to fill that kind of political void, maybe because people are always finding ways to raise Spielberg up and cast Hooper down. But there’s a purity in the symbolism of that ringing, roaring tool that even Bruce can’t quite fulfill. It is unceasing in its pursuit, audible from God knows how many states over, like a descant above soprano screams. It simply wants, untethered by decency or restraint.

Enter an antithesis for sharks and chainsaws and other toothy killers in The Muppet Movie. Kermit sings in the beginning about a “rainbow connection,” a pretty concise summary of Saussure’s signs. The sign: the rainbow. The signifier: the word. The signified: what depths something as shallow and ephemeral as a rainbow can contain. The rainbow (and what lies beyond it, of course) stands in for dreams and aspirations, which are composed of material even more difficult to clamp down than the stuff of rainbows. The song is lovely, maybe because it’s being rendered in Kermit’s voice, but it’s also haunting. “Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?” Kermit wonders, recognizing the potential darkness in that rainbow which compels strong young men to fall off the earth itself. The rainbow ends up being a benevolent force for Kermit and his new friends once Orson Welles offers them that “standard rich and famous contract,” but even then, in “The Magic Store,” the lyrics acknowledge a wry quality in following one’s dreams so nearly:

It starts when we’re kids,

A showoff in school,

Making faces at friends:

You’re a clown and a fool!

Doing pratfalls, and birdcalls, and bad imitations,

Ignoring your homework —

Is that dedication?

Something of that wryness, even a tinge of regret or condescension, is present in Shampoo. In this case, the metaphor is maybe even a little on the nose. The lackadaisical hedonism of George Roundy and his hippie friends on the day that Richard Nixon is elected stands in for a huge abdication of responsibility from people who claimed to have known better. We knew that there was a better world, the film seems to say, and yet we still let ourselves believe that the better world was one in which we could all get laid more casually rather than one where a Great Society might flourish absent the war in Vietnam. When Jackie drives off with Lester, choosing aging capital over the exciting but vacant future that George might have offered instead, he’s left to look out longingly at her, unable to even chase her down to evince his ardor. (What a rebuke for The Graduate, or maybe the right read is that Hollywood had gained perception in less than a decade.) Although Saturday Night Fever is set in a contemporary New York as opposed to the Los Angeles of the recent past, it too finds its primary symbolism in release. Rather than the leering at the sexual permissiveness of the late ’60s, Saturday Night Fever pokes into the hypnotic but constricting world of mean streets lit by dance clubs. Tony Manero, for whom the couple minutes he gets alone on a lit-up dance floor each weekend mean more than any day-to-day relationship in his life, gets the second chance that George doesn’t get. But he has to fight through the selfish temptation that his dancing screams.

Tony ultimately leaves a battered group of friends behind in Brooklyn, sick of the violence that he’s perpetuated, sick of the racism that he benefits from, sick of the rape that he’s done nothing to prevent. In the first half of the film, the pride of his performance is the only thing carrying him through a life that’s dramatically empty, but it’s also a peacocking testament to his own ego. Tony Manero may not be the king of all that large a realm—it’s what, 15 x 15?—but as long as he can make it all his, it’s enough to make him believe that what he has is unique rather than diverting.

As wide as the Atlantic coast may be in Jaws, it’s also a space which is basically contained. The Orca will only go so far, and in setting traps for the shark, Quint sets the battleground on terrain of his own choosing. Add in that the ocean looks like any ocean to your average landlubber and Jaws might as well take place in a box bound by horizon lines. That containment is essential to the metaphors of Inside Out, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Skyfall as well. The final setpiece in Skyfall, the home invasion at the estate where young James grew up until he was orphaned, begins with armed gunmen trying to break in and escalates until the place is being attacked by a helicopter. This is James Bond in a nutshell, of course…the mission might even be slightly sedate until all of a sudden the cavalry arrives, and in this case Silva has aircav. The house ends up going up in flames, which is not subtle, but somehow even less subtle is the presence of a priest hole in the Scottish house, the narrow passageway which allows the good guys to get out of Skyfall before the roof caves in. It’s a hiding place first and foremost. Not only does it save Bond from a giant fireball, but it was also the place he hid for two days after his parents died, emerging from his stone cocoon as a steely butterfly. The transformation from James Bond to James Bond 007 was not made when he finished those assassinations in Casino Royale, but when he went into the bowels of Skyfall as a boy. The retreat into one’s own mind to tear down the old and build up the new gets a fuller treatment in Inside Out, a film which finds that the minds of children are bounded in nut shells. There is probably no blockbuster in the past decade which has had a more obviously unchained metaphor at its center, personifying emotions and taking hints of psychology to build islands and spaces in a child’s brain. The success of the film is in its ability to make itself horoscope relatable for any self-interested viewer, but what it shares with Skyfall is the small space in which most of the action occurs. As much as Riley zips around California, going to school or that bus terminal, the realest place is inside her head, where Joy and Sadness undertake a dry comedy of errors. And much like James Bond discovers a new person in that priest hole, Riley discovers a new her when she explodes her mental childhood and begins creating more sophisticated ways of coping with the world. It is inside that control center in her brain where the emotions gather round to see a blue and yellow ball, a memory reflecting sadness and happiness at one time. And as for One Flew, there’s a nut shell of a different kind which is filled to overflowing with the worst dreams Hamlet could imagine. This is hardly my favorite movie, but the production design comes through brilliantly in One Flew. Maybe the shockingly white interiors of the ward are uncanny and strange, the kind of setting that might make men go mad instead of putting them on the path to a cure. But what’s outside? It becomes clear throughout the movie that the vast majority of the men in McMurphy’s cohort are there by their own choosing. McMurphy is flabbergasted when he finds out: you have an opportunity to be out there and you’re in here? But then you watch him play basketball with Chief or go out on the boat outing with the fellas, and the oppressive grayness of the world, the implied soot in every nimbus, and the self-contained world of the ward starts to feel at least clean, at least orderly, at least predictable. The ward is the human brain almost as much as Riley’s brain is a human brain, and as Chief throws that plumbing fixture through the window and makes his escape, the words of the prophets ring true: “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”

Then there’s the One Ring, the Metaphor to Rule Them All. By Return of the King it has, admittedly, started to take on a metaphorical resonance that the other movies in the series kicked off for it. Fellowship of the Ring established that the ring was a vessel for creating immense suffering in Middle-Earth; The Two Towers established that the ring was a mechanism for making Frodo, personally, more and more tied in vituperative melancholy. But in Return of the King, the ring becomes a beloved object for the first time. Precious it has been for Gollum, and that word starts sneaking into Frodo’s vocabulary as well, but there’s a caress in Frodo’s fingers for the ring which is different than the addiction that the far-gone Gollum displays or the claim to uniqueness that Bilbo cherishes. He’s grown to love the suffering, which is maybe his greatest alienation from the rest of the surviving members of the fellowship. Aragorn continues to persevere for duty and Sam for love, but what pushes Frodo on has more to do with this new masochism than it does for responsibility to Middle-Earth. When he loses his finger to Gollum, who chomps Frodo’s digit off so he can have the ring for himself, it’s an amputation not just for gore but because that suffering has become gangrenous. The only way that Frodo can ever give up that ring is to lose the part of himself which has borne it so long and made it part of his own body.

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