Department of Theatre and Film
The Blockbuster as Body Genre
“There is no accounting for taste, especially in the realm of the ‘gross’”—Linda Williams
In the context of her 1991 essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Linda Williams explores the use of the term “gross” as a way of describing cultural attitudes towards pornography, horror, and melodrama. Recognizing that gross signifies the rank, obscene, foul or tasteless, Williams focuses primarily on how the “gross” genres of pornography, horror, and melodrama illustrate the role that excess plays in reflecting cultural attitudes. Her point is that by categorizing certain genres as excessive, cultural collateral can in turn be denied (141).
Looking at Hollywood cinema twenty years later, it is possible to see a key link between blockbusters and Williams’s analysis of pornography, horror, and melodrama. If gross is a way to describe excess, then blockbusters could arguably be classified as gross as well. That connection throws into relief another way of looking at the argument Williams makes about the low cultural status of what she terms “body genres” (144). If blockbusters contain parallels with the three body genres that Williams analyzes, then it is possible that those connections are the basis for blockbusters’ low cultural status. Granted, blockbusters’ wide audience and huge box office ensure that there are distinct differences between the moderate visibility of pornography, horror, and melodrama on the one hand, and huge visibility of blockbusters on the other, but analyzing the blockbuster genre alongside porn, horror, and melodrama sheds new light on the ways that blockbusters fail to conform to middlebrow concepts of taste and art.
As a possible case study, Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) works well to illustrate the connection between body genres and blockbusters because the film fits the quintessential definition of the Hollywood blockbuster. To date, the film has grossed over $2.78 billion worldwide (boxofficemojo.com). Its original marketing campaign plastered every surface with images taken from the movie. Television sets blasted the movie trailer hourly. Within days of the initial release, the internet was glutted with “How to speak Na’vi” websites that also sold T-shirts and sports cups. Later, some grocery chains had displays of DVD carousels devoted to the movie and tables set up with blue plates, blue forks, blue cupcakes (imprinted with tiny avatar heads), blue glasses, and blue napkins—all possessing the Avatar brand, and all designed for people prompted by the advertising to celebrate this event. The “event” in question was the release of the stripped down DVD only months after it had left the theater. The director’s cut of the movie, containing footage deleted from the original theatrical release print, was scheduled for release November 16, 2010—just in time for the holiday season.
The retailers’ invitation to celebrate was also a sly marketing tool. The marketing of the DVD release as an event is precisely what Julian Stringer has identified as a highlight of the blockbuster’s “superlative nature”—i.e. these types of films are distinct “for the simple reason that they announce themselves as such” (5). The “super” quality that blockbusters possess is essentially synonymous with excess—as Stringer notes, that quality goes beyond the acceptable or previously established norm. But the superlative nature of the blockbuster experience also stresses the role of spectacle in all aspects of the event. The spectacle on the screen complements the spectacle in the marketing and promotion, as in the case of the grocery store displays, which in turn highlight how the blockbuster becomes a cultural commodity that can be regenerated in as many different ways as possible (Schatz 35).
The retailers’ saturation marketing technique exemplifies Douglas Gomery’s point concerning the perceived singular nature of the blockbuster. He states, for example, that although blockbusters may appear to be single products, they are, in fact, a structural component “at the core of the mighty vertical integrated media conglomerates which define our cultural world” (81). In other words, the marketing, the distribution, the branding, the spectacle, and the blockbuster itself all work together in order to shape how that as-large-as-possible audience consumes the product. Excess, whether stressed in the content of the film or the display of a grocery table piled with Avatar cupcakes, makes very good marketing sense for the Hollywood system. Still, excess can also be a hindrance when it comes to the blockbuster. As Linda Williams notes, there are four aspects of excess that help to clarify why the genres of porn, horror, and melodrama have such low cultural status. For those genres, excess, particularly bodily excess is manifest in “body spectacle,” visual and aural forms of ecstasy, involuntary bodily response, and perversion (Williams 143-150). For blockbusters, those four elements are arguably present as well. Of course, there are ostensive differences in the way blockbusters manifest these four aspects. In contrast to pornography, one might consider the amount of exposed (albeit blue) skin in Avatar. In contrast to horror films, we would need to factor in the naturalistic ground of the many anguished screams and dismembered bodies in Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). Reckoning with traditions in the horror film and melodrama genres, we would need to sort out connections and contrasts with the cringe-inducing chest bursting scene and the empowered/triumphant female victim in Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). However, bodily excesses are arguably all present in these blockbuster films (and in the blockbuster more generally) in some form or another.
If one takes into consideration the fact that blockbusters are by their very nature a sort of chimera made up of multiple genres, it is possible that the points Linda Williams makes about pornography, horror, and melodrama pertain to blockbusters as well. For example, blockbusters do not operate as one isolated, coherent unit in the same way any genre film often does not fit into one clearly defined genre. There is always overlap, and because of this overlap, the blockbuster’s intended audience might be just as easily moved as the intended audiences that Williams analyzes. Moreover, since the blockbuster is designed to have a broad appeal it is actually quite possible that all of the body genres overlap within the blockbuster. The big budget erotic thriller, for example, uses many of the same elements that Williams focuses on when discussing porn (in particular, the ecstatic body and the visual and aural signifiers of erotic pleasure). The main difference is the way successful erotic thriller blockbusters get framed in public debate and marketing—i.e. as timely, yet controversial, social metaphors possessing an indeterminate critical status. Indeed, as Rebecca Feasey observes, negative cultural assessment is bound to not only the subject matter but also to how that subject matter gets framed by media outlets and audience members (174-175).
The significance of audience response becomes readily apparent if the big budget erotic thriller is deemed unsuccessful. For instance, the film is far more likely to get assessed as soft-core porn if marketing campaigns emphasize the erotic components. Feasey highlights that process in her analysis of Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) and Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995), which shows how marketing and controversy affect audience reception, and demonstrates the ways in which it is not always easy to differentiate between the marketing taglines of the erotic thriller blockbuster and its “straight-to-video skinflick counterparts” (qtd in Feasey 168).
In the case of films like Showgirls, the parallels between body genres and blockbusters are apparent, not only because of the similar marketing techniques, but also because Williams stresses the role that the female body plays in body genres. It is the female’s coerced, uncontrollable emotional state (a victim of her own emotions)—whether as viewer or viewed—which also contributes to the negative cultural assessment of the melodrama, pornography and/or horror film. Since an important aspect of the blockbuster erotic thriller is to showcase the female body as coerced (in the case of Showgirls) and uncontrollable (in the case of Basic Instinct), the body genre and the erotic thriller clearly dovetail.
It makes sense that blockbusters share common ground with body genres. For Williams points out that the body genres are themselves actually best understood as offshoots of melodrama, a category which “can encompass a broad range of films [that are] marked by ‘lapses’ in realism, by ‘excesses’ of spectacle and displays of primal, even infantile, emotions, and by narratives that seem circular and repetitive” (143). In addition, the connection between blockbusters and body genres depends on the fact that the reiterative nature of the body genres’ narrative structure (i.e. “everything has in fact already been done before”) is arguably a key component of blockbuster narratives (Stringer 7). However, given the way blockbusters are marketed, the shared aspects of the blockbusters’ and body genres’ narrative structure becomes less important than the methods associated with the blockbusters’ heavily-promoted “superlative” guarantee. In the case of Avatar, the high concept strategy very well could have been Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest (Bill Kroyer, 1992) meets Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990), but with the superlative benefit of being shot in 3-D and possessing cutting edge digital effects. Indeed, positive reviews of the film rarely focus on the narrative at all; instead the emphasis is on the spectacle on the screen (and the technology that produced it).
So what happens in a movie like Avatar¸ where the cinematic female body is not only computer generated, but is also not the one victimized by her own ecstasy? What happens when that violence gets deflected onto the setting and therefore the metaphorical body takes the place of the purely physical feminine body? There is a precedent for this kind of geography-rendered-as-conquered-female (often at the hands of a militaristic male conqueror), particularly in colonialist literature, and Avatar stresses this trauma throughout the film. The metaphoric body replacing the physical body may be represented in a slightly different manner on screen in Avatar, but the effect is relatively similar. Whether it is the spectacle of a woman bleeding, crying, or reaching orgasm or the metaphorical female body (i.e. the ancestral setting of Hometree on Pandora in the case of Avatar) getting ripped apart by RDA bulldozers, blown up with incendiary missiles, and essentially raped for its mineral content, is incidental. Victimization is still present and is still presented in a way that can generate a response from an audience body that has been primed with excitement and pleasure.
In the case of Avatar, the role of “forced ecstasy” (Williams 145) is also quite revealing in the way that the audience is forced to respond to the sheer scope of that spectacle. The sweeping vistas of Pandora, the use of extreme long shots, and the computer generated imagery are all geared to provoke the involuntary bodily responses that Williams identifies as part of the body genre, but that also easily belongs to the blockbuster genre. Indeed, common responses to Avatar refer to the film as “stunning,” “visually moving” and “immersive”—all terms that focus primarily on involuntary bodily responses (rottentomatoes.com). Responses such as this are created and sustained with every cringe-inducing aerial attack, every involuntary flinch at a 3-D explosion, and every awe inspiring detail of pulsing vegetation, floating mountains, and flaming alien horses. In fact, in discussing the blockbuster, Julian Stringer quotes a review taken from the New Republic stating that the role of the spectacle is “to gorge the senses” (qtd in Stringer 7). Perhaps coincidentally, Stringer’s observation about “engorgement” and blockbusters sounds fairly close to Williams’s analysis of how the body genres force sense reactions in the audience. In addition, Williams’s key point that these reactions and spectacles found in the body genres reinforce the assumption that there is a lack of “proper aesthetic distance, a sense of overinvolvement in sensation and emotion” (145) could just as easily be applied to the ways in which blockbusters rely so heavily on spectacle in selling the film, as well as the fantasy found within the film.
That connection between body genres and blockbusters seems to include another: perversion as a method of cultural problem solving. Williams uses psychoanalytic models of perversion to show that each of the body genres manifests some form of perversion, whether it be sadistic (porn), sadomasochistic (horror), or masochistic (melodrama) (150). These same perversions can be seen within the blockbuster, due to the overlapping generic characteristics of blockbusters as a whole. For example, the blockbuster erotic thriller aligns more closely with sadism due its stronger alliances to porn, while blockbuster tearjerkers (coded as “chick flicks”) display elements of masochism. In discussing the way perversion works in horror films, Williams stresses Clover’s point that there is an “oscillation between masochistic and sadistic poles” because the pleasure of the (male) viewer “oscillates between identifying with the initial passive powerlessness of the abject and terrorized girl-victim of horror and her later, active empowerment” (qtd in Williams 149). Oscillation between identification with weak and then later empowered victims can be found in a variety of blockbusters ranging from Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), to Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, 1994), to The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973).
Even a blockbuster like Avatar relies on sadomasochistic touches, although the actual victimized body, as stated earlier, is the planet itself. In this film, in true horror genre fashion, the brutalized body rises above its own victimization and literally becomes the victimizer. The trees, the animals, the earth itself act as one cohesive unit in order to defeat the mercenary threat. Focusing on that development, the role that perversion plays in the body genres (and blockbusters) becomes evident. Williams states that the reason perversions are used in the body genres is not merely to provide pleasure for the audience, but also to act as a kind of transference that allows audience members to process cultural problems because “each draws upon related sensations to address its problems” (153). The environmental fantasy that Avatar constructs is a wish for the earth to actively protect itself from its rapists. By using the same brutalizing techniques found in the horror genres, a blockbuster such as Avatar could thus be viewed as “brutality fixes brutality.”
If it is understood that the Oscars are the epitome of middlebrow taste, it is possible to see why Avatar, the biggest grossing film of 2009, would not win any of the major Academy Awards. On the surface, its superlative nature should have been enough to make it an Oscar contender. It cost the most, made the most, contained the most up-to-date technology, had the best saturated marketing strategies and was directed by a super-auteur who had already established himself as “king of the world” when his previous blockbuster was deemed a “film” rather than a “movie” (Roberts 159). Cameron already had the cultural cache to win. But that status is never guaranteed. As Stringer points out, “just as being a best-seller does not automatically make a book culturally valuable or culturally worthless, movie blockbusters possess no intrinsic cultural status” (8). Greg Taylor echoes this sentiment when condemning the culture industries as a whole for not being “reliable arbiters of inherent value,” in large part because a film’s “lasting cultural impact” can only be ensured “contextually, through hype and appeals to nostalgia” (155).
Since middlebrow culture determines what is culturally valuable within the U.S., the blockbuster must also comply with middlebrow expectations to be deemed worthy of recognition. Gillian Roberts focuses on the role that perceived quality plays in this negotiation “between the accessibility of low culture and the prestige of high culture” (157). Avatar lost at the Oscars because it did not cater to middlebrow tastes. By relying so heavily on the “gross” characteristics associated with body genres, Avatar-as-blockbuster failed to achieve the same cultural status as Cameron’s previous Oscar winning blockbuster, Titanic (1997). To win, blockbusters must suppress their connections to the excessive elements of the body genres’ melodramatic narrative structures and forced emotional responses. That might be one reason why, despite their gross popularity, blockbusters as a genre remain regulated to the masses and are not classified as “art” by the middlebrow.
Box Office Mojo. 09 Apr. 2011. <http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=avatar.htm> Web.
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Roberts, Gillian. “Circulations of Taste: Titanic, the Oscars, and the Middlebrow” in Movie Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Rotton Tomatoes. 09 Apr. 2011. < http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/avatar/>Web.
Schatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood” in Movie Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Stringer, Julian, “Introduction” in in Movie Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Taylor, Greg. Artists in the Audience. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” in Film Genre Reader III, ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. Print.