An expanding DVD market and digital streaming made the Criterion Collection edition of Life of Brian superfluous. I purchased the CC copy of Life of Brian before a cheaper copy was available; and, even if there was one somewhere out there, I could not imagine how, as I held a sixty dollar DVD in my hands, a non-Criterion release would have had the same extra features.
I’m not complaining. Life of Brian is one my favourite comedies. However, its reasons to be included in the Criterion Collection were challenged almost immediately after its release. For context, here is the mission of the Criterion Collection (as of 2021):
Since 1984, the Criterion Collection has been dedicated to publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements. No matter the medium—from laserdisc to DVD and Blu-ray to streaming—Criterion has maintained its pioneering commitment to presenting each film as its maker would want it seen, in state-of-the-art restorations with special features designed to encourage repeated watching and deepen the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film.
My CC copy does not look better than what I can find elsewhere. The commentaries are nice, but they have since been included in copies that cost far less. A fan of Monty Python might also learn little from the commentaries. The living cast of Monty Python rank high on any list of artists that are repeatedly interviewed about career highlights older than twenty years. Therefore, a dedicated fan is likely to already know some of the Life of Brian stories–George Harrison’s investment; filming in Tunisia; Graham Chapman’s sobriety.
But the film deserves its inclusion. In the event that the film did not look better than it did before, or if there could not be many special features, Criterion selected Life of Brian in order to perform what the Library of Congress does in the American public sphere: declare that a cultural object is important.
“… and I should know because I’ve followed a few!”
A good comedy knows how to follow each funny thread to its best end point. If you can’t stop at the right time, things start to crumble. An imaginative premise is shortchanged if one stops a joke too quickly. When a joke needed to end seconds or even minutes ago, the gag feels cheap and in creeps tiredness.
Monty Python jokes are rarely short punches, so the risk of audience fatigue is high. Thankfully most of Life of Brian finds the right tempo for its silliness. In the stoning scene (Jehovah! Jehovah!) the violence grows exponentially rather than in linear increments, because the disguised women are impatient to perform a forbidden act of execution. The two scenes with Pontius Pilate (played by Michael Palin) are some of the longest in the film. Palin’s Pilate is also a drawling character. Nevertheless, the pace is just right because slow and long makes the game of lisps, accents and dirty names frustrate Pilate, who, like the soft-speaking administrator of the crucifixion line, believes there is nothing funny about Imperial Rome.
“… in an extremely cheap and tenth-rate way.”
On the timeline of taboo filmmaking in mainstream cinema, Life of Brian is a mark after the death of the Production Code Administration, but well before Western societies, including their conservative pockets, grew to tolerate levels of vulgarity that would be culturally lethal in an earlier time. Almost two decades before crowds grew comfortable to see Jason Biggs fuck a pie on the big screen, and without precedent to combine the era of Jesus with comedy, Life of Brian was a lone target for religious groups in Britain and America.
How the controversy played out for Life of Brian should be familiar to those who follow the news cycles of most film and television controversies: tension is high for a brief period, everybody is either offended or defensive, but then the item in question is forgotten, because down the road attackers and defenders will reunite on the battlefields of The Last Temptation of Christ, The Satanic Verses, The Simpsons, Dogma, South Park, Family Guy and so on. The anxiety about Life of Brian was highest on a BBC2 talk show, Friday Night, Saturday Morning. An episode of the show allowed John Cleese and Michael Palin to debate Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. Muggeridge and Stockwood viewed the film before the show, but supposedly they missed the first fifteen minutes of the film, which is when the story establishes that Brian is not Jesus.
A full viewing of Life of Brian would have changed little. Bishop Stockwood spends the first minute of his “review” reflecting on the inability of communist countries (Romania, China) to eradicate Christianity. Holding a silver crucifix around this neck, which is big enough to make Flavor Flav jealous, he then performs the typical headmaster maneuver: stating that he considered the ideas of the youth, but the ideas are too naive and fail to show respect for the big structure the headmaster occupies a position within. As Stockwood makes clear, he hardly had the energy to find Life of Brian funny because he spent the morning delivering communion: “I didn’t roar around with laughter at the alter in my chapel this morning, I just fell down, genuflected and worshiped”.
A DVD copy of Sanjuro was gifted to me. If I had purchased a hard copy myself, I definitely would never have skipped buying Yojimbo, the first in the pair of films about Sanjuro, the ronin who names himself “30 years old”. Sanjuro is a film for the those–investors and samurai fans alike–who wanted more from Kurosawa’s creation. The success of Yojimbo created the desire for a sequel, and Kurosawa repurposed an old script to have Toshiro Mifune and other players, like Tatsuya Nakadai, continue the adventure.
Much like how I feel when watching a Mizoguchi film, a Kurosawa film is comforting because it is so well crafted. One does not watch Sanjuro to see what can happen if continuity is thrown out the window. Rather, one seeks a film like this because it demonstrates how, in the hands of an expert, a so-called “straightforward” style of story-telling is not an impediment to radical creation. In the realm of fiction, James Clavell’s Shōgun is the first cousin of a Kurosawa film; the former is dedicated to observing the action of characters from third person, but the precision of its description allows for different layers of a feudal system to be folded into one complex picture.
The funny thing about praising the style of Sanjuro is that one can, with a small push from Stephen Prince’s audio commentary, read the film as Kurosawa telling the next generation of Japanese filmmakers they made a mistake to reject the Japanese cinema Kurosawa helped create. Not for lack of enthusiasm, the young samurai in the film fail to read almost every political maneuver that is taking place. Consequently, Mifune’s exposition is not just for the audience–Sajnuro has to tell his own allies that, if he was a less capable swordsman, his head would be cut off by their hands and from their blind stupidity.
Part 1 introduced Scorcese’s argument in his Harper’s essay, which was about much more than Fellini. The first part also explained how we can connect Scorcese’s essay to the drive in the Hollywood film business for major film distributors to differentially accumulate, i.e., beat a benchmark that is relevant to dominant capitalists. By the end, we were left with an open question: how did major Hollywood studios differentially accumulate in the blockbuster era when their differential profits were actually stagnating? This question comes from the evidence in Figure 1, which was first presented in Part 1.
This post will focus on the change in attitude that established the blockbuster era. To firmly establish blockbuster cinema, Hollywood changed its attitude about the creativity of its filmmakers. Certainly, any version of Hollywood will need creative people to write, shoot, design, manage and act in films. However, around the early 1980s, the party was over for those whose creativity got in the way of Hollywood’s new path to differential accumulation: reducing risk.
Can we talk about what we just watched?
Kirshner’s history of the “New” Hollywood era (2012) begins anecdotally, with his personal memory of how often he and his friends would spend hours in cafes talking about the films they just watched. This anecdote, in my opinion, points to the heart of “New” Hollywood cinema. Films like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Klute, Night Moves and California Split are hard to praise for how they look and sound. You can see the grain and muted colours of a typical “New” Hollywood film from a mile away. If you are watching the film at home, you might still not clearly hear the dialogue after raising your TV volume to 100. Nevertheless, a good “New” Hollywood film–and there are many–will certainly make you think, because no other era of Hollywood cinema is so explicit in its intention to make the moral ambiguity of a story as deep as an ocean. For example, in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, one of Robert Altman’s best films, McCabe (played by Warren Beatty) is hardly a hero, but Altman never lets your opinions only travel in one direction. McCabe is weak, but strong enough to fight. He is directionless but also a likeable martyr that hates the correct enemy: a mining monopoly that hires killers to terrorize a defenceless town.
In terms of theatrical attendance in the United States, the “New” Hollywood era was successful. We can see this with two measures of success. Figure 2 shows how the period between 1968 and 1980 had high theatrical attendance of the top five films per year. (Ticket price inflation is why theatrical attendance in the blockbuster era is lower than what one would have expected it to be.) Figure 3 shows a five-year percent change for the per capita theatrical attendance in the United States. A percent change of the series makes the relevant historical shift easier to see; all per-capita theatrical attendance after the 1940s is low by comparison, as theatrical attendance plummeted with the decline of the studio era and the rise of television. Figure 3 demonstrates that, while the level of theatrical attendance per capita was still much lower than what came before it, “New” Hollywood was able to produce positive five-year growth rates after two decades of shrinkage.
Not much to left to see if you ain’t here for blockbusters
In the two figures above, “New” Hollywood earns its name, as the era is defined by the ways studios successfully bounced back by embracing young, often inexperienced, filmmakers, whose film projects were infused with the social issues of America in the 1960s and 70s. There were cracks in the business-artist relationship from the very beginnings of “New” Hollywood–e.g., the studio treatment of Elaine May–but some of cracks that appeared in the mid-1970s were so big that this more free-spirited version of Hollywood was under threat to end almost as soon as it began.
The growth of the financial problem with “New” Hollywood was caused by Hollywood itself. Hollywood studios in the 1970s liked the newest post-studio-system distribution strategy, saturation booking, which is the act of releasing a big film like The Godfather, Part I in as many theatres as possible. Yet saturation booking needs a lot of people to come to the theatres, and the early problems with saturation booking would only be solved when Hollywood was more effective at using the saturation-booking strategy. The ability for saturation booking to be the solution to its own problems existed because Hollywood in the 1970s was a curious mix of proto-blockbusters, auteur blockbusters, and hard-to-market films produced by directors like John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. Look beyond the two most obvious financial successes of the 1970s–Jaws and Star Wars–and there are examples of this decade having qualities that undermined the interests of a Hollywood system that was now hungry for pure, uncut blockbusters. First, if blockbusters were to be high-octane fuel for the big engine of saturation booking, Hollywood studios would need to learn how to design enough “must-see” films for the top financial tier. As shown in Figure 4, this lesson was first taught in 1976, the year that was sandwiched between Jaws and Star Wars. Jaws created a new pecuniary standard for high-grossing films, and in this environment, the great financial success of Rocky–the highest-grossing film in 1976–was, as Cook describes, “puzzling and unnerving” (Cook, 2000, p. 52). Rocky was a low-budget project that featured, at the time, a cast of unknown actors. Its unexpected success twisted the knife in the side of designed-to-be-blockbuster films like King Kong (1976) and The Deep (1977), two films that could not repeat the financial success of Jaws.
This frustration with Rocky needs to be viewed through the lens of risk. In both its technical and conceptual senses, risk is relevant to the study of how Hollywood, as a business, utilizes social creativity. The conventional wisdom is that cinema is a very risky business enterprise, which means that even the biggest Hollywood firms are uncertain about their financial success. Yet, we will see going forward that Hollywood has devised strategies to reduce the possibility that the future of culture will be radically different from what capitalists expect it to be. This making of order does not eliminate risk entirely. Rather, by exercising corporate power again and again, industrial art of filmmaking and the social world of mass culture can be transformed into an order of cinema, in which film projects are weighable and calculable in terms of future expectations. Under such historical conditions, estimations of a film’s social significance can, with a degree of confidence, be low risk or “sure bets”.
For the blockbuster style to be low risk, Hollywood needed to selectively nurture the “right” type of creativity. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were certainly proving their worth early on, but many of their contemporaries in the late 1970s were making auteur/blockbuster hybrids that proved to be incompatible with the saturation booking strategy. On the one hand, the production costs of films like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Peckinpah’s Convoy, Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Scorsese’s New York, New York, and Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate were far too big for a small-release strategy to be profitable; on the other hand, the form and content of these films were also too esoteric to ever reach the revenues plateau of a Jaws or a Star Wars.
Figure 5 helps illustrate the transformation from the 1970s to the current era of Hollywood cinema, 1980-2019. The figure is a proxy for the consumer habits of American cinema. It presents the volatility of attendance for both the top three and top five films per year. Volatility is computed in two steps. For both the top three and the top five films per year, the annual growth rates of total attendance are computed from the 1940s to 2019. The two series in Figure 5 are measures of, for each year, a 20-year trailing standard deviation of these growth rates.
Interestingly, the volatility of attendance in the 1970s was similar to that of the 1960s and even the mid-1950s–two periods when saturation booking was not yet a method of distribution for mainstream films. Thus we can surmise that while the theatrical events of Billy Jack in 1971, The Godfather in 1972, Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977 were big in terms of levels of revenues, they had yet to translate into, for interested capitalists, high levels of confidence about the predictability of future earnings. To be sure, having single-handedly pulled in around 128 million attendances in the United States, Jaws was an example to be mimicked immediately. Justin Wyatt describes the saturation-booking strategy that followed on its heels:
Following Jaws, high quality studio films developed even broader saturation releases; in 1976, King Kong (with a 961 theater opening); in 1977, The Heretic: Exorcist II (703 theaters), The Deep (800 theaters), Saturday Night Fever (726 theaters); in 1978, Grease (902 theaters) and Star Trek–The Motion Picture (856 theaters) continued to expand the pattern of saturation release and intense television advertising.
Wyatt, 1992, p. 112
Despite this flurry of wide releases, however, Figure 5 illustrates that there is still a difference between the 1970s–a decade when blockbuster cinema was still in its infancy–and the contemporary period from 1980 to the present–a time when blockbuster cinema has become Hollywood’s predominant style. The two series–“Top Three Films” and “Top Five Films”–both start their decline in the 1980s and reach their lowest levels in the 2000s. By 2011, the 20-year trailing standard deviation for the attendance of the top three films was 48 percent less volatile than it had been in 1980. The same can be said for the attendance of the top five films.
Next post: Seeking low-risk cinema
This reduction in the volatility is neither accidental or a lucky externality of general market behavior. The next post will show examples of where, I believe, we can see Hollywood using capitalist power to reduce risk. In the day-to-day experiences of filmmaking, this mode of power can appear in flashes, such as when executives “give notes” to creatives or when studios suggest casting stars to boost a film project’s “bank-ability”. However, even when the sabotage of filmmaking is micro enough to be imperceptible (much like the slow boiling of a frog in a pot?), the key is that the oligopoly at the centre of Hollywood has the power to act when creativity is perceived to be “too risky”. Some film projects, on account of their subject matter or style, can be effectively withheld from the market because no major firm will purchase the rights to distribute them. A film project may be able to find financing, but under a contract that stipulates conditions about form, content, budget, cast, crew, etc. A film can be produced, but management will have a role in the direction and pace of creation. And if business interests are still sceptical about their investment in potentially chaotic artistic creativity, the right of film ownership often includes the right of “final cut”–i.e., the right to modify a film before it is released but after the director presents his or her final version (Bach, 1985).
Hollywood’s drive for risk reduction is implied in Figure 5 but clearly found in the long-term reduction of earnings volatility. Figure 6 presents an updated version of my index for the volatility of the earnings per firm of Hollywood’s major studios. The figure is presenting ex post risk. For each year, I compute the percent rate of change of earnings from its five-year trailing average. Second, I measure, for each year, a trailing fifteen-year standard deviation of the computed rates of changes. Thus, the larger the standard deviation, the greater the volatility in the earning growth rates of Hollywood’s previous fifteen years.
With data going into the late 1940s, the time series in Figure 6 confirms that, in terms of profits, the troublesome period was from the late 1960s to the last years of the 1970s, when risk spiked and stayed high. After the 1970s, risk steadily declined and continued to decline to 2019. The level of risk in 2019 is also lowest in the period from 1950 to 2019. The annotations in Figure 6 are meant to remind us of the film history that overlaps this reduction in risk. We might not know the contribution of each film to this decline–and there are many other important films in any story about Hollywood–but the coincidence of a significant reduction of earnings volatility occurring after the twilight of “New” Hollywood is unlikely an to be an accidental one.
TO BE CONTINUED …
McMahon, J. (2013). The Rise of a Confident Hollywood: Risk and the Capitalization of Cinema. Review of Capital as Power, 1(1), 23–40.
McMahon, J. (2015). Risk and Capitalist Power: Conceptual Tools to Study the Political Economy of Hollywood. The Political Economy of Communication, 3(2), 28–54.