Movie Memories: Dr. Harvey O’Brien Talks The Formative Blockbusters Of His Youth
In Movie Memories, the notable and quotable from all over Dublin reminisce about their formative film experiences. From date movie disasters to a first time with a classic, they recall it all.
Dr. Harvey O’Brien keeps a lot of plates spinning in the Irish film scene, teaching Film Studies at UCD, co-editing Film and Film Culture and serving as a member of the Irish Film Institute’s Board of Directors. He’s been a regular on RTÉ Radio One’s ‘Classic Movies’ slot and is the author of Action Movies: The Cinema of Striking Back (2012) and The Real Ireland (2004), and co-editor of Keeping it Real (2004). Harvey strives to keep the big and loud blockbusters in the conversation of Important Cinema and for the first Movie Memories, Film In Dublin spoke with him about the blockbusters of his youth, how modern movies measure up and the best approach to remakes and reboots.
Film In Dublin: Do you remember the first blockbuster you ever watched? Or at least, the first one that made an impression on you?
Harvey O’Brien: That would be Jaws. I was born in the US, and my family moved back to Ireland in 1975. Jaws was being shown on the plane when we finally left. I remember my mother trying to prevent me from watching it. Back then, there was just one big screen in each section, so it was projected pretty large, and hard to avoid. But I couldn’t hear it. Eventually she gave up and I went up to the front beside the screen, where another passenger (a priest, actually) let me use his headphones to watch. I loved it. Later, when the film opened in Kilrush, were we lived in Ireland, I went again, this time in the company of my slightly older cousins, who again tried to prevent me seeing certain parts. I protested loudly “I’ve already seen this movie”. I was about five years old.
FID: At that age, do you remember being scared by it at all? Certainly you seem to have been desensitised enough by the time you saw it with your cousins!
HOB: Not really scared. I got a shock when the head floated up from the sunken boat (Spielberg’s famous ‘one final big scare shot’), but Jaws isn’t really a scary film anyway. It’s an exhilarating adventure. That ending, the exploding shark, pretty much defined the subsequent history of the blockbuster. There had to be an equivalent of some sort for it to be a real blockbuster.
But kids are not always what we think they are when it comes to that sort of thing anyway. A kid can watch gory violence and not really see much more than lots of colours and noise. It’s as unreal as a cartoon in many ways. They are often more affected by tension and jeopardy, and only when it involves other children, like themselves. A story I always tell in this respect is about a colleague whose young son managed to get hold of Total Recall from his collection and watched it without permission. My colleague came home to find him watching it and was horrified. But not a bother on the young man. But then, not long after, they sat down as father and son to watch The Witches. It completely freaked him out. Now, that kid grew up to be an actor and filmmaker for a while, and now teaches mathematics at college. I think he’s doing fine. Same with me. Jaws at five and now I teach film studies. There’s no absolute when it comes to this kind of thing about fright, trauma, and desensitisation.
FID: After Jaws, did you specifically go seeking out other ‘exhilarating adventures’ when you were young? I suppose with the marketing that blockbusters have, they tend to find you.
HOB: Well, that was the era of the blockbuster, so you didn’t have to seek them. Jaws was historically considered the first, because of its box office success and the time of the year it was released. So, like any other cinema goer, each summer I had something big to draw my attention. Now, release schedules in Ireland were very different, and generally it was some months later before we got the Summer blockbusters, so that skewed the sense of time a bit. But through my childhood, I vividly remember thoroughly enjoying Star Wars (yes, “Star Wars”, not “Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope.”.. grrr), Superman: The Movie, Flash Gordon, The Empire Strikes Back, Mad Max 2 and more.
But there was also lots of other big ticket films in Kilrush, such as Enter the Dragon, a film originally released in 1973, but shown in the late seventies and early eighties in Kilrush. One of the most atmospheric evenings of cinema we ever had there was The Big Brawl, aka Battle Creek Brawl, Jackie Chan’s big would-be breakthrough of 1980. I remember the cinema being completely mobbed. This created the same atmosphere as any hyped blockbuster today, of anticipation, excitement, and entertainment. Now, watching that film today is a bit of an eye opener (it’s awful), but it was as exciting a night out as a ‘good’ blockbuster back then. You also have to bear in mind that as essentially an American kid being raised in a small Irish town, the cinema was my lifeline. I spent a lot of time there, so in terms of a blockbuster ‘finding’ me – well, I wasn’t hard to find.
FID: There’s nothing quite like the atmosphere before a big film that everyone in the audience has been waiting to see. Are there still films that bring you back to that feeling in Kilrush or do you approach those big films -even the one’s you’re excited for-differently now?
HOB: Not really. It’s not that I’m not capable of enjoying a big movie, but I’m very used to the rhythm of the hype machine now. It’s hard to be a punter when you teach the method. But that said, I love to be surprised. I like it when a film blindsides me by delivering more than it promises. Like the first Iron Man, or Guardians of the Galaxy. Most of the big hype films don’t do that for me. I enjoyed the first Avengers film because I felt invited to be part of a big, silly celebration on a grand scale. But the second left me cold because I felt taken for granted and that the film was basically pushing the digital buttons by remote control.
I suppose my sense of excitement as a punter was probably terminally crushed by Batman and Robin, which was the first time I felt nerd rage combined with professional disgust. The film insulted my inner fanboy and also my sensibility as a film-goer more generally. I was actually angry coming out of that one. But that said, I’m happy to jump on board with excitement and not spoil anyone’s fun when something is coming that looks halfway decent. I was looking forward to The Force Awakens as much as the next man, and this after having gone to a midnight screening of The Phantom Menace back in 1999 (and promptly never bothered to do that again). But as I said, I’m more than willing to go with the flow if the film surprises me. I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy four times in the cinema. I really wasn’t expecting anything much more than the ordinary, and it just got me in my ‘love the movies’ spot.
FID: The thing about that excitement is that people get very attached to it. And that can lead to positive and negative reactions. While the likes of Batman and Robin and The Phantom Menace earned the ire that came their way, what do you make of the vitriol some men have had to remakes and the like “ruining their childhood”?
HOB: That’s a tricky one, because it’s complicated by the nature of communication in the internet era. Those childhoods were special because sharing meant talking on the playground or at mass (yes, that’s where we country kids did a lot of our chatting about the movies we’d seen). You looked your friends in the eye and you talked about stuff in a very human way. Online communication is faster, but also allows a little more time for thought, meaning you get a combination of considered and improvisatory speech. Also the anonymity plays a part. We all know what a Troll is. We don’t feed the Troll, for the most part, unless you want to entertain yourself. But then when Trolling hits a sore spot, it gets blown out of all proportion as if it’s more than what it is – some dude being a jerk to get attention.
So, like, Gamergate was ridiculous. I’m a gamer, and I know lots of gamers. Not one of them would be involved in any kind of sexist exchange or would demonstrate a negative attitude towards a female gamer. On the contrary, we’re delighted when our wives, girlfriends, or daughters will play with us! But some angry Trolls shout obscenities, and we assume that their values are broadly upheld. I know you’re talking about Ghostbusters, and I was on RTÉ chatting about this a few weeks back. Look, remakes are rarely held in esteem. Reboots are generally treated with skepticism. Gimmicks are usually derided. This is in the abstract now. But here comes a specific remake that emerges out of the failure to make a second sequel. That’s one set of disappointments. Then it ignores the history of the franchise and starts again (Star Trek 2009 – “not your Dad’s Star Trek” – that one hurt, I have to say). Then it has a ‘gimmick’ – an all female cast. Now, immediately, do you see where hackles start to raise on both sides? What do you mean an all female cast is a gimmick? It shouldn’t be… And so the sensitivities get stimulated. But hang on: do you remember Bad Girls? The ‘all female’ western? It didn’t start a wave of controversy. Because no one really cared. It was a gimmick, and the film stood and fell on its own merits irrespective of that.
Now, with the internet, we had a good year of Trolls on both sides yelling at each other while most of us just waited to see what would happen. I’m a fan of the original Ghostbusters, and I think my love of it comes not so much from childhood (I was about 15), but later on when I saw what it was as an alchemical blend of comic styles from the 70s and the 80s blockbuster. It just managed to walk a very taught tightrope and be fun about fun and provide fun with enough of a wink not to spoil the fun and become a super-ironic postmodern smug-fest. I was skeptical about the new Ghostbusters mainly because honestly, really, those trailers were terrible. I’ve seen a lot of trailers. Men in Black had an awesome trailer that the film didn’t quite match up to. Sister Act had a fantastically pacy trailer, but the film was actually quite long. The trailer for 2016 Ghostbusters was terrible, hands down, and made the film look completely unfunny and full of bland CGI. The film itself was fine in the end. Not exceptionally good, but a lot funnier than it looked, and the effects weren’t so much in your face that you were required to be impressed. I thought it had a pretty good overall balance to it, and the femaleness of the cast was neither here nor there. I liked that Melissa McCarthy was a little bit more subdued than usual, but Kristen Wiig was a little bland for me. That’s an actor and performance thing, not a gender thing.
Anyway, to get back to the point, I think that the vitriol is fueled by the means by which that vitriol is expressed [the internet]. But people have always been a bit disappointed by remakes, and there’s always been a ‘the first one was ‘better” element. You have to remember that the history of the cinema is packed with remakes, reworks, and reboots, and inevitably the generation that loved the previous iteration will find the current one offensive to their sense of self. But now they get to force millions of people to hear the argument, and even get other disaffected individuals to join their crusade. In this day and age, we could do with fewer crusades and more intelligent and considered conversations. Woah. That’s deep.
FID: It is indeed. Remakes and reboots that are made with a specific vision in mind often seem to come out the other side okay. You now have people seeing themselves in The Force Awakens, in Fury Road, in the new Ghostbusters, where there predecessors would have had nothing for them. Is that the key to a worthwhile remake or reboot? Using it as a launching pad for a new idea?
HOB: I suppose in principle, but then if the idea is new, then why do you need to play it safe with the scaffold of the previous version as your shell? The fact is it’s not really about ideas. It’s about risk and return. It’s an economic argument. And that’s nothing new. Believe me, I teach Early and Silent Cinema. Let me give you a simple example; In 1895 one of the first films in the first programme of films at the first public exhibition of projected motion pictures to a paying audience was ‘L’Arroseur Arrose‘, a short comedy about a gardener tricked into looking into his hose by a young boy who has stood on it, temporarily stopping the flow. A most amusing jape indeed. Now, two things; First of all, the ‘idea’ wasn’t exactly new. It’s a simple bit of comic book slapstick that would have been seen either on stage or in comic strips before the Lumière’s committed it to film. Second, within weeks, other companies were making other films with exactly the same gag, maybe using slightly different camera angles or making other refinements to the gag. But it was basically the same gag. The idea itself isn’t earth-shattering or important, nor was the execution of either the original or the remakes of earth-shattering note. But audiences liked it, so every company that was making films in that era made some version of this thing, knowing that they could sell it because audiences would like it as a core ‘idea’.
Look, we all know the adage that there’s nothing new under the sun, and there isn’t. Most stories follow a formula, most characters have been around doing much the same things as long as we have told ourselves stories. Cinema has evolved technological and stylistically, and there are new ways to tell old stories, and that has always been part of what the industry does. But there are degrees of derivativeness and cynicism. Audiences can be taken for granted sometimes, or downright directly insulted, and sometimes they recognise it and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they eat it up and ask for more. Everyone knew the Star Wars prequels were on a downward trajectory, but we still went in droves time and time again, myself included. Sometimes long-running series or franchises get cocky or contemptuous. Sometimes they just get silly on purpose. Ever seen Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives? It starts with a James Bond-style eye following Jason across the screen in silhouette, and he turns and slashes at it with a machete. The filmmakers knew they were running a formula, and they had fun with it. But we do crave variety too. Genre is made of repetition and difference, as Steven Neale says. It can’t always be the same and it can’t always be different.
The question is balance. And when there’s genuinely nothing new on offer in a genre film, it can be plain boring. But when a film is original or offbeat, there’s no frame of reference for a large audience to cling to. So what tends to happen is that companies making ‘blockbusters’ are risk-averse and make sure there’s only a minimum of originality, a high-concept hook, perhaps, and plenty of what you expect. That means there’s no challenge, and only rarely surprise. So then it becomes about the skill in execution, and that puts huge pressure on a commercial filmmaker to deliver the package in ways that provide comfort but keep up the adrenaline. It’s not easy, and though they teach all the tricks in film school, it’s easy for the cynicism of that to come through, and for heart and philosophy to leech away to the point where the audience is bored by its own lack of ambition. But again, you know, none of this is new. I read a biography of Rex Ingram recently, the Irish-American director whose work in the silent era was among the most important of his day. In the 1920s he was interviewed and commented on his fear that cinema was becoming too juvenile, catering to a general audience rather than nourishing the mind as it should. 1920s. We are not more enlightened or experienced than our predecessors when it comes to assessing the pleasures in our own episteme.
FID: Just a quick one to wrap up; Is there any one film from your own childhood that’s too sacred? That should be left as it was then, without being remade or rebooted?
HOB: Ha. Well ‘shouldn’t’ is a big word, and implies a power I don’t have. There are films that ‘shouldn’t’ be remade simply on aesthetic grounds, like Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin. Why would you? How could you? Most of my childhood sacred cows have been subject to sequelisation or remake, even at a time when I enjoyed them. I loved Superman II back in the day. Not so hot on Man of Steel. Rambo: First Blood Part II was a terrific extension of First Blood, and even the most recent Rambo (2008) was pretty good, I thought. I would hate to see a full ‘remake’ of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is still one of my favourite films, but it was in itself an incredibly derivative film and was instantly copied and parodied and reworked by its own makers to the point of nausea (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – that was nauseating). I also think some remakes just sound like a bad idea – Big Trouble in Little China, a film that only works because again of a combination of factors and a spirit of the moment. The idea of a remake with The Rock, who is a very funny guy, appalls me. Or one of my favourite childhood comedies – Monty Python and the Holy Grail – why would you remake it? But there are things like Your Highness or the Knights of Badassdom or what have you that would pretty much lay claim to parallel ‘inspiration’, and there’s not a damn thing you can say about it. I’m not avoiding your question, I just can’t think of something that can’t or hasn’t already been in some way reworked or re-presented. But as I say, the person that announces a ‘remake’ of Citizen Kane would be an interesting individual to meet.