Placing Jurassic World in the Evolution of Mainstream Entertainment
There is an age old debate in film studies regarding the superiority of non-mainstream or avant-garde films over populist blockbusters. Recently, in the wake of films such as Jurassic World (2015) with its shameless corporate in-film promotion, and its favoring overstimulating CGI and explosions over plot, one might worry about the future of high-budget films on the overall quality of American cinema. However, this question regarding mainstream, more high-budget, or commercial entertainment vs. independent, experimental, or radical entertainment has not simply recurred in the decades of the 20th Century but for thousands of years of Western history.
This article will explore this debate from Ancient Greece to the present while comparing theories and traditions of the Old World spectacle to their modern counterparts. In doing so, this article seeks to unlock the ways in which even high-budget commercial films such as Jurassic World have their place in the cultural history of mankind, and that its larger purpose surpasses “mindless” entertainment. Ultimately many of these films use expensive spectacle to advance plot points, delight audience and instruct mass audiences, engage large audiences in national discourses, or inspire them. Hopefully this different perspective will provide a larger context and lend a new edge to this debate.
A Man and His Poetics
For anyone asking “What constitutes a successful film in modern times?” one need not search any further. The answer to this question was discovered thousands of years ago. Over the centuries, thinkers and artists have tried to reinvent this ancient wisdom, but the heart of success in Western entertainment lies in its origins.
Western theatre is said to have been born in ancient Greece when the reciters of Epic poetry began to physically perform the poems that they were narrating. The birth of democracy in Athens began a tradition of festivals to the god Dionysus including great contests for playwrights which can be considered an ancient version of the Oscars (which even included the occasional political statement, as the festival was the “most watched” event in the world, at the time). After theatre became an established institution, a man named Aristotle worried about the quality of the plays that his people were viewing and wrote his Poetics as an observation (not a suggestion) of what constituted the winning combination of popular and quality entertainment. Even today, his observations speak to the kind of entertainment which compels human beings. 1
In his Poetics, Aristotle addresses the first negative commentary on commercial entertainment as the cultural elitists favored Epic poetry as a more “refined” entertainment and saw theatre (Tragedy) as a more vulgar art-form. He says,
“It may be argued that, if the less vulgar is the higher, and the less vulgar is always that which addresses the better public, an art addressing any and every one is of a very vulgar order… All Tragedy, however, is said to stand to the Epic as the newer to the older school of actors. The one, accordingly is said to address a cultivated audience [Epics] which does not need the accompaniment of gesture; the other [theatre] an uncultivated one.” 2
In defense of the more populist art-form, Aristotle argues the following points which are consistent to the arguments of this article:
- That one should not criticize the genre of popular entertainment as even more elitist forms can be just as overdone.
- It is not so much about the form of entertainment as it is about what one does with it.
- That populist entertainment can be just as effective and full of substance as elitist entertainment.
- And, ultimately, populist entertainment is often more pleasurable. 3
In order to ensure that his reader would know the difference between quality manifestations of entertainment in any genre, Aristotle also outlined the Five Elements of Drama: plot, character, theme, music, and spectacle. Of these elements, he decided that plot was the most important. 4 This is not to say that entertainment can or should do without the other elements.
As theatre technology improved, so too did spectacle as a way to create the world of the play and help advance the plot. First, the skene, a hut located upstage, was introduced for entrances, exits, props storage, and costume changes. Next, scenic flats were painted or put on triangle shaped, rotating pieces called periakoti. As time went on, theatre got more technical as rigging and moving platforms called eccyclaima were used. Finally, the deus ex machina was used to fly actors in from the ceiling.
In ancient Greek tragedy, imagine the scene where Medea kills her children. The actors playing Medea and the children would go behind an upstage door which would close. The death of the children would happen offstage (the audience would hear about it from a secondary character and imagine the gore), and then the door would open to reveal a moving platform with the bloody bodies on top. This moment is the climax of the play Medea and imagine how much more effective it was with the use of spectacle. The audience saw, in a dramatic way, a tangible after-product of the imagined death scene; making it more real. Now think about the movie Jaws (1975) and how the audience doesn’t see the shark (or the attack) but sees the bloody dead body. This combination of imagination and spectacle is age old.
The ancient Greeks believed that theatre served the good of society by allowing its free citizens (male) to experience their greatest fears in a safe environment. This was seen as a catharsis or healthy purging of negative emotions for the good of society which spectacle helped achieve. Throughout the centuries, other theorists would try to improve and add upon Aristotle’s observations while debating the merits and downfalls of elaborate spectacle on the overall effectiveness of entertainment.
Gladiator to Win Best Picture
Roman theatre went through periods of both minimalism (“Closet dramas” which were read to a small group in a small room, for example) and lavish spectacles including mock naval battles in the Colosseum. Of this time, one of the most notable theorists was Horace who argued that theatre’s purpose was to both delight and instruct. For the Romans, who rejected the overindulgence of Greek notions such as catharsis, valued good citizenship and decorum. In short: spectacle is okay as long as it is decorous.
The bodies of Medea’s children can no longer be seen onstage, because no one would believe that it is real and then the Romans won’t learn from it. However, an epic recreation of a naval battle with gladiators, while considered populist, both delights the audience in its realistic killings (because they are real) and instructs them on Roman history. Any graphically violent historic picture or war film uses these methods for instruction, although one thing that modern technology provides is realistic/believable onscreen deaths without the need to actually kill actors. Often movies with low budgets and “bad” effects are not taken seriously. They may become cult classic B movies, but are rarely used for any social commentary unless supplemented with the disclaimer: “Now, ignore the bad special effects.” The Romans set this high standard for high-budget spectacle when Horace says:
“Medea must not shed her children’s blood,
Nor savage Atreus cook man’s flesh for food,
Nor Philomel turn bird or Cadmus snake,
With people looking on and wide awake.
If scenes like these before my eyes be thrust,
They shock belief and generate disgust.” 5
A more modern manifestation of Horace’s philosophy is in the epic historical movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, particularly Cleopatra (1963) which was advertised as the “Spectacle of Spectacles” featuring battle scenes, parades, parties, violence, and sexuality. Hollywood justified this elaborate piece in the name of instruction and the film has become an American icon.
Therefore, while Horace was trying to break with Aristotle’s ideas on catharsis, they did agree on one thing: the existence of high spectacle and low spectacle. Aristotle favors spectacle which advances plot; Horace is concerned with the quality and societal value of the spectacle. Medieval theatre consolidated these theories to create both high and low spectacle which delighted and instructed.
The Passion Play of the Christ
After Rome fell and the Catholic Church dominated European culture in the Middle Ages, public gladiatorial fights to the death were seen as barbaric, but spectacle was still used to instruct Europe’s mostly illiterate population in stories about God, the Bible, saints, and other matters of faith. Plays about the martyrdom of saints would use graphic violent scenes of torture to instruct the audience or bring them to a state of contemplation. The Passion of the Christ (2004) is in this tradition.
A difference is that oftentimes these saint plays would lean on base and populist humor to draw the audience in. In other words, it didn’t matter how much base material was involved as long as there was a moral at the end. These attributes are somewhat similar to the fact that children’s animated films, such as the films of Disney and Don Bluth, are some of the most influential moralizing forces in our society. While the modern budget is much higher than the budget for Medieval saint plays, many consider children’s films, such as Disney films to be populist junk. Nevertheless, these films mean a great deal to many in our modern world, just as these saint plays meant the world to the Medieval European population.
As the years went on, pageants and productions would become more and more elaborate and expensive, but these events brought communities together and gave them something to look forward to in their gray Medieval lives. This sentiment would be repeated during the Great Depression when Hollywood would make musical spectacle films to take the worries and cares away from the struggling population. Films like 42nd Street (1933) featured lavish dance sequences and lots of optimism which many today might look back on as silly or even wasteful. However, the tradition of entertainment, like that of the late Middle Ages, to release tensions during a highly politicized time.
To Spectacle or Not to Spectacle
Of the European Renaissance, the first name in Western entertainment was (and is) William Shakespeare who created many productions with moderate spectacle to large crowds. Of Aristotle’s Five Elements, Shakespeare put plot above all else and is proof of the effectiveness of plot. One might not think of Shakespeare as a populist spectacle creator; however, compared to other entertainers of his day, such as the Blackfriars theatre (a more elite theatre company which produced smaller, more intimate productions), Shakespeare was the Stephen Spielberg of Renaissance England.
Shakespeare’s Henry IV (a coming of age story set against the backdrop of a war) was his Empire of the Sun. Henry V (a play about the national memory of a war with lots of rousing speeches) was his Saving Private Ryan. The Tempest (a play about a magical world which might not be so wonderful after all) was his Jurassic Park. The Merchant of Venice (a play featuring commentary on anti-Semitism) was his Schindler’s List. Shakespeare had every resource possible available to him and used this power of high-budget stage magic to create large productions which spoke to the national values of his society and helped to create an identity for them. Similarly, Spielberg used well crafted plots, characters, themes and large spectacle to explore American identity. His works, like Shakespeare’s are now considered to be World Heritage cultural artifacts and might not have been so without the level of quality in his use of spectacle.
Meanwhile, after Shakespeare’s death, during the Restoration period, a more base spectacle reigned supreme until a man named Jeremy Collier published a pamphlet called A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage which used theatre theory against theatre. Echoing the sentiments of Horace, Collier asked how the modern theatre of his day instructed anyone or made good citizens. The result was devastating for all entertainment. While staging of plays became more and more lavish, substance was lost or censored. A good example of this is Nahum Tate’s adaptation of King Lear (one of Shakespeare’s most tragic tragedies) with a happy ending and lots of of added love stories. One review in 1711 said, “King Lear is an admirable Tragedy … as Shakespeare wrote it; but as it is reformed according to the chimerical Notion of poetical Justice in my humble Opinion it hath lost half its Beauty.” 6
This adaptation might be compared to a film like Jurassic World which was a lavishly attempted re-invention of a classic made “safe.” Despite the bad review, Tate’s Lear was still a success and despite the negative response from purists, Jurassic World was a success. Tate’s Lear, came out at a time when the British people needed to be reminded of their identity during the Age of Enlightenment, as every generation has to do from time to time. Shakespeare’s tragedy did not fit in with the intellectualism of this time. The sufferings of the characters were insults to reason. His Lear was a Lear for his world just as Jurassic World speaks to concerns about (ironically enough) the excesses of spectacle in modern entertainment culture. Therefore, throughout the centuries, the various theorists have wanted to make entertainment a powerful force for instruction and the betterment of the world. Many, however, disagree on how.
War and the War on Spectacle
The conversations on spectacle did not end with Collier’s pamphlet just as there is more to Jurassic World than the fact that it is a remake of an original. By the mid to late 19th Century, the debate between the Enlightenment movement and the Romanticism movement was similar to that between avant-garde enthusiasts and populist blockbuster fans.
Until now, this article has mentioned instances of the use of spectacle to advance well-developed plots or to delight and instruct. However, the 19th Century German movement known as Weimar Romanticism would challenge the use of spectacle for intellectual content all together in favor of high emotion and/or shock value. While this movement may seem like a nightmare for those in favor of a smaller, more “honest” art-form, a German Romantic such as Goethe, Schiller, or Wagner would argue that emotion and illusion are the truest things of all.
In my article on Les Miserables and Romanticism, I have highlighted the basic principles of Romanticism as a rejection of the “hollow” bourgeois values of the time. German Romanticism, in particular, stresses that the only true way to achieve positive social change is to abandon moderation completely and embrace passion. In other words: “Go big or go home.”
The tensions between Age of Enlightenment and Romanticism were best articulated by Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy when he talks about Apollonian vs. Dionysian artistic tendencies. The Apollonian favored enlightenment, individualism, reason, civilization, science, idealism, and order (named after Apollo, god of the sun/enlightenment) while the Dionysian favored magic, darkness, intoxication, collectivism, nature, and chaos. Romanticism embraced the Dionysian, being suspicious of commercialism as well, believing that any life that is sold or bought is false. German Romanticism, in particular, called for the death of individualism for the collective good. 7
These ideas of “surrender” and the death of the individual were eventually used by the Nazi regime in Germany; exploiting a collectivism which was ingrained in the German culture by Romanticism. Since then, these ideas have been met with high suspicion, especially in the entertainment industry where the fear is that large spectacle creates mindless minions. However, Romanticism is still used in films to create ideal worlds and ignite the imagination towards a better future.
A prime example of modern Romanticism in film is the Lord of the Rings trilogy which creates a beautiful world where all races are encouraged to relinquish their individualism (and personal ambition is seen as inherently evil) in the name of a collective good. However, while scholars have interpreted the forces of Mordor to represent Nazism or Communism, the ironic twist is that the so called “good guys” (read: white guys) are given license to completely wipe out the supposedly inferior (read: darker) races. Nevertheless, Lord of the Rings spoke to the time in which it was made. As Lev Grossman says in a review of the film for Time Magazine:
“Popular culture is the most sensitive barometer we have for gauging shifts in the national mood, and it’s registering a big one right now. Our fascination with science fiction reflected a deep collective faith that technology would lead us to a cyberutopia of robot butlers serving virtual mai tais. With ‘The Two Towers,’ the new installment of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, about to storm the box office, we are seeing what might be called the enchanting of America. A darker, more pessimistic attitude toward technology and the future has taken hold, and the evidence is our new preoccupation with fantasy, a nostalgic, sentimental, magical vision of a medieval age. The future just isn’t what it used to be — and the past seems to be gaining on us.” 8
In capturing the audience’s imaginations, Lord of the Rings, like the operas of Wagner used immense spectacle to question the role of science, technology, and the state of our democracy. While this is a valuable discourse, the irony is that without science, technology, industrialism, and commercialism, neither the spectacles of Wagner or Peter Jackson would be possible, bringing the conversation full circle.
There is an element of awe in Jurassic World which questions how far science should go. This brings a whiff of Romanticism to the film as well, favoring a fast paced, emotional ride. Much of the Jurassic Park franchise has always had a focus on natural instinct and nature over civilization summarized in Jeff Goldblum’s famous line “Life finds a way.” As with Wagner’s opera and the epic Lord of the Rings, this suspicion of science is ironic given the fact that without it, there would be no spectacle. Without the spectacle, there would be no adrenaline and no instruction on the dangers of science. This sentiment is also present in other high-budget blockbusters like Godzilla (2014). The cycle continues.
So for thousands of years there has been mainstream entertainment and non-mainstream entertainment. For thousands of years, fans of each have argued to the superiority of their own. However, in repeating Aristotle’s sentiments: each genre has its merits and downfalls.
There are different kinds of “quality” found in different kinds of films, all pertaining to Aristotle’s Five Elements of Drama. Something which lacks quality of plot, might still have quality of spectacle, or quality of character, or theme. Jurassic World has quality of spectacle and that should not be dismissed.
Hopefully this article has articulated the merits of modern populist entertainment as being part of a long tradition of high-budget spectacles which have moved, delighted, instructed, engaged, and inspired the whole of the Western world for generations. Films like Jurassic World are part of this long heritage.
- Gerould, Daniel. Theatre Theory Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. New York: Applause Theater and Cinema Books. 2000. pgs. 45-54 ↩
- Gerould, 66 ↩
- Gerould, 66-67 ↩
- Gerould, 65 ↩
- Gerould, 75-76 ↩
- Marsden, Jean I. Improving Shakespeare: from the Restoration to Garrick in Wells and Stanton. pg 30. ↩
- Gerould, 339-350 ↩
- qtd. in Brin, David. “J.R.R. Tolkien — enemy of progress.” The Salon. DEC 17, 2002. Web. Nov 28, 2015. ↩
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