High high con­cepts) con­cepts)

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

The first golden age of the true high­con­cept came, how­ever, dur­ing the drive-in era. Pon­der clas­sic films in the genre and you re­alise that, to qual­ify, a film’s premise must have an im­me­di­ately dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing ef­fect on the ex­pec­tant cin­ema fan. The key re­sponse is not “That sounds in­ter­est­ing” but “Good grief! How did they ever think of that?” The late 1940s and 1950s saw the progress of ex­ploita­tion movies into the outer corners of the main­stream. If you are sitting in your car, jug­gling a hot dog, strain­ing to hear the di­a­logue on tinny speak­ers, you don’t want to have to dis­en­tan­gle an overly com­pli­cated plot. One mad no­tion, ex­pressed plainly on the poster, will do very nicely, thank you.

This era saw the rise of that cor­ner­stone of high con­cept – those films that an­nounced “I was Some­thing or Other or I Did Some­thing or Other”. I Was a Teenage Were­wolf (the Lan­don in­car­na­tion) emerged in 1957. I Mar­ried a Com­mu­nist crept out in 1949. I Was a Teenage Franken­stein com­peted di­rectly against Lan­don’s ly­can­thrope. Even mas­ters such as Howard Hawks got in on the act. That di­rec­tor’s I Was a Male War Bride par­o­died the con­struc­tion as early as 1949.

Mix in qual­ity pic­tures such as In­va­sion of the Body Snatch­ers and The Day the Earth Stood Still and it be­comes clear that the high con­cept was thriv­ing many decades be­fore the term be­came com­mon­place.

Much has been writ­ten about the in­flu­ence of pop­ulist 1950s en­ter­tain­ment on the direc­tors who colonised 1980s cin­ema. It is, surely, no co­in­ci­dence that – fol­low­ing a pe­riod when drive-in fans re­turned to telly – the Rea­gan era marked the point at which the high con­cept took over pop­corn cin­ema.

Steven Spiel­berg, a child of 1950s pop cul­ture, set the wheels whirring with some film about a shark. But the vul­gar ef­fu­sions of pro­duc­ers Jerry Bruck­heimer and Don Simp­son re­ally es­tab­lished the form. (In­deed, Charles Flem­ing’s muck-rak­ing bi­og­ra­phy of Simp­son, the ar­che­typal block­buster pro­ducer, is ac­tu­ally ti­tled High Con­cept.) Top Gun, Flash­dance, Bev­erly Hills Cop, Ar­maged­don: none of these films can have re­quired more than a brief sen­tence to se­cure their mighty fi­nanc­ing. The ques­tion “what’s it about?” be­came in­creas­ingly easy to an­swer. “Tom Cruise plays a fighter pilot,” you en­thu­si­as­ti­cally tell your date. “Bruce Wil­lis stops an as­ter­oid from de­stroy­ing the Earth,” you would re­mark a few years later. Good luck ex­plain­ing the plot of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexan­der in such suc­cinct terms.

If you want to see high con­cept in ac­tion look no fur­ther than the Sch­warzeneg­ger com­edy. Arnie is a kinder­garten teacher. Arnie’s twin is short and fat. Arnie gets preg­nant. The mind bog­gles when con­sid­er­ing which ideas didn’t make it into cin­e­mas. Arnie be­comes a bal­let dancer? Arnie mar­ries Sylvester Stal­lone? Arnie be­comes gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia?

As is al­ways the case with any pop­ulist movie craze, the high-con­cept move­ment was de­cried as the be­gin­ning of the end for qual­ity cin­ema. Glance at your lo­cal megaplex and you will find much to com­plain about. Bruck­heimer, now a lone tyrant fol­low­ing Simp­son’s un­timely death, has pros­pered with such unlovely projects as the Pi­rates of the Caribbean films (Johnny Depp is a buc­ca­neer) and the Trans­form­ers movies (cars be­come ro­bots). But the main prob­lem with these films is their be­trayal of the ini­tial high con­cept. The longer the Pi­rates films went on, the more mud­dled the plots be­came and the less fo­cused the char­ac­ters seemed. Just give us squab­bling seadogs, Jerry. Hours of the Trans­form­ers films pro­gressed with­out a sin­gle truck turn­ing into a sin­gle clank­ing be­he­moth. That isn’t what you promised us in that Bel Air meet­ing five years ago.

Let’s stand up for the pu­rity of the high­con­cept movie. No sane per­son wants the en­tire medium to be taken over by films whose plots can be sum­marised on a ketchup­bot­tle cap. But there should al­ways be a place for neat, pop­ulist en­ter­tain­ments that hang around as­ton­ish­ing sur­mises. This writer has, for years, been try­ing to sell I Was a Teenage Godzilla to 20th Cen­tury Fox. Not re­ally. Some­times it feels that it’s all about how you look at things. It’s easy to al­ways look at the neg­a­tives; it’s easy to al­ways feel like the record la­bel and the mu­sic busi­ness is out to make as much money from you as pos­si­ble. There has to be pos­i­tives out of ev­ery­thing; it makes sense to me that pos­i­tiv­ity breeds pos­i­tiv­ity. That has cer­tainly ap­plied to De La Soul, and is, I think, one of the main rea­sons why peo­ple want to work with us. The work, the cre­ative en­vi­ron­ment, is usu­ally chilled, there isn’t a lot of drama, we don’t ar­rive at the stu­dio with body­guards and crazi­ness; we ar­rive with cool­ness. We’ve been blessed enough in that re­gard for peo­ple to want to en­joy that, and to work with us re­gard­less of whether or not we have an al­bum out. They know that we put qual­ity in our work as well as qual­ity in the friend­ships we build with peo­ple. Our big­gest thing was some­thing as sim­ple as hear­ing our mu­sic on the ra­dio. Grow­ing up as fans of ra­dio mu­sic and hear­ing peo­ple like Run DMC, Afrika Bam­baataa, Grand­mas­ter Flash, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane made us want to have the same thing. And we did. Oh, it was sur­real. It’s not so that you’d pinch your­self, but the re­al­i­sa­tion that some­thing might be re­ally start­ing for you kicked in. Hear­ing DJs whose opin­ions you It was cer­tainly more alien to peo­ple when we were younger, that’s for sure. The grad­ual ac­cep­tance of it proved to me and my peers what we in­her­ently knew – that the mu­sic would even­tu­ally be­come a part of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, that it would be con­sid­ered more than just a genre, and that it would be re­spected by lis­ten­ers and record com­pa­nies. That’s where it is now. It’s def­i­nitely big busi­ness, it’s worked its way into the econ­omy, and it’s also brought dif­fer­ent tribes to­gether. We knew that back then. Now it’s main­stream and a main­stay. Yes, the main down­fall is how creativ­ity has been af­fected. There is much, for in­stance, that is dic­tat­ing how the mar­ket­ing is go­ing to be ap­plied; and fac­tors such as cloth­ing lines, movies, acting and so on. In the long run that isn’t a good thing, be­cause the craft is be­ing di­luted. Cer­tainly, but that’s nat­u­ral. There is a less­en­ing of im­pact from some­thing you see for the first time and love, to when you see some­thing for the 100th time and like. The pu­rity may not be there, but what you hope is that the good­ness and qual­ity re­mains. What I felt in terms of lis­ten­ing to artists that rocked and changed my world, that shaped my un­der­stand­ing of it in terms of how to make mu­sic – well, sir, that hasn’t hap­pened in quite some time. In fact, I can’t re­call when that last hap­pened to me.

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