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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.