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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

SUPER 8 (2011)

In Woody Allen's little, warm fairy tale of a movie, Midnight In Paris, Owen Wilson takes a trip back through time to visit his literary heroes, who give him notes on how to write his book.  For the blockbuster crowd, released only weeks later, there's also a big budget version.  It's called Super 8, in which J.J. Abrams takes a trip back through time to visit young Steven Spielberg, who gives him notes on how to make his movie.  Both films wallow in nostalgia for those things that influenced them.  Both films also rely on thin character signifiers to bridge us from the sources we know so well to their use in the new context.  Both take the surfaces of former icons (literary personalities and film images, respectively), reconstitute them for a new purpose, and shuffle them together into a new entertainment.  So if both films egregiously bastardize their sources, then mold their plots around cheapened and truncated versions of their former meanings, why is it that I finished Woody Allen's movie light and happy but I finished J.J. Abrams' movie angry unto silence?

Good question, so I did a little bit of soul searching.  And finally a little bit of admitting to myself that I'm simply not as knowledgeable of the warp and woof of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein as I am of the vast catalogue of unforgettable images supplied to my young imagination by Spielberg; so I had less room to be mad at Woody.  But deeper than that, it's clear watching Midnight In Paris that Allen has no desire to unpack the dark side of any of his heroes; it wouldn't serve his greater point to take those personalities more seriously.*  They are there to coax out a self-described "minor insight" in the context of a deliberately whimsical, airy fable.  But when Abrams re-uses Spielberg's icons, he has every intention to bring us to an emotional point similar to the original icon's power.  No, when I see in Super 8 the first shots that are clearly taken directly from the Spielberg songbook -- the bits in friend Charles's bustling kitchen, taken in overlapping activity and tone from the home life in Close Encounters -- I'm not shaken to anger.  I knew from the trailer that this was (as all the advertising was pleased to inform me) as much a Spielberg movie as an Abrams movie.  But by the end, the homages had stacked high, and the weight began to physically hurt.  A few of the many tributes --
  • the group of anonymous men in the dark searching with flashlight beams that wave and cross each other in the dust, like the beginning of E.T.
  • the camera pushing quietly over hilltop shrubs to view the expanse of a small suburb at night, also like E.T.
  • the power company truck rolling in wide shot under a densely starry night sky, like Close Encounters.
  • the beleaguered small town Cop-Dad trying to appease angry residents in a town meeting, like in Jaws.
  • the mass evacuation of an entire town, people practically trampling over one another, like in Close Encounters.
  • Cop-Dad smashing a military man over his head to steal his uniform, like in Raiders.
  • the small bit of Cop-Dad's dialogue delivered in silhouette that, because of the last Raiders moment, felt a lot like the "What truck?" moment in that movie.
  • the overturned vehicle crawled over by a large beast... and the business with a pane of glass above the children, like in Jurassic Park.
These plus many others meant, on average, a blatant visual rip-off per every ten minutes or so, a barrage that constitutes a kind of affront to anyone who grew up loving those movies, so arbitrarily were they fitted into the plot.  A shot or sequence you recognize and remember loving from a favorite movie, now tossed into a greatest hits salad such as this can only make you recall how much you liked the original movie better.  

But this list could have been absent entirely, and the effect of the final sequence would have still done the trick -- the Joe/Cop-Dad reunion hug in the final sequence, lit and framed to mirror E.T., complete with cutaway to the blonde female in his life (the girl here, the mom in E.T.), followed quickly by a finale that's a near shot-for-shot lift of ship taking off, friends looking up in awe, and dark-haired, wind-whipped, ambiguously resolved, young protagonist staring earnestly at the closing credits coming his way.  The rest of the list could, in comparison to this ultimate example, still be construed as individual moments of innocuous "sampling" inserted at moments of less than key import to the plot.  But to make the end of your movie virtually indistinguishable from its inspirational source, while also expecting the moment to rise to the same emotional pitch as that source, is to ask us to cry bittersweet tears over what, by the overt, shameless manner of its replication, has been rendered a virtual spoof of the moment.

Indeed, the affect of co-opting a movie moment as high-profile as the end of E.T., especially in the service of a movie that is uneven in so many other ways**, reminds me more than a bit of the affect of the attempted humor in deliberate movie spoofs like Scary Movie and Epic Movie, whose visual references have no life of their own outside of their basic ability to make the viewer recall their scenes' original use.  Abrams' movie is clearly much better than that brand of film, but the construction and intent are unsettlingly similar: follow a collection of undeveloped characters across a typical genre plot (in this case, the Spielberg genre), and hang obvious odes onto the construct along the way (in this case, father-son concerns, alien visitation, Hawksian masculinity/romance), each intended to wheedle an enjoyable shock of recognition and, Abrams seems to hope, borrowed depth.

Maybe outrage like mine is overblown.  It's crossed my mind.  It's just a movie.  It's just an homage.  And the movies he's riffing on are far from perfect themselves.  And the filmmaker he's riffing on made his career by quoting the great filmmakers that came before him, most notably David Lean, John Sturges, Howard Hawks, and John Ford.  I'm willing to concede that I've wasted an afternoon breaking down the obvious.  In any case, it will take me awhile before I can watch the end of E.T. (a movie I still very much enjoy) without feeling a jolt of lip-curling disgust over Super 8.  Just thinking out loud here, but an antecedent to this movie could be the Howard Hawks-produced movie The Thing from Another World (1951), the highly regarded science fiction film directed by Hawks's editor Christian Nyby; but for all practical purposes, visually, thematically, and character-wise, actually directed by Hawks.  As producer, Spielberg was surely involved in the creation of this movie as deeply as anecdotal evidence indicates Hawks was involved in The Thing.  So, at least for me, it begs the question, if Spielberg was the one suggesting these ransacked moments, or even if he wasn't, why would he allow them to be used in such a way as to diminish the originals' impact?  The answer can only be that he either has lost touch with his own emotional ownership of that iconography by virtue of time passed, or, in a manner that horrifyingly mirrors his buddy G. Lucas, he just doesn't care.


  1. * Woody's greater point being that nostalgia can be a creatively dangerous dead end, a sort of ready made cop-out and easy-out for any who fall under the illusion that our time is worse than any previous time. Of course, he makes this point only after lowering us into a warm bath of nostalgia for an hour and a half, but that's another post.

  2. ** An incomplete list, in order of appearance, of the nearly endless demonstration of weak direction, bad writing, tedious dialogue, and uneven pacing follows:

    - It would have been more interesting if we already knew Dr. Woodward (the kids' teacher) before we see him wreck his truck. Not knowing who he is could have added a sense of danger, which Abrams seems to want to cultivate, given the waving of the gun; but that can only work if one of the kids hadn't blurted "It's Dr. Woodward, our biology teacher!" All of this point, though, pales compared to the absolute craziness of him surviving a head-on collision that caused that much damage. Disbelief is unsuspending quickly.

    - Cop-Dad would have been at the train wreck the night before, not the next morning. Plot convenience.

    - Joe using the phone at the camera shop to call Alice is an awkward double-up on reveal of information.

    - We're made to believe the military has a tight grip on the train wreck site. So there should be no way the kids would've gotten close enough to it to shoot their movie. Same with the teacher's house a little later.

    - The gas station owners aren't nearly as upset or frightened as they should be, given the bizarre level of destruction to their establishment. I suspect secrecy-mad Abrams didn't tell them the nature of the damage when they were shooting. They're only day players after all. (The characters don't know yet it's an escaped alien, but we do, and whatever logic might be broken by my demand, it makes perfect movie sense for them to be more than just bemused by a completely smashed store front and police vehicle.)

    - The car dealer's meant-to-be-obvious toupee smells of a director not trusting his scene to be interesting enough on its own.

    - Not sure we even know Joe has a dog before he's seen searching for it. (In shots that strongly resemble shots of Elliott looking for E.T. in the forest.)

    - The incredibly dumb shot of pinning up the dog's photo, with a pull back reveal (Joe's subjective POV) that there are hundreds of others. He would've seen the others before he pinned his up... and he would've heard about the mass exodus of neighborhood dogs long before he went to the bulletin board in the first place.

    - How did our protagonist get a blue beret for his super 8 character, one that matches the actual soldiers' berets?

    - The reveal that Joe's mom took Alice's dad's shift at the factory doesn't sit well -- somehow, knowing they happened to have the same job/skill set seems too convenient. Wouldn't be a problem, except that such a large emotional pivot is triggered by the reveal.

    - No discussion by Joe regarding why Cop-Dad didn't come home the night he's arrested by the military. I guess we're supposed to infer that he's not home at nights a lot.

    - Nobody comes out of their house at the sounds of Alice's dad crashing his car, Alice's full-throated screaming as she's abducted by an alien in the middle of the well-lit street, and Alice's dad screaming after her for a good ten seconds.

    - The super 8 footage we've been waiting to see is anticlimactic in and of itself; and further, it doesn't affect the plot in any way, in terms of audience information or increasing suspense. We already know what they're learning in the middle of the movie. But at least the scene has Joe grabbing Charles by the shoulder; human contact among the friends in this movie is quite minimal. Is that the point? Not sure.

    - Like the gas station owners before, Joe's sister registers little concern or fear during evacuation, only the sense of being inconvenienced. If this is supposed to be comic relief, it's vague and unsuccessful.


  3. - No mention by Joe or his friends of the possibility that alien-abducted Alice might be dead. Strange, given how obsessed each and every one of them is with death throughout the film. [Update: I've been corrected on this point. I missed it when one friend apparently yells "She's dead, forget her!" -- which is an 8.5 on the sociopath meter, but does at least constitute "a mention".]

    - Joe, a kid who's been painted as smart and mature, while reading teacher Woodward's military discharge papers, says, "...subversive behavior, whatever that means."

    - On the transport bus, how does Charles know what a tracking dart looks like?

    - At every opportunity, we're told friend Cary has fireworks, so we know he'll get to use them at some point. It's frustrating to hear the setup so many times, but at least we have that to look forward to. Until he actually uses them in the anticlimactically functional way he does, thus disappointing the audience by not actually getting to see him blow anything up. Give this kid some catharsis, please.

    - Minutes after we watch the alien chewing on a human leg, we're expected to suddenly sympathize with it, as if Joe's rather limp pep talk has convinced it to be peaceful. Imagine watching Gran Torino, and one of the Korean kids walks up to Eastwood on his porch, says "I know bad things happen... but you can still live," and Eastwood kind of looks at him, lets his expression relax and says, "You're right, kid." (I use Eastwood as my example only because the alien kind of looks like him.)
    There's nothing in the behavior of the creature, especially in its desperation to build its ship as fast as possible and get the heck off our planet, that leads us to feel the emotions in the final shots that we're clearly supposed to feel. We're meant to feel a bittersweet sense of loss when the alien that our hero has connected with suddenly disappears into the clouds. That works in E.T., but it can't work here, for the simple reason that, you know, E.T. didn't eat people.