James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.
I really appreciate J.J. Abrams’ approach to meta-narrative; that is, cinema lives beyond a film’s running time, or should, anyway. Abrams approaches filmmaking as mythmaking, which is a noble idea, but very hard to execute properly. He possesses a very old school love for mystery, expectation, wonder and surprise, an affection that it is difficult to sustain in the Information Age. His next foray, ‘Super 8’, is an intriguing blend of 70s era Spielberg — with support from the man himself — and his own sensibilities. Collider recently posted a collection of subliminal clues to its story, discovered in the Super Bowl teaser, a brisk 30 second spot that I have embedded below. Behold!
The proverbial old man by the fire has only begun to relate the myth, and I’m already hooked. The teaser promises a powerful collision of wonder and horror, an apocalyptic tale with a child’s eye view, and that’s something we haven’t seen in cinema for far too long, it seems. Spielberg has sailed on from his signature childlike fantasy films into more dangerous waters, and he has no clear successor. Even Abrams, despite showing an affinity for that sort of material, gravitates to stories with more violence and less poetry. If anything prevents ‘Super 8’ from successfully emulating Golden Age Spielberg, it will be that tendency.
What’s important about this excellent teaser for ‘Super 8’ is what it doesn’t show. I have always maintained that, especially in fantasy films, what is most effective is what filmmakers stop just short of showing. In ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, Spielberg did not show the Mothership’s interior until a Special Edition rerelease gave him the opportunity. He immediately regretted spoiling the heavenly mystery that the original ending created, and this blissful ignorance got restored in the Director’s Cut. Abrams would do well to show similar restraint in the final cut of ‘Super 8’. Proper advertising, however, creates a sense of great expectancy that needs great satisfaction. The payoff must equal the setup. So far, the trailers have created a distinct tone for ‘Super 8′, but wisely they left much of the plot out of sight.
What separates Abrams’ mythic strategy from predictable, tell-all advertising that plagues most films is that it expresses a real confidence in the movie. If the filmmaker believes they have something great, a story that really surprises and thrills, they will treat marketing as an artistic prelude. Consider the gradual reveal of Nolan’s passion project ‘Inception’ through these three trailers:
Striking images. Bone-rattling sounds. Terrifying. It cast a spell on me. The next brings on action and hints of the story’s meaning, with some deliberate misrepresentation of the plot:
The last trailer reorients audiences from the previous two, which had strong psychological horror overtones, further digesting the premise into a highly emotional action movie:
Progressively, the trailers expand on the movie’s key themes, but demand resolution. ‘Inception’, even before we sit down for the main event, is already being told. In the film itself, the story resolves, but does not firmly end. It leaves us with questions, so we can go on experiencing the story after we’ve left the theater. This is similar to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’; Spielberg resolves the conflict, but leaves us with wonder. The adventure continues in our hearts.
‘Super 8’ has a similar marketing campaign. The first theatrical teaser gives us, like the first for ‘Inception’, strong horror elements: An absurdly violent, apparently deliberate trainwreck, releasing an unseen alien monster, juxtaposed with a rapid zoom out from grainy Super 8 footage containing subliminal images.
The next, embedded at this article’s beginning, expands on the horror hook with gorgeous American nostalgia, primal familial emotions, and apocalyptic destruction in ’70s suburbia. Present in both, doing most of the heavy lifting, are two strains of Midwest mythos: UFO cover-up conspiracies, and amateur filmmaking. The Super 8 camera, I’d venture to say, is symbolically Hollywood’s lost childhood. Many great filmmakers used it to hone their skills as children. As digital devices take its place, its symbolic power only increases, an effect certainly related to Abrams’ film. J.J. is using it as a deliberate homage to Spielberg, whose films have defined cinema for a generation. So, while ‘Super 8’ may seem an incongruous title for a film about aliens and paranoid conspiracy, it’s obvious that the camera and the kids behind it are the film’s heart and soul.
If ‘Super 8’ has a great story, as I am ready to believe, then it had better include that final, crucial magic trick; the hint at things to come. Not a sequel, not a television series, not a comic book; a story that lives forever, unstained by cash grabs, beyond the flickering frame.