Super 8

Summary: A perfect remix of classic Spielberg, rising auteur J.J. Abrams crafts a truly effective film for the next generation.

The Return of the Great Adventure

Review: There’s no time more important to a filmmaker than childhood. Most great filmmakers discover their passion early in life, and they often spend that time trying to emulate their favorite works, looking for that elusive magic, that feeling, that means “cinema” in their hearts. Some give up, and go on to craft stories wholly different from their initial inspiration, but some stick to it, and succeed in making a spiritual autobiography, sometimes over the course of several films.

For Steven Spielberg, many of his greatest films pay direct homage to inspirations from his youth: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ for the matinée serials, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ for both the French New Wave and Cecil B. Demille, ‘Jurassic Park’ for the creature features blessed by Ray Harryhausen.  It is only natural that an auteur like Spielberg should provoke a kindred spirit of the next generation to emulate his films, and here the homage has the rare benefit of the inspiration’s creative involvement.  With ‘Super 8’, J.J. Abrams does far better than imitate his idol; he makes an entry worthy of the Spielberg canon.

Some have reacted negatively to the iconographic and stylistic tributes J.J. makes to Spielberg, as if it is cheap or creatively bankrupt to so effectively capture this magical tone.  The trouble is, as usual, a lack of perspective.  At the time of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’s release, it suffered some undue resentment from critics who felt that it was too much like the serials of yore, that it was a hollow, soulless exercise in something like “nostalgia porn”.  As the serials have dimmed in popular memory, ‘Raiders’ has only grown as a premier action-adventure, revealing the trouble with the criticism.  Such critics, then and now, are resisting the artist’s right to remix.  Nothing is truly original, after all — it is important that artists, critics, and audiences understand that what matters is an effective remix, a work that is simultaneously familiar and fresh.  Other auteurs, such as Quentin Tarantino or the brothers Coen, do works suspiciously similar to their inspirations with remarkable frequency, but they do not incur the critical penalties Spielberg and Abrams have had to endure, simply because the homage is more often obscure to the public.  Both Spielberg and Abrams remix the greater weight of popular imagination, but in truth all these artists are doing the same kind of work.

When a viewer rejects the homage, he or she will find it difficult, or perhaps impossible, to appreciate the uniqueness of films like ‘Super 8’, the qualities that ultimately set them apart as worthy, standalone stories.  ‘Super 8’, much like ‘Raiders’, is the return of the great adventure.  It isn’t meant for the pessimistic adult mind.  It’s meant, in the best possible way, for kids, or rather for the child in all of us.  I was privileged to meet a grandmother and her two preteen grandchildren at the theater of my employ as they were about to see ‘Super 8’.  When I praised the film and referenced Spielberg, the kids admitted they had no idea who he was, or if they had seen his movies.  The grandmother was rather taken aback, but I was strangely pleased.  It occurred to me, then, why Abrams made ‘Super 8’ at all — because Spielberg’s magic touch hadn’t transformed the minds of these kids, Abrams extended it to them.  He’s taken what was old and made it new again.  So in this way, it is simultaneously familiar and fresh, and some folks who grew up with Spielberg may never understand why.  More power to those who do.

I love this film. It’s addictive. It thrills me, makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me contemplate the past and future with great clarity. Just as ‘Raiders’ and ‘Close Encounters’ changed my life, from now on I’ll be seeing the world through the lens of ‘Super 8’.

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NR: Beyond The Flickering Frame

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.

James’ Top Ten Directors (Without An Order)

Sorry about the long hiatus, folks, but I kind of lost my drive to write.  The good news is, I did regain my drive to screenwrite, and I’ve got a solid idea progressing nicely.

It occurred to me that a major obstacle to the success of this blog is the lack of variety in articles.  Sure, we’ve got reviews and the ‘Elements’ series, but what about top-tens and other die hard blog tropes?  Ain’t nothing wrong with a good trope.  So, here we go.  My top ten favorite directors.  Minus the numbers one expects from such things.

Steven Spielberg

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you.  Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you. Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Here’s the why. He made ‘Raiders’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Jaws’, and your mother’s amazing plasticine face.

Christopher Nolan

I think he's an accomplshed actor, too.  Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...?  No?

I think he's an accomplished actor, too. Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...? No?

Here’s the why.  He saved Batman’s batfilm batexistence batfrom bathell.  He’s really good at screwing with your mind, even in relatively straightforward movies like ‘The Dark Knight’.  On the extreme end of intentional mindscrews, of course, is ‘Memento’, which is referenced in way too many screenwriting books. C’mon, people, we’re novices, if we’re reading your book looking for advice, don’t mock us with a challenge to repaint the Mona Lisa.  Also, Christopher Nolan is the only fellow I would trust to remake ‘Blade Runner’.

Quentin Tarantino

That's the German three.

That's the German three.

Here’s the why. Quentin cares enough about his stories that he lets them gestate for ridiculous periods of time.  That way, he doesn’t rely on formula, but delivers a compelling and original story that breaks a lot of “rules” and yet somehow still works.

Peter Jackson

Before

Before

After.

After.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which kicked everybody’s ass, except J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who was on the moon fighting vampires when it was released. Mr. Jackson has since lost a lot of girth and become a Hollywood heavyweight, shepherding up-and-coming directors and projects, like Neill Blomkamps’ ‘District 9’, which was like the ’80s sci-fi craze had come back to life with a blood transfusion from Jason Bourne. So he’s got that going for him.

J.J. Abrams

He is not clueless.  Merely geeked the heck out.

He is not clueless. Merely geeked the heck out.

Here’s the why. He’s great at fusing genre films with solid, emotional stories.  Sometimes too good.  I didn’t expect the opening of ‘Mission: Impossible III’ to be nearly as traumatizing as it was, but that’s okay.

Alfred Hitchcock

Nobody does it better...

Nobody does it better...

Here’s the why. Hitchcock represents the majority of exposure pretty much anyone has to the silent era and its powerful ‘show, don’t tell’ ethos. Thanks to this training as a silent film director, Hitch kicks lots of ass in the suspense department, and his stuff is really memorable.  Every suspense movie, ever, is compared to Hitch.  Not to his movies, no, to the man himself.  Why is he laughing in that photo?  Why?  Why!?

Brad Bird

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Here’s the why. Brad Bird is another fellow who can blend genre with emotional, original story. So far, his works have been fantastic animated movies, such as ‘The Iron Giant’, and Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’, but he may be making his first foray into live action soon. Whatever the case, Brad Bird’s imagination is sure to soar.  Ha.  Ha.

Sergio Leone

OVIEIf he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER.

If he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER

Here’s the why. Sergio Leone is the godfather of the Spaghetti Western subgenre.   Since he’s passed away, there’s no point in making Spaghetti Westerns anymore.  Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or something.

Duncan Jones

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘Moon’, the best sci-fi film of 2009.  Strangely, he’s David Bowie’s son.  Sure, this guy’s new, but he’s awesome and he looks to be building a sweet sci-fi series.

Tim Burton

How dare you, Tim.  I used to hate your movies.  Who do you think you are?  Get out.  You misfit, you.

How dare you, Tim. I used to hate your movies. Who do you think you are? Get out. You misfit, you.

Here’s the why. He’s quirky.   He’s got scissors for hands.  He was not permitted to eat sweets as a child — because his father was (not) Christopher Lee.  His movies are bizzare.   I don’t like the ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’.   I do love ‘Batman’.  Why, Tim?  Why do I admire you, so?

And, that’s my top ten.  Patrick should be coming out with his soon.  Very soon.  You hear that, Patrick?  WRITE THE DAMN LIST.

What?  Oh, okay.  Bye for now.