Super 8

Method Directing


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Reported on 17th of August, 2011

Given the state of trailers today, and the fact that there are 15 minutes of commercials in UK cinemas before the trailers, going to the movies and avoiding the dreaded Orange ad is a tactical affair of that requires more time and energy than, well, sitting through trailers and commercials in the first place. Given the genuinely lousy state of films in 2011, however, this elaborate stress dance is the only way left to actually squeeze any real tension from the filmgoing experience. Today, I was seeing Super 8, not to enjoy it, no, but to write about it here, and so I was especially irked when I arrived at my scientifically-and-statistically-determined-after-years-of-research-17-and-half-minutes-late to find a blank screen. Not even the commercials had started. It was disappointing indeed to have to wait even longer to be disappointed.

Super 8

11 August 2011 @ The Brighton Odeon


$0.50 or, if one must be jejune, and one must... 
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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But this blank screen was a sign from the movie gods, clarifying exactly what an exemplar from the JJ Abrams œuvre is actually about: waiting for nothing. And so, like all critics before me, I simply wrote the review before even the trailers had started. I’m certainly not going to let the actual film get in the way of what I think about it. Especially when it comes to a joint from JJ Abrams, my feelings toward same should in no way be taken personally. By same. So what if he made me sit through a worse Mission Impossible movie than Mission Impossible 2? Does it really matter that he stole the title for my (admittedly unfinished, but nevertheless great) novel The Memory of Traffic for a throwaway line in same film (this may seem insane, and possibly libelous, but having actually seen Super 8, he then used the name of the sequel, Walking Distance, as a mission in the film. Coincidence? Yeah, probably. It’s only fair since I stole the idea of the book from a friend of mine. Who based the idea on me as a character. Where does it end? Originality is only obscurity of sources. And yes, I said that).

Why would I care that he made the reprehensible Star Trek, or that its terribleness is baffingly in inverse relation to both its box-office and the praise heaped upon it by the various critics who suppressed, and then began to enjoy suppressing, their gag-reflex using the conveyor belt of films within the Abrams stable as a kind of mental novocaine.

Okay, maybe he should take it personally. Looks like I did.

Sadly (for me), Super 8 is not a bad movie. It almost makes me wish I hadn’t written the review before I had seen it. Or it would have, but it’s not really a good movie either. And it is, as it happens, exactly what I said it would be before I saw it: a lot of waiting. I think we’ve established by now that I’m a critical person, but I like actors, or rather don’t hate them as a category the way I might with a genocidaire, or a gaffer. So, for all the actors out there, please forgive me: method acting is only one of many ways to go. I’m all for what works, and if staying in character works for you, please continue. But remember that like any creative endeavor, it’s part mystery, in some way out of your purvey. As such, method acting for some is the lucky pair of gym shorts that a baseball player might wear for his third space shuttle flight in the middle of his campaign for president: it’s a totem. Being deeply in method can be a form magical thinking which is only fair, since it’s trying to reproduce something magical.

I’m a pleasure addict, and I want every last drop in the needle.


And so, like the hateful Inception (that’s the second time I’ve had the opportunity to talk about how much I detest that film, and it feels good), Super 8 put me in mind of Lost, Mr. Abram’s success and thus his great fetish. Lost is a show I watched, and even enjoyed for a while, until it suddenly became clear that they had painted themselves into a corner of somebody else’s room. Okay, that actually sounds like a line from the show, so let’s just put it another way. They had a lot of ideas. They put them all in there. They didn’t stop to think that they would them have to explain them. And then they explained them anyway. I stopped watching somewhere in season 2, which I feel was the perfect spot, since the makers, instead of having thought things through to the end, had thought things through to the middle.

Thinking stories through to the middle, not exactly uncommon, is best exemplified by the shaking trees that the crash survivors witness on the very first episode. Is it a dinosaur? Is it a huge alien? Alien shaking trees? Take your pick, because anything, anything is better that the smoke monster it turns out to be. Keeping with today’s theme, the smoke monster itself wasn’t thought through (which is only fair, since it’s, well, a smoke monster, a non-idea if there ever was one), and so sometimes it can do stuff. Other times it can’t. Unless it doesn’t want to. And then it does.

Normally such random behavior is to keep the plot going, but in the absence of plot, it serves here to keep the mystery alive: Deus ex mysteriouso. And so with Super 8, which has a lot of semi-interesting ideas thought through exactly to the middle (and to continue the Lost fetish, a spectacular crash at the beginning with lots of bits of train flying about and nearly missing all the main characters. This, by the way, is a complement): mysterious bits include, but are not limited to square pieces of foam that sometimes fly, and sometimes don’t, dogs running away from the area in a circle, floating pieces of metal, army coverups, a pre-teen love triangle that’s revealed and then mysteriously ignored, and Noah ‘I won’t turn out to be the bad guy, nope, not me’ Emmerich killing the scientist before he could explain everything to the audience. This last is perfectly understandable since Mr. Abrams is so intent on keeping the mystery alive, but it seems that Mr. Emmerich’s character somehow helped the filmmakers develop the script, since he kills him before the scientist could explain everything to his character.

I explained to Richard that I thought I had lost this ticket, and that there was no way I would pay for a second one. So I either found it, or I am exceptional at Photoshop. The correct answer is both.

I explained to Richard that I thought I had lost this ticket, and that there was no way I would pay for a second one. So I either found it, or I am exceptional at Photoshop. The correct answer is both.

It would seem that the camera had teleconferenced in to the same meeting since the shot choices in the film – so desperate to do anything but show the monster – become increasingly bizarre and ugly as the film progresses. Jaws worked because the characters couldn’t see the shark, and Mr. Spielberg incorporated this into the way he shot it. But during prolonged scenes when the characters can see the monster, this is just confusing, like a movie that takes place in the 16th Century, but all the characters are naked in a bare room.

Okay, that’s a great idea, but there’s a second problem to keeping such a visual secret – a violation of the Ring rule.If you’re holding back on the monster, when she comes out the TV, she better be really, really creepy (this is possibly why the better made American The Ring is just not as scary as Ringu, by the way).When it’s a sort of spider monster, that may want metal, but also possibly wants to go home, but also wants to wait to go home for some reason, but also steals people (unless he kills them) and keeps them alive for no reason, unless it’s to kill them later, unless he doesn’t feel like it, well, it’s neither a shark, nor a freaky backwards walking Japanese girl. Instead, it’s a belated and somewhat rushed effort to explain all the contradictory events in the film up to that point. By trying to be everything, it is nothing.

But who’s to say that Mr. Abrams is wrong? This is simply one way of interpreting story structure: I love a mystery, but I hate coming up with an ending. The Transformers and Twilight films, the late work of Mr. George Lucas, and any sitcom by the Chuck Lorre-bot 3000 proves that the abandoned, incomplete, and still-born concepts can not only substitute for stories, but also be very popular. Because, as we know, it is about getting butts on seats. And maybe it is this terrible future that this is where we are headed. Yes, we’ll all be choking to death on green nuclear hovercar exhaust as mankind cooks the earth to extinction for no discernible reason, but I’ll be mourning the death of the story. While choking to death.

Still, I remain unconvinced. And as much as I am desperate to be part of the cool club that likes things that no one else does, I think that true, well thought out narrative is actually what people want. Pixar has (with the – (shudder) – misstep of Cars 2 excepting) has managed to elevate narrative to a near art form and make a staggering amount of money. And yes, Star Trek, Lost, Cloverfield and Inception make a lot of money, and even garner some praise. But what if they could have made more money? Because what’s missing when you ignore story structure to such an extent is the chance to iconic, to be the kind of films that other films refer to. It’s the difference between a moment and a gag, the difference between that part where Edward looks at Bella like that, you know, like that way he did, and ‘I’m having an old friend for dinner’. Gags are indelibly imprinted on our brains (well, my brain anyway – despite all my efforts, I see a lot of trailers, and I see them a lot. After 500 times, it’s not even a gag; it’s a tattoo), but a moment exists only within a complete story – the present that refers to the past of the story and the future of what’s going to happen; on path that can go anywhere, but still manages to land where it should. There is great pleasure in the gag – the chance to temporarily invert reality in film – and a perfectly structured film without them can be equally as boring as the reverse. But I’m a pleasure addict, and I want every last drop in the needle.

The future is good for me: either films improve, and I like them, or they don’t, and I get to feel righteous. Coming from someone who actually has seen a lot of the American films from the ‘great’ year of 1941, I suspect we’ll keep getting what we always have: 79% garbage, 20% good unfinished ideas and 1% greatness, unevenly distributed. It’s random, and no amount of typing blogs during St. George’s Day on trains going north-northwest in a country that doesn’t use vowels is going to change that.

But what if I tried during Lent?

The Take

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Losses!
We’re doing this backwards and here’s why. The characters were making a movie within a movie.
$3.50
Total Losses
$3.50
Profits!
That movie was better.
$4.00
Total Profits
$3.50

$0.50

Thoughts on Super 8

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  1. Richard says:

    Yes.

    Also, the point at which I stopped watching Lost was the point at which I realised they were making it all up. I mean, obviously they were making it all up, it being fiction, but there is a line – let’s call it the Border of Absurdity – which, once crossed, can not be re-crossed. It is the point at which you see the Wizard behind the screen, the nudity of the Emperor. The point at which you see the screenwriting commitee at work, when you should be seeing a smoke monster. The suspension of my disbelief is conditional on the prospect of this all eventually making some kind of sense. Or being so entertaining that it doesn’t matter.

  2. Scott Scott King says:

    That’s what I meant to say, but then you said it. Damn.

    Re: Mr. Queenan, God bless, but movies have been about the end of the world for quite some time now (Independence Day, Terminator, Matrix, even Dr. No). I think the question we should be asking, is why now? I suspect that it has to do with turnaround time, that it takes about 2-5 years to make a movie, and 2-5 years ago, it was all about global warming. Fortunately this isn’t a problem any more because we, uh, we ignored it. In 2-5 years all the movies will be about Norwegian anti-immigration rioters who want to go into international banking. By then, the world will be actually ending. But we’ll have to wait to see movies about it.

  3. Richard says:

    I look forward to seeing the midnight screening of “Snoopy and Det Bankkrisen Opptøyer” with you sometime in 2015. In the smouldering remains of civilisation, or Brighton Marina.

  4. Scott Scott King says:

    I suppose that makes the Brighton Marina the cockroach of cinemas. In the good way, of course. Can I also mention that apparently 2011, the worst year in cinema history, is also the lowest grossing in a long, long time. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.

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