Super 8 as an Allegory on the Triumph of Digital FX

We’ve all heard by now about how J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is a big special effects movie that’s grossly indebted to and reverent of the SFX movies of Steven Spielberg. But why exactly? Answer: The film’s subtext is a subtly coded defense of the storytelling power of modern digital special effects characters. Here’s my evidence.

1. “Super 8” = “superate” which means to outdo, to surpass, to exceed. This movie’s subtext is about how digital FX surpasses (but also harkens back to) photographic/analog FX.

2. The Super 8 alien is captured, revealed to non-believers, and made real to the characters in the movie (and to the audience) by traditional filmmaking techniques, i.e. the government’s secret black & white footage and the DIY zombie film being made by Charles and the other kids at the train station.

3. The alien’s technology consists of interchangeable discrete little almost-digital units that can be assembled and reassembled with ease to suit the alien’s needs. Metaphorically, these are very like the digital blocks that filmmakers wrangle into movie characters to suit their storytelling needs.

4. The alien’s release at the site of a train wreck represents in metaphor the collision between very old film technique and very new. Way back in the 1890s, films by Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers famously shocked and awed audiences with the very close passings of huge trains at train stations. The kids in Super 8 set an important scene at the fictional Lillian, Ohio’s fictional train station and in doing so capture footage of the digitally rendered and digitally technologically advanced space alien. [I probably won’t go into detail here about how ingrained the “train = filmstrip” metaphor is in film history and in critical thought.]

5. The lens flares the lens flares the lens flares. Sadly, the internet has made more or less a joke out of the lens flares in Super 8. But that’s just kind of stupid and lazy. When a filmmaker makes totally 100% sure that even the most moronic audiences notice some non-plot thing in his film, there’s almost always a solid reason for it. Yes, Super 8‘s lens flares are a constant tribute to a very noticeable stylistic element of Steven Spielberg’s films.

But in Super 8, the lens flares are also a constant reminder of a naturally occurring, photographic, in-camera filmmaking technique—an effect, if you will. Some of J.J. Abrams’ lens flares are real and some were made digitally, apparently, so they serve metaphorically as a link between FX filmmaking’s past and its present/future. At the end of Super 8, the alien’s digitally made ship disappears in a clever, knowing lens flare that’s really one huge, giant nod at Spielbergian FX films of the past, especially E.T. It’s almost like the digitally sophisticated SFX alien is waving farewell to beloved analog FX of old, with a kindly wink of lens flare. To take it a bit further, E.T.’s ship’s departure at the end of E.T. results in an arcing rainbow, one of nature’s own special effects, a trick of real light that sends E.T. home and itself refers back to another home-concerned and rainbow-obsessed FX movie: The Wizard of Oz.

6. And this one’s a bit of a stretch: In the story, all the Super 8 alien has to do to gain a human being’s sympathy and understanding of its plight is to touch that human being. Basically, once it touches you, you no longer fear it, it becomes relatable to you. Metaphorically, a digital FX creature must only make a successful emotional appeal in order to perform the necessary storytelling function, just the way old FX creatures used to. Hence the size and eventual dampness of the Super 8 alien’s window-to-soul eyeballs, which you can only sort of see in the image above. At a key point in the film, the alien’s insectoid eyes soften; they become sentient and emotional, almost anime-level sympathy generators. Or E.T.-level sympathy generators, if you prefer.

There are more subtle bits to this I can’t remember right now, but a lot of the movie’s detail builds toward this allegory. I think that might be why a lot of viewers found the whole thing fairly hokey—Super 8 revives a lot of beloved but hoary tropes in service of a statement about digital FX that it didn’t want to just come all the way out and say. It preferred to be very, very entertaining instead, and slip its “big meaning” right by you. For me, it will be very interesting to see Super 8 again, seeing it the way I do now. And I’ll probably add more to this post once I’ve re-seen it.

You know what the comments are for, so fire away.


Shortest Possible Review™ Volume #1

Yes, Sensei, it’s your Shortest Possible Review™ of The King’s Speech (Hooper, 2010):

“The Kuh-kuh-kuh-kuh-Karate King”

Tapping the Light of Day

People in America aren’t seeing much Light of Day these days. Far as I can tell, 1987’s smallish “Problems of Being in a Cleveland, Ohio, Bar Band” movie has never been available to the US market on DVD. If you want a legit copy of it—and you happen to have a not-so-legit region-free DVD player—go ahead, be my guest: Buy the Region 2 edition for (when last I checked) $199.00 plus shipping. Knock yourself out. Personally, I’m living happily with my beat-up old VHS of it.

I kind of thought that the release of the 2010 film The Runaways, which detailed the formation of Light of Day frontwoman Joan Jett’s early real-life band, would’ve maybe prompted the reintroduction of Light of Day here in the States. Didn’t happen. Still, it’s a pretty decent movie. Joan Jett’s good in it, as Patti Rasnick, lead singer of The Barbusters; Gena Rowlands is her over-religious mom; Jason “The Exorcist” Miller shows up; and Michael J. Fox capably provides lead Barbuster guitar. He and little Benji Rasnick even play an improvised song, “You Got No Place to Go,” on guitar together. And no less a talent than Paul Schrader directed.

When I first came across it not long ago, that last factoid sort of shocked me : Paul “Taxi Driver/Raging Bull/Last Temptation of Christ/Affliction” Schrader had directed an all-but-forgotten Michael J. Fox rock band vehicle I had enjoyed at least twice on late-night cable as a teen? Weird. That same fact also brings me now to the reason for this post.

Last time I watched Light of Day—mostly to see if it was, like a Schrader movie should’ve been, as good as I remembered—I was watching pretty carefully. And I noticed something. Something that referred, without question, to the undisputed king of movies about fictional rock bands. Something graffitied on a punk rock dressing room wall, prominent enough, yet almost hidden among a million other scrawled and spraypainted messages in the background behind Joan Jett’s consternated Patti Rasnick. See if you notice it too:

See that? Right next to the blue shirt? Look here or check out 2:06 in this clip if you prefer moving images I’m not good enough to have faked. SMELL THE GLOVE? Really? That kind of blew my mind, as it would the mind of anyone who’s seen This Is Spinal Tap as many times as I have. Need I even tell you that Smell the Glove (Polymer, 1982) was the (fictional) album that the (fictional) band Spinal Tap spent the better portion of Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary touring in support of? Just for fun, let me quote Bobbi Flekman here as regards Smell the Glove‘s infamous original cover art:

“…a greased, naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out…holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it.”

Who, you’re asking, might—if given the chance—advertise crudely on a bar-basement wall for such an offensive and, in fact, non-existent LP? As far as those who must’ve had All Access on Schrader’s Light of Day shoot, I’d say Suspect #1 has got to be Bu Montogomery, bass player for The Barbusters:

Michael McKean as Bu Montogomery, bass player for The Barbusters

See, in Light of Day, Bu Montgomery’s bass was played by none other than actor Michael McKean. Did the whole thing of this post just clang you on the head as hard as it did mine….?

Just in case it didn't: Michael McKean also toured extensively with another band—as David St. Hubbins, lead singer of Spinal Tap!

Nice, legible vandalism on the Light of Day set, Michael McKean! Good job! I’ll bet Smell the Glove is a really cool record! I believe your graffiti has convinced me to go out and buy it!

Hold on though: I don’t want to just post all this and rush off, forgetting to inform you that there’s a fairly intriguing Suspect #2, himself a Clevelander and a big music fan. The kind of guy for whom Smell the Glove and Spinal Tap just might’ve been a pretty big deal, round about 1987. A budding force of nature who himself worked in actual bar bands and as a janitor at Cleveland’s own Right Track Studios. A man whose only film appearance came with 1987’s Light of Day and his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as vocalist/keyboardist for The Problems, a local band in competition with Patti and Joe Rasnick and Bu Montgomery’s Barbusters, on stage right there at the Barbusters’ very own home-base bar, the Euclid Tavern. Suspect #2’s name? That would be Trent Reznor:

David St. Hubbins himself sums all of this up as well as anyone probably could:

I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.

Amen, David St. Hubbins. Amen.

Unpublished Godzilla Capsule

I wrote this capsule blurb thing for inclusion in a list of Essential Monster Movies for the Armchair Reader Goes Hollywood book, but another editor’s version got used instead (it was good but not fittingly humorous the way mine is, if you’re asking me). This doesn’t really fit the theme of my blog at all. Lately, nothing really does, though, does it? Or had you not yet noticed?

Godzilla (1954)

Created as much by radioactive fallout as by Japan’s still-fresh unease concerning nuclear destruction, Godzilla screamed and stomped his way out of the ocean and all over Tokyo in this 1954 classic. You could call Gojira by his Japanese name, but he wouldn’t hear you—he’s several hundred feet tall and busy melting man’s barriers with his atomic breath. Even in black and white, the not-very-jolly green giant lizard scared up a host of sequels and copycats: 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla featured a robotic Godzilla clone, while 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla handed Godzilla a stinging defeat at the hands of a big ape. Though mostly entertaining, no follow-up ever matched the original’s mix of monster thrills with post-World War II political and scientific paranoia.


A Big Fan of the Genre

I woke up this morning and, first thing, fired up an old VHS tape:Death Blow: A Cry For Justice (Raphael Nussbaum, 1987).

The night before, Amazon Marketplace had informed me that some kind soul in Ootawara-Shi, Japan, had purchased my copy of Death Blow from me. It takes a while to get things shipped over there, so I wanted this videotape packed and in the mail that day. Work was in 45 minutes, so I had to use that handy FF>> button quite a good deal to get through (most) of it. It’s the kind of movie where you can just catch one line of dialogue per scene and pretty much know the deal.

Actually, it was technically not my VHS tape. It was my brother’s; I’ve been selling some tapes for him. When I told him that Death Blow had sold to a man in Japan, he texted me back to inform me that: “Thats the one the bootlegger records on seinfeld.” I thought about it a minute. He was right. In The Little Kicks, a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld gains some fleeting street fame as a wunderkind theatrical bootlegger, for his work on the cam version of the fictional film Death Blow, then in fictional theaters in Seinfeld‘s fictional Manhattan.

But I knew, from looking over Death Blow‘s VHS slipcase that very morning, that the real Death Blow had been released in 1987. We we’re obviously dealing with more than one Death Blow here.

This all got me thinking. They made up a whole hell of a lot of movies over the course of the Seinfeld series run, their titles ranging from Too Dull To Give a Crap About all the way to So Bad I’d Love To See an Actual Movie Called That.

But how many of those other Fake Seinfeld Movies had real world counterparts the way Death Blow did? All it took to find out was an internet list of all Fake Seinfeld Movies and some hard IMDB digging. Enjoy:

1. Agent ZeroNot Real: Zero hits returned by IMDB.

2. Blame it on the RainNot Real: I’d probably blame this one on Milli Vanilli. Luckily, it’s not a mistake yet made by Hollywood.

3. Blimp: The Hindenberg StoryNot Real: Time to explode the myth on this one.

4. Brown-Eyed GirlReal: Too sick of this song to ever watch a movie called it.

5. CheckmateVery Real: Jeez, there’s like a million of these. ALL GREAT!

6. Chow FunNot Real: And I have to say I’m not too upset about this one.

7. ChunnelNot Real: Seems like they must’ve been going for a CHUD-meets-England/France-transit type thing with this one.

8. Cold FusionReal: Made twice since 2001.

9. Cry, Cry AgainNot Real: Though there is a Hungarian movie called Kiáltás és kiáltás, directed by Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács. I love Zsolt Kézdi-Kovács. His movies rule.

10. Cupid’s RifleNot Real: Cupid’s Rival, though, was made in 1917.

11. Death BlowReal: As described above and below. “The zoomings, the framings…I was enchanted!”

12. Extreme MeasuresReal, a few times: In Japan, they called the 1996 one Body Bunk. Total Seinfeld Fake Movie Name, right?

13. FirestormVery Real: Six Firestorms is too many Firestorms.

14. Means to an EndReal: Twice

15. Mountain HighReal: Or so IMDB barely claims.

16. The Muted HeartNot Real

17. The Other Side of DarknessNot Real

18. Ponce de LeonReal: And real old. The 1924 version (a short film) starred Monte Brice, writer of A Whole Bunch of Crap I Never Heard Of.

19. Prognosis: NegativeNot Real: I like it when a movie’s title is also a review of that movie. Diagnosis: Fabricated

20. Rochelle, RochelleNot Real: But America has already imagined this “young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk” in such great detail, and so many billions of times, does it really matter?

21. Sack LunchNot Real: Sorry. You can never go see a movie called Sack Lunch that you yourself did not conceive, write, direct, edit, and screen for yourself.


I’m sure I forgot a few. Give me hell about it in the Comments and I’ll add ’em, but please: “Not because of who I am, but because of different reasons….

Shall I Get In The Hot Tub?

Without question…if by “Hot Tub” you mean Hot Tub Time Machine. It’s a really funny movie, like some kind of impossible mash-up of Better Off Dead, Back to the Futures I and II, and Big….in reverse.

But is Hot Tub Time Machine the only time travel movie of its kind? I mean the specifics of the time travel. The hot tub in question sends each main character’s 2010 consciousness back into the driver’s seat of their 1986 selves, but kind of leaves their 2010 bodies in some sort of limbo, to be returned to when each 1986 Body/2010 Consciousness returns to the hot tub.

Come to think of it, the hot tub must somehow temporarily turn off each 1986 Consciousness, too.

Do other movies do this? Have I seen one of them and I’m just totally forgetting it, like an idiot? Totally possible.

Screwball Existentialism

Don’t ask me why I went and looked at my own dormant myspace page, for the first time in several years. Long ago, in 2005, in fact, I posted this there; seems worthy of replication on this under-nourished blog, so here goes:

Yeah, so I just want to put this out there so that 40 years from now, when people are trying to define and codify and write lots of vague, boring stuff about the films that exemplify (-fied) the millennial transition we’re even now struggling through, I’ll get credit for coining the genre term they overuse. How serious am I about all of this? Nowhere near as serious as a heart attack. We’ll call the genre “screwball existentialism” and include willfully strange, almost-slapstick, highly original movies that deal intensely with the nature of being, memory, and identity. Here are the big ones:

Being John Malkovich
Donnie Darko
Human Nature
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
I Heart Huckabees
Mulholland Drive
Waking Life

A few that I’d say kinda fit much more loosely into the genre:

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Cast Away
Groundhog Day
Flirting With Disaster (big on the “searching for one’s own identity” tip)
• Altman’s 3 Women (again with identity thing, easy on the slapstick/screwball)

Maybe, need to see again:

About Schmidt
Fight Club

I’ll edit this and add more as they come to me. And, hey, suggest obvious ones I’ve missed. I was in a hurry, OK, I’m trying to coin a genre term here, not spell the whole thing out for you. Jeez.

“But, hey,” I can hear you asking, “why don’t you just call it ‘The Charlie Kaufman Genre,’ I mean he wrote like half of ’em?” Do not make me stop this car, do you hear me? If I have to even consider pulling over, so help me, you will not enjoy the results, mister.

By the way, if we ever get this to become a “household term” and people, like, refer to their favorite directors and, hell, even themselves as “screwball existentialists” that’d be fine by me, because I know lots of people whose personal philosophies I’d say fit the bill (I may even go so far as to say those are my favorite “kinds” of people), and, yeah, I’d like to think I more often than not fall darn nicely into that category along with them. I got a monumentally good Reuben sandwich today from a deli in a dying strip mall.

Biggest addition to the genre since I wrote this way back when? Probably Where the Wild Things Are. Yes, it’s another Spike Jonze movie, but it’s so this genre. Max discovers a fantasy land in which he’s both king and heel, an amalgam of several fragments of his current and future selves, his family, his homelife, and his distant emotions. You laugh and cry with him about who everyone thinks they were as a kid and might eclipse as a grown-up but never did.

Actually, no. Biggest Recent Addition to the Genre is Synecdoche, New York. I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Everyone is reflected in a broken mirror of themselves. It’s a great movie, one I kind of hated on the first go-round. I swung and missed at the Screwball elements and was initially hurt and betrayed by the harrowing Existentialism. I’m better now.

Seems now that the dead-center of this genre happened when, in I Heart Huckabees, Brad, played by Jude Law, repeatedly asks “How am I not myself?” Screwball Existentialist movies address this question by trying to make us laugh at our own fractured identities.

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