Monday, November 28, 2011

The Subtext of Super 8: An Alternative Response To Terror

     Much has been written and said about the movie Super 8 (2011) and nostalgia. I suppose that is inevitable with a film that is set in the past, features children as the main protagonists, and opens with the Amblin Entertainment logo. I think that much of this talk is overstated. There is more to JJ Abrams’ Super 8 than just a Spielberg homage. Yes, the picture harkens back to classic American film storytelling but it is not an endorsement of willful naivety as some have suggested. I don’t think it was Abrams’ intention to offer an idyllic and idealized view of life in America in The Good Old Days. There is a loss of a parent at the outset and the characters suffer and witness horrors throughout. But beyond that, Super 8 is a Hollywood blockbuster that actually acknowledges this country’s legacy of oppression and mistreatment of those in its care. And in this “War on Terror” era of pre-emptive attacks the film offers an alternative to violence in dealing with our enemies.

     The year is 1979. The place is a steel mill town in Ohio. The kind of place that used to be the heart of a working class America that today is dead or dying. Louis Dainard is a guy from the wrong side of the tracks, a single dad who drinks too much. One day he doesn’t make it to his job at the mill and one of his co-workers, a woman by the name of Lamb (who says Louis is just sad and needs a chance), covers his shift for him. She dies in an accident at the mill. Her husband is the local sheriff, her son Joe Lamb is the hero of the film.

     Joe’s father – Jack, busy working man that he is, never really had to be an involved dad before. He thinks that it’s best to send Joe to a baseball camp where he can learn discipline and be trained in America’s Pastime. But Joe would rather do make-up and sound on his friend Charles’ super 8 movies. The latest movie that Joe and his friends are making is about a detective who is a Vietnam veteran fighting a zombie plague unleashed by a company that was making chemical weapons for the military.

     It is during a shoot for this film out by the railroad tracks that mystery and adventure is thrust upon the young protagonists. There’s a spectacular freight train derailment that ushers in the fantastical element of Super 8. The catalyst for the crash is not one of the kids but a tertiary character, one that most discussions of this film don’t dwell upon but one character that I think is deeply significant. Dr. Thomas Woodward or “old man Woodward” as he’s known to his students enters the story in shocking fashion as he is purposefully driving his truck head-on into the Air Force freight train. In the immediate aftermath of the collision the apparently dead Woodward (played by Glynn Turman) sputters to life to warn the children never to speak of what they’ve seen, they face death and their families will be killed if they do. Later on the kids break into old man Woodward’s locker at the school in attempt to shed light on the mystery.

     According to Woodward the greatest danger that the kids face is from the Air Force – who will destroy any outsider who knows too much. Jack Lamb becomes a target when he stumbles upon talk over CB radio of “Operation Walking Distance”. This is the secret mission where the military creates an apparent natural disaster (in the form of a “wild” fire) as a pretense for evacuating the town so that they can launch a full scale attack on an escaped prisoner who happens to be an extra-terrestrial. Strange occurrences thus far including pets going missing (walls covered with missing dog posters reminiscent of posters of missing loved ones in the wake of 9/11) and the disappearance of all things metal have already lead townsfolk to believe that a Soviet invasion is underway. If the movie was set today the first conclusion people would jump to would be “it’s the terrorists!” (meaning Arab Muslims). As in the Cold War era, a nation needs its boogeyman.

Watching the televised news coverage of the train derailment they witnessed.  Charles says, "It's on the news.  That means it's real."
     The townspeople find themselves on the frontline of a fight that existed before they became aware of it. They know nothing of its origins or context but they’re affected just the same. The battle is between the Air Force and a rampaging alien seemingly hell-bent on destruction. We find out, again from the key character of Dr. Woodward (through audio tapes and film reels from the past), that this alien creature that crash-landed here in 1958 and really just wants to go home. Woodward was among the government scientists that were analyzing the creature and he observed that it was through experiment and torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques” if you’re Dick Cheney), through the inflicting of pain and lack of compassion that “we taught him to hate us all, we made it an enemy”. The alien touched the scientist and formed a telepathic bond conveying all of his feelings and Woodward of all people instantly understood and empathized. I say Woodward of all people because the fact that he is a Black man in America, born in the first half of the 20th Century speaks to why he would so easily understand what feels like to be hated, disenfranchised, hurt, and dismissed. Woodward remained sympathetic to the plight of the creature which led to his being dishonorably discharged in 1963 for “subversive conduct”.

     After the train catastrophe, Woodward is in a hospital bed in the custody of the Air Force – badly broken but still alive. He is interrogated by his nemesis, one Colonel Nelec, who claims to own the “precious cargo” that is the alien. Woodward understands that a conscious living being is not a commodity. The military authority does not. Just before the Air Force colonel (a white man) has a subordinate (a black man) kill Dr. Woodward with a lethal injection, Woodward tells Nelec that he is inside the alien and that the alien is inside him and the next time he sees the alien he’ll be looking out at him. Indeed when the alien kills the colonel it is a distorted version of Glynn Turman’s voice that we hear laughing before the fatal strike.

     When the alien is loosed upon the town and is using its powers to turn the military’s weapons against themselves the small mid-western town becomes a warzone. Whether or not it was intended, I couldn’t help but think of children in the real world that suffer in warzones.

     The ending of Super 8 left some people unsatisfied. In this age of fear when, to quote Paul Theroux: “Popular culture — books, films, music – has never seemed more philistine and trivial and escapist” as in the Speilberg executive produced Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) which is a blatantly militaristic, borderline racist and sexist assault on the brain that exemplifies victory in terms of complete destruction. The resolution of Super 8 may not have satisfied the bloodlust of those conditioned to expect the good guy to annihilate evil (the unspoken values of Hollywood) but I for one was truly impressed with what I realized was the most subversive summer popcorn flick since WALL*E. In the end our hero, Joe Lamb, cornered by a terrifying alien creature, bravely confronts this incredibly dangerous entity head-on. And instead of the usual myth of redemptive violence we witness a resolution through an amazingly courageous act of radical empathy. JJ Abrams has made the decision here to subvert the typical “might is right” conclusions that we see in entertainment and in the real world for a “love your enemies” solution. Acknowledging the suffering of the alien and illuminating the option of an end to violence and a return home, Joe shares his pain and his hope in spite of that pain with the alien creature: “Bad things happen, but you can still live.”

In the end, the alien uses knowledge about building models that he gained from Joe Lamb and it's own power to attract metal to recreate its spaceship out of a water tower and all the metal nearby.  This soldier is nearly lost because he won't let go of his gun.

a version of this essay was originally posted at BlacRen

Friday, November 11, 2011

WALL•E, Andrei Tarkovsky and the Power of Cinema


                What Is Cinema?  Andre Bazin asked that question more than 50 years ago. He wrote volumes on the subject.  So have many others more learned and insightful than I.  Perhaps we could all benefit from reading their works, I know I could. 
                What does cinema mean to me?  Well, knowing that my own personal understanding of what that word means to me has developed over the years, it's a definition that is not fixed.  Basically, it is moving pictures.  But certainly it is much more than that.  The development of film cameras in the late 19th Century allowed people to capture more than an instant photographically.  It allowed people to capture and preserve time.  To catch the light and movement of the world and the beings alive in the world that lay in front of the focal plane of the lens captured on film and that moment of movement since passed into the wake of time could be viewed later, again and again and on and on forever.  First there were the nickelodeons and eventually the movie palaces.  The new technology went from being a curiosity to a fad to an art.  I believe cinema to be the greatest art form.  It encompasses all other art forms and yet is its own form of expression.   While a movie may not represent the highest achievement in sound or photography or design or the written word or performance or dance it does something wholly its own that no other art can do.  What sets film apart is the capture and control of time. What Andrei Tarkovsky called Sculpting In Time.  The compression and expansion of time.  The capture of objects moving before the camera and of the camera's eye moving in every possible direction and speed through space and time.  And perhaps most importantly the manipulation of these captured elements through editing.  The union and juxtaposition of a series of moving images and sound to create an overall experience greater than the sum of its parts.

                In a time when the summer crowds at the multiplex are inundated with fast moving, fast cutting, loud and dumb bombastic the spectacle of CGI excess that move their plots (when they even bother with plots) forward through lazy exposition, it is a unique instance when a blockbuster succeeds in its telling its story through, at least the first half, with almost no dialogue through the moving pictures or "Pure cinema" (albeit one with an unparalleled sound design).  It remarkably effective not only in telling the tale of a robot alone in a literal waste land but it is also masterful in conveying the emotions of said robot.  Disney films have always excelled at clear concise storytelling with strongly defined characters, memorable heroes and villains. But the Pixar films, while not abandoning clarity, have always been a little more complex in their worldview.  WALL•E more than any other Pixar film and maybe more than any other family friendly summer blockbuster ever boils things down to the most basic elements, especially in terms of character. The robots don't really speak, and although they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, they haven't contrived elaborate schemes, their aims are simple.  The film finds ways to explore themes as varied and deep as Love, loneliness, friendship, consumerism, media over-saturation, self-determination, pollution, and the beauty of Creation.

                In this bleak vision of a future Earth as garbage dump devoid of life, save for WALL•E and his pet cockroach, one thing that has survived among the detritus is cinema.  In one of the many brilliant little details in the movie WALL•E  watches a video cassette of the musical Hello Dolly (1969) that he keeps in a toaster (perhaps a reference to Video Toaster?) in a top loading VCR which is connected to an iPod and then magnified by magnifying glass.  These images of costumed performers singing and dancing on a Hollywood back lot but woven into a story of romance among other things is the only living record of humanity (other than the garbage).  It is through this movie that the human spirit lives on and is passed onto WALL•E.  Ironically, it is a robot who then teaches the now blob-like Homo Sapiens that have been lost in space limbo for 700 years what it means to be human again. 

                I know that, for better or worse, my life has been in some way shaped by the movies.  In spite of it all, I like to think the certainly the best of cinema has influenced me for the better.   For many, most of the time we're awake us is spent working, going to school, trying to be a "normal" member of society, playing by all the rules, keeping up on the popular culture and news of the day.  We communicate with people, mostly through pleasantries, formal ways of being informal, a measured casualness, a domesticated politeness.  I don't think most of us spend most of our time in a deep, holy, peaceful, or ecstatic state of truth and openness.  But it is in these rare and exalted sometimes surprising moments that we are most truly alive and ourselves. (Who are we the rest of the time?)  Movies are for me often a place to go into that space where the human condition is illuminated.  Yeah, there's entertainment too.  But I do lament when people see this greatest of art forms as nothing more than a frivolous diversion.

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” 

                So the way that seeing Hello Dolly sparked a consciousness of being and a desire for love in a Waste Allocation Load Lifter (Earth class)  so did the experience of viewing WALL•E  in the theater ignite and awaken in me a sometimes lost, often unseen sense of awe and wonder.  Like being possessed by the spirit of myself as a child; still discovering the world, not yet cynical and trained in the ways of the world.  How I sat; slack-jawed and wide-eyed with a song in my heart and a lump in my throat rooting for the hero, loving the adventure, recognizing what is truly meaningful in life.  That's just one of the ways that cinema has affected me.  How has it affected you?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The best way to watch movies: notes on the ideal viewing experience

if it was shot on film - see it projected on film in a movie theater with good projection - a dark theater, a bright bulb, good sound

or on blu-ray on a big plasma

in the dark

and quiet


no talking while watching - I don't know what's happening either, I am also seeing this for the first time.  we will 
discuss afterword

It's better to not know about the movie going in (I don't do this enough)

you should know something about movies in general (understand that cinema is an art form and a language)

go to the bathroom first

eat a meal before, not during the film

if having a snack try to avoid particularly smelly or noisy ones

sit in the middle, with the bottom half of the screen at eye-level

if the story is hard to follow, don't fret, believe in seeing films more than once

keep an open mind until the end - you never know

continue watching the film through the end credits (this is still part of the film you know) to listen to the music and let the experience sit with you for a couple of minutes and also out of respect for all the people that worked on the film.

Wherever or however you are viewing a movie – for Hitchcock’s sake view it in the PROPER ASPECT RATIO!

Friday, November 4, 2011


I don't know what you are like as a human being in this world, but I have idiosyncrasies, histories, mysteries and complexities.  And of course, biases  .Especially when it comes to things that interest me and that I love; like movies.  I don't think it's even possible to be totally neutral and impartial.  So let's not pretend.

I am a New Yorker, I have a New Yawk and particularly a Brooklyn bias. 
I love, love, love Martin Scorsese.  Has he ever really made a bad movie?  Not in my opinion.
Also, Spike Lee, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen,  and James Gray get mad love. 
My favorite European cinema is Italian, especially Fellini and Antonioni.
My favorite Asian cinema is Hong Kong, especially Wong Kar-Wai.   And my favorite WKW is In The Mood For Love.
As far as sci-fi goes I like post-apocalyptic or dystopian. Hard Sci-Fi. I don't much care for fantasy.
I like crime sagas.
Citizen Kane is Great, no doubt about it and I think you should have seen it and if you don't like it, I respect you a little less.
Cameron Crowe, Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman - meh.
I frickin love Pixar!
I tend to like things that can be described as; dark, gritty, realistic.
I'm pretty tired of "indie" films that are "quirky".
I like the city at night as a setting.
I like hard-boiled detectives and shadowy film noir anti-heroes.
I'm a sucker for a good coming of age film.
I think Zack Snyder and Michael Bay make fascist propaganda.  I detest their superficiality and cringe when I hear love expressed for their shallow products.
I am suspicious of and repulsed by movies that you have to "turn your brain off" to "enjoy."
My favorite actor is Al Pacino - in the 70s.
I'm a Criterion Collection addict. 
I really appreciate a good strong ending.
Oh yeah, I love Terrence Malick.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Solitary Journey of the Outsider Cineaste

cineaste  (ˈsɪnɪˌæst)
an enthusiast for films

     To make a sweeping generalization: there are people who've grown up in and continue to travel in "intellectual communities", people who are surrounded by peers with similar interests who they are regularly if not exclusively engaged in conversation with . . .  and then there are others; those who grew up in a culture that was not exactly nurturing to intellectual pursuits; working class families, where food, shelter and safety where primary concerns and smarty-pants and artsy-fartsy concerns don't even make the top 10.

      There are also people like me, perhaps.  People who grew up in the ghettos of Brooklyn in the 1980s and 90s, with parents who came over from Puerto Rico in 1960 and had formal education only to about the 4th grade.  People who themselves were educated in some of New York City's more neglected elementary and intermediate public schools that were not exactly focused on the highest standard of academic excellence.  Inner city kids who played street games and listened to Hip-Hop and watched cartoons based on toys.

      Back then we watched whatever was on regular TV, on the set in the living room, when we had control of it.  I primarily saw movies on commercial television in the 80s.  WPIX (Channel 11) was New York's movie station, but even the major networks would show films regularly.  You could count on seeing certain standards like The Breakfast Club, West Side Story and It's A Wonderful Life at least once a year.  The movies were edited for television with commercials but I don't recall the commercial breaks, only the movies. I remember sitting on the couch watching King Kong (the 1976 version with Jessica Lange and the Twin Towers) one  4th of July. The broadcast airwaves beamed Stephen King's It as well as The Exorcist into my head through that cathode ray tube.  I seem to recall that West Side Story always showed on a Saturday afternoons and that was one movie that my whole family would watch.  For a long time it was the only movie I knew of that portrayed Puerto Ricans  (even though most of the Puerto Rican characters were played by Caucasian actors with brown make-up) .  Still, rarely seeing ourselves on screen, we felt a sort of pride associated with that classic motion picture musical.

            There were occasional excursions to movie theaters.  My first movie memory is of my dad taking me and my little brother to see Sesame Street's Follow That Bird.  After that, what stands out is the first R-rated movie I saw - Beverly Hills Cop 2 (my older brother was going on a date and I somehow nagged my way in).  And then there was first time I went to the movies without an adult - to see the Jean-Cluade Van Damme classic Bloodsport with my friends.

            Once there was a VCR in the house, it was mine by default.  At least that's the way I saw it.  I was the one with the most interest.  The official purchased tapes that were in the library included; Stand By Me, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  My oldest sister Irma bought all the Disney movies for my niece and we saw those too.  Also, there were the musicals my sister was fond of: Sound Of Music, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.

            From my sister Silvia's boyfriend came bootleg tapes of R-rated movies.  Half of those were of the video camera recorded in the theater type, the other half were of the not intended for the public screener type;  New Jack City, The King of New York, and other gangster flicks of the era.

            From my friends came the occasional porno tape that was passed around.  There was Freddie and Jason, Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Home Alone and The Good Son, Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers. The last two sparked something in me, not so much in friends at the time.  I began to take notice of filmmaking. 

            I was 15 and so were four of my friends when we went to the theaters to see "Pulp Fiction".  After first being refused tickets by the employee at the booth (seeing as we were sans parents), we somewhat desperately asked a seemingly cool gentleman if he would take our money and purchase the tickets for us.  He did.  And with the excitement of crossing into a forbidden yet popular world, we sat in the front row just as the film was starting. "Yeah, that shit was crazy . . . but, Pulp Fiction was more than just a 'cool flick', wasn't it?"  I wondered what made it different from other things I'd seen. I'd like to see more stuff like this.  My curiosity led me first to John Woo's Hong Kong action pics and eventually the French New Wave.

      As a teenager, I had my own space and my own television - a hand me down clunker from the early 80s - all dials and knobs and push down buttons.  A VCR of my own was not yet a part of the picture.    I could hardly stand to watch movies in the living room with everybody (my parents, 4 brothers, 2 sisters, a niece and some nephews) yapping.  Eventually, I was snatching up the family VCR for my personal use most of the time.  I had to disconnect it and lug it to my room and hook it up to the old school set every time I wanted to watch a movie, which was most of the time. 
     In this pre-internet age (for me anyway) I was privy to just tip of the iceberg in terms of cinema history.  Public Broadcasting stations served a few mouthwatering bits.  But mostly I just opened myself up to everything when it came to movies.  I realized that there were interesting options right under my nose.  The local shabby video store, my source for most things movies,  was a sort of sanctuary for me.  When there wasn't a popular mainstream title that I had to see - I once waited around for about 5 hours for a copy of Wayne's World to be returned - I would scan the aisles for interesting or familiar indie selections. Classics and Foreign films were practically non-existent there. 

            One dreary Saturday afternoon, I found an empty VHS box for a film called "Hate".  The cover art certainly caught my eye and I had the vague sense that I'd heard of the film. (Did I hear about it on "Siskel & Ebert"?)  I gave the guy behind the bullet-proof glass shielded counter a couple of bucks and recited the series of numbers written on the white sticker affixed to the cover for that movie for the video cassette in a clear plastic box.  I went home, sat in my room by myself and watched it.  At the end of the viewing my mouth was literally open, my mind figuratively blown.  So now there's this film that I discovered that nobody knows about and I want to share it and I set out to, only, it's black & white, and it's in French, with subtitles.  “But the scenario man, they live kinda like us, but different.  It's like the ghetto, but in France...  Trust me.”  My mission was not entirely successful.  Some of my friends saw it and liked it.  But I guess I was looking for a reaction similar to mine - a look of draw dropping amazement, a confused awe.  To see them, deeply impacted, profoundly changed.  I saw none of that.  I did not find a kindred spirit that shared this love for what emanated from the screens.  I knew for sure then, what I long sensed in my gut, that I was alone in this.  I was going to pursue this world that so intrigued me.  I would follow the thread wherever it led. 

            I chose Film Production as my major when I enrolled in Brooklyn College in 1997.  There I sought to find fellow film fiends.  I did.  The halcyon days of film school gave me a sense of validation.  Since then, have been a few hook-ups along the way but no long term relationships of cinephile love - the fleeting impermanence of a brief exchange at a repertory house, a mutual appreciation for Fellini with a classmate, enthusiastically sharing Kieslowski films with a co-worker, a poignant recommendation from a video store clerk, a conversation at a bar – strangers in the night discussing Wong Kar Wai.  When I actually talk about movies with people that I encounter in day-to-day life, especially those of my generation - the conversation is definitely limited.  Everybody appreciates The Godfather, but then what?   “Yeah, The Dark Knight was awesome.”  But inevitably I'm outed.  “Actually I hated Iron Man 2, it bored me to death.  I didn't care about the characters at all.”  “No actually I don't love Star Wars” “Really?!”  “Yeah.”

            So I come to the internet, a place (that's not really a place) where I sit alone and look at the screen and see the images and read the words.  And, behind the words, I find people; people talking about film, people who I'll never meet; critics and academics and enthusiasts discussing cinema passionately.  And I feel a little less alone.