Saturday, June 25, 2011
Movies: Enjoy, puny human!
It's hard to imagine the summer will give you better entertainment than Super 8. That's true whether you read that as a rousing endorsement or a statement of surrender.
In Super 8, J. J. Abrams has produced the perfect masscult artifact. Double J's alien-amok flick isn't just professional to the point that it's so slick it makes Astroglide look like P12 sandpaper; there's plenty of directors whose personal signatures embrace a smooth proficiency (see David Fincher). Nor is this a matter of Super 8's constant stream of allusions; whatever his faults, one can't say that Tarrantino's personal signature gets lost under his obsessive recycling. In fact, Super 8's perfection as a masscult object isn't strictly a matter of Abrams's direction. It also a matter of audience reception. The identifying characteristic of masscult production, if one is still allowed to evoke such such an elitist and ostentatiously divisive concept, is the way it turns both creator and audience a type, a member of some demographic, part of a mass. Further more, it contains its own interpretation: it does the work of thinking and feeling for you. What Super 8 does, and I intentionally personify the film because I believe, in this case, it clearly has an agency beyond Abrams' slender talents, is turn the life-work of a prior, superior artist into a formula and invite audiences to react not to the film in question, but to their collective memory of those prior, superior works. It's a quilt of stitched together shared experiences and we're not really responding to it as we are to those shared experiences. Super 8 isn't homage or pastiche; it's Pavlovian movie making.
I don't mean that as a criticism, necessarily. Sure, it causes some problems. Super 8's near-total reliance on the idea that audiences will respond automatically to certain visual patterns does get it in trouble. First, there's several odd plot points that only make sense if you assume you've dropped into a parallel dimension where Spielberg created the rules of logic. Though, honestly, nobody in any film acts "realistic." If they did, movies would be a tedious bore. The second, and by far more serious, drawback is Super 8's tendency to try to cash emotional checks it can't cover. Most notably, the film's E.T. Moment(TM) fully expects to slide by simply on the fact that audience members will recognize that it is the E.T. Moment(TM) and feel the according emotions. The result of this faith in a sort of response algebra is that Abrams includes several scenes that are emotionally inert, but the viewer knows, with a level of response-deadening remove, that this is the X-Scene that's supposed to feel Way-Y. See "the two males leads work out the romantic problem scene," "the two father's bury their differences scene," and "the cross-species mutual get-it scene" for examples of this dynamic in action. For the most part, however, the plan works exactly a it should.
It's hard to fault something for being so clearly the hyper-competent work of a skilled craftsman, following a clearly successful blueprint that's pretty much guaranteed to work. Often, we're told that a certain film requires a viewer "turn their brain off." While it's sad this is often used as a compliment, the directive to purposefully infantalize yourself before a supposed entertainment is usually well-intentioned. More often than not, anybody with slightly higher standards than a voluntarily auto-labotimized would find most genre dreck insulting in its brazen assumption of audience stupidity. Super 8 isn't really a shut-your-brains off sort of flick. It panders, but it does so on two levels. This is top notch pandering. Consequently, it isn't particularly fulfilling, but you don't feel dirty for having swallowed it. During the summer wave of blockbuster hopefuls, I don't think you can reasonably ask for more.
Really, just about the only folks I could see getting upset at Super 8 are genre-fans who have some irrational fetish for the material Super 8 so ruthlessly mines. To folks who make their name confusing nostalgia for quality, Super 8 must seem like a classier, younger, better put together lot lizard suddenly appeared on their stretch of the truck stop. Worse, in fact: it must be like somebody who actually trawls the truck stop looking for love watching her favorite trucker invite a clearly mercenary whore into his sleeper. Super 8 makes it clear that the art we enjoyed in our youth got most of its impact from the fact that we were young when we saw it. And, more importantly, there's no art or expertise in mining it for gems. It can be done mechanically, for a quick buck. Since you shill to the same demo, everybody already thinks the same things about all the same movies. It's a product of the aging process, not the development of taste. If you're the kind of viewer that believes a film can violate the "spirit" of, say, the late 1970s to early 1980s, then Super 8 is too honest a money-making venture for you and you should stay home and rub another one out to the weird "how'd she end up topless in a PG-13 movie scene" of your Sheena: Queen of the Jungle bootleg Betamax tape. Otherwise, you'll probably enjoy it. In fact, you almost have no choice about it.