Welcome to the newest installment of B-Moves Extended, which gives William Bibbiani and I, the co-hosts of Crave Online’s weekly B-Movies Podcast, a chance to reflect, recapitulate, renege, and review our comments made on the previous Friday’s show.
On the last episode, Bibbs and I reviewed J.J. Abrams’ newest feature film, Super 8, and while we both liked it (me more than he), we both had similar problems with it; i.e. we felt that, while it managed to have something of a sense of Spielbergian awe, it had a definite feeling of being orchestrated, of being constructed, of being perhaps a bit too much out-of-the-textbook storytelling, and not enough genuine newness. The young cast was, I felt, strong enough to carry large portions of the film, but I still couldn’t entirely shake the fact that Abrams was less interested in telling an adventure story for kids, and more interested in paying homage to the children’s films of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The phenomenon of ‘Nostalgia Goggles’ is everywhere these days (as evidenced by the swarm of biting gnats that is Hollywood’s mediocre remake machine). And while exploiting our familiarity with older film forms can be just fine in many cases (I will not impugn, for example, the homage-heavy films of Quentin Tarantino), and while we all have films that we’re fond of into adulthood based solely on our childhood experience with them (try convincing me that sometime that Flight of the Navigator is not important; you will fail), it seems like producers are increasingly taking advantage of our memories. They’re not trying to subtly hide their influences any longer. They are polishing our Nostalgia Goggles for us and gluing them to our faces.
This seems a curious approach to films like Super 8, which is clearly geared toward the 8-15-year-old crowd. Super 8, for me anyway, threw into stark relief the difference between kid films that are grown organically from a genuine sense of childhood wonder and seem to stem directly from the makers’ own childhoods, and the films that are merely trying to ape – however successfully – a previous film. Essentially, there are filmmakers trying to capture their own childhoods, and filmmakers who are trying to remake the films they used to like as children. J.J. Abrams is clearly in the latter category.
This seems to be the danger of hiring enthusiasts to make films. While it’s nice to know that your friendly neighborhood film director is a big fan of the object in question, and will likely treat the adapted material with the appropriate level of awe and reverence, they, too often, get a little caught in a creative cul-de-sac, where they stop adapting and start imitating. The result is a film that will only please people who love the source material, and will offer no entrance for outsiders, and perhaps be a bit oblique. As a longtime Trekkie, I only wish that J.J. Abrams had brought the same reverence to his Star Trek that he did to Super 8. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Irony is ironic sometimes.]
I propose that the best way to make a film for and about children, is to remember your own childhood. Picture your own 7-to-10-year-old selves, and recall the things that interested them. Draw from your own experience. As the old adage goes, write what you know. If you find that your only trying to recapture the magic of a film you once watched, then you’re in danger of making a film about someone else’s childhood.
None of this is to say that Super 8 is bad, nor that it is a prime offender of this phenomenon, but it does have this one little flaw that I wish had been erased (or, at the very least, concealed). Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch my DVD of Super Mario Bros.
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
He’s not kidding about Super Mario Bros. He loves that crap.
But then, we all have crap we love from our respective youths, as Witney pointed out so ding-donged eloquently. Knowing me I would have thrown the phrase ‘Penis Breath’ in there somewhere, which would at least be thematically appropriate. (E.T. reference, for those paying attention). Yes, we’re talking about Super 8 today, and in particular its relationship to the phenomenon of “Nostalgia Goggles,” a term to which Witney seems strangely committed. “Nostalgia” works just fine for me, since it implies the same bias with only 2/3’s the syllables.
And make no mistake, nostalgia is nothing more than bias. Anything even remotely related to days we might call ‘halcyon’ gets a subconscious thumbs up from all of us, even the bad stuff. What fascinates me is what happens when we confront these objects of nostalgia in our later years and find them lacking. I grew up in Southern California in the 1980s and 90s, for example, and these days every time I hear about a drive-by shooting – a semi-regular occurrence in my old neighborhood – I can’t help but think, “Man, that takes me back.” But it still sucks. It’s unforgivable. It’s strange that I feel the same way about drive-by shootings as I do about Voltron.
That said, I can’t think of a better sensation than revisiting an old object of affection and discovering that it’s been worthy of love all along. (At least, I can’t think of any sensation that doesn’t require at least some form of lubricant.) But for every D.A.R.Y.L., The Explorers or Monster Squad there are a dozen Howard the Ducks or Garbage Pail Kids or The Golden Childs (children?) that threaten to retcon my entire childhood with every subsequent viewing. Either I had astoundingly bad taste in my wee days (true for all of us, if we’re honest with ourselves) or my childhood sucked all along and I simply had no idea. Then again the two are not mutually exclusive…
Both Witney and I suspect that Super 8 will become a favorite film of many a contemporary young’un who will eventually look back upon it with the same wistful fondness as Ben 10 or The Patriot Act. We both liked the film, but I find myself doubting whether any of this new breed of scamps will grow up and rewatch Super 8 and think to themselves, “Man, that was beautiful.” It’s capable entertainment but it’s too mechanized for its own good. There’s a difference between being a great musician and just hitting all the right notes. There’s a difference between playing “Piano Man” and being the Piano Man. Super 8 plays just fine but it lacks the utter sincerity that made the Golden Age of Kids Movies (taking place over the bulk of the 1980s and a small chunk of the early 90s) worth aping in the first place. And as a result I think, perhaps a little tragically, that it’s destined to be more of an object of affection for nostalgia enthusiasts today than for nostalgia enthusiasts of the future. I rather suspect that of most of the 1980s remakes and adaptations will fall victim to the same fate in the decades to come: Clash of the Titans and Rob Zombie’s Halloween will – one hopes – fall through the cracks of history to become just another Francis the Talking Mule… blockbusters whom nobody gives a crap about a scant ten years later, let alone fifty.
And yet I feel a pang of sympathy for Super 8, which God bless it really tries harder than most to be a real movie rather than a vessel for marketing tie-ins. If all nostalgia cash-ins were as strong as Super 8 we’d live in a far better world, devoid of such inane arguments as “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is good because it’s stupid!” (Sigh…) Super 8 is good because it is good: well written, mostly well acted, nicely shot and intriguingly plotted. It’s not great, but that’s because it’s E.T., only less so. If Super 8 is a crime it’s jaywalking. If G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a crime it’s deicide. Give me Super 8 any day… unless the option is watching The Last Starfighter for the one hundred and fiftieth time. Oh, is that an option? Really? Hang on, let me get my goggles…