Super 8, Transformers, and the Benefits of Nostalgia

September 9, 2011

I have recently finished reading Simon Reynolds’ latest tome, Retromania, which largely deals with pop culture –and specifically, music’s – cyclical nature; it constantly looks back to repeat itself and revel in past glories.  The book deals mostly in music, though fashion is thrown in as a comparison, and films are very rarely mentioned at all.  The only major instance I can recall is in regards to the early 70s boom in 50s nostalgia, when American Graffiti became a massive hit, capturing the cultural zeitgeist along with Sha Na Na and eventually the TV series Happy Days.  He attributes that particular revival to the fallout of the 60s that so deeply split America that everyone wanted to think back upon the simpler times of their collective youth, when they listened to rock n’ roll and everyone gathered at school dances.  This was largely an imagined past, of course, as socio-economic variations meant a lot of different experiences for a lot of different people, and times were just as rough for some then as they were at their present.  Still, nostalgia has a powerful effect, and though it is generally an instinct of conservativism and all of the negative connatations with ignoring both the present and the future that entails, it has produced some great art.  American Graffiti, for instance, is a brilliant example of inter-weaving narrative strands that also captures some universal truths in a specific moment.

That, of course, was a cultural zeitgeist, and worthy of discussion from an objective standpoint.  Subjectively, however, I find nostalgia a deeply troubling and often-repulsive emotional throughline for any project.  This is partly because of its effect – there’s something cheap and easy about appealing to people’s past to elicit a response, and anyone’s feelings towards their past tend to be coloured with wistful affection.  Whether it’s the cheap gag of just referencing something hokey from a shared past which is, to quote music critic Chris Weingarten, “pretty much the comedic equivalent of yelling “Balki Bartokomous” in a crowded room of 30-year-olds”, or reinterpreting an older artistic form – see most music dubbed “chillwave” – in an attempt to take you back to your childhood, it feels like a cop-out.  This isn’t earning a response through artistic expression, it’s a mass-produced version of “Remember when?”  J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is an homage/pastiche/rip-off of Spielberg’s early period, and though it was a financial and critical success, that resounding “oh it’s just like how they used to make ‘em when I was a kid” response – whether positive or negative – has haunted it like a Poltergeist.

Alia Arikan wrote an article for Press Play recently about his objections to Super 8.  They might best be summed up with this quote (though the entire article is worth a read, although I don’t agree on certain points):

In Super 8 (and, to a certain extent, his Star Trek reboot), J.J. Abrams peddles in nothing but nostalgia, with no hint of incipient sexuality, no political subtext, no social commentary. Of course, the presence of those elements does not automatically mean artistic superiority; if anything, such heavy-handed digressions into “meaning” usually turn a piece of art into a piece of shit. However, Abrams makes such blatant use of both the early ‘80s time period and the kids’ ages that one seeks an explanation, and hopes that it is not simply, “Because I thought it would be cool.”

I understand where he’s coming from, and I think he makes a good point about its de-politicization of recent Hollywood Blockbuster output.  It clearly strives to be the kind of film Abrams loved in his younger days, and it doesn’t achieve the greatness of, say, E.T.  However, I think it works both on its own terms due to a particular sensitivity for what it does attempt to achieve and, perhaps more importantly, as a larger critique of the state of modern Hollywood that presumably Arikan – and certainly I – bemoan.  Context is everything, and if you’re going to compare Super 8 to those early films and find it lacking, you must also compare it to its contemporaries, and I think this is where it proves itself to be both a superior entertainment and miles ahead politically of most of the present-day field.

If there is a modern analogue to those old Spielberg films about youth and sci-fi/adventure, it must be the (Speilberg-produced) Transformers series.  They are, after all, essentially a-boy-and-his-alien films.  Ironically, although Super 8 is a pastiche, it is still an original, modern work, while Transformers is based on a toy line and cartoon series from the 80s.  Its brand identity comes almost solely from the nostalgia of 20-30 year old men, and yet it is produced as a thoroughly modern action franchise.  It is a prime example of the “Chaos Cinema”  style – to borrow from Matthias Stork – that is so pervasive in modern action/adventure moviemaking.  While Super 8 favours the building of an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, Transformers is obsessed with non-stop, brain-annihilating spectacle.  Your preference may differ from mine, and I can understand that – I highly recommend reading that Chaos Cinema blog entry and follow the links for a fascinating discussion on just where cinema is headed – but I have a certain appreciation for simple, well-constructed storytelling.  For instance, the opening shot of Super 8, in which we see a factory in a small town where a man is changing the “Number of Days Without an Accident” sign, is not only wonderfully evocative of a time and place, it also gives us a crucial plot detail in an understated but functional manner.  Note also the gas station scene, which is all suspense and unseen menace.  Compare that to pretty much any action scene in any of the Transformers films, where we’re assaulted with seeing everything from many different angles but rarely clearly enough to engage with it.  Super 8 hopes to burrow inside of you and stimulate you with possibility, while Transformers aspires to beat you down with shock and awe.

Beyond the aesthetic styles, however, there is something essentially different at the core of the films.  Super 8 doesn’t just want to take us to childhood; it wants to view the world through a child’s eyes.  Transformers, on the other hand, hopes to reinforce an aspirational worldview indicative of late-capitalist consumer desires and its simplistic notions of masculinity.  Take as an example the heroes of the respective films.  Super 8’s Joe (Joe Courtenay) is an adolescent still dealing with the loss of his mother and an awkward relationship with his father (Kyle Chandler).  Abrams uses the E.T. model of an alien to help the young protagonist gain a better understanding of the world and himself and, consequently, work through his very real issues.  Granted, Abrams doesn’t use the alien as well as E.T. did, but the intention is there.  It’s not a force to differentiate the boy from everyone else and thus making him “special” in some way; it’s there to help him work through his issues.  Transformers’ Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) wants nothing more than money to buy a car and to get the hot girl (Megan Fox).  His nerdy, awkward outcast demeanor never really changes, but his status is enhanced because of his relationship to the alien robots.  It’s telling that, by the third film in the series, he scorns his entry-level job at a big corporation for being beneath his station as he’s accustomed to a level of (unearned) importance.  He just wants “to matter”, and the only way he can possibly “matter” is in relation to the Autobots.  It’s a narcissistic desire to feel better than everyone else, as opposed to some form of personal growth, that defines him.  His entire sense of identity is wrapped up in status – in what other people think of him.  Joe, however, wants the pain of a tragic loss to subside and to learn how to let go and move on.  His journey is personal.  His contentment comes from self-discovery.

Of course, Joe also wants the affections of The Girl – in this case Alice (Elle Fanning).  It’s a schoolboy crush, yes, but look at the way it is handled when compared to Sam’s lusting for Megan Fox’s Mikaela (or Rose Huntington-Whitely’s Carla, who are basically interchangeable, except that one fixes cars and the other just stands around them).  Joe is awkward but can still relate to Alice on a human level.  The scene in which she practices being a zombie for the film they’re making is a perfect rendition of that moment when crush-becomes-love, and when a boy discovers the excitement of possible reciprocation.  Sam just sees Mikaela as a girl in tight shorts who can bend over provocatively while looking like she’s in Maxim magazine.  Alice, as Joe discovers, has a personal empathy for him because she’s not only aware of his circumstance (through her father’s involvement in the accident that killed his mother), but her mother is gone as well.  There’s a mutual, emotional understanding that develops between the two that makes their courtship meaningful.  Sam just lusts after and then impresses Mikaela by being around alien robots.  This is the modern Hollywood understanding of male romantic feeling.  The girl is a trophy, not a partner.  She’ll contribute to the action, but not on an emotional level.  Transformers wants to present a world in which status will get you the girl, and the girl is free of something as complicating as a personality that might get in the way of the purely physical pleasures that are all that really matter.

Indeed, Transformers creates the world of an advertisement, not only for specific products, but also for the kind of lifestyle marketing departments push on the populous.  The modern American male, as seen through Hollywood’s eyes, wants to kick ass and do awesome shit and nothing more.  The simplistic military fetishism (these films are in no small part a paean to the military-industrial complex) gives us a vision of the American military and all of its soldiers as straight-forward, wise-cracking heroes with no dimensions or personalities beyond that.  It’s the equipment and the process, not the person that matters.  Compare that with Super 8’s view of the military, which is an admittedly retro depiction of a green-uniformed force, marching through town with tanks.  They’re scary because they are foreboding and unfamiliar to Joe, and they’re invading his safe home for reasons he can’t quite understand.  It’s not that the film presents the conspiratorial aspect of the military and its shady dealings, it’s that it understands the fear of the powerful unknown.

Super 8 also features a number of scenes where Joe and his friends are on their bikes, riding around town from one place to the next.  This is clearly a direct reference to E.T., but Abrams understands the significance of the bicycle to an adolescent, and that understanding elevates these scenes beyond just being a mere reference.  Sam Witwicky is obsessed with owning a car.  It is central to his character.  When he rides a bike at one point in the first film, it is presented as comedy.  He looks like an emasculated child.  For Joe and his friends, it’s how they get around, and I think what Abrams really gets is that, as an adolescent, the bike is the mode of transport available to you and it gives you a sense of freedom and, in its way, adulthood.  This is where you’re unshackled from your parent’s jurisdiction and where you can find your own way and live your own life.  Sam sees the car as his ticket to adulthood, because he doesn’t understand or appreciate the present.  The realities of youth are lost on him and the director Michael Bay.  Real Men want to drive muscle cars to show off their masculinity.  One never gets the sense of genuine freedom that comes with a personal mode of transport in Transformers.  It’s all about aspiring to status.  It is the capitalist obsession with looking forward to what you can have, not the enjoyment of the present and what you do have.  It is this element that is at the core of what makes Super 8 work and Transformers not.

Super 8 might be an exercise in nostalgia, but it understands its characters’ present.  Transformers gives us a never-ending loop of consumerist desire and the masculine status achieving (or acquiring) those desires supposedly offer.  Sam exists to be elevated by the Autobots to a position of importance-by-association, and that association gets him the supermodel girlfriend and the awesome car.  It is content to depict an aspiration towards a consumerist ideal, while Super 8 gives us a story of emotional growth.  It’s a flawed film, to be sure, but in the context of the modern blockbuster summer, it’s a breath of fresh air.  Nostalgia can be slathered in a sense of mourning and loss, but in the right context, it can be a valuable tool in recognizing what was actually lost.  It functions not just to transport us to a simpler, more innocent past, but to critique our present.  Super 8 might not have much new to say about life in 1979, but it has an awful lot to say about the popular culture of 2011, and surely that is just as important.


3 Responses to “Super 8, Transformers, and the Benefits of Nostalgia”

  1. Widdy Says:

    Not the first thing I thought of reading your review but it made me laugh in Super 8 when Joe jumps on his bike to head to his best buddy’s house, and his house is literally right across the street. He’s barely on the bike then he’s off it at his friend’s house. I thought that was a funny touch.

  2. My super8 seems a want and I can not. An attempt to approach the spirit of film style eighties Goonies or ET, but it remains just that, a try.
    The story is hackneyed to the utmost and the characters of children are archetypal ad nauseam: the fat smartass, the bastard little guy, the protagonist who has just suffered a disgrace and the pretty girl.
    Is entertaining, but of course, any comparison with the aforementioned ET, The Goonies and Stand by Me, for example, is a real insult.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      What I tried to get across in this write-up was that it wasn’t as good as those films, but it was good enough to outshine most contemporary blockbusters because it had just enough of the feel of those earlier, better films. It’s a pastiche, but I think it is an instructive one.

      Also I don’t think you give enough credit to how well its made, or even the depth of some of the characters – though there are archetypes, no doubt.

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