Thursday, June 16, 2011

Super 8: The Movie, The Medium

Just saw J.J. Abrams Super 8. I loved it. A group of kids making a super 8 movie witness a train wreck and then all sorts of paranormal hell breaks loose. The film is a loving tribute to early Spielberg classics, particularly Close Encounters and E.T. Having a 10 year old, we’ve actually watched those films a lot recently, so all the little references were hitting me just right. This is a great film and a great family film. Good filmmaking, good suspense, and sophisticated. Not enough of those types of films for the 10 year old set. So kudos for that.

Some random thoughts in the Super 8 afterglow.

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Two teens in the bathroom couldn’t figure out why the film was called super 8. I could only smile in bemusement.

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As the King of Super 8, I of course bring some baggage into a film called "super 8".

The irony of the weekend—I spent $120 just this week cleaning up audio hum from a botched super 8 transfer done 15 years ago by the very same lab that did the super 8 work on Super 8. It burns me up. That lab was always bragging about their work for Ollie Stone and Jimmy Jarmusch, yet whenever Danny Plotnick showed up they never seemed to properly know how to use their equipment. I’m still paying for their boobery to this day. Grrr….

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With my jaded eagle eye I was looking for some small gauge gaffes. One thought I had is that the Ektachrome we see throughout the film is the wrong Ektachrome for a late 70s period piece. I could be wrong about that. My super 8 knowledge is foggier than it used to be. But in the late 70s, wouldn’t the stock be Ektachrome G? Those certainly were not Ektachrome G boxes on display. Anyone have thoughts about that? I am actually curious.

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Lots of super 8 in the air this week. First Blank City extolling the no-budget, underground aesthetic of super 8, then Super 8 takes it to the big budget stratosphere with a look back at suburban teen home movie mayhem. All good stuff. Is there a new super 8 revival afoot?

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Let’s talk about Spielberg for a moment. As a kid I really liked him. Jaws, Close Encounters, ET, and Raiders are all films I saw and loved in the theaters when they came out. But I hit the college years sometime around the release of The Color Purple. I loathed that movie. Such a powerful, heavy, mind-blowing book, yet the film seemed so tame in comparison. Likewise I was shocked by how a book as harrowing as Empire of the Sun could be turned into a feel good Spielberg nostalgia trip. I felt Spielberg couldn’t handle anything with true grit. His world was all about 50s movie matinee escapism. At that point in my life I was diving deep into the world of underground and avant garde cinema. I was looking for some challenging Blank City type of material. I viewed Spielberg as a guy who was good at making greasy kid stuff. I saw that as a bad thing.

Now that I’m a parent and have a ten year old and have been revisiting some of those early works, the ones I liked in the first place, I absolutely have a renewed respect. Exciting fare for the whole family with much more emotional depth than I remember. Smart and well made. A world for kids and adults to share. Films like E.T. and Raiders are definitely aimed at the kid market, but are ones that adults can still be thrilled by. Films like Jaws and Close Encounters are aimed at adults, yet kids can still be fascinated and creeped out by them. That’s a nice balance. And I should say that Close Encounters is one of the all time greats. I’ve always thought that. So there. Steven Spielberg, I apologize for anything mean I’ve ever said about you. Hope you haven’t been waiting too long for that.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Source Code and Blank City

Super fun double bill at the movies yesterday.

It’s summer. And as at teacher, that means some spare time and lazy summer afternoons. What better reason to start seeing a lot of movies. I started it with a foray downtown for Source Code, which is surprisingly still showing in one theater in town and followed it up with No Wave doc Blank City.

Source Code

I was a big fan of the Kubrick-esque solitude of Moon and was interested in Duncan Jones’ follow up. Got to say I dug it in a big way. Several years back I talked about a new generation of intelligent sci-fi films emerging out of Hollywood, and Source Code fits that bill. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier on a mission, traveling to an alternate time-line to change future events. I will say there are some questionable moments from a logic perspective, but Jones does a great job constructing a foreboding universe. For all the apocalyptic trappings of his mission, the film is really about Gyllenhaal’s isolation and his personal journey of trying to find trustworthy characters in a landscape he has little control over. As with Moon, Jones wears his influences on his sleeve. Hitchcockian suspense, Kubrickian solitude, Johnny Got His Gun creepiness, with a little Run Lola Run thrown into the mix. But, as with Moon he makes it feel fresh and exciting and brings enough of his own ideas into the mix to make it all hum.

Blank City

Absolutely loved Blank City, Celine Danhier’s documentary on NYC No Wave filmmaking and the Cinema of Transgression. Set against the backdrop of a dangerous, decaying, and bankrupt NYC, No Wave filmmakers like Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Scott and Beth B, Charlie Ahearn, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, and others set about making films that owe equal debt to punk rock nihilism, French New Wave filmmaking, Warhol/Morrissey Factory fair like Trash and Heat, as well as the lo-rent mania of John Waters. Mostly shot on super 8, the films are no budget, no frills, featuring no real actors, let loose on the streets of NYC and lower east side apartments. The films often have a loose hold on narrative at best. In reality many of these films are barely watchable in their entirety, but still have an impact as we see a group of artists trying to make sense of their universe on the margins. Blank City does a great job interviewing many of the folks at the center of the storm and does a fantastic job of culling great clips that capture the sense of urgency, desperation, and fearlessness that fuel these films. I’m reminded of a collection of super 8 films from Berlin released on a dvd called Berlin Super 80. The films themselves are not so interesting, but as a collection the films paint such a stark and distinctive picture of the time, the place, and the people. You’re left with a better impression of that era than any narrative film looking back at that era could provide. Blank City and the films of the No Wave operate in a similar sphere.

Also, by watching how this film scene grows and changes, the film does a great job looking at the development of NYC from it’s bankrupt state of menace in the mid-70s to the bustling, monied universe of the late Regan era. This is a nice bit of filmmaking, to tell the story of NYC through the story and the experience of these filmmakers.

The film also does a nice job looking at the crossover between the NYC art scenes at the time. Fine Art, CBGBs, Max’s, No Wave music, and the birth of hip hop all come into play as the players from these scenes cross over. I never realized that Wild Style, in fact, came out of the No Wave film scene. And finally, the No Wave films ultimately pave the way for the more abrasive Cinema of Transgression, populated by the likes of Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, and Lydia Lunch, a scene that I’m certainly more familiar with.

The film is going to want to make you seek out some of these films. It’s a mixed bag to be certain, and the shorter films tend to be more palatable. I certainly am a big fan of the Scott & Beth B shorts. Regardless, any fan of outsider movements, NYC, America in the 70s or punk ought to love this film.

Trailer for Blank City here.