Super 8

Movie goers and friends,

I begin sitting at my dinning room table at my sublet in Worcester. Empty water bottle to my right and empty cup with what once was a glass of iced mocha coffee. iPhone at the ready and my notes on “Super 8” opened.

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This was my first time seeing “Super 8.” Thanks to Netflix and a slow Thursday night before I move out, (I should be finishing up my packing…oh well), I stumbled upon “Super 8.” It caught my attention while it was in theaters and through the trailers but after finding out it was an alien movie and not a movie centered solely around the Super 8 camera, it lost my attention.

With that said, I was glad I watched it. It is a film that is perfect for a summer night and on the big screen. I did not do it justice by watching it on an iPad. But the image quality was still far superior to that of my television. But in sum, “Super 8” is, “mint” Hollywood. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams, starring Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, and Elle Fanning, the movie was a summer blockbuster hit.

If you watch this movie and hope for a mentally stimulating film you will be let down. And to be honest, I didn’t expect to write about this movie, but I felt the desire to because it reflect a lot of what Hollywood is creating in todays movie industry.

To begin, Hollywood has shifted toward a lot of camera movement. With directors like Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams, the camera is never given a rest. In many ways the camera has to move in order to help make up for a lack of original storyline and plot. So the originality and true art of Hollywood rests on how creative can the directors and cinematographers be at moving the camera and creating visually stunning shots and angles. This is an art in itself. Think of it as a series of photographs…that move at a very high rate. Now J.J. Abrams comes up with a series of stunning images and shots. From Joe at the wirelines on his bike at sunset to to the repetitive “front of the car” close ups as the vehicle interjects on the action in the background. But again, these shots make up for the lack of originality elsewhere in the film.

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Character development is predictable. The Father, Deputy Lamb, is a cold, strict, and workaholic man who puts his job before his son…as per the opening scene shot of the cop car in the foreground and Joe in the background on the swing set. It is imagery of his central flaw. By the end of the film, the Father realizes his faults, puts his anger about his wife’s death behind him, and embraces his son in the final shots of the film. Joe is a shy and timid boy who is clinging onto his mother. He is shy towards girls, but by the end of the film he is a leader like his father and wins the girl.

The story has triumph, danger, love, growth, action, emotion, and and vindication…a solid outline of many Hollywood films. The alien plot line is banal and honest not all that interesting. I much rather prefer the “going home” alien storyline of District 9. I felt the true gem of the film was the story around the idea of the kids making a zombie movie for a student film festival. Now that is a great story. But that originality gave way to the jam-packed, action filled idea of explosions, death, and survival of any supernatural film and story.

If I were to stretch and dive deeper into the meaning of this film I could argue that Abrams is making this same statement. That Hollywood has lost the art of true film…that digital action movies with the fast paced cutting and camera movement has surmounted the beauty and rawness of film. The Super 8 camera was lost quickly in the film. The Super 8 film and footage was soon forgotten. In many ways there was a clear progression of this. The movie began wonderfully. With the story of Joe’s mother dying and the idea of creating a zombie moving. Kids escaping home to put together this movie without their parents approval speaks at the minds and hearts of many film buffs and movie makers whose parents want them to get a “real” job that makes money. It is these early scenes of the kids making the movie that are the greatness of film. Creativity, art, passion, and skill are what make a movie into a film. In many of the Super 8 film reel scene the digital over takes the Super 8 film.  When Alice and Joe watch the home video of Joe’s mother and him as a baby the digital shots cut up and break the flow the best part of the movie. The dialogue is great and compliments the footage, but the digital shots take away from the emotion and power of the footage. Abrams couldn’t let the footage be shown for more than 10 seconds before there was a cut to Joe and Alice. The sound of the projector was going but he couldn’t let the grittyness of the footage speak for itself. Furthermore, when the kids are in the middle school looking at their former teachers materials, the footage is place in the background, obstructed by a blurry chair and other objects, a constant reminder of the digital camera.

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Here’s where someone grasping at straws can say this is art. Maybe it is Abrams’ commentary on the idea of the digital replacing the film. Maybe it is Abrams saying that in the 21st century we have lost the power and comfort of film reels and actual film…that has to be developed and strung through a machine before you can see the playback. We are addicted to the quickness and speed of the 21st century. We have lost patience. And our movie reflect that. Maybe Abrams created this movie and faded out the power of the Super 8 camera to make this statement. Or maybe I am stretching here and looking too deeply into this action movie.

It is probably nothing more than a movie that epitomizes Hollywood and the idea that the camera is now the true motivator of suspense and build up of tension. That the close up is still the signature of Hollywood which calls for only decent looking people to be on camera. But the movie was titled Super 8…after a character and motif that was quickly lost to the demands of the 21st century expectations of the audience and of the men in Hollywood. So, maybe Abrams was saying something here. Maybe we should go back “home” away from the digital and CGI and return to the Super 8 and others filmic methods of capturing moments, preserving and commemorating those who are lost, and creating art and enjoyment.

To the Super 8:

“Honey, I love you.”

“I  love you too..”

I end with my empty  glasses now in the  sink. My  water bottle now full and a friend sitting across from me. With technology ironically making this post extremely difficult to finish. I am now longing to return to the days of typewriters and chalkboards.

’til next time,

Mitty

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Little Miss Sunshine

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Movie lovers and friends,

I begin with a Berry Boppin’ smoothie at small table at Worcester’s Nu Cafe. With no one directly next to me but strangers straight ahead enjoying their lunchtime conversations and meals. Looking over my notes on Little Miss Sunshine listening to the variety of drink orders being served to the patrons.

It is only fitting that I begin my first reflection on a movie with my favorite film…Little Miss Sunshine directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, written by Michael Arndt, staring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, and of course the true gem of the film, a yellow VW Bus.

The film received critical acclaim premiering at Sundance, nominated for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Abigail Breslin), and winning two Oscars (Best Original Screenplay Michael Arndt and Best Supporting Actor Alan Arkin).

In my following words I will try to explain why I love this movie so much. However unconventional it is to say Little Miss Sunshine, I cannot help but enjoy this beautiful story every time I watch. I have the script for the movie, a piece of film reel, and I have it on both DVD and Blu-ray (Believe it or not it is available on Blu-ray). This movie also is the sole reason why I want to one day own a VW Bus. I think my enthusiasm for this movie is clear. So let’s get to the thick of things.

The script holds the weight of the entire movie. While heavy on dialogue, the story flows smoothly and delves into the complexities of family, a road trip, but most importantly, the obsession in our society of winning and losing. While Arndt’s story was mainly to comment on the idea of winning and losing, the film strays a bit from this theme as the narrative progresses, but the undertone of winning and the need for people to win is captured in the story lines of many of the characters. It is captured in Richard Hoover’s drive to get his “9 Steps” Program published, in Olive’s drive to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, in Frank’s effort to bounce back from a failed attempt at suicide, and Dwayne’s quiet mission of signing up for the air force.

A script so focused on the dialogue relies on the actors to put on a powerful performance. And did they put it on. Carell’s portrayal of a suicidal, gay, scholar, is by far his strongest performance of his career. It was one of his first films while he was still a relatively unknown actor before his success as Michael Scott. Collette gives a very underrated performance as the mother, Sheryl. Alan Arkin, while maybe not Oscar-worthy, gives a great performance of the meat of the humor in the grandfather. You start out hating Kinnear’s Richard Hoover but come to love him by the end of the movie and accept who he is (part of the central theme and meaning of family…I’ll get there in a bit). Paul Dano’s writing on the pad, his character’s vow of silence calls for Dano to portray his emotions through body language. And Abigail Breslin. While her first acting role was in Signs, she gave a truly remarkable performance as Olive Hoover. It was her beautiful blue eyes that begin the film. It was her innocence, her smile, and portrayal of pure joy after she heard the message left by her aunt. It was Breslin that drove this film. She was not only a binding force for the characters to come together, but it was Breslin who was able to capture the hearts of the audience.

Credit is due to directors Dayton and Faris in enabling these beautiful performances. Dayton and Faris had the actors go on a mini road trip of their own in a van and had the actors spend a week together before filming in order to develop a culture and sense of family among the actors. Because the script was heavy in dialogue, Dayton and Faris relied on movement of both the actors and the camera in order to break up the dialogue. A key example is the first scene at the dinner table. As a peaceful dinner goes array after the voicemail, Frank and Dwayne are left static as Richard and Sheryl fight over how Olive is going to get to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The wide shot of the dinner table allows for Collette and Kinnear to navigate the kitchen and dining room as they clean up and fight over the dilemma. The camera both follows them as they walk and stays still to capture their movement.

One of my favorite scenes is after (*****SPOILER ALERT*****) Grandpa passes away. In a truly hilarious scene, his body is pushed through a hospital window and carried ungraciously by Frank and Dwayne to the Bus. The handheld tracking shot the ensues is perfect. The camera captures the movement as it bobs behind a row of cars. The soundtrack for this scene (and this movie in general) is perfect. (Credit is due to Paul Dano for recommending many of the songs to Dayton and Faris). But again, movement captures the struggles of the characters and provides a visual flow of character development and narrative progression.

Winning and losing is captured in the epitome of the winning/losing culture in our society…a beauty pageant. These venues for fabricated beauty sadly plague our society. We have more than one television show that glorifies this pageant world and this sad and sick mothers who doll-up their daughters to live a life they surely can’t live. These pageants for children to pass up on their childhood and begin a quick descent on the path of insecurity, anorexia, bulimia, and artificial happiness. Dwayne, Frank, and Richard try to save Olive from this descent, but Grandpa has already set strong foundation that will not shake Olive’s resolve to be who she is and wants to be. Her dance performance is a big middle finger to the entire pageant industry and who better to give it than an innocent, normal sized, thick-rimmed glasses, symbol of true happiness and the real definition of beauty that is Olive.

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Themes such as death, addiction, and suicide are dealt with a light touch of dark humor, the exploration of family is what truly strikes home. Art often reflects what we want to see in it. Art is as much a reflection of ourselves as it is of the artist and the artist’s intentions. When we identify with a movie or a piece of art it tells us something about ourselves. I love Little Miss Sunshine because it comments on the complexities of family. My family, as all families do, has its fair share of drama. I don’t have much of an “extended” family. In reality, my biological family, that I identify with is only 5 people (including myself). I grasp on to Little Miss Sunshine because it so eloquently explains the idea of family. Family is not just love. Kinnear addresses this point in the making of Little Miss Sunshine. Family is acceptance. We may hate each other at moments, we may fight, we may not speak, but there is the unyielding bond between family members. It is a level of love, but more of a level of acceptance. We accept each other for each other’s faults, flaws, and failings. Often times in family there is something that holds everyone together. In the Hoover family that force is Olive. They are united by their love of her and for her. They are united by her innocence, charm, and passions, whether they want to be or not. Little Miss Sunshine shows the progression from acceptance of each other to a loving acceptance. At the dinner table in the Hoover home, Frank and Dwayne are left alone during the fight. By the end of the film they are united together for each other and their journey on a stage dancing to the tune of “Superfreak.” It is a dance for all they are and all they went through to get to this pageant. The dance scene is a scene to remember. It brings mixes together worlds of silent vows, homosexuality, suicide, failure, divorce, bankruptcy, and childhood, on a stage that pushes these characters to come to a loving acceptance of each other. It is a true bond that form. And that was family is…a bond that is impossible to properly define in words but so easy to understand actions and visuals.

Now it would be negligent of me to forget to talk about the VW Bus. It is character in its own. It has a personality. It is the perfect vehicle for the Hoover family. It is a physical space that forces the family to come together. The bus and its faults, the horn, the bad clutch, the broken door, are all symbols for the struggles the family endures. But just like family does, the Hoover’s come to accept the Bus as family and for all it is and will be. The Bus even gives a message to the audience. As the Hoovers continually have to push the Bus to get it moving and as they try to find the parking lot to the entrance of the beauty pageant, they are stuck in a cul-de-sac. It is a beautiful message that sometimes when you feel like life has you driving in circle you just have to say “Fuck beauty contests” and drive through the palm trees until you get where you need to be.

I end with an empty cup of what once was a Berry Boppin’ smoothie. With a half eaten Turkey Avocado panini. With the same two men from when I started writing, sitting directly in front of me on one laptop either catching up on their life stories or conducting business. With Pandora tuned into “Blur” Radio.

Beauty Pageant Host: Where’s your grandpa now?

Olive: He’s in the trunk of our car.”

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’til next time,

Mitty

Title…Not Required

Movie lovers and friends,

I begin with my Toshiba computer, my iPhone, a glass of citrus mango pineapple juice, and a seat on the back porch of my parents house.

I am not going to contemplate the struggles of life, the qualms of our current American society and culture, or the fears of maturing into adulthood. But rather, I seek to comment and reflect on a piece of our vast culture in terms one of my passions…film. Film is much more than a leisure activity or a thing to do on a rainy day. (Don’t get me wrong, I turn to movies during a storm and when I want to relax). But there is more than meets the eye (pun intended). 

Film is obviously an art form and a style of social commentary. Themes in films reflect our culture’s current struggles and tribulations. Films reflect our definition of love, beauty, triumph, family, and more. In effect, the movie industry has created its own class and group of individuals who make an astonishing amount of money and achieve levels of fame and glamour that often have taken the lives of many of the true artists in the industry. Movies are meant to be enjoyed and to stir emotion. Whether you cry during Forrest Gump or laugh from the actions of the Minions during Despicable Me. So, movies are more than mere entertainment, they are an experience. 

I recently was listening to NPR and a segment on the role of trailers and how they have become “too long” or give away all of the good parts of a comedy. But the more profound issue addressed in this particular broadcast was the importance of trailers to the financial well-being of the movie theaters themselves. A guest during the segment noted that trailers have become the main source of revenue for theaters across the country. Theaters are selling Hollywood in order to pay the bills. (Let’s face it…trailers are beginning to dominate the realm of the movie going experience. And don’t get me wrong…trailers can be an art in themselves.) The key issue noted was that theaters were selling Hollywood…not the experience of movie going. Theaters should be creating an experience for the audience. Yes, the movies create their own experience for the audience, but the theaters should be supplementing that. 

In attempt to not lose my passion and my knowledge and skills gained as a film minor during college, I am creating this blog to make up for the lack of experience so many of our movie theaters are failing to provide. I am trying to be a part of the experience and create more of an experience for movie goers. Whether my words are read or not is not the point. It is to revive a culture that is fading or that is hiding in the smaller, more valuable art cinemas that are sprinkled throughout our country. 

Remember to be part of the experience, to create it for yourself. Talk about the themes, motifs, dialogue, symbols, etc that were in the movie you just watched. Reflect on the experience you had during that movie, for there is value in thought and reflection. 

I end with my glass now empty. My father to my left practicing classical guitar. My mother sitting on my right reading her book and our dog lying on the porch gazing at and sniffing the world around him swept up in his leisurely curiosity. 

 

’til next time, 

Mitty