Thursday, September 1, 2011

J.J. Abram's Production Value

Early into Super 8, the latest film written and directed by J.J. Abrams, we are given friendly advice on filmmaking in the form of a director's mantra: production value. The director in question is a youngster, Charles, who is filming his masterpiece zombie film with his friends, and whose early remark (more of a yell) of 'production value' throws everyone into a fit in order to set up a camera and capture a train to come past them. This early scene contains two surprises that are telling on the way Abrams conceives his cinema. The first one attacks us smoothly, humbly, when we seem to witness the birth of an actress, Alice, played by Elle Fanning. Before she speaks her lines, it seems to us these childhood friends share a joy for play, in this particular case expressed through making films. In other words, a film is an opportunity for play and bondage outside of the family and other social contracts. What they soon witness with Alice's lines, however, is her life seeping itself into their film raw. They witness the first signs of genuine controlled emotion, and lose themselves for a moment in the fiction it conveys. Their witnessing faces betray wonderment and unpreparedness. And yet they don't fully lose themselves but suddenly, even perhaps gladly, go back to business as usual when Charlie screams his mantra at the sight of the oncoming train.

The train itself brings another surprise for the group when it crashes and piece after piece is sent flying through the frame, grabbing the group of kids again completely unprepared, and this time, scared. The train crash also begs to be witnessed though, for Abrams lingers on the flying wreckage, savoring the choreographed destruction of the machine. Entire wagons fly from one side of the screen to another, shrieking and cracking the way one imagines a train might suffer this catastrophe, but soon enough the wreckage turns fluid, and each wagon, each piece of metal, is almost dramatically expressive in its way from edge to edge of the frame. The sequence is well prolonged, and a wonder to watch.

And yet the film is not about the kids and their awakening, or really about the wreckage they witness. It is as if the two most interesting moments of Super 8, being part of the same scene, can only be considered background, a springboard for the movie Abrams really is going to show us, they are but 'production value'.
The film ends up being about a monster. And yet not even, for the ideas presented in regards to the monster and their realization are so generic that I can barely remember what the monster looks like, or what it did and why everyone was so afraid to begin with.

Gabe mentions this tentative dichotomy present not just in Abrams' films but in other spectacles, but gives the director the benefit of the doubt in thinking he/she really wants to make another film, truly about themselves, or at least about the people who inhabit the spectacles we watch. Yet I believe Abrams truly wants us to see Super 8 the way it was presented, however bland most of the spectacle turns out to be. After all, his projects are really not about people per se, but about human figures against fantastical ones. Take Cloverfield, where the idea behind the film was nothing else than Abram's realization that America, or at least New York, needed a Godzilla. The film itself in its dramatic and formulaic development is a tool to bring about the unveiling of a monster that turns out to not be as memorable as one feared.

And yet, as mentioned earlier, Super 8 is not really even about a monster. What is the film about then? We get a sense of it after it is over and we get to see the film the kids have been shooting all the while all hell broke loose around them. The film uses a town thrown into chaos by a catastrophe as a background. It uses wreckage as production value and plays out a generic horror game in front of us the same way the main film uses moments that could lead to genuine feeling, real family set ups, as production value in order to really show us a game played out.


  1. I think this could do with a quick edit. There's no spaces between some of the paragraphs towards the beginning, making it a little harder to read comfortably.

  2. Abrams thought New York "needed" a Godzilla? That's a rather weird way of putting it, when you remember that many consider the Cloverfield monster to represent 9/11. Presumably you don't mean that New York "needed" 9/11, so do you mean that Abrams thought we needed a Godzilla to represent the tragedy of terrorist attacks, just as the original Godzilla represented the tragedy of the nuclear bomb?

    Certainly it seems like if you were to remove the monster from Cloverfield, you wouldn't really be left with much. But isn't that a problem with the writing rather than the direction? Is the problem with Super 8 that the humans have been written rather better, but at the expense of the background monster?

    Anyway, this is first time I've seen anyone try to properly compare Super 8 with Cloverfield and the way you consider the issue it makes me wonder why no one thought of it before.

  3. You're right about the spacing. Thank you. I fixed it now. And yes, it's a weird way of putting it in the sense that Abrams thinks in a weird way to begin with. The film was clearly timely in the sense that the spectacle of the destruction of New York put 9/11 in everyone's minds. I do think he contemplated the parallel between what Godzilla came to stand for as against what the monster of Cloverfield could stand for, but the parallel is not thought through. What we really end up with is basically a Godzilla film, in English.
    It's interesting you say the problem with Cloverfield is the writing and not the direction, because I agree. Abrams didn't direct the film but conceived it and produced it. It is thoroughly his idea though, and I think Matt Reeves tries to make the film interesting in that he takes the material and transforms it into an exercise on style. Though the monster comes to signify less and less, the style through which the monster is unveiled becomes the centerpiece of the film. The exercise doesn't work of course. The problem with Super 8, and the problem with Cloverfield, is that everything is background to spectacle.