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With Super 8, director J.J. Abrams reveals himself not only as quite the commercial filmmaker, but a sociologist as well. Obviously an individual of broad interests, Abrams’ film is a textbook example of how to make a popular film that appeals to a wide constituency while maintaining a certain degree of artistic integrity.  As my former film school professor Howard Suber has long indicated, creating memorable, popular films is more akin to a political campaign than anything else. Success is measured by bringing everyone in under a large tent, with the vote being box office appeal. With Abrams, we see constituency building at its most clever, and yet without an ounce of insincerity, or at least the perception of such.  Abrams both reminds us of a past, pre-1980’s cinema that effectively built such constituencies while not insulting the intelligence of a more sophisticated audience.  As such, he can hook people like me (an adult middle-aged male), but also teenage girls — no easy feat in today’s world with its jaded studio execs whose demographers and marketers have convinced them such things are impossible. It takes someone like producer Steven Spielberg to push Super 8 through unscathed, and I’ll bet one of his main roles was to help Abrams maintain the purity of his vision.  Also, the budget on this film ($50 million) is relatively low compared to some Comic Book films that have A-listers attached. Super 8 has no stars;  the star is the story.

Some could accuse Abrams of being derivative. To be sure, there is a lot of influence going on in this film. First, and most mentioned by critics, is Steven Spielberg, whose footprint is all over the film both in terms of style and content; but most would agree the Spielberg emulated is not the Spielberg of present, but of pre-Reagan, 1970’s America, where the action of the film takes place. That Spielberg was melding the humanism of 70’s American filmmakers such  as Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdonavich and Cassavetes with the genre showmanship of the American Studio system.  As such, Super 8 reflects more the Spielberg of Close Encounters and E.T., and less the Spielberg of Duel, Jaws, or War of the Worlds.  During the early seventies, Coppola and company were very much influenced by the European art films out of the fifties and sixties, primarily from the French New Wave and Italian Neorealist masters. So from a very circuitous and long view perspective, Super 8 is all about carrying forward humanistic European sensibilities in cinema that arose post World War II, primarily from auteur filmmakers such as De Sica, Godard, Truffaut and Rossellini. Truffaut (who starred in Close Encounters) in particular had a strong impact on Spielberg.

What Spielberg has always done well is family relationships, and Abrams handling of the family is 100% Spielberg. In Super 8, familial relationships take front and center, and become the driving force behind the action.  As with Close Encounters and Jaws, the angst of the central adult male is very evident as a motivational prod that both deepens the character and the emotional payoff when the eventual familial bonding arrives. What is humanistic about this film is that themes of reconciliation rank high; that is, what brings people together rather than what separates them. Moreover, this same theme is carried into the Sci-Fi, galactic realm.  If you are a UFO and expolitical follower, this stuff is dead serious, which is why Arthur C. Clark felt that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the most important film ever made, and would likely rank Super 8 right up there with that film in terms of its importance as a social artifact. The primary theme becomes one of compassion, not alien-squashing hatred. It is compassion, derived from the familial struggle and bonding, that reaches out to the wider world past the nuclear family and into the cosmos.

Another important reference for Abrams is Stephen King, specifically Stand By Me (based on a short story by King and directed by Rob Reiner) and IT. In IT, the group of boys whose central muse was a young girl who helped motivate them to battle the evil entity, much as Alice (beautifully played by Elle Fanning) becomes the muse to the boys in Super 8.  Alice becomes the central, feminine voice of the film, and the purpose behind the boys’ quest.  It is her innocence, beauty and sensitivity that drive them forward, not the adrenaline rush of killing an enemy, as is standard in video games and comic book movies galore. This is very much counter to a military mindset, which often tends to see everything without an American flag stitched onto it as an enemy. Thus the film fits in with a long line of anti-military films that arose out of the Vietnam era, and why its placement in a 70’s America makes so much sense. It is also why the film also makes sense in a war-weary America of today.

Soon after it was the eighties, Reagan was on the scene, Conan the Barbarian was hitting the screens, Superman II was released, and the rest is cinematic history in terms of the slow devolution of humanism in modern films. How easily we forget that E.T., Close Encounters, The Godfather, M*A*S*H, Patton, Alice Doesn’t Live Here AnymoreThe Last Picture Show and Apocalypse Now all packed houses in their day just a substantially as The Green Hornet and Transformers.  Have audiences changed that much, or are other exigencies and agendas also at play?

Outside of Abrams and Spielberg, who best understands all this human story  and constituency building stuff is Pixar. With J.J. Abrams and Super 8, we see the potential for these kinds of stories to make their way back into the mainstream cineplex with live human characters, not animated Avatars. Let’s  hope there’s more of the same on the way.

We live in an age of technology, and everyday we interface with technology more and more. In fact, many of us interface more with technology than we do with people. We engage in online chats, comments, feedback, emails, texting, computer games, movies, cable, television – the list is endless. We live in a mediated space that is corporate owned. Ostensibly, we are wired into this digital space for our benefit, to allow us to connect with our fellow human beings more efficiently and effectively. But is something lost in the process? Are we becoming different as human beings as a result?

I will argue we are changing, and that interfacing with so many machines and computers is molding us in their image. The values of these technical devices are beginning to trump human values. We tend to value speed, efficiency, accuracy, promptness, and utility over patience, generosity, and empathy. Rather than machines serving mankind, we wind up serving the machines instead, or changing our behavior and ethics to suit their reality. As a result, we admire the latest iPad more than the greatest acts of altruism.

Our country’s recent financial struggles highlight this new digital morality. Rather than being guided by ‘the golden rule’ where we should ‘do unto others as we would have them do unto us’, many of our financial institutions and other businesses take another, more self-serving tack. The credo becomes instead ‘do whatever is legally allowed and that provides the company the greatest benefit/profit’. Computers, designed for efficiency, are implicitly guided by this same morality; the computer’s task, ‘business rules’ and workflow take precedence over a broader question of the impact of that task on the wider world. The narrow, legalistic, rule-based and specialized world of the computer becomes the moral space not only of our businesses, but our lives. Lacking a more holistic view, we are concerned for our narrow, specialized lives and their narrow, specialized concerns. Our morning routines mimic the work flows and processes we strive to perfect at work. We settle into these routines as if to protect us and shield us from something, and become as numb as the machines that do not feel or think about their particular objective. They simply perform the routine, fulfill the task, and repeat.

When we judge, we judge harshly. Software, which will ‘crash’ based on a single typo in a computer program, becomes the emblem of our judgment of others. The recent fall from grace of Representative Weiner is one example. It was a ‘typo’ in a text message that ‘caused the chain of events’ that led to his fall. As such, single failures tend to prove disastrous for otherwise good people. While Representative Weiner may deserve his fall from grace, we take this same kind of morality too far when we judge people based on a single action out of context and do not look at the wider picture. We don’t ask: ‘who is the judge’? Instead, we assume there is some pervasive, mass morality where everyone uniformly dislikes certain behavior and avoids that behavior with puritanical zeal. Is this really the case? I am doubtful. We will find instead that we are all flawed, and none can cast the first stone.

Again, we view people’s actions as software – where the single flaw causes the whole system to crash. But people are not software, and shouldn’t be judged as such. Our jails are filled with people who probably would be better off in rehabilitation, being forgiven and re-integrated into society rather than judged for ‘flaws’ that are as much the result of systemic, societal problems as their own doing.

The machine or computer task, isolated and specialized, becomes the human being, isolated and responsible for their actions, and devoid of context – all while plugged into their digital space. The infallible ‘perfect’ ones who do not fall into the trap of ‘error’ can judge those that commit crimes and are jailed when truth be told, a more humane approach would work better over the longer haul. And this attitude reaches much wider than the criminal and deep into our personal lives. Often these ‘perfect’ ones are not the most empathetic, but the ones with the best credit scores, whose efficiency at paying their bills makes them somehow ‘better’ than the ‘failures’ who have, perhaps due to illness or other misfortunes, allowed their credit ratings to lapse.

We live in rows of houses where neighbors more often than not do not communicate. The suburb becomes not so much a community as a compartmentalized, specialized human chicken coops. With many of these houses financially underwater, the people in them feel more trapped than ever. Terrified of losing their credit rating, they keep on plugging away at the routines of their lives, hoping their will be an exit and praying they don’t fall ill or lose their job.

Our children often interface more with computer games then with other children. The values of these games are of domination, control, and aggression. Cooperation, empathy, and collaboration are the furthest values in mind to the creators of video games. Our children, immersed in a ‘squash the bug’ mentality, take this morality out into the wider world. The answer to all problems is to ‘kill the enemy’ – fix the problem by eliminating the dehumanized ‘other’ who is at the heart of our unhappiness.

Am I being to harsh? I am certainly emphasizing the problems over and above the reality, which is much more diverse and balanced than what I portray here. But I do this to make a point, and I hope you see that the trends I’m pointing out are very real and very much leading us toward a society that could, within a hundred years, be completely unrecognizable as human culture.

Do we want a future of hybrid robot-humans? That is where we are heading. If we want to stop these trends, the only answer to this may not be more and more machine values with their digital morality. The answer may be to rediscover our humanity.

Seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was in a sense a return, because I had my film debut about ten years ago prior in the same lower east side New York City neighborhood where I wound up seeing Tree of Life this past week. Since both Malick and I seem to be inspired by a similar vision of film, and since both of us tol-002
(apparently) trace much of that back to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, it was almost as if I was watching an extension of Antonioni – as if Malick’s film was indeed another branch of an ever-growing tree.  While I’m not sure if Malick has ever seen my own Antonioni-inspired Clouds,  I found it striking that we came to similar conclusions about life and the expression of life through art, albeit via completely different paths.

As such, seeing Tree of Life was deeply personal and made me feel somewhat vindicated about the artistic choices in my own work – whether that be in film or the criticism thereof. With Tree of Life, Malick is expressing very much what I propose as an alternative direction in film style in an essay titled Peace As Style, where I discuss Antonioni as being the precursor to such a style.

In but one example, Malick effectively uses the ambiguity of sound and then later unveils the source of that sound in a kind of slow reveal that links the sound to a particular feeling or motif in such a way that he evokes mystery and awe, not the hyperventilating stimulation so often the norm today in film. Antonioni was extremely effective at the clever use of ambiguity to create a sense of mystery, and Malick, apparently inspired by Antonioni’s Zabriski Point, uses wind chimes to allude to the mystery of sex to which the young boy (played by Hunter McCracken) is slowly being revealed and later shamefully tries to rid himself by throwing the nightgown in the river. Once the source of the sound is seen (the wind chimes), and the boy steals the night-gown from his fantasy woman’s house, we don’t hear the sound again.

[As a side note, the nightgown scene has prompted more internet searches than any other I know of for this film, and apparently evokes deep, unresolved emotions. Suffice it to say many people are captured by the mystery of the scene and don’t understand the boy’s subsequent reaction. To me, he is clearly ashamed of creating a sexual fetish of the nightgown. He tries to hide the gown at first, then washes it down the river — an attempt to dissolve his guilt and shame into an overwhelming nature that washes away all sins and purifies his conscience as a result. I believe the scene essentially depicts the boy’s baptism into sexually-aware manhood.  As such, the nightgown evolves from a fetish to a sacred baptismal shroud.]

Ambiguity, used sparingly by most filmmakers today, becomes the central stylistic choice in Malick’s Tree of Life.  While most directors and producers are so afraid to alienate or offend an audience who, according to conventional wisdom, can only take things if spelled out literally, Malick assumes his audience is intelligent, and can follow his meandering, poetic connections.

Another example of the effective use of sound is the peaceful and alluring sound the ocean, which bookends the film – beginning with the ‘spirit image’ the beach scene at the end, where the various characters meet to reconcile in a timeless, meditative state. All of this stuff is so counter to the normal fodder we are fed on television and film that it is extremely gratifying to find the critical response to Tree of Life to be so favorable, although the film apparently did receive some booing at its Cannes premiere (as did Antonioni with some of his films). The film did win the top prize at Cannes, which also helped assuage the critics. My challenge to Fox Searchlight is to go as wide as possible with this film; they might be surprised by the outcome, particularly among a Christian audience.

Tree of Life is built on the use of motifs, used brilliantly with sound and source slowly revealed, cyclic re-occurrence, the grand scale of time being interleaved with the present moment. Malick’s particular approach, at least in this film, is more akin to music than the Hollywood style that traces its roots back to D. W. Griffith, kinetic editing and The Great Train Robbery. Instead, Malick seems to draw his inspiration from the Bible, surrealists (Bunuel and Dali), Italian neo-realist filmmakers (Fellini and Antonioni), existential science fiction films (Tarkovsky and Kubrick) and the literature of William Faulkner and James Joyce. Tree of Life is a grand amalgam of sometimes contradictory influences, including an effusive orchestration from Smetana’s The Moldau, and yet reaching beyond these influences even while honoring their undeniable presence.

It is a testament to the encyclopedic scope of the film, one can find various critics not only responding in completely different ways, but referring to completely different sets of (assumed) influences that Malick brought to his film.  As such, the film is a Rorschach test of sorts, and one can take from it multiple readings, which I’m sure is Malick’s intent, and shows how powerful his multi-layered ambiguity can be as a storytelling device.

To turn to the thematic elements of Tree of Life, I have written in the SolPix webzine and blog about the need for a more ‘humanistic’ media and film and even elaborated further to use the term ‘spiritual humanism.’ Malick’s film is, I would say, a spiritually humanistic film for several reasons. First, he deals with the subject of the origins and nature of violence and compassion and their relationship to human choice. Second, he seeks a balance between nature and mankind’s desire to control nature. Third, he sees reconciliation as the answer to questions of meaning and happiness. Finally, he sees something binding all these threads, or branches, of life together (even an extra-human aspect): love. And this love compels the tree to grow ever outward from its branches. From a biblical perspective, the tree is also a source of knowledge. But the overall energy and essence that drives this movement of life is a love that Malick sees shimmering through the light of his images and characters, of nature, of far-flung galaxies, of the extra-dimensional ‘non-physical’ – in short,  the entirety of life itself.

While it is generally uncomfortable to discuss an extra-human love in a culture where our obligatory ‘love you’s’ are generally restricted to our close familial ties, if we are to believe Malick, the force of love is quite large and behind everything we see in the natural world and beyond. Call this force ‘God’ or whatever name you will, it is tangible as long as we make it so. It is this existential choice to, in essence, choose and create an alternative to a cold universe, that takes Mr. Malick beyond Antonioni, who generally only saw despair in his landscapes, and very little hope. From a philosophical perspective, this probably puts Malick closer to the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard and further from the absurdism and alienation of Camus, who would find better company with Antonioni.

In terms of compassion, it is apparent that Malick sees compassion as one choice among many. This is why the dinosaur scene was so pivotal and important. He is showing us that there is a primal, non-rational (or proto-rational) choice involved in treating others compassionately; that this choice in a sense comes from beyond us, yet does nonetheless express itself in daily human decisions. It is the same choice Mr. Obrien’s children make when deciding not to hit their father (played in a tour de force performance by Brad Pitt), even as he chides them to do so while he teaches them to box and defend themselves.

As for nature, the imposition of the (male) architecture over the (feminine) natural world is, apparently, the wider tragedy of human existence to date, and a theme clearly traceable to Antonioni’s early works.  It is the exploration of this ‘architectural’ theme that makes Sean Penn’s scenes so important (some critics have suggested they should have been cut). It is the dwarfing of the natural landscape when compared to mankind’s architected space – seen through the modern scenes – through which something is lost. This pattern happens as one chooses the path of ‘nature’ (in the negative sense of the will to dominate) over ‘grace’, according to the preamble of the film. The grown son (moodily played by Sean Penn)  finds himself dwarfed by his own creation, but he is unhappy because there is no love in his architecture, only utility. He longs for the love of the natural world and of his mother (delicately played by Jessica Chastain) for which he has destroyed in an egoistic attempt at control as he attempts to overcome the (perceived) failings of his father.

Thus the decidedly ‘male’ perspective finds its limits; for on a grander, larger scale, it is mystery – one might say the feminine – still reigns supreme. We cannot ‘know’ reality by the rational mind, just as the natural world cannot ultimately be ‘tamed’ by architecture and science. In truth, we live by grace, or the force of will, depending on your perspective and your choice. But clearly the individual will cannot control the larger, herculean forces of nature. We could, for example, be wiped out in an instant by an errant asteroid. And even if we controlled all the asteroids, some other, larger calamity would rear its head. Thus the great winds of time and space, of galaxies and stars, which provide the context for mankind’s ‘will’ – a will that in an attempt to impose itself on nature does so only with a certain folly and arrogance, for nature is, and always has been, the wider context through which we live. Any attempt to control nature in the broadest sense is futile, and if some semblance of this does happen only occurs through the mastery achieved through the reconciling power of love — a process Malick refers to as ‘grace.’

Further, Malick seems to argue that love is the natural evolutionary path for humanity. Mankind, stubborn to prove otherwise, continually tries to control through his will (and the proxy servants of science and technology) what cannot ultimately be controlled, but rather must be surrendered to and accepted in order to find peace. Without this surrendering there is only conflict, only suffering. So it is the binding nature of love and reconciliation, as seen at the end of the film as the characters reconcile in timelessness on the beach, returning to the ocean from which they arose – it is here that Malick beckons us toward a path that is separate from the contentiousness of domination and control and toward a more ‘New Testament’ vision of acceptance, surrender and compassion, and it is through that path that Malick asserts we will find happiness. And again, we are compelled in this direction by the life force itself.

As a bit of personal background, Malick had just released Days of Heaven when I was in film school in the early eighties. At that time I was studying European film, with a focus on Antonioni.  Zabriski Point, Blow Up, The Passenger – all of these films by Antonioni were fresh on my mind. It was nearly twenty years later (in 1998) before Malick would return to film, and nearly twenty years later (in 2000) before I would return to film after a long stint on a different career path outside of film and the arts. Now, decades after the French and American New Wave, Malick returns to re-assert the power of those film artists who apparently impacted many of us so deeply, and pay homage to the artistic territory they staked out — to extend the branches of the tree they and his life represent. Malick, as a cinophile and philosophy teacher of a certain age, was certainly impressed in his youth by many of the same directors I was: Kubrick, Antonioni, Godard, Fellini, and so on. It was these (mostly) Europeans, who also had such an impact on the likes of Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who molded my own opinions about the potential for film and film language, and, moreover, how to create a uniquely American aesthetic that nonetheless pays homage to these great European masters who offered us an alternative to the studio film and style. Malick continues that tradition with Tree of Life. It’s not that all films must conform and be like Tree of Life, but certainly our cultural palette must and should include many more films of a similar aesthetic.

Malick, who began his career in the early seventies (with Badlands) at roughly the same time as Martin Scorsese, became in a sense our lost master. Again, after Days of Heaven he wasn’t seen again for 20 years. Thankfully, he has returned to us in full glory. This is a glory that he himself would eschew; for the glory he sees is not so much in himself as an artist, but as a vessel of the beauty of life that he sees around him, and a translator and messenger to us of that beauty. While many of our most financially successful filmmakers are more architects than artists – technicians under the employ and influence of more utilitarian forces – Mr. Malick is an artist and a teacher, and, miraculously, one now allowed to express himself in a fairly unrestricted way. Malick may have given us more if he had the chance, but fortunately what we wind up with is his best, for that is what he seems to demand of himself.

We may look back on Mr. Malick’s recent work and see it as the beginning of a re-invigorated American art cinema. Suffice it to say that Mr. Malick sees the world through a different, more compassionate lens than the (currently) dominant forces in society and in film. He is leading us toward a new sensibility, and we should follow.


Don Thompson is a producer/filmmaker and essayist. You can visit nextPix here.

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