Monday 28 May 2012

Unearthing Grief and Love in Super 8

The word 'superate' means to rise above, to surpass, to overcome, to surmount and to get over. Super 8 is a love story and a monster movie but fundamentally it is about a boy coming to terms with the death of his mother.

A hole has opened up in Joe's and his father's life and they are battling not to be sucked into it. Their fight against grief, which they keep hidden as deep down as where they are wounded, comes to the surface through the metaphor of war.

Joe is working on a film with friends. In one scene we see him playing a soldier. Later his Dad disguises himself in army uniform so that he can find out what they know about the alien rampaging across their town. The carnage caused by their unwelcome visitor - buildings trashed, cars overturned, tanks misfiring - is an image of an all-consuming grief so large that it begets a war zone.

Fighting - The Internal made External

At the end of the film, when Joe begins to come to terms with his mother's passing, the alien leaves (alien emotional presences for a young boy - grief, love etc. - form the backbone of the film) and takes the soldiers' guns with it. Both battles were joined and dissolved as one.

This battle that Joe is fighting within himself stands in the way of, and is eventually won with the help of, his friendship with Alice. This is beautifully visualised with the same war metaphor when, to let her climb into his bedroom, he has to remove a row of toy soldiers from his windowsill (and literally let his guard down).

Alice brings him both pleasure and pain. There is ample reason to believe that she reminds him of his mother, whether through her kindness, her aura, or simply by virtue of the emotions she stirs up within him. It is telling that when his father forbids him to see her Joe describes her character as motherly: "she's kind...she's nice to me".

In his mind, symbolised by her role as a zombie in their film, she represents life and death, a reanimation of interred suffering and love.

(Above) Zombie Alice 

Death and Life

(Below) "Relive the Memories" - Talking to Alice on the phone

Being around her is awkward and not merely because he is unschooled in managing romantic sensations. Their burgeoning intimacy steals in to where he is sore. She makes him happy and sad all at once, guilty perhaps, vulnerable certainly.

Joe tells Alice how when his mother "really looked" at him "he knew that [he] was there...that [he] existed". When Joe is applying her makeup (with which brings out life and death) for the purpose of the film Alice mentions the accident that killed his mother. Joe asks her to close her eyes and tears begin to well up in his. He cannot stand her to "really look" at him in the same way and see inside. Love falls into grief and here Alice comes to stir it before it is ready to be awaken.

Alice, in the absence of his father's (a bereaved man busy dealing with the aftermath of the extraterrestrial breakout) comfort, protects Joe and heals him. We see this most clearly via the surrogate of Joe's model train.

Cradling Joe

Train carriages come to stand for Joe himself. For the purpose of the film, Charles wants to blow up one of the model trains Joe has made and painstakingly decorated. Joe agrees but Alice encourages him to stand up to Charles. Alice, by intervening, is guarding Joe's heart and encouraging him to see that things can still have meaning.

He shows her one of his lovingly painted carriages - thanks to her he still values himself enough to share his soul, shyly proudly, with her.

The alien is released by a train crash that occurs at a moment of emotional crisis. Joe is watching Alice film a scene in which she declares her love for her character-husband. Joe places herself in his shoes, bewitched by this wonderful girl, and the ungainly euphoria hits him, literally, like a train. In a sense, then, Alice creates upheaval and kick-starts the slow assimilation and dissolution of undigested grief. The alien emerges from the wreckage.

As Joe watches, the creature bursts open an upturned carriage as if it is breaking out of him. The alien is grief, it is chaos, it is a catalyst, magnet and vector for sorrow. 

The alien breaks free from the train

The alien is a restless ghost. It is hurt and angry, held hostage by the army and prevented from going home. She too is kept from going 'home' by the knowledge that Joe is not OK. It is a corpse that builds a subterranean realm beneath the cemetery where Joe's mother lays. Buried bodies, buried feelings.

(Above) The image of the alien projected on Joe's face

The alien is Joe. In the denouement Joe looks into the alien's eyes, "really looks", and tells it "bad things happen but you can still live". Joe stands outside of himself and reassures his trembling heart. The alien's cold horrific eyes part to reveal its eyes of no little warmth and light beneath. They have helped each other see.

It leaves. It takes parts of the town with which to create its spaceship; Joe's mother took a part of him with her. The last piece of the "model" the alien crafts (it is a model-maker just like Joe) is a locket Joe carries with him. Inside is a picture of him and his Mum when he was a baby. Joe hangs on to it as it is pulled upwards...and then he lets go.

Letting Go

The alien has let go, Joe has let go, and his mother has been allowed to go. Though he will never forget and the ache will never relent, a weight is lifted, the crushing bulk of grief.

Joe and Alice look up into the night sky, into heaven, and smile as it departs. Their fingers intertwine. Joe holds her hand softly where he would once grip his mother's image fiercely, jealously, desperately. Godsends, Alice and the creature both.

This wasn't just an alien or a monster but so much more - it was everything monstrous and everything alien.

Monday 14 May 2012

The New Cinema of Shattered Minds

Delusions, split realities, multiple personalities; the erection and dismantling of psychosis, or something like it, is the most notable preoccupation in modern cinema.

Trapped in a room, stuck in a cave, tortured by visions, something's amiss, all is askew, zombies, monsters, killers, they're after you. Our heroes and heroines are men and women in trouble. Or everything's OK...until the wallpaper begins to peel.

The major questions in these films are 'what is happening?', 'what is real?' and even 'who am I?'. What is dream and what is reality in Inception? What is imagined in The Ward, Bug or Take Shelter? What is damaged? You, the world, or both?

The intensification of disorientation and misinterpretation of experience reach awakening and we see, finally, how much was delusion. We understand that an illusion had been constructed, Switchblade Romance, The Uninvited, that falls when the fake expands to bursting or fades to natural end. We see the lies beneath the crises, twisted adventures. We see how visions of happiness were always only that - visions.

The world was never out there but in here, in the mind. But what triggered delusion? The heart of all of these films, 1408, Triangle, is trauma. Trauma that forces a break from reality. In mental collapse pain is moved to another level and manifest in horrific metaphor. Elsewhere involuntary 'coping mechanisms' kick in where a happier narrative, Mulholland Drive, Dream House, masks and abstracts suffering, a Bougereau painted on top of a Bacon.

A dead daughter, a dead husband, a dead wife, guilt over murder, Shutter Island, Mulholland Drive, obsessive jealousy, loss and fear of loss, this trauma is a boomerang. These stories emanate from it (many of these films have a pre-delusion section in which we are obliquely 'told' what provokes it) and return to it. The tendency of the puzzle-story is that the completed jigsaw should reveal something terrible, even worse than what may have been suffered in the unreality. Yet that terrible, by its very human nature, in conjunction with the clarity of revelation, has an uplifting dolorous call - grief is love in death's grip.

Trauma has its foot in the door preventing The End's storybook closure. Because these loves live forever so must trauma. Trauma distorts reality. The truth is impossible to accept. You become new people playing different or multiple roles (where they are effectively opposing themselves) in dumbly detached and remotely twinned realities.

Stories are not going to save you (apart from in Sucker Punch, where stories are under partial conscious control) but they do, incidentally, help. Truth and understanding wait where they have led you, where they have finally failed.

Three trends of 21st Century cinema that come together in the new cinema of the broken are the puzzle narrative, the twist and unresolved ambiguity.

The puzzle narrative gained strength at the end of the last century with the success of Memento and The Usual Suspects. The revelatory twist that overturns what we have been led to believe achieved especial popularity, likewise at the end of the 1990s, on the back of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. Ambiguity, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Lost in Translation, letting the audience write the last page, is a directorial tic still emerging.

What brought these trends together, apart from the popularity of each? I don't know. Perhaps the traumatic events in the United States of America in 2001 have obliquely and subconsciously been depicted with the freshly forceful modes of storytelling to which they are peculiarly suited. Puzzles, twists and ambiguity lend themselves to confusion, paranoia, cruelty, sadness and cold brutish reality.

There's no way out. It doesn't seem real. It's just like a film. Like a dream.

Saturday 5 May 2012

The Shining : Analysing an Image # 2

Here Jack is smashing his way into the bathroom where Wendy cowers in fear

The wood-chopping man, the centuries-old strong and comforting figure of a husband and father is here turned against the family.

The wife and mother screams. As she brings her hand up to her face her wedding ring is visible.

From this acute angle across the door the axe seems so much bigger and the butcher (kitchen - female) knife Wendy holds so much smaller and inadequate seeming. This is a battle she appears incapable of winning.

The colours are cold, stark and anaemic. They are dirty and off-white. The tiles tell us that this is a room where things are meant to be clean and made clean. Instead there are stains: literal, be it on the walls themselves, or figurative, on the sanctity of home and the sacrament of marriage.

One briefly thinks of a more specific violation, rape, as the large axehead thrusts against and through the wood and, from this angle, 'into' her.

Her face shows abject terror. She looks as if she is weeping, overwhelmed with sadness that it has come to this.

With the axe in between us and her, she is made more helpless, separated from us. We are not able to intervene and are placed as if another victim hiding on the other side of the door.

However, the camera's focus (and ours) remains more on her than on the horrific axe, whose intrusion is more other-worldly, more difficult to comprehend by being indistinct and blurred.