Titles have always interested me. Some are succinct and convey the basic idea of the film immediately (Se7en, Another Earth), while others manage to almost lazily describe some basic plot device or aspect of the film (Horrible Bosses, Larry Crowne). The truly astounding titles are few and far between (Adaptation., There Will Be Blood), and their power only comes from being coupled with a suitably brilliant film. But the titles I like most of all, the ones that crop up all the time, are the microcosmic ones. They aren’t particularly witty, but they do involve a deft sleight of hand, as if the goal is to make you believe you already know what the title means. Inglorious Basterds, Rebel Without a Cause, and many other classics fit into this mold, but so does the recent summer blockbuster Super 8. Earlier this year, we reviewed Super 8, finding it to be one of the very best movies to come out this summer. It is certainly that, in spite of the criticisms it has garnered for its fantastical second half. But what’s also interesting is how its title connects to our memories and the process of making them.
At first glance, the title seems to refer to the movie those kids are shooting through out the film. Their constant search for interesting locations, fused with the strange occurrences that surround them, make for a very powerful narrative device that speaks to childhood, coming-of-age, and most importantly the role that movies play in our lives. The scene that brings it all into focus doesn’t occur until about an hour and a half in, when Joe and Alice are sitting in his bedroom without power. All of a sudden the electricity comes back on, and the projector flickers on to display an array of images of Joe’s mother. At first Joe is embarrassed, because he’s in quite a vulnerable position with a girl he really likes, but they watch it in silence (Super 8 film didn’t initially record sound, it had to be dubbed in later).
While home video formats existed before the Super 8 camera, it was the first that was user-friendly. It became ubiquitous, especially in the homes of burgeoning or aspiring filmmakers. But Super 8 was only occasionally used for “filmmaking” ventures, like the one depicted in the film. Rather, it became a kind of document, a way of solidifying our memories, proof of their veracity beyond messy memories. Today we have all sorts of digital devices for this, and perhaps it is hard to put that shift into context as a result, but Super 8 was an exciting, new way to relive moments of our past, much like Joe and Alice, over and over again.
I believe this is the crux of the movie. This is why we have the strange opening scene, of the funeral that seems disconnected from the rest of the film. This is even why the second half of the film departs so radically from the first. Super 8 is a microcosm, not just for filmmaking as J.J. Abrams sees it, but of that more generalized desire to hold on to fleeting moments we can never recapture. When Joe and Alice watch his home movie, the Super 8 camera becomes emblematic of the balance between holding onto memories and coming of age. Super 8 forces you to live in the past, growing up looks only towards the future.
Our memory is always fluctuating. Faces fade, events disappear into the cloud of our subconscious, and despite our best efforts we can never contain the world within ourselves. Super 8 may be a film about an alien stranded on our world and the kinship between an insightful youth and this strange outsider, but it is also involved in this discussion of how we remember our youth. If in the end it veers toward the obviously cinematic, riffing constantly off the works of Steven Spielberg, this isn’t laziness so much as a conscious desire to include those movies that we really only understood as children. Because those movies are just as much a part of us now as the other memories real events; seeing a movie like Super 8 has the ability to reawaken the child in us, if only briefly, just as Joe’s film of his mother allowed him to cling to his fading memory.