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The problem with “quirk” (and how it used to be so different…)

Queen of quirk - Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer

In critical terms “quirky” is a much-derided word these days, often with good reason. It’s twinned with derisory adjectives like “arch” and “knowing”, and screenwriters like Diablo Cody get taken to task for cobbling together character from a series of meaningless phrases like “honest to blog” and “homeslice”. Look around, though, and quirk is everywhere; widespread and readily accessible. Quirky Zooey Deschanel has made a career out of it. Quirky Natalie Portman won an Oscar by subverting the common perception of her as a sweet nothing who coaxes Zach Braff out of affected bouts of melancholia that involve paralysing his mother with a dishwasher. Her quirky predecessor and Black Swan co-star Winona Ryder regained some credibility by playing off a similar typecasting that had stuck with her since Reality Bites. There are countless other examples of women quirking it up in different films over the years – Parker Posey for Hal Hartley, Christina Ricci for Vincent Gallo, Renee Zellweger for Cameron Crowe, Meg Ryan for Rob Reiner – to varying degrees of success. Currently Greta Gerwig reigns supreme amongst her peers, occupying roles for Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman identical to the ones she played in the string of meaningless mumblecore movies years earlier, and which require her to do little more than spout ponderous drivel about the futility of her existence.

Quirk has become accessorised and streamlined to an absurd degree – the cynicism of which can be observed in the likes of already largely forgotten efforts like Smart People and Adam.  In cases such as these, wayward protagonists make some profound mystical connection via music or a film, or are otherwise reduced to a series of thuddingly obvious pop cultural clichés. Juno strums out a meaningless ditty by The Moldy Peaches. Portman insists Braff listen to The Shins. Deschanel implores the viewers that one day they’ll be “cool” in Almost Famous with her bug eyes and a box of old vinyl.  Deschanel, again, woos Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer with a mutual admiration for The Smiths (appropriate – everyone in that film appears to think the sun shines out of their behind) and sobs at the climax of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. He repays the favour by getting drunk and belting out ‘Here Comes Your Man’ by The Pixies at a karaoke bar and dancing with cartoon birds to Hall & Oates. The madcap family in Little Miss Sunshine, riddled with more diarrhoeic quirk than Pauline Quirke on a prune-only diet, work out their collective differences by bopping to ‘Super Freak’ by Rick James at a talent contest.

If there a was modicum of ingenuity about any of these choices – say Deschanel was a massive fan of Delta 5 and The Wild Swans and broke up at the end of Nichols’ The Day of the Dolphin (tagline: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the president of the United States!”) instead – perhaps I’d have more tolerance for this sort of thing. As it is, I usually leave the cinema feeling sullen, wonder if I’m secretly a replicant incapable of feeling human emotion, and entertain for a moment punching out the next passer-by who has the temerity to venture that if I cheered up and started feeling good about myself “it might never happen”. Perhaps if we all made an effort to be quirky and ironically wore pork pie hats at a jaunty angle, life would be better. We could all wallow around in this fetid pool of mutually-agreed cultural epithets (usually they involve making a Star Wars reference), and everything would be ok. Personally it makes me feel like the harried Laura Linney barking “von Sternberg!” at her confused lover in The Savages, after he’d mistakenly identified Eric von Stroheim as the director of The Blue Angel, but instead of cinematic trivia pedantry I’m screaming in the rain at holistic Seth Rogen-esque dickheads doing their zillionth Darth Vader impression whilst pimp their Animal Collective EPs as if they were the first people in the universe to happen across them.

Nowadays “quirk” in film and TV terms is a by-word for normalcy and banality. The attractive kids from Glee are supposedly quirky outsiders, not the ones from My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks. The word “kook” is similarly debased – once used to describe Julie Christie in Petulia, now more likely to be about the simpering Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By or It’s Kind of a Funny Story. But then mainstream comedies used to look like Shampoo and not I Don’t Know How She Does It, Jack Nicholson used to make films like The King of Marvin Gardens, and Robert Pattinson and Orlando Bloom had yet to be born. The genuine daring of independent films in the 90s like Citizen Ruth, Pi, Schizopolis, Slacker, Spanking the Monkey, Stranger than Paradise and Poison have never seemed further away, with their respective directors advancing into more mature territory, leaving no-one to pick up the slack. Even a tough-edged film like Brick saw its director Rian Johnson follow things up with the arch, knowing and – yes – quirky as hell The Brothers Bloom.

PTA's Punch-Drunk Love - endures with lasting vitality

Fittingly, Gus van Sant doesn’t make films like Mala Noche anymore. He makes films like Restless. Viewers have been keen to point out van Sant’s liberal lifting from Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude as inspiration, though it superficially appears to have more in common with the recent Kate Hudson/Gael Garcia Bernal terminal illness rom-com, A Little Bit of Heaven. Elsewhere the specificity of Wes Anderson’s vision is often lifted wholesale and rammed into conventional shit-your-pants bad material (Ceremony; Rocket Science; Charlie Barlett) or conjured for effect, and the only independent alternative going is the last-gasp wheeze of the rapidly aging ‘iconoclasts’ of yore, Harmony Korine and Gregg Araki, who wave around their moth-eaten pom-poms in an effort to still seem ‘with it’. Perhaps only Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, a romantic comedy from 2003 about an emotionally-stunted man-child who appears to be genuinely suffering from crippling depression and not a loose approximation of the real thing, seems to endure with any sense of lasting vitality.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying things were better for American cinema in the late 60s and early 70s. “No shit”, you might mutter, with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and all the other classics that are wheeled out, usually in the summer months when critics have tired of sitting through The Smurfs or Marmaduke. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs dedicates a large chunk of a recent, wide-ranging interview to discuss that very subject. One thing that stuck for me as slightly incongruous was Dobbs’ antipathy towards the period when the rot of quirk had begun to take hold. In his words:

When we talk about how “great” the 60s and 70s were, if you forced me to discard or discount certain movies, it would probably be those ones that anticipated the kind of shit we get now — those films that were prematurely quirky, that were then referred to as “offbeat” or “oddball.”  I can’t say I’ve ever really warmed to even the best or most highly-regarded of them.

It struck me that of the “prematurely quirky” ones Dobbs’ cites by name – Where’s Poppa?, Lord Love a Duck, Little Murders and Stay Hungry – the writer’s diagnosis is a little off. Stay Hungry, granted, has Jeff Bridges doing the dirty with Sally Field on the stairs, a fitness instructor who insists on being called “Thor” and a madcap jet-skiing sequence set to wacky music that has little bearing on the plot. But it also has some of the most disturbing and incongruous sex scenes in cinema history, as Thor has his way with a prostitute and finishes the deed by hanging her up on some gym equipment, whilst his co-worker Wamba (supposedly the “Jungle Bomb”) ties a buxom woman to a massage table and gags her mouth shut to keep her quiet. Not one screaming out for a Zooey D and JGL remake.

The other three are similarly stuffed with acts of obvious provocation.  Carl Reiner’s Where’s Poppa?, for instance, opens with George Segal calmly getting out of bed, donning a gorilla suit, before bursting into the bedroom of his senile mother (Ruth Gordon) and attempting to scare her to death. To his dismay, she survives. Moments later he fantasises about her being eaten by a dog or – better yet – simply shrinking into nothingness. Gordon’s degenerative mental illness is played for broad comedy. In one memorable sequence she pulls down Segal’s trousers, mistaking him for her dearly departed husband, and kisses his bare backside whilst declaiming, “I’d know that tush anywhere!” This zaniness extends to Segal’s professional career as a defence lawyer. Having recruited a nubile young nurse with a chequered sexual history (the last man she loved “made a caca on the bed”) to take care of his demented mother, he spends some time mounting a defence of a “punk” who called out an army colonel for being “full of shit”. The colonel initially wins the judge’s sympathy, before descending into an anti-hippie tirade about the amount of “gooks” he shot through the brain in Vietnam and revealing his son keeps one of the offending organs in a jar as a bedroom souvenir. Shortly thereafter Segal returns home with the nurse he’s sexually attracted to and assures his mother, “If you mess this one up, I’m gonna punch your fuckin’ heart out.” She reveals his penis size over dinner, and he eventually commits her to a retirement home.

The bizarre Little Murders

Reiner’s film also contains one particularly indefensible scene, in which Segal’s brother, dressed in the aforementioned gorilla suit, is forced by a group of African-Americans to rape a woman in a park. The character is overcome with wanton carnality (shockingly the men tell him it’s part of their natural “heritage” and scream the victim is “rape tight”) and he proceeds to carry out their instructions with seeming delight. Upon being arrested and detained at the local police station, it transpires the person he violated sexually was actually a male police officer or, more specifically, “one of those guys who walks around in drag, looking for purse snatchers.” Fearing he’ll be locked up forever, the situation soon dissipates when a guard produces a bouquet of long-stemmed roses from the victim, with a card asking for his phone number and inscription “Thanks for a wonderful evening.” He’s flattered by the gesture, and coos about the flowers in a taxi on the way home. This is comedy in horror-film garb and arguably as black as anything Todd Solondz ever produced, though there are shades of Jack Lemmon being briefly mistaken for a child molester in The Out-of-Towners and chased down by the police for his troubles.

Little Murders is equally bewildering. One of Alan Arkin’s early directorial efforts, it boasts Gordon Willis as cinematographer and Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge) as screenwriter, whose career as a cartoonist speaks for itself. It features a mortally jaded Elliot Gould as a photographer who “shoots shit” for Harper’s Bazaar, marching slowly towards marriage with Marcia Rodd, whilst both are plagued by a mysterious breathy caller who never reveals his or her identity and a city that boasts 345 unsolved or “little” murders. Early on in the film Rodd ventures of Gould, “Are you really so down on people or are you just being fashionable?” and introduces the man to her parents over dinner. The result is a scene almost Dadaist in its abstraction. Gould is presumed to be a “fag”; we learn Rodd’s younger brother is a layabout at graduate school reading something called Lesbians of Venus. When Rodd bursts into the room, her parents start giddily screaming “Patsy!” in unison like something out of The Evil Dead and she rugby tackles her little brother to the ground, claiming she’s “always head this mad thing” for him and panting sexually. The evening takes a turn for the worse when, having scrutinised their daughter’s use of eyeliner by candlelight, her father degenerates into a fit of hysteria over being called “Carol”. It’s a nightmarish hellscape – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by way of the Leatherface family.

When the two finally do attempt to get married, it’s by the only pastor (Donald Sutherland) who’ll consent to a Godless ceremony (though Gould insists he’s more an “apathist” than an atheist) who starts the proceedings with howlingly inappropriate anecdotes about the futility of marriage and trills about having married off a musician the preceding week “who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating”. The ceremony devolves into a violent free-for-all between various members of the congregation. Later Gould tries to identify the root cause of his general disdain for humanity by interrogating his parents with a tape recorder. Unable to communicate with their son outside of incoherent psychobabble – they chalk it up to “sphincter morality” and his subconscious desire to rob his father of his penis – the most substantive fact Gould coaxes out of them is that they “don’t remember” much of this upbringing. Later he bonds with his would-be wife’s immediate family by taking pot shots out of a window with a sniper rifle. They have dinner afterwards, throw lettuce leaves about and fall about laughing. Though it goes without saying, this is a million miles away from Garden State

Roddy McDowall in Lord Love A Duck

Meanwhile the protagonist of George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck is equal parts Billy Liar and Mick Travis, a florid fantasist who anticipates and transcends the flights of fancy conjured up in the likes of Altman’s Brewster McCloud and the recent Submarine. Styling himself as “Mollymuck”, a bird thought to be extinct “but isn’t”, the then middle-aged Roddy McDowell plays ostensible high-schooler Alan Musgrave, a man with a “psycho-suicidal personality” who squawks incessantly and is prone to running over members of his graduating class with diggers. He’s hopelessly in love with Barbara Ann (Tuesday Weld), a “total vulgarity of our time”, whose mother is a cocktail waitress but dresses like a Playboy bunny, insists that “Everybody has got to love me. Everybody,” is named after Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan and longs to be a movie star. Barbara Ann melds two of Axelrod’s chief concerns in his work as a screenwriter – the sweat-soaked male gaze of unrequited sexual rapacity in The Seven Year Itch and the oddball female kitsch of Breakfast at Tiffany’s – and drags them kicking and screaming into the tail end of the 1960s, and arguably several decades beyond that.

As you’d expect, Lord Love a Duck is summarily obsessed with sex. Barbara Ann and Alan happen across a movie producer who suggests she star in I Married a Teenage Bikini Vampire on Some Kind of a Fish for him. The school principal upbraids a botany or “plant skills for life” teacher for teaching the kids about plant reproduction and “the stamens and the pistons”. “Get your mind out of the gutter, man!” he barks. In the film’s most disturbing sequence Barbara Ann and her estranged father visit a sweater store in order to join the school’s prestigious “Kashmir Sweater Club” (don’t ask). She tries on the garments one by one, begins fondling the material and orgasmically screeching their suggestive names like “Periwinkle Pussycat!” and “Papaya Surprise!” with her father braying in the background like a crazed donkey. Eventually they roll around in the clothes in ecstasy, maniacally laughing. It’s a terrifying scene, topped only by the revelation later in the film that Barbara Ann’s mother has overdosed on pills and killed herself. Upon learning the news, Barbara Ann entertains becoming a prostitute and Alan remarks that the woman’s tragic death has rejuvenated his “faith in suicide.”

At one point during Axelrod’s film Alan pours out a bottle of wine, admiring the drink’s “impudent artlessness”, in oblique acknowledgement to the film’s inherent absurdity. But if we are to have ‘quirky’ films that are essentially conciliatory, marred by distasteful feel-goodery and ones which propagate nonsense about the nature of modernity and romance; I’ll stick with the beserko-comic, horrifying, artlessly impudent run of films during the 70s over the bland homilies of (500) Days of Summer any day. The true horrors on the cinema screens of our own time are not the unexploded taboos of rape, incest, murder, mental illness and the other societal mores the films listed above attempted to interrogate, but the insufferable, rampantly merciless ennui of Post Grad and – God forbid – Away We Go. But what’s that, you say? Cheer up? It might never happen? Too bad. It already did.

Shining for all the family…

For some Friday Fun™ on Permanent Plastic Helmet, here’s an oldie (at the time of writing it’s only had a mere 2,284,155 views) but a goodie; a trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 chiller The Shining recut to resemble an uplifting family comedy. If the clip doesn’t make you howl with laughter, then some of the YouTube comments wildly missing the point certainly will. Credit goes to PPH contributor Guillaume Gendron (about to embark on journalism school in Paris – do wish him luck) for reminding me of it, and YouTuber neochosen for the upload in the first place. Enjoy:

Drive

Ryan Gosling in Drive - Stop! Hammertime

“If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun… I drive. ” – Driver

Adapted from the 2005 novel of the same name by James Sallis, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive arrives in UK cinemas accompanied by an extraordinary critical buzz accentuated by the presence of man-of-the-moment Ryan Gosling in the leading role, and Refn’s victory (for Best Director) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In Drive, Gosling plays an unnamed mechanic and stunt driver for the movies who, when not working in the garage of Shannon (a grizzled, shifty turn from Bryan Cranston), moonlights as a devastatingly punctual getaway driver. Driver falls for his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son and a ne’er-do-well husband soon to be released from prison. Upon the husband’s release, Driver becomes embroiled in a violent game of cat and mouse involving robbery, revenge and some vicious gangsters.

From the very first minute onwards, Drive is a film obsessed with surface and artifice. The bright pink typeface used in the opening credits immediately explodes any notion of restraint, and intimate details of cars and costume alike are fetishistically lingered over by Refn’s camera. Driver himself is a role player – as a stuntman an anonymous, spookily-masked cog in the Hollywood machine, and then as a protector; a white knight defending a damsel in distress – who only really seems to be whole when at one with his car; this, perhaps, is the central relationship of the film.

In keeping with the recent cultural retromania for the 1980s that can be traced in the music of Phoenix and M83, the look of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the never-ending stream of period Hollywood remakes (The A Team, Miami Vice, Footloose) and perhaps most appositelyRockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (upon which Refn’s film seems to be squarely aesthetically based), Drive‘s style is all-consuming. Shot on gleaming HD digital in glorious widescreen and underpinned by a constant, synthetic low-end thrum and an arch, retro (and thoroughly excellent) soundtrack that’s indebted to Wang Chung’s work on William Friedkin’s inexplicably underrated To Live And Die In L.A. it’s a treat for the eyes and ears.

Furthermore, Winding’s determinedly European sensibility, epitomized by the deliberate pace, repeated use of slow, langourous takes and minimal dialogue, infuses an American movie staple location with an otherworldly quality; think Wim Wenders in Paris, Texas for a particularly good example of such Americana-obsessed outsider art, and Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence for a particularly bad example. Extras are kept to a bare minimum, so the spatial landscape is as sparsely populated as the dialogue in the script.

Mulligan and Gosling - Lifted, from the shadows. Lifted

The minimalism extends to Gosling’s character, nameless and shorn of a backstory primarily to engender a sense of mystery. His assumption of the lone wolf/avenging angel archetype is a mythical concession from Refn, but also lends a vaguely troubling undercurrent to Drive. Driver is prone to bouts of near-cloying sentimentality (in getting involved with Irene and her son in the first place) and seems to be on some kind of moral crusade (he doesn’t actually have to get involved in any of this) but is also increasingly psychotic, dispensing vigilante justice in a series of acts of sickening brutality. Despite the contradictions inherent in the character, and Gosling’s charisma, Driver never quite registers as a compelling force, rather he appears as a “man who isn’t there”.

Drive is a film which wears its influences on its (sleek satin) sleeve, and in citing Melville’s Le Samourai, Peter Yates’ Bullitt and George Stevens’ Shane (the all-American hero narrative) as key base texts, Refn is clearly a man of good taste. However one title absent from much of the discussion of the film is Walter Hill’s astonishingly similar 1978 thriller The Driver in which a nameless, taciturn getaway driver (sound familiar?) played by a perfectly cast Ryan O’ Neal finds himself inveigled in a complex plot of cross and double cross on the burnished, neon streets of L.A. In fact, at least two scenes appear to have been lifted wholesale (the opening car chase, and the bed-based intimidation of a duplicitous lady) from Hill’s film, and it’s difficult not to compare. Whereas Refn (who revealed at the BFI he hadn’t seen The Driver before commencing work on Drive) muddies the ethical waters by affording Gosling’s driver an emotional spectrum of sorts, Hill leaves O’Neal as a total blank; The Driver absolutely boiled down to existential essentials, whilst Drive has a weirdly sentimental streak that sits ill-at-ease with the flagrant death and destruction on display.

With appearances key, the casting in the film is interestingly off-kilter but not 100% successful. A resurgent Albert Brooks (referred to by Refn at a recent Q&A at London’s BFI Southbank as “Woody Allen’s psychotic twin brother”) and the imposing Ron “Hellboy” Perlman both combine menace and humour to great effect, but Carey Mulligan is miscast in a pivotal role. She comes across as sweet, but lacks the presence and depth that the role surely requires to make Driver’s fiercely emotional response to her ring true. The lack of chemistry between the pair also accounts for the sluggish first half hour of the film; Refn is clearly aiming to build tension and create an atmosphere, however the stolen looks between the two amount to little more than a series of pretty widescreen pictures; tellingly, the film only comes to life when the expertly choreographed and edited (yet sometimes laughably O.T.T.) violence explodes. To achieve certain gruesome effects, Refn reportedly consulted with French enfant terrible Gaspar Noe to find out how he achieved the delightful head-smashing sequence in Irreversible.

Ultimately, Drive is an enjoyable ride; slick, often unbearably tense and extremely stylish. It’s also a case of sheen over substance, but deliberately so, and to criticise the film on these terms would be like taking Michael Bay to task for being bombastic (as opposed to simply a terrible filmmaker). Unfortunately though, it’s the hollowness at the heart of Drive which precludes emotional investment in the drama, and stops it from rising above the level of a very entertaining technical exercise to scale the heights of greatness. It’s several cuts above your average thriller, though, and thanks to the combination of the popular Gosling, the iconic aesthetic, memorable set pieces and the brilliant soundtrack, it’s surely destined to become a cult classic.

A note: I normally post the film’s official trailer to accompany a review. However, I have neglected to in the case of Drive, as I feel the trailer – which mirrors almost exactly the arc of the narrative – simply gives away far too much of what is already a spare story to begin with, to the extent that a number of scenes in the film simply didn’t have the impact they would have had I gone into the film blind. Instead, here is a clip from the excellent opening sequence, followed by the opening sequence of Walter Hill’s The Driver, for complementary and comparison purposes.

Tom Selleck’s moustache…

is just one of the things we like to celebrate at Permanent Plastic Helmet on a regular basis, reflecting neatly as it does our love of profound facial hair, the 1980s, and ruggedly handsome leading men of yesteryear (I know he’s in Blue Bloods, but the guy’s hardly at his peak). So imagine our delight when this video surfaced on the internet. Full credit to YouTuber Buchan39 for a masterpiece of cheaply rendered imposition. Just sit back and enjoy:

Permanent Plastic Helmet’s inaugural poster quote

Permanent Plastic Helmet is pretty chuffed to be quoted on the poster for Menelik Shabazz’ brilliant documentary The Story of Lovers Rock, which opens in selected cinemas on Friday 30 September. Visit the film’s official website for full details of where the film is showing. 

Summer Blockbusters: Spielberg Vs. Spielberg Vs. Optimus Prime

In a summer that was particularly lacklustre blockbuster-wise, marked by weak reboots of near-unknown superhero franchises and the final chapter of that gazillion-dollar budgeted, magic-themed posh school play known as the Harry Potter saga, two popcorn movies produced by a pioneer of the genre – yes, you guessed it, Steven Spielberg – particularly stood out. I’m talking about Michael Bay’s Transformers III and JJ Abrams’ Super 8, the former still baffling by its seemingly unfailing success growing with each further regressive sequel (bigger, louder and more dimensional) and the latter unexpectedly ending up as the critics’ darling (alongside, perhaps, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes) for the title of this summer’s most enjoyable teenage entertainment. It’s not that surprising given that Spielberg basically created the blockbuster concept in the late seventies along with his evil twin George Lucas (now a successful toy manufacturer I’m told), brushing aside the artistic ashes of the New Hollywood in favour of global mainstream dominance.

Autobots are no laughing matter.

Spielberg directed neither Shitformers nor Vintage Camera, however his credit as executive producer is printed just as big on each poster, proof that his name still carries relevance, enhancing Bay and Abrams’ blockbuster cred. It could also be because the influence of the spectacled bearded man is so blatantly obvious on both flicks that we may just as well attribute him their paternity – especially in the case of Super 8, a biographical pastiche of Steve’s childhood, re-contextualised in the suburban world of his early 80s classics (E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and the copycats they engendered (The Goonies, Stand By Me, etc.). Put simply, this summer the choice was between technoid Spielberg and vintage Steven.

Amongst film critics, appreciation of SS has been informed by an easy, convenient opposition: the dead-serious Spielberg on one side, with his edifying Holocaust dramas and WWII epics, schooling us like a well-intentioned history teacher on how fucking bad the XXth century was (with a side interest in filming slightly embarrassing slave narratives; The Colour Purple and Amistad, I didn’t forget about you), and on the other hand, the fun, kid-friendly Spielberg, the master of family entertainment with a penchant for benevolent aliens, whip-lashing archaeologists and sharp-toothed prehistoric creatures. Obviously, serious Spielberg must be frowned upon when kiddy Spielberg can be celebrated as an accepted form of nostalgia, but only in correlation with the release date of the film – the older the better – and the number of BMXes ridden by mopey kids in said feature (E.T definitely wins that one every time).

But see, this bipolar take doesn’t really work – where do you fit War of The Worlds in this? Minority Report? A.I? From the late-90s onward, Spielberg went all-heavy metal on us with a dystopian sci-fi streak, whose refrigerated, steely aesthetic has influenced many blockbusters since, including Transformers III (which stands in some ways as the apotheosis of that influence), while Super 8 is marketed as a reminder of sweeter, different times. How to make “sense” of this?

Fig. 1, in all seriousness. Click to expand.

If you have a quick look at my rubbish Word-powered diagram (Fig. 1 – the reason why I’ll never get a job at Wired), you can see that schematically, there’s roughly four dimensions, or two axes of Spielberg. The serious stuff can be divided into two genres, the historical and the sci-fi (usually thrown in with the kiddy-blockbustery category by most critics) and the fun stuff between retro serial fare (Indy) and the late 70s/early 80s golden run of aliens in suburbia tales (let’s include Close Encounters here). The dark futuristic theme came loaded with “maturity” and informed all his latest directed Sci-Fi features (how bleak was War of the Worlds?), which he compensated for with an alternating series of regressive, conservative period adventures (Catch Me If You Can, Indiana Jones IV and now The Adventures of Tintin, the inspiration behind “Indy” in the first place).

SS is still VERY fond of aliens – he even managed to shoehorn some into the latest instalment of the Indiana Jones franchise (where they definitely didn’t belong, as the kids in South Park said, and is credited as executive producer on the shambolic Cowboys & Aliens). The aliens are not exactly what they used to be though; they went from friends to foes. Aesthetically, this change also translated in their shape and “texture”, from organic, cuddly extraterrestrials to steely, post-Matrix war-machines and depressed androids; from a child-sized turd with a big red heart to a massive robot with door handles as nipples.

This is where Super 8 comes in handy as a kind of well-manufactured time capsule, holding up a mirror to what the blockbuster mastermind’s production has become, epitomized by the cynically perfect formula of Transformers III which combines the steely aesthetics of his darkish futuristic films and the dumbed-down action feature plots of today [1], while removing most of the heart and soul of his teen-friendly stuff in favour of a video-game desensitised detachment to form a remarkable weapon of mass distraction [2]. It’s not so much about good vs. evil, huggable Martians vs. Autobots, or even Elle Fanning vs. Megan Fox/whoever-that-blonde-model-with-the-huge-lips-is, but rather past vs. present Hollywood, old school Steven vs. modern Spielberg.

Let’s look at some key blockbuster ingredients present in both films, see how they differ and find out what they tell us about the state of the modern multiplex fare in line with the mutating audience the studios are now targeting.

"E.T.! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

1. The Main Human Protagonist:  One of Spielberg’s greatest ideas when he drew up the basic shopping list for a successful popcorn movie was to include a main character that would resemble and reflect in many ways the target audience. In E.T, it was a geeky teenager because, as Hollywood found out in the late seventies, robbing the kids of their pocket money is a much more lucrative business than putting the effort into making demanding “adult” entertainment (no, I don’t mean porn). Consequently in Super 8, we get an Elliot-lite to recreate that vibe. In Transformers however, it’s up to Shia Labeouf to provide the identikit of today’s fan of giant robots and cartoon adaptations: the shouty, materialistic man-boy. Whereas Joe in Super 8 makes amateur films, paints Warhammers and builds miniature trains, Shia is all about fast and flashy cars, “big boy pants” and envying everyone else’s money. Joe lives in symbiosis with his friends while Shia is a stubborn individualist. Creative dreamers vs. consumerist pricks, 12-years-old nerds vs. computer game brainwashed adolescents [3]

2. The Alien(s): I’ve mentioned this already, the organic vs. the metal, etc, but what about the benevolence? In Transformers, the Autobots are as much allies as enemies depending on which side they picked, but either way, they look absolutely belligerent, with oversized guns and blades the size of jet planes (need to compensate for a tiny muffler, Optimus?). Labeouf’s friend Bumblebee, which conveniently doubles as showy sports car/girl-trap, is meant to be just a clumsy robot-kid, but still looks badass and cold-blooded in combat. And let’s not start on Optimus Prime, who tears off the heads of his foes with his bare robotic hands before finishing them with a giant cosmic shotgun. In Super 8, the alien is bigger and meaner than E.T ever was – more like a smaller cousin of the Godzilla-like monster in JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield. It still ends up as a potential friend to the diminutive main character and foremost a victim of the earthlings’ cruelty – just as much as the autobots are “victims” of the lies of NASA and CIA (yes, Spielberg always loved his conspiracies). Conclusion: Hollywood aliens are still our friends from outer space, but display as much emotion and human empathy as Megan Fox on a good day, doubled with a very mainstream appetite for destruction.

Transformers III: Megan Fox (on a good day)

3. The Love Interest: This one will be quick: Elle Fanning, the rebellious girl-next-door providing twinges of nostalgia for the days of asexual puppy dolls VS. the blow-up dolls (brunette in TI & II, blonde in TIII), “[tokens] of reassurance for viewers revelling in a spectacle of cosmic, brutal, heavy-metal homoeroticism” (again, the brilliant A. O. Scott in the NY Times). Or further evidence of the oversexualization of our contemporary pop culture.

4. The Setting: a small factory town in Ohio, the honest houses of suburbia in Super 8. The skyscrapers of the megalopolis (Chicago in this instance) in Transformers III. With the clear impression that real people may actually live in the Super 8 neighbourhood, given the heavy accent on community (some hints to Jaws in the sheriff’s address to his distressed fellow citizen) when landmark buildings in TIII are only empty glass entities to be sacrificed on the altar of spectacle during the final fireworks, satisfying Bay’s thirst for building-violence and global catastrophe-porn. A post 9/11 affectation or just a sign of the times (see also Chris Nolan batophobia)? Moreover, the systematic destruction of historical monuments and constant revisionism of TIII display a certain contempt for the past, the packaged nostalgia that Super 8 tries so hard to sell us.

5. Abrams & Spielberg VS. Bay & Spielberg: one is looking back, the other ahead – no present tense here but entertaiment extremism on both side. The heart in Super 8 is an illusion: like Tarantino’s Kill Bill or Death Proof, it’s a slick, virtuosic pastiche, the filmic equivalent of a sparkling clean Motown sample on a hip-hop track – nice, comforting, but in the end, devoid of real soul. J.J Abrams is box-ticking with as much perfectionism deployed by Michael Bay to destroy every single lamppost in Chicago’s town centre. Sadly, Transformers III is the cinema of the future, of the 21st century – offering a slight upgrade on video games in terms of High Definition but also a braindead idea of cinema.

In both cases Steven, you became kind of heartless but remained ruthlessly, mechanically efficient. Just like the big Hollywoodian machinery, just like Optimus, bulldozing your way through pop culture.

An abrupt conclusion, perhaps, but this – like Michael Bay’s career – could potentially go on forever. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat post” some might say…


[1] …which consists of two acts of an hour each: Act I being the exposition of the main “characters” preparing for the forthcoming battle/Armageddon/space invasion, and Act II being a solid hour of mass destruction and explosions occurring during aforementioned battle/Armageddon/space invasion. Plain and simple. No twist, no development, nothing. Now enjoy the noise.

[2] Everything has been said about it in this sarcastically masterful NY Times review, where the key sentence is “I’m not judging, just describing.”

[3]  Another interesting sociological insight: Shia Labeouf, despite having saved the world twice, struggles to find A BLOODY INTERNSHIP. That’s how bad this recession thing is, man.

Val Kilmer busting some serious moves

WATCH: Bizarre scenes as an unusually energetic Val Kilmer engages in a dance battle with indie popsters DD/MM/YYYY at a Dan Deacon DJ set.  All credit must go to the excellent culture website AUX for the spot and the vid. I’m just linking!