super 8 (2011)

by pasdelabas

Set in 1979, the film Super 8 can be read as an allegory of the American civil rights movement.  The allegory is caught up in the web of a small time psychological drama. I am concerned at the way film  offers grief and anger at slavery and racism as a subset of internal psychological issues.

The film relates the adventures of a group of young adolescents who while making a film find themselves embroiled in a battle with an alien. The alien, first discovered in 1963, a black monster, is wildly aggressive and hugely powerful. All it wants really, we hear from those sympathetic to it, those it has touched, is to escape, to build its spaceship and return from whence it came. However it has suffered all sorts of torments during its captivity by the American military.

The first witness to its eventual humanity is a black teacher who had once been a scientist with knowledge of the indignities showered upon it throughout the 1960s. He is an intellectual but is seen by us as a wild man, driven to violence and the bush, injured and suffering, willing to die to release the monster. This teacher is killed, in a scientific/medical execution, by the second black actor to appear in the film, this one well turned out, tidy, neat moustache and hair, taking orders from the white military chief in charge.

The creature, the black monster is followed to its lair where it holds a white girl captive. She has been touched by the monster and knows now that it just wants to go home, she feels it. The hero, the young boy in love with her, faces up to the monster and tells it something like: you can go, you don’t have to die, you can just escape.

In other words the monster, which at one point appears to be eating people, can only survive if it calms down, if it goes home. It builds its spacecraft with great power akin, it would seem, to its anger and this takes it home. The allegory of America having to face the anger of the black post-slavery civil rights movement is clear. It’s anger brings it freedom, release but that anger needs to be somehow constructive of a way home, back to security, leaving things as they are.

The black monster is wild and dangerous, yet sensitive and sentimental, this being the point: the civil rights movement, we are to believe, indeed all revolutionary movements, are only made up of people like us in the end, emotional beings who want to go home, who have probably lost their mother.

This is the shape, a perfect example of  ideology in practice: we are all the same, we share the same blood and desires and we can have peace if only we can get to know each other. However the film shows us that we can’t ever get to know the other person, the black monster. It is too big, too different, too dangerous, too injured through bad treatment. It’s release is simply it accepting it can not fight back, it will hurt other people, like itself, like the boy, who have lost a mother, who want to go home. So release can only be found in the cessation of the struggle.

That is the ideological structure Zizek talks about: we are all the same, we can learn to understand each other, your enemy is just the person you have yet to get to know, center your life and you will find calm but don’t worry it is not really like that, the army is out there, they aren’t fooled.  You can do this (live with the monster) but not really (it is too damaged).  The former statement has the second implicit.

And down below these allegorical heights what happens? In a small American town, a small psychological drama, proper to such films. In the very opening scene we learn of the boy’s mother’s death in an industrial accident, the boy grieves, the father can’t communicate properly and the boy is alienated. Opening like this the film states thereby that this concern with grieving, the loss of the parent, poor communication of emotion/feelings, lies at the centre of the film. A boy has lost his mother and grieves. The father too but can’t express it. How do they resolve it? That is the what the film is about at the beginning and the end. The civil rights allegory is just the background, the monster itself is just caught in the background of the adolescent Super 8 film.

At the end of the film as the monster is leaving, the hero’s necklace, given to him by his mother, is tugged from his pocket and he holds it as it is pulled towards the spaceship. Moments pass and the boy eventually lets it fly along with his mothers grief and the sets of immobile emotions that he held along with that. Everyone is freed.

Freed of guilt? Freed from grief? America’s salvation comes from comforting their own fears and limitations proper to them through the escape of the tortured monster, not its death, but its absence.

Through the film everyone comes together, everyone is redeemed, even the hard military man at the last moment perhaps is protecting the boys, they all discover themselves but through what? Through the torment and suffering and release of the monster. They require the suffering to find that release.

A question remains: how do you get rid of monsters when there is no spaceship but only guilt? Only grieving? The answer is: let someone else do it. Like the army has done it for years, kept it quiet and then, when it is released, don’t worry because the monster will realise we are just like it and firstly let us go and then disappear in a puff, not of smoke but of water vapour: ecology disperses civil rights.  Focus on our psychological dramas and all our problems will just disappear.  As if!!!

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