By Ali Arikan
Press Play Contributor
"One reason for Kipling's power as a good bad poet I have already suggested – his sense of responsibility, which made it possible for him to have a world-view, even though it happened to be a false one. [...] Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.”– “Rudyard Kipling,” by George Orwell (1942)
Last weekend, as the worst case of food poisoning I’d ever encountered in my life tore my ass asunder, I sought some semblance of solace in familiarity, and, at a rare moment of lucidity between my regular bouts of hysteria and insentience, I found myself listening to David Bowie’s 1971 magnum opus, Hunky Dory. It is a universally acknowledged truth that the album is one of the chief paradigmatic standards of the musician’s classical period. In the wake of the decidedly heavy guitar sound of the previous year’s somewhat lacking The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory was a surprising yet rapturous non-sequitur, boasting as it did a wide variety of styles, from Ray Davies-esque British Invasion pop (“Kooks”) to proto-symphonic rock (“Life on Mars?”); from folksy glam (“Changes”) to kitschy camp (“Oh! You Pretty Things”). For a brief moment, I was lulled into elation by one of the greatest works of art of the past century.
My dear friend Stephen, an English teacher in China, phoned to check up on me and my rectum, and, for obvious reasons, our conversation on Hunky Dory eventually turned to the 2006 BBC sci-fi/crime drama Life on Mars. I decided to revisit said show for the first time since its debut for a bit of comfort viewing, and Stephen retired to watch J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, despite my advice to the contrary. A scant hour and a half later, my phone rang and it was Steve again, beside himself with agony, and, for the next hour, we cursed nostalgia. We are lonely men.
Super 8 is like E.T. meets Cloverfield meets cholera, at least in aesthetic estimation if not literal form. Admittedly, it’s been a few months since I saw the film, but, was it a hallucination or did the little kid (Joel Courtney), the Elliot surrogate (let’s call him E.S.), actually look a hideous, slobbering alien in the face, have a heart wrenching moment, and say, "Everybody hurts sometimes," or some such drivel? I’m really hoping it was a hallucination, because when E.S. looked into the eyes of the giant man-eating alien and spouted out an anachronistic, Southern-Californian, wishy-washy aphorism, another pillar of western civilization was obliterated – the pillar marked "Common Sense." Like a cannibal narcissist with gastric flu, I threw up my hands.
Current pop-cultural zeitgeist (as nebulous a term as that might be) is defined by futile attempts at recreating the delicate ambience of the past. Nostalgia, in all its forms, is the usurper of wit and intelligence. Famously, Super 8 tries to recreate the early-'80s Amblin pictures of Steven Spielberg, specifically E.T., but also Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goonies (though I doubt the latter ever boasted the Amblin logo – I could be wrong). The superficial sympathy the film asks the audience grant the man-eating alien (who, let us recall, develops an unbreakable bond with whomever it comes into tactile contact with, which, nonetheless, does not deter it from devouring the fuck out of them, hats, jeans, shoes and all) is illustrative of the ill-informed liberal ethos of the current depoliticized Hollywood mindset: “Just understand the villain's motives and then it's okay!” (By the way, I am a liberal, thus, in the previous sentence, “ill-informed” is not a generalization but a particular specificity.)
Instead, what the film reflects is our ideological uncertainty. So deranged is our sense of right and wrong that a man-eating alien has become a monstrous slimy figure of sympathy. Super 8 strives for the nostalgic effect of early Spielberg without committing to any deeper political motives and is emblematic of the depoliticization of popular culture. Abrams tries to recreate childhood memories all the while weaving it around a “modern day” pseudo-fable, but there is nothing to it except for the pyritical sheen of nostalgia. The film doesn’t end up evoking Spielberg as much as it ends up being a pale imitation. Abrams is a skillful technician; he just does not have the heart. I am reminded of Birdy’s (Scarlett Johansson) unsuccessful audition with Carcanogues (Adam Alexi-Malle) in the Coens’ criminally underrated The Man Who Wasn’t There: "I cannot teach her to have a soul. Voyez, monsieur. Look. To play the piano is not about the fingers. We make with the fingers. But the music, monsieur, should come l'interieur, from inside."
J.J. Abrams lacks the political insight and the aesthetic wherewithal of Steven Spielberg, and instead opts for imitating him in the most superficial manner. What made Kipling stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries, as pinpointed by Orwell in his 1942 essay, was his way with words and verse, yes, but also his dedication to a cause, however blindly it may have been. Similarly, the broken home in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is a political statement about the shallowness of the post-war nuclear family of the baby boomers, a motif the director still employs with panache (e.g., the destruction of the model “nuclear family” during the nuclear test at the beginning of the latest Indiana Jones flick). Spielberg has subtly remained a political filmmaker through the years, with, for example, the one-two punch of 2005’s War of the Worlds and Munich possibly being the two greatest artistic responses to the 9/11 attacks.
In Super 8 (and, to a certain extent, his Star Trek reboot), J.J. Abrams peddles in nothing but nostalgia, with no hint of incipient sexuality, no political subtext, no social commentary. Of course, the presence of those elements does not automatically mean artistic superiority; if anything, such heavy-handed digressions into “meaning” usually turn a piece of art into a piece of shit. However, Abrams makes such blatant use of both the early '80s time period and the kids’ ages that one seeks an explanation, and hopes that it is not simply, “Because I thought it would be cool.”
Of course, it did not have to be that way. Abrams could have utilized that era to tug on the heartstrings with nostalgia and all that horse-shit while actually saying something that mattered. And he didn’t have to look too far for inspiration, either. Abrams’ sometimes-partner-in-crime Matt Reeves (and another one of Spielberg’s latter-day protégés) deftly weaves themes as diverse as religion, politics and child abuse in the “coming-of-age” narrative of Let Me In. Out of the godless, Scandinavian Let the Right One In, he recreates a totally American work of art, and neither the ages of the protagonists nor the story's time period grate; in fact, they reinforce the film’s strengths.
A similar approach is also present in BBC’s Life on Mars, especially in the first series. Of course, the show itself is a throwback to '70s copper dramas, with sexism, racism and homophobia as commonplace as the three-day work week, the death knell of the trade unions and other depressing pre-Thatcherite minutiae. But the show’s success does not spring from such winks at the audience. Life on Mars is not so much a lamentation of better times gone by, but rather a detailed post-modern study (each episode deals with a separate crime drama trope) of the end of old Britain and the beginning of the new one. To paraphrase old Rudyard, if you can deal with nostalgia and not make nostalgia your aim, you might not be a storyteller, my son, but in this cynical day and age, you’d be halfway there.
Ali Arikan is the chief film critic of Dipnot TV, a Turkish news portal and iPad magazine, and one of Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents. Ali is also a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Slant Magazine’s official blog. Occasionally, he updates his personal blog Cerebral Mastication. In addition, his writing appears on various film and pop-culture sites on the blogosphere. You can follow his updates on twitter at twitter.com/aliarikan.