Father’s Day next weekend, and the debate here in Mannionville is what movie the guys are taking dear old dad to see.
Mother’s Day was easy. Thor. Really. The blonde wanted to go. Just like she wanted to go see Iron Man 2 last year, Star Trek the year before, and Iron Man the year before that.
Our Father’s Day choices are between X-Men: First Class and Super 8, with Green Lantern held in reserve as a compromise. The boys are pushing for X-Men, the blonde’s pushing for Super 8. I’m pushing for Midnight in Paris, but nobody seems to be listening. Excuse me? Father’s Day?
Really, though, I don’t care which we end up at. It’ll be fun no matter which, just because of the company. I was opposed to Super 8. The trailer made it look like a cheap knock-off of a cheap knock-off of good knock-off of a Spielberg movie.
But Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz says that it’s not a cheap knock-off of a cheap knock-off of a good knock-off. It’s not a cheap knock-off of a good knock-off. It is the good knock-off.
Movies. Plural. Watch out, spoilers galore.
But Matt doesn’t mention one of the things that bothered me in the trailer, probably because it’s a way Super 8 differs from a Spielberg movie. The presence of Elle Fanning.
At first glance it looks as though Fanning’s character is the Smurfette in the movie’s little gang of 13 year old heroes. But it turns out, she’s the love interest!
Think about this. What Spielberg movies have a love interest?
Unh unh unh! The Indiana Jones movies are George Lucas movies that Spielberg happened to direct.
There are Spielberg movies in which the main character has a wife or a girlfriend (There’s only one Spielberg movie that has as the main character a woman, his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express.) but she isn’t in the movie to provide romance, never mind sex. Laura Dern’s character in Jurassic Park is the Sam Neill character’s former girlfriend and over the course of the movie they get back together, but that happens as a matter of course, almost off-screen, with a minimum of fuss and bother and almost no signs of affection or physical attraction on either character’s part. Always is a love story but who remembers that one? Spielberg’s next movie, The Adventures of Tintin, barely has any female characters at all. That’s a feature of the comic books, but still. The opera diva Bianca Castiafore is in it. I don’t know how she’ll figure in the plot, which is based on The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, but “The Milanese Nightingale” isn’t in either of those books. In the books she is in, she’s not the love interest as much as she’s the threat of one. She’s Captain Haddock’s nightmare of a married, which is to say, a sexualized life. Tintin’s creator, Herge, had issues. (Oddly, the cast list doesn’t include Professor Calculus. This is odd because he’s a far more important character in the series than Castiafore and Red Rackham's Treasure is the book in which he makes his first appearance in the series.) There’s only one movie Spielberg directed that I haven’t seen in whole or in part and that’s Minority Report. Is there a love interest for Tom Cruise in that one?
Neither of the two Spielberg movies Super 8 most clearly and importantly pays homage to, E.T. and Close Encounters have anything like a love interest in them. (Please, don’t bother with any Elliott and E.T. subtexts. They are both little kids.) As Richard Dreyfuss’ wife in Close Encounters, Teri Garr is the enemy, a sympathetic enemy, but still she needs to discarded. It’s an anti-romance in that way. And when he meets Melinda Dillon, Dreyfuss and she team up but they don’t couple up. In E.T., the Smurfette role is taken by a very, very young Drew Barrymore and she plays Eliott sister.
I’m not going to speculate here about what this says about Spielberg, except to note that he’s always gravitated towards movie versions of boys’ adventure stories and one of the hallmarks of a boys’ adventure story is that the main character, no matter what age he appears to be, is a romanticized version of the ten year olds who read them, so of course those heroes are not really interested in mushy stuff.
What I’m wondering here is why Super 8, a Spielberg knock-off of the first kind, and therefore basically (and otherwise obviously) a boys’ adventure story, has any mushy stuff in it?
Why is there a love interest in a movie that’s mainly about and primarily aimed at 13 year old boys and girls?
Why is Elle Fanning the love interest and not just the Smurfette? Why isn’t she more than a love interest or a Smurfette?
I have hazier memories of being 13 than I do of any other time of my life. I’m not sure why. I think it’s probably because I “remember” being thirteen as either part of being 11 or part of being 13, that is, I’ve sorted the memories into kidhood and teenagerness. I know I was interested in girls. I wrote and produced a play in which I deliberately gave me three main characters---boy detectives---girlfriends so that I could cast the three prettiest girls in seventh grade. The prettiest was going to be “my” girlfriend too. For the record, there was no mush involved. Not even hand-holding. It was all running away from ghosts and chasing after bad guys for all of us. Those three girls refused to have anything to do with the play, however, and three other girls took the parts and it turned out, to my surprise and delight, they could act. I am proud to say I learned several important lessons from this, the main one being that girls were like boys in having interests and talents and personalities in their own rights, apart from whatever roles we guys wanted to cast them in. Another being that they could be interesting in their own rights, apart from how they looked and again apart from whatever role we guys wanted them to play.
I learned stuff about art and theater too, but I’ll save it for another day.
The point is, however, that even though I sort of wanted a girlfriend and managed to find a way to give myself a virtual one, I don’t remember love or even a thirteen year old’s idea of sex being something I watched movies for. I would never have gone to a movie for the love story, of course, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have come out of any movie I watched for other reasons thinking, “You know what would have made that better? If the hero had a girlfriend.”
That was pretty much the way it was for my friends too. None of us watched movies or TV shows hoping that the hero would find true love. Or any sort of love. And I think we were typical of boys of that time, which wasn’t too much before the year Super 8 is set, 1979.
I have no idea what’s typical for thirteen year olds today. Neither Oliver nor Ken has ever been exactly “typical” in any way. Neither one has had a girlfriend or even gone on a date. Ken has had his own reasons for steering clear of romantic entanglements. Oliver, who is fifteen, has observed that the kids his age who are parts of couples are generally not happy about it. Too much drama. And the drama has a way of enveloping other kids around the couples. His conclusion is that dating is like driving or drinking, something better left till when you are old enough to handle it.
But this is true for him now and was even more the case for him when he was thirteen, the girls who were the most likely prospects for girlfriends, the girls he liked and got along with best, were already his friends, and they had been friends since they were little. They’re pals, and dating your pal is just something that doesn’t occur to you, unless you’re a character in a dumb Hollywood romantic comedy and you suffer for it at the hands of a clumsy screenwriter. I don’t think the concept of friends with benefits would occur to the average thirteen year old or, for that matter, make any sense to the average twenty year old. I think it’s the idle dream of commitment-phobic and romantically inept adults. When you’re young and well-adjusted, friends are friends and lovers are something other and that’s what makes lovers and the possibility of meeting and finding someone to love exciting.
But to get back to Super 8. I can’t see why there’s a love interest because I can’t see who a romantic subplot’s in the movie for. I don’t think kids that age care. And plenty of them, particularly the girls, are going to wonder why Elle Fanning’s character can’t be the leader of the gang or at least the budding filmmaker instead of essentially the damsel in distress. And a love story involving thirteen year olds can’t be there to attract adults to the movie. At least, I hope it’s not there for that. Adults are likely to wonder why if there has to be a love story it can’t involve either of the two adult main characters and, for that matter, why there isn’t an adult woman as a main character? They might also observe that the thirteen year old hero has just lost his mother in an accident and that if he was going to be searching for a female presence in his life, he’d be on the lookout for a mother-figure not a girlfriend.
Please don’t tell me that Elle Fanning fills both roles.
So I can only think of three reasons for including the love interest.
One is that the director J.J. Abrams was being true to the times. He was thirteen in 1979 and maybe the only way a girl could enter his boys world was as girlfriend.
Another is that this aspect of Super 8, like all the rest of it, is part of Abrams’ wish-fulfillment fantasy. His primary audience for Super 8 is his own thirteen year old self.
See, kid, I’ve made you a hero and given you the prettiest girl in town for a girlfriend. Now will you stop bugging me while I’m on the analyst’s couch?
But the third is the one I have a feeling is the most likely. Abrams felt obligated to include a female character but he couldn’t imagine any role for one except as a love interest for his boy hero. In other words, as a fortysomething professional, he still hasn’t learned the lesson I learned as a thirteen year old writing knock-offs of Hardy Boy Mysteries and The Ghost and Mr Chicken.
This seems odd, considering he was the producer of Felicity. I never watched Lost because I was afraid of being sucked into the cult, but I was under the impression that it included quite a few strong, independent female leads.
But then there’s Star Trek.
Among the changes Abrams made to the original series timeline was making Uhura and Spock secret lovers.
So he took a character who was a strong, independent woman, a person in her own right with important responsibilities---even if it looked like all she was was a glorified telephone operator---the second most important of the secondary characters, after Scotty, or the most important if you count Scotty as the fourth main character, and turned her into…a girlfriend.
Adding nothing to the plot or the movie except a couple of really awkward scenes between Zoe Saldana and Zachary Quinto who exhibit zip chemistry between them.
I have to point out that Saldana/Uhura had way more going on with Chris Pine/Kirk and that this seemed not only lucky for the actors but deliberate, as if what’s being set up for the sequel is a love triangle that further reduces Uhura to girlfriendness.
And then there’s what Abrams does to Kirk’s and Spock’s mothers.
He disappears both of them, one of them literally, right before our eyes.
Kirk’s father dies heroically at the beginning of the movie, and Kirk is naturally haunted by his old man’s legacy. But his mother survives. And Kirk never mentions her. The movie doesn’t tell us what happened to her after she and baby Jim were rescued. We don’t know if she’s even still alive. Kirk appears to have been raised by some less than affectionate male relative in Iowa. We know from the original she was a scientist, so maybe she was off-world a lot when he was growing up. (I think in the original series, though, both Kirk’s parents died when he was young and he was raised by his older brother.) But like I said, Abrams doesn’t bother to tell us. When Kirk asks Spock, the original Spock, what happened in the alternative, original, timeline, he wants to know about his father but doesn’t ask Spock anything about Ma Kirk.
Meanwhile, in another major change to the timeline, Spock’s mother, Amanda, who in the original series and one of the first set of movies, is shown to be an important presence in Spock’s middle-age, is killed off in a blink when Spock is still in his twenties, despite the fact she’s played by Winona Ryder.
There are no other significant adult female characters.
Now, go back over in your head the original series and the five real Star Trek movies based on it. (Yes, five. Nobody counts the first one as a real Star Trek movie.) While many of them were love interests, mainly for Kirk, but a few for Spock, Bones, and Scotty, remember how many adult female characters there were who were scientists, politicians, and other sorts of high-profile professionals, including at least one lawyer and a star ship commander. Ok, she was a Romulan, but still. In the pilot, Captain Christopher Pike’s first executive officer, Number One, was played with no explanation or apology by Majel Barrett. In Abrams’ movie, Pike’s number one is Spock who in the pilot appears to be or less a proto-Chekhov or Sulu.
Expand the thought experiment to include the spin-offs and now you have among the female leads a doctor, another first exec, and another starship commander, this one a human and a member of the Federation and the star of the show.
The mothers have been disappeared from Super 8 too.
Makes me wonder.
I guess I’ll either get an explanation next week or I won’t, depending on whether or not X-Men wins out over Super 8.
Re: the title of this post. I know, technically, The Goonies is not a Spielberg movie. But he produced it and it’s got his fingerprints all over it and as Matt Zoller Seitz points out it’s clearly referenced in Super 8. Matt doesn’t list it as one of the best Spielberg knock-offs though or as he calls them the best fake Spielberg movies.
So, your turn. Best real Spielbergs? Best knock-off? How old were you when you had your first real boyfriend/girlfriend? Which should we see, Super 8 or X-Men: First Class?