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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Super 8 and the Real Presence, Part 2

It is not, of course, that J.J. Abrams in his new film Super 8 is saying anything explicit about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. My point, rather, is that for all its character as a “summer popcorn movie” (Abrams’s own description), Super 8 reflects our culture’s hunger for the experience of “real presence” in our ordinary lives—and therefore, on a deeper level, the hunger for the most Real Presence of all.

In his lead editorial of the June 2011 Magnificat, Father Peter John Cameron names three constituents of real presence on both the human and supernatural levels: commitment, communication, and communion. Yesterday I considered the theme of commitment in Super 8; today I want to say a word about the theme of communication.

It is no coincidence, Father Cameron observes, that receiving the Eucharist at Mass is called “communicating.” For it is in the Eucharist that the faithful enjoy the most intimate encounter with the Lord possible on this earth, in which we have a chance to speak but more importantly to listen. “The goal of conversational communication and eucharistic communication is the same,” writes Father Cameron, “the sharing of self with the other. Pope Benedict XVI says that conversation between people only comes into its own when they are no longer trying to express something, but trying to express themselves….” Real communication, on both the human and supernatural levels, is a meeting in that quiet, hidden place where, in the motto of Cardinal Newman, cor ad cor loquitur: “heart speaks to heart.”

The name of Abrams’ movie is Super 8. The name comes from the type of motion picture film stock—8 mm, made by Kodak—popular with home movie enthusiasts in the 1970s. In the movie, the tween protagonist Joe Lamb and his friends are making a Super 8 zombie film, a movie that eventually helps the kids rescue their town from an alien menace. Thus Abrams harks back to his own childhood as a Super 8 film enthusiast (ironically, years before Abrams met Steven Spielberg, the executive producer of Super 8, he was paid $300 by Spielberg’s company to clean up some of Spielberg’s own boyhood Super 8 films). So the first thing that Abrams wants to communicate about his film is that it is about filmmaking—the most characteristic form of communication of our age. Super 8 celebrates kids in an era where DIY filmmaking is surging to the fore, kids yearning to express themselves through this exciting new medium that they now have the means to control. True, what the kids are making is a cheesy zombie movie—stay for the credits after Super 8 and you’ll see the hilarious finished product. But as I noted yesterday, their film can be seen as an adolescent meditation, equal parts puerile and charming, on the meaning of death. Interestingly, their finished film ends with the detective in pursuit of the zombies saving his zombified wife by injecting her with an antidote. The main theme of Super 8 is thus recapitulated in the kids’ own Super 8 film: loving sacrifice enables one to remain alive even when “bad things happen.”

Related to this theme of filmmaking as communication is the eagerness of Charles (Riley Griffiths), Joe’s best friend and the writer-director of the kids’ film, to find “production value”—elements that will make the film seem more real. When the train carrying the alien first comes around the corner near the station where the kids are filming, Charles orders everybody quickly into place so that they can get the real train in the background of the shot. So too when the kids use the Air Force as a backdrop when it scours the town for evidence of the missing alien’s presence. Filmmaking for the kids, as it is for our culture, is a way of making things real, of getting to the real, of finding that “value” in which we encounter—not simply trains and soldiers—but that “other” with whom we can express our heart.

Heart speaks to heart in Super 8 not only through the medium of film, but also through conversation. Because of their lack of commitment to their children, both Joe’s father and Alice’s father are unable at the outset to communicate with them. Joe’s father would even like to send his son to six weeks at a baseball camp, simply to be relieved of the burden of having to care for him. Later in the story Joe reacts angrily to his father’s failure to communicate with him, shouting at his father that he doesn’t even know him.

Apart from his last-ditch speech to the alien at the climax of the film, it is in his relationship with Alice that Joe experiences the genuine communication he longs for. One of the nicest things about Super 8 is that it doesn’t push this budding tween romance too far. The kids spend time alone together, even sneaking out at night to do so, but Abrams is wise to keep the relationship innocent. What is nice is that the kids are far more interested in talking to one another. They are starving for communication—to be known. So that even when they are alone together at night in Joe’s room, they spend the time talking about Joe’s mother’s death and watching Super 8 movies of Joe as a baby with his mother.

The need to communicate who one is and to receive the real presence of another: this is a second lesson of Super 8. Tomorrow we'll take a look at the theme of communion in the film. 


  1. looking forward to part 3. i found super 8 to be rather campy, and i wonder how that affects the 'real presence', as it can be hard to tell what is 'real' as opposed to intentionally cliche or self-aware. in a way, 'the case' (the children's film) seems a lot more sincere to me than super 8--specifically because of the care that we see the director put into it. the film reel of joe and his mother got a few 'awhs' in the theatre, but i felt uneasy about it, as it seemed extremely unoriginal/cliched. obviously, abrams knows what he's doing, and the film is a bit campy. for me, that undermined that 'real presence.' not to say i was disappointed by the movie though!

  2. You're right, Benjamin, there is a bit of campiness in the film in that Abrams is sending up elements of late 70s popular culture. But I think the film has an emotional core "underneath" the campiness in which Abrams is trying to say something valuable, however vague and limited it may be (for more on what I mean by this, see Part 3 of "Super 8 and the Real Presence.")