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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Super 8 and the Real Presence, Part 3

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
John 15:4

Communion: the third constituent of “real presence.” “What differentiates real presence from just being with others in a crowd,” writes Father Cameron, “is belonging: unity in charity, forgiveness, helping people, self-sacrifice, intimacy. We long for this oneness with others; united with the one who loves me, I can face any fear…I am up to any challenge. In the Most Holy Eucharist, wrote John Paul II, “is the pledge of the fulfillment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns” (Ecclesia de Eucharista 59).”

In Super 8 J.J. Abrams plays with this theme of communion in the relationships between the kids, in the relationships between Joe and Alice and their fathers, and in the relationship between Joe and Alice themselves. But it also arises in a curious way in regard to the alien menace. The kids’ biology teacher at their middle school, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), is a former government employee at Area 51, and knows all about the alien. For years he has been hiding his research on the monster, including a Super 8 film showing him being attacked by the alien at an Area 51 facility. After he is captured by the U.S. Air Force, Woodward reminds his interrogator, Nelec (Noah Emmerich), that a kind of psychic connection has been forged between him and the alien. “He lives in me,” says Woodward, “and I in him”—an echo, wittingly or not on Abrams’ part—of both John 15:4 and Galatians 2:20.

There is something in the alien’s touch that causes this strange connection. So that when the alien picks Joe up in their climactic encounter, Joe also enters into psychic communion with it (as do, presumably, the other people whom the alien captures, such as Alice). But it’s not clear what all this amounts to. The alien does listen to Joe’s plea in the climactic scene (see Tuesday’s post), but it seems to be the plea itself, rather than the psychic connection of which Woodward speaks, that persuades the alien to let Joe go. At least when it comes to the alien, then, this theme of communion, of entering into the very life of the other, enters as a bit of sci-fi mysticism but it is never really explored.

In a film in which the principal theme is how to go on living in the face of death (again, see Tuesday’s post), it is tempting to wonder whether the alien might be an image of supernatural life. But nothing in the film supports this possibility. True enough, the alien is from another, unknown world, and does turn out to have a benevolent side. But rather than representative of a transcendent realm, the alien is more a projection of Joe’s—and Alice’s—own psychic life, an imaginary friend with super-human strength and intelligence, but with the same emotional needs. Right before the climax in which he is captured by the alien, Alice tells Joe that the alien, like them, is just scared and lonely and wants to go home. So that when Joe tells it, “Bad things happen—but you can still live,” the alien realizes that it is being spoken to by a kindred spirit. The alien then lets Joe go, quickly finishes rebuilding its ship, and goes home, leaving all of us to wonder: what does the movie mean when it declares that we can “still live” in the face of bad things?

It means, I take it, that we can still live in the loving relationships we have with other living people—and not by trying to hang on to those who have gone before us (the last thing the magnetic attraction of the alien’s space ship draws to it is the locket in which Joe keeps a picture of his dead mother). There is obvious wisdom in this. Super 8 is undoubtedly affirming the real presence that is achieved through forgiveness, helping other people, self-sacrifice, and intimacy—and for that reason it has the “heart” that Abrams has said he strove to give to the film. And yet, apart from some fleeting images of a church (or synagogue?), Super 8 leaves no room for expanding that presence through the experience of Divine intimacy. In the film, communion is wholly and exclusively a human achievement, played out in a world underneath a heaven containing nothing more than creatures just as strange as ourselves. Writes Father Cameron, “Pope Benedict teaches us “that “communion always and inseparably has both a vertical and a horizontal sense: it is communion with God and communion with our brothers and sisters” (Sacramentum Cartitatis 76).””

As so in reflecting upon Super 8, as so often when I think about contemporary films, I am reminded of the words uttered by Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer: “the movies are onto the search, but they screw it up.” 

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