It is no slight to the new J.J. Abrams film, Super 8, that while I was watching it I was thinking of the editorial by Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P. at the front of this month’s Magnificat. Super 8 is just about everything one could want from a summer blockbuster—thrills, chills, comedy and heart. Abrams is a master of high concept storytelling—and judging from the success Super 8 enjoyed in its opening weekend, not to mention the successes of Abrams’ other projects, e.g., the television series Alias and Lost, and the feature film, Star Trek, it is clear that his stories are giving a large portion of our culture something that it badly longs for. Which is where Fr. Cameron’s editorial comes in.
Fr. Cameron notes a recent survey concluding that close to fifty percent of American Catholics do not understand the Church’s teaching on Christ’s Real Presence—body, blood, soul and divinity—in the Eucharist. He speculates that a big part of the reason for this is that we do not understand “real presence” in our daily lives—on account of which the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist becomes an abstraction. “People have no frame of reference for seeing its relevance to their needs.”
I think it’s true that our culture in many ways undermines the experience of “real presence” in everyday life, and thus contributes to the disconnect between even acknowledged believers and Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. But I also think that the success of Super 8 shows that our culture maintains a deep longing for “real presence,” not to mention Real Presence, especially when we consider the three constituents of “real presence” according to Fr. Cameron: commitment, communication, and communion.
Let’s begin with commitment. Fr. Cameron writes that commitment begins “very simply by giving the person in front of me my undivided attention.” He refers to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s remarkable ability to make the person he was looking at feel as if he or she was the only person in the world. In Super 8, the virtue of eye contact is very much in play when the tween protagonist, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), describes to his friend, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the way in which his (now deceased) mother used to look at him so intensely. It was in her gaze, Joe says, that he felt “alive,”—a feeling he tries to keep fresh by carrying a locket with his mother’s picture inside. Super 8 is a film about finding that place where we can feel confidently alive in the commitment of the other. In one way it is a movie about death. The opening scenes depict the aftermath of the death of the Joe’s mother. The story takes place in the town of Lillian, Ohio—the lily being one of the most traditional images of death. Joe is the “lamb” led to slaughter. The super 8 movie that Joe and his friends are making, and that leads to their encounter with the alien, is a zombie film—a projection, one might say, of their fear and fascination with death. But Super 8 questions how one can maintain the sense of being alive even in the face of death. As Joe tells the alien at the climax, in another moment of close eye contact in which trust and commitment are forged, “Bad things happen…but you can still live.”
While death is the biggest obstacle to commitment in the film, the family dysfunction that in part results from death also looms large. When Super 8 begins, the very first image that comes on screen, even before the story itself gets underway, is the famous silhouette image from E.T. that Steven Spielberg, the executive producer of Super 8, uses as the logo for his production company, Amblin Entertainment. In that silhouette image we see Elliott, the boy protagonist of E.T., cycling in front of the full moon with the alien E.T. in the basket of his bike. E.T. is not only, through Spielberg, a kind of commercial ancestor of Super 8; it is also Super 8’s creative and emotional ancestor. Spielberg has said that he made E.T. as a way of meditating upon his boyhood as the child of divorced parents. Super 8 also deals with family dysfunction, not through divorce, but through the disconnect between Joe and his father (Kyle Chandler) in the wake of his mother’s death, as well as through a similar disconnect between Alice and her single-parent father (Ron Eldard), who drinks and emotionally abuses her. But after the encounter with the alien which puts both Joe and Alice in grave danger, both fathers discover the need to commit wholly and entirely to the well-being of their children. They discover the importance of the gaze, and the touch, that registers true commitment.
The root of man’s wretchedness, Father Cameron quotes Pope Benedict, “is loneliness—is the fact that my existence is not embraced by a love that makes it necessary.” Super 8 ends with the embraces of two fathers in which the lives of their children are confirmed as necessary. “I’ve got you,” Joe’s father says to him as he hugs him—meaning, perhaps, not only that he has got Joe back physically, but also that he has finally “got” what Joe needs from him as a father.
Tomorrow we'll take a look at Super 8 and the theme of communication.