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The monsters children make: ‘Super 8’ and ‘Submarine’

The first Super 8 camera came out in 1965. While there had been cameras and film stocks previously that were designed for home movies, Super 8 dramatically simplified — and popularized — home filmmaking.

The first Super 8 camera came out in 1965. While there had been cameras and film stocks previously that were designed for home movies, Super 8 dramatically simplified — and popularized — home filmmaking. The cameras were relatively cheap and easy to use. The film came in little cartridges that could just be popped in and out of a camera, and filmed about 3 minutes and 20 seconds worth of films. Once completed, you’d just drop the cartridge off at a local drug store or camera store, they’d mail it off, and a week or so later you’d get you film back, developed, on a reel, and ready to be shown.

It doesn’t sound like much now, I know, but, at its time, it was revolutionary. We’ll ignore the millions of hours of footage filmed by adults, which mostly consisted of children staring blankly at the camera while seated in front of a Christmas tree. No, Super 8 was a revolution of children. Great numbers of them hijacked their parents’ equipment, spent their allowances on cartridges, and started making their own movies. And, for whatever reason, most of them seem to have made horror movies.

There was an entire DVD of them that came out about a decade ago, and I have always regretted not purchasing it, as they were rather wonderful. It’s not just that the children had chosen to recreate popular movie monsters using their backyards, their mother’s makeup, and gallons of Karo Syrup, which substituted for blood. It’s also that they cast their friends in the films, and so created a genre of films in which children play adults, have the sorts of stilted conversations that children think adults have, and inhabit a world in which every single adult looks like a child. To the best of my knowledge, only one mainstream film has duplicated this avant garde approach: “Bugsy Malone,” a 1976 gangster film starring Scott Baio and Jodi Foster, which behaves exactly like a regular gangster film, except that the monsters shoot each other with pie guns.

Super 8
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Super 8

There is one of these child-produced creature features shot during the course of the new film “Super 8,” written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Stephen Spielberg, who also helped conceive of the storyline. The film is set in 1979, at the very tail end of Super 8 filmmaking — inexpensive videotape cameras would soon flood the market, making filmmaking cheaper, easier, and much less filmlike. It’s also about a decade after “Night of the Living Dead,” and so, rather than make a giant monster film or a werewolf or vampire movie, the kids in this film are making a zombie film. The trouble, as you no doubt have heard by now, is that they’re actually living in a giant monster movie. Something has escaped from an Air Force train derailment, the military is evacuating the town, and people and dogs have begun to disappear.

Interestingly, this is mostly treated as backdrop to the world of pre-teen filmmaking. The film’s children are mostly helpless and useless in dealing with an actual monster, and are a bit oblivious, despite having been the first witnesses to the monster’s first appearance. No, they’re caught up in the world of young moviemaking, and the real-world drama that accompanies that. Two of the kids, a heavyset director named Charles (Riley Griffiths) and an aspiring special-effects and makeup artist named Joe Lame (Joel Courtney), have a crush on their female actress, a brooding child of an alcoholic played by Elle Fanning, which creates a believable rift in their friendship. The gang of impromptu filmmakers don’t get along very well — they squabble the way children do, trading insults that are far more hurtful than they need be. For them, the monster invasion is an excellent backdrop to the Super 8 film they are making, and so they tend to show up wherever the military is, in pretending to be adults dealing with a monster while actual adults deal with an actual monster in the background. Eventually, of course, they are forced to take control of the main plot of the film, and it’s a bit disappointing. For my tastes, the making of the Super 8 film was the main plot, and I was disappointed to see it abandoned.

Fortunately, at the end, over the credits, the film created by the children plays. And it was, in part, actually created by the children. It’s absolutely perfect, and of course it is — Spielberg made films on Super-8 when he was a boy, and Abrams is the right age that he may have as well. They certainly have both the enthusiasm and the marvelous amateurism down. Moreover, they seem determined to create a new golden age of children who make horror movies. Subtly, the film is a texbook education in how to make films, from lighting and creating makeshift boom mics to costuming and makeup (it even name-drops Dick Smith’s book or horror makeup, a book that launched a thousand Hollywood monsters.) The film leaves out many of the busy details, like how to edit Super 8, and how to load it onto a projector.

But those details don’t really matter anymore. If you want to turn your child into a filmmaker, just spent $500 or so on an iPad, which has both a camera and editing software built in, and will upload a completed short film directly to YouTube. Spielberg and Abrams even offer a 99 cent app based on the movie, which I have used, and is terrific. Not only does it perfectly recreate the look of a Super 8 film, it has multiple lenses that can be switched out, and various filters to make the film stock look really degraded, as though there was a crack in the lens and light leaked in. You can also tap the screen to make the image jump its sprocket, and the final product has scratches and the fanlike clicking of the projector built in. All that’s required beyond this to make a movie is a group of kids and a lot of Karo Syrup.

Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

There’s another film out now about a young film fan, and I won’t say much about it, as I don’t have much room, except that it’s both impossibly twee and delightful. The film is called “Submarine,” and tells of a young Welsh boy in the ’70s whose native intelligence and social awkwardness makes him almost too precious to stand. The film details his attempts to woo an adorable but rather mean-spirited pyromaniac while at the same time saving his family’s marriage from the New Age guru who has moved next door. He’s spectacularly bad at both, which ends up being rather funny. It’s all intercut with ’60s-style montages — some shot on Super 8, which is how he envisions his life — and earnest but ironic folk rock, and it could be too much, really, much much too much.

Fortunately, first-time filmmaker Richard Ayoade, best-known to American audiences as a comic actor (he played Maurice in “The IT Crowd”) has a sense of humor that ranges from balmy to demented, and so his Wes Anderson-like attentiveness to affectation and quaintness is constantly undermined by the details this attentiveness produces, such as when the hero realizes that in order to get his girlfriend past her fear of death (her mother has a brain tumor), he must kill her dog. Now, don’t worry — this isn’t the tale of a budding psychopath. Instead, it’s the story of a young man whose experience of the world is almost entirely limited to the books he reads and the movies he sees. As a result, he’s out to sea when it comes to presenting himself to the world, and interacting with it.

In fact, he’s a child playacting at being a grownup, like the stars of the Super 8 movies kids used to make. Fortunately, he’s not alone. Pretty much everybody in “Submarine,” adults and children alike, are pretending to be able to get along in this world, and aren’t very good at it. And so, as they bumble, they hurt each other. But the film is generous — because everybody bumbles, they all can forgive each other, and go on to bumble some more.