About once an hour during the summer I spent working at Video Spectrum — a rental house in Bowling Green, Ohio — someone would burst through the door and demand a film that had been released in theaters the day before. Staggered release dates, a business technique as simple as it is well established, continually confounded our citizenry, much to my surprise. Worse, this seemed to result less from ignorance than from contempt: People were actually offended to find the shiny new thing on TV unavailable at the store. For all the ink spilled on the magic of the cinema, on how it creates mass spectacles, and on the overweening awe of the giant screen and its attendant bombast, the truth is that most people would rather just watch that shit at home. Yeah, they’ll miss elements of the mise-en-scene of Citizen Kane, and that pan-and-scan transfer of Ghostbusters is notoriously sloppy, but your average customer doesn’t really care. Theaters are places for mooching A/C and getting hickeys; movies are for forgetting your bills and getting your kids to shut the fuck up.
I confess I was sad when I learned of the Spectrum’s demise. Not for the authentic shopping experience, as in “Future generations will never know the ecstasy of serendipitously discovering The Howling IV — instead they shall merely ‘Google’ it!,” but for Bowling Green itself. Nestled in a small homogenous town in a state locked in protracted decline, Video Spectrum was a refuge for all the queers, pinkos, artists, stoners, and mentally ill of Wood County. This bizarre assemblage of VHS detritus was a space to engage briefly with the public between private viewings of vampire erotica, serial killer documentaries, and the late, lesser work of Godzilla. One guy’s entire rental history was Clean and Sober starring Michael Keaton, and I like to think that the store was as responsible for his sobriety as it was for my intoxication. The Spectrum paid me just enough to cover the requisite PBR and schwag to secure my master’s. It lent me my documentaries for free.
I’ve seen two summer “blockbusters” this year, two more than usual and two more than I plan on watching ever again. Neither cineaste nor cinema buff — indie video store job notwithstanding — I find most movies scab-pickingly boring, especially those most desperate to be otherwise. This is probably why I found J. J. Abrams’ patently inoffensive Super 8 so execrable. It’s a blockbuster about the magic of blockbusters. More precisely, it’s a Spielberg production about the magic of Spielberg, father of the modern blockbuster and living instantiation of the ultimate fanboy mythos: geek out, do it your own way, and, eventually, you will rule the world. Abrams, an entertainment industry brat who grew up in LA, inserts the Spielbergian ideology directly into the time period of his own childhood, opening his film with an irritatingly plucky group of youngsters who make science fiction shorts in a surprisingly mountainous Dayton of 1979. Even amid alien shenanigans, Abrams pasting his own face onto the master’s biography is the most interesting part of the whole convoluted presentation, the sort of thing that would be creepy even if Spielberg hadn’t produced it, which, of course, he did.
Once this incestuous backstory wraps up, the rest of the film spills out like a low-fat smoothie of Daddy’s greatest hits: Menacing off-screen monster hinted at via reaction shots (Jaws); telepathic connection with aliens threatened by scientific-military intervention (Close Encounters of the Third Kind); abused alien wants to go home but his ship is broken (E. T.); monster attacks a bus, trapping kids inside (Jurassic Park). The ragtag bunch of would-be Goonies is only missing a one-man Asian minstrel show and Corey Feldman. Abrams even manages to squeeze in a gratuitous concentration camp scene. But it’s not Abrams’ pastiche that grates — that battle was lost decades ago — it’s his hamfisted execution. It’s almost as though he actually believes that the trite, white love story between the bland one and the blonde one — the only female character Abrams doesn’t preemptively kill off or mercilessly belittle — is enough to compensate for the total absence of memorable action sequences, music, or visuals. Charles, the chubby aspiring director, voices Abrams’ screenwriting MO: saturate your monster movie with a romance subplot. “You feel something. You don’t want them to die because they love each other.” Color me unconvinced. Not only is chaste schoolboy romance the only thing more boring than rote CGI explosions, but by placing it center-stage Abrams actively misinterprets what exactly Spielberg did to break all those box office records. There was, in other words, always a certain cynical reason at work in the man who invented the PG-13 rating. In his movies, schoolboys get eaten by sharks.
Super 8, once it abandons its over-stretched meta-filmmaking frame, boils down to a simple allegory: The military-industrial complex destroyed small town America right around Reagan’s election. Steel mill accidents and references to Three Mile Island build into a set piece wherein US tanks blow each other up while incinerating quaint bungalows. There’s a shade of the hypnogogic effluvia of Time Bandits in the shower of vinyl siding, but with the edges smoothed off. Unlike Gilliam, mainstream hacks like Abrams never indulge in the weird pleasures of the surreal fantasies they construct, hustling us quickly past like cops at a car crash. He’s got to contain our enjoyment of suburban destruction with liberal platitudes about “bad apples” and “strong families.” In another reactionary break with Spielberg, Abrams pits Air Force bullies ripped from the Cobra Kai dojo against the virtuous cop-dad, forgoing his mentor’s insistence on the perpetual menace and ineptitude of authority figures. Somewhere amid the final expressions of pained endurance that constitute acting in post-9/11 Hollywood, a moral emerges: “Bad things happen, but you can still live,” a philosophy just a hair away from “Eat shit and like it.”
But this is a bit off: what Abrams wants to say is that bad things happen, but we can still make movies which nurture social bonds and plow the furrows for future nostalgia. Or maybe, we could have made such movies once. Today, his industry can barely muster the recalcitrant faithful to prop up the latest knockoff and convince themselves they liked it. The box office is down almost 10 percent this year and ticket sales have plateaued. I was in a theater with maybe twenty other people, most of them older than I am. For the price of my ticket, I can get either a month of Netflix or a bootleg DVD and a six pack (which is how I took in the turgid X-Men reboot), plus infinite free Tumblrs, YouTubes, and porn. We’re not going to the theater, and the video store doesn’t exist. We’re weathering war and recession at home in our underwear, eating Chinese takeout and getting wasted, the distractions of the entertainment industry still somehow not cheap enough.