Sunday, June 12, 2011

Periodizing the Present: Nostalgia in X-Men: First Class and Super 8

A quick glance at this year’s slew of summer blockbusters suggests a noticeable turn to other historical moments: Captain America, Pirates of the Caribbean, Cowboys and Aliens all suggest that this years escapist entertainment is trying to escape the present. Of course such period escapism is not new, but it is striking against the usual tendency of remakes, which set everything in the eternal present with the most current B-list actors, pop songs, and hairstyles. (As I suggested earlier, the remake is an evasion of history) Within this crop of movies two films stand out in that they are not just set in the past, but set in the film styles and conventions of a bygone era. These films are X-Men: First Class and Super 8
The first of these, X-Men is not just set in the sixties, but it is set in the narrative conventions of early James Bond films. As with those films the narrative is structured by the cold war, but the true antagonist is a shadowy and wealthy megalomaniac (complete with femme fatale sidekick and bachelor pad submarine) who intends to exasperate the conflict for his own ends, not the Soviet Union. The Cold War is viewed nostalgically in this film; it is not just a simpler time with clearly demarcated enemies, but is a massive misunderstanding amongst generals who would rather be friends. It turns out that the brinkmanship that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis is the product of a mutant conspiracy and not US imperialism or Russian authoritarianism. The film’s nostalgic view of a simpler time when well dressed men in “war rooms” anxiously watched radar screens and barked orders into blinking red phones is disturbed by the awareness of the present, which filters in like the sounds of an alarm clock into a dream. 

The “war against the mutants” functions as a metaphor for the “war on terror:” in each case the war is asymmetrical battle with a clandestine enemy, against which the primary weapons are preemptive strikes and indefinite detentions. Thus, the film’s sympathetic attitude towards the mutants is turned to a critical view towards the US government, which thanks the mutants for defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis by staging a massive preemptive strike on the beach near Guantánamo Bay. (A preemptive strike on Guantánamo suggest that we have not entirely left the present.)

I realize that I have said little about the way the film figures the mutants themselves. It seems to me that the film slightly shifts the emphasis to civil rights, with its all too easy metaphor of a persecuted minority in which Magneto stands in for Malcolm X and Dr. Charles Xavier stands in for Dr. Martin Luther King. In this film the conflict is not yet between separation and desegregation, but between practice and theory. Xavier has written a thesis on evolutionary conflict, studying how the early humans wiped out the Neanderthals, but is unwilling to see the practical implications of his study for the present. Magneto, however, is all about practice: he doesn’t want to think about mutant liberation but wants to seize it. This opposition of theory and practice works well with their respective powers: Xavier thinks and reads the thoughts of others, while Magneto violently externalizes his anger. 

Super 8 is more explicitly about nostalgia. It is a film not just about childhood, but also about the films of the director’s childhood. It is not a remake or a reboot, but a tribute to early Spielberg. All of the elements of Spielberg’s early films: a dysfunctional family, E.T.; a group of plucky kids on and adventure, Goonies; a government cover-up, Close Encounters of the Third Kind; an unseen creature, Jaws; and an attack on a motor vehicle, Jurassic Park. The film is also remarkably similar to Paul, a movie that could be also described as a Spielberg tribute. Like Paul, released earlier this year, it maps the secret government project of Area 51 with Guantánamo Bay, both films deal with an alien that has escaped a government lab after years of confinement and torture. The timing of each corresponds to the Roswell crash, an event that corresponds with the Cold War. Fictions of the secret program to contain and restrain the alien allude to a darker history of US involvement during the Cold War.

The fact that the US government tortures and detains individuals for years has arguably become commonplace. At the beginning of the “war on terror” torture appeared in solemn and serious films and TV shows, all of which touted its “ripped from today’s headlines” relevance, that it now has become a generic plot element perhaps reveals how accepted it has become.  Perhaps, but it might be too hasty to read such narratives as ones of acquiescence, doing so overlooks how much movies and tv are filled with sinister government agents and evil corporations. In the dark our darkest fantasies about our world come to light. 

What is perhaps striking about Super 8 is that it is about a conflict at the level of cinema production. The kids who are at the center of the movie are making a movie, hence the title, a movie that borrows less from Spielberg than Romero (this connection is made explicit in the movie within a movie which runs during the closing credits and is definitely worth sticking around for). The movie within the movie is a tribute to Romero not just in that it is a zombie film, but also in its budget and spirit. The kids making the movie adapt to every event, such the train crash and the military occupying the town, incorporating them into their film in the name of “production values.” In this way they demonstrate the bricoleur quality, the ability to adjust to changing circumstances and events, which is at the origin of cinema’s history and the history of every director. Everyone has heard the story of Jaws and the failures of the mechanical shark, which transformed and improved that original Spielberg film (effectively making him a household name). Digital effects have eradicated the need for such on the fly adaptations and transformations: CGI monsters always work which is why they are perhaps so disappointing. Low budget ingenuity (Romero) and digital calculations (Spielberg) did battle during those seminal years of the Hollywood blockbuster and the stronger, faster digital special effects won that particular evolutionary battle. The trailer for Transformers 3 reveals how much of a loss that particular victory was.


Ian Thal said...

Ami Eden of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency makes a strong claim that the Charles Xavier/Magneto pairing is more analogous to Rabbis Irving Greenberg and Meir Kahane respectively, both in terms of ideologies (Magneto's aggressiveness is certainly more like Kahane than Malcom X) as well as the biographical (i.e. Both the real life pair and fictitious pair were friends whose ideological differences made them enemies; both real life and fictitious pairs were responding directly to the experience of the Holocaust.)

unemployed negativity said...

That is interesting, but what struck me about the recent film is that it made the duo more of a conflict between theory (Xavier) and practice (Magneto) than the old one of tactics. Xavier intellectual understands the conflict, he did his research on human evolution and the extinction of neanderthals, but he doesn't practically accept it. Magneto, on the other hand, viscerally understands it. There is a slight critique of academia in the film, the Professor who gets everything in theory but not in practice, which I liked.

However, all of this is ruined by making Sebastian Shaw the real villan and torturer of young Magneto. He is after all a mutant.

The film muddles its holocaust metaphor, making mutants both the victims, for being different, and the executioners, for the belief in genetic superiority.

Ian Thal said...

Well, isn't that the problem with attempting to use the superhero genre as a means of dealing with real-world political and social issues? In order to stay within the genre formula, these superpowered protagonists cannot actually be so powerful to solve the world's problems or the series increasingly becomes set in a world that the audience relates to less and less.

Of course, the Evil Sebastian Shaw manipulating things in the background does fit in, not as an analogue to any real world figure, but because in the mind of the modern anti-Semite who sees a Holocaust as a desirable option, that's exactly how they see "The Jew": an uncannily powerful race that controls governments, the media, the political parties, the universities, corporations, labor unions, the banks, and keeps the world in conflict for its own race's benefit.

In short, if we do go with Eden's view that Xavier and Magneto can be seen as analogues for two different visions of Jewish political power after the Holocaust, then Sebastan Shaw becomes an analogue for how the anti-Semite views Jewish political power.

I'm not certain that this was an intended analogy, but it certainly makes more sense than the popular MLK v. Malcolm X dichotomy which only started being trumpeted (and not very thoughtfully at that) with regards to the X-Men sometime back in the 1980s.