Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Hollywood Scapegoat: The Rise and Fall of Roscoe Arbuckle [Film School Paper Series]

Included below is a paper that I wrote for TMA 291: Media Arts History I. This class essentially covered the history of film from its inception in the late 1800s to 1945. I became acquainted with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. I found the life of Arbuckle to be so fascinating that I wanted to delve deeper into his tragic life story. Thus, this research paper was born.


Gene Fowler, a noted screenwriter during the early days of talkies, said, “Hollywood is a celluloid gut that must be nourished endlessly, an all-devouring gut that greedily takes in and speedily rids itself of talents fed to it from enchanted salvers. A victim of this gluttony enjoys a drugged moment of wealth, huzzas, and statuettes…but once the jaws of the man-eater close upon him, his lot becomes that of any other morsel” (Young). It is uncertain when he was quoted as saying this, but one may have musings that he was/would be referring to the great silent comedian Roscoe Arbuckle, who enjoyed fame and fortune comparable to that of Charlie Chaplin at the height of his career. But, as with many Hollywood figures of fame and fortune, Arbuckle’s life would end tragically and abruptly, once the “man-eaters close[d] upon him.”
Yet the works and contribution of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle to the evolution of silent comedy are undisputable. Although Arbuckle was later deemed as “Hollywood’s Scapegoat,” he contributed to film history a large filmography that combined physical comedy with intelligent stagecraft, and influenced other comedians of the silent era, including Buster Keaton, and left an undeniable legacy on silent comedy that was tragically cut short. Herein I will attempt to examine Arbuckle’s early career, which included work at Keystone Films with producer Mack Sennett, as well as his collaborations with producer Joseph Schenck with his series of Comique comedies, which include a few of Arbuckle’s significant films that he made with Buster Keaton. Then I will take a brief look at the 1921 scandal that marred Arbuckle’s name, and look at the effect it had on his later career and his life in general, and briefly touch upon the events of his life after he was acquitted.

Keystone Films

There are many stories which report the origins of Arbuckle’s employment for producer Mack Sennett at the Keystone Film Company. These theories range from simply showing up in Sennett’s office and saying, “Name’s Arbuckle. Roscoe Arbuckle. Call me ‘Fatty’. I’m with a stock company. I’m a funnyman and an acrobat. Bet I could do good in pictures. Whatcha think?” (Young, 31), to him going into a “feather-light time-step,” clapping his hands and doing a backwards somersault. Although these theories, and there are many more, are certainly interesting, the most plausible is the theory where he met Keystone comedian Fred Mace in the streetcar on his way to the studio to look for work, getting a quick rundown on Sennett and Keystone from Mace, and then being taken on the lot and introduced to the “cigar-chewing producer,” as well as a young Mabel Normand (Young). It’s said that Sennett was not particularly impressed with Arbuckle at the time, but that it was Mabel Normand who sensed Roscoe’s potential, and urged Sennett to hire him (Young). Robert Young, in his book Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography, states, “In Mabel Normand, Roscoe could not have made a better first friend at Keystone. She had Sennett’s ear, and often was able to persuade him, against his stubborn Irish will, to follow her almost always correct instincts” (Young, 32). Her instincts about Roscoe Arbuckle would later turn all three of them into household names.
            Between June 1913 and May 1916, Fatty and Mabel starred in 36 films together for Mack Sennett and the Keystone Film Company, the first of which was The Gangsters (1913), where Arbuckle played as a cop. The film was not as financially successful as any producer would hope, but rather served to prove to Sennett that “The Fat Boy” was agile, funny, and made a good comic cop (Young). Mabel convinced Sennett that Arbuckle had tremendous potential as a leading man, which led to Arbuckle signing a contract which took him to earning upwards of  $1,000 per week less than a year later (Young). In today’s terms, that equals roughly $24,000 per week (CPI). The teaming of Roscoe and Mabel was a move that greatly accelerated the careers of both people, and their frequent roles as innocent sweethearts won-over audiences worldwide. The “Fat Boy” radiated charm, and Mabel had an infectious smile (Young). After Mack Sennett let Charlie Chaplin slip through his fingers and into a rival studio (for allegedly not wanting to give him a raise, which Sennett later on said that he regretted), “Arbuckle finally won the much-sought-after position of top comedian on the lot…bringing with it control of his own film unit and… [trust] from Sennett” (Edmonds, 82).
By 1916, the “Fatty” comedies had hit their stride. They had evolved into “two-reelers” and had become enormously successful, with plots that usually ran along the lines of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl,” and they usually featured happy, romantic endings (Edmonds). Other hallmarks of the Sennett-controlled Fatty films include, but are not limited to, custard pies flying from all directions without provocation, gangs of uncoordinated policemen arriving late at the scene and being unable to do anything to help the situation, cars running through busy traffic intersections, only to come to a stop on a set of railroad tracks with a train inevitably bearing down on it. Film critic Anthony Slide contended that the lack of a plausible story in these films was the reason why these comedies were such a huge success from the outset. “There was no legitimate reason for whatever happened on the screen. The pace at which the comedy was put over was the most important thing, and this pace was maintained by skillful editing techniques” (Oderman, 43). A Mack Sennett comedy, unlike stage plays of the time, meant frantic men and pretty women and constant action. But, as had Chaplin before him, Sennett was about to let Arbuckle slip through his penny-pinching fingers and into the arms of a different studio.

Comique Film Corporation

Paramount Pictures agent Lou Anger somehow managed to slip past studio guards and make his way to Arbuckle’s Keystone set in 1916. Anger offered Arbuckle $1,000 per day starting salary, and complete control over his pictures, with the possibility of earning an annual salary of $1 million in three years’ time, if his films were successful at the box office (Oderman). Following a health crisis wherein his leg was set to be amputated and he was prescribed heroin for the easing of the pain, Arbuckle began shooting his first film for Paramount, called The Butcher Boy (1917). While shooting on the set, Lou Anger introduced Arbuckle to a skinny young vaudeville veteran named Buster Keaton. “From the start, Arbuckle implicitly trusted him with the more intricate and dangerous jobs. Within three months he was assistant director” (Young, 57). One of the first things that Keaton was hired for was to take a fall by catching a bag of flour with his face. Said Keaton, “Roscoe is weighing out sacks of flour and tying them up when a yokel fight breaks out in the store. He’s to heave a sack at Al St. John and Al’s to duck. This will let it arrive special delivery to my head” (Young, 57). And take that heaved sack of flour to the head he did, to the delight of Arbuckle and audiences: Keaton had carried out the scene perfectly, and the first take was the only take (Young).
The Butcher Boy wouldn’t necessarily be a very noteworthy film if it weren’t for two key factors: It was Arbuckle’s first film with his own film unit, and it was the film debut of Buster Keaton. Because Arbuckle had enjoyed so much success by playing the Fatty character at Keystone, for The Butcher Boy he stuck with what he knew worked. It is clear from viewing the film that Arbuckle was very aware of his audience, and of their love for the Fatty character, and further exposition on his character was unnecessary because it had already been established with audiences. Because of Arbuckle’s immediate liking to Keaton, it is certainly possible that Keaton made creative suggestions to Arbuckle while collaborating on The Butcher Boy. However, this being Keaton’s first film set experience, he was likely too new to the process of making moving pictures to explore more than a handful of creative options (Neibaur).
Between May and October of 1917, Roscoe and Buster would follow The Butcher Boy with five more fast-paced, gag-filled comedies. These included A Reckless Romeo, The Rough House (where, it is noted, that Arbuckle originated the dancing dinner rolls sequence that was later taken and used in The Gold Rush by Charlie Chaplin in 1925 (Young)), His Wedding Night, Oh, Doctor!, and Fatty at Coney Island, wherein Roscoe and Buster took over the famous New York amusement park with hilarious and disastrous results. It was while filming Fatty at Coney Island that Arbuckle had a near brush with being framed for rape. The film unit was on location at the amusement park, and Roscoe was in his resting room, “…when a well-endowed sixteen year-old extra [who had been] hired for the summer knocked and entered holding two bathing suits in front of her. ‘Which one shall I wear?’ she asked, dropping the first one [and] then the other to stand stark naked and smiling. Shaken, Arbuckle wasted no time leaving the room, later telling Buster, who asked why the girl had been fired, ‘I had enough sense to get the hell out of there fast. The door [just about] knocked her mother down. She was all set to bust in. Daughter would scream. Ma would yell, ‘Rape!’ And here would come Pa with the shotgun’” (Young, 58). This event had such an impact on Roscoe, that he convinced Joseph Schenck that the best place to work was in California. Thus, Arbuckle and Keaton, with their Comique Film unit in tow, moved to a vacant studio on Sixth and Alamitos streets in Long Beach (Young, 58). Here on the west coast, after weeks of living “like a gypsy” (Young, 59), Arbuckle checked into a room at the Hollywood Hotel, where another one of the guests was a young actress named Virginia Rappe, who, little did Roscoe know, would end up making a serious impact on his life and career.
Once the Comique Film Company was settled on the west coast, little time was wasted. Working on a schedule of seven or eight weeks per film, they turned out a series of extremely successful two-reelers that had Paramount executives glowing. Some of these films included The Bell Boy, Moonshine, Good Night, Nurse!,  and The Cook, which marked Keaton’s final film appearance before being called up in the Army during World War I in June 1918 (Young). For Keaton, life in the military had “…all the logic of a Sennett two-reeler: his uniform never fit, his shoes were too big, and, after a brief training period at Long Island’s Camp Upton, he found himself stationed outside Paris in a village where the rain never seemed to stop” (Oderman, 126). Keaton was eventually tasked with setting up a comedy troupe with anybody who had had any performance ability, and dubbed them “The Sunshine Boys.” The Sunshine Boys would perform for the troops wherever the 140th Infantry was stationed, and Keaton greatly enjoyed the experience.
Back at home, Arbuckle also soldiered on. The period of 11 months wherein Arbuckle worked without Keaton is an interesting time to examine, as the films were created without Keaton’s notable suggestions and ideas for gags. Arbuckle’s own capabilities were the reason for the success of the two-reelers, but Buster’s influence over the past several films had had a discernable impact (Neibaur). Al St. John, who had been overshadowed by Keaton when he joined the company, stepped up to fill the void. One of the most interesting films during this period of Arbuckle without Keaton is the film Love (1919). Love is an extremely funny, incredibly clever short that presents some of Arbuckle’s best gags within the context of a standard plot that revolved around Fatty and Al fighting over a rural girl. One of the most fascinating things about Love is how it continued to explore the possibilities that were offered by the film medium, which is something that had piqued Keaton’s interest perhaps even more than it had Arbuckle’s. A film like Love shows how far Roscoe had come from his Keystone roots as both a comedian and a filmmaker. Part of it was something to do with Keaton being so great of an inspiration, but, as Arbuckle scholars are quick to point out, this film was made while Buster was off at war, and thus “exhibited Arbuckle’s own comic prowess and cleverness as a filmmaker” (Neibaur, 131).

Scandal

As the teens rolled towards the Roaring Twenties, there were many very funny people making movies, but there were only two geniuses starring in them: Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle. Both were masters of comedy and knew their craft well. Both had evolved from Keystone knockabout films into filmmakers of substance and insight. Both enjoyed full creative control over their work, and each would soon graduate to feature-length films by the end of the decade (Neibaur).  However, Arbuckle did not have the same artful presentation as did Chaplin, and it appears from his films that he feared straying too far from his Keystone roots. Yet notwithstanding his humble origins, Arbuckle had evolved into a massive movie star. By this point in his career, he was making a salary of $4,500 per week (Young, 60) (or around $62,000 per week adjusted for inflation) (CPI). Arbuckle spent his wealth in numerous ways. At the advice of Lou Anger, Roscoe invested in “a local suburban baseball team, the Vernon Tigers. The players rewarded him by winning a championship and showing a profit. At home games he had a special, extra-wide seat in the stands, and now and then wore a team uniform in which he posed for a baseball trading card” (Young, 62). Seeing the west coast as his new home, he purchased a secluded mansion from Los Angeles socialite Randolph Huntington Miner for the sum of $250,000 (Young, 60) (or about $3.5 million) (CPI), and decked it out with furnishings from all over the world, including a $15,000 front door from Spain, “lush oriental rugs, antique china and crystal, and imported mahogany paneling” (Young, 60). Arbuckle’s acquisition of a home meant it was party time when his work day ended.
Roscoe was liked by just about everyone, and he was in cahoots with all of Hollywood’s reigning royalty. He went to their parties, and they regularly turned out for his, often partying through the night (Young). By September 1921, Roscoe had completed a bee-line schedule that included three features, and he was physically exhausted. Thus, he planned to drive up to San Francisco to spend the impending Labor Day weekend at the St. Francis Hotel, a particular favorite of his, and a regular guest of the hotel when he was in town. On Labor Day, Monday, September 5th, 1921, Roscoe held a lavish party in the twelfth-floor suite that he had reserved for the weekend. In attendance at this party were industry figures, executives, agents, actors, including Virginia Rappe, an actress who had been down on her luck in recent years, and who had met Arbuckle a few years previously. One notably absent figure from this party was Buster Keaton, who had had other plans for the weekend (Young). As the party progressed, Virginia drank too much too soon. She passed out, and attempts to revive her proved fruitless. Arbuckle “booked another room down the hall and had her put to bed. Her illness persisted” (Young, 65), and after three medical doctors had examined her and had administered drugs, including morphine, she was moved to a private hospital, the Wakefield Sanitarium” (Young).
At the hospital, they learned that Rappe had a venereal disease and she had been suffering the side effects for upwards of six weeks. Her friend Bambina Maude Delmont, “a woman of few scruples and few morals whose sordid past include prostitution, swindling, and blackmail” (Young, 65), sensed an opportunity to make big money out her Virginia’s condition. Thus, she began telling all who would listen the lie that Roscoe had raped the girl while she was in a drunken stupor, and then ruptured her bladder with his great weight (Young). A telegram was later discovered by authorities that originated form Delmont, stating “We have Roscoe Arbuckle in a hole here. Chance to make some money out of him” (Young, 65). This malicious lie would go on to do untold damage, damage that Roscoe would learn of in the months following Labor Day 1921, when his hard-earned and cherished fame was “dishonestly and viciously turned to totally undeserved disgrace and public contempt” (Young, 65). Assured that Rappe would be all right, Arbuckle checked out of the St. Francis Hotel and made his way back to Los Angeles. On September 9th, 1921, at 1:30pm, Rappe succumbed to her illness and died. It is noted that “at no time during her illness did Rappe accuse Arbuckle of any misconduct, and she loudly denied he had injured her in any way when others tried to get her to do so” (Young, 66).
The events that followed Virginia Rappe’s death happened in rapid succession. Upon learning of her death, Delmont went to the press and the police, demanding that Arbuckle be arrested and prosecuted on a murder charge. Paramount, wanting to protect their highest-grossing actor, called upon famed criminal defense attorney Earl Rogers. Rogers, an older man who was sick and dying himself, almost accepted the case, but had to decline, saying, “Arbuckle’s weight will damn him. He is charged with an attack on this girl that resulted in her death. He will no longer be the roly-poly, good-natured funny fat man that everybody loves. He will become a monster. If he were an ordinary man, his own spotless reputation [and] clean pictures would save him. They’ll never convict him, but this will ruin him and maybe motion pictures for some time” (Young, 67). Many people were out to get Arbuckle, and the first two trials played out like a circus. They were marked by claims of witness tampering, faked evidence, and the mysterious absence of his main agitator, Bambina Delmont. Eventually, both trials ended up as mistrials. Meanwhile, in the wake of much uncertainty, Arbuckle’s salary was suspended; his films were pulled from exhibition houses all across the country, and even his films in England and Switzerland were banned from being shown (Young). A third trial was called, and this time nothing was left out: witnesses were questioned so intensely that one of them passed out on the stand (Young). Rappe’s past was thoroughly checked and double-checked: she had at one time been a prostitute, had undergone at least five abortions by the time she was sixteen years old, had a history of bladder problems that often resulted in her going “berserk and tearing at her clothing when affected by alcohol” (Young, 70), and had suffered from a number of venereal diseases. Roscoe, ever the gentleman, hated his attorney’s having to “drag the dead girl’s character through the legal mud” (Young, 71). While the verdict of not guilty cemented his innocence, it was a battle that was won in a war that had already been lost (Young).
Having been acquitted of the crime, Arbuckle was ready to get back to work, but the American public wasn’t ready to have him. All showings of his films were cancelled, and his films were banned from being shown in many of the states. He sold his mansion and his cars and was heavily in debt for the legal fees of his three trials. Many in Hollywood shunned him for fear that their careers would turn south if they associated with him. Buster Keaton had taken over as the star of the Comique Film Company and had renamed it Buster Keaton Productions, although they remained friends. Arbuckle tried doing more two-reelers, even going to the length to produce them under the pseudonym William B. Goodrich, but the American people wouldn’t have it. He dabbled in sound pictures for Jack Warner, but even those didn’t find great success. Overworked and overweight, on June 22, 1933, Arbuckle’s heart stopped. He was 46 years old (Young). At his funeral the following week, Roscoe’s friend Will Rogers said, “Those who demanded their pound of flesh finally received their satisfaction. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle accommodated them by dying, and from a broken heart. He brought much happiness to many, and never knowingly wronged a soul. The Lord will pass on his innocence or guilt now, and not the reformers” (Young, 86).
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rose from obscurity to become one of silent cinema’s leading comedians. He introduced another comedian, Buster Keaton, to the world of moving pictures, and left a lasting legacy to be remembered by. Although undone by the scandal that rocked his life to the very center, Arbuckle went on and tried to continue making people laugh, but The People wouldn’t have him. Joseph Schenck, Roscoe’s producer and friend until the end, said, “All who have ever known the real Roscoe Arbuckle will always treasure the memory of the great, generous heart of the man, a heart big enough to embrace in its warmth everyone who came to him for help, friend and stranger alike” (Young, 86).




BIBLIOGRAPHY

"CPI Inflation Calculator." CPI Inflation Calculator. Web. 5 June 2015.
Edmonds, Andy. Frame-Up!: The Untold Story of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. 1st ed. New York: William Morrow and, 1991. Print.
Neibaur, James L. Arbuckle and Keaton: Their 14 Film Collaborations. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007. Print.
Oderman, Stuart. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: A Biography of the Silent Film Comedian, 1887-1933. Jefferson: McFarland, 1994. Print.
The Best of Arbuckle and Keaton Collection. Image Entertainment, 2002. DVD.
Young, Jr., Robert. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood, 1994. Print. 


Monday, November 9, 2015

WIRED interview with JJ Abrams



There's a great interview that WIRED did with JJ Abrams pretty recently. JJ talks about everything from inheriting the biggest film saga ever to making sure the cast worked well together. Pasted below are some of my highlights:

On working with Larry Kasdan:

"Working with Larry definitely ties for first in terms of incredible experiences I’ve had with this project. We all take our experiences with us from one project to the next, but in this case, I never looked to draw from my past work. More than anything, I drew on personal experiences as cautionary tales, things that I didn’t want to do again. For example, I didn’t want to enter into making a movie where we didn’t really own our story. I feel like I’ve done that a couple of times in my career. That’s not to say I’m not proud of my work, but the fact is I remember starting to shoot Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness and feeling like I hadn’t really solved some fundamental story problems.

The collaboration, for me, was an education in storytelling and doing so with clarity, with efficiency, brevity—wit. It was a little like taking an extended master class. And because he’s also a director, he knew what I was going through in prep and in production, and he allowed for my needs. Sometimes those needs were practical, other times they were creative needs or feelings I had. But he was there to help that process, the same way I would have been if I had known he was directing. It was always about moving this thing forward in the right way, about making this movie the right way. I can’t say enough about him.

So I tried to not forget the mistakes I’d made, but I also tried to focus on things that I find inspiring about cinema. I asked questions like “How do we make this movie delightful?” That was really the only requirement Larry and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful. It was not about explaining everything away, not about introducing a certain number of toys for a corporation, not about trying to appease anyone. This has only ever been about what gets us excited."




On the production design of the new film:

"It all started at the very beginning, when we were working with Michael Arndt, the first writer on the project. While Michael and I were collaborating, I invited our production designer, Rick Carter, into the story process. Just as it would be impossible to separate John Williams’ score from the Star Wars movies, it was impossible to separate what Ralph McQuarrie and his design team had done from A New Hope. My sense was that the sooner Rick could be part of the process, the better. He’s an incredible dreamer; his mind will go amazing places and dream up things you never would have imagined.

Then there were things like the radar dish on the Falcon, which clearly was ripped off in Jedi, so it needed a new one. But part of the decision was made as a fan. There’s a part of me that wants to know: That’s the Falcon from this era. Now I know that when I see the Falcon with the rectangular dish, we’re at a moment after it traded hands. It also helped us mark time."



On casting The Force Awakens:

"A lot of this cast wasn’t even born in 1977. How do you relay the legacy of what Star Wars means to people like you and me? Or is that a burden that you try to avoid?

It’s a really strange thing, when you think about being born into a world where it just exists. Despite their having been born horrifically recently, these kids knew about and understood Star Wars in a way we all do; they just were born into it as opposed to it happening during their lifetime. The key in casting them was finding people who were able to do everything. When you think about all that these characters go through, not just in this movie but knowing their work would continue, these individuals needed to be worthy bearers of this burden and opportunity to continue to tell the story. I think about the Harry Potter movies—that’s unbelievable that they cast those films the way they did. And for what, eight movies?! That was a miracle. They needed to be able to do everything, and they all killed it.

We knew we weren’t just casting one movie—we were casting at least three. That, to me, was the biggest challenge. When we met Daisy Ridley, when we found John Boyega, and then Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver came aboard, we got really excited. And yes, Daisy and John could work together, but what happens when Harrison’s in the mix? What will that feel like? If it doesn’t spark, it’s a fucking disaster. Yes, BB-8 is a great character, amazingly puppeteered, but what will happen when he’s suddenly in a scene with C-3P0 or R2-D2? Will it feel bizarre? Will it feel wrong? Somehow it didn’t. When Anthony Daniels told me, “Oh my God, I love BB-8!” I said, “We’re going to be OK.” Because if he’s OK, it’s working.

Or seeing the sweetness between Han and Rey or the tension and comedy between Han and Finn. It was really exciting to say, “These scenes are working!” We worked really hard to cast and to write and to put it all together, but you just don’t know until you start shooting. Then all of a sudden, you’re on-set watching it and you know. It’s a little bit like having a party and having friends from your new school meet friends from your old school, and you think, “What’s going to happen?” And all of a sudden they’re getting along famously and this party’s really fun! It was a lot of work, but it ended up being great."


Head on over to Wired.com to read the interview in full.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Influence of Steven Spielberg on JJ Abrams [Film School Paper Series]

Included below is a paper that I co-wrote with some fellow students for TMA 292: Media Arts History II. This class essentially covered the history of film from 1945 until the present, and was a great treasure-trove of knowledge for me, personally. This topic came to our group as a way to look deeper at both Spielberg's and Abrams' films, and to compare and contrast them. Anyway, on to the paper...


Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly one of the most influential filmmakers ever to grace the medium. He has, perhaps, become the face of filmmaking as the most well-known director of his time. It is not Scorsese or Coppola or Polanski that the layman will recognize, but Spielberg. This, notes Stephen Rowley, has sadly been Spielberg’s bane. Says Rowley, “He is, in box-office terms, the most successful director ever, and there are few things quite so damaging to the reputation of an artist than extreme popularity.” But, as we see with Chaplin, Hitchcock, and others, popularity does not mean an absence of substance. His breadth and depth of work is impressive enough to rival the above-mentioned legends. And influence (especially to the lengths that Spielberg has achieved), is a byproduct of substance. For Shakespeare continues to inspire artists across the mediums not for his high-profile murders and crowd-pleasing stories of royalty but because he delves to the intricacies of the human experience. And Gaudi is remembered, and studied, in part for his extravagance but ultimately for the universality of his architecture. Contemporarily, will anyone be aspiring to the merits of Michael Bay forty years from now? Probably not.
Spielberg’s professional work began back in 1970 when he started out in television. After impressing the executives he made his first feature, Sugarland Express, in 1974 and became a household name only a year later with the history-altering success of Jaws. Forty years after Spielberg’s breakout, his influence is beginning to reveal itself in the work of emerging filmmakers who grew up with his hits of the 70’s and 80’s. J.J. Abrams is one such filmmaker. Bryan Burk, the producer of Super 8, as well as one of Abrams’ childhood friends with whom he made films, stated that, “Steven Spielberg was at the epicenter of everything that we dreamed of doing when we grew up” (Abrams). And Abrams himself acknowledges Spielberg’s influence on him, saying that, “It’s hard to separate the experience of growing up in the mid-70s and early-80s from the influence of Steven Spielberg’s films” (Abrams). Thus Abrams entire body of work is strewn about with Spielbergian influences. But his “passion project” Super 8, which Abrams both wrote and directed, is so heavily Spielbergian that, we argue, along with Peter Debruge, that the entire film is an homage to Spielberg and essentially a “Spielberg-era nostalgia trip” (Debruge).  Even to the point that were it directed by Spielberg himself it would not lose a single beat in terms of its style, themes, characters, etc; and in essence be the exact same film, except without the lens flares perhaps.
In tracking Spielberg’s success one will find that much of his initial popularity, and admittedly part of what attracted Abrams to his work, stems from his mastery of spectacle. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) pushed the limits of special effects. The Sugarland Express includes various car chases. And nothing need be said of Jaws, the Indiana Jones films (1981-89), and Jurassic Park (1993). But his brilliance comes not only superficially in the set pieces, but in the deep grounding of his characters in reality. Says Rowley of Sugarland Express (but it could be easily said of his filmography in general), “Given Spielberg’s reputation as a master of spectacle, it is easy to be distracted by the dizzy choreography of the many vehicles in the film, and overlook the assurance with which he handles the character drama” (Rowley). Abrams too notes this, “One of the things about Steven is his ability to tell stories about people who are real and relatable and grounded, who are going through something insane” (Abrams). Thus we see Hook (1991), a story with fantastic elements and special effects, really focusing on Peter’s (Robin Williams) profoundly human experience of accepting and/or rejecting one’s past; E.T. (1982) centering on the effects of an alien not on collective society but on intimate family relations; and Schindler’s List (1993) targeting the emotional journey of one man rather than the extensive horrors of World War II, although the film gives justice to these as well. Ultimately, as AMC notes, this combination of spectacle and character forms the “rework[ing of] the genre crowd-pleasers of his youth into the modern blockbusters” (“The 50 Greatest Directors”).  The spectacle perks up his audience initially, but his characters pull them in close.
Emulating the master, young Abrams loved to experiment with special effects and magic.  On one visit to a particular magic store in New York City, he came across a product that would sculpt the rest of his life and career and retrospectively help him understand why he admired Spielberg’s work. This influential product was a “Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box,” about the size of a shoebox with a giant question mark on the packaging. The box supposedly contained (and still contains) all sorts of magic tricks, but Abrams has never opened it (TED). Why? To him, the box represents infinite possibility and is a symbol of mystery that he keeps to remind him of the power of the unknown. Abrams thinks so highly of mystery, in fact, that he states, “Mystery is more important than knowledge” (TED).  From this impetus, Abrams imbues his films with added suspense through the element of mystery. It is what made Alias and Lost successful, it is the driving point of Mission Impossible III and Star Trek. But it is perhaps in Super 8 where Abrams employs the element of mystery to his greatest advantage. Harkening back to Spielberg’s Jaws, the monster is never physically shown until the end of the film. In Jaws, of course, this was unintentional because of the consistently malfunctioning mechanical shark. Ultimately these technical limitations imposed on Spielberg during the production of Jaws turned out to be for the better by adding suspense to the film. Similarly in Super 8, we see the destruction and havoc the monster wreaks, but we only catch glimpses of it here and there. It isn’t until the suspenseful climax when we get to see it in full. Abrams was in fact so adamant about promoting suspense through mystery in Super 8 that he never even let the cast know what the alien looked like and forbade them from mentioning details about the secretive parts of the film.  
The spectacle in Super 8 is similarly Spielbergian. As noted above, Spielberg’s work continuously pushed the boundaries of special effects for ‘70s and ‘80s audiences and Abrams, in turn, pays homage to Spielberg by including the proper amount of spectacle for his 21st century viewers. Thus, his main set piece of the film, the train wreck, is done in a way that is obviously over the top but definitely dazzles the screen. Dennis Muren, one of the visual effects supervisors on Super 8 as well as a frequent Spielberg collaborator (Close Encounters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Jurassic Park among his credits) notes this explicit connection between Super 8 and Spielberg’s films, “It was pretty interesting coming onto the film, since I worked on a lot of the movies that this film was trying to remind people of. I really knew the type of feeling that JJ was going for because I had done similar sorts of shots for Steven” (Failes). Muren knew exactly the sort of pizazz that Abrams wanted to add into the film, as he had done the same for Spielberg in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Thus Muren’s visual effects combine in Super 8 in a way that is reminiscent of Spielberg’s visually striking films from the past.
But even though Abrams is, like his idol, a fan of elaborate special effects, he actually prefers to describe his style as focusing more on the character depth than sheer spectacle, again like Spielberg. In fact, in an interview with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, he states:
“I love larger than life spectacle moments but what is important to me is that the characters are at the center; that emotionally you know where you are and you’re tracking characters that are taking you through those spectacular moments.  That is the most important thing to me, that balance of the intimacy with the spectacle and sort of hyper reality.”  (BAFTA)
Likewise in a TED talk in 2007, Abrams stated: “When people do sequels or rip-off movies of a genre, they’re ripping off the wrong thing.  You are not supposed to rip off the shark or the monster . . . if you are going to rip something off, rip off the character, the stuff the matters” (TED). So just like Spielberg, Abrams doesn’t simply want to make a spectacle movie about aliens but rather a film about coping with parental problems in which the alien becomes an integral, but secondary, part of the film. E.T., Abrams says, “[Is] a film, really, about divorce, not about an alien” (Boucher); that Jaws isn’t really about a shark, it’s about a man trying to fit into a new city and job; and A.I. (2001) isn’t about the dawn of robots, it’s about a boy trying to find his identity and belonging (TED). Ultimately, for Spielberg and Abrams, it is not the spectacle, but the characters that make the movie.
For Spielberg, often these characters appear in the form of a child or as a father having parental issues. The list is exhausting. In Close Encounters we see Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) neglect his family for his internal, perhaps spiritual, obsession. E.T. is seen masterfully from the point of view of a child in a divorced family. War of the Worlds (2005) depicts Ray’s (Tom Cruise) parental problems set in front of, and given precedence over, a hostile alien invasion. Both Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Catch Me if You Can (2002) involve father-son tensions. Hook’s main character is both child and parent with fatherly woes. And even Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) in Jurassic Park is preemptively afraid of parental responsibility. As TIME magazine writer Gilbert Cruz notes, in Spielberg’s films “fatherhood is something to be feared, avoided and run away from…until it isn’t,” a theme that is probably, if not undoubtedly, connected to the divorce of Spielberg’s parents when he was nineteen.
The concept of identity mentioned above in regards to A.I. forms a wider undercurrent in much of Spielberg’s work than in simply that single film. Spielberg himself admitted to going through similar conflicts as a kid as he grappled with his identity as an Orthodox Jew, with which he struggled accepting, says Spielberg,


“It isn’t something I enjoy admitting, but when I was seven, eight, nine years old, God forgive me, I was embarrassed because we were Orthodox Jews. I was embarrassed by the outward perception of my parents’ Jewish practices. I was never really ashamed to be Jewish, but I was uneasy at times. My grandfather always wore a long black coat, black hat and long white beard. I was embarrassed to invite my friends over to the house, because he might be in a corner davening [praying].” (Smith)
Besides A.I., similar wrestles with identity show up in Hook as Peter is presented as needing to accept his childhood identity. And the protagonists in E.T. come to know who they are better throughout their interactions with the alien visitor.
Similarly, Super 8 is a story that is grounded in its characters, centers on strained or broken familial relations, and explores the concept of personal identity set among elaborate, “insane,” events. Joe Lamb is a 10 year old kid whose mother was killed in an industrial accident, and whose father, the small town’s deputy, doesn’t necessarily know how to raise a young child. Joe, however, copes by helping his friends make a zombie movie, much to the chagrin of his father. Similarly, Joe’s love interest in the film (if you can call a 12 year old a love interest), is Alice Dainard, whose mother is absent from her life and whose father is the one responsible for the death of Joe’s mother. Both children, therefore, come from broken homes and are suddenly thrown into a Spielberg-like “insane” situation where they must use their wits and child-like innocence to stay alive. Here there is another connection to Spielberg’s E.T. in particular in that the adults contribute to the antagonism. Yes, they, like the kids, try to figure things out as they unfold, but the kids are already one or two steps ahead of them, and if the adults would just get out of the way then the kids would be able to solve the problem. Ultimately, Abrams reveals the true meaning of Super 8 in his comment about E.T., “I discovered later that E.T. was never an alien movie for [Spielberg], it was a story about a divorced family, and only later had he discovered that it had become an alien movie. So it was cool to see that even he had done something like that before” (Abrams).
And so, Spielberg’s films thus provide an intimate look into the real life familial conflicts of his own life, mingled with his childhood struggles with identity, set among impressive set pieces from the films of his youth, in the end providing, in a sense, a meshing together of his personal struggles and the elaborate special effects from the films he loved, ultimately forming a fully complete portrait of his own childhood. And similarly, Abrams’ Super 8 too gives us child characters within broken families, in conflict with their parents, searching for identity, all amidst a situation, conveyed by special effects, that is bigger than they are. Thus, it could be said that Super 8 is an homage to Spielberg, which is true. But furthermore, it can be argued that Abrams, through the Spielbergian influence of his youth, will continue, in essence, to rework Spielberg as Spielberg reworked the genre classics of his day, perhaps ultimately providing us with spectacle film with a level of substance that surpasses even the mastery of Spielberg.
           
           
Works Cited
Abrams, J.J., dir. Super 8. Paramount Pictures, 2011. Film.
Cruz, Gilbert. "The Five Ways To Know You're Watching a Spielberg Movie." Time. Time, 3 Jan. 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.
Dawn, Randee. "TV Exerts Remote Control on Abrams." Variety Nov 19 2013: 76. ProQuest. Web. 26 Feb. 2015 .
DeBruge, Peter. "Super 8." Variety. 4 June 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.
"Directors' Trademarks: J.J. Abrams." Directors' Trademarks: J.J. Abrams. 13 May 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2015.
Failes, Ian. "Super 8: ILM’s Production Value on Screen." FXGuide. 21 June 2011. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
"J. J. Abrams Biography." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Advameg, Inc., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
Rowley, Stephen. “Steven Spielberg.” Senses of Cinema. Senses of Cinema Journal, Feb. 2006. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
Smith, Emily. "The Sally Field Handbook - Everything You Need to Know about Sally Field."Google Books. Emereo Publishing, 4 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.
"The 50 Greatest Directors of All Time." Amc.com. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.
TED. "J.J. Abrams: The Mystery Box." TED. N.p., Mar. 2007. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.