There’s no question that I overuse lens flares on occasion … The kneejerk reaction from the director of photography is usually, “OK, we’ve got to flatten that light because it’s going to flare.” I think it’s one of those things that you want to make sure that, obviously, it’s … To me it’s such a cool beautiful image, the light through the glass. There are times that I feel like it sort of adds another kind of smart element, and it’s hard to define. But it is a visual taste that I do like. I think there are a couple shots in Super 8 where I just think I should definitely pull back here or there, but I can’t help myself sometimes.
I had begun plotting to write about lens flare in Super 8 shortly after leaving a screening this evening. Living in the Netherlands, and being quite busy at the moment, I often get to see films later than most people who profess an interest in cinema, so I was not entirely surprised to find that somebody, in this case Adam Nayman at Cinema Scope, had already offered a perfectly fine analysis of that very topic nearly three months earlier. He made many of the points that had occurred to me while watching the film, along with many others that had not; I agree that, while the use of lens flare (which, as in the example above, whether simulated in post-production or a natural by-product of scattered surplus light entering the lens) might be seen as an authorised tic beloved of director J.J. Abrams, it is better understood as akin to the affected (and affectionate) artifacts in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, where the pops and scratches on the over-worked “prints” of the film were a shortcut to evoking the conditions under which their film might wistfully be watched: i.e. it is a nostalgic device to reinscribe the image with the traces of pre-digital imperfections, from a time before the fetish for immaculate, malleable visuals arrived (though I would humbly submit that such a time never really existed, since digital technology was invariably used to couch its visualisations in the tones and trappings of analogue processes). Abrams has often used lens flare as a visual garnish and nostalgic or “filmic” effect, notably on Star Trek:
Notice how the flare is used on special effects shots where this is no objec, and/or is no camera, as a way of knitting together CGI and pro-filmic stuff by suggesting that they are shot by the same lens, subject to the same plays of light inside glass. Flare is an imperfection, a side-effect that gives the game away by pointing out that there is a camera between you and the scene: we are not “present”, but are instead watching at a mediated remove. As producer of Cloverfield, Abrams made great play with the hyper-situated camera, keeping up the pretence that the entire film was made on the fly by its participants, and the imperfections in the image were central to fabricating that illusion. Super 8 is not playing the same game, but it is, at least in part, about the struggle to see and to witness, to make sense of the world by making up stories about it and structuring them as emotional, continuous narratives. The lens flare might be interpreted as more than just an aesthetically cute bit of retro-chic, but as a signifier of obscured vision, of the haze that surrounds memories of childhood.
There may be a simpler explanation. The bedazzled, starstruck flares in Super 8 is another of the homages to Steven Spielberg that suffuse the film. See, for example, this scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which Super 8 most closely resembles. Again there are diegetic reasons for the flares, in the presence of cameras and lamps:
I don’t think I’m pointing anything out here. It’s fully acknowledged that the film is a compendium of Spielberg’s greatest hits; it’s hugely entertaining to see Spielberg’s essence distilled in everything from the casting, the treatment of both benign and malevolent aliens, parent-child relationships, and the evocation of small-town life threatened by earth-shaking developments of intergalactic significance, and though it might be both affectionate tribute (one director subsuming his own interests beneath those of a master) and implicit insult (one director implying that the maestro’s style is wholly imitable, stagnant, and his golden age thirty years out-of-date), it captures that time when otherworldly things glowed, shone, and resisted capture on film until the big reveal. Their sheer surplus of light spoke of their access to places and energies greater than the homes and gardens they deigned to visit:
Maybe the lens flare is the last vestigial trace of Spielberg’s contact with expanded cinema of the 1970s, where the material properties of the cinematic apparatus offered their own “accidental” or experimental interactions with artist filmmakers, and this contact is only further attenuated by Abrams’s appropriation of it. Either way, it is regrettable to see Abrams so beholden to the object of his affection, when he has previously shown an impressive ability to rework and invigorate existing franchises with his own ideas.
So, are the Super 8 lens flares the personal stamp of a young auteur, or a required adherence to the tracks laid down by his forerunner? That’s open to interpretation, an argument about ownership of the properties of images themselves, and it shows the richness of film in creating associations and inferences from something as simple as an apparent flaw in the equipment.
I’ll leave the last word to this smart-arse: