Why you should see what’s now playing at the Cinémathèque before the end of October.
It’s nice to be able to rely on a new film to scratch a particular itch. I’m often excited to see movies that mix different genres, and imagery I’m craving. For a few more days at the Cinémathèque, that cocktail of genre, vision, and imagery will come from Super Dark Times (2017). The flavor I’m looking for is more kids on bikes, a sign of the dark coming of age story. Super Dark Times does a bit more than scratch an itch too. It bounces around traditions from pulp novels, to films of the early 2000s. If you remember Thirteen (2003), or 12 and Holding (2005), even Gummo (1997), it’s all over that ground in tone. What’s playing at the Cinémathèque right now is a singular, if somewhat darker than anticipated, take on exactly these familiar genres, but it fits into the world of film right now in some interesting ways.
I was drawn toward Super Dark Times to see another adventure, literal or psychological, that is so often paired with kids riding their bikes into the unknown because Stranger Things (2016) returns to Netflix later this month. Of course I’m really excited to have something familiar to binge. Stranger Things stands up to repeat viewing because of it’s characters and its well placed quirks and clever solutions to various problems. Until the next season comes out, though, I’ll have to get my fix of kids venturing into the unknown on their bikes from Super Dark Times.
It’s not like most late-20th Century nostalgia pieces in any other respect than there is a group of boys, often on their bikes. There are some girls that are of interest to them. And then there is a well placed party scene and some inventive old tech scattered throughout. As a matter of fact Super Dark Times is very different, but not just because of the violence and swearing that push it farther from even the darkest realm of nostalgia.
The real departure Super Dark Times has to make is in the relationship between its writing and its cinematography. No spoilers, but the writing is pulpy to say the least. It harkens vicious novels of the 1940s and 50s. The kinds of stories where a crime spirals out of control by orders of magnitude right quick. However, in setting up noir infused drama, Super Dark Times relies on beautiful visual storytelling over almost illogical writing. The result is effective but confusing.
A wild guess as to why Super Dark Times feels the way it feels is in the filmmaker. It’s not a debut feature, but it feels like a self assured debut of a writer/director, as the most recent stage of transition for writer/director Kevin Phillips away from years as a cinematographer. And it shows, Super Dark Times has a knack for finding where the light is just right. There’s also the occasional homage, which is effective when it’s Miller’s Crossing (1990), less so when it’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). It’s less clear that Super Dark Times knows it’s kinship with Brick (2006) too, but that’s okay. Additionally the film loves mingling retro screen savers and flickering VHS material in-frame to conjure its super darkness as well as its late 1990s period. So it’s very effective, visually, at brooding in its own right.
Seeing Super Dark Times is to watch a film where the filmmakers intuitively know how best to shoot their subjects. It’s always captivating to see beauty on screen, but Super Dark Times lacks a certain restraint on the page that might have served it well. Which, by the way, is perhaps the inverse of the flaw in Stranger Things. Stranger Things is the product of two writers double checking their work rather than a cinematographer hitting bullseyes. For all the thematic differences, Super Dark Times does seem like a more visceral, Coen Brother’s inspired Stranger Things at times. The clearest tension between these works is that Super Dark Times really knows how to show teens standing around their bikes and pounding on doors, intimately and urgently respectively. Stranger Things is a little less refined in that respect, but it knows why the characters find themselves in these situations in the first place.
Nevertheless, E.T. (1982), the movie that these films could most aspire to be in many respects succeeds by doing both things together. It strikes the right tone, has a whimsical logic throughout, but really knows when and where to keep the camera close to or away from the kids. E.T. of course is a paragon of so many movies with teens and their ignorant parents. But the excesses of Super Dark Times and the short comings of Stranger Things represent to me an atomizing of the film industry today, fewer great combinations of writer’s and cinematographer’s work coming together through good directors. But the best part of screening Super Dark Times is that it’s a film I can carry with me from it’s brief run at the Cinémathèque until this TV show I can watch from home proves a bit more chill.