The film Super 8, which hit theaters a few weeks ago, weaves in pop cultural touchstones that triggered for me a nostalgic tsunami: whispering into walkie-talkies, perfecting techniques for monster makeup, and wearing my hair in a hobbity mop. A project in mind, I’d madly pedal my Schwinn bicycle (with banana seat and sissy bar) from one part of town to another to hatch it, just like Super 8‘s Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his buddies.
Coincidentally enough, Super 8 also eerily evokes an American boyhood experience similar to my own upbringing in small town New Hampshire. No, I never saw giant spider-like creatures emerging from train crashes and I didn’t film them. But in the late 1970s, enthralled by the same films that Super 8 director J.J. Abrams clearly was — Spielbergian monster and alien encounter movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. — I was determined to be next blockbuster kid. And weirdly, like me, Abrams was born in 1966 and was 12 in 1979, the same year the movie takes place.
Like the boys in Super 8, I armed also myself with a movie camera. I built sets with HO-scale train props, and MacGyvered Revell airplane and boat models to make my own Star Wars-like space ships. Focusing on animation rather than live action films, I’d shoot clay blobs one frame at a time, enacting monster wrestling matches and deep space dogfights. This being an eon before iMovie and YouTube, I edited my footage with crude equipment, assembling each scene with plastic splices, and showed them to an audience of my family and friends.
As I wrote in a recent aticle for Salon.com, my journey through the realm of adolescence to the kingdom of adulthood began to reveal itself as a tricky maze filled with traps, monsters and dead ends, not to mention broken mothers. Like Joe Lamb, whose mother dies in a freak factory accident, my mother was gone, suddenly stricken by brain damage. Like that kid, I was saddled with a heavy cloak of loss I couldn’t come close to articulating. I felt abandoned, and the solution for how to navigate this new life was not published, upside-down, in the back of any book of brain teasers. I longed for answers.
The Super 8 movies I shot provided one avenue of escape. Then, in and around directing my latest Claymation fantasy feature that summer of 1979, another path appeared. I learned how to face my demons in another way. I learned that sometimes, checking out from reality was not merely a fun diversion, but necessary. I was shown a clever trick—how to step away from my own body and mind, my family, and travel to places I’d never even seen. A new, more powerful way out. I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. [More on that story here.]