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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

June 1, 2011 at 9:40 AM

Two good docs, and J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box”

If you enjoy documentaries about people who excel in an unusual line of work and have found joy in it, check out “Bill Cunningham New York” (still playing at the Metro) or “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” (at SIFF Friday and Sunday). The two men at the center of these films couldn’t be more different — an eightysomething New York Times fashion photographer and the middle-aged man who provides the voice and soul of Sesame Street’s Elmo — but both have a passion for their work that shines through, and you walk away from both movies feeling like the world is a richer place for having these guys in it. Good stuff.
Speaking of guys with a passion for their work, the New York Times this weekend had a fascinating profile of J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Alias,” “Star Trek,” and the upcoming “Super 8”), by Frank Bruni. I loved this passage about “mystery boxes,” which explains a lot about Abrams’ approach to storytelling (and perhaps why “Super 8” — which I’ve seen, and which is a lot of fun — has been cloaked in such secrecy). A few years back, at a convention, Abrams told of how as a boy he visited a magic shop in Manhattan:

He recalled getting something called a mystery box. On the outside it had a big question mark, and on the inside it had . . . what? Toys, presumably. Tricks, maybe. If you shook the box, you heard them rattling around. But their precise nature wasn’t known. That was the thrilling part, the part that held your imagination captive. You purchased a mystery box because you wanted to be surprised.
“What are stories,” he said on the stage at TED, “but mystery boxes? . . . The first act is called the teaser.” Then he broadened the metaphor. “What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You go to the theater, you’re just so excited to see anything — the moment the lights go down is often the best part.” He explained that he was going on about all of this because he had come to realize, “Oh, my God, mystery boxes are everywhere in what I do.”

A little later in the story, Bruni reveals that Abrams still has the box, 35 years later, unopened.

. . . because once he did, its spell would be broken and its power surrendered. In its closed form, he told the audience: “It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential.”

Intrigued? Read the whole story here.

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