Digital technology in the cinema has led to digital thinking, which has in turn led the cinema in an increasingly experiential direction: in order for the experience to function smoothly, just the right amount of reality is required. Too little makes the experience too light and too much makes it too burdensome.
- A Metaphorical Repository of Post-9/11 Anxiety
At his own going away party, Rob (Michael Stahl-David) realizes that he may have ruined his last chance to tell the girl of his dreams, Beth (Odette Yustman) his true feelings for her. After she storms off, there is, um, an attack on the city by a giant monster. After the initial onslaught of destruction, Rob gets a garbled phone call from the above mentioned girl of his dreams. She sounds frantic, terrified, and the call cuts out. Rob decides to forge his way through
2. The Video Image As Present Tense
The film itself exists entirely as Hud’s point of view, who begins the movie by filming testimonials at Rob’s farewell party and brings the camera along to record their trek through an increasingly demolished Manhattan Island (certainly plausible in a society that seems to want to record anything and everything, if only to display it on YouTube). Most critics and theorists seem to acknowledge that the video image is essentially a “present tense” – much like a digital camera, you can instantly view whatever footage you have just shot. There’s no time spent developing film, nor is there any delay between the shooting and viewing of said footage. But more so than just a time based differentiation, there is a pedagogical difference between how we experience the film image and the video image. The video image is simultaneously cheap, lower quality, personal (and therefore amateurish), and entirely portable (by contrast, 35mm film is expensive, very high quality, impersonal, professional, and only somewhat portable). This is underlined by the beginning of the film, the recording of the party. Despite some strained exposition, necessary towards establishing characters relationships and backstories, we have simple encounters that would happen at any filmed event. Some guests mug for the camera, some express their trepidation at being recorded. We have here not just a choice to film on video because it is cheaper, but a bold assertion that the movie is going to begin in the present tense, with a personal/confessional mode, and stay in that mode throughout. This causes something of a rupture in our perceived notions of verisimilitude when the monster comes out to play. There is an inherent contradiction between the traits of the video image and the expensive special effects on display, as well as the lack of dialectic between a personal discourse and genre derived narrative beats. To be fair to the movie, there are moments when such concerns disappeared from my mind entirely, as I just happened to be terrified. No doubt, there are some very effective scares on display here. But the disconnect between a personalized, almost essayistic visual discourse and slam-bam action pyrotechnics leaves one with a question – what do we propose as cinematic “realism” when such forgery is at hand?
There is a long and vital discourse on the nature of cinematic realism, one that I won’t attempt to summarize here. Nor, admittedly, will I be adding much to that discourse. But it seems worthwhile to at least raise the question of what visual trickery gives us and what it denies us. Andre Bazin, the great French theorist, posited a notion of realism as a new kind of “visual democracy”. American ex-pat Noel Burch found in certain kinds of cinematic realism a political stance, one in opposition to perceived notions of a Hollywood (and by extension bourgeois) style – a trickery that stood in stark contrast to the realities of the world around us. But we don’t seem to have digested such ideas, other than a vague notion that a digital revolution would allow aspiring filmmakers with fewer resources to put their vision on screen (if only a tiny one), or, only vaguely more political, that the modes of production would be put in the hands of the “everyman”. However, with recent films like The Blair Witch Project, Brian Depalma’s Redacted, and George Romero’s upcoming Diary of the Dead, the question is one of legitimacy – or, if you like, authenticity. The video apparatus has led us into an unprecedented age of real time recording – any thought, idea, or action (public or private) can be instantly recorded and placed in an arena of public opinion - online. But there is a disconnect when that off-the-cuff seizing of a moment is replicated as a prefabricated moment, mediated by a screenplay, professional actors, and million dollar special effects. We’ve seen this disconnect before, such as the backlash against The Blair Witch Project when scores of people where shocked that they had been duped into believing that the film was actual found footage (a recorded event, as opposed to a filmed fabrication). Even further back, there is the famous case of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast (perhaps not coincidentally, Welles also experimented with the idea of a film shot entirely from a first person point of view, an adaptation of Hearts of Darkness. Wisely, it was never started and exists only as a tantalizing idea). Ultimately, we are talking about a simulacrum of found footage, a kind of double reverse that leaves us with no footing whatsoever in processing the experience. I’m left with a feeling similar to Baudrillard’s notion that the (first)
I saw Cloverfield the day it came out, and most of the preceding ideas, for better of for worse, sprung almost immediately to mind. Perhaps wishful thinking on my part (genius at work?), but also, I suspect, as a response to the film’s viral marketing campaign (for a useful overview, see Ben Walter’s article “A Guaranteed Premonition” in the Winter 07 Film Quarterly). The notion that a film can exist in the spectator’s mind before they see it, or, in this case, even knew the title of the film, is probably the greatest innovation in movie marketing in recent years. The film object is now not only an event (take that summer blockbusters!), but a mysterious game/puzzle that demands time and attention months before the film hits the silver screen. The implication that the value of the film object lay not in its value as art (or even simple entertainment), but a multi-media blitz is nothing new. What is new is the leg work, the time and effort put in by willful participants of this marketing puzzle. What is also new is the notion that this game/puzzle doesn’t actually tell or give the participant anything. To anyone paying attention, the Dark Knight viral campaign gave intrepid players their first glimpse of the Joker months before the first officially published publicity photos. Not the case with the Cloverfield monster (which is barely glimpsed for most of the film, perhaps one source of the audience’s frustration). As Orson Welles learned, there is blowback from such unprecedented manipulation of the “reality index” – the inevitable fallout when a product doesn’t live up to the hype. I’m not usually one to play the numbers game, but it seems pertinent here – after a $40 million + opening weekend, the film managed an astounding 63% drop off in its second weekend in release, going from first to fourth place. While there should never be a dollar value placed on the success of a film as art, it is important to remember that Titanic is the highest grossing film of all time and Zodiac tanked with audiences. But I must admit that a film that places so much value on a gimmick oriented conception and execution should find so few receptive to that gimmick gives me just a hint of faith – faith that word of mouth can hurt an unworthy project and, inversely, help one more deserving.