Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cloverfield Monster Goes Ape-Shit

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.

Kent Jones

  1. 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 Manhattan to her apartment, determined to rescue her. Several friends accompany him, one of whom, Hud (TJ Miller), has brought along a video camera to film the event. “People are going to want to know what happened here” he says. The pursuit of a loved one who may be in danger is a flimsy but common enough narrative conceit to hang the rest of the film on. We might not entirely buy the physical duress they endure, but hey, it’s a movie. And Hud’s vague assertion on behalf of posterity, while straining credibility, works just well enough to suspend disbelief. But more so than the film itself, which is a reasonably thrilling, modestly scaled blockbuster-in-disguise, I’m interested in a number of questions it raises. Many have already commented on the film’s relationship to 9/11, and I’ll throw my hat in the ring as well. It’s certainly critically acceptable to maintain that the original Godzilla metaphorically encapsulated Japanese nuclear anxiety after World War II. I see no reason to assume that Cloverfield is not doing the same. After the initial series of explosions, a voice blurts out “is it terrorists?” And a shot of a building collapsing in the background, sending a storm of dust, smoke and debris that covers everyone in its path is an image now ingrained in the retina of our society. It seems silly to suggest that the film is commenting on the event, or that it has anything to say directly about 9/11. It does, however, seem likely that the real images of the Towers collapsing are now inescapable when viewing any kind of destruction, whether imaginary or not. Remember the number of critics commenting on the collected 9/11 footage resembling a Jerry Bruckheimer-esque blockbuster (a terrifying example of life imitating art/commerce) A friend conveyed to me his anger that producer JJ Abrams was being coy about the connection between the film and the remembered images it evokes. I suggested to him that Cloverfield, much like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, needn’t try very hard to conjure up the fear and anxiety of that event as it is now a permanent visual touchstone. Indeed, commenting on the destruction in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, critic J. Hoberman commented that “Spielberg must have learned from 9/11 how a building really falls when it collapses”.

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?

  1. Realism

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) Iraq war did not happen – it existed not as any kind of functional reality, but as a television event viewed from living rooms.


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.


A. Dowd said...

"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."

One of the most interesting moments in the film arrives when the characters literally rewind the tape we've been watching to get a better look at the monster. The world is coming down around them and they still want an instant replay, to watch on video what they basically just saw with their own two eyes.

"Cloverfield" is far from perfect-- the second half suffers in its attempts to conform the preceding chaos to a well-rounded, "satisfying" narrative. But the film's sly notions about filtering experience through technology deserve further attention. This really is Godzilla for the YouTube generation: it demonstrates our constant need to create digital records of an event and, more unnervingly, to detach ourselves from said event by playing amatuer documentarian. Yes, one does think of 9/11, and those haunting videos of the debris and the chaos at ground zero-- rather than running away or helping or doing ANYTHING, many just filmed the event. "People are going to want to know what happened here."

"Cloverfield" speaks to that very modern mindset, such as in a moment where terrified, fleeing civilians pause to snap pictures of the severed head of the Statue of Liberty. Another great, zeitgiesty scene: people gather around in an abandoned electronics store to watch news footage of the attack, even as the real thing happens outside on the street. Can we even trust our own eyes anymore, or is truth only available, ahem, 30 fields a second?

Interesting questions raised by this brisk, enjoyably bleak monster movie. And, yes, like Spielberg's mostly-awesome "War of the Worlds," it is a 9/11 parable. And I'll take this flawed but scary mini-blockbuster over the cold, apolitical "thrills" of "United 93" any day of the week.

Daniel said...

Point(s) taken, my friend. I certainly don't disagree with you, and I don't think that anything I wrote in this post refutes your observations. I suppose the problem here is my own failing, in as much as I was interested in an ontological exploration of this particular kind of milieu, as well as how the film derives most of its interest (and thrills) by co-opting a pretty standard mode of media viewership/representation. Certainly, there is irony in the scene you mention, victims viewing their battlefield on a TV while it actually rages right outside. But beyond a kind of glib recognition, the film doesn't suggest that it is part and parcel with the same phenomena, this kind of pseudo-reality (yes, Youtube, but also Myspace and reality TV). I suppose my point is that the film suggests a disconnect with the very reality it purports to display, while simultaneously showing Hollywood's ability to manipulate that "reality" with a codified visual grammar - i.e., shaky video = news= reality. It's a faulty syllogism, and a faulty ideology on which to stake our feelings on the end of the world.