Sunday, 17 February 2008
PLOT SPOILERS occur here (if not of the size of the beast that besets Manhattan about twenty minutes in… oh bugger, that’s a spoiler in itself!)
What was the old TV show where contestants had to perform one thing “in the style of” something else? King Kong in the style of Wagner and the like? Cloverfield feels like it’s been made on just such a dare, performing Godzilla in the style of Blair Witch Project, using jerky hand-held camera as faux found footage. In case you’ve been vacationing on the moon here’s the set-up - a bunch of Manhattanite yuppies just happen to be filming their party when a Godzilla-like hits New York and they keep filming during the resultant carnage.
Where it’s different to Blair Witch is in theme. Blair Witch was a much more personal and intimate story. It focused on the fraying state of mind of college-aged youths who, despite their talismans of maturity (camcorders and maps, though inexplicably not mobile phones), have their feelings of adulthood progressively stripped away. The film charts their reduction to fearful children. In this way Blair Witch was personal and psychological, while Cloverfield is concerned with the social.
The odd-sounding title was actually just a placeholder, a cover to hide any genuine info leaking out until the makers chose to release it. But the placeholder name gained currency on the net, so came to be left in. In many ways the monster, an unnamed Godzilla-like, feels like a placeholder too. We’re deliberately withheld a decent view of it until the very end, and any info on its origins or motivations are kept firmly at the level of speculation. (For those that really want to know that sort of thing, there’s some ‘viral’ marketing on the internet to clue you in. But that merely confirms the speculation of one of the characters, and doesn’t really have much to do with the film’s theme anyway.) The point is that we quite literally only see the monster from the characters’ perspective, who would know nothing of such privileged information. The film drops us into the chaos, hysteria and uncertainty that get thrown up, and doesn’t deign to offer us such reassuring pegs.
And those characters? Well they’re pretty much placeholders too. In Rolling Stone, Pete Travers described them as “walking MySpace profiles”. (A term that becomes all the more ironic when you learn the makers even gave these characters MySpace profiles as part of their marketing.) Though Travers uses the phrase as an insult, this actually works surprisingly well. After all this ain’t an attempt at Checkovian realism. The characters are supposed to be everymen with nothing special or unique about them - except for the single fact that chance put them in disaster’s path. When, for example, Rob has to tell his mother on the phone about his brother’s death, we know nothing of the particularities of their relationship. Instead we’re asked to consider how we’d cope with such a situation. (In fact a weakness of the film is that it doesn’t go down that path enough. The opening ‘party’ scene dwells on ‘characters’ who don’t – to put it mildly - reward our attention. It’s true we need some normality before disaster strikes, but the scene lasts too long and we end up checking our watches for the monster’s unsurprising arrival.)
Travers goes on to insist “Clovefield’s virtues are all mechanical”, and he’s certainy right it’s a film very much concerned with formal innovation. Back in the days of matte paintings and stop-motion, inserting special effects into the frame used to be dependent on locking the camera down. The sudden lack of camera movement often came to be a clue a ‘special effect’ was just about to occur. We’re used to faux-docu footage and we’re used to big scary monsters, to the point where both long since became clichés. What we’re not used to is seeing both put together. (Even Blair Witch showed nothing scarier on screen than some strangely assembled twigs.)
However, Travers is surely wrong to suggest this reduces the film to the ‘mechanical’. Early films used to show something like trains steaming into the camera, a formal device which still had an impact upon the audiences of the day. Similarly Cloverfield works best when it restricts itself to a conviction in it’s own central device, but find abundant amounts of courage in it. The combination of verité footage and giant monsters is less a nifty novel means to tell us the story than the very thing the film comes to be about.
It works like a trained musician restricting himself to three chords, but finding lots of sub-varieties within them. The ‘plot’ is often perfunctory and predictable. (Will our heroes obey army orders to evacuate Manhattan, or will they brave adversity to rescue their missing friend Beth? Go on, you’ll never guess!) But the wrings the film can pull from its device are many and varied, making it more a haiku device than a gimmick. Unlike Blair Witch it is filmed in near real time, enhancing our sense of being trapped in the moment. It smartly allows for quiet and uneventful moments, rather than reducing everything to a shrill headlong rush. It even finds a way to incorporate a flashback structure. (The videotape being used is filming over an earlier romantic moment between Rob and Beth, which the film keeps cutting back to.)
This sense of immediacy also feels like a welcome change when you hear producer JJ Abrams and writer Drew Goddard previously worked on such fodder as Lost. Lost seemed entirely predicated on the idea that we’d search the frame for ‘clues’, then swap them with our mates (or more often total strangers) on internet message boards. I am heartily sick of this reduction of films and TV shows to honorary computer games, and glad to see two of its worst proponents doing something quite the opposite here. (Disclaimer: there are ‘clues’ hidden here but they have nothing to do with following the front-story. I missed every single one of them while watching the film, and didn’t feel like I was losing out on anything.) It’s also rare to see a Hollywood film that does stick to a single idea, they normally suffer from the death of a thousand chefs where each one has squeezed in his own half-baked notion.
Every review I read of Cloverfield mentioned the September 11th connections at some point or other. Some call these crass, others cathartic, others just find it a marker-point where S11 became do-able in the cinema. And yet New York has been destroyed on film many times, both before and after that auspicious date. Godzilla himself was invited to trample Manhattan back in 1998 while the Big Apple was destroyed in both 2004 (The Day After Tomorrow) and 2005 (War of the Worlds) – you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a year when the city didn’t buy it. (And that’s ignoring the glut of such gung-ho-flavoured direct references such as 2006’s World Trade Center.) Clearly what’s triggering those associations is the faux-docu filming. Unlike many previous disasters S11 is imprinted in our memories through the types of filming we associate with small, intimate events such as weddings or parties - bringing home the notion that that was the day terror was brought home.
Admittedly, the makers do everything they can to reinforce this picture. Beth, for example, has to be rescued from a set of twin towers – one leaning precariously on the other. But the biggest memory-jogger of all is the sequence used in the trailer (and doubtless the film’s central image) – when a huge object hurled down a Manhattan avenue is revealed to be the head of the Statue of Liberty. It’s hardly possible to see such an image without being reminded of one thing – They Hate Our Freedoms. Yet the film’s monster is revealed to be brutish rather than sentient, even running round on all fours. It’s not at war with capitalist democracy, its just banging into buildings which happen to be in its way. It’s a powerful image, but also misleading and ultimately something of a cheat.
Reeves complains the film has “no politics” and thereby no meaning. Certainly what politics it displays seem confused. The military are very much movie-military. In one cringeworthy scene a major allows the gang to defy evacuation orders and continue searching for their missing friend - on camera even. In any real martial law situation, let alone such an extreme one, Rob’s remark “you’ll just have to shoot me” would lead to one response only – “I’ve already thought of that!” (Surely the faux-footage motif obligates the film to have some concessions towards believability.) But then at the end we discover the videotape we’ve been watching is being held by the military, obviously covering up their inability to cope with the crisis.
But again, these criticisms partly come from misunderstanding the very nature of the film. As Alan Vega said of his New York punk band Suicide “people were coming in off the street hoping they’d be escaping, and all we were doing was shoving the street back in their face again”. Cloverfield was marketed on the notion that many of us would pay good money to have bad memories shoved back in our faces again, and it seemed to be working at least on the night I saw it. In this it reminded me in many ways of the ‘re-imagined’ version of Battlestar Galactica. Galactica is a much wider work, taking in not only S11 but Vietnam, the Civil Rights turmoil… virtually every dark moment in modern American history. It’s opening episode, for example, is often said to be reminiscent of S11 but works as a much closer fit to Pearl harbour.
But the psychology is the same - using fiction as a piece of dispelling magic to take everything out there that’s fucked up and stick it all in one place. The bad stuff in the world is thereby made to feel containable by the very fact that you created a container for it. The advantage of having a Book of Everything That’s Fucked Up is that you can then shut the book anytime you want. Cloverfield is therefore no more interested in the military’s tactical response to the monster than it was the monster in the first place. It’s only question is – what if all this happened to you?
Of course Cloverfield’s immediate success, finding a dramatic device that fits our zeitgeist, may turn out to be its long-term failure. While it would be meaningless to speculate how this film might look in the future, where it leads now feels a much more closed question – it doesn’t. Like most Hollywood films, we’re given a coda that leaves the door open for a sequel. But what kind of a sequel could that be? Abrams has pointed to the many scenes where other bystanders wave camcorders and cameraphones, and suggested a follow-up could be made by following any of those people. But as we’ve seen, the whole point about these characters is their very non-specificness, that they were just chosen randomly from out of a crowd. Once you’ve had one everyman, the last thing you need is another one. Of course we could follow the military high command or delve into the monster’s origins, or one of many other plot points the movie leaves open. But that would by necessity create quite a different kind of film to the one here. Sequel proofness isn’t always a bad sign, I can’t imagine a sequel to Solaris or Weekend for example. But here it adds to the feeling that this film is primarily staking out a piece of territory to sit on, not invite further development. It found a style that hadn’t (until recently couldn’t) been used before, and it found that style summed up a very zeitgeisty moment. At the time, many suggested Blair Witch Project might throw open whole new ways of making movies. But all it really led to was a sequel almost everyone found pedestrian. Cheap camcorders were a great way to make that movie, not necessarily any other.
That observation may turn out to be ten times as true of Cloverfield. At a time when films seem to be getting longer, it’s a mere 85 minutes. But (particularly with that opening party scene) it would probably have been more effective had it been even shorter. It’s noticeable that the trailer, rather than acting as a teaser for the movie, effectively presents it in microcosm. It gives us the ‘normal’ opening, then throws the Statue of Liberty’s head down Manhattan. Some have argued we shouldn’t be given a full view of the monster, even at the late stage it appears. But it’s arguable all we should have ever seen was the trailer, with the monster left forever offscreen and unknown.