Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cloverfield vs. Jaws & The Art of Missing the Point


So I went and saw Cloverfield last night.

It was a wild ride. I totally loved it. When I left the theatre I mentioned to the friends I went with that I expected that most of the criticism that would be lobbed at it would be how it failed to explain the initiating circumstances or the implied victory over the monster. I also had heard people couldn't handle the 'handy-cam cinematography' a la Blair Witch Project.

So this morning I took a look at what was available on-line.

Sure enough.

Other criticisms: Lame witless dialogue. Exploitative 9/11 imagery.

Every single one of these criticisms are complete and utter bullshit.

For starters I can name a dozen film (easily) that feature an enormous creature rampaging through a city. Most of them include the word 'Godzilla' in them, but it's hardly limited to that franchise. I highly recommend The Host. Despite The Host's rather refreshing look at the genre, it needs to be said about the genre as a whole - "Been there, done that."
We've all seen the tale of how the plucky team of scientists, intrepid military men and the token civilian pulled into the thick of things band together to vanquish the building-sized monster.
What hasn't been seen is the story of the guy who we see get crushed under it's foot before the final reel. THAT is this story. Uncompromisingly so. J.J. Abrams & Director Matt Reeves are never tempted to swerve to a place where our heroes become instrumental in the creature's demise. They come close, witnessing the inital bombing runs on it, but then they become the victims of the obligatory swipe at a pesky helicopter. As our beaten heroes lay in the rubble at the end of the film waiting for it to all end, their hideout becomes collateral damage to the final all-out attack on the creature.

We can assume that the creature is defeated - it is strongly implied by the nature of the faux government tag applied to the start of the film, one which indicates an inquiry into the incident. Did Rob and Beth survive? Probably not, but we don't know. Did we hear the creature's demise? We don't know. (There are reports that if you play the final radio transmission backwards that it say's "It's still alive." Even if true, frankly 'backwards masking' doesn't really exist in the world of this film. But the concept of the film directly prevents us from knowing based on the internal context, and that is how it should be. Anything else would be a cheat.

And the same applies to the cinematography and the dialogue. Both were slavishly realistic. Real people aren't capable of tossing out witty one-liners in response to their strife every two minutes for 90 minutes (or seven hours - the time the film plays out in). The film even subtly comments on it - "Why don't you ask me if I've ever heard of... Garfield." A line so witless, commenting on another character's lack of wit... it's genius.

And nothing can better put us in the situation than to see it all first person... though naming the character with the camera 'Hud' (Hudson/Heads Up Display) walks the line of self-reference. This does mean that we don't see much of the monster, 'cause naturally the protagonists are usually running in the opposite direction, but refer back to my first point - WE'VE SEEN THIS MOVIE BEFORE! Not only do we not need to see the monster, it's a refreshing and more realistic to show it to us this way.

Which leads me tot he complaints of exploitation of 9/11 imagery. Exploitation? Go to hell. If anything it's the greatest of respect. I've got this theory - stay with me here - that if we were all to be exposed to the horror of being in the chaos of the hot zone it owuld happen a hell of a alot less. And the hot zone could be anything from Ground Zero at the World Trade Centre or downtown Baghdad in April of 2003 or Guernica in 1937, or Dresden 1945... I can go on of course. In all these cases a common trait is that the civilian victims (and survivors) at the centre of the storm have little notion of what is actually happening. They might know 'we are being bombed' but even that may be obscured (note that many people thought 9/11 was a bombing while it was happening - despite the jet-liners flying into buildings overhead.) Cloverfield presents this reality clearly (in it's obscurity) from start to finish. In his final address to the camera, Rob says "If you are watching this you know more about what's happening than I do." This is thematically a very important moment. What is the name of the film? "Cloverfield." A military slang term referencing the appearance from above of an area which has just been carpet-bombed, as the dust is still settling. Could this be any more clear? What is it like to be in the horrific heat of that moment? Cloverfield attempts to capture that. Again, the first-person view is an unrelenting choice which hammers this point home and never breaks it's own rule. Having the attack in question be a movie monster rather than a military power is almost irrelevant. Part of the point is that our protagonists only know a tiny sliver of the story, so it might as well be Godzilla - or whatever.
Let's face it, being a giant monster gets more people through the doors. Just look at the record breaking box-office figures of the first week. In that sense it's more exploitative, but if it had been an attack by a military power (which in New York would be even more absurd than a movie monster in today's day and age, the supernatural allows the leap of willful suspension of disbelief) half the people would come out to watch the movie... and the political subtext would be far too on the nose and less powerful.
My ultimate point here - if you've missed it - is that Cloverfield actually honours the victims of 9/11 (and more importantly, more horrific events - some people (cough, cough, New Yorkers, cough) really need to get over themselves) by bringing us inside the horror of such events so that we can all understand what it might be like, how confusing and terrifying it can be, and hopefully steel a little more resolve in each of us to prevent it from happening again.

Okay, I'm off my soap box for the moment. But that doesn't mean I'm finished!

A few more thoughts...

Titanic was a love story set against the backdrop of the world's most famous passnger liner sinking. Cloverfield does the same by putting a story against the backdrop of a Godzilla-like attack. The attack isn't the story. Surviving in the heaping rubble is.

I went home and rather randomly put Jaws in the DVD player. Watching the infamous first opening scene I had a revelation. Spielberg knew exactly what was going on underneath the water as Susan Backlinie was attacked by the shark. None of what happens is random. I know that making a reality of what is unseen is an important creative tool, but suddenly with outrageous clarity I saw what was going on beneath the surface. A taste... a bite and tearing a piece (leg or legs) off. A moment's respite as she clings to the buoy, legless, in shock as the first morsels go down and the shark circles for a second attack.... I imagined it all in greater clarity than this. (In a side note - I got to see our Jaws tribute scene edited last weekend. Made me very happy. It was always one of my pet scenes in the "Beast..." script.)

It occurred to me that Abrams and Reeves similarly knew at any given moment in Cloverfield what was going on in the bigger picture. What stage of any pedestrian creature feature would be going on in the world of the film.

Okay, I'm done.

No comments: