Crimson and Cloverfield

I am posting in spite of my blog’s messy look. Sorry for that; Adam helped a bit, but I can’t get it tweaked quite right yet and I’ve been superbusy (it’s that time of year for us), so I haven’t been able to tinker.

Anyway, I want to tell you about this (danger: spoilers ahead):

Because I’m a fan of Lost and watched Felicity religiously (shut up), I was eager to see the J. J. Abrams-produced feature Cloverfield, the plot of which was shrouded mostly in secrecy lo these many months, although it was made obvious from the teaser trailer that something attacked New York City during an all-out hipster goodbye party, but that was about it.

The film is, at heart, a basic Orpheus/Eurydice retelling in a very contemporary version of Hades with one pissed off (and hungry) hellgod wandering around. Boy secretly loves girl, boy loses girl, boy treks through semi-destroyed metropolis to rescue girl from her burning apartment while large creature systematically kills everyone he knows.

(This is my “oh shit” face.)

What makes Cloverfield strong, in my opinion, is some of the conceit that made it noteworthy to begin with. The first-person camerawork is strong and well done here. The limited perspective does add a lot of tension and suspense, and the audience is encouraged to identify with the likeable and usually nervously humorous character holding it, whose only role is to film the entire thing. We like Hud because he reminds us of ourselves: well-meaning, kind, really into a girl who doesn’t realize he exists, loyal, etc.

(Is it Cloverfield or Flashdance? Or both?)

Even though Cloverfield seems to be about an extraordinary event changing people’s lives forever, it smartly keeps actual danger on the periphery, in the vein of Jaws. For much of the film the characters aren’t in actual danger, but the threat–like the idea of terrorism in our America–is always present, always looming. And when people die, they aren’t forgotten. Witness, for instance, one character’s phone call to the mother of a character who died, having to explain it to her during a brief lull while they hide out in a subway station. The film remembers what it means to be a person, that even under supernatural circumstances, we don’t lose our humanity; we retreat into it.

Much has been written already of the film’s liberal use of shaky handheld camera; narratively, the entire film is shot in near-real time using a characters’ digital video recorder; for the viewer, this means when he runs, you feel dizzy and disoriented. Only in a few scenes did this bother me. The true strength is the way the camera resists omniscience: you want it to move back, to look at the horror dead on, but it can’t, it won’t. It turns the film into what film theorists would call “pure spectacle.” It reduces the viewer to a powerless victim of the film rather than participant in it. There is no power for the viewer here.

The cast of unknowns intensify the sense of reality television that exists here. As an audience, Americans are becoming too comfortable witnessing trauma second-hand through the cameralens, and Cloverfield knows this about us, wants us to both love it and hate it about ourselves. Anyone who watched on television as the second plane hit the World Trade Center understands the powerlessness of watching disaster strike; we understand it in a way real witnesses won’t—-and vice versa.

I left the theater feeling both shaken and shaky–in fact, it took me a few minutes to relax after the film ended. I didn’t feel scared, really. It was a stressful film to watch, but the emotion was legitimate, not constructed. I appreciated that.

And I’m even going to go see it again.

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