Erik Hinton

By being both absolutely verisimilar and absolutely unreal, Cloverfield highlights the extent to which reality is natively constructed.


Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2008
US DVD Release Date: 2008-04-22

When the J.J. Abrams-produced, mega-hyped Cloverfield first came out in theatres this January, it is likely that you heard friends and critics dismiss the film as “yet another viral filmmaking scheme trudging in the footprints of The Blair Witch Project” or some similar morsel of counterfeit pop culture literacy. In fact, before anyone knew much of anything about this film other than the cryptic “1-18-08” trailer, Cloverfield was already being avidly panned by that staunch bastion of artistic integrity, the college-educated general public.

However, after watching Matt Reeves’ blockbuster this afternoon, I can safely assure you that Cloverfield -- even with its handheld photography -- is no more a spiritual successor of Blair Witch than any film shot on a tripod is the heir apparent of Citizen Kane.

The brand ofBlair Witch was not its dizzying no-budget cinematography, but rather the possibility that the film was real; the handicam work was just an appurtenance to this end. Cloverfield, on the other hand, pays only lip-service to its reality as it is not about people lost in the woods. It features a 30-story monster destroying Manhattan. To the dismay of the blogosphere and perpetual fanboys everywhere, little forum buzz will be started by the post: IS NEW YROK REALLY DESToYED!!? By abstaining from any brazen overtures at courting the mythological power of apocryphal truth, Reeves’ film profoundly succeeds and charts the second evolution of virality and the YouTube generation.

In the beginning, the flourishing of cheap film technology, and a forum on which to publically display it, brought an onslaught of home-made videos. Keen media higher-ups noticed this trend and, more importantly, discerned that the public had not yet developed the perceptual acuity to separate genuine footage from its cleverly-constructed ersatz counterpart. Viral marketing exploded under the guise of verisimilitude and asking the question “Is it real?” became an international pastime. However, with lonelygirl15 comes a loss of such innocence and the postmodern orgy of excited blurred reality dissipates into a cold skepticism.

Enter Cloverfield. In a culture of suspicion, ever-more paranoid about being duped, J.J. Abrams introduces a film which heralds its own artifice but coyly gestures at its authenticity. It is a movie about a gigantic sea-monster and oversized parasites, but it is shot on a handicam and edited (incredibly slickly) to preserve the glitches in digital medium. Only, it is actually (with a few exceptions) shot on the best digital cameras money can buy and anyone who has even seen a clip of the film knows that the Best-Buy DV piece that you shoot your kids’ soccer games with cannot record images like those plastered on the silver screen.

The film is self-aware and makes no efforts to actually disguise its ruse. Digital Negative and Tippett Studio provide the film with some of the most compelling CG to date and an army of rotoscopers and compositors provide absolutely seamless work for absurdly exaggerated special effects. Right about the time the Statue of Liberty’s head rockets out of a plume of smoke and rolls down the street, you know the film is pure fiction.

Why then, does the film make so many attempts at looking real: the color bars and government label at the beginning, the digital glitch effects, extensive use of out of focus, handheld photography? By being both absolutely verisimilar and absolutely unreal, Cloverfield highlights the extent to which reality is natively constructed. This is the thrust of the current manifestation of YouTube culture, moving from the acknowledgement that the fake is difficult to distinguish from the authentic onto the acknowledgement that there may not be that much of an essential difference. As YouTube videos shot on camera phones are beginning to be edited and feature amateur special effects, do we know what a faithful reproduction of reality looks like? If not, how do we know that our own perceptions are faithful ones?

However, what does this say about whether or not the film is entertaining? Generally, I have found if a film sits well intellectually and does so inconspicuously, it usually wins aesthetically, as well. Cloverfield is no exception. With great acting from a relatively unknown cast and gorgeous art direction, the film is fantastically immersive. At exactly 84 minutes, Cloverfield never overstays its welcome and the issues of nausea reported in film screenings are taken care of by the limitations of the small screens on which most of us play our DVDs. Furthermore, the bizarre track of humor that runs through the buffoonish camera operator’s dialogue is unexpected and a gem. I hope that if apocalyptic disaster struck me, I’d still cling to my sharp tongue (possibly my light sarcasm), too.

A familiar critique of the movie is that it leaves too much unexplained and that it lacks any sort of resolution whatsoever. However, a film should not necessarily lay out all of its cards and the popular demand that it do so can only be explained as a mixture of traditional film form being inculcated in our minds as gospel and human hubris that there should be nothing we cannot know. Yes, the film keeps you in the dark, all puns aside, but such obscurity works in the context of the nature of truth which it assails.

I adore J.J. Abrams for confounding fans with his Slusho website and ciphers that ultimately lead in circles. We expect there to be a unitary state of affairs which a film represents and we can get at by watching the film, pausing the footage, and communing with pop culture archaeologists. However, why has this assumption gone unchallenged, in an accessible fashion, for so long?

Finally, the DVD complements its extraordinary feature film with a fine bevy of interesting extras: behind the scenes, deleted segments, alternate endings, commentaries, etc. Unlike the film which truly brings something new to the table, the features may be commended for performing classically but skillfully. Careful editing has gone into even the minor making-of’s and the entire disc is pulled together by the omnipresent theme of government file.

Cloverfield is a must buy not only for its awesome production value, but as an artifact marking the next step in our Web 2.0 societies.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

Related Articles Around the Web

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.