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.