The Bad Robot film “Cloverfield” premiered in Japan last night (April 5th). Given the obvious Godzilla inspiration, I am surprised that it took this long to cross the Pacific and more surprising, it appears that the viral marketing campaign that had many theorizing about the story, analyzing still frames, and so on, failed to attract a large online Japanese following. Moreover, a Hollywood movie buff friend of mine mentioned that the commercial even failed to push the production team connection to the series “Lost,” which is hugely popular in Japan. That being said, I was there last night savoring this surprisingly impacting (albeit playfully shallow) film. I must say that despite the shallowness of the characters, I did admire the sound design (Merzbow must be smiling) and the impressive visual effects. Coupled with the hand-held home video aesthetic, the film ends up transporting the viewer into a nightmarish voyeur-experience or maybe it was just the fact that my brain felt gooey after exiting the theater due to the excessive vomit-vision of the camera operator.
I also admired the continuous realization that what one is watching is a situation as viewed through the interface of a camera. My friend commented that the use of the hand-held camera destroyed any semblance of reality that they were striving for. That is, it was the continuous self-referentiality of the camera that failed to draw her in, that failed to offer her a void in which to sink. In my case, it was the opposite. The continuous reminder that we are seeing this all through the interface of the camera added the self-produced grit that is perpetuated by social networking video sites. The amateurish quality of the framing coupled with the million dollar visual effects, I thought, were pulled off very successfully. In looked at this way, the movie is successful: Let’s embed the viewer in the situation by transforming the camera into a giant human eye. That is, let’s give the viewer the unsettling feeling that they are participating in this destructive event (while still maintaining some distance). However, lets start the film off with a disclaimer so that the interspersed cuts make sense (while adding a sentimental edge) and add a kind of “Area 51” vibe to the entire film (the film as secret military project). Let’s only minimally build the characters and focus on the tremendous panic of the situation, the impact of the movie not being the story per se, but the unfolding shock of the event. That is, this film is to be pure spectacle. Had this film been created in a more traditional way, I think that the horrifying reality of the monster would have been laughable, but given the home video aesthetic, the monster actually came off looking beautifully vivid and unpredictable.
Interface as Coping Device
Moreover, I like the idea of the camera person, Hud (?), I think that was his name, only being able to cope with the situation through the interface of the camera. In one scene, he almost gives up all hope, but upon returning to the interfaced reality of the camera, achieves a glint of distance from the reality of the situation. That is, by interacting through the interface of the camera, he is able to confront the situation. Perhaps his getting devoured was not so horrifying as he was spared the horror of never actually confronting the terrifying void of the monster.
Another scene that I particularly liked was Rob (our hero) searching for a new cellphone battery while a looting is happening in an electronics shop. At one point, our camera faces a TV set, a news broadcast of the destruction. Also, shortly after that, everyone in the store stops and becomes transfixed by the TV screen showing the horror of the event. In this way, we see the reality of the interface in that even though destruction was happening all around them, they were immersed in it, it was only through the interface of the TV that they were able to “see” the story that they were a part of. That is, the interface gave them the ability to get a grip on the chaos that swirled around them.
Finally, at the end of the film (if you haven’t seen the film…I will ruin it for you), shortly before Rob and Beth are killed they both address the camera directly. At this point, they are doing two things. First, they are retreating into the comfort of the interface knowing that when they die, the camera offers them a chance to remain “undead,” a chance for their story to be understood and a chance for their voices to live on for some unknown other. Second, they are using the interface, again as way to put perspective into the unbelievability of the situation. We must remember that earlier that day Rob was tossing back beers at his going-away party, while preparing for his new life in Japan. The camera allows them to see themselves in relation to the bewilderment of being under fire and under attack. In distancing themselves from the situation, they achieve a moment of peace, then they are crushed. We are left with the last remaining footage of them as happy couple.
In closing, what I liked about “Cloverfield” was the gap between knowing that what one is seeing has already been retrieved by the military and knowing that what is seeing is unfolding before one’s eyes. It is in this wiggly line of panic and security that we are able to comfortably watch as all hope is lost and as characters continue to be devoured before our interfaced eyes.