Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Movies: Crimson and Cloverfield, over and overfield . . .

There are two schools of Cloverfield reviewing. The New York School, spearheaded by print journalists across the political spectrum, and the Majority School, which pretty much covers reviewers everywhere else.

If this was a New York School review, I would be required to suggest that the film is "the horror of 9/11 to be repackaged and presented to us as an amusement-park ride" (from Salon, which boasts a NYC office). I might give the flick's makers the benefit of the doubt and claim that the film "inadvertently disses New York for what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, by re-enacting scenes of buildings exploding and massive clouds of debris for fun and profit" (this from NYC based FOX News). I could always take the high road, dismissing the film on the premise the filmmakers are simply boorish and tasteless rather than manipulative or slick: "Like Cloverfield itself, this new monster is nothing more than a blunt instrument designed to smash and grab without Freudian complexity or political critique, despite the tacky allusions to Sept. 11. The screams and the images of smoke billowing through the canyons of Lower Manhattan may make you think of the attack, and you may curse the filmmakers for their vulgarity, insensitivity or lack of imagination. (The director, Matt Reeves, lives in Los Angeles, as does the writer, Drew Goddard, and the movie’s star producer, J. J. Abrams.) But the film is too dumb to offend anything except your intelligence, and the monster does cut a satisfying swath through the cast, so your only complaint may be, What took it so long?" I should point out that the Times Manohla Dargis isn't the only one to underscore the Left Coast origins of the film, FOX drops that tidbit in too: "Cloverfield was truly made by California movie people. No one in New York would ever be this insensitive." In case you missed the point, I would bring up 9/11 again and again and again:

From the Times:
"Rob and his ragtag crew behave like people who have never watched a monster movie or the genre-savvy “Scream” flicks or even an episode of “Lost” (Hello, Mr. Abrams!), much less experienced the real horrors of Sept. 11."

The Daily News:
"Manhattan has always been a fat target for apocalypse filmmakers, but with its 9/11-inspired imagery, Matt Reeves' breathlessly fast-paced "Cloverfield" is going to resonate with New York audiences in a way no other horror film has . . . But it's fun in its morbidly campy way."

The Sun:
"If you were in the city on September 11, 2001, you'll feel something dark slither through your gut."

The last paper takes the carpetbagger imagery the furthest: "Like some tourist from the Midwest, once the creature stumbles into Manhattan and visits Central Park and the Empire State Building, there's nothing left for it to do but knock around aimlessly, getting in trouble and making a mess on the sidewalks."

Outside of Gotham, the press has been kinder and the blogosphere has been downright giddy. If this were a Majority School review I might dismiss the overt 9/11 imagery, as Illinois State Journal Register does: "Unlike 'The Blair Witch Project,' there’s not a hope for confusion with actual events, although the 9/11-esque dusting of New York is . . . a cheap tonal misstep . . . [but] minor aftershocks can’t crumble this mammoth, rock-’em-sock-’em movie, though. It’s unapologetically B, what with its magnificent monster, melodramatic smooches, overly scripted comic relief and unsympathetic pecking order. Yet it also is a thrilling, exhausting tale of an incomprehensibly horrible beast lovingly crafted in H.P. Lovecraft’s remorseless style." Or I might make a claim for the value of including such imagery, as the online reviewer for the UK film rag Empire does when they write, "Is this attack so terrifying because it has obvious shades of 9/11 or because the handheld camerawork leaves us disoriented, glimpsing the enormous creature only when Hud’s view quivers that way? It’s both. We live in a time when global violence is recorded not by professionals, but by shaky-handed bystanders with camera phones. We believe bad camerawork and suspect professional broadcast of hiding something from us. Stripped of the comfort of rhythmic editing and frenzied strings that tell us it’s time to be scared and instead served the sort of frantic footage we associate with unfathomable terror brings a new, more primal fear to the monster movie. It starts, bizarrely, to feel like something that could happen." I might even go so far as to claim that this isn't just a case of appropriation – the film is about 9/11. From the horror news site Bloody Disgusting: "Of course, all good monster movies aren't really about the monster at all. When Godzilla came out, it was Japan's allegory for Hiroshima. Cloverfield is obviously ours to 9/11 and, in all honesty, it does a better job of conveying those feelings and emotions we have about that infamous day than any of the straight forward films that tackle the subject."

I bring this up because I reckon you've got to put your cards on the table before giving your opinion on the film which will also inevitably drag you into the whole 9/11 imagery debate.

I'm a New Yorker. I was in Manhattan on that day. I walked across the Manhattan Bridge.

Now, here's my take: Cloverfield is a great giant monster flick, perhaps one of the best ever made. But it is neither the cheap and exploitative exercise in 9/11 button pushing it has been accused of being nor is it the great allegory for 9/11 some defenders have suggested.

Let's start by talking about what it is. If you have somehow managed to avoid all forms of media for the past year and a half, this recap is for you. A group of bobo hipster-yuppies in what appears to be the Lower East Side throw a going away part for one of their amigos. Unfortunately, they just couldn't not invite the 30-story tall sea monster that lives off the coast of Coney Island – I mean, what would the monster think? So the monster shows and turns the movie in one big damn chase scene. A chase scene so big, it takes our viewers through other movies: The Host, Aliens, The Blair Witch Project, 28 Days Later, and more. We watch the military battle the creature to seemingly little effect. Throughout the flick, we get flashbacks – provided by glitches in the camera (apparently not digital as there are a couple references to tape) – to happier pre-Big Freakin' Monster times.

At a slim 70-odd minutes if you don't count the time it takes the credits to roll, the movie is a ruthless plot machine. The characterizations are so minimal that they barely qualify as types, let alone archetypes. There's the lover, his girl, the irresponsible younger brother, the dumb one, the bossy girl, and the girl with black hair. The motivations of the lover, who will drag the rest of the crew all through the monster-besieged burg, will suffice for all of them.

The dialog is minimal as the plot requires no real exposition. The characters repeatedly ask about the monster and nobody seems to know anything and, in truth, it really doesn't matter. It’s a big angry monster – what else do you need to know? In a way, the refusal to disclose even the most minor details about the beast is a brilliant move. Giant monsters don't make a lick of sense. The more you think about them, the less it is possible to look past the glaring illogic of such an animal. Do you have any idea how much energy is would take to move an arm the size of a subway train? There's a reason that there's an upper limit to the size of land-bound animals and limit is regulated by the laws of physics rather than the rules of narrative. But, by never getting into the details of what is happening, the filmmakers never have to worry about getting trapped while trying to talk their way out of the impossibility of the story. The PG-13 dialogue, however, is a source of unintentional comedy. Certainly somebody should have said, "Did somebody just fucking throw the fucking head of the Statue of Liberty at us?" Instead we get a lot of screams and strangely censored oaths: "The head of Lady Liberty, well odd's my bodkin!"

The film's about the action and the action is relentless. A few of the set pieces will push even the most generously suspended disbelief, but the pace of the flick is such that you don't get a lot of time to reflect on the absurdity of what you're watching. The monster looks good, though the spider-like creatures it seems to exude (themselves essentially meaner, toothier versions of the face-huggers – in the effort to leave no film unplundered, we get hints of chest-bursting action) are fairly uninspired. As a thrill machine, Cloverfield's success is complete. I recommend seeing it on the large screen as the visual effects, which are brilliantly integrated into the picture, will be completely overwhelmed when the picture is shrunk down.

So, what about all this 9/11 stuff?

Well, I think NYC critics have, by and large, overacted. They are correct in pointing out that this film's actual engagement with the trauma of 9/11 is minimal. As an allegory for the age of terrorism, this flick fails utterly. Godzilla wasn't an allegory for nuclear war because the details of the a-bomb were worked into his origin story. It's an allegory for nuclear war because the human characters in Godzilla face a very atomic age dilemma: do you deal with the unintended consequences of a weapon by trotting out an even bigger stronger weapon and, if you do, how long will it be before that decision comes to haunt you? That's the thrust of the flick. The point is the human characters wrestling with making that call. What's the allegory in Cloverfield? By making the threat a monster with no backstory or reason to attack, you basically lock the human protagonists into a military response. They don't understand anything about the monster, but what is there to understand. Would we find something in its background that made us say, "Oh, well then, all this devastation is perfectly reasonable. We're sorry we dropped those bombs on you. It all just looked so bad from down here, you know?" The military response fails again and again, but what other option is there? This isn't a fitting metaphor for America's current military failures as the humans don't have any other options in the flick. Negotiate? Send more foreign aid to monsterized nations in the hopes of eliminating the conditions that encourage monsterized terror? Critics have sited Lovecraft as an influence and I think they're spot on there – but then they pull back from the obvious conclusion. In Lovecraft's works, people are simply screwed. There's bigger things than them out there and it didn't matter what they did or what they do to try to escape your fate; they're screwed. Much the same is true of the humans in Cloverfield. There's a sort of bracing nihilism at work here, but the whole thing's bust as a political allegory. (Besides, if it was really about 9/11, the characters would have run into a gaggle of nutcases who knew the "truth" about the monster: that it was sent by the US government to justify the on-going occupation of monsterized oil-rich nations.)

Cloverfield isn't so much about 9/11 as it proximate to the televised images of 9/11. That's about as deep as it goes. The issue becomes whether or not it is going to be eternally verboten for popular filmmakers to reference what is part of our shared visual culture. By virtue of being alive, we have all seen buildings collapse. We know what they look like. How could any filmmaker make a disaster pic, monster movie, or large scale war movie and not end up in some way accessing that shared visual imagery? I don't think it is reasonable to suggest they should. This movie comes out "too soon" for many New Yorkers. But when will it no longer be "too soon"? What's the magic number of years that must pass? There's no logic to the stance. Artists, both good and bad, need access to our shared visual culture. That said, there's nothing wrong with somebody pointing out that wrapping you movie in visual allusions to infamous events doesn't automatically give you film depth and gravity, but that's not the same as suggesting that there was some cynical manipulation going on or that the filmmakers were ignorant (but allegations seem to exist in the NYC critics' reviews).


spacejack said...

Ahh, these New York reviewers are soo spoiled. If I want to see Toronto get destroyed in a film with Hollywood special effects budget, my only option is Resident Evil: Apocalypse (which does an excellent job on City Hall BTW.)

Also, we've seen the Statue of Liberty get destroyed too many times already. How about the CN Tower? Imagine a giant monster drop-kicking the observation pod into the lake. Or bowling it down Yonge street. The possibilities are endless.

Makers of Cloverfield II: consider this an invitation.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacey,

Scuttle-butt is that the proposed sequel is that it will cover the same event, just from another perspective - a different 1st person camera.

Personally, I would have preferred and old school face-off - Cloverfield vs. Mothra in Terror in Toronto!

Heather Santrous said...

Very good review. I liked what you did with it. I don't really understand why the reviews from New York are so hard on the makers of the movie for placing their monster there instead of anywhere else. I can't name another city that I have never been to that I can name off more than one landmark.

I know Dallas because that is my home town. I know maybe one landmark in other cities I have never been to except New York. I can name off a few from there so that was my thoughts when I read your review. What better city to place the monster in that most people that watch the movie has never been to yet at least knows some of the landmarks?

Watching any city being destoryed would be horrifying but to see things you recognize makes it all the more personal.

Anonymous said...

OMG-- I actually saw this movie tonight!

My reaction to the movie was mixed.
I was both impressed and unimpressed.
My biggest surprise was I actually was feeling a little physically ill from watching all the handheld camerawork. As far as I can remember, BLAIR WITCH didn't give me that problem.
NYPD BLUE simply distracted me with its camera work, but I didn't feel nauseous.
But during CLOVERFIELD there were times I wished the camera would steady itself some, I think as early as the party scene. Usually I'm thinking of things like that simply because I want to have a better look at what's happening on screen, but this time it was a toss up between craving visual clarity and also a hint of trying to calm down a slight but distinct sense of motion sickness, which settled down about a half hour AFTER the movie was over.
There were some printed warnings about this possibility posted on the box office window. It didn't say anything about possibly puking (I read about that on AOL), just about motion sickness, and comparing it to BLAIR WITCH.

Oh, before I forget-- SJ: I THOUGHT that was the Toronto city hall in RE:A!

Re: 9/11 references, etc.
Although I disagree completely with the idea that the monster is an allegory for the attack (and your dissection of the nuclear allegory about GODZILLA is excellent), one could make a case that if you're going to create a situation in the same background as the attack, with some visual similarity to that attack, there would (or should) be a point to doing that beside it just looking cool.
But even if you don't buy THAT line of thinking, part of me wonders why no one at the party seemed to think terrorist attack first but earthquake, because in this reality, 9/11 DID still happen in these characters' past, didn't it?
I suppose any dialogue like that may have been intentionally downplayed or cut to limit perceived senseless exploitation of 9/11 to justify the narrative ends of a giant monster movie.
But if we're using a handheld
camera as a method to further create a believable reality, then just as much as your correct point about censored dialogue about the SoL's kinetic head to achieve
PG-13iosity, I noticed the absence of hearing the characters refer to 9/11 at some point.

Although, Heather, I understand your point about recognizable landmarks, which is a good point, but I still think the filmmakers would have been naive if they thought their film wouldn't be scrutinized through the filter of 9/11.
In fact, I wonder if it could be argued about the political mood of the country that this film got made at all.
But that's idle conjecture.
I just bring it up because I'm consciously addressing 9/11 as a related topic to this movie.

Hmmm... I was just thinking... after the movie I kept wondering if there was a way they could've incorporated more video from multiple viewpoints.
I can't think of a way off-hand that's as eloquent as the way this "video" is presented, but I'll be honest, I think I missed some other perspectives at times.
On one level, the concept of the film being an example of video evidence from the attack works, but it does have its limitations-- the biggest one I think is that Hud keeps filming through some situations ("I'm documenting!").
There were a number of times I didn't buy the conceit, as much as I did not respect the intelligence level of Hud.
Oh yeah, I'll mention this now: Hud, the guy filming the whole thing, was a character I found less and less appealing as the film went on based on his comments and actions throughout. And by association, if he's supposed to be Rob's best friend, I sort of thought less about Rob as well.
I consider myself somewhat empathetic to characters in general, but this was a rare time where I found myself being at times being distinctly unsympathetic towards them, especially the male characters. Of them all, I think I actually liked Marlene the most.
Not that I wished them any harm, I felt consciously cold towards them.
I think it was a combination of how the characters were written and also their acting ability.

Although, I wonder if the characters' lack of reference to 9/11 also made me think less of them as the type of people they were to a certain degree.
This did not occur to me at all until just now.

But for the most part, thinking about 9/11 really wasn't much of an issue for me.
Although, I think the whole cloud of dust billowing up the street and being watched through the storefront window is a deliberate reference to that event.
I do remember about thousands of New Yorkers walking across the bridges to get back home, but mostly as trivia (for lack of a less insulting word). I have no real video memory of that like I remember other aspects of the tragedy.
So I wonder what it was like seeing that on-screen for someone who actually experienced it? At the very least, I think those memories, either purely as a viewer from out of town (like myself, for example) or for those who were at the scene or close enough, like you CRwM, are reminded of the event.
Any critical feedback is a whole other mixed bag of worms (um, that's a mixed metaphor there...).

Man, I do wish they had several viewpoints of the attack, though.
Sort of a CLOVERFIELD version of WORLD WAR Z.
But, I can't figure out how they could do that as eloquently as they set-up this "piece of video evidence."

The best possibility I could think of, and that is more a description about what I could think of, not the actual quality of the idea:
The narrative conceit would have to be both people videotaping all the time AND an omniscient ability to have all those pieces of video available to you.
Although there is sort of a precedent, and it's from 9/11.
There was so much personal video shot on 9/11, I remember when CNN (I think), culled together a bunch of the video we had already been seeing over and over and they edited it together, without narration, just as is, into a single dramatic narrative.
The planes flying into the building, the explosions, the various views of this, the eventual collapse of the buildings, the dust racing through the streets and the crowds running from it, etc.
Perhaps this could be framed as a News Special, briefly hosted by one or two news anchors to set it up.
We would see several viewpoints established, probably all parties or special functions.
And then, we'd see all the first reactions from those vantage points.
Once established, then we'd eventually have 5 or 6 or however many versions of Hud, except scattered throughout the city, and you'd cut all the footage together like a regular film.
In a way, this would de-emphasize the notion of the "why would they keep filming?" problem. Because we're not with one person so long, we'd almost assume that they stopped filming at some times, and specifically filmed a particular event rather than film everything non-stop (or close to it).

Although I didn't really buy the whole concept of Hud wanting to film EVERYTHING, even allowing for his supposed limited intelligence or social skills (again, "I'm documenting!"), I thought the basic concept of the video being a piece of evidence from the attack, and the double narrative of before and during on one tape a neat idea as well. Thus, the ending footage was a nice, ironic ending.

But most of all, I'm just excited that I saw this movie!

CRwM said...

Screamin' Cattle,

So much to think about. Just some random responses . . .

About the motion sickness, my amigo who joined me for the flick actually dosed himself with dramamine before the show started 'cause he'd read somewhere that doctors were suggesting folks who went to see the flick should so prep. I didn't have a problem, but the filmmakers have apparently decided that the sequel - even if they keep the handcam aspect - has to be less spastic: they're worried that they're losing repeat viewers and will lose some of the DVD trade.

Good points about the 9/11 issue. I personally wish they'd made a more thoughtful and substantial connection, but I don't go so far as to say that had to or they couldn't use the images.

Weirdly - on 9/11 - I remember many New Yorkers mention that it all seemed like something out of a film. I don't know if there's something more interesting to be found in such an observation - I'm just throwing it out there.

You're idea for multiple viewpoints is considerably better than either of the two sequel ideas advanced by the filmmakers (and a sequel is already greenlit and waiting for a script): an attack on a second city (Toronto cross your fingers) or a retelling of the same period of time from somebody else's POV. I'd much rather see a montage of POVs that tell the story of the counter-attack and defeat of the monster.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of these Tony Hawk helmet webcams?
I really don't know anything about them or Hawk, just enough to know that he's a big ass skateboarder icon and that at least a couple years ago I saw a Tony Hawk brand helmet cam for skateboarders in some store.
Although I LOVE the sadly defunct STREET ANGEL comic book, I know absolutely zilch about extreme skateboarding.
But this helmet cam seemed like an awesome idea. Some day I may actually buy one to see how they work and maybe exploit them for a film if they work out real cool.
But assuming the technological best in such a hypothetical scenario, last night I started thinking, "Shit, wouldn't it have been cool if there were a pack of skateboarders wearing these cams, tooling around the city when this monster hit?"
Of course the biggest thing is, I would think, is that all these cameras automatically ARE your POV while your hands are still left free, so you don't have to justify why the person is still filming.
So now all I want is a sequel that works a helmet cam into the works.

Yeah, re: all the 9/11 thoughts.
All those thoughts just came up naturally, but it didn't pose any actual baggage for me while watching the film. Which is strange considering I eventually argue that the characters' lack of a 9/11 reference to the proceedings sort of diminished them in my eyes.
In other words, "oh yeah, physician? heal yourself, etc.!"

Part of me wants to see it again because I'm surprised that I wasn't more impressed with it. If I did go, I'd definitely dramamine up prior to.

But the effects are very impressive, especially considering the shaky cam aspects of it.
Going off on a tangent here, but related to the quality of the special effects: some day, I predict some piece of film will be made that will outrage public opinion to such a degree that it will cause some political shake up or revolution and then we'll find out that the entire film was not factual but manufactured.
I think we're laying groundwork already.
Photo-shopped still photos that get distributed on a grass root level across the net.
And that British film about Bush being assassinated in Chicago.

Who knows, maybe it's already happened and we don't know it, he said ominously and only half-jokingly.

Damn you.
Yeah, that's right, CRwM... Damn you.

At first I didn't get the title to your blog post and I orginally thought you were reviewing two films, CLOVERFIELD and some other film named CRIMSON or with CRIMSON in its title.
Then I realized, stupidly, the song reference.
NOW that stupid lyric, except with "cloverfield" instead of "clover" keeps playing in MY HEAD.

D A M N Y O U U U U U ! ! ! !