Notes Towards a Cloverfield

I really enjoyed this movie. Considering the limits put upon the film, both by the method of its presentation and the confined scope of giant-monster movies in general, Cloverfield manages to present quite a few fascinating ideas, many more fascinating questions, and, where it does stumble, it does not embarrass itself in its genre.

The two handicaps of this film are worth mentioning first. The giant-monster movie has a formulaic nature. These are stories of a battle, beginning at the origin of the battle, and ending at the conclusion, as follows: 1) Monster appears and attacks unsuspecting populace, causing much carnage. 2) The forces of humanity respond and are either obliterated or manage to drive the monster into hiding briefly before returning to obliterate them later. 3) The main character, generally an outsider, manages to devise a plan to exploit a hidden weakness in the monster and defeat it. Generally, here the origin of the monster is established. 4) This plan will either succeed or fail, and the main character will either escape or die. This last statement may seem banal, as everyone will either live or die, but in this context I mean that the scope of the giant-monster movie allows no room for ambivalence. Rarely are the characters followed long enough after the conclusion of the battle for the audience to witness more than the rush of victory or the solemnity of sacrifice. Therefore, the grand plot of the film is already known to the audience, and all that can be altered on this front is the arrangement of who lives, who dies, when, and how. There are shocks here, such as creatures jumping onto screen with ill intent and no warning, but no possibility of surprise. We all already knew that a creature was going to do that at some point, it was just a matter of when. We so expect the surprise that it no longer is surprising when it finally occurs. This is like riding a roller coaster while blindfolded.

The choice then to present this film through only a single perspective is the more interesting limitation. It removes the ability to develop background stories or characters. The focus can only ever be on the present moment, on voyeurism, and in the immediate vicinity of the recording object. This locates the focus squarely on what is being seen, not who is doing the seeing. This history of the characters is limited, transforming the cast into a collection of everymen. The main character has a strained relationship with an girl whom he still loves. His best friend is somewhat insecure, the type who whistles through graveyards. Beyond this, nothing is known. This raises the question of what is not seen, then, through this camerawork. These characters must have pasts, yet we, the audience, are not privy to them, and therefore these pasts do not exist to us. The film cannot switch viewpoints away from the heart of the carnage in order to provide expository dialog explaining the existence of the beast. Lacking these details, however, does not alter the fact formula of the monster movie. Whether the creature comes from the depths of the ocean, the far reaches of outer space, or secret government labs is immaterial, nothing more than variations of the color of frosting on a cake. This is not a character-driven film; instead the characters sit alongside the audience as the plot drives itself according to the basic formula.

So then, this film is noteworthy neither for its plot nor its characters. What we do have is a presentation of how humans react to the inconceivable.

This film is acknowledged as owing a debt to the Godzilla-style monster movie. The most interesting relationship of Cloverfield to the Godzilla-style calamity is the presence and absence of dubbing. In the old giant-monster movies, imported from Japan, in order for the films to be understood by American audiences the dialog had to be dubbed over in English translation. This act of dubbing is obviously, and humorously, only superficial. The scenes do not change, the actors do not suddenly convert to speaking their lines in English; instead there is an obvious disconnect between what is heard and what is seen. The words to not fit into the mouths of the speakers. This act of converting the incomprehensible, a Japanese film, into a comprehensible format, a dubbed American release, adds an extra layer of separation between the audience and the events of the film. The horrific becomes campy as American audiences laugh at and mock the crude and awkward translation efforts. We are safe, we are having fun. Look at those silly people, they look as if they were cartoons, the way their mouth moves. This is obviously something occurring on a level apart from where I am. Minimum safe distance.

Cloverfield, however, has no dubbing. The incomprehensible here is not language difference as such, but is instead the very existence of the monster at all. The common man, and perhaps no man at all, has access to the knowledge necessary to rationalize and make sense of these events, and yet there these events are just the same, not caring whether we understand them or not. The absence of dubbing, here in the form of scenes where experts explain the origin of the beast, forces us to imagine a world where we must react to events without the possibility of understanding them. Reason is useless. Though, if a common man knew for certain that the creature originated in a galaxy far, far away, as opposed to in a land before time, would he flee from it any faster? In this film the comfort of knowledge is absent.

I believe that this desire for a separation from the immediate, which is one of the effects of dubbing, and one which implies that one is only watching an event, not living it, is a factor in the 21st century drive to record life. Being behind the lens of a camera infers a level of control. The individual operating the camera decides what to shoot, what to include and what to exclude, and allows the individual to shape the record of the event. The act of recording transforms the camera operator himself into the engine of translation; it is through him that the all enveloping reality of an event is molded into a linear sequence of images that produces a story as the recorder wants it to be told. The recorder is under no obligation to record the existence of the beast at all, nor, even, of the carnage itself.

That the camera operator in Cloverfield almost never stops recording speaks to his desire to present an accurate record of events. He consciously does not want to alter these events through a manipulation of presentation. This speaks to a mistrust of “official” versions of events in contemporary culture, and the fear that unless something is documented, it cannot be proven to ever have existed at all. This is no different in kind than the compulsion to forfeit privacy through comprehensive online sharing of pictures, videos, and ideas. Youtube, facebook, et cetera. Things exist, even the incomprehensible, through being seen. Yet the events of Cloverfield cannot focus themselves in a form that humans understand. This is graphically symbolized at the conclusion of the film, where the camera operator dies, and drops the camera: it lays on the ground, trying to auto-focus, but it keeps shifting from focus on the blades of grass in the foreground and the dead operator in the background. Not until the camera is picked back up by the main character does the recording return to a consistent focus. A human operator is required to provide direction, to select which small portion of these events will be focused on and translated, and which shall be ignored in order to allow integrity of the limited focus.

There is an importance to documenting the traumatic. The traumatic burns its image into the human mind by its very nature, and this documentation process allows at least a partial illusion of control. What I find most fascinating in Cloverfield is the representation of the collateral damage done to individuals, their minds and memories, their understanding of reality, by traumatic memory. The documentations of the monster’s attack on New York are recording over a previous video file on the memory card, one that documents a peaceful, happy day in the life of the main character and his love interest. Brief snippets from this previous record appear in the film at moments where the recording stops and the characters instead view the data on the tape. I will argue that this previous recording is more important to the main character than any of the horrific image recorded on the night of the attack. It is, after all, to save the woman on the previous recording that he enters the heart of the devastation. He wants to preserve her, yet every second of his quest to save his estranged lover erases a moment of their shared past and replaces it with incomprehensible horror. The traumatic replaces/erases the good, except for brief moments where the previous good comes bubbling to the surface to remind us why we are trying to reason out the traumatic in the first place. This is the true accounting of the damage of the traumatic. It is not measured in body counts or economic estimates; rather it is estimated in the damage done to those small, subtle moments that define us as individuals and as humans, and the extent to which the new world order that the graphically traumatic ushers in render these precious moments obsolete and no longer comprehensible. One good day is worth everything in the face of the apocalypse, as the apocalypse is the utter removal of the ability to have more good days, making those previous ever more precious, yet the traumatic consumes the mind, overwrites the past, and restructures how the individual approaches the future. The traumatic reduces the individual to a response to the central event, to a set of instincts, to something subhuman. The use of this in Cloverfield indicates that that characters are not lacking in substance out of directorial ineptitude, but that their lack of depth is a direct consequence to the carnage itself.

The lack of concrete knowledge about the creature itself seems to partner with the format of the film to create a beast that is fundamentally nightmare. It never seems to be quite the same from sighting to sighting, and its effects and aftermath do not fit together in a neat, coherent fashion. The massive explosion in the city is never explained, nor does anything about the creature itself demonstrate a capacity for combustion. It walks variously on two and four legs. The miniature creatures that it spawns from its body, with their bite that eventually causes the bitten victim to explode, seem monstrous just for the sake of being monstrous. The beast has no single origin, it seems, nor single form, but instead seems to be a collection of the fear and anxiety of 21st century America. Instead of striving to be as realistic a monster as possible, the Cloverfield beast preys entirely upon our shared unconscious terror of the incomprehensible. This nightmare blots out the dream of the ‘good day.’ It is always about to happen, about to get worse, always poised to strike and render all of our good moments obsolete. This fear itself threatens to prevent us from striving for these good days at all.

In the end, then, Cloverfield seems to be a movie that is not about a monster in particular, but about all the potential monsters that are always potentially poised to strike, the precariousness of our lives, and the damage that is done to destroy us that renders us all emotionally dead, even if physically still alive, even before the monster ever surfaces.

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