The pleasures and terrors of Cloverfield (2008) seem to have receded somewhat, and, even this early in the year (can I still say it’s early in the year?), other, more weighty, movies have crowded it out of view. (But who can say how accurately I’m glimpsing the zeitgeist from here in Adelaide anyway?) Still, I was thinking about it recently as I was reading an essay by Victor Burgin on how the viewer constructs a sense of cinema from memories, VCR freeze-frames, and still images. He talks about a cinematic heterotopia, where “we encounter displaced pieces of films: the Internet, the media, and so on, but also the psychical space of a spectating subject that Baudelaire first identified as ‘a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’.” (166)
Most of the films we consume now exist in this kind of space, with viral marketing campaigns and fake websites adding to the mix, but Cloverfield depends much more on this sense of being made up of accumulated bits (this site allows you to shuffle through some strange photographs that actually tell you nothing). If you’ve not seen Cloverfield I don’t need to tell you much beyond the fact that it’s a monster movie set in New York. You probably know that it’s shot with a moving camera that judders and shakes its way along. But it’s the fragmentariness of the narrative, rather then the camera’s behaviour, that is the dominant aesthetic of the film.
[image: Sam Emerson/Paramount Pictures]
It’s interesting to note that I’m talking about a film of fragments (well, two fragments, really; the main action is taped over something else) which is constituted – in the story world – of a whole unedited tape. This is the basic paradox of cinema, of course: fragments of still images run together allow us an experience of a continuous whole, but also in a larger context, the conventions of continuity editing do this for the narrative. The frame of Cloverfield is that of the video camera wielded by Hud, one of the group of friends making its way through the chaos of a trampled-through city. He seems reluctant at first to take the camera, then comes to relish the idea of shooting everything. He intrudes on a lovers’ conversation and when caught justifies himself by saying “I’m documenting.” Later, once the chaos becomes apparent, he says he needs to film it to show others “how it all went down.” Another time, when his friends are planning a hasty passage across some collapsing buildings his contribution to the proceedings is “okay, I’ll document”. This commentary on the ubiquity of cameras is clear, but this all also reminds me of the diary entries that make up Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That story is told through fragments, disparate and by different characters. Because it’s not told in hindsight by a narrator who must somehow have lived through the events, it heightens the suspense – sort of like: I’m writing this diary at the end of a long and strange day, but oh, I can hear some scratching at the door, I’m just going to put my pen down to investigate. Is that it? Is that character now dead? Something similar happens with Cloverfield. The camera could stop at any time, no-one’s editing this, it’s just been found. Unlike a novel or a feature-length film, a diary entry or just buttoning on the camera has no rules about long it should last. (yes, I know I am actually talking about a novel and a feature film; play along.)
I’ve yearned for a while for a movie trailer that is simply a fragment of the film it’s advertising, not a précis of the whole plot. Why do we need to be told the story before we are told the story? The first Cloverfield trailer did just that: a desultory meander through some guy’s farewell party is interrupted by some loud something. The camera runs outside to see distant explosions and the careening head of the Statue of Liberty. We don’t even know the title of the film.
This gives us what I think is one of the compelling things about Cloverfield, and for me one of its main pleasures: the rigorous first-person view gives us little sense about the facts of the larger event. There’s a monster in New York, but how did it come to be? And why is it so annoyed? Most other movies would explicate all this, show us the origins of said creature, detail the military’s response, but here the plot narrows almost purely to what we can see in front of a single camera, and this too adds to the sense of suspense and unease and expectation: what’s going on and what will happen next?. The glimpses of news footage on TV seem superfluous. The monster is like one of Hitchcock’s maguffins: we don’t really need to know why it’s there, it just is, now let’s just enjoy watching the characters jump.
[yikes. I just jumped. Writing alone in my quiet office, I left 1-18-08.com (one of those Cloverfield websites) open, waiting for a little effect that happens after about six minutes. I forgot about it until a minute ago.]
Victor Burgin. “Possessive, Pensive and Possessed” in Joanna Lowry and David Green, eds. Stillness and Time: Photography and the Moving Image. Photoworks/Photoforum: Brighton, UK, 2006. 165-176.