Four-Leaf “Clover”

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Like the Manhattan-demolishing leviathan at its center — sometimes only a distant, crashing presence, sometimes terrifyingly close and looming — Cloverfield is an enigma built of striking contrasts. At once epic and intimate, the film seems utterly familiar in some ways and breathtakingly new in others. At its best (and there is a lot of “best” in its 84-minute running time), Cloverfield takes an almost unbearably cliched monster-movie premise and reinvents it whole, deftly stripping away the audience’s ability to anticipate what will happen next — even if, moments later, we realize that we saw the twists and shocks coming a mile away.

In this sense, the new film from producer and concept author J. J. Abrams, screenwriter Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves accomplishes what any good movie must: find a new, temporarily convincing way to obey the established rules of its genre and yet package them in a manner that seems fresh and original. I say “temporarily” because, of course, it’s a zero-sum game: assuming Cloverfield is the box-office phenomenon its makers and marketers clearly expect it to be, we’re in for any number of B, C, and D-grade knockoffs. We’ll quickly tire of the Cloverfield effect, just as we tired of the Matrix‘s bullet time, CG films featuring wisecracking animals in an urban setting, or — next on the block for burnout — the recent boomlet of pregnancy comedies like Knocked Up and Juno.

For the moment, though, we’re in the sweet spot. Cloverfield works beautifully as a lean, scary, and occasionally awe-inspiring fusion of science fiction and horror. Its impact seems inseparable from the promotional campaign leading up to its release, though what strikes me in retrospect (now that the quantum function of collective anticipation has collapsed, the wave of our wanting condensed into a hard particle of finished film) is how trickily non-promotional the publicity turned out to be. From its first teaser onwards, Cloverfield was sold to us more on the basis of what we didn’t know than what we did.

By the old logic of movie marketing, the more we were fed about an upcoming film, the better. Even in cases where a structuring piece of narrative information was withheld, as in The Crying Game, the absence itself became a lure, with reviewers falling all over themselves not to give away the Secret So Shocking You Won’t Believe Your Eyes! Not so Cloverfield, whose central mystery — the monster’s nature and appearance — became an object of extended forensic investigation by fans and, for many, the primary reason to turn up on opening day to see the film. Speculative images like the one at the top of this article (not, let me add, an accurate representation) abounded as fans scoured Quicktime files frame-by-frame and read clues Rorschach-like into promotional artwork. This was accompanied by much skepticism about the prospect of our ever actually seeing the monster; many felt we were in for another bait-and-switch of the Blair Witch variety.

It’s probably no spoiler at this point to announce that there is a monster, and a very satisfying one at that. What’s great, though, is how our fear and fascination toward the thing is mostly generated through the human activity around it, in particular the reactions of the quartet of young actors whom we follow throughout the movie. None is a well-known performer, for obvious reasons. Encountering a familiar movie face amid the frenzy and pathos of Cloverfield would destroy the film’s precarious conceit of being “real” footage captured by “real” people as the attack “really” happens.

The filmic pursuit of realism has a long and storied history — almost as long as the list of ways that Hollywood has put that realism to cynical use to sell its fictions. In staying within the boundaries of its metaphor, Cloverfield is endlessly gimmicky, finding ways to frame traditional dramatic setpieces and character beats while entirely avoiding artful compositions or anything resembling continuity editing. (As a side note, the visual effects are particularly impressive for the way in which digital elements have been added to jouncing camera work; the production’s match-movers deserve a special technical Oscar of their own.)

For Cloverfield‘s interwoven illusions — not just the spectacle of invented monsters, but affective phantasms like suspense and empathy — to work, everything must seem unplanned, contingent, or (my favorite word from graduate school) aleatory. That term means “dependent on chance or luck,” and it’s entirely appropriate in this context. Abrams and company have stumbled upon a way to put an electrifying new spin on a comfortable old story, and as fans of the genre, we are lucky indeed.

6 thoughts on “Four-Leaf “Clover”

  1. Transmedia stories always stumble trying to juggle the need for additional narrative pieces to seem genuinely integral to the story, while also ensuring that the majority of people who never see or read them aren’t missing anything important. Too much of the former, and you get MATRIX RELOADED; too much of the latter, and you get, well, pretty much everything else.

    But CLOVERFIELD just did away with exposition and backstory altogether. I was waiting for one of those scientists beloved by Romero in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to appear on a screen, smoking a pipe, and explain “Well, the monster is believed to have come from the far side of the moon…” or somesuch. Instead of awkwardly packing the movie with supposedly need-to-know information, it just did away with it, and so we got a streamlined blockbuster with no wasted movement or unnecessary parts.

    It seems like a real shift from the clues and mysteries of LOST, for example; using the same techniques, but for very different effect. All these months of mystery, and the only real question needing an answer was “what does the monster look like?” I haven’t followed any of the internet-blitz of CLOVERFIELD clues. Is there more information out there online? I’m guessing so, but I don’t know if it’s something I need to explore, as I’m more than happy – embarrassingly abuzz, actually – with how the film stood alone.

    Plus: it has given me the phrase “It’s time to leave the electronics store!” which I intend to use in any upcoming stressful situation.

  2. Michael: I was glad to finally see the TREK teaser, though I knew most of the content from the descriptions & transcripts that’ve leaked out over the last few weeks, so it didn’t hit me as hard as it might have. Further scattering was caused by projection issues: the theater where I saw CLOVERFIELD is not of high quality, and the teaser was shown with about 20% of the frame cut off along the top edge. I guess I’m a purist — I almost didn’t want to watch the teaser if it was shown incorrectly. (I did dig the preview for IRON MAN, however!)

    Martyn: what a perceptive observation — the transmedia connection hadn’t even occurred to me. I did notice (and appreciate) that CLOVERFIELD moved along in an almost absurdly streamlined and muscular fashion, sketching in characters, setting, and mood in bold, confident strokes and wasting no time.

    Initially I took the film’s stripped-down nature as another instance of the continuing aesthetic evolution in which some conventions of storytelling become so familiar that they get squeezed right off the screen: every “generation” of genre does away with certain prehensile, no longer necessary conventions while placing fresh emphasis on others and bringing new aspects of the story system to light. (In this vein, I’ve been watching THE BOURNE SUPREMACY in installments and thinking about David Bordwell’s notion of “intensive continuity,” a welcome recuperation of what used to be dismissed as MTV-cum-Michael-Bay short-attention-span editing.)

    But you’re right, CLOVERFIELD’s form can be considered a “transmedia symptom” — the logical product of storytelling that’s been distributed across a number of platforms. I haven’t investigated (beyond digging around for monster pics) the degree to which the backstory has been elaborated in other media, though it seems natural to expect that “additional footage” will show up online in the form of webisodes or the like.

    I’ve read some speculation about how a sequel might be mounted, but it seems to me that rather than continuing the story of CLOVERFIELD, future installments might choose to tell parallel or simultaneous stories, i.e. the experiences of other people in the city during the attack. (This would also make great material for a videogame.) In other words, your transmedia thesis might not be born out at the present time, but will be by future expansions of the diegesis.

  3. I really liked the film (my wife found it tedious, but had read spoilers aplenty, so I’m not sure what that says). And as Martyn says, I appreciated that we didn’t get a crappy explanation from a European scientist. I also appreciated that there was no power struggle going on with the soldiers, and indeed, nobody other than the central 6 characters who the movie cared about. Where it succeeded was in de-epic-izing things and working in tight closeup. Some great photographic work, mixed with CGI, as you say Bob. The shot near the end where Hud drops the camera and its auto-focus is left going in and out since he’s too close to the lens, for instance, is really effective. Meanwhile, the monster became all the better for not ever really being seen with a still camera (well, maybe once), versus the inevitable “CGI show-off” scene in most creature films of today, where we’re invited to luxuriate in a close study of CGI artwork. The frustration made it all the better.

    And Martyn, I’m totally with you on “it’s time to leave the electronics store” :-)

  4. A quick anecdotal CLOVERFIELD follow-up: two friends who separately saw it here in Melbourne have reported back to me that the (seemingly target) audience have actively hated the film, shouting out “Boring!” to laughter from the crowd, and demanding their time back at the end of the movie. I know it’s doing fine at the box office… but I wonder if it’s too arty for blockbuster crowds, and also too mired in genre conventions for critics? Perhaps it’s the first blockbuster aimed squarely at academics…

  5. Interesting speculation, Martyn, and I’m sorry that your friends had their experience of the film compromised by a noisy and hostile crowd. Jon had a post on this very topic over at The Extratextuals, and I must admit I’m in the “shut up and watch the movie” crowd — when I saw CLOVERFIELD I purposely chose a seat far from the theater’s densest knots of people so that I wouldn’t have to hear anything but the film.

    For me, the immersive, immediate qualities of CLOVERFIELD — its cumulative and tragic sense of presence, really — are easily ruptured by someone talking back to the screen, even just rattling their popcorn cup. But I’m watching more and more things at home or on iPod these days, thus getting used to almost total control over my viewing environment. Maybe I’m losing touch with the social reality of moviegoing?

    BTW, I think the first blockbuster aimed squarely at academics was STARSHIP TROOPERS …

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