Cloverfield and the Mystery Box of Abrams’s Authorship


I expected a little more from J. J. Abrams’s talk at My first disappointment was in realizing that the presentation is almost a year old: he gave it in March 2007, and waiting till now to air it smacks of a publicity push for Cloverfield, the new monster movie produced by Abrams and directed by Matt Reeves, set for release one week from now (or as teaser images like the one above would have it — striving for 9/11-like gravitas — 1.18.08).

The second disappointment came from the disconnect between the content of the talk and the mental picture I’d formed based on the blurb:

There’s a moment in J.J. Abrams’ amazing new TEDTalk, on the mysteries of life and the mysteries of storytelling, where he makes a great point: Filmmaking as an art has become much more democratic in the past 10 years. Technology is letting more and more people tell their own stories, share their own mysteries. Abrams shows some examples of high-quality films made on home computers, and shares his love of the small, emotional moments inside even the biggest blockbusters.

Somehow I took these innocuous words as promise of some major revelation from Abrams, a writer-producer-director-showrunner on whose bandwagon I’ve been all to happy to hop. Alias was a great show for its first couple of seasons, Lost continues to be blissful mind candy, and I quite liked Mission Impossible III (though I seem to be one of the few who did). My reservations about Abrams’s Star Trek reboot aside, I’ll follow the man anywhere at this point. But I found his talk a frustrating ramble, full of half-told jokes and half-completed insights, shifting more or less randomly from his childhood love of magic tricks to the power of special effects to “do anything.” Along the way he shows a few movie clips, makes a lot of people laugh and applaud, essentially charming his way through a loosely-organized scramble of ideas that feel pulled from his back pocket.

More fool me for projecting so helplessly my own hunger for insider knowledge. What I wanted, I now realize, was stories about Cloverfield. Like many genre fans, I’m endlessly intrigued by the film, about which little is known except that little is known about it. The basic outline is clear enough: giant monster attacks New York City. What distinguishes Cloverfield from classic kaiju eiga like Toho’s Godzilla films — and this is what’s got interested parties both excited and dismayed — is the storytelling conceit: consisting entirely of “found footage,” Cloverfield shows the attack from ground level, in jumpy snatches of handheld shots supposedly retrieved from consumer video cameras and cell phones. Like The Blair Witch Project, which attempted to breathe new life into the horror genre by stripping it of its tried-and-true (and trite) conventions of narrative and cinematography, Cloverfield, for those who accept its experimental approach, may pack an exhilarating punch.

For those who don’t, however, the film will stand as merely the latest reiteration of the Emperor’s New Clothes, another media “product” failing to live up to its hype. And that’s what is ultimately so interesting about Abrams’s talk at TED: it embodies the very effect that Abrams is so good at injecting into the stories he oversees. In the manner of M. Night Shyamalan, who struggles ever more unconvincingly with each new film to brand himself a master of the twist surprise, Abrams’s authorship has become associated with a sense of unfolding mystery, enigmatic tapestries glimpsed one tantalizing thread at a time. One doesn’t watch a series like Lost so much as decipher it; the pleasure comes from a complex interplay of continuity and surprise, the marvelous sense of teetering eternally at the brink of chaos even as new symmetries and patterns become legible.

Abrams’s stories are like magic tricks, full of misdirection and sleight of hand. It drives some people crazy — they see it as nothing more than a shell game, and they ask, with some justification, when we’ll finally get to the truth, the Big Reveal. But as his talk at TED demonstrates, Abrams has always been more about the agile foreshadowing than the final result. It’s a style built paradoxically on the deferral, really the denial, of pleasure — a curious and almost masochistic structure of feeling in our pop culture of instant gratification.

Perhaps that’s where the TED talk’s value really resides. Gabbing about the “mystery box” — a metaphor promiscuously encompassing everything from a good suspense story to bargain-basement digital visual effects to the blank page awaiting an author’s pen — Abrams delivers no substantive content. But he does provide the promise of it: the sense that a breakthrough is just around the corner. It’s an authorial style suited to the rhythms and structure of serial television, which can give closure only through opening up new mysteries. Whether it will work within the bounded length of Cloverfield, that risky mystery box that will open for our inspection next Friday, remains to be seen.

5 thoughts on “Cloverfield and the Mystery Box of Abrams’s Authorship

  1. What reservations about “Star Trek”…?

    And is it really a total “reboot” if Nimoy is involved?

    I guess you could call it more of a…”requel” — the kind of term some used for Superman Returns (though I hope “Trek” ends up being much more satisfying than Singer’s attempt…)


    Still, Cloverfield is indeed being sold almost entirely on Abrams’ name and his reputation — one wonders who actually is the “director”?? Although having been disappointed by many a “blockbuster” lately, I’m leveling expectations accordingly…

    P.S. I too liked MI:III !!

  2. Wow, three people who liked MI:3 — we’ve got the basis of a movement here 😉

    While this backs your point up as much as it might challenge it, I should point out that J.J. has little if any active role in writing Lost these days. That in itself is an interesting model for writing, especially for tv, though: set up the premise, and the promise, then let someone else come in and work it all out. Hence I’m intrigued by his move into film, because here’s a medium where he’ll actually have to give answers — Cloverfield won’t be able to end with a dude saying, “guys, where are we?” Is he, in other words, more of a “starting pitcher” than the close-off guy? Or will he have to learn how to be both at speed?

    Meantime, though, as you said over at our blog, Bob, I’m really excited by the advertising campaign for Cloverfield alone. Whether the movie’s good or not, whoever edited and conceived of the teasers is very talented.

  3. Michael, I suppose my reservations about the new Trek boil down to a curmudgeonly insistence that the fictional characters of Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al can & should be incarnated only by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley. Call it old-school indexicality, a way of guaranteeing the authenticity of the Trek storyworld by anchoring it somehow in the materiality of the real world (specifically the materiality of those aging [and in some cases deceased!] bodies).

    I accept that the Enterprise exists in multiple versions (A, B, C, D, and so on) within the franchise’s diegetic history, and in even vaster variety in the visual effects realm (multiple miniatures, CG models, etc). I accept mirror universes, holodeck simulations, time travel, even dream sequences as ways of revising continuity (albeit with a “reset” always waiting at the end). I even dig the goofy experiment of the New Voyages, which achieve near-perfect verisimilitude in sets, props, sound and visual FX, but give us new actors for the key roles. (Actorly indexicality arises elsewhere in the New Voyages through the recruitment of Koenig and Takei to reprise Chekov and Sulu.)

    Abrams’ reboot or requel, as you point out, makes its bid for fidelity through the involvement of Nimoy. But I resist the project overall because it threatens to play havoc not just with diegetic history, but my personal history — bluntly overwriting my cherished memories and laboriously earned knowledge of what “real” Trek is. That said, it’s the endlessly, cravenly generative logic of the franchise by which Star Trek has always survived, and there’s little I can do to stand in its way!

    Jon, I agree with you that the Abrams “brand” is a fascinating mutation of authorship in a serial, transmedia era. I see it this way: since no one individual can be responsible for the profusion of texts (para- and inter- included) that constitute a contemporary media property, we are seeing the rise of a paradoxical and symptomatic substitute — a kind of fetish or overinvestment in the singular creative vision — which brings order to our evaluative and interpretive frameworks around a show even as it disavows to some extent the reality of that show’s creation.

    In other words, the author function is being replaced in serial media by the showrunner function. Figures like J. J. Abrams, and Ronald D. Moore are important because they provide fans with a (fantasized) center to a series’ intended meanings, its successes and failures. (Witness the extent to which Tim Kring is held responsible for all things negative about Heroes; his pronouncements, for example his post on Jason’s blog, are treated like utterances of the show’s collective consciousness. He’s like the Mouth of Sauron.)

    But as you rightly point out, the terms of the game change radically with movement into a nonserial medium — one where the creative kernel or “launch concept” is forced into a rapid follow-through. Abrams’s work as a movie director puts his auteurist buzz to the test. We agree that he came through with flying colors in MI:3, and can only wait to see what happens with Star Trek (alternate title Clash of the Showrunners: Abrams Versus Roddenberry).

    Perhaps with Cloverfield, we’re seeing yet another evolution of the showrunner function. If the movie tanks, it isn’t really Abrams’s fault, since he neither directed nor truly wrote it (Monday’s NY Times story refers instead to his initial “scriptment,” something between a screeplay and a treatment, which was then presumably developed into a full-fledged script by Drew Goddard). As with the vicissitudes of Lost, the victories all belong to Abrams, the defeats to Lindelof and Cuse.

  4. Re: Trek

    Bob, here’s a rant (sorry!).

    …In other words, it’s personal. Although you are not alone in your skepticism of the new Trek film, I believe there’s another way to look at it.

    Locking a view of Trek in “the materiality of those aging” was indeed one of the most enjoyable aspects of the original-cast films, to me, and to you and others, I think. I, too, have a personal connection to these characters; while I enjoyed the next generations of Trek and certain characters, the originals do indeed have some special chemistry about them, there’s no denying it. However, as academics, aren’t we taught to keep an open mind about everything? Yes we can be skeptical, even critical when the time comes — but that time won’t come until next Christmas when we see the movie! Even though I have a personal connection to these characters, I am trying to keep an open mind about a “new beginning” in essence, an attempt to give Trek new life in a time when most expected it to be buried. Basically, like many others, I am happy that Paramount is funding anything at all, considering how the film and television series floundered in recent years… And Nimoy’s involvement can’t be taken for granted here — he (in)famously declined taking part in ST: Generations as he wasn’t interested in give Spock a “token” appearance. He wanted his part to have a narrative meaning — that shows his integrity as an actor, I believe. His presence in this film (which he claims is “more than a cameo”) does give me some hope that there might be a certain “authenticity” in this script/story that may not have been put there had others been in control. You have to remember that Nimoy’s basically been retired for many years, so to get him acting again, and especially back into Trek, gives me hope that it could be something special.

    Bottom line is, nothing can “bluntly [overwrite your] cherished memories and laboriously earned knowledge of what “real” Trek is”, because as long as graphic media exists and the Trek franchise is delivered on it, or pirated copies, or whatever, you and everyone else will *always* have the quote-unquote “original” versions of Trek to enjoy and believe in.

    If executed right, this film *should* allow original-series fans to believe their history still “exists” on-screen, and new viewers to get a foothold in a brand-new version of the (old) universe.

    However, I also believe that Abrams and Co. will be attempting to “anchor it somehow in the materiality of the real world” as you say. One of the writers has explained this:
    Roberto Orci: I think when a lot of people think of Star Trek they think of it as some other kind of fantasy world. What we want people to see is that the future that Gene Roddenberry created, of Star Trek and Starfleet and Starfleet Academy and the Federation, are extension of what might happen…maybe tomorrow. One of the things we are trying to do with this movie is connect it back to today. How we got from here to how we got to Captain Kirk on the Enterprise.

    I’m excited by this.

    [TRAILER SPOILER] Word is the teaser includes quotes from Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, etc. and focuses on shots of the construction of [possibly pieces of] the Enterprise — on Earth (I guess you can find out Friday with Cloverfield).

    I also agree with you regarding the Showrunners-as-Authors notion.

    Awaiting your call, 😉


  5. Oh, I’ll definitely see the Abrams version — and if it’s any good, I’ll be among the first the celebrate the achievement. But “keeping an open mind” doesn’t mean abandoning critical evaluation, and fanwork has always been about defining and arguing distinctions. (As for waiting until the movie comes out to discuss these issues, I’d rather not set my conversational clock to Paramount’s agenda.)

    There’s a difference between expanding a franchise by opening up new narrative/characterological territory for exploration (e.g. TNG, which I loved, or DS9/VOY, which I for the most part respected) and aggressively, unnecessarily rebooting the original text. “Reboot” itself is a tricky new term in the industrial vocabulary, as I argued in a recent essay for Flow. When the original template is fairly weak or compromised, like 70s Battlestar Galactica or the enervated franchises of Batman and Bond that gave rise to Batman Begins and Casino Royale, reboots are a smart and lifesaving creative maneuver, literally an act of resurrection.

    When the source material is brilliant “as is,” however, the reboot and its lesser cousin, the “update,” reveal their essentially calculated and commercial nature, rooted in the desire to pimp a new commodity. NBC’s Bionic Woman is a botched and incoherent affair, and I’ve long since lost interest in George Lucas’s tweaking of the original Star Wars trilogy — watching him stuff more digital FX into every frame is like seeing how many jellybeans he can jam into that swollen frog bladder of a neck.

    As for the continuing serializations of Trek, I drifted away from Enterprise after the first season (though I did come back at the end for the continuity-heavy Reeves-Stevens episodes). For me, that show simply missed the mark, and the fact that it cloaked itself in the vestments of the Trek diegesis seemed almost grotesque — as though it had cut off Star Trek‘s hide and was wearing it. (For the record, I felt the same way about the last two theatrical features, especially the loathsome Nemesis.) You praise the new film for its inclusion of Nimoy, citing the actor’s reticence as evidence that this Trek will be “the real thing.” But behind that sentiment — sincere though it is — I hear the the chuckling of producers who realize they’ve scored a coup by “getting” Nimoy and hinging the new property’s fortunes on (what could be) a facile shout-out to series history. Until the proof is on the table, I have a hard time deciding what’s a genuinely inspired appeal to Trek fans as opposed to a strategic herding of audiences.

    Abrams’s Star Trek may recapture the excitement and wonder of the original, or it may coin some magic of its own. But the odds, it seems to me, are against it.

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