January 22, 2008

My brother and I spent our childhoods checking out Monsters of Toho Studios from the library over and over. So when a new monster took a page from Blair Witch, we met some of our oldest friends at the theater on opening night. I mean, come on: giant monsters.

As far as that goes, Cloverfield is good enough. It replaces the charms of a rubber-suited man with a CGI monster suffering from lice knocked off HR Giger’s scalp. I was hoping for a shambling mound, more Smog Monster than cross-country runner. Meanwhile, the run-&-gun realism exposes the inane characters. They do foolish things, even walking into a war zone to save one’s Estranged Love, when said love is impaled on rebar in a collapsing building. Blood & guts, violence, quips, etc, all caught on video.

The film’s conceit gives a camera to this guy, who then becomes a Maysles. He shoots everything, even his crush being impaled by Giger-lice. A normal suitor would ditch the damn camera and save her. But he’s just an idiot, and a prick. At the pre-monster party, he films himself telling everyone there about his best friend’s sex life, and then sticks the camera on the now estranged couple uninvited. At least in Blair Witch they were actually filmmakers; here, it’s a fragile excuse for the high concept.

It also belies the polished look of the film. The filmmakers borrowed a small-budget filming style, but spent over 25 million dollars, 1000 times what Blair Witch had. It gives the film an authenticity the screenplay can’t, even as it maintains the lie it was all shot on home DV cameras. An excellent article on reveals that much of the footage was shot on a Sony F23 and a Viper, both professional cameras whose prices far exceed most people’s yearly income. The other camera used, an HVX 200, is a common choice for HD-TV production. Home DV footage would have fallen apart under the effects work. So they distressed the pro footage to make it look cheaper.

Less artful is the obvious 9/11 connection. We do see buildings collapse, but does everyone forget there’s a war on? I caught echoes of Iraq more than the victim story of the Twin Towers. I could swear the soldiers had on desert camo, while the visual texture recalls the harsh digital footage that’s escaped from the front. And the spectacle of seeing this creature smash Manhattan felt less like a consideration of the war’s origins than a collective self-flagellation for the Neocon’s botched crusade. Less disturbing than any of the images was the fact that watching it was not at all unremarkable: we did bad, punish us. Then back to normal.

Of course, movies welcome political debate less than religious ritual. The other main source, those Godzilla movies, kicked off Japan’s grand pop-culture tradition of self-destruction. I suppose it has provided a feeling of atonement for imperialist crimes along with a reassuring dose of the victim narrative. Those films still resonate in Japanese culture. But this is the USA. Watching these fetching, privileged rich dodge the Statue of Liberty’s smouldering head just left me feeling ill that I saw these images, so superficially like the news, but with so little resonance. I mean, come on: giant monsters.

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