Before I get started, be sure to check out Nate’s review of Cloverfield. Make a point to check out the comments – they get to the crux of the argument and Ken Matthews (yes, that Ken Matthews) even weighs in. No, we don’t take celebrity lightly here at The Bookshelf.
Nate, Nate, Nate. So many words. The movie didn’t “work” because of the medium on which it was delivered. It worked (and worked quite well) because of typical disaster movie conventions (and I don’t mean that in a bad way). The “found footage” created a new way to present those conventions; it didn’t make them “new,” but it serves to create a “wall” in the viewer’s mind when he sees the “character presented as initially important dies abruptly and shockingly” so he doesn’t say, “wow, this is like every other disaster movie ever.” Likewise, the whole “cast in the darkness struggles to find a flashlight, then once they find it, they immediately illuminate something that jumps up and wants to kill/maim/eat them” is perfectly fine – it’s been done before. “Found footage” doesn’t change the presentation of that event – it’s always a point-of-view shot and someone either dies immediately or is injured to the degree of eventually becoming a nuisance (or worse) to the group. I didn’t feel any closer to the characters on the screen than with any other well made action/disaster movie. Was it better than “The Day after Tomorrow?” – absolutely, but the difference isn’t in the “medium,” it’s in the competence of the director and the writer to make it compelling. “Found footage” isn’t a smokescreen which obfuscates the director’s lack of talent or the scenarist’s lack of imagination – he’s either a good director or not, the script is either good or it isn’t.
Why Cloverfield worked was because of the little decisions made in the screenplay and the directing. There’s not “cheese” in the story or the presentation. The “lovey-dovey” story is restrained and as realistic as it could be in a movie about a gigantic lizard making a buffet out of New York. The love story (effectively the pulse of the movie), has as satisfying conclusion as one could hope for, maintaining a reasonable suspension of disbelief inherent is going to the movies. And, no, the “found footage” doesn’t assist in building up the suspension of disbelief. Know what? I sat in a movie theater at the beginning of Cloverfield, and I left that same movie theater. I wasn’t transported (to a dream world of magic). During the movie, I was still in that same theater. I didn’t forget that. I could get “lost” in the movie, but it’s happened in plenty of other movies which were not “found footage”-based.
The success of Cloverfield is due to the director and writer not taking any easy ways out (other than the camera battery, walking distances, and other shortcuts necessary for the mechanics of the story – not the story itself, mind you). A less engaging version of this movie would have the disaster “following” the characters instead of the characters more-or-less being in the middle of it. They try to take direction, but in the end, they’re at the mercy of the situation, not the screenwriter’s goal of killing of some number of characters in 10 minute intervals. It’s not an Indiana Jones movie where there is literally nothing that the hero can do without it backfiring. The characters never got guns, but you know that the writer wouldn’t have stooped to one of them getting killed because his or her gun got jammed. The writer realized that the story was larger than that. The audience doesn’t need manufactured drama in a world in which it has been established that a 60 story, seemingly bulletproof monster with a taste for mammal blood, much less human brains is on the loose. There’s plenty there already without resorting to cheese. In fact, it’s not until the lead-in to the climax of the movie (it involves a helicopter) that the “bad guy” seemingly singles out the heroes. Previously, Smashy McWrecksALot sort of did his own thing, getting mad at the military for shooting at him and causing people to make allusions to September 11, 2001. Suddenly, something very bad and very focused towards the main characters happens. It takes two-thirds of the movie to finally cave in to the demand that the bad guy single out the heroes. And, all things considered, it’s fine by me. The story went that far without something disgustingly coincidental happening, and given the unexpected nature of the actual event, I’m all for it. And, there were B-2 bombers in the sequence, so that’s practically a get out of jail card for the writer as far as I’m concerned (though, it wasn’t even needed in this case). And none of that required first person “found footage” to work.
“Found footage” adds nothing to the final presentation other than “it was a good movie and the video camera part was cool.” I know, that goes against paragraphs and paragraphs of Nate’s review, but in the end, it’s no different than a movie shot in one take, a movie presented as four simultaneous one-take shots, or a movie presented as a documentary which is definitely not a true documentary. Any adds a touch of “clever” to a movie, but the “traditionals” – directing, writing, acting – are what make it watchable. The Blair Witch Project made it so people were ok with a movie being presented as if footage were found after some event, but it lacked the “traditionals”, and ended up being all schtick and no substance. Cloverfield should’ve been the first “found footage” movie, if only for it to get thought of more highly than The Blair Witch Project for the academic accomplishment of making the concept work.
Nate’s Review of Cloverfield gets two stars. Basically, the message is the message. The “medium” may add something to it, but in the end, people are attracted to story and emotion, not technique and the ephemera of film production. In fact, I’ve always interpreted “the medium is the message” as the medium says more about “where we are” than the message itself. For example, the fact that someone can be in the supermarket, see someone trip over a cracked egg and knock over a ceiling-tall paper towel display, open his telephone, video record the event, then instantly send it to any number of other people to view on their phones, computers, TV’s, etc. says more about “our situation” than the fact that a movie was made about a monster using New York City for tackle drills and it was presented as if someone found a video camera. Of course, I’ve not taken any media theory classes, much less read that guy’s book, but that’s what I take from his famous quote. And no, when the first mainstream movie presented as if it were “found” cell phone video footage comes out, that’s not saying any more about our current state than the fact that Cloverfield just gave the “disaster movie” genre a big F-U middle finger and said “beat that.” Cloverfield just realized that the key to connecting to audiences is by turning a huge event (monsters attacking a city) on its ear by focusing on a tiny group who aren’t in a position to fix the problem and showing how they handle it and each other. It’s always been assumed that a “bigger picture” perspective with a secondary focus on a small group of charismatic characters was needed for a disaster movie, but Cloverfield is proof otherwise, focusing on that small group and barely even addressing the “bigger picture.”
Cloverfield itself gets four-and-a-half big stars. As I was walking out of the theater I thought to myself that the story and its presentation completely precluded a sequel (wondering about a sequel is a good sign that the movie was well received) – then re-reading Nate’s review, he pointed out that there is plenty of material to be mined from other groups of characters – specifically, not yuppies – affected by the event. As I said above, the movie worked so well by taking a huge event and focusing on a tiny slice of it. This contrasts with Juno, which left me slightly disappointed as it delivered a relatively small event and focused on a small group of characters. (At the risk of digressing, Juno was very good, not great. Witty dialog that writers in their 20’s put on the page because they like to think they were that sharp in high school [they weren’t] aside, it just seemed like a small story presented on a small scale. The big “drama” event wasn’t quite “big” enough. Granted, it wasn’t overwrought, but it seemed to play it slightly too safe.)