When Critics Attack! Cloverfield as the Battleground for the Horror Genre

Posted by Charles Reece, January 26, 2008 01:51pm | Post a Comment
As to those in the World Trade Center . . .
Well, really. Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the "mighty engine of profit" to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to "ignorance" – a derivative, after all, of the word "ignore" – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it. 
--  Ward Churchill, Some People Push Back

Cloverfield is fantasy. The movie is meant to be entertainment — to give people the sort of thrill I had as a kid watching monster movies. I hadn't seen anything that felt that way for many years. I felt like there had to be a way to do a monster movie that's updated and fresh. So we came up with the YouTube-ification of things, the ubiquity of video cameras, cell phones with cameras. The age of self-documentation felt like a wonderful prism through which to look at the monster movie. Our take is what if the absolutely preposterous would happen? How terrifying would that be? The video camera, we all have access to; there's a certain odd and eerie intimacy that goes along with those videos. Our take is a classic B monster movie done in a way that makes it feel very real and relevant, allowing it to be simultaneously spectacular and incredibly intimate.
  -- J. J. Abrams

Just like the recently departed Karlheinz Stockhausen, I can appreciate a good explosion.  I love to see things get blown up, particularly buildings.  If I hear of an old building about to be imploded, I'll go out of my way to watch; and judging by the crowds and media coverage, I'm not alone.  All the time and manual labor it takes to make such a structure being erased within a few minutes surely says something significant about our lot in the order of things.  I don't know if that's a testimony for Freud's thanatos, but destruction within a controlled environment simulates a god's eye view over the course of existence.  All that groping around in the dirt, discovering that hard objects can be used to hammer other hard objects for hundreds of thousands of years will eventually amount to naught, a fuzzy memory of brief entertainment for any deity who happened to watch on the sideline.  Destruction is as awe-inspiring as creation and being able to safely witness it gives us a  sense of control.  Unlike with a god, however, that worrisome feeling of needing to duck our heads never quite leaves us.

Making an aesthetically successful monster movie is largely the result of finding the correct ratio between the destruction within a controlled environment (the god's eye perspective) and effecting the thoughts and feelings one would have in the middle of a real apocalyptic event (the human perspective).  The effect of finding this golden ratio is the difference between the experience of Lynchian dread and playing RAMPAGE in an arcade, where the former is the result of our being reminded of just how tenuous a grasp we have on our humanity and the latter a way of temporarily reinforcing our repression of such doubts via diversionary entertainment.  It's not important if you agree with me that Lynch is the best contemporary cinema has at analyzing the human-all-too-human strictures of our existence.  My point is that for horror fiction to work as horror it has to tap into something very real about us.  The more distance it puts between us and the fantastic diegesis it creates (e.g., making the humans nothing more than food to score points with), the less horrorific it will be.  Too much a sense of control dehumanizes the diegesis, and vice versa, thereby resulting in a failure to deliver the goods of the horror genre, making the work more like a video game.

In his classic analysis of the horror film genre, Robin Wood suggests its basic formula:  "normality is threatened by the Monster."[1]  That sounds pretty damn good to me, where normality is understood to be an effect of our collective cultural repressions (all those sexual, violent, Id-driven desires we tend to direct into more "respectable" behaviors and/or beliefs) and the Monster is the otherness which tends to dredge up all those things being repressed thereby threatening our social order.  It was his application of this formula to Romero's DEAD films that helped them to be seen by much of the critical establishment as something more than cheap thrills.  Although now taken as an obvious allegory for the inhumanity of the Vietnam (or, really, any) war, the realworld import of his first zombie feature wasn't so obvious at the time of its release, even to the filmmakers.  As Romero says, "[w]e weren’t actually trying to use NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a forum for our socio-political leanings. They simply crept in through the back door."  Even if the filmmaker and his audience don't explicitly, or consciously, know what the horror film is tapping into, their collective body does.

Some thirty years on and the genre still gets little respect.  The majority of professional critics [2] might begrudgingly acknowledge Wood's analysis as commonsensical (as opposed to an argument against what was accepted wisdom at the time), but feel little need to apply it to just about any other horror film they have to see, unless the film itself makes its allegorical potential more literal and actual.  The current failure in such criticism, one might say, is a matter of following the letter of Wood's law and not its spirit.  Thus, in the collective set of reviews for CLOVERFIELD, one can see how the tendency to dismiss its genre still predominates, but pace the arguments of serious minded genre critics, the dismissive tactics have changed.  Where once a monster movie like CLOVERFIELD would've been dismissed as juvenilia, as fantastic entertainment with no importance to reality, it's now dismissed as not living up to allegorical/realworld content of Romero's films or, for a more current example, THE HOST.

Horror's albatross (as well as any fantastic genre's) has always been realism, particularly the conflation of realistic style with the Real.  A critique in the latest issue of Cineaction of Italian Neo-Realist critic and theorist, Cesare Zavattini, gives as good example as any of the lure of realism.  The essay quotes Zavattini paraphrasing an American producer: "In America, the scene of a plane passing over is shown in this sequence: a plane passes, machine-gun fire opens, the plane falls.  In Italy: a plane passes, it passes again, and then again."[3]  For Zavattini, the ethical failing of the American film is that it makes a realistic  phenomenon subservient to the highly constructed dictates of, say, the action genre, whereas Italian Neo-Realism celebrates the quotidian recording of real life, presumedly unencumbered by the ideological baggage of genre or spectacle.  As the essay's author, Nicholas Balaisis, suggests, Zavattini's view fails to acknowledge that something like the constructed narrative of a genre can make an ethical point in the very way its constructed, which might often be lost in the ambiguity of just letting the film roll.  That is, even though UMBERTO D might be more realistic with its narratively questionable extended scenes of quotidian life, those don't in and of themselves make that film a more relevant commentary on the Real than something like CLOVERFIELD.

Therein lies the importance of Wood's approach.  He bases the success of horror not in escapism, but in its ability to return us to the Real, the "return of the Repressed," as he puts it.   The relevance of horror is not all that different from the relevance of Neo-Realism: if either is to have resonance, the artist has to find a good balance between control (or construct, narrative points to make) and the ambiguity of the images themselves (touching upon that surfeit of reality, which can't be summarized by the plot, but which pulls the audience into the diegesis).  To the extent that Wood's view has become critical parlance while a bias for realism is still primary, horror films aren't dismissed for being merely fantastic, but for not having subtextual themes that are direct enough.  Realism has been replaced by its offspring, directness, but the bias against horror remains.  Such themes are direct if, as with GOJIRA and THE HOST, the film spells them out for the audience, or as with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and PSYCHO, the analyses of certain critics have become influential.  As if it were a judicial system with realism the judge, current monster movies, if rejected, are done so on precedence, for not easily fitting into the established criteria.

If a monster movie doesn't fit into those well-worn criterial grooves, then it's back to talking about gimmicks and cheap entertainment.  Realism's ethics of viewing has at its core, as should be obvious from the example of Zavattini, a resistance to the commercialism of art.   I'm certainly not going to argue against that tendency itself, but it does lead many with a predilection towards equating realism with ethics to reject out-of-hand art which requires a good deal of capital to get off the ground.  By requiring a lot of special effects, many horror films, particularly of the apocalyptic variety, need to have the potential of commerce by promising an appeal to the widest audience possible.  And it's a lot easier to  widen a hole without deepening it.   I remember Godard contrasting the economic possibilities of his filmmaking to that of Spielberg's, saying something like he could make 50 movies for every 1 of the latter's.  A quick look through Entertainment Weekly will tell you that the American film industry and its biggest target audience tend to prefer the splash of large puddles over gazing at a lot of small, but really deep holes.  I'm with the radical Neo-Realists that commercial demands aren't likely to ever help deepen the impact of a film, but I do think there are filmmakers who can make a spectacle existentially resonant while still playing to generic expectations of the highly prized demographic.

By cutting out stars from CLOVERFIELD, producer and creative prime mover Abrams was able to make his genre spectacle for a modest sum of 25 million (that's about 25 Godard films if you're keeping tabs).  While serving the bottom line, this decision also served the film's conceit of being found footage documenting the last hours in the life of Manhattan and a particular group of its high-rise dwelling inhabitants at the hands and tail of a super-sized amphibian.  By using unrecognizable actors, the audience is more likely to be pulled in by the simulated verité.  Sure, the film uses young, beautiful people in portraying not particularly likable examples of the haute-bourgeoisie.  I wouldn't want to hang out with these assholes, but, so what, I don't spend any time with real world analogues to the characters in a De Sica film, either.  It is in its fidelity to its conceit that the film begins to resonate on a level deeper than the majority of big horror spectacles, making it more likely to eventually be placed alongside Carpenter's THE THING than the American GODZILLA.  By letting the subjective camera record a good 20 minutes of yuppie minutiae, director Matt Reeves -- in a monster movie, of all things -- practices a bit of Bazinian filmmaking, reminding us, like the Italians used to, "the world is, quite simply, before it is something to be condemned."[3] 

As a few friends and some of the critics I link to below have objected, this beginning segment is boring and serves no real purpose.  Purpose being here, I take it, a synonym for plot or narrative.  While these friends probably wouldn't find Tarkovsky's shooting some plant being swayed by water any more purposive or interesting, I'm betting the typical critic who fancies him or herself high-minded wouldn't be as quick to dismiss the phenomenological excesses of the celebrated auteur of boredom -- likewise, with classic Italian Neo-Realism.  Thus, plants and the drudgery of the working class suggest the ineffable, but we get nothing from the daily rituals of yuppie scum (just die already!).  But that's letting ideology cloud one's experience of the film.  While the beginning segment probably doesn't make many of us like these sorts of characters any better, it does link us to them as people by capturing that surfeit of reality not easily summarized in an analysis of plot motivations.  It's enough to make us feel them as people, by providing a humane link.  Without the segment, the ensuing mayhem would become little more than a first-person video game, which is what the pithy marketing slogan "Godzilla meets Blair-Witch Project" would have it reduced to.

So, what about the ethics of seeing this spectacle?   As can be read above, Abrams cites as his inspiration for the film the increasing documentation of our lives through personal video-recorders.  There’s something worrisome about this tendency, as it shows an increasing comfort in having ourselves recorded.  Along with that comfort level comes the lack of concern most people seem to have with the videocameras in the majority of businesses and the ones popping up on every street corner; any civil libertarian should be alarmed.  On the other hand, there’s an ethical dimension to something like YouTube despite all of its questionable content, namely that it serves as something of a collective autobiography of its users.  At least, the potential is there, provided its users feel the moral impetus to use it as such.  Which is what I see in CLOVERFIELD’s chief cameraman, Hud (played by Timothy Miller).  He takes on the job somewhat reluctantly at the party, but as the behemoth begins its rampage, he begins to feel a duty to record the carnage, even when his life becomes increasingly endangered for doing so.  With the power of video recording comes great responsibility, Stan the Man might say.

Without Hud’s dedication, there would be no movie, of course, and thusly no entertainment.  But its practical function of delivering entertainment doesn’t mean CLOVERFIELD has nothing to say.  By combining the phenomological aesthetics of realist cinema with the entertainment concerns of the American spectacle, the filmmakers have fashioned a monster movie that could serve as a correction to the blithely dismissive attitude Ward Churchill displays in his summary of 9-11.  If the emotional charge of an entertaining monster movie can be increased by fictionally recording the mundane, average human behaviors of characters we don’t like, wouldn’t the same effect obtain, but even more so, for the real victims of the Twin Towers destruction?  Churchill created a narrative, where the victims merely served as plot points in his objection to an imperialist capitalist system.  Who knows if being privy to their status as humans through documentation would’ve changed Churchill’s attitude towards those upperclass victims who held jobs which he condemns?  It would certainly change the story he tells.  As Abrams’ would-be popcorn blockbuster reminds us, ideology and concepts aren't all there is to morality; horror won’t be understood or felt without recognizing another’s subjectivity first.   And that’s surely worthy of Bazin. 

[1] Robin Wood, "The American Nightmare" in Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan ... And Beyond, 2nd Edition, p. 71.
[2] I emphasize professional critics here, meaning ones who make their living writing for newspapers and other periodicals like the New Yorker.  The critics who inspired the current topic are: Scott Foundas, Peter Travers, Dana Stevens, Manohla Dargis, John Anderson, Richard Corliss, and Anthony Lane.  As can be seen by CLOVERFIELD's tomatometer rating, the majority of reviews have been positive, but that's due to a lot of fanboy internet reviews, which tend to uncritically enjoy anything with a lot of big explosions and pretty girls.  That might be the will of the people, but it's hardly an argument for the merits of the horror genre.
[3] Nicholas Balaisis, "The Risk of Ambiguity: Reconsidering Zavattini's Film Ethics," Cineaction 72, 2007, p. 42-5.

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