[This paper was originally presented at the Film and History conference, Chicago, 31st October 2008. I’ve corrected some typos and rephrased some awkward sentences, but otherwise the version here is the same as the one delivered that day. It was written to be spoken and then discussed, so it probably doesn’t follow through on all its points in detail. You can find a fully revised and expanded version of this paper in the Spring 2010 issue of Film and History (if you have access to Project Muse, it’s available there).]
When I set out to write about Cloverfield, I thought it would make for an interesting case study to test the ideas outlined in my previous work on special effects; primarily that special effects act as self-conscious moments of technical display that offer entry-points for considering the constructed nature of film. Whatever sleights-of-hand they might use to cover their tracks, they are self-reflexive devices that draw attention to their own artifice and bring into play an entire meta-narrative about media technologies and illusionism. Here was a film that seemed to obfuscate all of its spectacular opportunities, delaying any clear view of its central special effect. It quickly became clear that the film’s obstructed views extend to the whole fabric of the movie, into its pre-publicity campaign and its framing narrative. I want to outline some of the ways I think the film uses this aesthetic of opacity to construct a critique of film’s pre-fabricated realisms.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Cloverfield is a film about a monster attack on Manhattan, directed by Matt Reeves but devised and produced by J.J. Abrams, creator of TVs Lost and Alias, two shows similarly built on their restricted narration. A large creature of unknown origin emerges, presumably from the sea, and rampages downtown, leaving tourist trail of destruction that takes in the Statue of Liberty, The Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park. The attack is shown from the point-of-view of a group of young adults who have been attending a party. One character aims to cross the city to rescue the girl to whom he wants to declare his love, believing her to in mortal danger.
So far, so generic. It follows a rather formulaic quest narrative, driven by a race to rescue a damsel in distress from a high tower and avoid getting killed by a fearsome beast. But Cloverfield dresses up its story in very modern formal attire. At the start, an onscreen title comes with a watermark stating that the film is the property of the U.S. Department of Defense:
The film then consists of the playback of a digital videotape, shot by an amateur cameraman during the monster attack and found in the rubble of Manhattan. What does the film show that the military need to study and to keep for themselves? Why is it being impounded and not sold to every news network in the world? This opening sets up a framework within which all subsequent images will be interpreted as significant proof of something – even as they are invited to “experience” the attack through one camera’s lens, the spectators are prompted to assume the position of investigators watching a piece of documentary evidence. For many viewers, that hunt for clues would have begun prior to actually watching the film. The 2008 release of Cloverfield was the culmination of a marketing campaign that built up anticipation through a series of absences.
It’s not unusual for a high-profile film to incite interest with the promise of spectacular sights that will only be fully revealed in return for the price of an entry ticket: this fits well with John Ellis’ notion of the “narrative image” from his book Visible Fictions, in which a poster, trailer and other promotional devices form a conglomerated, but incomplete picture which the film promises to resolve once you pay your admission fee. But Cloverfield doesn’t answer all the questions posed by its pre-publicity. And rather than providing marketing prompts that tell you how long you have to wait before you get to “see it all”, the final film doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of revelation.
This trailer appeared accompanying Michael Bay’s Transformers, appearing online, it’s more natural home perhaps, shortly afterwards. It was shot before any of the rest of the film. There had been no pre-publicity for the film aside from this, and the primary clue on the promotional crumb-trail was the release date 01-18-08, a code which also unlocked the film’s official website, revealing a slow leak of images, timestamped to prompt their assembly into a linear sequence. However, this official site, far from being an authoritative organ of “all you need to know”, was just one component of a viral marketing campaign whose scope I don’t have space to catalogue here, but which included MySpace pages for the main characters, and another rather irritating but fully-formed website for a fictional Japanese drink called Slusho, a drink mentioned in Alias, that at face value has nothing to do with the film, but became a source of cryptic clues and misdirection, some deliberate, some imagined.
In case you can’t read it from this image, the little jellyfish creature is saying “I’m so happy and full of Slusho that I might burst!”
Here are some snapshots from the groundswell of web-based discussion that grew up around the film. Though I can’t really detail everything in the viral campaign, I’ll just say that it exhibits several key qualities aside from the usual requirements that marketing should build anticipation, discussion and brand recognition. In this case the lack of clear guidance as to which pieces of evidence should be noted as canonical, and what should be discarded as a red herring, created a discursive environment where it was uncertain where the central authorised, organising framework lay. So, for instance, when this image appeared:
…someone reposted it, having photoshopped the two halves of the face together and confirmed that it was the same girl. It isn’t, but I found that several followers had done the same thing and reached the same conclusion.
I couldn’t find an example of the doctored image online, so I’ve tried my own mock-up of that pic (I don’t have photoshop!), and you can almost see what they were getting at. It kind of looks like one face if you squint at it the right way. But someone even managed to look closely enough to see a demonic face in the girls’ hair:
The important point here is that people were engaged with the marketing, looking closely at its components and literally trying to piece things together for themselves – they had taken the cue that this was a puzzle to be solved. What’s equally noticeable about this image is its deployment of a particularly cinematic trick – the emphasis on the eyeline match (the girls are clearly looking at something) sets up an ingrained expectation of a reverse shot that will reveal what it is that they’re looking at.
A more complete trailer was released closer to the film’s opening, showing a lot more footage, but still provoking debate over how it was to be understood. There was still no sign of the monster itself, which had to be imaginatively built up from a series of vestigial traces, such as the claw marks on the head of the Statue of Liberty. One of the most indicative events occurs when Marlene, who has recently been bitten by one of the parasites that fall from the central monster, is dragged aside by medics at the makeshift hospital. And remember that at this point people didn’t know how this shot fit into the final film, or that Marlene is one of the main characters.
She is taken into a quarantine tent which, brightly lit from within, casts a strong silhouette. She seems to swell up and explode in a bloody mess (though this moment is curtailed in the trailer, stopping just before she erupts). The shot happens so quickly that it’s difficult to work out what happened. I wish I knew which podcaster to credit for saying this was like a Rorschach inkblot shot (step forward and claim your credit); when it appeared online in the film’s trailer, obviously out of context, it incited speculation about the monster from people who couldn’t agree on what they were looking at. Blogger Tory Hargro, for instance, came to the conclusion that the Slusho drink was a key part of the story and connected in some way to the monster. Maybe it was causing people to burst.
This is an excellent case of apophenia, where, in the absence of a clear set of connected evidence, people infer or imagine patterns and links between disparate phenomena. We might even call this pareidolia, a type of apophenia in which a viewer might be made to see Jesus on a nacho, faces on the moon, or personalised psychic terrors in the Rorschach inkblot: sometimes people detect the deliberate placement of images where no such deliberation exists, or project onto it their own wish for clarity.
The effect is to destabilise the divisions between items which are actual intertexts and items which are accidental parts of that perceived pattern. This is not just about hyping the film – it feeds into the nature of the resulting feature: Cloverfield plays on fears of public emergency. This fear is always exacerbated when one feels oneself to be a helpless piece of a bigger, collapsing picture – hence the rush for comforting distance and perspective from centralised news networks. The monster movie genre stands in contrast to other types of horror film that might put the viewer in an identificatory position with someone who is single out for assault by a deranged individual; instead, it indulges the infectious terror of a chaotic stampede, escalating panic and the fear of being caught in the crossfire of the authorities sent to deal with the problem. The obfuscation and dispersal of the viral marketing campaign seems calibrated to simulate just such an environment of paranoid confusion, calling into question the accuracy of perception and the ability of visual representation in assisting the senses in achieving clarity.
Cloverfield passes its generic situations through the machinery of an amateur, found-footage aesthetic. This has its own distinct properties, but it is also differentiated from other Hollywood treatments of mass destruction.
Take the example of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow. Its images of disaster are sublime and complete, immaculately composed for maximum spectacle from a safe distance. Aerial shots, some even from outer space, give the film an incredible level of omniscience, with the distance reducing the destruction to beautiful, depersonalised patterns of pixels. A film that is set up as a premonitory vision of natural catastrophe actually ends up as a rather comforting picture of resilience and indestructibility.
Through the masterful conjuring of images from positions of near-deific privilege, it suggests not the confusion, degradation, destruction of disaster, but its filmic counterpart, spectacular and forgettable. Cloverfield reinscribes disaster with the markers of chaos and confusion. It sacrifices the polyvocal or omniscient narration of the traditional blockbuster disaster movie – at no point are we given a cutaway to experts with a flowchart detailing their plans for repelling the threat and restoring normality – and promises a direct connection with the real through its aesthetic similarity to modes of recording which are routinely branded as authentic documents of events.
Cloverfield is a special effects movie. It uses a vast array of practical and digital effects to simulate its monster attack, but the computer-generated source of that destruction is barely seen. For the most part computer-generated imagery, privileges an aesthetic of perceptual realism, adhering to a “common-sense” verisimilitude where represented things will resemble their real world referents in a sympathetic respect for the laws of physics. This pushes a vision of the world that is comfortingly unified: anything, it implies, can be represented and revealed in gross detail. Cloverfield, by denying that revelation, puts forth a less stable vision where desire to see is rarely matched with the delivery of that image for inspection and assimilation with real experience.
As revealed in these frame grabs, the film’s imagery frequently threatens to slide into abstraction or collapse into incoherence, with blurs of light and colour replacing the recognisable shapes, symmetries and compositional patterns that ordinarily make narrative cinema “legible”. This is obviously not an expressionistic abstraction, but one which is calculated to imitate the tics and tropes of amateur shooting. It performs that style, and purchases authenticity by displaying a shaky camera that seems not to know where the next point of interest will be located, catching it too late or misframing it. The editing is jagged and sometimes abrupt, the sound overloaded from time to time (though we should note that the thunderous Surround Sound is a concession to entertainment over verisimilitude – there’s not a camera on Earth with built in mics capable of capturing such thumping bass), and there are numerous compression artifacts, pixilation and other technical flaws. All of these elements serve to authenticate the film as an accidental occurrence rather than a studio-produced, pre-visualised property.
Cloverfield is thus a really good illustration of Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s notion of the double logic that characterises digital media, exhibiting the qualities of immediacy and hypermediacy. Immediacy because it is designed to efface the traces of manufacture and give the spectator more direct access to the content, or the events depicted – thus we have long takes that appear to be unedited, situating the spectator in a continuous relationship with the characters. At the same time, it displays hypermediacy by bearing all the traces of mediation openly – the image might be time-stamped, the lens dirty or blood-splattered, the tape glitched. It’s crucial that you notice these technical facets, since it is through their presence that the film purchases its authenticity, but it is crucial that you suspend disbelief and attribute them to the diegetic equipment and crew, and not to the massive resources of 20th Century Fox. If discussions of digital media have sometimes seemed to predict a utopia of pixel-perfect, high-definition absolute vision, here is a film whose major points of interest are glimpsed, missed, obscured or misapprehended.
Thinking about that meta-narrative of media authenticity, Cloverfield is also a kind of mock-documentary: the events it depicts did not really happen, but it promises to portray those events as if they had really happened, in return for your agreement to engage with it as if it carried evidentiary force. Gregory Currie’s attempt to delineate the boundaries between fiction and documentary saw him attaching special significance to photographic “traces”, the evidence that what is represented refers directly to the subject of the documentary. As Jinhee Choi summarised in response: “Currie attempts to preserve epistemic privilege often attributed to documentaries by appealing to the indexicality of photographic images.” But the boundary between fiction and documentary is not as distinct as such a technical definition might suggest.
Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight argue that mock documentaries represent an assault on the privileged cultural status that is attached to the documentary form. While documentary films form a diverse body of work encompassing news footage, propaganda, educational films etc., they are given credit as a coherently objective way of observing and revealing truths about the world. They question the sense that stories and meanings emerge from “raw data”, and aim to show how they are constructed and narrated in formal manners equivalent to the ways in which fictional narratives are built:
“The claim that documentary can present a truthful and accurate portrayal of the social world is not only validated through the association of the camera with the instruments of science but also depends upon the cultural belief that the camera does not lie. This is predicated on two things: the first is concerned with the power of the photograph, and the second with the discourses of realism and naturalism. Together these provide the basis for our strong cultural assumptions about documentary, while also allowing issues of ideology to be side-stepped in our evaluations of the form.”
Alexandra Juhasz has argued that, by setting up a dialectic between fiction and documentary, during which we know that the subject is fake but we note that it is being voiced as if it were actual, the fake documentary foregrounds the formal attributes of the genre for investigation by its spectators:
“Its formative and visible lies mirror the necessary but usually hidden fabrications of ‘real’ documentaries, and force all these untruths to the surface, producing knowledge about the dishonesty of all documentaries, real and fake. In so doing, the text’s origins may be demystified, the spectator can be revived, and the visible world and the technologies that can record it are often revealed as coded discourse.”
“A fake documentary is received as more than a fiction film plus a documentary; the two systems refer to, critique and alter each other’s reception.”
The experience of realism is not a passive one. Images cannot be authenticated through appeals to the mechanical objectivity of the equipment, any more than they can be authenticated by stamping a Department of Defense watermark on it. The spectator is constantly checking the realist claims of visual media against a memory-bank of media intertexts and personal experiences. Cloverfield encapsulates this by emphasising the disparities between content and form, between the impossibility of the events it depicts and the uncanny resemblance of its form and style to the kinds of media we are accustomed to viewing as containers of factual information. A binary division between the actual and the non-actual might suggest that there is one set of cognitive processes that enables us to process the real world, and another that helps to understand and conceive of the represented domain, but this is not really the case. There is considerable overlap. We use the same cognitive processes to acquire knowledge and sift evidence when receiving visual media, assessing their truth claims on the basis of the plausibility of the content and the trustworthiness of the source. By effacing the traces of institutional mediation, by throwing away many of the opportunities for spectacular revelation (as seen in The Day After Tomorrow), the film plays upon that overlap.
It seems inevitable that Cloverfield is destined to be remembered as “a film for our times”, when sudden devastation can be visited upon major cities by an enemy that cannot be apprehended or clearly seen. A movie monster is a blatant, tangible, perceivable threat. It comprises all of its danger in the central point of its powerful body. It may reveal special powers, but it is still a single locus of danger. This is not asymmetric warfare. This is not an elusive, phantom enemy dispersed around the globe and nestling in vapourous zones of malicious ideology. It is a solid thing that can be destroyed with brute force. It might almost seem wishful to transform 9/11 into such a comprehensible event. But by concealing the monster and by confusing the nature of the events, Cloverfield reconstructs the mystique of its enemy within the fabric of its mise-en-scene. New York feels the mighty force of a monster from the ocean, but those who watch it can barely understand what, why, where and who.
Now, let’s be clear. I don’t think that Abrams and Reeves are political commentators aiming to shock people out of their media-induced torpor into a healthy mistrust of authority. I think they’re fan-boys having fun, but in their search for the effective way to scare people and their awareness that anticipation of horror is the most frightening part, and their awareness that ambiguity and internet buzz are effective ways to foster that anticipation, they ended up co-opting an aesthetic which gleans its power from a paradox – that the ubiquity of images and camera-eye-witness accounts does not make events easier to comprehend or come to terms with.
- Armstrong, Richard (2005) Understanding Realism. London: BFI.
- Bordwell, David (2008) ‘A Behemoth from the Dead Zone.’ Observations on Film Art. 25 January 2008. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=1844 [Accessed 27/10/2008]
- Campbell, Christopher (2008) ‘The Exhibitionist: The Theatrical Inappropriateness of Cloverfield.’ Cinematical. 27 January 2008. http://www.cinematical.com/2008/01/27/the-exhibitionist-theatrical-inappropriateness-of-cloverfield/ [Accessed 27/10/2008]
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