[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]
- Noël Carroll (1990) The Philosophy of Horror. London: Routledge.
- Choi, Jinhee (2001) ‘A Reply to Gregory Currie on Documentaries.’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 59:3, 317-319.
- Currie, Gregory (1999) ‘Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs.’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57:3, 285-297.
- Eskjær, Mikkel ‘Observing Movement and Time: Film Art and Observation’ in Anne Jerslev (ed.) Realism and ‘Reality’ in Film and Media. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 117-137.
- Grodal, Torben (1997) Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Juhasz, Alexandra & Jesse Lerner (2006) F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing. London: University of Minnesota Press.
- Roscoe, Jane & Craig Hight (2001) Faking It: Mock-dcoumentary and the Subversion of Factuality. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Shaffer, Bill (2001) ‘Just Like a Movie: September 11 and the Terror of Moving Images.’ Senses of Cinema. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/17/symposium/schaffer.html [Accessed 2 September 2008]
- Thilk, Chris, ‘Movie Marketing Madness: Cloverfield. 17th January 2008. http://www.moviemarketingmadness.com/blog/2008/01/17/movie-marketing-madness-cloverfield/ [Accessed 22/10/2008]
- Wilson, Jake (2001) ‘Watching from a Distance: September 11 as Spectacle.’ Senses of Cinema. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/17/symposium/wilson.html [Accessed 2 September 2008]
- Žižek, Slavoj (2002) Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso.
Dan: wonderful work — your paper is as smart and provocative on screen as it was when I heard you present it in Chicago. One thing I meant to bring up then, but which got lost amid the various threads of Q&A: what would you say the relation is (if any) between apophenia and the Kuleshov effect? Obviously the former is a principle derived from cognitive psychology while the other applies specifically to cinema, but both address our tendency to seek order in sequential or disparate phenonema, narrativizing perceptual data. Was Kuleshov merely arguing a specific case of a more general phenomenon? And what do we do with your fascinating suggestion that viral intertextuality constitutes a new kind of “swarm editing” in which paratexts corrall potential meanings through distributed suture?
Very informative and wonderful post, Dan (thanks for sharing) it’s amazing how Hollywood and even Bollywood two of the largest film industries in the world spend millions on the ‘idea’s of marketing a film. It has become more important than the film itself, just like what it seems to me with Cloverfield. Beside the idea behind the basic mise-en-scene in this film with its documentary (mock) feel and absence of terror definitely owes as much to the Blair Witch Project.
Beside, such strategy has become an important source of news channels here in India. That is more of, concerned with depiction of something that does not exist, with all sorts of evidence to prove the facts. Almost all news stories employ the same strategy of such movies. Everything is re-created in manner that it ‘would’ or ‘could’ happen, and the entire show is seen from the anchor or reporters pov- with commentary that usually defies logic or explanation. The shows are built on the idea of creating an atmosphere to blind the audience and keep together. They are no political commentaries either and similar to fan-boy Abrams and Reeves. And it’s the ‘ Breaking News’ that largely functions as a tool of viral marketing, wherein the news itself may not be of any value or information, but it directly entices the viewers to follow suit- in order to gain an important raise of TRP.
Thanks, Bob. I’d like to take the apophenia/pareidolia stuff further, and perhaps use it as a perceptual model for understanding how viewers piece together an image that may be deficient or incomplete. A while ago, I wanted to do some research on low budget special effects, spinning out for some stuff I wrote on UFOs and B-movies. Pareidolia seemed like a good analogue for the way someone might be presented with an indistinct blob in the sky or on a photograph, and end up seeing an alien spacecraft within it. Similarly, presented with hubcap on a string in a miniature studio set, they might make a similar cognitive leap – this might explain why people didn’t whine about special effects that now look cheap and rudimentary. Contemporary viewers like to look back on older FX as cheap and outdated, missing the point that The Matrix will look laughably defunct to their own grandchildren some day. A cognitive process of some sort (that’s as sciencey as I can get on this one, I’m afraid) fills in the gaps in the image to reclaim it within the borders of current experience and understanding and make it comprehensible as a narrative event.
Hey, I got sidetracked there. The Kuleshov effect? I’m not convinced that it ever really happened, but as a hypothetical statement about associative montage it can be useful – I just don’t like the suggestion that montage can be that proscriptive, as if it is as simple as pushing a spectator’s buttons or playing them like an organ (a metaphor Hitchcock used, but he had to deploy a whole battery of effects, rather than just juxtaposition of shots, in order to get reactions from his audiences). There’s plenty of room within random patterns for various people to find what they’re looking for, even if it wasn’t there intentionally. I need to really look into some studies of apophenia/pareidolia and see how and why they actually work. Are some people more susceptible? I’m going to go out on an ill-informed limb here and say that I bet there aren’t too many atheists finding the Virgin Mary’s face appearing in their breakfast cereal. But then, I guess there’s a difference between noting the resemblance and actually believing that it’s a divine message.
“What do we do with your fascinating suggestion that viral intertextuality constitutes a new kind of “swarm editing” in which paratexts corrall potential meanings through distributed suture?”
First of all, I ask if I can quote you on that, cos it’s one of those eloquent summaries that makes me wonder if that’s really what I wrote! It sounds pretty cool when you put it like that. I’m with you right up until “distributed suture”. I’m not sure what that might mean in this context, unless you mean that the job of engaging the spectator in the fiction is outsourced to a virtual environment where those spectators end up working upon themselves as imaginative participants in that fiction (in the case of this film, that participatory aspect is part of the simulationist aesthetic, since it recreates the experience of catastrophe for most of us, who witness it only in mediated fragments and are left to reconstruct events for ourselves).
I don’t know what we do with it. If it means that we should stop talking about films acting directly upon spectators, or about authorship and spectatorship as direct lines of communication, then I think that work was started long ago in film studies. This “swarm editing” (love that phrase!) would certainly seem to decentre the film-makers as the originators of meaning, but I think it’s still very controlled. Fans haven’t really built their own interpretation of events, since they always seem to be hoping that their interpretation can be cross-referenced with factual data hidden in the core film text. The swarming could have gone in many different directions. I’ve found more online discussion of the creatures appearance and biological characteristics than of anything else. Very little debate about the ideological significance of the authoritarian impounding of the footage by the Department of Defense, or of the decision to nuke Manhattan. I guess what I mean is that there is not a free play of intertexts that construct a new cultural object: the internet speculators can be proven right or wrong once J.J. Abrams gives out the relevant information. But in the meantime, there is an interesting look into some of the ways in which people engage with media hype, and it ends up articulating parallels between engaging with fiction and sifting through data for facts about the world.
Hi, Nitesh – Are you saying that Indian news media are fabricating stories and dressing them up as facts? I think most people have suspicions that their news shows may be biased or manipulated to hide a lack of firm evidence, or to seem authoritative, or to be more entertaining. Is it really so bad at the moment where you are? We would all like to trust the news media, but it’s important never to suspend critical analysis. I suggest that a film like Cloverfield helps to build that healthy suspicion by allowing fiction to be validated by the same techniques that can be applied to news footage. You can see how certain techniques prompt us to attach certain truth values to them. It seems to work on us most of the time, I guess because we’ve been so culturally trained to associate certain qualities of image and sound with authenticity.
You have my full permission to quote — I suppose I was trying to condense something I saw between the lines of your thesis, so perhaps through an accident of apophenia we have collaborated to make a new insight. I agree that “distributed suture” is a jankety concept, probably because suture has such a strong whiff of the deterministic, while with distributed we’re moving squarely into a future-present of cloudy, probabilistic thinking. And that’s what I’m particularly interested in when it comes to Abrams and his projects, from Alias to Lost, Cloverfield to Star Trek: he’s a competent storyteller, showrunner, and director, but he seems almost preternaturally gifted when it comes to fomenting and shaping collective buzz, here figured not just as the epiphenomenal spawn of fandoms networked in varying degrees of complicity with marketing engines, but a metaphorical “buzz” emanating from a hive mind — impossible to direct in any top-down way, but possible, perhaps, to encourage in one direction or another through the canny planting of hints and just as canny withholding of information. What I’m saying is that Abrams is a kind of auteur for the era of transmedia, in which the actual text (the film Cloverfield, for instance) actually functions as a tiny core at the tip of a long cometary trail of decoding and speculation among eager audiences and academics. The fact that this comet-tail *precedes* the appearance of the filmic artifact makes it all the more fascinating; it’s like the paradoxical time-rift at the heart of the final Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode “All Good Things” (one of my all-time faves), in which the effects anomalously precede the cause.
Not sure what all this has to do with swarm editing, but I’m typing in a hurry as the dinner sausages cook! More dialogue later, I’m sure …
I was in Chicago, too, and your session was the best I attended! I’m glad you put your paper on your blog :-)
Thanks, Kirsten. Glad you liked it. It was a great panel and the discussion was really productive – it’s a shame they have to stop them. In fact, I’m not sure why they have to stop them – did somebody else want to use the room? We had big gaps between panels, too.
I did think about keeping the paper away from the blog, in case I wanted to revise it for publication, but I think it would be very heavily updated for a journal article, so it might constitute a whole new piece. And the comments I get here, as well as at the conference, would help me to make those updates.
Hey, get back to trickling the vision…
Bob – let’s try running with the “distribution” concept. It seems to be an apt metaphor, perhaps even a structural truism about contemporary cinema that it has become ever more pixelated. I was just writing something about the Sandman sequence in Spider-Man 3 (to be posted here soon), which is all built around the kind of particle modelling that only digital effects can do. Rather than animated a single body, it draws spectacle out of the effect of constructing that body from flocking grains of sand/pixels. In your distributed model of spectatorship, there’s an analogous thing going on, where the “users” (probably a better word than “viewers” in this case) appear to be individuated, and some of them will spin off in random directions, but they are actually being directed and moved along by a guiding force that ultimately brings them into a coherent body in some sort of agreement or common cause.
I like to think of Abrams as an old-school “ideas man”, in touch not necessarily with “what audiences want” (a fickle and crumbly category if ever there was one), but with ways to make them want what he has to offer. It helps that his interests are populist, but working within those popular zones makes him well-placed to make the kind of revisionist genre movies he’s so fond of. Actually, are they revisionist, or do they affirm the value of the genres in question. Maybe it’ll be clearer when he’s made a few more films.
Hope those sausages came out OK…
I was doing some work on our department blog before I can tickle the vision. Now I’m finish, I’m ready to do some tickling yay.
(Please no need to praise me for my ‘academic’ comments on your blog)
Trickling or tickling? The difference is academic, I suppose…
Academics shouldn’t just talk to other academics. I’d love to hear from fans and haters (of Cloverfield, that is) to get some different perspectives on the movie and its marketing. Maybe I need to throw in some obnoxious, nerd-baiting comments that’ll flush them out.
Hey, Kirsten – did you protect your blog? It asks for a log in to view it. Have we all been relegated from the Trickle Division?
Or is it Tickle the bee shun?
I am making a little move to a new url. I’ll let you know when it’s finished. Meanwhile, I will advertise your blog to my other (secret) blog. You know the one where you are also not allowed.
It’s all about exclusivity with me.
Nothing to contribute per se to the ongoing discussion, but it has provided me with plenty of observation that I never heard or read about films. Thanks again Dan/Bob…as a teachers count me as your student too. :)
I enjoyed your paper, even if I had to look in a dictionary at a few points. :) I didn’t think much of the film when I first watched it, but I will give it another look.
I think it was because of all the hype before viewing I was expecting more from the film, but it seemed to lack conclusion. Then again I am used to Arnie/Bruce/Will/et all pulling out a big gun and saving the day.
Hi, Chris. Good to hear from you. It’s interesting that the hype put you off the film, as it seemed to become part of the experience. And the lack of closure at the end is probably deliberate: in some ways, it’s very final because [AND DON’T READ ON IF YOU’RE READING THE COMMENTS AND HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM] almost all of the main characters die and New York gets nuked (that’s kind of a big gun saving the day!). In other ways, it leaves things hanging; you don’t find out where the monster came from (although there’s a tiny, ambiguous clue in the final shot if you look very closely at the top right corner of the frame in the background…), or even if it was killed (again, there’s a clue in the end credits where a voice can be heard saying, if you play it backwards “It’s still alive”). This may be a cynical/commercial trick to allow for sequels and franchising, but might also be to allow the conversation to continue, to keep the speculation and discussion going. So, as I suggest in the article, once you’ve seen the film, you’re invited to keep thinking about what you’ve seen, and how your interpretation of it might not be reliable.
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What’s going on with those emoticons that automatically appear on my posts where I’ve put an “8” next to a closed bracket, as in my “Works Cited” section? Who thought that was a good idea?
Anyone know how I stop WordPress from inserting random smiley faces into my writing?
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Perhaps the way in which, as you say, Cloverfield ‘seemed to obfuscate all of its spectacular opportunities, delaying any clear view of its central special effect’, is indicative of the fact that the real spectacle of the narrative was the people themselves. After all, the hand-held camera on which it was filmed, and the camera phones on which people are seen recording the events, are both surveillance technologies associated with the everyday more than the spectacular, and both feed into things such as YouTube and Facebook, which effectively make a spectacle out of the everyday self, in all its banality. As such, the actual monster can almost be seen as incidental to the narcissism which is encouraged by surveillance technology – that the characters couldn’t simply escape and survive, but had to be seen to escape and survive. One just as well imagine the footage being posted on MySpace as being picked up by the military for inspection.
That’s a very interesting interpretation, Will. I think many viewers would agree that the film is largely about the camera itself, and narcissism is a good word for it (since Narcissus was imprisoned by his own reflection), even if it sounds like a harsh judgement. The difference in Cloverfield is that they’re really caught up in something worth recording, as if it’s a kind of wish-fulfilment where their everyday lives suddenly do matter and are essential to an epic quest narrative. The irony is that it is only in extreme mortal danger that their self-regard can be seen as significant to outside viewers. The film posits itself as impounded footage owned by the Defense Dept, yet it really wants you to feel for a minor romance narrative instead of viewing it as cold hard evidence.
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