Friday, January 18, 2008

The World's Biggest Metaphor (and the One That Failed)

Ok, I can't resist. I have to talk about Cloverfield. I will resist a detailed diatribe about the film's inner workings and many flaws (as I see them, anyway), but I want to talk about broad, poetic strokes.

If you're making a kaiju eiga (Japanese-style giant monster flick), then why don't you embrace the form fully? Cloverfield, I know it's on your mind, what with the Japan references and the "Godzilla March" Variations during the end credits. So why hast thou forsaken the simple, elegant, poetic qualities of everyone's favorite atomic lizard?

Godzilla (especially in the original, 1954 Japanese cut) is such a sound horror film metaphor:

Godzilla = Atrocity of Atomic Warfare (Hiroshima)

The G-Man embraces his "high-brow" significance, but does not get bogged-down by pretension, delivering, always, what the audience came for: Godzilla smash Tokyo and absurd monster fighting. But along the way, the metaphor can reinvent itself to talk about many issues. Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster dealt with environmental issues in the 70's. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla may very well be about our (Japan's) over-dependence on technology. Godzilla 1984 is about nuclear disarmament and Cold War tensions (instead of the "elephant in the room" we have the "big lizard in the harbor").

But in all his incarnations (1998 American remake aside), Big G never takes himself too seriously. The Toho G movies are chock-full of comedic moments (and attempts there-at). He never forgets that he is a big radioactive iguana, as if to say, "Ok, now that we have that symbolism out of the way, we can get to the blowing $#%& up." I mean, can you really talk seriously about a giant monster without a grain of ironic salt? Apparently, Cloverfield (if we're calling the monster that) thinks you can.

So, ok, I was a liberal arts student, I can bs this. Cloverfield... go:

New York... attacks... destruction... panic... martial law... trust/mistrust of government... conspiracy theory... mis- and disinformation... threat levels... forced evacuation... surveillance... reality TV... digital cameras... loss of privacy... erosion of liberty (ooh, look, they decapitated Liberty)... war... "mission accomplished"... no winners... no answers... fear... paranoia... detachment... moral ambiguity

Fine. Great. All things worth talking about. Godzilla is to Hiroshima as Cloverfield is to 9/11. I'll go there. But Cloverfield's conspicuous decision to give us no answers (no origin of the monster, an elliptical ending, etc) is a cop-out. And don't tell me that's the point. Don't tell me, "We don't get any answers, just like the world we live in." Crap. Bull. Not explaining how any of these ideas come together isn't a meditation on the ambiguous signs of the times... it's just not having anything to say about them. It's pretentious, self-congratulatory cleverness without any follow-through or substance. This is most evident in the film's title -- an arbitrary code word, signifying nothing, supposedly lifted from the street name of J.J. Abrams' production company.

Ultimately, it's a rejection of the beauty (such as there is) of both Godzilla's purity and his purism. Cloverfield says, "Godzilla, you don't have the balls to take your poetry seriously. You hammer your metaphor over the heads of your audience, and leave nothing to subtlety and somber contemplation." But in taking this position, Cloverfield forgets that a giant slimy monster -- especially one with airs of symbolism -- is inherently ludicrous. Nothing could be less subtle than a titanic lizard or fish beast devastating a cityscape, and I like my giant monster movies that way. Cloverfield rejects that simple, elegant form -- but more's the point -- takes itself so seriously as to tell us that we can't have fun this time (Godzilla, save us!). Godzilla entertains, Cloverfield alienates.

I suspect that I would have liked it much more if I'd actually dug the monster, but it bored the gamma-irradiated snot out of me. Let me just say this: Godzilla would mop the floor (or Central Park) with that oversized guppy.


Owen said...

no no no. I mean, you're entitled to your opinion, and i'm not gonna speak on behalf of what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish, but it's not like the monster in the movie is named Cloverfield in the way that the Godzilla is both the name of the movie and the name of the monster. To me, Cloverfield is much more a variation on Lost than a Godzilla movie. It's about an unexpected disaster. It's about immediate danger and confusion and loss. All those other musings about the state of the world resonate in there, but not in a deep way, in a rapid fire way that your brain flicks through things when you're trying to categorize something you don't understand. That's what I took away from the movie. I thought the main dude was as lost and alone at his goodbye party, and understood as little about his life before the monster came, as he was after the city started getting destroyed. I really dug it.

And Godzilla would of course destroy the Cloverfield Monster in a fight. No contest.

Una said...

I just don't analyze movies like a film student anymore. Which makes me happy. But you are, of course, astute in your analyses of the film's "flaws". I just kinda didn't care cause I liked it.

PotSmokinAlien said...

Dude, I couldn't disagree more.

Think about the fact that after they show you the monster there is still 5 minutes left of the movie--if you still were clinging to the notion that the monster was the focus of the movie and not the people, you've gotten to see the damn thing and JJ is free to make a point if he chooses to do so. And so we get a scene in which the main dude looks right into the face of the audience and almost literally says, "You are an audience, watching a disaster movie in which the characters are all completely in the dark, panicking through one calamitous situation after another with no clue as to what is happening to anyone but themselves and their immediate group of fellow survivors. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that this movie you're now watching the end of was made at a time in American history in which individuals with any questions as to the terrible, seemingly reason-free things they have had to watch or experience can trust only their own opinions, experiences and impressions on these matters, since the powers that be refuse to shed any light on the bigger picture. Perhaps the passage of time will give you, the audience watching this film in which i am but a character, the tools you need to figure out how this movie you're watching relates to the world you live in, if you are moved to do so and not simply experience it as a movie about a large monster destroying a city, a term on which it is eminently enjoyable."

Is how I interpret his speech in the last scene.

Also, sorry dude, but the fact that "Cloverfield" sheds the insects from STARSHIP TROOPERS would spell death for Godzilla in no time.

ck said...

let's talk about redundant irony.
i think you're right that giant monster movies require "ironic salt" -- but i think we can do without ironic pepper and oregano (this is fun).

i'll be honest in saying that i think watching godzilla is an exercise in irony overload. the monster is rubber, the dialogue is rubber, the comedy is rubber. this is intentional, it makes the movie worth watching, oh god is the irony funny oh god.

(sorry. i know you love these movies.)

i won't see cloverfield a second time. and when i recommend it to people, i'll specify that they should go with a large group. or that they should be stoned, drunk and/or both. but seeing it was entirely engaging, frightening, and a little bit upsetting. this is what i ask from my movies. i reflected, for a moment, on the reality of a disaster from the inside' and, for a moment, i lost myself. without irony.

in fact, let's hold the irony condiments on this movie hamburger all together. at least for a moment.

Anonymous said...

that was the best review i have ever seen on cloverfield i couldnt agree more