Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Cloverfield's Digital Palimpsest

With it a near certainty that director J. J. Abrams' forthcoming Star Trek will find its way to copious box office receipts this coming weekend, it strikes this writer as more necessary than ever to advocate for producer Abrams' much lower profile 2008 release Cloverfield, whose enormous theoretical interest and high quality is altogether unlikely to be eclipsed by the filmmaker's latest. Director Matt Reeves' second feature, from a Drew Goddard screenplay, ranks as one of the most formally instructive Hollywood pictures of the current decade, revealing the material basis of the digital image in a manner that few films have attempted.

Following a series of time-coded images that consecutively feature color bars, "Property of the U. S. Government" digital watermarks, and an on-screen title that stipulates that the "camera [was] retrieved at incident site 'US-447' area [which was] formerly known as 'Central Park,'" Reeves' film opens on a shaky, forward-moving hand-held framing of a park-side New York apartment. The time-code in the lower left of the frame places the image on April 27th at 6:41AM. An off-screen voices says with the time change that it is "6:42AM... and its already a good day." Reeves' film cuts to a separate room at 6:43 and then to a bedroom at 6:46, where a comely brunette Beth (Odette Yustman, pictured in a production still) lies half-dressed in an unmade bed. A few minutes later Beth turns the camera on her off-screen companion, Rob (Michael-Stahl David, also pictured), before the image cuts to a jerky, canted image reading "May 22 6:43PM," with a new set of voices complaining that they do not know how to operate the camera. Lily (Jessica Lucas) shortly appears on-screen, and in the image to follow, requests that the camera operator get testimonials at that evening's party - for the departing Rob, as we will soon discover.

With the aforesaid operator Jason (Mike Vogel) stating "I don't even know how to work this thing," as he turns the camera on himself, Reeves cuts back to April 27, where we get a snipette of Beth and Rob's B/D Coney Island-bound line conversation - the composite Cloverfield features highly recognizable New York locations throughout - before again we see Jason in close-up. As such, Reeves succeeds in making his spectators aware of the material re-recordability of his picture's image track. As we watch the events of May 22, we become aware of an earlier recorded reality, which periodically reemerges in Cloverfield, which was filmed on the earlier April date. The May activity is written on top of the events of April.

In underlining this process of writing over one image with another, Reeves and Goddard give us much more than a simple gimmick or plot aid, though it is certainly these things as well. Cloverfield, in properly modernist fashion, makes a case for the ontology of the digital image that highlights its capacity for revision or rewriting that is applicable to all filmed digital images: what we see conceivably exists over a second (or third, and so on) erased image, displaced by the presence we are viewing. It is to use writing's vocabulary, a palimpsest - a scraped off and reused manuscript page.

Of course, Cloverfield's self-awareness is far more directly expressed in the camera's often awkward, uneven, hand-held manipulation; the film's persistent acousmetric (off-screen) verbal interjections; hands of the operators frequently migrating into the frame; the character looks into and addressing of the camera (the on-screen testimonials certainly facilitate this); a moment in which the digital tape is explicitly rewound; and finally, the multiple occasions later in the film in which the camera is dropped in the midst of the action. In each of these ways, Reeves does not offer the classical film mise-en-scène as the window onto an unwitting world, but rather a space in which the camera, most often operated by a human agent, interacts with the world in which it is located, registering the visual field directly in front of it, and the auditory space surrounding it, while making the spectators continuously aware of the world that remains beyond the limits of the frame. This is not something digital does exclusively, but it is encouraged by that medium's light weight (at least on the consumer end).

With the DV film's formal program firmly in place at Rob's going-away party, the question soon becomes whether Cloverfield, and not simply the footage retrieved and screened by the government, will permit images not filmed on the picture's focalized DV camcorder. That is, will we ever get a classical diegesis, a world captured unaware on screen, or will Reeves and company limit themselves to the world captured by this apparatus? A hint comes during the party where Hud (T.J. Miller), the camera's primary operator throughout much of the rest of the picture, promises Lily to turn the camera off while the latter gossips about Rob and Beth. Following his oath, Reeves cuts to a low-angle, effectively surveillant image of Lily, where she explains that the couple slept together (which unknown to the spectators is big news and a cause for a rift between the former friends). This piece of gossip is essential narrative exposition, which as we see here Reeves is unwilling to impart in any form but by his hand-held DV camera.

With the subsequent explosion experienced by the male protagonists atop Rob's Lower Manhattan apartment building, Cloverfield launches into the horror-science fiction territory for which Abrams is better known. At the same time, as is clear from the initial uncertainty over what said explosion is - it is initially assumed to be an earthquake - Cloverfield clearly aligns itself as an exposition of 9/11-brand trauma, which in its case is experienced as an explicit past made immersively present (not unlike Paul Greengrass' highly reverent 2006 United 93). This is unlike the doubly past April 27, whose reality cannot be rewritten for the viewer; May 22 makes this impossible. At the same time, the fact that this camera was found in the area formerly known as Central Park does not demand that we assume that the character's future is foreclosed against in precisely the same way. Their lives, at this point in the narrative, could have gone on independent of the camera. (Then again, May 22, at least temporarily, does provide the hope that the personal sins of April 27 can be forgiven and forgotten.)

But back to the film's trauma: Cloverfield explicitly justifies its maintenance of the film's opening aesthetic by stating the importance of documenting the events of May 22nd. (In acknowledging this, Reeves fictionally expresses a Bazinian ethos, again within a very recognizable NYC.) While this leads to the arguably tiresome consequence of having continually to watch the film's unstable high-definition video footage - at 84 minutes Cloverfield is not a minute too short - Reeves and company manage to uphold the film's formal integrity, and as such to avoid undermining the film's presupposed viewing experience. Namely, we are watching a DV tape, aired in its entirety without edits - though the film and tape does cut by turning the camera off and back on. Cloverfield offers its viewer the detritus of a fictionalized trauma, written over a happier, evanescent past. "A good day."


the crew of Unfaithful said...


Jeff (Second Reel) said...

"That is, will we ever get a classical diegesis, a world captured unaware on screen, or will Reeves and company limit themselves to the world captured by this apparatus?"

That was what was on my mind for a good half of this film! I really should re-watch it with that tension eased, especially with your ideas in mind. Great post!