Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nocturno De Cloverfield

“I am dying now, but I still have many things to say. … So, propped up on one elbow, I will lift my noble, trembling head, and rummage through my memories to turn up the deeds that shall vindicate me and belie the slanderous rumours the wizened youth spread in a single storm-lit night to sully my name.”

Roberto Bolaño’s “By Night in Chile,” an unbroken paragraph over 134 pages, is by turns a memoir and an apologia. The death-bed confession of Father Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a man of letters and a perfunctory priest, is a narrative that winds down the path of memory, well-worn but overgrown. In the fits and starts of uncertainty and self doubt, our priest finds the recollections of his choices in the same breaths he tells the story to justify them. Borges’ suggestion is inescapable: “of a novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions which would permit a few readers - very few readers - to perceive an atrocious or banal reality.”

One of the strangest sights at tourist destinations across the globe is that of the Videographer. He (and it is almost always a he) walks through the vacation and goes through the paces of sightseeing, but does so through the LCD viewfinder of a handheld videocamera. Where Sontag once saw tourists traveling to capture images, today’s travelers have upped the stakes - trying to seize the lived experience of their trip. Focused on the screen as he practices the rites of tourism, his rewatching of the tape will provide an exact representation of the sights he saw. Perhaps in Hi-Definition, it will be more real than when he first saw it. Though lacking the taste of the air, the smells of the street vendors, and the ineffable qualities that come with traveling; the videotape will be the neatly circumscribed experience that he lived, and so its memory will be flawless. Cloverfield is this man’s movie.

While it may possess all the guts of a monster film, Cloverfield is the beast lay belly-up, dissected, and stitched back together once more. This story is not retold by an omniscient narrator who can pan from our heroes on the street to the generals in the forward deployed command center to an aerial shot of the Monster in terrifying but exotic clarity. Rather, this is the story of a hand-held camera directed by the friend of Our Hero - from the second person perspective of the character so self-interested and unsympathetic that we are wholly unsurprised when his most common response to requests for aid is “I’m documenting.”

Where other films may explain the origin by way of the state, the mystic, or the friendly interlocutor, Cloverfield eschews the traditional search for movie monster truth and opts for the (literally) man-on-the-street approach. Insomuch as structures like the media and the military exist as sources of information, they are merely glanced upon by the camera, as much to illustrate their irrelevance as for their utility. The information they present is less to be digested by the viewer than exhibited by the narrator as a jumping off point for his presentation: they are links in the vlog of the apocalypse.

There is little chance that Cloverfield will be mistaken for the work of a subtle Latin American novelist, nor should it be. With the simplicity of the plot, the shallowness of the characters, the pandering reveals of the Monster in terrifying but exotic clarity, Director Matt Reeves makes enough concessions to the genre to keep the film from being too interesting. Still, the structure alone is enough to make it an artifact worth mention. Where most monster blockbusters allay the fears of the audience, either by keeping them informed of the nature of the threat or maintaining a belief in the government’s infallible security safety-net, Cloverfield casts these aside and refocuses the terror through the eye (camera?) of an ordinary person living the experience.

It is the presentation of this tape - as a recovered file archived by the Department of Defense - that is perhaps the strongest argument against this reading, but it seems an afterthought to the film when the frame is left open when the credits roll. Moreover, the audience is almost forced to forget this, lest they wonder why the DoD preserved (let alone exhibited) the opening party and closing memory scenes.

That closing clip - the hokey, feel-good return to Coney Island - is what brings the movie back together, and may ultimately salvage it. Where Bolaño’s recollection is intruded by tangents and distracted by forgotten passages, the camera’s supposedly perfect and objective recollection is no less flawed. The camera lingers on Marlena at the expense of exposition, key events are captured only fleetingly, and the distant past persistently reappears, imposed within the present of the story.

Memory is not what it used to be. Twitter allows people to mark their activities at any time, from any place, for anyone to read. Social networking sites are used to schedule events and then recount the happenings in shared photo albums and blogs. Even the most vigilant diarist never approaches this technological drive to catalog one's life, taken to its extreme in Cloverfield. Though perhaps less self-indulgent than a Xanga, the narrator is made believable by that same desire to represent reality instead of participating in it. That same desire that drives the videographer. A desire completely alien to Father Urrutia Lacroix, whose confession was retold unaided by reference or diary. Whose retelling was no less flawed.

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