Cloverfield and Film Language

[I going to talk about Cloverfield without discussing any more of its plot than you might surmise from its trailer. So, I say there are no spoilers here, unless you haven’t even seen the trailer, or even the movie’s poster.]

I saw Cloverfield last night by myself. I took Rebecca to see it on Saturday night, but the shaky-cam effect was so intense that we left — and this is no exaggeration — four minutes into the  film. That’s how sick she felt. Granted, she’s pregnant, but I’ve heard lots of other people had the same complaint. [UPDATE: Yep. LOTS of other people.](I didn’t have to pay when I came back last night. Just explained my story and they let me in. Go Cinemark!)

Anyway, I was careful to sit a bit farther back than I usually might.

Cloverfield is an interesting experiment in cinematography. (For those of you who don’t know ANYTHING about this movie, it’s all shot on a single camcorder by a guy and his friends witnessing a disaster in New York City. Mayhem ensues.) The idea behind the movie is that by shooting it in an amateur, home-video style, it would heighten the realism. The Blair Witch Project did this successfully back in 1999, but Cloverfield is on a much grander scale, with all the sights and sounds of a major metropolis as the background.

The theory makes sense — reality is seldom shot with professional polish. Most reality we see captured on video is jerky, often out of focus, and poorly framed. So, says J.J.Abrams to himself, if I shoot a movie this way, it’ll seem more realistic. And the more realistic it seems, the more the audience will be pulled into the movie.

Plenty of folks out there say it was a successful experiment that proved his theory true. (Well, what they actually say is “That was so cool!”, but I’m reading between the lines.) Plenty of others are saying it didn’t work (and many are a bit bitter about being rendered nauseous).

I’m in the latter camp, but I would’ve agreed with Abrams’ theory before I saw the film.

Here’s the problem.  While most reality we see captured on video is jerky and out of focus, that’s only a tiny subset of the reality we see on a daily basis! Most of the time, our eyes are focusing faster than we can even notice, and our eyeballs track better than an amateur videographer can.

To make something feel real, it should more closely approximate what we experience in daily life. Film language has been trying to do that for a whole century.  It’s not just trying to tell the story — it’s trying to tell it in such a way that we are drawn into it more.

Take the pattern of long-shot, medium-shot, two-shot, close-up. From a distance, we see a couple talking, and we hear their chit-chat. As it gets a bit more personal — “…it’s like back when we were dating,” she says — we come in closer.  “Oh, man — that was so long ago,” he says, evading, and we’re down to a two-shot — just the two of them. We’re focusing in more and more on them as the conversation gets more and more personal. “I still don’t understand why we broke up,” she says, and now we’re close-up on her face. We go close-up to his face for a reaction and a response…. aaaaand….

And that’s how it is in real life. When you’re making chit-chat, you’ll talk to somebody in the other room, or with your back turned while you’re doing the dishes. When you’re trying to learn something from the other person — when the conversation is more important — they fill much more of your attention.  The more crucial or personal the information is, the more you’re examining the other person’s face for cues, for body language, for facial expressions that might tell you more than the person can or wants to share in words.

So Abrams tried to keep some of this classic film language in place while attempting some still fairly new — awkward cinematography.

NYPD Blue and 24 and other shows have used it to a much smaller degree, and I can’t decide if I like it or if I find it distracting. I think it’s mostly just distracting, really — our eyes aren’t sloppy, so the camera-work shouldn’t be, either. But it was a neat experiment — and one that made them all bundles of money.

As a quick side note, the classic way to shoot a disaster film is to show us the events from the perspective of people on the scene. We don’t even need to know the character — the camera just flashes to their face, we see them looking up, then we flash to the disaster image itself. So in Independence Day, we get to see the big alien spaceships destroying a series of cities at the beginning of the film. They show each one with a series of shots to bring us closer to the disaster — spaceship, person watching spaceship, spaceship unleashing its weapon, person reacting in horror, destruction (or escape, depending on who you’re looking at each time).

What if the series of shots had just been spaceship, spaceship unleashing its weapon, destruction? Well, we’d be too far removed from the scene to feel anything. We might go “WOW — that looks real!”, but we would certainly not feel the impact or the fear.

As a second quick side note, I love watching extremely long takes in films. Children of Men is worth renting just for the various extremely long takes you get to see. But are they more realistic? No, I’m afraid they’re not. Again, the eye does not slowly move from object to object in one long continuous movement. It cuts from here to there and back again, just like we see in more common filming. Those long takes are astonishing, but as a viewer they pull me out of the movie, and I start appreciating the cinematography rather than appreciating the movie itself.

“Well,” you say, “isn’t that like appreciating the brush-strokes in a painting? And isn’t that okay?”  Eh, perhaps. But I don’t think Michelangelo ever expected you to examine his awesome brush-strokes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Maybe another painter could appreciate it, when getting up close, and that’s fine. But the extremely-long-take-technique is too in-your-face — it’s not just critics who will see it on closer inspection; it’s EVERYone.  So it’s less like an expert critiquing brush-strokes, and more like an average reader appreciating the paper of a new book. “Wow, this Tom Clancy novel is printed on the smoothest paper! And check out this font they used!”

The artist side of me can appreciate those extremely long takes, but I feel like they hamper the experience for the plain ol’ viewer side of me. I don’t want those two sides divided unless I’m deconstructing something after having viewed it. (I’ve often had to say “I loved that movie, but it was crap”… as well as say “I sure didn’t like that movie, but I have to admit it was well-made.”)

I have other critiques of Cloverfield from a story-telling perspective, but that’s an entirely different topic.

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