Monday, January 28, 2008

Better to be in Brooklyn

I saw Cloverfield early on MLK day, at an AMC theater in Manhattan that, to my surprise, has $6 first-day shows on weekends and holidays. I was already in town, but if I had known that I would've hauled myself over anyway from here in Boerum Hill. What a deal.

It's taken me a week to write anything about it, which is not uncommon regarding media events that burn themselves out over two or three days. Let the rest of the blogosphere pick through it first. The film, which runs all of 71 or 72 minutes minus lengthy end credits, pretty much exhausts itself on first viewing, and like so many genre pictures is already a spent force at the boxoffice, having picked the pockets of us early adopters a week ago. (Has a January dumping ground release ever done boffo boxoffice over a longer haul than the first weekend? I can't recall any since the spate of Bette Midler comedies in the mid-80s.)

With reservations, the $6 was well spent. ($11 would have been a stretch.) I like the idea behind the film, the notion of going among the crowds of people fleeing a Godzilla-ish menace. I would probably run toward it, and not with any altruistic aim in mind. A monster loose in the streets would fulfill every B-movie dream I have ever had, consequences be damned.

I wasn't so much keen on the inevitable co-opting of 9/11 imagery that goes along with it; unafraid to kill off its entire cast (like you hadn't heard that already) the movie is far too skittish to have one of its characters come out and actually say, "This is just like 9/11!" The producer-auteur, J.J. Abrams, has said that Cloverfield is a safe way of dealing with fears in our age of anxiety, but clearly his biggest worry is being accused of sensationalism or cynicism. I prefer the close, but more allegorical, use of toppling buildings and generalized panic in the War of the Worlds remake. There's no distance here, except the movie's calculated hedging. (On the other hand, it has no problem sending a bunch of black kids, hitherto unseen in the story and never seen again, into an electronics store to loot it, so some forms of negative imagery are not off limits.)

Speaking of stereotypes, the characters are all twentysomethings for whom the city is a playground, from Central Park to Lower Manhattan. I didn't find them unsympathetic, but, curiously, a number of reviewers have, simply based on the economic status the movie ascribes to (some) of them. With 70 minutes to make its point the movie doesn't spend a lot of time on characterization, but the signifiers of abundance (like the very video camera the film is "made" with) seem to set less-compensated writers with a foot in the "real" Manhattan off. The lives of these stick figures are as much a made-in-California fantasy as what befalls them, and I'm hard-pressed to see why the affluence they have been given (conforming to standard notions of how smart-set New Yorkers live) makes it easier to for us to watch them go off to their doom (mortality, to its credit, is something the movie does spend a little time on. Like The Mist, it's not really a "fun" picture, which has likely impeded its overall prospects). It's a short-hand, designed to tie the locations together, and the class envy it's generating outside the movie is unwarranted and seems a little silly. (The leader of the pack, Rob, is well-played by Michael Stahl-David, who was the one watchable element in an otherwise turgid off Broadway show, The Overwhelming.)

The monster, a bandy-legged whats-it, has an Outer Limits feel to it; the lice creatures that tag along on its hide are like outtakes from King Kong, and while disturbing still wouldn't make anyone run fast enough to get from Spring Street to 58th Street in record time. Most of the budget went into the destruction effects, which are impressively rendered but familiar, from horrors onscreen and off. (The all-important overseas market only wants to see New York, the world's signature city, bashed flat; accept no substitutes.) The Brooklyn Bridge is an ample target but the Manhattan Bridge, with its subway cars, is a more alluring one if you ask me; think of all those straphangers dangling helplessly over the icy water as the structure ruptures. If the filmmakers really wanted to go for it, they should have asked New Yorkers how to make a proper job of the city's pre-I am Legend ruination.

Then again, in the real world, Lower Manhattan is pretty much empty by the twilight time the beastie shows up in the movie; Cloverfield is another film that takes full advantage of its daily desolation to shoot in relative privacy on its empty nighttime streets, notwithstanding the fact that if a monster did rear its ugly head there, there would be no one to see it till the next morning at least. And even with a few bucks at their disposal Rob and his friends are far more likely to live in hipper, cooler Brooklyn than among the stodgy canyons of Wall Street and the older money of Central Park. Cloverfield is a fantasy that wants you to buy into it, and thanks to bravura technical skill it works on its strictly limited terms, but the closer you are to its Ground Zero the more keenly you'll feel its evasions and compromises.

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