Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Transcending the Gimmick

I finally caught up with Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008) on DVD. I thought it was effective and diverting, but that, for the most part, it's central gimmick - that the whole thing is meant to be "found footage" - never stopped being just a gimmick. The film would work almost exactly the same way without it. It does add a "conceptual" layer - i.e. it provides a topic for conversation and/or "think pieces" - but it's a surface layer: there's no depth to the concept built into the movie.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but Cloverfield is weak sauce compared to The Blair Witch Project - a movie which I don't particularly like and didn't find all that scary, but where the same gimmick becomes more than just a gimmick because that choice - that the movie is meant to be "found footage" - influences every other choice made by the directors - acting style, cinematography, staging, temporal-spatial integrity, etc.

And as for the marketing angle: the guys who made and sold The Blair Witch Project were genuine independents going for a grassroots approach. That's certainly not the case with Cloverfield.


Cram said...

The monster looked cool though.

James said...

I saw this recently too!

In connection with the "not really found footage" aspect, I can't get my head around the marathon those guys ran. Sixty blocks north, and then 60 flights of stairs up, and 60 down... If this were ordinary cinematography, I wouldn't take this part quite so seriously, but by creating the impression that "you are there," I end up being a lot pickier. (Especially since the Damsel in Distress could have been anywhere in the city - why the Time-Warner building, which is impossibly far away?)

The one area where the "found footage" comes in useful, maybe, is by keeping the monster mysterious. The creature's origins and motives are completely unexplained, whereas in a "conventional" movie you'd be expected to lay out all of that stuff with some lame scientist dumping exposition on us.

After watching Blair Witch, I was convinced a copycat killer was lurking outside the house. I ended up exploring every room with a butcher knife in each hand, in spite of the -2/-4 off-hand weapon penalty.

Steve said...

That movie annoyed the hell out of me. What bugged me about the central gimmick is that it was used to paper over what in a regular movie would be considered glaring flaws:

1) Bad acting
2) Weak script
3) Thin characters
4) Director with no real storytelling sense

The party scenes at the beginning were dull even by comparison with dull party scenes in any routine TV drama. The characters were stock "Grey's Anatomy" hip young things. The script was just a one-damn-thing-after-another marathon. And yet, somehow, none of that mattered because of the phony "realness" of it all. Incidentally, the BLAIR WITCH thing bugged me for all the same reasons. Tellingly, those BLAIR WITCH filmmakers have gone on to do nada. Their gimmick was a one-off coup du cinema.

Jon Hastings said...

Steve - That's definitely how I saw the phony "realness" working in Cloverfield. Obviously, "realness" is a relative thing in fiction filmmaking, but the people making Cloverfield don't try to be "real" in any other way (like mumblecore acting or attention to the kind of temporal/spatial issues James brings up or not having a wisecracking comci relief dude (though I like T.J. Miller, generally)).

I have to defend BWP and the guys who made it, though. The actors in that movie are not "Grey's Anatomy"-types and the movie does not unfold along your standard Syd Field lines. The style, overall, is genuinely low rent and the marketing campaign was genuinely grass roots (even if it was a "genuine" grass roots hoax). So, even though the found footage thing may be a "gimmick" (and a way to excuse their micro-budget approach to audience who expect multi-million dollar entertainments) every element of each frame of their movie takes this "gimmick" into account. It's built into the movie from the ground up!

Based on interviews with the directors, I had gathered that they had passed up on a lot of projects because they wanted to keep control of their stuff - to be able to make movies on the same terms as they made BWP. This might just be them blowing smoke, but I think it's a Bad Idea to judge their success/failure based on whether or not they got hired to make Sarah Michelle Gellar's next Grudge rip-off. Not that you're saying this, necessarily, but this kind of context is important. It looks like they've made a bunch of other cheapie horror flicks (some straight to video): I haven't seen any, but a few of them look interesting.

Steve said...

Probably I was unfair to the BLAIR WITCH creators. I don't think they showed a lot of talent with that movie, but as you suggest "talent" isn't always (or even usually) a factor in Hollywood success/failure.