usa special
hyd scene

Some Ramblings - Cloverfield
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla

It is amusing to note how horror, or for that matter, even suspense, leans more on the anticipation than on the execution. It is about those first few seconds on the roller coaster ride, when the carriage slowly chugs up the rails and reaches its highest point. And the greater the build up, the better is the payoff. Take "Jaws". A lone swimmer out there in the open sea in the middle of the night with not a soul for miles around. The point of view is from below the water level, where all one could see, apart from the faint glow of the night light from the sky above, is a couple of dangling legs. As the ominous music starts in the background, the camera starts moving around the legs, as though the predator is checking out its prey before homing on its kill. And then the action reverses to above the water level. The swimmer suddenly feels somebody/something is tugging at her legs. And before she realizes, she is thrashed around in the water a few times, before being pulled in once and for all into the deep. Even at this point, it is not made clear (though it is amply evident) what pulled her and what killed her, as the killer in question is never revealed. Spielberg does a lot by doing so little. It is about minimalism. It is about letting the mind fill the blanks with its own homegrown horror to heighten the effect. Though Spielberg uses this technique to the fullest in "Jaws", it was the master, Alfred Hitchcock, who invented this mantra 'Less is more', when it comes to dealing with sparse information and suspense in the classic 'Psycho'.

Here is the beautiful setup that leads to the nerve racking payoff. 1. The conversation between the villain and his mother is always shown from a distance, and always silhouettes. 2. The mother sounds like an over-bearing, controlling, shrillish shrew, while the son, a repressed, subjugated personality. 3. The mother is shown as the killer, in the famous shower murder sequence, while the horrified son, arriving few minutes after the incident, quickly cleans up. Right until that point, a clear picture of the mother is never shown, and all her words and actions happen behind closed doors and dark shadows. And when in the climax, it is revealed that the mother and the son are in fact the same personality, in a brilliantly shot sequence, where a dressed up skeleton slowly turns around to reveal the true persona of the impersonator, the shock is many time more than what a conventional setup might have achieved.

A few years ago, a little movie made for under a hundred thousand, shot on a couple of camcoders, rewrote the history of Hollywood, by becoming the most profitable movie ever made, purely on the return on investment basis - The Blair Witch Project, which is about three teenagers, who venture into the nearby woods, armed with few rations and a couple of camcoders, to solve the mystery behind the Blair Witch, that was reported to be hanuting the woods. By making the movie a personal account of their journey, and by indicating that the movie was an unedited version of the footage found on the camcoders, later recovered by the authorities, the filmmakers took the next step in movie evolution, by breaking the trusted fourth wall, the boundary that separates the movie from its audience. Here the audience sees what the unfortunate teenagers saw and nothing more. There is no background score and no additional special effects. The hours and half long movie is a descent into madness and horror, as the characters become weary, tired, lost and disoriented. And this disorientation eventually leads to their eventual doom. At the end of the movie, it is still not clear, whether there indeed is a witch, whether this indeed is a true account, or whether the teenagers were indeed dead. Since the footage is all the evidence to go by, the inferences of the audience remain - to each his/her own. The movie was successful blurring the lines between movie and reality, by placing the audience right in the midst of action, and by merely being suggestive, instead of being clear, explicit and open. A daring feat that would have made Hitchcock a lot proud.

"Cloverfield" is a clever marriage of the aforementioned ideas - minimalism and personalization. Though it borrows the style entirely from "The Blair Witch Project", by viewing the entire movie through the shaky little lens of the camcoder, held by one of its character, it takes the idea one step further by expanding the scope of the movie to a grand scale, in that, "Cloverfield" is about a Godzilla type monster attacking New York. Such a marriage of extremes has never been attempted in Hollywood before. Godzilla movies are always about grandiosity. Huge monsters destroying high rises and sky scrappers, tall buildings coming down like a house of cards, people being trampled like insects, vehicles being tossed around like toys. In the poem "daeSa charitralu" (Histories of nations), the famous poet Sri Sri writes "nailu nadee naagarikatalO saamaanyuni jeevina meTTidi?" ("In the golden age of historic civilizations, what was the life and plight of the common man?"). It is essentially the same idea. In a scope such wide and vast, what about the little guy? Surely the guy who was trampled under the giant foot the monster had a life before the event, he might had been an intelligent guy stuck at the wrong place at the wrong time, surely he would had made all efforts to escape its path and save his life. Well, this movie is about that little guy, that statistic that ends up in the final tally. By turning the camera away from the monster and focusing it entirely on the little guy, and better, by placing the camera in the guy's hand and watching the events unfold entirely from his point of view, "Cloverfield" is as big as a small movie can get, and as small as a big movie can get. And luckily, it works quite well both ways.

Though not scaled to this level, and though the action isn't this frenzied, M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" took a similar route of examining the impact of colossal events (in this case, alien invasion) on modest individuals (in this case, a rural family living in the interiors of the mainland). The action is centered entirely around the family. It is not about alien spaceships, laser beams, inter-galactic wars. It is about the fear that grips the individuals. It is about the palpable tensions. It is about parched mouths, thumping hearts and rising blood pressures. It is about the crushing reality of every day life under the growing weight of frenzied fear. This personalization is what that makes even a regular disaster movie, a moving human experience. In the same way, "Cloverfield", while concentrating on the action on the ground, and lifting its head only once in a while just to catch a brief, fleeting glimpse of the carnage happening around, strikes an edgier chord with the audience, as it recreates the mayhem, confusion, destruction, and more importantly, the fear of 9/11. The plumes of dust billowing through the streets of Manhattan as huge buildings collapse, the darkness that pervades all around as soot, dust and garbage starts settling down, the dust covered visages, the coughing faces, the sounds of sirens, the flashing fire trucks, the blaring ambulances, the marching of the army personnel, the low rumble of the tanks - the suggestive imagery more than makes its point and in the dogged resolve of not revealing exactly what is happening around, "Cloverfield" would have played equally well as a documentary of the day the twin towers fell. This other perspective of people caught in disaster and distress, whether it be because of monster or terrorists, makes "Cloverfield" a more profound piece than being a regular run of the mill action special effects extravaganza. Now that kind of humanity is a lot to expect from a monster movie.

More Ramblings on films
There will be blood
Chrlie Wilson's War
No Country for Old Men
Om Shanti Om
Lions for Lambs
American Gangster
Michael Clayton
Happy Days
Chak De India!
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Simpsons Movie
The Grindhouse
Casino Royale
The Departed
Lage Raho Munnabhai
Superman Returns
The Da Vinci Code
Sri Ramadasu
Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
Jai Chiranjeeva!
Munich (English)
Sarkar (Hindi)
Mangal Padey (Hindi)
Kaadhal (Tamil)
Anukokunda Oka Roju
Batman Begins (English)
Radha Gopalam
Mughal E Azam
Virumandi (Tamil)
Lakshya (Hindi)
Yuva (Hindi)
Kakha Kakha (Tamil)
Mr & Mrs Iyer
Nuvve Nuvve

Tell Srinivas Kanchibhotla how you liked the article


This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
emailabout usprivacy policycopy rightsidle stuff