1.24.2008

Cloverfield and Jeremiah Johnson


"My name is Elizabeth McIntyre and I don't know why this is happening." These are the last words, delivered into the lens of a camcorder, of one of the female protagonists in the NYC-destruction creature feature Cloverfield.


That single line captures the appeal of the film: unpredictability. We don't know why that monster is attacking the city, but we don't need to here. It's happening. That's it.

Critics have derided the largely unknown cast here as "vapid, shallow twenty-somethings trying to flee the city in a disaster." Yeah, and film critics are bastions of culture and the arbiters of interesting conversation. I'm sure Ebert and Roper debate nothing less than the violent political imagery in the late poetry of W.B. Yeats when they're off camera.

Come on, folks, it's a party. And the video documentary set-up of these young, urban professionals forms the storytelling core of this film. Director Matt Reeves gives us twenty minutes of backstory--and we don't need anymore than that. In fact, it would ring hollow to do so. When was the last time you gave a biography on camera for all of your friends and family at a wedding when the ultimate goal was to give the finished product to someone who knows everyone anyway? Sheesh...

No, Reeves effectively sets up the film with this engaging twenty-minute sequence then sets out to create a harrowing little thriller that gives new definition to the title Escape from New York. After the first explosion registers in mid-town, the characters' behaviour trends toward what most Americans do in times of crisis. They form survival tribes. I often think of how things would go at the college if we were socked in by chemical warfare. Say a cloud of zombie gas. We'd form our own unique tribes, based on things like race, gender, location, strength and the like.

Well, that happens here. Our videographer Hud has a crush on Marlena, who barely remembers him from their previous encounters. But in a chilling scene in which the group is attacked by beasties in the subway, Marlena stays behind to save his life. Why? He's in their tribe now--she feels an esoteric responsibility to restore their group if she can.

The film doesn't pull any punches on gore. When Marlena is...ummm, affected by the bite she suffers--well, it's pretty gross. The scenes of combat on the streets are compelling, and I especially like the aerial views of our monster.

Some don't like the ending, but I think it's effective. Since the premise of the film is that we're watching a secured government tape, I'd love for the same group to create a traditional rendering (multi-camera, high production) of the aftermath and/or build-up of what took place. Call it a companion and use this footage as part of the logos for a more traditional telling.

Overall grade is a B+. Go see it.

Now when most of us think of the idea of epic storytelling, we think of all the CGI armies in clunky films like Kingdom of Heaven or Troy. That's been the trend, anyway, over the last ten or so years in film.

But consider a movie like Jeremiah Johnson next time you try to define the notion of epic storytelling. Robert Redford plays the titular character here--a mountain man looking for solitude after growing fatigued with his role in the war with Mexico.
The link above provides the synopsis, if you're interested. I just think the narrative structure of the film was amazing. Sydney Pollack's firm guidance here leads to a thoroughly satisfying story. We see Johnson starting out--green as all get-out in the imposing landscape of the Rockies. He has some luck and makes some solid friends (Will Geer steals a lot of scenes here as Bear Claw) and becomes a legend in that part of the country.
The story is interrupted by long stretches of original musical composition, and the songs on the soundtrack augment the status of the film as a process of myth-making by putting his life to song.
Pollack does a great job of making the landscape a character and Redford is more than up to the challenge of enduring long stretches in the film on his lonesome. The conflict between the Crow and Johnson is handled in a way in which you can't wholly fault either side. It's just such a moral conundrum that makes this a complex film for analysis.
It's one of the best westerns I've ever looked at. Hell, one of the best films in general. I'll give it an 'A' grade and I hope you'll take a look at the epic story of one man's life.

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