Cloverfield, memory, and time.

It’s not a very scary film, and it has its share of implausibilities — would a cell phone really work underground, in a subway station, when the city aboveground is being trashed? — but there is something about Cloverfield that really, really works. And that is the way the film makes use of its central gimmick, whereby we are supposed to believe that the entire movie unfolding before us is something that was found on a memory card or a video tape (it’s not clear which) in the ruins of New York City’s Central Park.

The gimmick itself is interesting, and more challenging than what The Blair Witch Project (1999) attempted nearly a decade ago. Back then, we still needed to suppose that the “found footage” was the work of documentarians, i.e. people who lug cameras around and film everything they do for a living; but now, we are asked to believe that a regular average guy would keep his home-video camera running even as he is fleeing for his life — and given that we are now living in the age of YouTube and Google Video, etc., this is not as big a stretch as it might seem. What’s more, Blair Witch was edited together from the footage left behind in two cameras, whereas Cloverfield consists entirely of footage that was found in one camera — and that imposes certain limitations on the filmmakers.

But the filmmakers do something really brilliant with this limitation: they create a back-story, indeed a series of flashbacks, by supposing that the monster attack has been accidentally recorded, in pieces, over another video that was recorded by one of the characters about a month before the monster attack takes place. So even though we are supposedly watching an unedited video, we still get a form of non-linear storytelling, and this pays off in a spectacularly poignant way at the very end of the movie. (Don’t worry, I won’t say how.)

I’ve been thinking about this aspect of the film ever since I saw it last Wednesday. I have written articles and given multi-session lectures on the subject of “memory at the movies” — and how memory is related to identity, free will, the afterlife and movies themselves — and I can sense that this aspect of Cloverfield is resonating with me strongly on that level. I’m not entirely sure how to put it in words yet, so consider this blog post a first-draft attempt.

The original recording, which we see at the very, very beginning of the film, is made by Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) after he and Beth McIntyre (Odette Yustman) have slept together for the first time, and it goes on to depict their romantic trip to Coney Island. The movie that is recorded on top of this takes place about one month later, when Rob is about to move to Japan, and his friends throw him a going-away party — a party that is briefly attended by Beth, who apparently doesn’t get along with Rob so well any more. Beth leaves the party. And then, some time later, the monster attacks New York City, and the rest of the movie follows Rob and at least three of his friends as they try to dodge the monster and the havoc it is wreaking on the city. However, instead of simply fleeing the city, Rob goes back to rescue Beth, who has called him and told him that she is stuck in her apartment. And his friends — including the wisecracking Hud Platt (T.J. Miller), who is almost never seen because he is the one actually holding the camera — join him in this rescue attempt.

Every time Hud stops recording what is going on around them, he inevitably starts up again several seconds later on the tape, or whatever memory device is being used here — and for those few brief seconds, we get a glimpse of the happy day that Rob and Beth spent together barely one month before. In a way these scenes are “flashbacks”, but in another way they are not; the past itself is popping up into the present and reminding us of the way things used to be. These happy scenes are not being spliced into the home-made disaster-movie footage; instead, they are all that remains of a happy memory that is progressively being obliterated by a much nastier one. The past was here first; it continues to assert its presence; it begs not to be forgotten.

But the film’s central gimmick runs even deeper than that. At least twice in this film, characters look at the camera and record words for posterity; and when the attack first starts, Hud says he is keeping the camera running because people who weren’t there when the monster attacked will need to know what it was like to live through that experience. So this film has been consciously filmed for the benefit of other people. But who gets to see it in the end? Almost nobody.

The opening title cards tell us that the movie we are watching was found in the ruins of New York City. That, right away, tells us that the characters failed to take the camera with them out of the city — possibly because they failed to survive, period. The opening title cards also tell us that the video we are watching is now the property of the American government. That, right away, strongly suggests that no one has been allowed to watch this video except for a handful of people who have the right clearance. If you’ll forgive the analogy, it is as though our protagonists had aimed for Heaven and now found themselves stuck in Purgatory, or even Limbo.

The old story, the happy day recorded one month ago, is undone by the new story that unfolds at the going-away party before the monster strikes. And the new story is undone by the fact that the recording has ended up in the hands of those who almost certainly will not honour the characters’ intentions. So on at least two separate levels, this movie is about thwarted memories.

Whether our experiences are happy or sad, we typically want them to have meaning — and we give them meaning by holding them in our memories and by encouraging other people to remember them, too, not only in this life but in the life beyond, as well. (Jesus tells his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood “in remembrance of me”; the thief on the cross tells Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”) Cloverfield is a documentation of memories both positive and negative — and a documentation of how those memories are either obliterated or prevented from finding their proper resting place.

Newsbites: Batman! Harry! Justice! Gangster!

Got a whole lot of catching up to do!

1. All the marketing for The Dark Knight has tended to emphasize the Joker, the Joker, the Joker. But a story in the Los Angeles Times suggests the film’s real focus may be elsewhere:

HEATH LEDGER and Aaron Eckhart, welcome to Hollywood’s elite and gaudy Arkham club.

In the highly anticipated new Batman film “The Dark Knight,” which opens July 18, Ledger is stepping into the purple suit of the Joker, while Eckhart will portray Gotham City Dist. Atty. Harvey Dent, who starts the movie as a handsome lawman but ends up as Two-Face, the villain driven insane by disfiguring wounds.

“Harvey Dent is a tragic figure, and his story is the backbone of this film,” says Christopher Nolan, the director of the acclaimed franchise-rejuvenating 2005 film “Batman Begins,” who returns with Christian Bale again playing the caped crusader. “The Joker, he sort of cuts through the film — he’s got no story arc, he’s just a force of nature tearing through. Heath has given an amazing performance in the role, it’s really extraordinary.”

Chris at Movie Marketing Madness responds by wondering if the studio has set itself up for “potential reputation damage” by promising fans more of the Joker than they’re actually going to get.

2. The Mail on Sunday says the makers of the Harry Potter movies are thinking of splitting the seventh and final book into two movies. I’m not sure what to make of this. I have always said that each of the books should have been adapted as a TV mini-series, or as a complete season of a TV series, rather than a movie; but now that they have run with the one-movie-per-book format, a part of me figures they should stick with it. At any rate, if the rumour is true, I wonder what they will call the second movie; will it be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, or will they find some other object to put after the words “and the”?

3. Variety reported on Wednesday that Warner Brothers had put the Justice League movie on “indefinite hold” for two reasons: the writers’ strike, and the tax-break situation in Australia, where they were planning on shooting the film. But on Thursday, the Aussie government said the studio’s decision had nothing to do with the tax breaks and was “absolutely confined to creative issues”.

4. So many of the “historical” films made by Ridley Scott and Brian Grazer have been bogus to one degree or another, that it shouldn’t come as any surprise to read this Associated Press story about their first collaboration, American Gangster:

NEW YORK – In “American Gangster,” which is “based on a true story,” Denzel Washington — as the `70s drug lord Frank Lucas — confidently marches deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia as the Vietnam War rages in the background. He is looking for drugs.

Later, we see police break open the caskets of Vietnam casualties flown back to the States, searching for the heroin Lucas has audaciously hidden beneath the corpses. Then Lucas is shown as the dope dealer-turned-reformer as he exposes legions of corrupt police.

Except none of the above ever happened. . . .

5. Apparently Stephen Fry is writing the script for Dambusters, Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic World War II movie The Dam Busters (1955), and he spoke to the Manchester Evening News recently about some of the things that will distinguish their movie from the original film — such as their use of information that was still top-secret back when the original film was made. (Incidentally, as Fry notes, much of the Death Star battle in the original Star Wars was copied from the original Dam Busters.)

6. As bad as some of the Roger Moore James Bond films might be, I did enjoy listening to Moore’s audio commentaries on those films — so I am mildly intrigued to read in the Associated Press that Moore is now working on a memoir called My Word Is My Bond. Say what you will about his films or his take on Ian Fleming’s character, but Moore is a charming raconteur.

7. Governments are getting involved in filmmaking! Variety reports that the provincial government of Quebec has bought “51% of the voting shares and a 38.5% ownership stake in Alliance Films, Canada’s leading film distributor” — that’s the company that distributes all the Miramax and New Line Cinema films in Canada, among others. Meanwhile, the United Nations “is backing a $100 million film fund aimed at combating stereotypes in movies. . . . Participant Prods., Summit Entertainment, ICM and YouTube are all believed to have signed on as partners to the fund, which has already secured investment of $10 million.” But will anyone actually pay to watch the movies that are made by this fund?

Juno, Fast Times, and all that stuff.

Judith Timson of the Globe and Mail is bothered by the latent pro-life elements in recent films like Knocked Up and Juno:

But could [these movie plots] also be part of a subtle attitudinal shift against abortion that conservative thinkers like David Frum are calling for? Mr. Frum, in his new book Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, prescribes “education and persuasion … rather than changes in law” in the continuing fight against abortion.

Sounds creepy. But do these films represent an “attitudinal shift”, “subtle” or otherwise? At least two writers think not. Last week, Michael Currie Schaffer of the New Republic wrote:

Juno’s choices, or non-choices, are nothing new on either the big screen or the little one. Just as Hollywood tends to give its characters unusually large New York apartments or unusually clean suburban kitchens, it manages to give them unusually fertile wombs. Whatever the case may be in the culture at large, abortion has long been a rarity in celluloid life, where all kinds of improbable moms bear all kinds of inconvenient children in order to produce all kinds of plot lines. . . .

In fact, the improbable and inconvenient pregnancy is a staple of popular culture in the post-Roe v. Wade era. Kerns, who as Katherine Heigl’s mother in Knocked Up played a cheerleader for appropriately-timed childbearing, oughta know: She first became famous playing family matriarch Maggie Seaver in Growing Pains. Her character, who had gone back to work as a reporter once her kids were adolescents, suddenly got pregnant late in the series. Ditto Family Ties‘ Elyse Keaton, Roseanne‘s Roseanne, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s Vivian Banks. In fact, film and TV feature a lot more unlikely pregnancies-would a typical mainstream single Manhattan career gal like Friends‘ Rachel Green really have carried that baby to term?-than terminated ones. There’s a reason that the abortions in Maude or Fast Times at Ridgemont High stand out: They were so unusual.

And two days before that, Joshua Glenn of the Boston Globe charted the rise and fall of pregnancies and miscarriages, spontaneous and otherwise, in pop culture over the past few decades:

Before Roe v. Wade, fictional women who got abortions suffered dire physical, mental, and social consequences; in the following decade, this was no longer the case. However, as single motherhood lost its stigma, women were no longer forced to choose between abortion and adoption. That’s when TV networks and movie studios, perhaps intimidated by the “right-to-life” movement, which was then hitting its stride, developed a meme. . . .

At the height of the Reagan and Bush era, however, the keeping-my-baby meme triumphed. In 1986, Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” written from the point of view of a teenage girl who’s “keeping my baby,” topped the charts. Then, in the 1988 movie “For Keeps,” Molly Ringwald plays a pregnant high school senior who — well, you figure it out. By 1991, when Candice Bergen decided to raise a child without a father on “Murphy Brown,” the keeping-my-baby meme was already well established. In fact, another fictional middle-aged liberal, the titular protagonist of the NBC dramedy “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” beat Brown to the punch by an entire TV season.

Shortly after the birth of Murphy Brown’s baby, America elected a president who was both pro-choice and a devout Christian. For nearly a decade, TV screenwriters waffled along with Clinton, penning one scenario after another in which a knocked-up character agonizes over whether to have an abortion, then suffers a miscarriage before going through with it. Victims, in chronological order, of this conflicted meme include: Heather Locklear’s Amanda, on “Melrose Place”; Neve Campbell’s Julia, on “Party of Five”; Jennie Garth’s Kelly, on “Beverly Hills 90210″; and Courtney Thorne-Smith’s Alison, on “Melrose Place” again. Even the 1996 film “Citizen Ruth,” which lampoons both sides of the abortion debate, would end with Laura Dern’s miscarriage.

Since the election of the current President Bush, however, the times, they are a-slowin’ down again. On the DVD of “Fast Times,” director Amy Heckerling says that she “could never make that movie now,” because its depiction of guilt-free sex (and, presumably, consequence-free abortion) is “unacceptable in the current political climate.” In recent years, we’ve seen unmarried and unprepared women on shows like “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “The O.C.,” choose to keep their babies, no matter what the consequences. It’s enough to make the convenient miscarriage plot seem downright progressive.

Alas, I watch virtually no TV, so I can’t really comment on analyses like these. But I’d be curious to hear what others think.

His Dark Materials — is the series dead?

Kyle Smith wrote at his blog today that The Golden Compass “tanked so badly that the second and third installments are not going to be made” — but he offers no evidence for this claim, no links, and he devotes the bulk of his post to the story that the Atlantic Monthly published two months ago and director Chris Weitz’s response, which was also posted online two months ago.

I’ve been waiting for news regarding New Line Cinema’s decision in this matter for some time now, and I assume their decision would be fairly well known once it was announced — assuming there is any sort of announcement — so for now, I assume Smith is simply speculating as to the fate of the movie’s would-be sequels.

Incidentally, those tracking the box-office success or lack thereof of big-budget movies with obvious religious themes, pro or con, might be interested in this bit of compare-and-contrast:

  1. Evan Almighty officially cost $175 million to make, and it grossed $100.5 million in North America plus $72.9 million overseas for a worldwide total of $173.4 million.

  2. The Golden Compass officially cost $180 million to make, and it has grossed $67.8 million in North America plus $245.7 million overseas for a worldwide total of $313.6 million, so far.

Make of all that what you will!

Iranian biblical films — from Jesus to Joseph

Two days ago, I linked to an article at on Jesus, the Spirit of God, an Iranian production that just might be the first film to tell the story of Jesus from the Muslim point of view. Curiously, that article seems to be gone now, though you can still read the 196 comments that were posted in response to the article.

But never mind; in addition to the sections I quoted here two days ago, Variety now has its own story on the film. Some excerpts:

LONDON — Fresh from tackling World War II and the Holocaust in local blockbuster “Zero Degree Turn,” (Variety, June 6, 2007), Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) is turning to religion as the subject of a pair of big budget skeins.

First up is the $5 million “Jesus, Spirit of God,” helmed by Nader Talebzadeh, which recounts the life of Jesus Christ through Muslim eyes.

Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet and the spirit of God, as the pic’s title states, although not the son of God as stated in Christian theocracy.

Brief aside: “Theocracy“? Not “theology“? Considering the article is about Iran, that may be a Freudian slip of sorts. Anyhoo:

IRIB’s production and sales arm Cima Media Intl. (CMI) is handling the project, which will be released as both a 100-minute feature and a 20-episode TV skein to be aired later this year.

The abridged theatrical version of the project bowed in Tehran cinemas last year, where it garnered a moderate reception from Iranian auds more used to commercial laffers, romances and war pics.

Talebzadeh even hand-delivered a copy of the film to Mel Gibson’s mansion in Malibu last year. The Iranian was met by the security guards who promised to deliver the film to “The Passion of the Christ” helmer although Talebzadeh never heard back from Gibson.

“It is important to show our history before the Islamic revolution,” said CMI managing director Mohammed Reza Abbasian. “These episodes of religious history and Iranian history are very popular with Iranian audiences. We want to show the opinions of Islam toward the prophet. This story came from the Koran without any changes. You could call it Jesus through Islam’s lens.”

Talebzadeh’s film is a faithful adaptation of the life of Jesus — who is depicted with flowing blond hair and fair skin — familiar to Western auds with one notable exception. Where films such as “The Passion” went to great lengths to re-create the crucifixion of Jesus, Talebzadeh’s film sees Jesus saved from the cross by God and taken straight to heaven.

The article then concludes with this interesting revelation:

CMI execs have even bigger plans for their follow-up skein, a $20 million version of the life of Joseph and his multi-colored coat, helmed by Farajollah Salahshoor, that is set to be one of Iran’s biggest-budget productions ever.

The costly skein could be described as a passion project for its producers, as they will have little chance to ever recoup their money back from foreign sales.

“We have tried to sell it to Arab TV stations, but they say that they cannot show the face of the prophets, and, at the same time, it’s not good for European TV,” said Abbasian. “The Iranian government is spending its money on the project, but it wasn’t supposed to cost this much.

“When you start a project you say it will cost $2 million, but we wanted to film this on 35mm not video so it’s become more expensive. We can’t stop the project now. We have to spend more money so we can save the money we already spent. Next time, though, we will film with HD or Digi-Beta.”

It’s interesting that these presumably Shi’ite filmmakers would be tackling the story of Joseph next — and having trouble selling their film to presumably Sunni TV stations that say they cannot show the faces of the prophets — since another movie inspired by the story of Joseph was produced in Egypt over a dozen years ago and became very controversial, even though it changed all the names and was directed by a non-Muslim. It was called The Emigrant, and I wrote about it here — in a blog post about the controversy over another non-Muslim’s efforts to make a movie about Jesus in his native Egypt. (I wonder what ever became of that project?)

Another significant milestone for my twins.

Last Monday, while their mother and newborn baby brother were resting in the hospital, I took the twins (and my sister) to catch a matinee screening of The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. It was the first time I had taken the twins to see a movie; the wife and I had dragged them along to a couple of “movies for mommies” type events when they were only five or six months old, but that was for their parents’ benefit, not for theirs.

In one sense, we caught the movie at the perfect time: almost no one goes to the movies on Monday afternoons, so in case the twins began screaming or fussing or something, there were only a couple other families there for me to worry about. (As it is, the kids behaved just fine.) But in another sense, this wasn’t the perfect time: the kids usually nap in the early afternoon, and while Thomas was kept awake by the movie and the snacks, Elizabeth actually fell asleep on her auntie’s lap about ten minutes before the movie was over. (Don’t worry, I didn’t take the picture above until the credits were rolling and the other families were already on their way out.)

Ah well. I very much enjoyed letting my children take turns sitting on my knee while watching a big-screen movie, and I eagerly look forward to the day when they will have enough of a vocabulary so that we can talk about the movies we have seen together. In the meantime, I got a kick out of the way Elizabeth jerked her head to the left, right, left, right a couple times — presumably to see where the stereo sound was coming from — and I wonder when my next opportunity to do something like this will come along.

Oh, and what did I think of the movie itself? I can’t sum it up any better than my e-pal Denes House, who critiqued the movie for its “zanelessness”. I think there may have been more life and zest and humour in the ‘Rock Lobster’ parody that played over the closing credits than there was in the rest of the movie. And the fact that the VeggieTales creators deviated from their usual pattern didn’t help; the movie is more of a generic story than a genre parody. But it had its moments. The psycho cheese curls were especially cute.