Love in the Time of Camera

30 Sep 2009 (Wed) at 6:41 pm Leave a comment

Love in the time of camera

Two seemingly divergent films—the effects-laden extravaganza Cloverfield and the geeky-chic (500) Days of Summer—both end on a May 23rd. Other than that, they’re as divergent as it gets.

However, both explore interesting angles on the relationship between cinema and life. In Cloverfield, for example, in the midst of crisis, people are looting not grocery stores, but electronics shops, seizing flatscreen TVs and other gadgets. In (500) Days of Summer, the lead character goes into a cinema only to watch his life played out, albeit stylized, on screen. These instances are symptomatic of how closely life and love are linked with the audiovisual form.

Perhaps it is best to begin by saying: Cinema is both a cultural and economic medium. That is, the act of watching a film combines the cultural (the transmission of ideas, formation of consciousness) with the economic (paying for the experience, generation of wealth).

“Imperialism is an economic undertaking,” explains Jonathan Beller, “as well as an ideological and libidinal one.” It is these aspects—the libidinal and ideological—which are so conspicuous in Cloverfield and (500) Days of Summer.

Grappling with Monsters

Recording video messages in the face of desctruction.

Rob and Beth record their harrowing experience.

Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Odette Yustman

In Day for Night, François Truffaut’s loving homage to cinema, the director proclaims: “Cinema is King!” Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield takes this concept to a whole new level altogether. In this movie, film reigns supreme over life no matter what. Never mind the apocalypse—the camera should not. Stop. Filming. Ever.

To illustrate this, a quick summary is in order. Cloverfield begins with a series of color bars, watermarks and title cards establishing that

  1. The video is the property of the US Department of Defense; and
  2. The camera was retrieved from “incident site US 447” formerly known as Central Park, referring to some post-apocalyptic scenario which will be seen later in the film.

The footage begins with a home movie of Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman) in their New York apartment, all lovey-dovey. Then, the scene abruptly changes into a surprise farewell party for Rob (who’s getting a job in Japan), where his friend Lily asks her boyfriend (and Rob’s brother) Jason to film goodbye messages. Jason promptly passes the job onto his friend Hud, who is clearly inept at the job and keeps on hounding this girl, Marlena, with the videocam.

Essentially, Cloverfield is two long home videos, one (the party) taped over the other (Rob and Beth’s romantic cavorting months earlier). A curious mix of home-video handheld and high-tech special effects, Cloverfield starts out compelling but, considering the subsequent scope of the day’s events, increasingly stretches the suspension of disbelief. The party is interrupted when a gigantic Godzilla-like monster (a Japanese reference because Rob is off to Japan?) with hundreds of huge spider-like minions attacks the city. Mass evacuation ensues, but Robb—and by virtue of loyalty, his friends—decides to go back to the heart of destruction because his girl Beth, whom he had a falling out with earlier in the party, is in distress and he can’t stand to leave her without letting her know of his true feelings.

And so, defying all reason, logic and self-preservation instincts, Cloverfield progresses.

As the film nears its end, even after Hud the cameraman dies, the video manages to continue rolling. Despite all the frantic running and panicking and the loss of  his closest loved ones, Rob somehow has the presence of mind to wrestle the videocam from Hud’s mangled body and continues documenting his and Beth’s ordeal. In the face of an unidentified monster stomping around the park, bombs raining from the sky, and the threat of the whole city (him included) being razed  by the military as a form of damage control, the lead character is still concerned with his home video.

Cloverfield plays on the idea that art outlives its creators, and its characters are thus preoccupied with documentation. From the first intimate video and the party’s farewell messages to evacuees using their cameraphones to photograph the collapsing skyline, the documentation supersedes what is being documented. Cloverfield is as hyperreal as it gets.

In the face of such, it is difficult to suspend disbelief when in the first place everything is so unbelievable. The protagonists are concerned with love, video and getting out safely, in that order. There are also practical faults—Lily, for example, spends the whole night on her feet, dodging monsters and missiles in a cocktail dress and high heels and not once does she complain. The film is simultaneously hyperreal and unrealistic.

Also interesting to note besides this fascination with video is Cloverfield’s depiction of the US state. Cloverfield is part of a tradition of disaster movies where the messianic US government is the only entity who can and will save the world (see Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact). What differentiates it, however, is that it was made in a post-9/11 context. The 2001 bombings damaged the US government’s ego, which was why it was so fierce in its resulting show of force: the occupation of Iraq and the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction. This insecurity is reflected in the fatalistic ending where, unlike previous disaster movies where the US triumphs, the government was unable to save its own city and kill the enemy.

“Today,” said then President George W. Bush the day after the 9/11 attacks, “our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.” The enemy, in Cloverfield’s case, is a literal monster, a physicalization of the perceived “evil” which attacked “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” As the film ends, the monster is still alive, in the same way that the US government’s aggression with its “monsters” continues to this day. Beware of these times, for come hell and high water, the US Department of Defense will have everything in its hands, even the most intimate and poignant moments of your life.

Split Screen Sadness*

There is a light that never goes out.

There is a light that never goes out.

(500) Days of Summer
Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

If Cloverfield puts media above life, Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer intertwines the two more deeply. Tom, the lead character, expounds: “These [greeting] cards, the movies and the pop songs,” he says to his officemates, “they’re to blame for our lives, and our heartache, everything. And we’re responsible. I’m responsible.”

Indeed, in (500) Days of Summer, life is inseparable from the cultural references and mediations that populate it. The characters’ lives would not be what they are if it were not for The Smiths or Rene Magritte or Dustin Hoffman. Culture does not merely influence lives, it also structures and mediates it.

Which is precisely why (500) Days of Summer as a story is best described as cinematic. It mobilizes various cinematic forms and styles in order to communicate its narrative. The film begins with a disclaimer, a distancing effect which effectively signals to the viewer, “This is just a film.” This is reinforced by the use of voice-overs, split-screens, clever numerical title cards establishing which of the numbered days the scene is from, and montages borrowing from the styles of different genres.

The cinematic form is essential not only to the storytelling, but also the story itself. (500) Days of Summer is about the days where the lives of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) intersect. As the film progresses, one is compelled not only by Tom’s story, but more importantly, how he processes his life like a film itself.  Here, we see how film catalyzes a relationship’s breakdown, how a breakup is felt as a black and white art-house montage, and how lives begin as simultaneous home movies, random yet sometimes intertwining. Love is the topic, but the medium is the message.

“You should know up front,” the narrator warns at the beginning of the film, “this is not a love story.” If the narrator is to be believed, then it is necessary to read the film beyond its romance aspects. This is a noteworthy device, for (500) Days of Summer seems to be aware that it presents a relatively progressive view, one that doesn’t believe in fate or destiny or soulmates, and recognizes an individual’s power to change the course of his own personal history. Unlike Serendipity and other standard destiny-driven Hollywood romantic comedies, (500) Days of Summer dangles the idea of fate at the beginning but swiftly slaughters it as the film concludes.

In a moment reminiscent of Elsa’s classic outburst in Himala, the narrator underscores Tom’s realization that there are no miracles, that nothing is meant to be. This thesis is reflected in (500) Days of Summer’s narrative, which contains elements highlighting the constructed nature of life in general and the primacy of human decisiveness. Tom’s dream profession, for example, is architecture—a field which deals with permanence and literal structures that shape lifestyles and human movement. Compare this with his current job as a greeting card-writer, which deals with matters and materials which are at best temporal and emotional. Tom, of course, is well aware of this irony. “Why make something disposable like a building,” he says with sarcasm, “when you can make something that lasts forever, like a greeting card?”

The mutability of living conditions is brilliantly expressed in a sequence where Tom and Summer are frolicking while shopping in IKEA. The couple’s real emotions are played out in fake rooms, acting out domestic episodes in spaces which appear private and personal though actually public and commercial. Lifestyles are sold to us piecemeal, and here lies capitalism’s most treasured product—not the commodities manufactured in factories, but the buyer itself. We ourselves are transformed into capital, and consumerism pervades even the most intimate of our romances.

Indeed, it is in the cinema, the capitalist factory of consciousness, which teaches us about life. It is from films that we learn what to expect from love and how to go about relationships. Hollywood teaches us that to woo our beloved, we need a grand gesture, whether it be a roomful of flowers or a very public profession of love. In the same way, Tom and Summer learn carnal knowledge by mimicking a seedy porn video, and build (and end) their relationship with inspiration from Mike Nichols’s 1967 film The Graduate.

More than a great love story—and it is great, definitely—(500) Days of Summer offers us sound advice on how to look at our circumstances. “Next time you look back,” advises Tom’s sister, “I think you should look again.” Our future holds no destiny, and we must reexamine our past in order to learn from it.

The film begins with not with starry-eyed dreaminess or a wistful nostalgia, but only a factual, semi-scientific presentation of data surrounding Tom and Summer. The couple’s five hundred days is, in effect, a lesson for the viewer on the history of Tom Hansen’s consciousness and how he learned—the hard way, or perhaps the only way—of the bankruptcy of fate. (500) Days of Summer is blunt, candid, and honest—and that makes it all the more romantic. #

*apologies to John Mayer


Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Foreign films, Full length films. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

The Philippine Imaginary

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