Sunday, January 20, 2008

Horror = Tragedy + Timeliness

I sat there, watching shaky video footage of hundreds flee as famous New York City buildings collapsed into giant clouds of dust. People on the screen screamed in fear and confusion. I'm sure you remember seeing those images on a Tuesday morning just over six years ago. The thing is, this was in January of 2008 and I was watching Cloverfield, the first 9/11 horror movie.

You've seen the trailers: A going-away party is being taped for posterity. During the night, there seems to be some sort of earthquake. As explosions rock the surrounding area, party-goers run outside in time to see the head of the Statue of Liberty flying towards them. A good part of the attraction of this movie is that there was so little information about the plot, and I'm not going to give any more. Cloverfield is a good movie. It takes the style of The Blair Witch Project and adds big CGI effects. It's one of the rare recent movies where one could look around the theater and see people literally sitting on the edge of their seats. The tension is palpable, building constantly throughout the quick 72 minutes of the film. It's well-paced and reasonably well-acted. However, the technical qualities are but one part of the big picture. Taken out of the vacuum of pure cinema, Cloverfield is also profoundly disturbing.

There have been three movies that I can think of that deal with September 11, 2001. United 93, World Trade Center, and Reign Over Me deal with a re-telling of the events or a dramatization of the aftermath. Even the final haunting shot of Munich is an allusion to the actual attack. I haven't seen the first three, specifically because I haven't been sure that I was ready to substitute someone's artistic vision for my own imagery of what happened. It wasn't unlike being hesitant to watch a new film adaptation of one of my favorite books -- I had my own visions that would be completely destroyed if they disagreed with the visions of the filmmaker. I didn't go into the theater today expecting to see a 9/11 movie, exactly because I've only thought of 9/11 movies as these sorts of re-tellings.

Think back to horror movies of the 1950s and '60s. They were all movies like Godzilla or The Blob or Them. These movies dealt with monsters formed by some sort of nuclear accident. People found horror in these films because the threat of nuclear war hung over their everyday lives. Or, better yet, they perceived that the threat did, whether it was actually there or not. Similarly, since that morning, we've lived in fear. Whether or not that fear is rational or justified is immaterial and fodder for political conversations that do nothing to change the fact that the fear exists. Having been shown to be vulnerable on our own soil once, we're afraid that our vulnerabilities will be exploited again. Having seen two of our national landmarks in flames, we fear any repeat. This is the perfect breeding ground for our own kind of monster movies like those that scared our parents.

So, our protagonists are running through Manhattan as a force completely out of their control, with motivations they can't understand, destroys the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and other well-known sites. Smoke fills the streets and the news anchors breathlessly report whatever they can as New Yorkers pray for the cell phone signal that will allow them to check in with loved ones, both inside and outside the area under attack. With this in mind, why haven't any critics that I've seen mentioned 9/11 in conjunction with this movie? Is it because, in their jobs, they're concerned with the technical merits of the film itself? Because they fear drawing controversy upon themselves and their employers?

Our culture and cultural understanding and perceptions are what they are. September 11, 2001 buried fear deep within our society and that fear can be brought out and manipulated by art as art has been capable of doing forever. Cloverfield takes advantage of this fear and that makes it more than just a good movie. It leaves you with a pit in your stomach after you've left the theater, profoundly disturbed, and this makes it art with the sort of emotionally-exploitative genius that stands out as greatness in the big picture of our world.

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