Suspenders of the Lost Disbelief

rifftraxraiders.jpgLast night I went to see Cloverfield again. Surprisingly, it’s still as good the second time, and I highly recommend seeing it in Digital Projection if possible, because the clear picture and better sound system make it awesome. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in all the backstory and alternate-reality game stuff surrounding Cloverfield, there’s a wiki page summing all of it up).

When I got home, I watched the RiffTrax version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The casual observer would think these two incidents are completely unrelated, which is why the casual observer is lucky to have this blog to point out the similarities:

Raiders and Cloverfield both have the same basic inspiration at their core: filmmakers paying homage to a pulpy, shallow genre of movies they grew up loving. They’re not spoofs or parodies, or self-important “re-inventions” or “re-imaginings,” but sincere attempts to get the feel of the originals in a contemporary movie.

I’m not for one second saying that Cloverfield is going to become the classic that Raiders of the Lost Ark is. But watching them back-to-back does show what advances we’ve made in self-awareness in the past 26 years. Watching Raiders in 2007 is a little bit like visiting Tomorrowland before the well-intentioned but poorly-conceived rehabs: you’re struck with this weird sense of double nostalgia, seeing a dated homage to an even more dated source. For all the perfect set designs, costumes, props, etc., it feels more like 1981 than 1936. And not just 1981, but Steven Spielberg’s version of 1981.

The most obvious point to make here is that if you’re watching a movie while listening to a bunch of people make fun of it, of course you’re bound to notice flaws. I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t get the point of RiffTrax for good movies, but for me, making fun of the movie was never the focus of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” or any of the side projects. The movie is just a straight man; it’s an excuse to give a bunch of people 2 hours worth of set-ups for jokes.

For something like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the Lord of the Rings movies for instance, it reminds me of when I was a teenager and looked forward to the Mad magazine parodies of my favorite blockbuster movie of the moment. It never “broke” the movie, but was just another exercise in fandom. And like those, the RiffTrax makes all the comments a fan would make during the movie anyway — he totally ate that fly! And how DID Indy hold his breath on top of that submarine for so long? (The one that Mad magazine got that the Riffers missed was: how come those snakes are crawling up the other side of the wall and pushing themselves through mortar?)

But there’s still a good bit of Raiders that seems jarring now, if you’re watching it with a fairly jaded, critical eye and not just letting yourself get caught up in the movie: The Spielbergian reaction shots to Alfred Molina when Indy’s grabbing the idol. The odd expository scene with the feds getting lectured on the history of the Ark. Pretty much all of the comic relief moments. And, as the Riffers are quick to point out, the fact that Indy spends 20 minutes smirking his way through a car chase, something that seemed so bad-ass at the time but now comes across as “Wow, Indiana Jones is kind of a douchebag.”

At the time, they all worked to make the movie feel contemporary; now, they just serve to lock it in a time when Spielberg, Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan ruled the Earth.

I say that Cloverfield is another very earnest action movie, without heavy-handed commentary or clumsy comic relief or pandering to the audience. But watching it after hearing other people talk about it, I’m struck with how high the bar has been raised for suspension of disbelief, how much self-awareness is just built into movies nowadays.

(Very minor spoilers for Cloverfield follow, in case you’re wanting to go into the movie knowing absolutely nothing about it).

It all relies on, and even takes advantage of, the knowledge that the audience is completely savvy to pop culture in general and how movies work in particular. The central gimmick of the handheld camera ostensibly lends an air of believability to the whole thing, but in fact it does the opposite: it distances the audience from what’s happening, keeping it in the realm of fun horror movie instead of just ghoulishly watching real death and destruction as entertainment. It works because we’re all so accustomed to the unreality of steadicam shots that that is now what we perceive as “realistic.”

The character of Hud — well for starters, there’s the fact that it’s the best-named movie character of the last decade, and the name depends on the audience’s familiarity with videogames. (In case you’re not a videogame fan, the “heads-up display” is your health/ammo/etc view in a first-person game, and at this point it’s become synonymous with the camera or the view screen). But making him into a character, instead of just an unseen narrator, was genius for several reasons: 1) It adds another layer of distance, because you know that the guy whose POV you’re seeing is not you, partly because he’s kind of an idiot. 2) The comic relief gets “baked in” to the movie, because you have the cameraman making the comments the audience would usually be making. 3) It adds a layer of “safety” to the movie, because you’re always reminded that somebody is still there with us, filming everything.

That’s not even mentioning the self-awareness implicit in basing your story around a bunch of good-looking, self-absorbed 20-year-olds, the type that call each other “bro” and have seemingly never known a world without video cameras, cell phones, and the internet. They’ve seen these stories, they know how they work, so there’s not a lot of staring in wonder while John Williams flares up in the background. Instead, they’re unrealistic people who react realistically — the characters are actually no more or less interesting than the plot and pacing warrants, a bunch of people who are just pretty enough to hold your interest for an hour and a half, but not so deep and complex that the movie grinds to a halt whenever one gets offed.

I have to wonder if a movie like Cloverfield could have been made 10 years ago, and how it would’ve been different. If we hadn’t had Scream come in and wallow in irony and self-reference for three movies, would we have gotten it all out of our system in time for 1-18-08? And is it really even out of our system, or has the bar been raised for how much postmodernism is required in a movie before we’ll allow it to be sincere?