Essays · Reviews

Camera Obscura: Cloverfield and the Myth of Transparency

The scariest moment of Bowling for Columbine (2002) was watching the security camera footage of the shootings. Something about seeing that black and white representation of Eric Harris’ and Dylan Klebold’s grainy forms stalking the cafeteria that morning was just plain eerie.

The camera work of Cloverfield (2007), which director Matt Reeves likened to “looking through a soda straw,” is eerie in a similar fashion. There’s such a sense of exposure. The first-person point of view makes the viewer feel “in” the movie, as opposed to passively watching it, but where Richard Kelly’s use of cameras in Southland Tales (2007) is all-encompassing — they’re everywhere and we see everything Cloverfield‘s single camera’s limited visibility is crippling. Its style is that of panic-driven YouTube clips

The scariest part of the film isn’t the camera work, the monster, or the destruction. By far the film’s scariest feature is its ontological instability, the watching of one’s world crumble with nothing in the way of recourse. The lack of cues from the single camera heightens the sense of helplessness, the “soda straw” aspect provides little information about what will come next and adds to the fear factor.

There is a paradox here, a struggle between — and a mix of — exposure and isolation. Exposure to one thing and isolation from another. One of my professors at San Diego State once mentioned that she thought the scariest moment of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) was when the television stopped working. The sense of isolation inherent in that moment scared her, isolation from safety and exposure to hostility. The exposure in Cloverfield is total, and the isolation is from any vantage point other than the single camera’s eye.

Filmmakers are typically trying to get movie cameras “out of the way” of the movie. The idea is for the camera to be transparent, much like has been proposed in computer interface design. Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala have argued that the interface needs to be reflective as well as transparent, as in windows and mirrors and their book of the same name. The interface needs to get out of the way sometimes (transparency) and provide cues for interaction at other times (reflection). Moving images have similar needs to fulfill.

In Cloverfield, as in The Blair Witch Project (1999) before it, the camera is so in the way as to become a character in the story. Its wobbles, glitches, memories (which manifest themselves in old footage emerging during breaks in the current recording), and unrelenting singularity of viewpoint define our experience in the film’s undulating chaos. In this way, Cloverfield deftly mixes form and content, mention and use. The frame is integral to the picture.

Far from watching grainy security camera footage, Cloverfield is impeccably shot and edited, but — extraneous viral marketing notwithstanding — the single camera’s limits are what define its experience. They are its grammar. It is a surprisingly effective film.