I got woken up by one of the kids in the middle of the night a few days ago, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was thinking about Cloverfield and the review I posted of it. Whilst I still think that it was dramatically flat, further reflection makes me wonder if it may function – possibly unwittingly – as a parable of the United States at this time.
What I have in mind is this: there is a clear invoking of 9/11 in Cloverfield, and the incomprehensible nature of the monster is quite a good proxy for the failure to understand Islamic terrorism. Here is a monster that is laying waste to Manhattan, causing the pyroclastic flow of ash to run down the city streets.
If the monster is terrorism, what is the response of the lead characters? (By the way, if I had been more emotionally invested in them, this would probably never have occurred to me.) Well, they play out a romantic script. This is not a monster movie where the hero saves the day. This is a monster movie where the hero tries to save the life of someone who was once his girlfriend. The hero is playing out a script, inculturated through a million love songs, about what is important and valuable in contemporary life. Choose life. Your identity is found in romantic engagement. All politics is corrupt, life-destroying and, worst of all, boring. So the only intelligible choice within this value system is: save the maybe-girlfriend. This has all sorts of nobility possible within it – but as a response to the devastation being wrought, it misses the point.
Which is why I wonder whether Cloverfield is a parable for the United States at the moment, most especially in the hopes swirling around Obama. Consider the video of ‘Yes we can’:
This is very moving, even inspiring. I think Obama is a gifted orator. It’s just that the sight of all the pop stars and pretty actresses exclaiming ‘yes we can’ is so reminiscent of the hero in Cloverfield choosing to rescue the maybe-girlfriend. This is not a cowardly choice but it is a choice which rather ignores the context of the monster flattening skyscrapers. It is also a choice which places the friends who follow into danger and ends up taking their lives. Not in order to slay the monster, but in order to preserve the integrity of the romantic ethos within which the hero is playing out his drama. It is not that the hero doesn’t care for, even love his friends. It is that the horizon for his choices doesn’t include the monster. It is not a factor in his thinking.
Whenever there is a time of stress there is a desire to avoid facing up to the nature of the problem. The United States is facing increasing stresses at the moment and it seems to me that Obama represents an avoidance of the existential issue. He is drawing on the rhetoric of hope and change. He looks the part: JFK (or maybe Bobby?) reincarnate, come to save the States from themselves. Someone who can redeem the people from their mistakes and make them feel better about themselves. And he seems to have integrity, not least through his consistent opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet that seems to be precisely the problem: Obama doesn’t recognise the existence of the monster.