Friday, July 5, 2013

I Had A Good Day: Cloverfield Revisited

The very first post on this blog was about the things I find uplifting about the movie Cloverfield.

Today Im going to talk about how that same movie breaks my heart.
It begins, oddly enough, at the end, with the very last line of the movie, when Beth, in flashback, looks into the video camera, smiles, and says: I had a good day.

I had a good day.
Those five words kill me every time.

Rob and Beth’s good day happened several weeks earlier when the two long-time friends hooked up and spent a romantic day at Coney Island. Unfortunately, their  budding romance is complicated by the fact Rob is scheduled to leave for Japan in a few weeks to start his new job. Torn between his affection for Beth and his dream job and also not wanting to lead on the woman he loves by getting involved too deeply with her when he knows he’ll be leaving, Rob takes it upon himself to come up with a solution: He avoids Beth at every opportunity and refuses to return her calls—essentially the Exact Opposite of what he should be doing, though as a fellow member of the If-There-Was-A -Problem-Yo-I’ll-Solve-it (And I’ll do it without your help or input, Other Person, Thank You very much) Club, I get where he’s coming from.
Things come to a head at Rob’s going away party when Beth shows up…with a date. An argument ensues and Beth storms out to return to her apartment. Then a Giant Fucking Monster attacks New York. The rest of the movie is Rob trying to find and rescue Beth.

Cloverfield is an interesting movie because of the way it presents the past. Its a found-footage movie which means everything we see is through the eyes of a home video camera. Most of what we see is the night of the monster attack. But we also see older footage from Rob and Beths good day--pieces of the date that werent taped over.
Movies deal with personal history in different ways. In The Hangover the past is something we piece together using clues from the present. Memento takes the approach that we construct our histories in our own minds, that there is really no way to know what really happened. Looper takes the more Buddhist approach that the past, present, and future happen simultaneously. The threads of today, yesterday, and tomorrow are intricately woven together. Pull one thread and the vibrations are felt through all the others.

In Cloverfield, the future overwrites the past, the horror of the present night erasing the shine of the past leaving nothing but fragments. A few seconds here or there of happier times that push through the curtain. But instead of being comforting, theyre torturous, haunting you with a world that once belonged to you but to which you can never return.
 In other words, its exactly like a wounded or dying relationship.

Being enmeshed in the gears of a failing relationship is a special kind of hell. Its not just that youre struggling to make something work that once seemed effortless. It isnt just that every choice you make seems to be the wrong one. It’s that while you’re trying to do these things, your brain is conjuring up memories of happier times, forcing you to compare them to where you are now.
You find yourself looking to your partner for reassurance: Yeah, were having a bad day, but there was a time when we had a good day, right? There was a time you wanted to be with me. We used to be good together.

You used to like me.
And this person looks back like a total stranger. They remember things differently. Or they can’t believe you’re looking to them to keep you from drowning when it’s taking everything they have to stay afloat themselves. Or they’re just sick and tired of going round and round with no end in sight and they just want to somehow, some way move on with their lives.

The result is, you find yourself mistrusting your own memories. Was that even REAL?  Or wrestling with a profound sense of injustice: What about those good times? Shouldn’t they count for SOMETHING? It isn’t FAIR.
It’s hard to accept the present when we’re clinging to the past. Often, even when we’re fighting for the relationship, we don’t actually want the relationship we’re in. We want the relationship we USED to have.

But relationship is gone and worse, it seems to be disappearing more by the day, the pain of the present overwriting the joys of the past like a recorded-over videotape.
Its especially hard when we feel, like Rob, that we done fucked up. Its not just that things have gone bad, its that its something we caused. We did something wrong, and everything that is happening now is all our fault.

And because we believe we caused it, we cling the idea that we can fix it. We can put the genie back in the bottle (the monster back in the ocean?) if were loving or attentive enough. We can make it all right if we just Try Harder or Work At It even if we don’t know what we’re working at, the whole time clinging to the memories of those good times, torturing ourselves with how things used to be, those flashes of joy when every discovery you made about each other was something new and wonderful.

Back when she used to like you.
(I had a good day. I had a good day. I had a good day. I had a good--)

The memory of that voice, those words will drive you crazy if you let it.
So don’t let it.
The Bad Things happening now do not erase the good moments of the past. Those things were real and they might seem far away right now, but hopefully with the passage of time you will remember and cherish them. They still count, even if only in your own heart.
But we cant live our lives trying to get the past back. Its impossible. Before we can get to the future, we must accept where we are.

This brings us back to Cloverfield and the example of Rob.
From the moment he gets the garbled phone call from Beth, Rob changes. He is no longer trying to manipulate the future as he was when he stopped calling Beth so that things wouldn’t get too involved. He is not trying to return to the past as he was when he realizes the videotape Hud is using to document the evening is the one with the footage of his date with Beth.
The moment he decides he is going to find Beth instead of evacuate with the others, Rob relaxes into the present. He doesn’t worry about how things turn out. He stops trying to atone for the past. He decides what is important to him in this moment, lets go of the results, and does the best he can.
The past doesn’t matter. The future doesn’t matter. Neither do monsters big and small, military installations, and falling buildings. All that matters is staying true to the direction he’s chosen and dealing with things as they come up.
In the end, Rob and Beth are reunited. Their victory isn’t that they make it out of New York City alive—their ultimate fate is uncertain. Their triumph isn’t that they still love each other, although that’s a wonderful thing. To me the real moment for Rob and Beth, as they lie beneath the footbridge with the sounds of bombs and monsters around them, is their ability to accept where they are together.
Because things are most definitely not fixed…or even fix-able. We’re stuck under a bridge and bombs are falling and monsters are roaring and rubble is coming down and this is as far from that day at the amusement park than we can imagine. But you’re here and I’m here, and while we are most definitely Not Having A Good Day it’s the day we have and no matter how bad it gets, we’re facing it together.
And for me--in its own fashion--that is the best day of all.


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