April 25, 2008
Monsters on the Loose 2
Emerging churches and Cloverfield are both criticized for experimenting with new styles, but they still manage to honor tradition.
Read part one of Craig Detweiler's post here.
Monsters movies are a tired, moribund, nearly dead genre. Roland Emmerich's 1998 Godzilla remake was horrible - all the effects, none of the joy. It had a traditional scenario, established stars, and extravagant set pieces. But the end result was a snooze. Where was the giddy thrill of discovery? The fear of what happens next?
Cloverfield goes back to the original Japanese source material to reinvent Godzilla. It has all the familiar notes: What is that thing? Where did it come from? No time to find out--RUN! The tension builds in traditional ways. Long quiet passages punctuated by panic. The rats in the subway tunnel run the same way. It offers a creature in the background you can't quite see.
But Cloverfield didn't just revive an old genre; it also uses the latest video camera technology, such as creepy night vision, in a raw and authentic way. The movie generated antipathy simply because of its shaky, handheld video style. It feels loose, informal, and spontaneous - it can also make you seasick. The style itself becomes a stumbling block. Plenty of viewers longed for Cloverfield's camera to settle down and conform to some pattern. But the chaos also means you can't be a passive observer. The audience is forced to participate.
Emergent churches are equally authentic, immediate, and lived. Their services feel unscripted, even though they may be planned. Like Cloverfield, they offer the illusion of spontaneity which is an art unto itself. The generation that embraces Cloverfield and emerging churches isn't interested in second or third order reflection. They live in the moment, treasuring direct and unmediated experiences.
For better or worse, handheld digital video is the affordable future. This new, highly democratic medium has barely begun. Everyone can and will be a filmmaker. There will be plenty of junk, but an immediacy will emerge because everyone now has a chance to tell their story. The same goes for churches; everyone can become a theologian as formalized education becomes unnecessary. Sure, there will be plenty of junk theology and it will take time to sort out the essential from the popular, but in emergent churches leaders would rather learn by doing ministry than studying it just as film students would rather start making movies rather than sit in a classroom. Despite its faults and limitations, the next generation prefers on the job training. This could be their blind spot or their competitive advantage.
The critical backlash to Cloverfield was inevitable. Many of the critics announced, "I hate the characters," especially the cameraman, "Hud." By casting no-name actors, Cloverfield didn't rely upon people we previously cared about or trusted. It undercut the established star system of Hollywood. Who is the star? Who am I supposed to follow? Similar questions are being asked in emergent churches. Who is the pastor? It is a team? Who do I listen to? Where is the authority?
Flat casting forces us to pay attention, to work harder than we're used to. It also results in that rarest of experiences - a chance to be surprised. No stars mean everyone is threatened and could be snatched away at any time. Cloverfield allows us to feel just as vulnerable and clueless as the characters onscreen. It is supposed to evoke empathy, not revulsion. What would I do in the same situation? Haven't I made the same mistakes?
Cloverfield's style may be different, but it's a film that deeply respects the past. So don't attack it for trying something new. Embrace the effort. Applaud the ingenuity. Amidst the thrills it even manages to slip in a life-affirming message: Treasure your relationships. Enjoy each day at Coney Island. Fleeting moments of romance can be gone. Love somebody with passion, today. Enjoy a walk in the park. These are not new truths, but the reclamation of ancient wisdom.
Same goes for the emergent movement. Emergent churches are wired by digital natives. Their leaders were raised on the World Wide Web. They've all been to the T.E.D. conference. They are utilizing the latest technologies. But they also have a sense of history. Emergent Christians carry a profound appreciation for ancient Christian faith despite all the handheld shenanigans. Sure, they will have their blind spots, and sometimes their style will be nauseating. You may not be the target market for the emerging church or Cloverfield, but try to enter the audiences' shoes. Listen up. Don't fear the future. Sit back, relax and maybe even enjoy the show.