Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ten terrible trademarks of found footage films

Okay, it's finally time for me to say it:

I think I hate found footage movies.

This was not always the case. Awhile ago, I absolutely loved them, and as recently as a few months ago, I still found them fresh. But like any cinematic trend that gets overworked, this genre has grown tiresome.

I loved the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense just as much as the next guy. But when three dozen high profile releases that came out in the next five years also had a big twist, it broke me. You can say the same thing about the origins of found footage -- or at least the origins of its current popularity -- in The Blair Witch Project. A decade later, I'd be fine if I never saw another one. (The fact that both The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project came out in the same year is just another indicator that 1999 was the best year for film in the last 20 years.)

After Chronicle, I have officially had enough. (And what a shame -- that's such a great poster.) This genre has become bastardized within an inch of its life. And yeah, I can also blame disappointments from last year such as Trollhunter, Apollo 18 and Megan is Missing for the current state of affairs. But it's Chronicle that's going to bear the brunt of my "chronic" fatigue.

In part because the movie is getting such praise. It's got a 69 Metascore. But what really alarms me is what you get if you parse that 69 score. Metacritic shows you the number of positive, mixed and negative reviews it uses to arrive at this score, and according to the Metacritic metrics, Chronicle has only one negative review.


Did they see the same movie I saw?

If you want to go into Chronicle with an open mind, well, I should have given you this spoiler warning earlier. Get out now, because I'll probably spoil some actual plot details later on.

The thing about found footage movies is that they are making a contract with the viewer that they will obey certain rules. There are a number of these rules, but the most important one, the one they simply must obey, is that all the footage has to be captured by a cameraman who is in some way part of the story, or an unmanned camera that is witnessing it. There should be no "omniscient camera."

Like most of the weaker found footage movies, Chronicle violates this rule a couple times. But that doesn't bother me as much as the lame ways it tries to obey certain other rules, which are really more like stylistic trademarks of the genre. And it got me thinking about the frustrating aesthetic characteristics many of these films have in common, which become all the more annoying once you identify them.

So let's just get started ... the following list is kind of a mishmash of cliched techniques and pet peeves. But if you've seen enough of these movies, you'll know what I'm talking about.

10. Found footage films are always trying to explain away the presence of the camera. Even if they violate the rules of their genre, found footage movies are usually at least aware of those rules, and know the viewer is naturally suspicious of their commitment to them. So there's almost always a significant percentage of the dialogue devoted to talking about how and why a person is able to film/choosing to film what they're filming. In Chronicle, the characters are so conscious of the camera that their discussion of it becomes a distraction. Which makes it all the more absurd when the rules are violated, most notably in the film's climax.

9. Found footage films want to mimic a human's randomness about when to start and stop filming. The next found footage movie you see, watch for this effect: A line of dialogue is cut short because the cameraman randomly stopped filming before a natural pause in the conversation. It happens at least once in every found footage movie, and it always happens when something unimportant is happening. I can think of a couple clear instances of this in Chronicle, and it's a purely aesthetic effect designed to remind you that you're not seeing everything that happens. Except, in most found footage movies, you see precisely every piece of exposition you need to see, any and everything needed to move the narrative forward in a basically conventional way. Apparently, itchy video fingers only strike in banal moments.

8. Found footage movies want to remind you that a distracted human does not always hold a camera perfectly. Another pernicious trick to remind you of the video medium is to have the cameraman shoot the action off center. In a scene that otherwise doesn't matter, you see the subject wandering toward the side of the frame, meaning that the cameraman is not training the lens perfectly on what he/she is shooting. This is again trying to ram the video aesthetic down our throats. But again, wait until an important moment comes up in the narrative. That camera is miraculously trained perfectly on whatever the audience needs to see, no matter how improbable it would be that the cameraman would have the presence of mind to capture it. A terrific example of this in Chronicle occurs when the characters drop out of the clouds, where they've been throwing around a football after learning to fly. The camera lands (unharmed) on the ground in exactly the spot it needs to be to catch the other three characters all hitting the ground, less than ten feet away. Improbable at best.

7. Found footage films make small jumps forward in time that don't make any sense. It's a stylized but occasionally effective form of fiction filmmaking to have the same shot jump forward in small bursts, which have the effect of cutting an otherwise straightforward scene into slices. I may not be describing this effect perfectly, but you should be familiar with it -- the camera angle isn't changing, but there are abrupt little cuts that give off the effect of a pastiche of moments rather than a single uninterrupted take. This happens in Chronicle during several scenes in which a camera is not being operated by anyone, but has been set on a tripod. Think about that for a moment. In the context of a found footage movie, the only explanation for this is that a cameraman didn't film the whole scene straight through, but pressed stop and start repeatedly. Without the cameraman doing that, we can only assume that the cuts were added in the editing room. Which means that it's purely stylistic and not based on the limitations of video as a recording medium, which is what the film is overtly trying to suggest.

6. Found footage films don't actually have to be "found." And speaking of the editing room, most found footage films don't seem to care that the images we're seeing are a lot more than a succession of consecutively recorded video files being shown in chronological order. Only a few examples, like Blair Witch, are truly "found footage" in the original way that term was imagined. Most modern found footage films suggest a huge number of video files, few of them shown in their entirety, edited together in cinematically accessible narrative order -- often from many disparate sources, including security cameras and other devices to which the editor would need access. In Chronicle, this approach also violates the first-person filming perspective that had been dominant modality of the whole movie, as the big climax includes security camera footage just to up the "wow" factor of the final fight. The use of security camera footage and other third-party footage also begs the question: How did the person who theoretically assembled all this footage into a movie get access to all the footage he/she needed? The reason people can't make a "found footage" film in real life, out of actual found footage, is that they can't cobble together enough real footage from all those sources to imitate the structure and rhythms of a feature film. Most found footage films suggest a kind of omniscient filmmaker who has unlimited access to all existing footage about the subject at hand, regardless of who shot it and whether they were likely to make it available. And frankly that just makes the whole thing seem stupid.

5. Found footage films frequently overlook the fact that someone needs to press start and stop. How often do you see a character in a found footage film, while videoing him or herself, start from behind the camera and return to behind the camera in order to stop filming? It's like they're pressing the record button with their mind. (Which I suppose could happen in a movie like Chronicle -- but if so, happens in Chronicle before the characters realize they might have that ability.) There are many moments in Chronicle when the three main characters all appear in front of the camera together, without anyone emerging from behind the camera or returning to that spot to press stop. You could argue that the person editing the film together just cut out those distracting logistical details, considering them clunky. If that's the case, why go to such great lengths elsewhere in the film to suggest that the footage is undoctored? Like cutting off the aforementioned line of dialogue mid-sentence? You can't have it both ways -- you either want to prove this is real and undoctored footage, or you want to make it seem like a smooth narrative. You can't pick and choose.

4. Found footage films are supposed to look like they're shot on video. This one really gets me. The reason to make found footage movies about otherworldly phenomena, such as telekinesis, is that the video imagery is supposed to make the special effects look all the more authentic. If you're seeing a videotaped image of a guy flying through the sky, it must "really be happening," right? The video image is supposed to look raw and undoctored, lending the special effects their greatest possible credibility. Yet in a number of key scenes in Chronicle, it's clearly film stock you're seeing, not video. In fact, the aesthetic of the image changes so totally that only an inept filmmaker wouldn't have recognized the jarring effect it has on the viewer.

3. Found footage films need really good actors. In addition to making special effects seem more like they're "really happening," found video footage is also supposed to lend a greater authenticity to the performances of the actors -- and in return require a more credible performance from them. The pseudo documentary style requires that the actors be even more believable than in most films, because there's not supposed to be any artifice at play. If you don't believe these are real people doing real things, the jig is up. For me, this is one of Chronicle's greatest weaknesses. The actors are generally not believable, and the dialogue they speak is ham-fisted and atrocious. Take particular note of the scenes involving the domestic strife with the main character's father. I've rarely seen an abusive relationship ring this false, and that's even in fiction films, where the relationship can be exaggerated or stylized for effect. Here, it's supposed to be straight-up reality recorded by a video camera.

2. Found footage films frequently involve outdated equipment. There are two key characters in Chronicle you see holding video cameras -- the lead, and the romantic interest of one of the lead's friends. Both characters have large, clunky video cameras, the kind that would have been used regularly in the 1990s. This film clearly takes place in 2012 -- at a school talent show, one character addresses the Class of 2012 -- so the use of those old-school style video cameras is another knock against the film's much-prized realism. And the entire purpose seems to be to give us some iconographic representation of what a video camera should look like. If you want me to really believe a found footage movie set in 2012, have the characters use cell phones, Flip videos or even normal cameras whose primary function is photography. Really small cameras can get really good footage these days -- and are a lot easier to carry when you're trying to capture every single detail of your entire life, even the embarrassing moments no one would ever film, as the characters are in Chronicle.

1. Found footage films always want to make some comment about society. Many found footage films are obsessed with what it says about our culture that we always want to record everything. It's supposed to represent our narcissism, or perhaps our latent belief that we could all be filmmakers. It's supposed to indicate that the barriers to our privacy have been willfully broken down. The bad things that happen to these characters, then, are usually some form of punishment for these shallow obsessions with fame and image. As on-the-nose as that can be, it's even more dispiriting when a found footage movie does not have any such convictions. In Chronicle, there is never any reason given why the main character wants to film everything in his life. And it's discussed so damn much that there should be a reason. In the climax, this character has become so consumed by his powers that he's transformed himself into a supervillain. While floating near the top of the skyscrapers in Seattle's downtown, he gathers a group of recording devices around him, floating in the air, filming him. Any thematic meaning of his obsession with "chronicling" his life is utterly indiscernible.

But, by all means, go see it if you want to. ;-)

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