Saturday, July 8, 2017

Found footage vs. the aesthetic of found footage

I used to whinge about found footage all the time on this blog, the whingeing that can only be born of loving something and then living long enough to see it become corrupted and sapped of its essential life force. (And "to whinge" is the British/Australian equivalent of "to whine," only used in a more dismissive and crueler fashion.)

But I haven't had a lot of occasion to talk about it lately, as found footage has, without me even really noticing it, seemed to have sort of had its moment and gone away. Surely we are not far removed from the last major found footage film that's been released, but the fact that I can't remember what that would be is certainly telling.

So it seems like a good time for me to be confronted with a movie that does the genre, if you want to call it a genre, correctly. A movie that, in fact, helps clarify my own conflicted opinion on found footage movies.

That movie is Matt Johnson's The Dirties, a movie I thought was connected with Kevin Smith in some way, but I'm having a very hard time determining what that way is. (Wait, just found it -- he helped distribute it.)

Because of the Smith connection, and because I've turned on Smith a bit lately (only since Yoga Hosers, but that was enough), I hadn't really prioritized The Dirties when it came out a few years ago, having heard middling things about it (though I don't remember what exactly). But then I saw it at the library the other day and said "Huh, I was always curious about that."

With good reason. It helped me relocate those positive feelings toward found footage.

It helped me do that because it's a found footage movie in aesthetic only.

If you think about it, found footage has two defining characteristics: 1) A herky jerky, hyper-realistic style that's supposed to come from the fact that it's actually being shot by the real people involved with the story, and 2) The fact that it is meant literally to be footage found from their video camera, in its purest form because the people who shot it are missing, dead or otherwise indisposed.

I like one of these two defining characteristics.

I used to like both, I think. I mean, if you go back to The Blair Witch Project, it was all about the fact that this was actually the footage they had abandoned. I mean, it wasn't, and we knew it wasn't. But it was easy to dream ourselves away into that narrative, and there was just that small smidgen of doubt that it wasn't real.

But over time, I became hyper critical of the way the found footage genre got bastardized. Although pretty much all the footage in a film like Blair Witch could genuinely have been shot by the three intrepid/stupid filmmakers that trundled off into the Maryland woods, that standard quickly evaporated from the genre. Pretty soon found footage movies that wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Blair Witch -- as in, pretend it could have all been really shot with one camera that was recovered after some horrible event -- began playing fast and loose with the rules. How physically someone could have shot something, how it all could have been shot with one camera, how they would have known to have the camera on at some certain particular time, how they would be able to maintain battery life for the duration ... all these practical considerations that were considered in a movie like Blair Witch were tossed out the window. Who cares as long as it looks right.

That's fine. But then just don't pretend it's actually someone's found footage.

That's what I like about The Dirties. It doesn't go out of its way to call attention to the fact that there's a camera following around these two disaffected high school students, who are even aware of the camera and occasionally make reference to it. There's something artificial about the construct, but artificial in the way that any film is artificial -- it's a recreation of life being captured. The Dirties doesn't want us to believe that "this is the last testimony of so and so" or "we caught it all on film when x happened." It just wants to capture a compelling story in the highly realistic style of a found footage movie, a style which itself confers a certain truth and believability on the proceedings.

I should probably give you a little insight into what that compelling story is at this point. The Dirties follows Matt Johnson (also the film's director) and Owen Williams, actors playing high school characters named Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, as they shoot a short film for a class project. In this stylized project they imagine they are badasses coming to rid the school of its criminal element, also played by them, but highly analogous to a real scourge of bullies at their school, who regularly target the two. Matt, the idealogue, is constantly imagining his real life as scenes from movies he either knows or is imagining filming, while Owen, who was once a willing conspirator, has started to drift toward the non-bullied mainstream, through no real fault of anything but his own maturation. As the bullying toward Matt continues, he humorously develops plans to "really" shoot the bullies at the school, though this too he frames as a bit of ironic, self-reflexive text with a big pair of quotation marks around it. But he might not just be being ironic.

The Dirties is found footage in the way that The Office was found footage. The conceit of The Office is, of course, that a documentary crew is capturing the day-to-day happenings at a paper company, and it took pains to maintain that conceit for a while. But the showrunners quickly realized that to remain enslaved to that concept would either severely limit what they could do, or severely limit their ability to remain faithful to it. They smartly realized that they had really good characters that we wanted to watch and get to know better, and that was much more important. The style they had established was part of the aesthetic now, but we liked it because the hyper-real nature of it gave us the impression we were eavesdropping on the lives of real people, not sitcom creations. They still made occasional references to the existence of a camera crew, and the characters continued to give the testimonials that are now a staple of reality television, but they knew that the more often they reminded us of the original conceit, the more we'd be likely to pick away at it. So the original conceit just happily faded into the background.

The Dirties does basically the same thing, as the characters sometimes ask something of the cameraperson or make some other acknowledgement that they are being filmed. But the person doing the filming is not a character in the story, and in fact, is present in situations where he (or she, I suppose) never would be. In found footage as it was originally envisioned, this would be a cardinal sin. But The Dirties is not trying to follow those rules; it doesn't even pretend to. It says "The aesthetic is what we really like about found footage, and that's something we can give you while still telling the story we want to tell in the way we want to tell it."

There are meta elements to The Dirties that kind of confuse the whole thing, but in a good way. As Matt is always imagining his life as a movie -- a specific bone of contention between them as Owen starts to withdraw -- indeed that's kind of what's actually going on here. Matt's life is a movie -- someone is actually filming it. And because the movie also openly questions whether Matt might be a psychopath -- he's actually the one that poses the question -- it could be that only Matt is aware of this camera, and that indeed the whole thing is in his head.

So while we don't believe this movie could be "found footage" in the traditional sense, we do believe it could be real life. We do believe that the found footage conceit could be revealing something true about the fragile psyche of a guy who has been hiding his own pain behind a veil of humor, but is steadily detaching from reality.

This is what I want found footage to do. This is what I want any film to do.

I was concerned it might not have been appreciated, but it turns out, it sort of was. The film has a very respectable 65 on Metacritic, including one score of 100 and three others in the 90s. We won't worry too much about the two 20 Metascores.

And it turns out Matt Johnson has gotten to make another film in presumably the same style, as it also stars him and Owen Williams as guys named Matt Johnson and Owen Williams. This seems a bit more high concept as it involves the possible faking of the moon landing, but after The Dirties I'm giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he pulled it off. It's called Operation Avalanche and it came out in 2016. I'll be on the lookout for it.

When I knew I was solid on that 4.5-star rating was when the film ended, probably five minutes shy of what you would think it's actual conclusion would be, but all the better for that fact. It ends on a perfect note, actually, one that underscores the intermingling of comedy and possible tragedy that underpins the whole movie. The ending is also just ambiguous enough to have several possible interpretations, which is always a good thing. Most importantly of all, it's not heavy handed, allowing us to take in many implied messages while not being suffocated by any direct ones.

I guess because of its title, and because I know the way Kevin Smith's mind works sometimes, I thought this would be a movie with a lot of unsophisticated stoner or bro humor, with possibly a touch of homophobia and a decent amount of scatalogy. This is not to suggest that Smith is homophobic -- I think he's probably just the opposite. However, I also think that his comedy sometimes has an "anything for a laugh" quality to it that clouds his judgments.

But The Dirties has not only redeemed found footage for me, it's reminded me of the sound judgments Smith is also capable of making.

The Dirties is sound, and then some.

Found is sound. Who knew.

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