Sunday, February 12, 2012

Okay For Pity's Sake Enough With The Found Footage Already

When I was a little kid, I came home from school one day and turned on the television. I came in in the middle of a special live news report about some terrorists who had a nuclear device. This was the age of nuclear fear, of mutually assured destruction, and for a very long time, I was scared shitless by the possibility of nuclear war. So this was terrifying, and I couldn't look away. It ended badly, and I panicked, wondering what was going to happen next. It turns out I'd been watching a faux-documentary broadcast called Special Bulletin. It was all fictional.

Ever since that day, I have been such a sucker for verité and found-footage conceits in story-telling that it's not even funny. Epistolary novels, fake oral histories, mock documentaries, discovered footage, the whole nine yards.  When they're done well, there's a bracing immediacy to them that comes from putting our perspective a little closer to the protagonists. We're not watching the events from on high, we're watching from over someone's shoulder. Sometimes, our awareness of storytelling tropes get in the way. We know the killer is about to strike based on the placement of the camera, we know the monster is about to pounce based on dialogue. Music cues danger. Now, good filmmakers can and do subvert those things, but it's hard to get away from them using conventional storytelling techniques. A lot of those are taken off the table in found-footage storytelling. Also, I'm a sucker for the idea that there is a secret history to the world, and these stories represent raw, unmediated evidence.

So I never thought I'd say this, but I am getting sick and tired of them.

See, they're also cheap to make. If you're making a movie that's supposed to look like amateur footage, you don't need all of the resources and equipment that make for clean, slick, professional photography. So budgets go down. Budgets go down, potential profit goes up. Not unlike reality television - you don't need sets, you don't need writers, you don't need actors. Costs go down, profit goes up. Things that make profit go up get more attention than things that don't. As found-footage movies prove themselves profitable, they get made more often than other types of movies. As more and more of them get made, the more quality control starts to slip. Crank them out, get them into theaters or onto video, and make the money before people start to notice how shitty the movies are getting.

I sort of expected this after The Blair Witch Project, but it didn't really materialize. In hindsight, I think it's because The Blair Witch Project was a singular story, and one which made sense to tell using found footage. What subject matter lends itself naturally to this approach? Well, come the rise of the ghost-hunter and other paranormal phenomena shows, haunted house stories made the most sense. You've already got people running around with camcorders looking for spooky shit, why not run around with camcorders and special effects and actually give people spooky shit? Hence, Paranormal Activity. And the money rolled in.

Just like a specific horror movie can be "franchised", usually sucking all of the life, verve, mystery and, well, horror out of subsequent iterations, so can types of movies. Slasher movies enjoyed a rise, fall, and renaissance. J-horror had its brief moment in the sun. Semi-campy remakes of older horror movies had their day. And now, found footage. And so we get at least two more sequels to Paranormal Activity, we get an American remake of a great Spanish film, and we get also-rans and obvious cash-in jobs. I know it won't last forever, but it annoys me.

It annoys me because more than some other genres of horror movie, found-footage movies thrive on mystery. Often, the footage is the only evidence of some horrible event, or the only possible source of explanation for the otherwise-unexplainable fate of some group of people. Sometimes the footage is itself mysterious, without provenance, making what's on it even more disturbing because it's a glimpse into the secrets of the world, the horrible things that occur in lonely places and otherwise go forever unnoticed. That sort of thing really resonates with me, and putting it into a documentary framework sidesteps a lot of narrative conventions that a savvy viewer can spot. Even when we know we're watching a work of fiction, we tend to treat faux-documentary footage differently from more conventional film. If done well, it hits us where we live.

But all of this requires mystery. If we're going to experience somebody's horrible fate from their point of view, we need to be as in the dark as they were. There are going to be loose ends, unexplained things. We're only seeing this because the camera captured it, not because somebody necessarily wanted us to see it. The camera shuts off or runs out of film, or breaks. We're denied a certain amount of closure. We just have to sit there with what we've just seen, and when it's done well, it's tremendously effective. On the other hand, sequels reveal too much, leave nothing unknown or to the imaginations. Inferior imitations lay bare the artifice that goes into making us think there's no artifice by doing it badly. Either way, we lose some of the mystery - either in the story or the telling of the story - that makes this particular type of movie really scary.

So yeah, I've got at least three queued up or on my to-see list, but I'd be lying if I said I was approaching any of them with the same thrill I did the first time I saw The Blair Witch Project or [REC]. When you milk a conceit for all it's worth, you milk it dry and leave nothing but a tired carcass, and at least three sequels to that carcass. Give it a rest. 

No comments:

Post a Comment