Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Bay: Dad, You're Embarrassing Me

I don't like to talk about directors in posts about movies, because I want to make an effort to keep the focus on the movie itself and avoid conflating the movie with the director as a public figure. Horror film is full of iconic directors, and so I think it's easy for discussion to be diverted from the work to the people who made it, at which point you aren't talking about the movie anymore. That said, when someone not known for directing horror movies makes a horror movie (and it gets recognized as such, as opposed to being labeled a thriller or drama because it was directed by someone respectable), it's worth noting. When someone not known for directing horror movies directs a found-footage horror movie, I think that's even more notable. If I were going to be an argumentative dick about it, I'd say that a noted mainstream director should be able to make a really good horror movie, since the assumption seems to be that genre films are less demanding than mainstream ones. Barry Levinson has made some really good movies, and some not-so-good movies, but he's a respected director nonetheless. 

The Bay is not one of his better movies, and I think its failures are indicative of how difficult a good genre film can be to make.

The small Maryland town of Claridge sits on the Chesapeake Bay, chock-full of wholesome American values. It's the Fourth of July, and the town has turned out for the annual fireworks and assorted celebrations - dunk tanks, crab-eating contests, parades, the whole works. Like every small town, Claridge has its secrets and its petty corruption. The mayor runs an industrial-size poultry farm, and between the desalination plant he's set up to use bay water for the chickens and the staggering amount of chicken shit and industrial waste he's dumping, well, a lot of palms are getting greased. But what could be bad? Bay water is brackish, so nobody's drinking it. The important thing is that everyone's having fun and that the festivities go off without a hitch. 

Which they do, until people start getting sick from the crabs, and start climbing out of the dunk tank with burned, blistering skin. And getting weird rashes. And dropping dead.

The Bay is a found-footage movie, stitched together from multiple sources. Surveillance footage, home video, phone cameras, police dashboard cameras, everything. It's presented as a Wikileaks-style collection of suppressed footage, narrated by a survivor via a recorded Skype interview. So the narrative conceit is pretty clear - we're seeing the only remaining evidence of some horrible occurrence in Claridge, spanning roughly one day. The government has covered it up somehow, and the survivors are intent on making sure the truth is heard. If Levinson stuck to that conceit, if he fully committed to the constraints of that approach, it would have been a really good movie. But he doesn't, and his lapses into more conventional film techniques undermine the final product.

The Bay ducks the omnipresent-cameraman problem of found-footage films by stitching together footage from different sources, but doesn't stay honest to that mode of presentation - it veers between a hastily-assembled collection of recordings and a more professional production. It's a collection of raw footage, but there are instances of montage and narration over still images, and footage is re-used throughout to provide context - sometimes in painfully unsubtle ways - which suggests more opportunities for editing than a collection of suppressed footage should have had. It's really distracting - if you don't have narrative immersion in a found-footage film, if the provenance of the footage isn't believable, then it's going to lose a lot of its effectiveness. I really wanted to buy into the story here - the threat hits a nice balance of plausible, alien, and disgusting, and the terror and confusion is believable throughout. It sort of reminded me of what it was like to follow coverage of the flooding that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: Things just keep getting worse and worse, things are falling apart, and people just keep failing to do anything about it. Then a montage happens or footage that should be shaky and rough is clean and bright, sound is too clean, or footage is sourced from places there shouldn't be access to, and the illusion is broken. 

On the other hand, the acting is just right - nobody seems like a professional, conversations sound natural, and the closest thing we have to a protagonist is a communications student from American University who is just so excited to be covering something…anything…for the local news affiliate, and when shit starts going bad, she handles it as well as anyone in her position would, which is to say poorly. There's nothing heroic here, and the threat provides enough danger to make things tense and scary without ramping up to ridiculous levels, which is nice. The film ends a little anticlimactically as a result, but I think it's worth the tradeoff for a story at human scale. 

It was a promising idea, but like the characters in it, who aren't sure how to tell their story, complete with false starts and do-overs (the ones who know they're speaking to an audience are generally the most awkward), the film itself isn't quite sure how it wants to tell its story, and it suffers as a result. Barry Levinson took a leap by working in a style and genre with which he has little to no experience, which is admirable, but it's a demanding one that requires adherence to specific cinematic and narrative principles and Levinson can't quite bring himself to abandon what he knows. It's a little like watching a dad try to identify with his adolescent children by using their slang. It doesn't sound right, the clash between one generation's language and another's mode of speech makes it all awkward, and you sort of end up feeling bad and wishing it could have gone better by the time it's over. 

Unvailable from Netflix

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