Monday, April 28, 2014

Paranormal Activity: You Are Absolutely Powerless

This is one of those cases where it’s hard to separate the film I’m writing about from the subsequent phenomenon that it has generated, and I have to admit that the more this movie metastasized into sequel after sequel after spinoff, the less enthusiastic I got about ever watching the thing that spawned the money machine in the first place. But that’s hipsterism of the first order, and “I liked it before it was cool” is pretty much bullshit. So I’m going try to do what I always try to do, and that’s evaluate the film as a singular thing - the personalities surrounding a film and the pre-release hype and controversy over content or commercial success are, to my mind, all just distractions. The movie is the movie, and although I’m sure most folks reading this little thing of mine have probably already seen it (if the numbers are any indication), I’m just gonna throw my two cents into the mix, and say that Paranormal Activity is a solid, well-constructed found-footage film about the failure of masculinity and the demands that we as consumers make for the sake of entertainment.

It opens with a title card, thanking law enforcement for the use of this footage. That feels a little unnecessary to me - it’s not as shit-awful as the lurid, overheated mess at the beginning of The Tapes, but it draws a little too much attention to the idea that something bad is going to happen (which we know it is, else why did we come to watch the movie?), and one of this movie’s strengths is the way it’s willing to take its time to build things up. We open on Micah, goofing around with a video camera, referring obliquely to strange noises that he and his girlfriend Katie have been experiencing lately. He thinks it’s cool - he’s looking forward to playing ghost hunter, and more to the point, getting to mess around with expensive electronics. Micah’s a boy who likes his toys. Katie doesn’t seem to be quite as excited about the whole thing - she’s apparently been plagued by these mysterious goings-on for most of her life, and wishes Micah would leave just well enough alone. But nope, he’s going to set up a recording rig in their bedroom to capture every strange little thing because he thinks ghosts are cool. We’re sort of dropped into the middle of it all, which is nice - it feels like the sort of pointless footage people shoot the first time they pick up a video camera, and so we get a little peek into the life of this young couple. They live in San Diego, have a nice big house with a pool, things seem okay.

And then night falls.

This film does a very nice job of building tension - by locating the titular activity during nighttime, it has sort of a Pavlovian effect on us. I mean, nighttime is scary anyway - things go bump in it, sounds are magnified, everything's ambiguous and you don't have the distractions you have during the day. In the words of the writer Poppy Z. Brite, “nighttime is the hardest time to be alive - 4am knows all my secrets.” The dark and the still and the quiet don’t allow for any distraction. What happens there, happens unmediated. We’re at our most vulnerable at night. So when it cuts to a shot of Katie and Micah in bed and the time readout says 3am or something like that, our stomach is already tightening and we're already going "oh shit" because anything at night is bad. And then it's just a matter of tightening the screws carefully and methodically over the course of 90 minutes or so. It doesn’t take much - a mysterious thump, a door that moves on its own, a shadow where there shouldn’t be one, but we’re already primed enough that even a tiny thing elicits a start, and then things get worse...and worse...and worse. Given how high-profile this movie has since become, it’s still surprisingly effective, and I think its careful sense of pace and use of understatement are strongly to its benefit.

But that’s what happens at night, and a lot of the story to this movie doesn’t happen at night, it happens in the interplay between Katie and Micah, which gives this film a strong gender narrative. Whatever spirit plagues Katie, it wants and is connected to her - it's not the house, it's something that's followed her from childhood, and in its personal attachment to Katie, it's hard not to read it as the insecurities and pressures that our culture places on women. These are her inner demons, and they are externalized as domestic disruption, even manifesting as what appear to be the consequences of self-harm. Katie shies away from discussing them, not wanting to make a fuss over them. They are her problems to bear, and Micah even complains at one point that she didn’t mention all of this to him when they first met, like you might begin to resent someone for insecurities you didn’t realize they had until you got to know them well. Micah’s take on all of this plays a big role in this narrative as well. He’s the cameraman for most of the film, and so Katie being seen, being the object of attention, heightens the sense that she is the one being most victimized here. Katie is defined and understood from Micah's perspective, and doesn't really get a lot of say in when he does or doesn't use the camera. She's constantly telling him (often ineffectually) to turn it off, and it's telling that one of the few times Katie has the camera and focuses it on Micah, he gets really uncomfortable and self-conscious. He is uncomfortable being subjected to the same scrutiny that he doesn’t think twice about applying to Katie.

And what about Micah? He's got sort of a frat-boy cockiness to him, and why shouldn't he? He makes a living as a day trader, he's got a big house in San Diego, a cute girlfriend, a sweet electric guitar - he is, as all successful white men are, the master of his domain. He's the king of his castle, and his response to this intrusion of the irrational (in the form of something associated with a woman…hmmmm) is to treat it as any recipient of male privilege does. First he tries to solve it like a puzzle, engage with it rationally. He's resentful at the intrusion of the other experts Katie asks to help - mocking them or discouraging Katie from contacting them. This is his problem to solve. When that doesn't work, he provokes the spirit - trying to goad it into a confrontation, which is a time-honored way for boys to solve their problems. When Micah goes against Katie's express wishes and gets a Ouija board to contact whatever’s haunting her, he's pretty much saying "come at me, bro." He can't stand the idea that there are things in the world that he cannot master or conquer, and it's very telling when Katie says "you are absolutely powerless." Micah can't handle that, and it’s his pride and sense of entitlement that ends up doing the most harm, which is kind of novel territory to stake out for a scary movie.

On top of all of that, there's some interesting self-reflexive stuff going on in the film as well - throughout the film, Katie suggests that things have gotten worse since Micah got the camera, and that if the camera weren't there, none of this would be happening. On one level, this reinforces Micah's position as the rationalist, the one with faith in the power of technology to bring this thing to heel, and its utter failure to do so. But on another, it's a bit of a commentary on horror film as well. If there were no audience, these people wouldn't suffer. They only go through what they go through because we are seeing them go through it, and because there is a demand to see people go through these things. That it's done in a found-footage format just drives that home. We're getting a window into the lives of two people not that dissimilar from others we might know, living lives we can imagine, complete with an introduction that's pretty much just them goofing off on the couch. It is the camera - and by extension, the audience with a desire to see a horror movie - that brings this misery into their lives. That is some Luigi Pirandello shit right there.

It does lose a step or two in the last act - Micah digs up some information about a woman who had something similar happen to her, and it's a cheap bit of last-minute stake-raising that ends up being more distracting and cheesy than anything else, and as the climax approaches there's a bit of business with Katie having a sudden change of heart that's a little too obvious to be effective, but by and large the filmmakers are content to build everything from a simmer to a boil and make the most out of little things. Subtlety, I feel, goes underappreciated in horror film today, so it's nice to see filmmakers that are content to let small details and their implications carry the mood. It's also too bad that a decision was made to turn it into a franchise, because even though there's enough backstory to carry another film without losing too much of the mystery, making three more films (not including two spin-offs) just creates the need to formulate what seems to be developing into an entirely overelaborate mythology, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that makes things less scary. Is it possible to be scared by yet another iteration of the Paranormal Activity franchise as it becomes increasingly codified into specific "scares" and supernatural soap-opera continuity bullshit? I honestly don't know, and it probably doesn't matter as long as they keep making money.

In the end, for Katie and Micah as well as for the audience, it's all for naught. I’m under the impression that the version I saw was the Director’s Cut, which has a very different ending from the theatrical release, and although I can see why it might have been changed, I liked the version I saw better, I think. It dragged a little, but it kept the same flat, dispassionate tone as the rest of the film, the camera unblinkingly recording the disintegration of Katie and Micah's lives. They were absolutely powerless, and Micah's refusal to accept that had terrible consequences, and our desire to witness it brought it into being, and our enthusiastic reception brings this same horror into the lives of increasingly more characters, over and over again until we are left with choreographed moments to be frightened and new plot twists to justify new sequels. Are you not entertained?

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

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