On Friday, my movie of choice was Chronicle, a movie about three teens who discover a mysterious object that gives them telekinetic powers. It’s filmed in the ‘found footage’ style that’s been vogue recently, and I touched briefly on the relative effectiveness of that style, as well as the movie’s other elements, in my review. Today, though, I want to step back and ask what it is about this style of filmmaking that has seized the public imagination in the last few years, and to look at some of the pitfalls it’s subject to.
From the production side, the appeal is obvious. The found footage approach presents new and unique filmmaking challenges, which haven’t yet been fully explored, so it’s conceivable that there are producers and directors who are interested in exploring its narrative possibilities. (Don’t believe me? How do you feel about this guy?) From the finance and distribution side, meanwhile, they’re cheap to make and consistently earn back mountains and mountains of cash. Cloverfield, with a budget of $25 million, was on the high end of what movies of this style cost, and its worldwide gross was just under $171 million. That’s almost a sevenfold return, and still on the low end of return for found footage movies. Paranormal Activity, on the other end, cost only $15,000 to make and grossed almost $195 million worldwide, which is roughly like you distilling moonshine in your basement and having it become more popular than Jim Beam.
Admittedly, Paranormal Activity benefited from perfect storm of market interest and (at the time) marketing innovation, but it isn’t as if subsequent found footage films haven’t been successful. Chronicle was the top movie at the box office this past weekend, and it wasn’t even supposed to perform that well. The Devil Inside, meanwhile, cost only $1 million and earned thirty-three times that on its opening weekend, despite strongly negative responses from audiences and critics alike. Clearly, these movies are providing something that audiences are looking for that more traditional fare isn’t – even when they’re narratively deficient.
Part of this, of course, comes from the simple fact of novelty. I’ve written before on how one appeal of film is that it can show us things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see; by extension, we’re also always looking for new ways to look at familiar subjects when we watch movies. Found footage is a distinctive style, and one that we’ve never seen before, so it satisfies a desire, not exactly to see things that we can’t see anywhere else, in the sense that – for instance – a big-budget sci-fi movie does, but to see a story told in a different form than previously possible. The horror genre goes as far back as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, back in the 1920s, so we’ve had plenty of time to watch and absorb movies that try to realistically (or not) depict horrifying events. What attract us, having absorbed those approaches, are movies that manage to scare and horrify us in new ways, whether that be by exploiting our psychological, rather than physical, vulnerabilities (The Silence of the Lambs), pointing out just how gorily disgusting our bodies and deaths can be (the Saw franchise, The Human Centipede), or blurring as much as possible the barrier between reality and fiction, as found footage movies do.
That, of course, is the more central innovation of the found footage style in particular: not just that it is a new approach for making a movie, but also that it creates an illusion of realism by deliberately separating itself from the polish of professional filmmaking. It does this, first and most obviously, by playing on our own experiences making and viewing home videos, both in how the movie looks and in how its characters interact. Imperfect image quality and editing, long shots constricted to where a character has put down the camera to capture something, fuzzy and uneven sound: these are the hallmarks of the sorts of videos that our parents took of us when we were young, and, if you were anything like me, of the amateurish attempts at moviemaking that came with discovering video cameras. Meanwhile, the characters interact just as they do when you or someone in your family would carry a camera around filming things. “Are you filming this?” “Ugh, I look horrible in the morning.” Such dialogue – and the interaction between someone on camera and a faceless voice from behind it – remind us that the characters are aware that they are being filmed, that this is what it looks like when someone tries to record everything that happens.
This technique is successful at heightening the sense of reality of a scene, certainly because it taps into our own experiences with home video and what an ‘authentic’ video record looks like, but also in the more visceral sense of creating a sense of intrusion. There is nothing voyeuristic, really, about watching a movie or reading a traditional third-person novel, because there is always a sense of it being recorded for and reported to us: in some way it is a transfer of information, with that information being the story. The found footage film is perhaps most analogous to the epistolary or diary novel, which is structured around private confidences either between individuals or as a single person’s record of his life. All these story-telling media have as a conceit the idea that the audience is peeking into something never meant for consumption; there is something intrusive about it that arises from, but is not a part of, the style itself. Because of that, it’s easier to give it credence as something real (especially when the studio puts up a card ‘thanking the families’ for allowing the use of their footage, as Paramount does at the beginning of Paranormal Activity). We feel that we are watching something that has been ‘captured,’ rather than ‘shot’ in the traditional sense.
Furthermore, because of this expansive claim to represent something happening in real life, the narrative of the found footage movie can effectively subvert what we expect from the genres that it tells its stories in. Horror movies, for instance, trade in death and the process of elimination, with one young victim being claimed after the other. Paranormal Activity is, to me, largely unsuccessful as a film, but it does at least recognize the idea that fear can be something built from unknown menace. Accordingly, very little happens for most of the movie, except that the characters get more and more freaked out by the strange occurrences in their household. The audience is expected to allow this because of that sense that the movie is recorded from real life. Similarly, Chronicle is to some degree liberated from the heroic constraints of the superhero genre by its claim to found-footage realism, which allows it to branch off in a new, darker direction.
All that said, there is a grave deficiency to this style that has to be acknowledged, which is that it relies on someone carrying a camera around all the time, or at least on having a camera plausibly recording everything that happens. In the same vein, the found footage approach requires that it be pointed out over and over that one of the characters is filming another character. In both Chronicle and Paranormal Activity, this is dealt with by having one of the characters declare their intent to film everything, an intent which must be re-affirmed throughout the movie. Chronicle cheats a bit by allowing the characters to use their telekinetic abilities to move the camera with their minds instead of holding it, so the second half of the movie has a much more cinematic feel to it than the first. Still, many scenes end up stretching the bounds of belief: why does Andrew’s stepfather allow him to videotape a conversation when his only intention is to discipline Andrew? Why does Micah keep on filming things in Paranormal Activity after his girlfriend repeatedly asks him to stop? (Or, perhaps more pertinently, how are we supposed to feel sympathetic to a character whom the script requires to be such an annoying moron in order to maintain its stylistic approach?) Meanwhile, having to continually remind us that something is actively being filmed is distracting and ends up taking us out of the reality of the story, not further in.
If Chronicle – and, perhaps, Cloverfield before it – show anything, it’s that you can’t discount the capability of this style of telling a wide array of stories. Still, at this moment in time, it feels more like a gimmick than a technique. What happens when we get used to it? Will it still have the air of authenticity that it’s carried up until now? And, on the flip side, what is it capable of that no one has figured out yet?
The biggest challenge to the found-footage style, I think, is whether or not it can produce an effective drama. So far, it’s been effective as a way to revitalize certain kinds of ‘genre movies’: horror, superhero, creature. The greater accomplishment, though, will be in revealing something new in a genre that doesn’t automatically require us to suspend our disbelief from its premise alone.