16 September 2013

Documenting Unreality

Although The Blair Witch Project made it famous in the mid-nineties, the ‘found footage’ genre can actually be traced even further back to films like the grim, animal chop-em-up Cannibal Holocaust. Presumably it was originally conceived to hide the bugger-all budget and, to be fair, in those early movies it did a pretty good job. The problem with it though is that these days you can't get away from the fucking concept with it having now successfully evolved from an ingenious novelty into an annoying gimmick. I'm presuming that the intent of utilising this form is to add to the sense of realism but having now seen it so many times, I think there are two constant problems which keep ballsing the believability up. The first problem is the obvious- why doesn't the cameraman stop fucking filming? And the second is.. who edited that fucking footage?

Take Cloverfield for example, which is a film I do love but suffers from these problems immensely. There's a scene in that movie in which they are running through a subway whilst being chased by some little monsters that have fallen off a bigger beastie's underside and even then the camera continues to film. I'm sorry, but if I was in a small corridor being chased by Godzilla's angry pubic-lice, I'd be ripping off my own fucking arms just so that I could lose a little weight and run a tiny bit faster. As for the second problem, well... by the end of the film all of the main characters are- spoiler alert- dead. This is the same for so many films in the genre from The Blair Witch Project to Paranormal Activity. With this in mind, I always wonder which sick turd-monger found an extended snuff film and decided to edit a fucking narrative out of it? I mean, it really bothers me. Take the footage of Gaddafi being killed for example which is five minutes long and features nothing but his execution. Now imagine if he'd recorded a video diary whilst on the run which was found, edited into a film and released in cinemas! Not only would you have to question the sanity of whoever thought that would be a good idea but you'd also probably be left with the most morally reprehensible and cynical film since 2003's Love Actually.

Another movie that has recently fallen into this genre is 2012's Chronicle which right from the start managed to do something a little different. Most releases that claim to feature homemade footage tend to either be horror films or stolen porn, however this rather differently opted to be about superheroes instead. Actually, to give the film credit, it's not even about superheroes really, with it spending more time investigating what normal high schoolers would do if given amazing super-human gifts. Personally, I think if any of us developed powers then it wouldn't take long for us to use them for either thieving or perving. However, although Chronicle doesn't quite go down this route, it does spend a good while showing the main characters enjoying a fair bit of mischief before things go wrong and the shit hits the fan.

"Who's got a touch of the mad-cunt about them?"
Just to quickly summarise the set-up for anybody who’s not yet seen it, there are three friends who get blasted by radiation from some big blue rock thing that they find underground. From then on they become telekinetic, meaning that they can move inanimate objects using just their mind. One of the lads however is suffering a slightly turbulent home life with his father being an abusive alcoholic and his mother dying from a disease that leaves her bed ridden and mumbling. Not to ruin what happens but this guy also has a touch of the mad-cunt about him and so probably isn't the best creepy critter to be given magical abilities that allow him to kill. It's also this slightly odd chap who has decided to film every single thing that he does and so by default I guess is the main character. I suppose this movie is a bit like Carrie but for the YouTube generation in which any old twat with a pulse feels the urge to dramatise their own life and share it with the world for likes and hits. If Kick-Ass is a film about heroes without powers then on the flipside, Chronicle is a film about powers without heroes.

So I guess at first we should discuss the films good points of which there are more than plenty. The acting for a start is really very good with each actor managing to convey the various complexities required of them in a completely naturalistic way. As mentioned at the start, the handheld style is often used to make up for a shitty budget and so in past films there's also been a slightly shitty cast to go with it. That's not the case here though, with lead actor Dane Dehaan managing to retain the audiences sympathy (or at least our understanding) even when he starts to slip into the unhinged land of the psychotic vengeful prick. According to the ever reliable IMDb, Chronicle's budget was allegedly around $12,000,000 which is next to nothing in terms of funding a film of this scale. Obviously the average human could lead a happy life of cocaine and whores with that amount of cash but for a superhero film it does seem fairly ambitious. Although some of the flying scenes in the film kind of look a little green-screened, it's not really that obvious and so the film should be proud that it accomplished something of such scale with so little resources. To put things in perspective, you could fund around sixteen films at this cost for the same budget as the diabolically fuck-awful Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon. On top of that there'd probably still be enough change left over to have that life of drug filled orgies as well.

As with every found-footage film though, Chronicle once again falls victim to those two issues of ‘why film It?’ And, ‘who edited it?’ In regards to the first point, I can understand why you might want to film yourself if you've just learnt how to fly. There's millions of people uploading footage of themselves shaking their fat arses to music online right now and so I have no issue with some gifted fucker wanting evidence of his ability to defy gravity. However there's a female character walking about without any powers and she never puts her bloody camera down. There's one scene at a rave in fact where she's filming one of the main characters whilst he films her and they have a conversation with each other. In terms of character development, the conversation is completely relevant but in terms of reality, it's just kind of boring. I guess within the context of the story, this chat is important but the characters can't see the bigger picture and so as a small conversation, you'd turn the fucking camera off and save its battery. Also, as somebody who tits about with cameras from time to time I'd really love to know how they got such clear sound from their conversation amongst all of the much louder background music. I think that for those school kids to have such a phenomenal microphone at an affordable price is the moment that this film really makes its roots in sci-fi particularly obvious. Oh and yes I can hear the 'Pedantic Arsehole Alarm', going off here too...

"So who do you think will be fucked to edit our film?"
As for the second question of who edited the footage- well, in this case I really haven't got a fucking clue. Near the end of the film there is a huge fight across the city which, although visually brilliant, in reality would be a massive bitch of a sequence to put together. This is a task made harder by the fact that at this point the main characters camera has buggered off and so all the footage we see is seamlessly pieced together from images captured on CCTV, news reports and the public’s various mobile phones. So if we're to watch this film under the belief that it is found footage then we're also to believe that some randomer did a region wide collection of video material. In fact there's a shot at the very end in a random place, in a random country that proves that their collection was not only very thorough but that their obsession and interest was probably kind of unhealthy. The kind of person with the patience to collect all that footage would probably also be the kind to have newspaper cuttings of a celebrity on his damp walls that have their eyes scratched out and are coated in semen.

The thing is though that the film really doesn't need the found-footage stuff at all. Like I said, in that final battle the images are coming from so many various cameras that the purpose for it being handheld becomes seriously unclear. Instead of just being able to appreciate the nice looking shots, you end up wondering how they got it and where it was from. Early on too, the film gets around the issue of never having the cameraman on screen by having the camera follow the main character via his telekinesis. I mean, don't get me wrong, I can appreciate the inventiveness of that but it still makes the concept of them filming it themselves seem fairly redundant. Two films that get around this problem are both District 9 and Monsters and perhaps Chronicle should have looked to them for inspiration. District 9 claimed to be found footage until the action started at which point it just fucked off that idea and filmed everything as normal. Monsters was a low budget film that had a handheld feel but still managed to look beautiful and avoided the problems of each shot demanding the scrutiny of its logistics. Look, I know I'm coming across like a proper nitpicking bastard but these things bother me. I dunno... maybe I have low-level autism or something. It's just that for me, the found footage style makes the claim of increasing the realism that with film you take for granted anyway and in doing so ironically raises more questions about its believability.

That aside though, I did love the film- a lot.. not only does it feature interesting characters but it slightly subverts the superhero genre by having it follow someone who really isn't a hero at all. The film itself was directed by Josh Trank whose next movie will be the re-booted Fantastic Four which, based on this, I'm genuinely excited to see. It's also interesting to note that every director who has made a successful deconstruction of the superhero genre has gone on to do something official for Marvel as their very next project. So that's Trank, Matthew Vaughn, James Gunn and Jeff Wadlow I guess. I have nowhere to go with that point, it's just something that I'd noticed and I'm at a point where I could do with any readers letting me know if it is in fact autism or perhaps OCD that I'm suffering from. Max Landis is also worthy of praise in regards to Chronicle considering he wrote the script that it's based on. If his surname sounds familiar then that's because he is the son of legendary film director John Landis. Hollywood is a hard place to break into and so I can't help but wonder who young Landis had to suck off to get in…

Anyway so the film is very good- it's just such a shame that in my humble opinion, the gimmick of found footage is a fundamentally flawed one. Having said that, Chronicle is a well written, well directed, well acted mixture of Carrie, Grizzly Man and Akira. Even if the found-footage thing is a distracting pain in the arse, you're still left with a pretty good ninety minutes of inventive, cult shit to enjoy so really, I shouldn't complain.

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