Sunday, June 24, 2012

Found footage losing its way

Actor moves hand, stagehands crush car.  Movie magic!
One might analogize the "found footage" genre in film to the use of Pirandellian effects in theater.  Pirandello was a writer obsessed with the dividing line between artifice and reality, and who liked to use the immediacy of theater to blur the line between the agreed-upon artifice and the uncontrollable aspect of live performance to create a confusion within the audience.  Scenes appear to be spontaneously created or interrupted by the actors or by the characters.  The form is lent an air of verisimilitude and should (if it is working properly) reduce the sensation that the creators are manipulating the story for their own convenience.

But like any convention, you have to set rules and stick to them.  And that's where Chronicle (2012) goes a bit off the rails.  In Cloverfield, for example, the creators are fairly scrupulous about adhering to the geography of the camera's travels and makes ingenious use of the idea that camcorders can over previous recordings in order, which can survive in snippets in order to simulate flashbacks.  (Digital media, by the way, destroy that narrative device, since data is simply wiped without prior artifacts surviving.)

Chronicle sets up the convention that different people can pick up the camera, or even that there are multiple cameras.  But there are a number of shots (I'm thinking especially of the party sequence) in which the camera perspective is completely unexplained and unidentified.  It just was too inconvenient to stick to the rules, so the filmmakers cheat and start presenting third-person points of view -- a complete violation of the genre, and a confession of a lack of faith in the format.

Which goes to the heart of the problem with Chronicle -- the story has no reason to be told in the found footage format, except that is all the rage with the youngsters, most recently in the atrocious Paranormal Activity franchise.  (One notes that something called Chernobyl Diaries didn't even open this year, but sank like a stone within hours of beginning its run.)  The problem is compounded when the more complex effects shots begin, because they start looking slicker and slicker (presumably there wasn't time and money to make them look as fuzzy and funky as they should have) and weaken the illusion that we are looking at home video.

Then the film completely collapses its own premise in the final 20 minutes, when it turns into a garden-variety telekenesis destructo-fest, with transparently effect-y effects going on and on and we are stuck with three repellant characters competing to see who can be least repellant, although no actual heroism or courage is ever displayed.

It's a shame, because the first hour of the film addressed some really interesting moral and ethical issues raised by the entire superhero genre; specifically, how should superpowers be used?  What if we're not as good and pure as Superman, or as driven as Batman?  What if a superhero was just a regular person before (Peter Parker, anyone?)  How do you establish the rules about when to use your powers and when to refrain?  How do you define "using your powers only for good?"  Especially when the powers are in the hands of teenagers, whose heads are filled with a roiling stew of impulses, hormones, idealism, half-digested cynicism, media influences and family history?  That could have been a fine film, but the makers of Chronicle seem to have become intimidated by the Pandora's Box they opened up and reverted to genre slam-bam.

Too bad.

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