The adage about never judging its book by its cover is in desperate need of a 21st Century facelift. For those in my strange profession, that maxim routinely translates to a warning against judging films by their trailers. Recently 20th Century Fox’s latest offering Chronicle helped me realize how culpable I was in committing this cardinal sin. As I observed the trailer for this movie, any and all promise that may have lain within was lost to its painfully visible conceit, an inescapable fact that stuck like a thorn in my eye: it was a found-footage film.
As much as I had enjoyed the occasional title here and there, over the last couple years we have been visually choked by this gimmick to the point that the mere mention of those two words are enough to elicit groans and delude expectations from a faction of film fans…certainly I count myself among them.
Obviously the appeal of found-footage for a horror film producer is that it is an effective weapon against its own jaded consumers. Found footage seals audiences into the story, forcing them to experience firsthand the horrors that befall the characters in real time. Psychologically it also plays to our increasingly voyeuristic tendencies as our society becomes more and more saturated with media outlets.
But stripping away the academic suppositions, the fact is that found-footage can be dirt cheap to produce. The close quarters of the photography means that a key grip running quickly through the shot or slamming a door can satisfy the bulk of your special effects needs. There is also no need to hire A-list talent for these films, and in fact the authenticity of the ever spurious, often overzealous “this is totally a true story” ploy benefits from a lack of familiar faces on the screen to disguise its illegitimacy. This, coupled with the cash cow that the Paranormal Activity franchise turned out to be, would explain why we’ve seen so many flaccid, lazy entries of late.
This is precisely what I was expecting of Chronicle, and exactly the opposite of what I saw. Chronicle seeks to nuke the inherent division between a found-footage film and one told in traditional narrative format. It pointedly addresses every gripe and complaint we’ve lodged against the genre since it became more than a novelty, and offers plenty of viable solutions. Let’s break each found-footage issue down individually and look at how Chronicle handles it…
POV, Not Much To See
The basic problem with found-footage is that its very nature narrows its scope of perspective to the viewing capacity of the person holding whatever recording device actually serves as our protagonist. It makes story and storyteller inextricable which, while interesting in theory, saddles the visual storytelling scheme with a bad case of tunnel vision. Paranormal Activity got around this a bit with the inclusion of a tripod, but even that limited the more encompassing shots to one bedroom.
Here is where Chronicle truly excels. It uses superhero mechanics to soar above the limitations of first-person point of view. In other words, if those behind the camera are not bound by the limits of the common man, the filmmaker’s perspective is likewise unbound. It’s a pretty simple solution, but one that proves extremely effective. The telekinesis of these kids, especially that of our central character Andrew, allows for the camera to exist independently of its operator as it hovers along behind him at his mental behest. It’s a fascinating change of pace that makes the storyteller a voyeur of his own story. So while we still get the intimate, first-person construct, we are also privy to the third-person advantages of wide angles, sweeping vistas, and emotional context from our protagonist/documenter; we can actually see his facial reactions instead of being paid emotional lip service by the often contrived dialogue.
Physics can be a cruel master, and never is that fact so apparent as when watching a found-footage film. Our off-screen narrator’s every jerky, erratic movement is conveyed in the jerky, erratic movements of his/her toted camera. This not only poses a problem for those wishing to retain the contents of their stomach, but raises thematic issues as well.
Not getting a clear look at your subject automatically lessens its impact. This is where found-footage traditionally relies on the in-your-face construct in order to compensate; you only catch glimpses of what’s chasing you as you tumble through the hole in the fourth wall. But Chronicle even thinks of this, working it into the plot that, as Andrew’s power grows stronger, his control of the hovering camera becomes increasingly effortless and smooth. We are therefore not distracted from the film’s most brutal action scenes by wild, nauseating camerawork. No need to take your Dramamine before the screening.
Who Would Film That?
This gripe is two-fold. First, the found-footage detractors cite that recording every waking moment of one’s life is not a trait found in the average person. Since connecting the audience to the everyday quality of the characters is essential for completing the cinema verite illusion, this is indeed a paradox worth investigating. Who would film their every waking moment, documenting even the most trivial of events? Angsty teenagers, that’s who. Our “hero” is a social misfit who, after using it to document instances of abuse at the hands of his father, comes to identify with the video camera as his only link to the outside world. It therefore never feels forced that he’s recording his entire daily life and, in fact, the bond between he and the embrace of the camera lens only gets stronger as the film progresses; feeding the cycle.
The other facet of this complaint, the one that tends to make or break found footage for me, is the illogicalness of a characters’ vice-like grip on the camera in times of crisis. I mean honestly, who would suffer the encumbrance of a video camera when, say, a monster is attacking their city or when observing an exorcism gone wrong? Even though Andrew’s camera is free-floating, his concentration on both it and the chaotic events of the finale would be no small leap in logic.
Chronicle is conscious of this problem as well. In the climatic action sequence, it draws upon our own media-enabled Peeping Tom culture to elegantly sidestep this landmine. The task of capturing this sequence diverts from Andrew’s camera alone to a patchwork of security cams, spectator smart phones, news chopper footage, and police cruiser cameras. It makes for a unique visual signature that works within the narrative, illustrates the stakes of the climax, and avoids a common genre trap.
Lack of Satisfying Resolution
While the nature of what makes the ending of any film satisfying is a matter of complete subjectivity, it’s no secret that found-footage films have a tendency to stop abruptly; frequently smash-cutting to black right after its most shocking moment. This is often accompanied by on-screen text furthering the libelous claim that the events of the film are real. Chronicle may not neatly tie up every loose end, but the film’s final moment exists as a clear defiance of this woeful convention. It wraps up with an abbreviated denouement, but one commendable if merely by its very presence. Furthermore, at no point does it ever espouse that the film is based on a true story. And while it may seem inherently impossible for a superhero found footage film to boast such a claim, given the fact that The Fourth Kind practically shook the audience by the shoulders and swore on a Bible that its alien abduction story was genuine, the filmmakers here could have easily pitched us that same bill of goods.
It Only Works For Horror
Chronicle’s refute of this statement should be fairly self-evident by now. Outside of horror, the only genre to really utilize any incarnation of cinema verite is comedy; a la mockumentaries. The action and fantasy genres have been heretofore completely ignored. Chronicle showcases how fantastically the gimmick can be utilized to serve these genres as well as classic comic book mythology. We watch the rise of a supervillain, one who compellingly begins his story arc as an empathetic character, in a relatable and visually striking format. Chronicle plays like a comic book keenly aware of the readers scanning its various, creatively shaped panels.
Will this film alter the course of cinema as we know it? No. But Chronicle does lend convincing evidence that there is still some life left in found footage. Hopefully it will challenge other filmmakers to think outside the box and apply a more thoughtful approach to this gimmick and reconsider its genre constraints.