Found Footage Film and the First Person Genre

One of the big surprises for me this year was Chronicle. It turned out to be a fun film, featuring well done and inventive effects. What really made it work was that, at its heart, it’s a character piece; it’s the birth of a super villain. What started out as simple mischief could end up destroying downtown Seattle. I was resistant to see this film (now out on DVD) not because it was dumped into theaters on Superbowl weekend, and not because it was about teens. I was resistant to see it because it was part of a growing out of control film genre – the found footage film.

Chronicle ultimately worked, but its style almost sank it. At the start of the film, the character of Andrew simply announces he will be filming his life from now on. That’s basically all we get as to why the film is shot this way. There’s no Blair Witch or Cloverfield monster worth recording. He’s just going to film his day to day activities. Eventually I accepted this odd conceit. But by the film’s end, it’s obvious the filmmakers had written themselves into a corner. How do we film a giant battle sequence with only one camera? Ah, the cell phone cameras of the poor people caught in the middle of the fight. Oh, and security footage… lots of security footage. Clearly the makers of this film “collected” all this found footage.

I find this “collecting” of footage harder to believe than teens having super powers. This notion took me out of the story as it’s such an obvious case of style over substance. When presented with the notion of a found footage film, we are to believe it has really happened. Thus the people who found, cut, and presented this footage are characters within the world of the story. Knowing they assembled this “real life” action has to make a viewer question how it was achieved. Personally I want to see the “documentary” about the team that assembled the Chronicle footage. Maybe it’s on the DVD special features.

A few weeks later, on the advice of an Oscar winning filmmaker who will remain nameless, I stupidly found myself watching yet another found footage film. Project X was one of the most grating cinematic experiences I have ever had. I left with a pounding headache as well as, to be fair, a strong desire to try ecstasy. Then before The Avengers, I saw two trailers: Chernobyl Diaries and End of Watch. Both are seemingly found footage films, but I have to admit that after seeing these trailers, I wasn’t sure if they were just shot like found footage films or are intended to be found footage.

Let’s take a look at the trailer for Chernobyl Diaries. There are obvious found shots of security camera and tourist videos. Then suddenly there are multiple angles around a table. At the 1:05 minute mark all the characters are walking together towards the camera. So, it can’t be found footage unless someone in this group has decided to spend the day walking backwards. In an interview producer Oren Peli said there is only about three minutes of found footage in the film. Pretty clever how those moments were front loaded in the trailer. Coupled with the shaky cam cinematography, it’s enough to confuse anyone. This film has done something I haven’t seen. It’s a non found footage film meant to look like one. Why do they want to confuse us this way?

David Ayer’s End of Watch is even more troublesome. Early in the trailer we see Jake Gyllenhaal talking to the camera. Following that we see low angle shots from inside a squad car. But then we see Jake filming with his own camera. Then a helicopter shot. Then a POV of someone aiming a gun. By trailers end someone is filming right next to gang members as they open fire on cops! So this can’t be found footage…right? Then I found this in the official synopsis:

“…the action unfolds entirely through footage from the handheld HD cameras of the police officers, gang members, surveillance cameras, and citizens caught in the line of fire…”

Again, I would rather see the film about the poor jerk that had to retrieve the HD footage from the gang members. And why are these gang members documenting the killing of police? I guess I’ll have to wait and see the film, but right now it’s hard to suspend my disbelief.

The point I’m making is this: why has Hollywood decided to force this inorganic genre down our throats? The Blair Witch Project, which is over a decade old, made sense. It was new. It was filmmakers trying to create an original story on the cheap. Even Paranormal Activity made sense. They were documenting something on a small scale. Investigating. It felt organic to the plot. They weren’t gang members filming themselves shooting cops. Sure you can say found footage adds grittiness. But can you tell me End of Watch looks any less gritty then David Ayer’s underrated Harsh Times? What does a studio think it’s gaining by making Chernobyl Diaries look found?

It must be our fault, as the audience. This new generation of filmgoers. Studios realize that this is a generation of narcissists. They feel the need to be part of the action. It’s an era where we can upload everything we do onto youtube, so naturally the studio wants to put us in the action. This film will be shot from the only point of view we understand. Our own. In a sense, we are the ones making it. And so far the box office has backed it up. Chronicle was a hit. So was the schlocky The Devil Inside. You were in these films. You played a role. And when the gang member in End of Watch shoots Jake Gyllenhaal… he’s really shooting you.

But I don’t want to be in the film. I don’t need everything to be about me. Seeing a movie is a voyeuristic experience. I am glimpsing people’s lives. I am watching them emote, fall in love, fight with one another. That is what sucks me in. That’s what sucked me into Chronicle. The emotion. Not the film being shot from my point of view.

For this reason, I have a similar issue with 3D. Even shaky cam action contributes to this narcissistic viewing. I’ve never been a big Bourne fan. I never enjoyed how they filmed the action so close that I couldn’t tell what was going on. I actually want to see people fight, and I speculate the reason we don’t is because Matt Damon can’t. I recently enjoyed Haywire. Steven Soderbergh locked the camera down and showed every move Gina Carnao made because she does know how to fight. Seeing her kick Michael Fassbender’s ass was more exhilarating than watching a blurry Matt Damon. I didn’t have to be in the middle of it to find it exciting. When I say I want a film to take me on a rollercoaster ride, I mean it figuratively.

Eventually a film will be released that looks exactly like a first person shooter. The entire film will be one action packed shot. A soldier with a camera strapped to his head, running around killing. The kids will love it. They’ll think it’s them on that screen. Expect it to be the biggest hit of 2014.

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