Assumption of Regular Programming

CthulhuHeadTestPatternRealitySo, this first month of regular blogging has been great–I’ve cranked out a lot of material and you’ve been responding; I really appreciate that.  But, now that there’s some content, I’ll need to be shifting down gears a bit, maybe to 1-2 reviews per month (and then on to whatever else I may choose to feature here on the blog).  I’ll be keeping up as much as ever though, taking a look at other blogs, trying to get involved in neat conversations about media, creative work, and other neat stuff.  And, as it seems like Friday evenings are my peak traffic times, so I’ll try to stick to regular releasing on Friday afternoons.

So, keep coming back!  Next up: my review of Fernando Barreda Luna’s Atrocious (2010)!

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Graphic taken from CthulhuSlippers.com

The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – The Conspiracy (2012) – Part 2 of 2

ADVENTURES IN TIME AND SPACE

Time itself, how it flows and can be manipulated in the making of a narrative, also becomes important in the distinction between found footage and faux documentary.  In The Conspiracy, participants are interviewed and can be made to reflect after the action of the main narrative.  In found footage narratives, on the other hand, most characters are not given so formal a time and space in which to think things over, often making any impromptu reflections that much more desperate and chilling (see the seminal ‘I am so scared’ scene from Blair Witch).[1]

Also known as 'the Snot Shot'.

Also known as ‘the Snot Shot’.

As stated earlier, though, faux documentary allows for any persisting character to offer reflections; experts can be brought in, while other scenes from other places and times can be presented, including those that themselves concern and feature some of the same footage we ourselves have seen, and all with the luxury of whatever time is needed.

Meanwhile, in found footage, the entirety of the piece is restricted to where that single camera or small group of cameras is, with those who are on-site at the time of the incident being recorded.  This demands, perhaps, all the more creativity, though not necessarily on the part of the (actual, real life, non-narrative) filmmaker.  For, the question of found footage—more than faux documentary—is still ‘how did this get to me?’, and the answer is often left to the viewer to suss out for themselves with whatever number of contextual clues.[2]  For faux documentary, though, the answer of the viewer’s role is as easy as whoever might be browsing the documentaries page of Netflix or Hulu.  It admits the viewer as viewer, but not much more, nor does it need to: you can still be you while you watch these events happen in your world, or at least in its past.  A faux documentary that includes found footage, no matter its narrative origins, provides something of a chain of delivery for that footage just by its own existence as a documentary, as an informational piece culled from various researched sources within a world that, by implication, becomes all the more real for the viewer.  Suspension of disbelief then helps with the complicated but largely successful job of humanizing the characters we’re watching–converting them, in our minds, from fictional to real and dynamic.  For, we need not know ourselves that a particular piece of footage being presented in a faux documentary is legitimate to the story so long as someone we have come to know and trust within that story, Jim and Aaron in the case of The Conspiracy, vouches for that material.  And, really, their very appearances in the piece at all usually provide all the legitimacy we would need.

Yeah, this seems totally plausible...

Yeah, this seems totally plausible…

Found footage, on the other hand, doesn’t enjoy such givens.  Cloverfield’s chain of delivery, as an example, is perhaps overly-sketchy because of how implausible it seems for a civilian to be viewing a piece of military evidence, especially in, say, a movie theatre.  While some found footage films might not nail the chain of delivery to our liking, though, faux documentary likewise functions in ways that limit its applicability in some types of horror narratives. in Blair Witch, for instance, the found footage format allows for a clear sense of personal doom that the overtly-processed nature of faux documentary cannot replicate.  In terms of tone, meanwhile, Cloverfield presents us with destruction on a large scale—the footage is found because we can reasonably assume that most or all of the people who produced and are featured in it are dead, an issue we’ve already identified as complicated in The Conspiracy. Megan is Missing, at the other end of the spectrum, forces us to watch a horrible situation worsen before us; while the fate of the killer who claimed the camera for a time is left open, we know that two girls met their ends at his hands–that, wherever their bodies are, their lives are irretrievable.  The Conspiracy, just by leaving its filmmakers alive (or, presumably alive), actually robs us of even the few bleak assurances found footage sometimes tosses out, then.  For, even if we can say that Jim is alive as of the making of the documentary itself, as we’ve just seen it, that is still all we can say given that that narrative realm presumably continues to exist after the piece is finished.  Right now, in that world, Jim might alive, dead, or in some other state, the likes of which is only restricted by our own imaginations. And, in that respect, neither found footage nor faux documentary seems obliged to give us many options for any kind of ever after, let alone a happy one.

Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below!

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[1] At some point, a singularized, hopeless aloneness, typified by that scene from Blair Witch—the cathartic moment—became an expected trope of found footage, but it’s not necessarily so common of one that we expect.  We especially don’t need that cathartic moment in found footage if found footage isn’t all we’re given, as in the case of faux documentary.  The documentary itself, right from the top, might actually stand as an act of catharsis in light of an effecting event—a perspective that straight found footage, by its proximity to the action, can’t assume so cleanly.

[2] Another way to ask the question, as we have discussed, is ‘who am I in this narrative realm?’

Random Theory

until-dawn-hayden-panettiere-ps4-e1407974438229So, I’m watching #TomorrowDaily–and my mind has already been blown by the Pokemon thing, but then there’s something else. In the review of #UntilDawn, the host, Ashley, identifies #HaydenPanettiere by name,  then says “that’s her” as a clip from the entirely digitally-rendered game is shown.  A common enough thing, for sure, but she calls attention to it by amending it: she stipulates that Panettiere ‘did the voice for that character’, but it’s clear how easy it is for us to conflate representation with the thing itself, and even how much harder that distinction might be getting to make in the first place. But, then, I see another character who looks very much like #BrettDalton and, sure enough, according to the IMDb, Dalton provided a voice for the game.  So, I didn’t actually have to see or hear him, nor read his name in print, even, to have initially associated him with this game. And, I think any consumer might do the same, might say ‘Oh, this looks cool! I’ve seen these actors in other stuff I like!’, and that is, of course, exactly what’s intended by the renderings. What’s neat, though, is that they’re not necessarily thinking about the fact that that intermediary, the rendering that lies in the series of so many other steps between them and the actors themselves, even exists. These renderings are so close to their subjects that they can be, at times, taken for the real thing. Yet, since they’re not material, they are both infinitely manipulable and infinitely resilient renderings.  Replicating actors’ voices isn’t an issue, either, given similar audio innovations. So what then does this mean for the identity of that rendering,  especially given their potential to provide performances the actors themselves might never have given? What does it mean for the performance of the actor who provided at least the initial work of inserting that avatar into a narrative, who gave that rendering ‘life’ in the first place? #randomtheory

The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – The Conspiracy (2012) – Part 1 of 2

Poster_for_The_Conspiracy_(2012_Film)WARNING: CONSTRUCTION ZONE          

We’re going to need to start this episode off with the definition and refinement of a few terms, ‘found footage’ itself being the first among them.  This is normal: do not adjust your picture.

Vertical. Horizontal. Al that.

Vertical. Horizontal. All that.

For me, subjectively, found footage is largely defined by that first word: ‘found’.  We’ve talked about this previously, but the idea is that, with found footage fiction, we are given something that, within the world of its own story, has been recovered from some disaster of some scope.  This then implies the physical absence of the creator from that piece of footage, a separation without any hope of reconnection.  If we knew what happened to the filmmaker, if we could contact him or her, the footage wouldn’t have needed to be ‘found’, it could’ve just been released.

This is all narrative realm stuff.  That term sounds like what it is: ‘narrative realm’ is the name we’ll use to mean the world of the story, its fictional context.  Distinguishing the narrative realm as its own thing is important because we’re not just going to limit our attentions to the (non)thinginess of the narrative realm; there are elements of the real world, the real production of the thing as a fictional narrative, including the medium through which the narrative is presented, that effect its possibilities at the narrative level.  With narratives that play with their own relationship to reality, such as what we’re concerned with in these reviews, that shit can get seriously tricky, and fast.  Further, one of the selling points of found footage fiction is its ability to insert itself into the real world to some degree; so, if just for that, we’ll need to be aware of when we’re talking about the narrative realm, the real world, and the ambiguous liminal space that The Conspiracy and others try to bridge to whatever success.

Though, I'm sure this dude could totally turn it up to '11'.

Though, I’m sure this dude could totally turn it up to ’11’.

But, if calling Christopher MacBride’s The Conspiracy (2012) an example of ‘found footage’, as we’ve defined it here and previously, seems inappropriate, how do we then categorize it, as we are always moved to do?  It has elements in kind with found footage—for me, at least, it must, or else I wouldn’t have thought to review it for the found footage series—but a compilation of similarities is, itself, not enough.  We might call The Conspiracy an example of ‘mockumentary’, but that label is rather still too closely linked to This is Spinal Tap for my own tastes: the ‘mock-‘ prefix would lead us to expect satire in whatever we’re attaching the label to, but The Conspiracy is by no means a comedy.

So, for now at least, we’ll call it ‘faux documentary’; a fictional narrative being presented as a documentary of subjects in its own realm.  Just as found footage narrative is just found footage (minus ‘narrative’) within the world of its story, so the ‘faux’ part of faux documentary only indicates its potential for us, the real world viewers, to take it as fiction.  In its own world, The Conspiracy is simply a documentary, no modifiers required.

But identifying and working through this distinction doesn’t mean that faux documentary and found footage can’t overlap.  Rather, one trend to look for in faux documentary is how often it includes found footage as important content, usually in the form of some turn in the plot or new piece of information; much of the third act of The Conspiracy is dedicated to the on-the-scene trauma as it is endured by the filmmakers.  A faux documentary could even possess enough found footage content to render the documenarty-level content as a frame, as is the case with The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007): as with The Conspiracy, there is plenty of information given to us outside the footage itself, primarily in the form of interviews with researchers and other secondary sources, but we’re also never given anything irrelevant to the linear run of the narrative, the sensible telling of a complete and coherent story.

LIVIN’ IN THE LAND OF THE LOST

Within the chain of delivery of a found footage film, we expect some mystery about the filmmaker’s fate, the twist that made them absent, that rendered the footage found.  With a faux documentary, while there certainly could exist some similar mystery, the particular absence of the filmmakers isn’t essential to the success of the plot.  Rather, in films like The Conspiracy and The Sacrament (2013), we are made aware of the fates of some, if not all, of the filmmakers—the means by which the footage has arrived to us is clear and it often directly involves the continued presence of those who actually (within the narrative realm) shot it.  Our imagination does not need to be indulged quite so much as with found footage; a smaller suspension of disbelief is required given the more processes form of the thing, so that faux documentary might even be able to create a more realistic, believable narrative in some respects.  But found footage possesses a viscerality, an emotionality, a panic not just in terms of what’s being shown but the fact that the maker of the footage is, again, lost; that absence consistently haunts our viewings of such films perhaps because, with part of our minds understanding that what we’re seeing is fiction while part of us invests in its reality, we are faced with the fact that we can never materially realize that person whom we’ve come to know as a person; their tragedy multiplied by their fictionality makes them exponentially removed not just from the footage, but from us.  The effective element of found footage, then, might not be so much in what has been found as what it shows us must be always absent.

In faux documentary, such loss can be effecting and haunting, but it can also be obscured and complicated.  In The Conspiracy, the documentary’s content is created largely by the two main characters, filmmakers Aaron (Aaron Poole) and Jim (James Gilbert) and, once the narrative has run its course, we are told of the fates of both men.  Though, by some reckonings, Aaron has disappeared, such a tragic-seeming end is complicated by reasonable-sounding counter-assertions that he has retreated to a commune he referenced repeatedly in earlier scenes.

Aaron went to the Colonies! It is a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure, after all.

Aaron went to the Colonies! It is a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure, after all.

Meanwhile, in his retrospective interview, Jim discusses how, after the third act encounter, he is compelled to always look over his shoulder; a grim fate, but a decidedly living one. Indeed, the considerable amount of material compiled, let alone the retrospective interviews, mean that the film, at least within its own ralm, could not have been completed without his presence and participation.  In fact, while the tones and genres of the films differ, The Conspiracy does have some significant structural commonalities with This Is Spinal Tap, after all—or, at least, its anatomy is closer to that film than it is to, say, Megan is Missing (2011), which gives us a few pieces of extraneous end material that only serves to deepen the mystery of our own identity as a viewer.  This is all important to keep in mind in a discussion of genre, as the forms and structures of a sub-genre like faux documentary might lend itself better to certain subjects, certain types of horrific conflicts, than others.  Could it be, for instance, that found footage makes for a more visceral horror film while faux documentary has assets to lend to a more complexly-creepy narrative?

Come back for part 2, later this week, and continue the conversation now by leaving a comment below!

The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Megan is Missing (2011) – Part 3 of 3

C’MON, TELL ME: WHO ARE YOU?

So, if questions of category are, themselves, really just one manifestation of questions of identity, found footage is seriously messing with identity in a lot of ways.  But messing with identity is also dangerous work; in conversation, Megan is Missing is regularly compared to snuff films[1], an infamous genre wherein even the fictionalization of death is made too graphic, too visceral except to the small contingent of social outcasts who are physically gratified by that sort of thing.

Those perverts.

Megan is Missing has got nothing on Bud Dwyer, the Bergman of Snuff.

Megan is Missing has got nothing on Bud Dwyer, the Bergman of Snuff.

But it is the very attempt at realism, at minimizing the degree to which the viewer has to suspend disbelief, that stands as an establishing characteristic of found footage–according to our reckoning here, at least. So how can we consider any found footage film in which someone dies not a snuff film?  Is Cloverfield, for instance, with its body count that stretches across New York City, not a snuff film?  If we would still say ‘no’, what is it that makes the difference?  Would Cloverfield director Matt Reeves or writer Drew Goddard call it ‘snuff’?  Would Paramount PIctures?

For, to have a narrative means that someone (maybe more than one someone, maybe a lot of someones) did the work of putting together, well, something that, by the time it gets to us, we can take as a narrative.  But why do they bother?  Literally, why do people start creating any particular story in the first place?  There must be an excuse for that narrative–we could call it a ‘reason’, ‘point’, or ‘purpose’, but, considering the general reaction to Megan is Missing, a lot of viewers might find ‘excuse’ more fitting.  I use the term, then, not to placate the fainthearted, but to point out how closely connotatively-negative and positive terms lie to one another in practice.  For, whatever the reason or excuse that Megan is Missing exists, it does exist and was created with deliberation and intentionality–to be, if nothing else, a narrative that viewers engage with, that they view and discuss even as so many potential categorizations, be it snuff, splatter, or even just horror (especially, so often, just horror) tend to foreclose against further serious consideration.[2]

To be clear, even though this all sounds like a question for the filmmakers specifically, ‘why did they make this film?’ is not really the question we’re asking; between its writer/director/producer, Michael Goi, its two producers besides Goi, and the multitude of cast and crew who lent their efforts to making it, Megan is Missing, like almost any feature-length film, must be the product of more than one individual’s intent.  Nor is there any rule that those respective, individual intentions ever agreed with one another at all beyond just getting something made and distributed.  And all this in addition to the understanding that individual intentions are, themselves, often murky even to the individuals that hold them.  We don’t pursue what Goi himself may have intended, then, because those intentions might not be what we expect, they might not even be clear to him, and his position as some sort of sole author with autonomy over ‘his’ creation becomes more and more obviously fiction the longer we look at it.  We’re not saying that any particular content creator–novelist, screenwriter, director, videogame designer, boardgame architect–isn’t actually doing the work with a purpose in mind.  Just that it doesn’t matter so much here.

Yet, while creative intentions are largely either unknown or irrelevant–and not just for Megan is Missing–that doesn’t prevent us from exploring what it is intended to be within its own narrative context.  For, a found footage film always exists within its own story, generally as a product of the events of that story; it’s in pursuing what Megan is Missing means within the world it creates that things start to really get neat (and, by ‘neat’ I really only, always, ever mean ‘weird’–usually: really weird).

AW, WHO THE !@#$ ARE YOU?

But, before we address meaning within context, we should get a better idea of how the found footage narrative is made to move out of its own realm, and into our world.  We’re going to call this the ‘chain of delivery’; it’s a phenomenon almost entirely unique to found footage fiction[3] and, as such, is bound to get a lot of coverage in the reviews to come.  For now, though, here’s the gist, taken from a paper that I might (or might not) get around to posting in full one day:

“[The found footage film] has been discovered by someone other than its author and, ultimately, delivered to a publisher.  Though we rationally understand the story to be fiction… the establishment of some chain of delivery, no matter how scant, will suffice [in helping the viewer suspend disbelief].  In fact, while some link in the chain of delivery is essential… [a usual] lack of information regarding the delivery process frees [the viewer] to imagine for themselves how the material came to the attention of the public.”

So, the chain of delivery, the means by which the found footage story is found and transmitted to the audience, needs to allow that audience to reasonably believe that the story could happen in our own world, that our reality and the reality of the story are effectively the same.

But this is fiction (and some psychology), not hard science; often, only an indicator of that chain needs to be presented.  In films like Cloverfield or Blair Witch, we’re given title cards that establish the footage as being recovered from wherever the action has taken place.  But, for widely-released films like Cloverfield, the setting of a viewing can, itself, become problematic in supporting the chain of delivery and the suspension of disbelief: would the real, recorded-at-the-scene footage of an alien attack in New York City really make it to the local drive-in, or would we be watching it on the news?  Megan is Missing, on the other hand, had a handful of theater a showings, but has likely been seen by far more viewers on their televisions.  You know, that thing we actually use to watch actual news stories that, sometimes, actually appall us?

Not the theater.

Not the theater.

So, if the narrative has somehow managed to invade our reality, to make the characters people in our world, shouldn’t we be wondering what role we’re being made to take in the world of the narrative?  Who does the viewing make us into?  If this footage is real within its own context and we are meant to suspend disbelief, to ignore the distinction between that context and our own, then what role must we be taking in that fictional realm that we’re able to view this footage at all?

And, for that matter, who in that world put this footage together in the first place?  While the reliability of the narrator has long been a topic of interest in more traditional genres and media, it is a question with unique implications for found footage narratives, one that is both telling and often ignored.  In Megan is Missing, much of what we see is taken from Amy’s personal camera, filmed by her and, after she is captured, by the antagonist.  Yet, once he has disposed of his victims and left the camera and its footage to be discovered by police, the narrative continues on.  But according to whose will within the story?

Giving Credit Where Credit is Deux (Yeah, I just did that)

At their base, most of the narratives we would identify as narrative are concerned with antagonists and protagonists.  Found footage is no different, but the sorta-‘meta’ status of the genre, the self-recognition of found footage films as films (or, at least, as filmed) means that we need to concern ourselves with another force, a character we might already know or one we may never see directly: the compiler.  In Megan is Missing, the additional footage after the discovery of the camera stands as the most obvious evidence of some sort of hand in the editing, but we can see that party’s will being worked long before the girls meet their fates.  

Earlier, when we’re presented with some pieces of ancillary information, such as the fake ‘self-portrait’ the antagonist sends to Megan, the visuals are accompanied by functional, professional-looking captions; we might reasonably assume that the compiler is a police employee or someone hired to process the video from the investigation.  Other insertions, though, such as a the comparatively bombastic title cards, belie this: the title itself, Megan is Missing, takes up most of the screen in a bold, Impact-style font.  There is nothing comparable in a lot of other examples of found footage, as even the act of naming the feature outright within itself clearly indicate a dramatic intentionality, a particular perspective on what this footage is and how the viewer is supposed to take it.   

But the seeming conflict in the compiler’s goals and how they manifest in the editing may just be our own misperception based on evidence which, itself, is only so complete as the creation of the film allows it to be.  The very assumption of a single, indecisive compiler makes it easy to label the editing as inconsistent, yet there is nothing about the way the narrative works that precludes more than one compiler. Rather than some lone police employee, could the telling of Megan and Amy’s story, within-world, have been shaped by unknown others?  And, if so, does our viewing of the footage then subject us to the will of forces within the story itself, a party who might just be more clearly aware of us than we are of it?  

Creepy, ain’t it?

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[1] As examples, see:

http://thehorrorclub.blogspot.com/2011/05/megan-is-missing-2011.html

http://www.thedeathrattle.net/2011/05/megan-is-missing-2011.html

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/MeganIsMissing. On its page for the film, TVTropes points out the final twenty minutes specifically as being an example of the ‘snuff film’ form.

[2] Not that the genres themselves are necessarily limiting—quite the opposite–but that those who are discussing these films too often think of the label as a way to answer the question of what the narrative is and be done with it.  In understanding at least the less-directly informed criticisms of Megan Is Missing, and found footage and even horror, we can easily see some very lazy thinking at work.  And while I won’t put down any film in which the participants went to the effort of actually producing the thing, I damn well will rail against uninformed assumptions about those works.

[3] At least, so far as I can reckon.  That doesn’t mean that it’s limited to found footage horror films, however.  For literary examples, see Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Poe’s only finished novel, 1838), and Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928).  Kinda makes me wonder if found footage audio is a thing, actually.