The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Mockingbird (2014) – Part 1 of 6

mockingbirdposterThis article has been baking like a cake.  It took a while, but I like the result, and it’s probably more appetizing than anything I’ve ever actually pulled out of an oven.  As it stands, it’s is pretty lengthy, six parts that I’ll release over the next several days, but I think it’s worth it for what Mockingbird gives us.  That said, while I think Bryan Bertino’s film is a fine example of the sort of work we’ve been examining in this series, the length of this particular analysis shouldn’t be interpreted as a bias in favor of the film; there was a lot to talk about here, but there’s a lot to talk about in any example of the genre.

But, this did get a little out of hand, so maybe I’ll work on shorter entries in the future.




Like most modern films, Mockingbird opens with a production company logo; in this case, Universal’s, looking majestic and quite conspicuous.  Conspicuous enough, in fact, that we can identify it as a point of difference between the presentation of found footage fiction and other genres.   Assuming a viewer has come to the film knowing that it’s a ‘found footage’ piece, how does the opening marker for that big-budget company disrupt the establishment of the chain of delivery and the suspension of disbelief?   The Blumhouse Productions card, which follows Universal’s, is more in keeping with the genre of the film-as-entertainment–featuring visions of ghosts, floating objects, spectral lighting, etc.–but that certainly doesn’t rectify anything.  For, the glitz of its card notwithstanding, Universal might well be giving us something ‘serious’[1], something we can take for true through the suspension of our own disbelief combined with the production’s sufficient verisimilitude with our own reality[2].  The BH card, on the other hand, draws attention to what we’re actually here for; they make horror fiction and this story we’re about to watch is just that.  Lucky, then, that the ubiquity of modern title cards means that these identifiers are at least somewhat ignorable.  The narrative proper, though, opens with a more integrated, significant hint to the viewer of the nature of what they’re about to watch, even as it helps set that scene: ‘Once Upon a Time in 1995.’

Once Upon a Time in 1995

Events may not be depicted to scale.

The title cards will become an element in establishing verisimilitude between our own experience in watching the film and the experiences of those whom we are watching, but the only feat this particular identifier can perform here, at the very beginning, is to indicate exactly what it does: though it broadly identifies a historical point, the card serves as no real reinforcement of the film as found footage, but might actually contradict the viewer’s sense of the chain of delivery by implying that, whenever it was added to the footage, it wasn’t in 1995.  The footage may be no nearer the (implied) present of the fictional editor than it is to our own.  Meanwhile, the peculiar phrasing offers the first of several clues to problems of authorship.

Taking Mockingbird as found footage–and, perhaps more interestingly, as a found footage period piece–thus warrants examination of how the dynamics of camera perspective and historical setting could be made to interrelate.  As a trend, found footage narratives are only set so far in the past: Frankenstein’s Army (2013), taking place in WWII-era Russia, is one of the earliest-set so far, as is Apollo 18 (2011), which takes place in 1974.  Certainly, a time-travel narrative presented as found footage, such as Project Almanac (2015), would have the freedom of its conceit to move further back, but that’s a different concern than when the narrative itself starts; the further into the past the found footage tale is set, the more contextualized the technology on view becomes.  Such a situation stood out in our previous examination of Atrocious (2010), with its simulation of dated slide-projector technology.  In Mockingbird, though, the most prominent anachronism manifests in the opposite direction; namely, the recording itself just looks too good.  Here we are, modern viewers, watching the film on a widescreen display with HD resolution; the footage itself, though, is said to be from the mid-90s, produced with, we assume, period-appropriate, commercial-grade video recording technology, which was able to accommodate neither today’s aspect ratios nor resolutions.   The picture, however, is crystal clear and fills up exactly the whole screen, with no black bands nor any other indicator that the image has been processed for quality.   Mockingbird’s target demographic, teens to early adults, might not notice these discrepancies, but such anachronisms could be harder to get past for other, tech-savvy, detail oriented, digitally intercommunicating audiences.

So then, under what circumstances would a period found footage film have to begin paying scrupulous attention to the look of the filmmaking itself in order to not compromise the suspension of disbelief?  From this angle, something like Frankenstein’s Army is rather a different animal; scientific plausibility is dismissed in its very title, sure, but, more to a rather morbid point, what percentage of viewers are of the age and background to be able to notice the finer anachronisms?

soviet cadets

In other words, all these comrades are probably dead now, so they don’t care.

For something as historically close to us as Mockingbird, though, attention to fine detail becomes much more central to sustaining the suspension of disbelief.  Considering the extant wealth of relatively well-maintained media from the beginning of the home video era onward–the availability of the ‘real thing’ to examination beyond recollections–the stakes in suspending disbelief become commensurately higher.  Mockingbird receives its share of criticism for its seeming mistakes, yet the opening shots–after the ‘Once upon a time…’ card–quite effectively play up the contemporary novelty of technology that is, for us, long-obsolete.  The opening footage is not just meant to establish the upper-middle class suburban setting, nor even just to initiate the plot, but to show the camera’s wielder as enamored of the camera itself.  And while the power that the camera holds, both practically and symbolically, is formidable, what we see in the opening (at least, before the shooting) feels less like a blunt example of that fact and more like a consumer playing with a cool new piece of tech in the typical ways.  Such treatment of the technology, though not overdone, is repeated in each character group’s introduction; everyone messes around with the camera.

That is not to say, however, that everyone ultimately holds the same relationship with the camera–or the force that truly controls it.

TOMORROW!:  Mockingbird Pt. II!

[1] ‘Serious’ needs to be defined:  While many horror films, including Mockingbird, treat their subjects seriously versus ironically or comically, what I mean by the term here (and usually elsewhere) is content presented as material truth versus fiction.  If, for instance, BH were to continue producing documentaries (it released two in 2015), it would likely also continue to not use its mainstream design, the one shown at the top of Mockingbird, to lead those releases.  Doing otherwise is not just a matter of taste, but could lead to genre confusion for the viewer.

[2] Or a situation that obviates such a need by being set in an environment the viewer likely isn’t so intimately familiar with, such as space.  See: Apollo 18 (2011) or Europa Report (2013).


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