The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Mockingbird (2014) – Part 2 of 6

So what is required in effectively, convincingly setting the Mockingbird narrative in 1995?  As Beth (“The Woman”) takes the camera out of the box at the beginning of her plotline, she starts panning around her apartment, giving the viewer closeups of various knickknacks; though the world we’re viewing is over two decades old, much of the set-dressing consists of items and fashions that wouldn’t seem out-of-place today.  No big HD televisions to be found, nor is anyone pulling out a cellphone or researching horror movie escape options on YouTube–while the tightly-contained nature of the narrative means that greater-scale differences, such as shots of era-specific cars running along the roads, are inconspicuously avoided.

For as much as the efficacy of suspension of disbelief is ever at issue in a found footage film, though, the Mockingbird filmmakers’ attention to detail in set-dressing is seemingly undercut by a surprising editorial addition.  Options for the inclusion of a soundtrack would seem limited in found footage fiction; while there might be perfectly acceptable moments of ambient music–a character has turned on a record or the film is set in a mall, etc.–the addition of non-contextualized audio can become disruptive not just to the suspension of disbelief, but to the narrative identity of the footage as found.   Consider how so many found footage films start as something that was, from the protagonists’ perspectives, never supposed to become ‘found footage’ at all: a pair of girls chatting after school (Megan is Missing), amateur paranormal detectives looking for fun and glory more than danger (Atrocious/The Blair Witch Project), or a group of friends celebrating a birthday (Cloverfield).  Even once the plot turns and the ultimate role of the footage as chronicle of a tragedy is realized, contextual considerations are still at issue: each piece of footage becomes evidence, and when is evidence ever scored?  Mockingbird’s opening card, however, is backed by a single, heavy musical chord; assuming that some intended viewer can start to be sussed out, who must that viewer be for such an overt motion toward entertainment to be appropriate?  Who, in the world of the narrative, must have processed the footage for what audience, and what creative priority informed the inclusion of effect music?  Though, with films like Cloverfield and Blair Witch, the editor’s sympathies tend to lie with the protagonists–the victims–what we have in Mockingbird is more akin to The Poughkeepsie Tapes in the intent of its creation; from the top, in its very initiation, the filming is meant to chronicle an episode of suffering.

Accordingly, from before the beginning of the film, Mockingbird’s antagonist controls the development of the narrative events; we can confirm the ‘Killer’s Camera’ situation quite early, as the antagonist is seen to take his first victim while still holding the recording device, just after touring the house.  But answering the question of who holds the camera so early only points up the implications of the question, itself.  In a given found footage film, the producer of the material tends to be either a protagonist or an antagonist.  Narratively, there is little call for someone not directly involved with the events to take up their chronicling–even the act of wielding the camera in the first place can position a previously-unaligned character on one side of the conflict, usually as a victim.  Protagonists, especially those who start with complete control of the camera, will often introduce themselves overtly, sometimes even while looking fully into the lens.  They are concerned only with the current occasion of filming, oblivious to the complications that will change that purpose as the situation unfolds.  Cloverfield (2008) goes further than most in this regard: a going-away party means that many of the first several people we see don’t just directly identify themselves, but they provide context for the interpersonal drama to be explored before the backdrop of the larger-scale disaster.[1]  Mockingbird’s first camera-user, on the other hand, is dead silent; rather than polyphonous discourse, Mockingbird gives us only calm, quiet footage of a largely-unpeopled interior space.  The camera is angled with experimental drama in some shots, while others focus on interesting pieces of setting–all of it indicating that, while the wielder is, perhaps, in an unfamiliar location, he is nevertheless in confident control.  By contrast, having been caught off-guard by the appearances of their respective cameras, Tom, Emmy, and Beth don’t make such clear and decisive moves at self-identification as Cloverfield’s party-goers, but neither do they actively conceal themselves.

Physical possession of the camera in Mockingbird–in found footage fiction plots, often–does not necessarily mean that that physical wielder is empowered. Here, the main usefulness of the camera is as one-way communication from the victims to the antagonist.   Given the placement of the events in the mid-90s, the period-appropriate camera is thus established as an instrument the purpose of which–as opposed to modern cell phone cameras–is singular,  the capabilities of which are limited in ways that only serve to put the victims at a greater disadvantage.  All the more ironic, then, that, in each of their introductions, the victims so willingly embrace the technology; they might not all make time for direct identification, but they aim the camera at little else but themselves and each other.  Eventually, after the nature of the ‘game’ becomes clear to the players, the full extent of the antagonist’s advantage is made clear even as Tom exercises one of the last vestiges of phallic power he retains, the authority of knowledge; he identifies that the camera he and Emmy are using is equipped with a wireless transmitter.  The dynamic of communication between the antagonist and protagonist thus proves something other than what it seemed at first, then, as the antagonist doesn’t need to wait to collect the videocamera to be able to observe the progress of the scheme.

Transmitters or not, though, the presentation itself is still strictly reliant on the technology,  which means that some important practical restrictions on the plot are maintained.  The cinematic run-time is set at 81 minutes; presuming cuts, though, the length of the fiction within its own narrative realm can run substantially longer, and the story seems to go on for the better part of an evening.  It’s no profound point that suspension of disbelief would have us assume a degree of verisimilitude with reality, but we can add some gravity to the arrangement: anyone who will not survive the tale has, at most, only the length of an ever-depleting camera battery in which to live.

Of course, none of this is of great concern to the antagonist–of a character class that makes it through horror much more reliably than villains of other genres.  But the antagonist presents the situation as a game, and a game generally requires the communication of rules or expectations.  Indeed, before his execution scene in the opening, the young boy asserts that he followed the rules he’d been given; he never stopped filming and he never told anyone about the situation.


But aren’t there, like, a bunch of other rules, too?  Should we even be talking about this?

Though this first ‘victim’’s true identity is eventually revealed as something other than a victim, the issue of communication remains a valid one: the protagonists are initially provided with little more than the camera itself.  We can assume, then, that more communication is coming, but how will those orders be delivered? That the message begun by the appearance of the camera itself is incomplete alludes to the ultimate degree of control the antagonist holds over the story; he hasn’t delivered the rules yet because he doesn’t have to.  Really, he never has to, except insofar as he desires the story to follow a particular path to the victims’ ruin.  By contrast, the position of the characters as participants in an event is emergent, but not voluntary[2].  They begin to see that they are being made subjects of media–subject to media–but they will come to full comprehension only when they realize how little control they have over those interactions.  In noting the transmitter, Tom takes a step toward that recognition–but does knowledge of such a situation necessarily help in overcoming it?

Tyler Durden triumphant

Sure.  That totally seems like a possibility…

Come back tomorrow for part 3 of the Dispatches Review of Mockingbird!

[1] Also, unlike more realistic examples, Cloverfield’s nemesis never shows potential to notice the camera, nor even comprehend its function.

[2] With the exception of Leonard, ‘The Clown’.  But more on him later.


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