So then, Wolfgang Ernst gets dropped into my life. Thanks, Dr. Miller!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Cinetactics is doing some amazing work with a lot of films I hadn’t even heard of before. Remember that the point of exposing ourselves to alternative/underground/independent/foreign/dangerous films isn’t just to hear new voices, but to contribute our own voices to more conversations. Go check this WordPress series out!
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