Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Hardcore Henry (2015)

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This awesome Mondo poster for Hardcore Henry was created by Cesaer Moreno for a screening earlier this year.  Visit IGN for more information on that event and Moreno’s work!

 

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Death has a name.  It’s ‘Pinky’.

Illya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry (2015) opened to praise at a few festivals, but hasn’t yet seen similar success in wide release.  Such difficulty in finding an audience could be telling of the sort of work it tries to be–the way it tells its story–versus what is desired and accepted within the current cinematic market.  And, since comparisons of Hardcore Henry’s ‘gimmick’, its subjective lens, to 2005’s Doom were bound to proliferate as soon as the film was announced, we won’t run shy of that earlier feature here, either.  In fact, though promotional materials for Doom (including its own poster) touted the subjective camera perspective, less than a quarter of that film’s story is shot from that angle.  The difference in Hardcore Henry’s gimmick–what might initially make it seem more gimmicky than Doom–is that its entire run time employs the subjective camera perspective.  This is, of course,the same sort of angle employed in most scenes of most found footage fiction.

But the presence of a subjective camera within the scene of the fiction does not make a piece found footage fiction.  Strictly speaking, any camera that exists within the reality of any scene it is recording is subjective; the subjective camera holds the potential for being wielded by any character who can reach it.  But that accessibility is quite often a technicality: does the inmate in a prison film necessarily have the same access to the security camera that might capture him for a few scenes as the student documentarian in the midst of investigation?  Usually, that doomed kid’s camcorder footage, made at least in part by himself, will be discovered, processed for an end, and delivered to an in-narrative viewer.  The inmate, though, has no reasonable expectation of ever gaining control over that security camera, to the point that he might not even recognize its presence even as we are viewing him through it.

Thus, even though we are addressing Hardcore Henry as part of a series on found footage fiction, it, like others we have studied, does not necessarily hold an uncontested place as found footage.  For, while Hardcore Henry presents its narrative via a subjective camera, is that perspective meaningfully functional to the delivery of the narrative?  Is there anything inherent to the tale that makes it important that we are seeing it in first rather than third person?  Do any of the participants on-screen at all recognize that someone, somewhere, somehow might view the footage they are all contributing to?  Only Aken, the antagonist, ever displays any ability to control the broadcasting of the chronicle, but he never shows any actual intention to distribute it, perhaps because doing so would render any in-narrative viewer witness to a large-scale, very well funded criminal organization.  So, answering to Hardcore Henry’s place as a bonafide found footage film is a rather different prospect than when we earlier asked such questions about films like  The Conspiracy or even Megan is Missing; there, whether by the antagonist, the protagonist, or someone else who still exists in that world, the camera is being physically held, pointed, wielded.  And, implicit in the act of a character wielding the camera is that prop’s subsequent potential to help further the plot, resolve it, complicate it, or reshape it in some other way, but to nevertheless be held within and subject to it.  The viewing angle on a scene may shift, but the subjective camera itself does not ever simply to phase into an objective state.

Hardcore Henry allows us to see the action through the hero’s eyes–accomplished by having the various actors who portray[1] Henry wear a body camera (on their heads, I presume; an obvious detail to point out, but it will become important later).  There is a flashback, presented and expanded on a few times over the course of the film, but that footage is also shot in first person[2].  However, in a scene from early in the second half of the film, we find out that Henry’s bionic eyes, the eyes through which we are witnessing the events, are also transmitting live to the antagonist.  Were this a found footage film, we could take this opportunity to question its chain of delivery and who the intended audience is; it makes sense that, as Aken’s experimentation has enabled Henry to serve as a recorder, so he would have live access to whatever Henry sees.  But our viewing is not live, so should we ask if and for what reason this footage might have been archived, in-narrative, for later view?  Apparently not, as no part of the rest of the film seems to be at all concerned with answering that question; we might say that Hardcore Henry isn’t found footage because it never takes the time to consider itself as found footage.

However, Hardcore Henry’s footage is not not the sort of thing that could end up on the YouTube of its world if someone with access decided to go public[3], and, in that sense, it is relatable enough to both archival videos and independent, digitally-distributed found footage fiction creations.  But the ability to capture the action is secondary to the function of Henry’s eyes as enabling him to, of course, navigate the action.  Rather than the film being in some way made for our viewing–a contextual, in-narrative intention of most all actual found footage tales, regardless of what they’re chronicling or what they come to chronicle–we are more strictly ‘along for the ride’ here.  Might we then begin to consider this ‘passive subjective’ style to constitute a broader sub-genre, which found footage, faux documentary, and fake news broadcast might all fit within?  Or, which some sub-genres might fit into, while others don’t?  Or, might the style be something different still?  Somehow tangential to these other forms, rather than encompassing them?  It becomes difficult to say, in part because the consistent subjective camera makes Hardcore Henry surprisingly unique among big-studio cinema.  Consider that, while the comparison to Doom is obvious, that film, itself, was a decade old at the time of Hardcore Henry’s release.

This, then, is where we begin to question what Hardcore Henry actually is and what it might actually be trying to do, rather than simply assuming it to be derivative of specific other films and games.  Earlier, we noted that Hardcore Henry’s consistent use of a subjective camera makes it seem more gimmicky than Doom.  However, Doom, being the cinematic adaptation of a well-known video game franchise, included its subjectively-shot content explicitly to gain the favor of that franchise’s fans.  Hardcore Henry, on the other hand, did not enjoy any pre-existing videogame basis to build from–thereby rendering it, and its relationship with fps gaming, something different.  For, though not having a root in any specific fps title, Hardcore Henry is clearly informed by a host of fps sensibilities that both tie into and extend past its shooting aesthetic (pun intended).  While Doom attempts to translate a single franchise from one medium to another, Hardcore Henry takes on a broader job that might have worked better if it had been tried before that prior, more pointed attempt; the film endeavors to represent the dynamics and sensibilities–in short, the culture of narration–of first person shooters, altogether, as constituting an entire type of narrative experience.  This is, perhaps, because first-person shooters seem like they should be more amenable to traditional cinema than, say, a puzzle game or side-scrolling fighting game[4].  On the other hand, the producers of Hardcore Henry might have chosen to model their film on fps dynamics because the ‘camera’ and pacing of that type of game is, as we have seen, so immediately relatable to (if not so simply resembling) the more tested perspective of the found footage film.[5]

At any rate, Hardcore Henry offers a metanarrative, but not one so overtly displayed through the plot conceit of the subjective camera’s prominence as it would be in found footage fiction.  Instead, the story’s deliberate, consistent filming approach implies the content creators’ considerations–and subsequent rejection–of other presentation options.  Rather than making the characters (and, practically-speaking, the film itself) explicitly aware of the creation of the media product, Hardcore Henry offers metacognitive complications through the restrictions of its subjective presentation; the single camera unyieldingly shoots from Henry’s perspective, thereby limiting (though not eliminating) the fungibility of time and space which is ubiquitous to objectively-shot stories.  Meanwhile, the film’s composition–not only the camera orientation, but several plot tropes–evokes the sort of cutscene and gameplay experiences that we might expect from any modern fps.

As such, while the camera orientation of Hardcore Henry is, itself, hardly original, it is nevertheless novel; the makers of Doom were only confident enough to assume the subjective perspective for the final 25 minutes of their production.  Hardcore Henry, removed by a decade, was developed with a historical perspective on that earlier critical failure, and so, in light of the project’s continuance, we are compelled to wonder if ‘the gimmick’ might not be more adequately referred to as ‘the experiment’.  For, there is something at once familiar, alienating, and engaging in seeing Sharlto Copley’s live-action performance of Jimmy, standing right before us[6]looking very much like what we would see if we were facing, say, a non-playable character in Call of Duty or Wolfenstein[7].  One reason mounting the camera on or near the actor’s head becomes important, then–besides the obvious plot sensibility–is that doing so provides the viewer with an angle on another standing body that matches the sort of foreshortened renderings we have come to expect not so much in real life as in modern, well-developed first person shooters[8].

So, what we’d previously identified as a benefit of the found footage camera–namely, its physical independence from the characters–comes to hold that form back from transgressing customary media boundaries the way Hardcore Henry does.  For, even if the found footage camera does occasionally give us views resembling what we would see in gaming, that reminiscence is both fragmentary and fleeting, as the found footage plot gets to those shots for disparate reasons: generally, the characters (and, subsequently, the camera) of found footage fiction are more focused on chronicling (and surviving) the plot than actively contributing to it the way Henry does.  It’s hard to aim a camera and a gun at the same time, after all, so it’s convenient to the telling of Henry’s own story that he doesn’t have to make that choice.

Having the camera placed in Henry’s eyes, though, does more than just free up his other gun hand[9]; as the narrative kicks off from Henry’s perspective, we can assume that we’re going to see all the action from that same perspective, which we do.  But, unlike found footage fiction, those characters who address the camera directly in Hardcore Henry aren’t just addressing a camera, nor do they do so with any anticipation of catharsis[10].  Rather, Hardcore Henry’s camera, as it exists in the narrative itself, has a human identity physically wrapped around it–Henry’s own–and, even though he (tellingly) doesn’t have the capacity to verbally respond when spoken to, it is clearly understood that the characters who are addressing the camera are engaging him directly, as an individual, in discourse that, itself, reinforces his sense of personhood and valuation within his immediate community–despite that most of the members of that immediate community are trying to kill him.  The found footage camera is, by contrast, a pure receiver of whatever the wielder wishes to express or train it on; the only time that we might see a character come into conflict with the found footage camera directly, for instance, is if it were to stop working, to violate its primary function as a recorder of the events.

Henry, meanwhile, is recognized for his personhood, his viability in participating in human communication, even when he’s being lied to.  Henry’s ‘wife’, Estelle, for instance, turns out to have a pretty big secret; given a found footage version of the same story, where there existed an independent, wieldable camera, she might very well take the opportunity to go off somewhere and confess to the impartial, unresponsive lens in the typical moment of found footage catharsis, thereby making the viewer aware of a plot twist that Henry would still not be privy to.  But such is not the case here; since the camera is embedded in Henry, confessing to it would be confessing to him.  Yet, if she cannot speak to Henry about certain things, it can only be because she recognizes his status as a thinking, acting individual, capable of intelligent, personalized responses–human capacities still quite beyond those of any mechanical recording device.

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Recognition?  Being??  IT’S HEGEL OUTTA NOWHERE!!!

 


[1] ‘Play’?  ‘Stand in for’?  The nature of the protagonist as unseen–and the fact that, because of that, several actors fill the role–complicates word choice here.

[2] The flashback sequence presents an interesting and problematic re-positioning of the viewer, whose position with respect to the narrative isn’t terribly clear to begin with.  Regardless of whatever other things we might or might not say about the role we play as we view the footage Henry is recording, who must we be if we are privy to his actual memories?  We might be able to gloss this with something about how Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy was able to ‘detect and remove a memory block’ so that, by narrative logic, all Henry’s memories are thus rendered ‘watchable’ without any further moral implications or scientific/medical conundrums.  But meh.

[3] Of course, assuming that all of the footage we’re seeing is actually being recorded in-narrative and that those recordings would still be accessible after the antagonist’s death.  We must also assume that the footage hasn’t already been edited, in-narrative, for entertainment rather than archival purposes.  A tough prospect, as, while Hardcore Henry includes some ambient music, it also has an overt soundtrack that, among other things, provides pacing for the action scenes.

[4] Not that cinematic adaptations of such types haven’t also been attempted–see such diverse examples as Battleship (2012) or the Mortal Kombat series (1995-present)–but they don’t tend to try to emulate the gaming experience itself.  Even 2003’s House of the Dead, released two years before Doom and also based on a popular first-person shooter, does not attempt to take on a subjective angle in any noteworthy way.

[5] A notable early example of a subjective camera piece: Robert Montgomery’s 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake.  There, the vast majority of the film is told in first person, from the point of view of Philip Marlowe.  The film wasn’t critically successful, however, and few subsequent examples of the subjective technique, especially as used in studio films, are to be found.

[6] I’ve just noticed the use of the collective pronoun here; Copley is not merely standing before the protagonist, but before us, the viewers who are seeing the action through Henry’s eyes, regardless of how well or poorly we might project ourselves into his position otherwise.  My own word choice here thus betrays that the camera angle conceit is, to whatever degree, successful.

[7] Especially in that old-school British soldier’s uniform!

[8] Compare Hardcore Henry’s game-informed angles to the aforementioned Lady in the Lake; there, the screen direction tends to hold the actors at a greater distance from the subjective camera, perhaps precisely in order to prevent that same unflattering foreshortening that the customs of mid-20th C. studio filmmaking would have viewed dimly.

[9] Notice the fancy grammatical maneuver required here: how many cameras are there? As previously noted, the film was shot with a single camera at a time–one angle on all the action–and that image is all the viewer sees.  However, even as we follow along with Henry, there are a number of points at which the view is split and distorted; in those scenes, Henry’s eyes are not looking in the same direction.  at the same time.  Such effects are accomplished with basic shooting and editing work that involves two cameras; however, the rest of the film, shot on a single camera at a time, is nevertheless meant to represent the image Henry captures in the two cameras in his two eyes.  Thus, there aren’t as many cameras involved in the real shooting of the scenes as there are within the narrative as it’s happening.  The respective worlds, that of the story and that of its production as fiction, distinguish themselves from one another even in the most immediate of ways, in the very telling of the tale.

[10] No room here, for, say, the sorts of tearful confessions common to major found footage fiction pieces such as The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield.

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

FILM AS FANTASY (FULFILLMENT)

So, if Mockingbird is somehow an empowerment fantasy, what are we supposed to do with it?  Assuming that filmmakers Bertino and Esmail have presented us with a pure fantasy, worked out in detail, in what narrative context does the fantasy itself exist?  For while what we’re given is rather blunt, the continued untenability of the plan indicates that the fantasy world might ever be the only way for these feelings of resentment of authority to be fully expressed–implying that the ‘imaginer’ exists in a world unseen within the frame, but whose limitations and social sensibilities might stand closer to our own.  Nor do the children really even do much with the considerable power they claim for themselves; despite their superior skills at communications manipulation, their ambitions are rather small-scale, with no significant indicators that The Family, The Woman, or The Clown are part of any still-grander plot.  The film sets the endeavor as, essentially, a cheap thrill killing, so how much more diminished does it become in its increasing removal from material efficacy?  For, the workability of the plan means that it is far more successful and satisfying the deeper it is set within fantasy.  The antagonist–or, rather, the protagonist of an elaborate train of thought–is, in the setting of his own mind, always already omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent with respect to the plot he is inventing.

The Clown could prove problematic to the idea of the film as an actual fantasy, though.  The Family and The Woman are, themselves, not identified as particularly important, but might still be taken as symbolically essential.  Depending on the reality of the imaginer’s situation, Tom and Emmy might represent his own parents to whatever degree, while Beth, a young woman with yet-unrealized potential for motherhood, could stand as a teacher or caretaker.  But what would an adolescent empowerment fantasy need with such a guileless man-child as Leonard?  He doesn’t even cross paths with the others except to meet his own end–he presents in himself no real or symbolic challenge to be overcome, except, perhaps, the threat of wasted potential.

Any scant power Leonard wields stems not at all from himself, but from the situation of the game; rather than terrorizing this victim with death threats in an enclosed space, the children assign him to run around town, performing stunts in public not as a means to survive, but to win the game’s mythical prize.  At one point, he is told to sing a song in a crowded women’s’ room in order to retrieve the next clue; later he is told to do jumping jacks in the rain, all while still being filmed by the provided, live-feed camera[1].  These are demeaning tasks, but more on par with a reality television show than a well-organized multiple-murder plot.  While he is, perhaps, necessary in executing key steps in the game, he is otherwise treated largely as a joke–the manifestation of a victim that the antagonist is empowered not just to kill, but to bully.  In a Hegelian sense, Leonard serves as a far more willing and malleable slave to the antagonist’s master than The Family and The Woman do, even though all are disposed of in like fashion.  Ironic, then, that the force which ultimately kills Leonard is the same one that stirs him to uncharacteristically meaningful action.  The rest of the clown iconography, of negligible intimidative power to begin with, is invoked by and kept under the strict control of the villains to the end.  The fullest expression of Leonard’s incompetence, in fact, comes in the final scene, when he quite literally brings a cake to a gunfight and is by no means spared in the expected carnage.

BEFORE THE BEGINNING

As The Family’s story opens, we’re given an ambiguous shot.  As with Beth and Leonard, the camera is delivered while it is already filming–but, here, we’re given an extra few seconds before the delivery, as the unseen antagonist starts the recording[2], closes the box, walks up to the front porch, and rings the bell.  We don’t get this extra piece with the beginning of either Alexandra’s or Leonard’s stories, but we can deduce that, since those cameras are likewise running as they’re discovered, comparable footage must exist in that narrative world somewhere.  An identifiable piece of the footage for both of those subplots is thus rendered contextually extant but materially inaccessible.  Certainly, there is a lot that a single camera–or even a group of cameras–would not capture during any occasion of filming, but what is missing here is meaningfully distinct from other common cuts.

These two missing lengths of film each possess a dual existence, a reality within the realm of the story and within our own world–or, more accurately, they have analogous complexions that point up how the situations of the narrative and the material production are likewise constructed.  If we could wind Tom and Emmy’s recording back further than what we’re given, so that we could see, perhaps, everything from the moment the camera is actually turned on, what we’d be shown would depend on whether we were considering that camera as a tool in the real world or a device of the narrative.  What could be represented diverges as we move into the past, even as it unifies in the present; what we eventually come to is what we actually see–in that first storyline, it’s the trees, the camera being covered, blackness, then the box being opened and the plot progressing.  But if the footage were to be wound back within the narrative, we might see the culprits, caught unaware, as they begin to enact their grand plan.  On the other hand, were we to wind the footage back within the reality of the production, we would instead see film crew and actors readying their equipment and themselves.  We can see neither, though, and that situation would match well with the idea that the plot is entirely imagined, intangible in any realm–thereby obviating the question of footage that is just as thoroughly immaterial.

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DAMNIT, HEGEL! I KNEW IT!!!


[1] Leonard might know that the camera has a transmitter–he might even care–but it doesn’t matter because he is independently ineffectual.  His behavior shows that, in order to do anything of note, Leonard must be led to it.

[2] Strictly speaking, we don’t get the visuals from the absolute beginning of the recording.  Instead, the audio fades up behind the main title card, which then cuts to an unfocused shot of trees just before the camera is sealed up.

The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Atrocious (2014) – Part 5 of 6

THE VIEWER

But this is a found footage film, so what do we mean by there’s “no plainly identified viewer of the film itself”?  We don’t know who the intended viewer is, but there must be one, right?

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You tell me.  Okay, I will.

Mockingbird opens with a prominent violation of a big cultural taboo; a child is shot, point blank, squarely framed.  Fiction or not, the sensibilities of some viewers would compel them to turn the film off right there.  If that view could be examined dispassionately, though, would we be able to identify a modern fear of violence against children that has, itself, become culturally pervasive?[1]  Would we be surprised if, in their objections to the scene, those viewers claimed it was too ‘realistic’?  We won’t go into modern crime statistics here, but, by and large, violence in the United States has been on the decline for the last several decades; thus, the shock of Mockingbird’s opening, as well as its ultimate twist, hinges not so much on the actual, material threats of violence we face day-to-day–or not–so much as on the cultivation and manipulability of fear[2].   The rest of the film, in fact–being framed by the opening ‘execution’–is largely an exercise in how perceptual manipulation can put a victim at a disadvantage that is, at once, phantasmagoric and yet as effective as any material bonds.  More pointedly, Mockingbird plays with the ways that access to information can make available or foreclose against various outcomes.  For the viewer who cannot stomach the opening, this experimenting is affected right off, as they stop watching the film.  

For the viewer who keeps watching, though, certain outcomes phase in and out of possibility with the progression of the plot, which, in turn, brings further challenges to the maintenance of the suspension of disbelief.  Recognizability–an issue for found footage narratives in general–is made all the more prominent here through the arrangement of character introductions.  The Family is portrayed by actors Audrey Marie Anderson and Todd Stashwick– between them, they have appeared in such popular titles as Castle, The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, and Heroes, and both are now featured in live-action DC Universe television shows.  While not necessarily recognizable by name, we are familiar with these faces–they have crossed our vision at points prior to our assuming the disbelief requested by this film–and even scant familiarity can then demand further adjustment of suspension of disbelief as we begin watching them here.

But these two are introduced less than five minutes into the run-time, so it’s no big deal.  It is though, perhaps, indicative of a need for films of the genre to introduce recognizable actors early on, for Anderson’s and Stashwick’s aren’t the only familiar faces we come to see.  Leonard, ‘The Clown’, lives with his mother, played by Lee Garlington: Garlington has been acting since the early 1980’s, and has appeared in such cultural touchstones as Hill Street Blues, Family Ties, Murphy Brown, Field of Dreams, Roseanne, Home Improvement, Friends, Touched by an Angel, and Desperate Housewives.  Such recognizability is not, in itself, a problem for the narrative; rather, it is the fact that Garlington doesn’t actually appear until almost 18 minutes into the runtime and her introduction is an overly-dramatized face-revealing turn which, by itself, makes the moment into something overtly theatrical[3].

Meanwhile, once we’re introduced to both The Family and The Woman, the narrative intercuts between them for no apparent reason other than the customs of conventional storytelling–customs we can reasonably assume a group of adolescent, sociopathic, amateur filmmakers with no definitive audience wouldn’t be too terribly concerned with.  Though clear communication of the plot is essential to any narrative’s effectiveness, of course, the attention paid to Mockingbird’s artistic delivery again only serves to remind us of those questions of purpose and viewership.

But, if there is no intended audience, no one meant to discover the footage, no one for it to be specifically delivered to, no indicator that it has even been seen by anyone outside who stands inside the world of the story but outside the events directly, should Mockingbird be considered found footage to begin with?  Once Leonard has shaved his beard off, we cut to a title card in red; “Let’s Play a Game”.  If there is no version of the film itself, complete as we see it, that materially exists anywhere in the narrative realm, who could this imperative be aimed at besides us, the material viewers?  Yet, if perhaps if the story’s progression is not so constricted by the narrative demands of found footage as we’d initially assume, there are likewise more options for reckoning the dynamics of the presentation.  A mid-narrative shot even validates this possibility somewhat, as we’re given a rather dramatic angle of Beth lying on the floor, looking at the camera, up-close, with some mixture of heartbreak and other sad emotions; a melodramatic moment of self-reflection over her recently-ended relationship.  This and other scenes are sufficiently dramaticized[4] that we can question whether the arrangement might be a call-out to the real difference between our own, mundane world and a narrative realm that is only ever fantastical anyway.  This scrutiny of verisimilitude is not to criticize, but rather to attempt to feel out the dynamics of the narrative realm as it stands; if the narrative is overtly valuing a certain type of drama, an understanding of that priority could then help us make sense of other creative decisions and what those choices might indicate for the nature of the overall presentation.  The film is rendered no more or less a narrative fiction despite the initial verisimilitude created through scene-setting; as we saw in earlier complications over the suspension of disbelief, the reality of narrative found footage is never substantial enough to definitively render it as anything but the fiction it is.  While, for some, the preternatural ingenuity of the perpetrators plagues the suspension of disbelief,  none of those achievements, none of the steps in the grand plan, are particularly difficult to imagine.  And imagining oneself doing all these things, especially with the help of similarly-empowered friends, could be just the sort of ego-massage we would expect an adolescent to provide himself.

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‘If one does as God does enough times, one becomes as God is.’  With some fun tattoos and a liberal attitude toward pantyhose, you can become kinky, too.


[1] Great time for a polite note, then: A handful of the films I have or will review here concern violence against children.  Aside from Megan is Missing (reviewed previously), potential examples include Exhibit A (2007), Amber Alert (2012), and Unfriended (2014).  Although the ‘kids’ in Unfriended are actually a bunch of obnoxious teenagers.  It gets gory, so you might want to stop back for that entry! }:)

[2] This could mean the refinement of one of our earlier distinctions of the found footage genre: Verisimilitude is defined not by the relationship of the film to material reality, but by how well the film approximates popular concepts of reality, so often determined through discourse and media.

[3] See: Face-Revealing Turn at TvTropes.com

[4] Not ‘dramatized’; there’s an important difference.

The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Mockingbird (2014) – Part 4 of 6

THE ANTAGONIST

In reality, a film like Mockingbird takes a lot of people to make; in the suspension of our disbelief, though, we could readily accept it as the work of a single, knowledgeable, well-equipped creator.  If we can swallow psychopathic Mary Sues in The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007), The Last Horror Movie (2003), and the Head Case series (2007-13), an industrious villain is not, in itself, enough to break believability[1].  Viewers could become uncomfortable, though, with the idea that these adolescents hold a mastery of seemingly every skill required of the plan, from environmental manipulation to video editing.   For Beth and the couple, the viewing of the tape is followed immediately by the seizing of the house electricity and phones, incessant ringing of doorbells and knocking on the doors and windows, and cackling from without[2].  As Tom and Emmy make a panicked run through their home, the camera is shaken around so much as to be disorienting–so much so that, when the shaking stops, we find that a cut has occurred and we are now following Beth.  This is a high-quality transition that is smooth enough to actually be conspicuous for its skill; with the same stroke in which the viewer is made to admire the editing of the ‘found footage’, so its status as such–as the product of, ostensibly, an immature amateur–is disrupted by an overly-sophisticated editing maneuver.

But the camera, as an instrument, is only the most prevalent manifestation of the fuller power the antagonist possesses, which extends far past the physical.  None of the children is seen to take up a weapon, but they masterfully manipulate the perceptions of their victims through attention to effective, cohesive messaging.  It still takes a few of them to pull it off, though, and filmmaking has a long history of personality conflicts sinking collaborations.  The situation of the found footage horror film–of, really, almost any found ‘footage’ fiction of any medium–occasions its own unique twist, though; in almost no case are the intentions of the contextual editor and the real-world producers of the film-as-fiction identical.  Nor should they be expected to be, as the material situation for one is, for the other, a fiction the final shape of which–the ‘truth’ of which–is not set until the work of editing is itself complete[3].   The real-world content creators (often including a studio presence) retain power over the shape of the narrative; yet, even a seemingly reasonable assumption of material authority–the authority of materiality over narrative–is problematized by contextual adversaries who conceal and otherwise manage their own appearances and representations ever from within the action.  In Mockingbird, there is no plainly-identifiable intended viewer, so we are left to wonder if the in-world editor is even bothering to take the job so far as the real-world filmmakers who have, indeed, delivered a completed product to their intended audience.  Regardless of who is victimizing the victims, though, or their intentions with the footage, what sense would it make for anyone intelligent enough to arrange all the elements so perfectly to compromise their achievement by revealing their identity to the camera at the last moment?  Boastful, no matter what, but also a major strategic error unless, perhaps, there is no actual possibility of the footage ever being contextually viewed by anyone other than its creator.

On its face, being in front of a camera often constitutes an instance of Hegelian recognition–ironically, the occasion of others recognizing the self as an individual possessing sovereignty over himself–and the nature of motion picture filming means that interpersonal relationships–Hegelian negotiations of power and position between various subjects–can be identified and explored right within the frame; cinematic narrative is, among other things, largely a chronicle of how Hegelian dynamics play out, how fulfillment of Hegelian recognition is determined through conflict.  Mockingbird reaches its climax, the victims are disposed of, and the perspective itself shifts as one of the children, still unseen, unknown to us for what he is, takes up the camera.  The presentation is now fully Killer’s Camera, but it’s not a complete shift, considering how the same hand that now holds the camera has already wielded it  so effectively from afar.  The physical retrieving of the camera is but the completion, the material validation, of a grand power inversion–an up-ending of who recognizes whom as being in control.

The children might be said to reveal themselves, then, for the same reason they rely on classical music in their repertoire of terror: both inclusions represent and reinforce the victory of a superior intellect.  The Killer’s Camera conceit is manifested differently in Mockingbird than, for instance, in The Poughkeepsie Tapes according to this reason.  Given the evident, consistent control the antagonist of that film maintains over his own presence and influence, there is no need for him to  reveal himself to the frame; he might especially not need to if he, himself, is the only intended viewer[4].  In Mockingbird, by contrast, the absence of the reveal would be a denial of the ownership of the event, the forcible assumption of authority that motivates the ‘game’ in the first place; in so visually, bluntly, and rather unexpectedly subverting expectations, these children not only assert their intellectual superiority over their contextual victims, but over we, the viewers, who would have expected–and, more importantly, accepted–almost anyone else as the culprit.

the children are the future

The children are our future.  Teach them well.  Let them lead the way.

TOMORROW:  The Dispatches Review continues with the next part of our Mockingbird analysis!


[1] Even in our descriptions here, we have referred to the antagonist according to an assumed singularity of character (and, by linguistic necessity, a gender).  Yet, having elsewhere also acknowledged the juvenile group of psychopaths for who they are, it feels, still, somehow disingenuous to refer to them in the plural.  So, for sake of consistency within this analysis–and for other reasons yet to be explored–we will continue to refer to the antagonist in the (masculine) singular at various points.

[2] The viewer might be clued into the villains’ multiplicity here.  Since both terrorization scenes are delivered at once, intercut with one another, the viewer would have to decide whether the attacks were happening at different times or perpetrated by different people.  The second option becomes the better choice once we notice that the laughing adolescent voices at the two sites are of different genders.

[3] And, of course, once the project of making the film is complete, it is conveyed to the viewer, who determines their own sense of its truth.

[4] He isn’t, but we’ll save the importance of that distinction for a direct examination of that film.

The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Mockingbird (2014) – Part 3 of 6

THE KILLER’S CAMERA

The question of who holds the camera so often concerns authority–or, perhaps, responsibility.  The camera itself, might stand as a good phallic symbol, but it is not a good ‘old’ phallic symbol.  Instead, here and elsewhere, the camera conveys the possession of power as it is relevant to the modern age of communications, one in which phallic power may be effected both directly and remotely, all at once.

City Of London General View Cityscape, London, United Kingdom, Architect Unknown

Don’t worry.  It’s only a story.

 

In what we’re calling a ‘Killer’s Camera’ piece, the antagonist shoots all or some significant part of the film or is somehow directly responsible for such a portion of the footage’s production.  The investment of antagonistic phallic power can even be rearranged from what we are presented with in Mockingbird, yet come to the same end.  In Megan is Missing, for example, the antagonist manipulates several forms of communication, but he only assumes the camera directly at the same time he kidnaps Amy, the heroine in search of her friend.  From that point, the camera’s focus on Amy is maintained, but the situation of the killer possessing the camera–and the girls, and our own attentions–means that the contextual motivations for continuing to shoot are recast entirely.  The shift to the Killer’s Camera perspective there constitutes a shift in the identity of the film itself.[1]

But a consideration of the Killer’s Camera in Mockingbird must really begin with a recognition of the Killer’s Title Cards.

Once_Upon_a_Time_II

It lives!!!

Just after the antagonist’s authority is displayed in visceral terms in the opening, we come to the second interstitial card card.  ‘The Family’ is just that; the card refers to them not individually, nor even by surname.  They are, by the reckoning of whoever has edited the film in-world, nothing more or less.  And, while we might incidentally come to notice Tom and Emmy’s names, the card could just as easily prompt us to think of them as ‘The Father’ and ‘The Mother’.  This hints that the characters’ meaningfulness, at least to the antagonist, stems not from their own individual identities–nor even from the particular profile of this family–but from a more abstract recognition of the authority of family as a social institution.  The situation challenges Tom specifically, whose traditional phallic authority–as ‘The Father’–begins slipping away even as he himself discovers and opens the package that initiates the assault on his household.  Tom makes subsequent  movements to defend his own–eventually, he even finds himself with a weapon and a vehicle, two formidable symbols of empowerment–but his most effective exertion still lies in revealing the very truth that so starkly undercuts his power: the fact of the transmitter.  That he is with his wife–she who physically provides the family for the father figure to enact his authority over–means that he is provided an object to reveal that truth to.  But even that act lacks any potential to change the situation, as Emmy is likewise divested of her authority.  And if such knowledge cannot effect change, its only remaining purpose is to reinforce impotence.

Eventually, the antagonist makes further contact in the form of a videotape.  As we watch along with Tom, Emmy, and Beth, we notice that we’ve seen some of this before; the opening scene of the boy in the bathroom–what we saw ‘firsthand’ in the opening–cuts to the expected demands to keep filming and not contact anyone, followed by requisitely-intimidating (read: ‘creepy’) shots of the respective parties at home, asleep in their beds.  The font used in these videos is the same as that used in the title cards of the film as it is presented to us, which sets up a complicated reckoning: we, as the viewers, are put in the position of experiencing something akin to what the victims are themselves experiencing, but how far is that empathy meant to go?  We are being asked to extend our suspension of disbelief, our understanding of the world of the narrative and our own materiality as distinct from one another, but can we really do so to the point that we would become concerned that we were ourselves at risk?

cd27fbf1969ee0e2d15de270d5cea76c

Suspending disbelief is one thing.  Torturing it is something else…

 

What we start to discern, then, is the real problem the film presents us with, perhaps the problem of found footage fiction generally: all the ways that this world has been constructed to approximate our own, including the use of the cameras themselves, versus all the ways it seems to manipulate or outright violate that valuing of verisimilitude.   Our own experience with the film begins with the same scene as the tapes Tom, Emmy, and Beth are given; but, where we can maintain a distance from a narrative in which we do not ourselves appear, they are, instead, presented with footage of themselves, of their own spaces being invaded, of the antagonist taking on an intimate physical proximity.  Being the material  viewers we are, we cannot put ourselves in the same situation, nor be put there by the filmmakers, but a filmmaker familiar enough with his medium can spin this disadvantaging distance through the chain of delivery–the promise of some party for whom the footage is intended.  For, that chain promises to give the viewer–in the act of viewing–a place within the narrative world, if not directly within the narrative’s frame.  Removal from the action makes the viewer’s analogue a more realizable and comfortable position for a viewer, as it is assumed that the character in that position remains essentially unaffected by the plot in order to receive and view its outcome–exactly as we, ourselves, are doing.  The major conceptual hurdle of Mockingbird, then, is that, if there is an analogue to the viewer to be had, the only ones we can so identify are the victims themselves, whose fates we cannot and do not wish to share.  But neither do they fully experience what we experience, nor even what each other does in the respective viewings, as neither of the films delivered to the victims entirely resemble each other.  And, if there is a difference in the media product, there is a difference in the audience’s experience of it.  Some portion of Mockingbird criticism might stem from how the filmmakers thus put the viewer in such a discomfiting position; not for the film’s controversial dealings with modern moral sensibilities, but for the plot’s untenable relationship with the occasion of the viewer’s viewing–all that is demanded in suspending disbelief.


[1] This process stands in relief to what we can imagine is a much more unified narrative-as-fiction–a traditional, 3rd-person presentation, immune to the direct, conscious intentions of any particular character. By an interesting implication, then, it would seem that found footage, especially of a kind in which ownership of the camera changes, should be uniquely resistant to auteurship built on a consistency of filming style.

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.

Jack

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.

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.

Maybe.

 

SETTING THE SCENE: PROTAGONIST = VICTIM

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).