This week Joe looks at the found footage film genre, where it works and where it doesn’t…
One of the most enjoyable films of the year so far has been Chronicle. It may have a face-palmingly generic name, but this low budget, high impact sci-fi action movie is surprisingly subtle and won me over with its sympathetic portrayal of a troubled teenager. Who can move shit with his mind.
Chronicle is pieced together from footage apparently recorded by its protagonists, interspersed with the occasional security camera feed to expand the viewing angles while still retaining the low-rent, viral video feel. Found footage films have become a genre in their own right and are more relevant today than ever before, what with every Thomas, Richard and Harold having a cameraphone and instant access to YouTube. But it’s telling that I was somewhat surprised by the quality of the acting and script in Chronicle, because these elements are often sidelined by other found footage films in favour of simple scares and grainy CGI effects.
After some dabbling in the genre during the 80s and 90s, there have been two distinct waves of found footage films to emerge within the last decade or so. The first flick to bring this genre to the attention of mainstream audiences was of course The Blair Witch Project. This got parodied into the ground after its release in 1999, to the point that the genre was almost harried from cinemas. But the best efforts of the Wayans brothers and other lazy satirists weren’t terminal, and 2007’s Paranormal Activity helped revive found footage films.
The downside to this most recent resurgence has been the inevitable oversaturation of the market, because low costs and high profits invariably result in plenty of poor quality cash-ins reaching the movie-going public. Cloverfield made my friend feel seasick, Diary of the Dead was George A. Romero’s least competent look at zombies, and there are at least 12 movies from this genre being released in 2012.
One of my favourite found footage films isn’t really classifiable as such, even though it is essentially stylised as a pure distillation of the genre. That film is Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a fictionalised take on the Columbine massacre. It uses a largely non-professional cast and benefits from naturalistic acting as a result, which lends it the feeling of a fly on the wall documentary.
The role of the audience as voyeur can become overbearing in this genre, even in carefully made movies like Chronicle, which leads to clumsy dialogue acknowledging the camera’s ubiquity. Elephant sidesteps this issue by having the camera as an ever-present entity from the start, rather than an incongruous visitor which must gradually be assimilated into the viewing experience. Like a donor organ. Or a fart in a lift.
Found footage films seem set to remain a staple of cinema for the time being and you could do a lot worse than going to see Chronicle while it’s still around at your local magic lantern shack. If you can stand to spend a pretty heavy 81 minutes one evening then Elephant is also a good watch and, as a result of its subject matter, immune to parody.
Now this week’s article hasn’t been very funny, so why not imagine a horse trying to load a cannon?
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