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Cultural Exchange through the Movies (LINK)

Americans may feel privileged to have such access to films and television. Indeed, we’ve reached (perhaps even surpassed) a saturation point in entertainment media. What we forget is that audiovisual media is a major cultural conduit—or rather a network of connective fibers that generate and shape our social consciousness—and its immersive qualities are well suited to cultural exchange. A few months ago, I attended a screening on campus of a film about HIV, filmed and produced by the Datoga in partnership with anthropologists. The film is particularly ethnographic in a grassroots sort of way, in that its target audience elected its own informants, those the community deemed trustworthy, and used prevailing cultural symbols and expressions to communicate the often Western-centric rhetoric of HIV/AIDS awareness. (The film is here.) The idea of a shared cultural consciousness permeating its works was a hallmark of Straussian structuralist anthropology, but in a post-postmodernist age, the understanding of the lattice effect of structure, ritual, symbol, and ethos has proved particularly fruitful in applied visual anthropology. While the Datoga project was an example of applied visual ethnography, with an explicit educational purpose, a recent NYTimes article discussed the approach from a different standpoint: culturally applied filmmaking.

What [the Iraqi filmmakers] definitely don’t have at home is a film industry, something being addressed, at least to a degree, by the nonprofit International Film Exchange. The exchange brought the students over from Baghdad where, several weeks before, the filmmaker Bill Megalos of Los Angeles had conducted a 10-day workshop on storytelling and editing. The exchange is devoted primarily to cultural give and take and international understanding. But in the case of the Iraqis, it may help create a base of knowledgeable filmmakers, a “crew” as the young men themselves called it. Since the economic sanctions imposed after the first gulf war, making films in Iraq has become all but impossible.

“It was my family business,” said the bearish Salam S. Mazeel, 35, whose mother was a sound designer, and who wants to be a cinematographer like his father. “But in the ’90s, everything stopped. We go to the hard times. No money, no hope.”

After his father died, his mother quit the business to raise her children; there was no cinema anyway. “That’s how it was,” Mr. Mazeel said. “Now, maybe something is different and we come to America and there are a few things in our minds. Like how to apply American rules to Iraqi movies.”

The article goes on to discuss how Iraqi films could take a cue from Hollywood movies and move away from the previous emphasis on style that European cinema demonstrates:

Years ago, Iraqi filmmakers would regularly attend VGIK, the Moscow film school; Iraqi film was influenced far more by European than American cinema. In Los Angeles, the Iraqi visitors were being advised by almost everyone to make their stories clear, to emphasize narrative over style.

That’s an interesting thing, considering the woefully incomplete or slapdash plots seen in much Hollywood fare. But truth be told, the expressionistic, avant-garde philosophy, seen in Soviet cinema and developed in later German and French films, has been relegated to the indie circuit in the U.S., the fortress of solitude for disillusioned American film buffs. The interest in plot in the United States derives partly from the well-made tradition that was popular in Britain and the U.S. around the same time the film industry was developing, and partly, I believe, from a capitalist ethos. But that’s a topic for another blog.

What’s intriguing about Megalos’ workshop for Iraqi filmmakers is its prescriptive purpose. It is a shade of the cultural imperialism the U.S. holds around the world. Are our films successful overseas because of their effective narratives, as the article suggests? Or because of the corollary economic influence? And films are products, as we know. Moreover, after congratulating ourselves on bringing democracy and peace to Iraq (at least for a moment or two), it seems an echo to claim artistic benefits to them as well.

However, the infusion of the Iraqi filmmakers’ films with their distinctive ethos, under the auspices of Hollywood economic,  political, and aesthetic structures, is not only the product, but the method, of cultural exchange. It is a new kind of ethnographic filmmaking, in which the individuals’ culture is writ large through collaborative works, nestled within a historical portrait of fluctuating, overlapping sociocultural conditions. It is why films are of interest to anthropologists, and why anthropologists continue to use films to communicate ideas. It is probably clear to the International Film Exchange; thanks to the U.S.’s economic power, Hollywood has the tools of the trade to empower all filmmaking cultures, with the end goal being understanding of humanity, not imperialism.

 

Related: Activist Filmmaking

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Public and Visual Anthropology (Research Update)

Snapshots of upcoming guest lecture for a section of the Sex Roles in Cross-Cultural Comparison course at the University of Florida:

The problems with women and Hollywood include massive underrepresentation (TV, however is ahead of the curve, and certainly the better for the likes of Fey and Rhimes), a body-image obsession that pigeonholes actresses and largely limits positive roles to “sexy” roles, the assumption that movies need to be drafted for and marketed to each sex, and poorer odds for women to move into executive positions, financially or creatively.

Some films count on a female vote and aren’t ashamed to show it. Consider the fuzzy yellow trailer for “The Help” featuring witticisms by the black leads and a plucky score (a far cry from the actual tone of the film), or the sexy, glittery trailers for “Magic Mike” and “Sex and the City 2”; others are projected to attract men but include images of shirtless men in their trailers, presumably to encourage the wives and girlfriends to come along. Obviously, the equation of female moviegoers’ interest with their desires for friendship  with women and sex with men is as problematic as the equation of female actors’ and filmmakers’ success according to their perpetuation of female stereotypes of personality and social worth. Either way, there are significant economic and psychological impacts on those women who love film. They are neither as uniform in their approach nor singular in their interests nor small in number as andocentric Hollywood would suggest.

Edit: See the final presentation.

See also my essay on institutional sexism and feminism over at Confluey, and my prezi on violent female characters.

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The Impossible: How Important Is Ethnicity in “True Story” Films? (LINK)

The Oscar-nominated The Impossible has received a lot of flak for casting white British actors in the story of a Spanish family who experienced the 2004 tsunami while on vacation in Thailand. Accusations of racism, disinterest, and simply lack of trying have been hurled at the (Spanish) production team. According to this article on HuffPost,

Though perhaps seemingly a bit harsh, the real answer might not be that far off. When asked by the Spanish daily El Mundo about the reason why he didn’t cast Spanish actors for his film, Bayona admits it all came down to one factor: money.

“I would have loved to tell this story with Spanish actors. We tried, but it proved impossible to raise funding without international actors. The first version of the screenplay was written in Spanish and then we realized that 80% of the dialogue was also in English. So it was natural that we chose European actors who speak English. But, without revealing the nationality of the protagonists. This is not a film of nationality, race or social class. All that was swept by the wave,” the director said.

Once again we see the conflict between marketing needs and cultural realism. Is the film dishonest or harmful for using white actors, in particular British actors, considering that the tsunami affected areas formerly part of the British Empire? How different would the film have been if Spanish actors had been cast? Is it possibly to successfully promote a film in an international market using unknown (read:non-white) actors? I would note that The Life of Pi did not turn its main character white.

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The Role of Competition in American Movies (LINK)

This short essay on Sociological Images discusses a trope in American film. As a capitalistic society, one would expect themes of competition and conquest to dominate our culture. Interesting, isn’t it, how the predestined fate of the tragic hero has been supplanted by the possibility for absolution, based upon social conquest?

 In British films of the sixties – “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or “This Sporting Life” for example – athletic contests bring a heightened consciousness of the class system.  But in American movies, regardless of the setting – the boxing ring, the pool hall, the poker game, the karate dojo, the dance floor, etc. – competition works its magic and allows the heroes to overcome all personal and interpersonal problems.

via The Role of Competition in American Movies » Sociological Images.

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Activist Filmmaking

The Amazon rainforest, the sweaty locale of many films, both entertainment and documentary, has many connotations: mystical, dangerous, exotic, native, prehistoric, medicinal, potent, endangered. It is constructed, often as an important area of concern to ecologists and anthropologists, in both news and entertainment media. Some examples of the latter, like Anaconda, have little to offer to society beyond cheap entertainment; others, like Fern Gully, are blatantly pro-environmentalism and conservation (“hippie propaganda,” as one of my more cynical friends puts it). The Amazon certainly deserves special consideration and protection: it is not only a garden of extreme biodiversity, but an important medical and bioregulatory source, and, of course, the home of many peoples.

The Amazon’s size and wealth has called itself to the attention of both those who would exploit it and those who would exoticize it. A prime subject for the curious ethnographer, the Amazonian natives live off the land, showing great mastery of their complex environment, and moreover have shown remarkable political interest and talent. Terence Turner is hardly the only ethnographer to explore the latter; in the early 1990s Joe Kane lived among the Huaorani in Ecuador, and gave voice to one named Moi, who traveled to Washington, D.C. with Kane to speak for the Huaorani whose homes had been devastated by oil development and spills. (Incidentally, Moi also visited my university by request of my professor, who had met him through a colleague.)

The documentation of the problems of damming, deforestation, oil extraction, poaching, and drug trafficking in the Amazon has been shared by anthropologists, biologists, human rights activists, and journalists; yet this essential information, while well-distributed, seems to have not yet supplanted the dual exoticization of and disengagenement from the Amazon. From informal observation of my conversation partners, even people who identify as “eco” or “concerned” aren’t aware of much going in the Amazon besides “deforestation” and “it’s big.”

Although the eco-minded family movies of the 90s and early 00s (Fern Gully, Free Willy, Finding Nemo, to name just a few) have given way to disaster and apocalyptic movies with an ecological twist (The Core, The Day After Tomorrow), the impact of either type of film is something to consider. The label of “hippie propaganda” might not be inaccurate (and I certainly wouldn’t consider it a bad thing).

From a post by Turner:

[I]n a march in Brasilia on April 12 [2010] that targeted all the government ministries implicated in approving the plan for Belo Monte [a new dam in the Kayapo’s region], and called for the cancellation of the project […] they were joined by James Cameron, the producer of Avatar, and members of the cast of the film.

There are clear parallels between the battle of the fictional indigenous people against the attempt by a giant corporation to extract precious minerals from their planet, modeled on the Amazon rain forest, and the struggle of the inhabitants of the Xingú valley against the damming of their rivers to generate power, much of which is intended for the production of minerals such as aluminum for export. In both cases, the collateral damage of the extractive projects threatens to destroy the ecosystem and way of life of the native people, and in both cases, they resist.

Cameron visited the site of the planned Belo Monte dam, and some of the indigenous villages that it would affect, in March of this year, and was so struck by the similarities in their situation with that of the Navi of his film that he committed himself to support their movement against the dams. His return to Brazil with members of the cast on April 12, 2010, to take part in the march in Brasilia, was a public affirmation of his support for their cause. Sigourney Weaver, of the Avatar cast, later led a similar march in New York against the Xingú dams.

One might dismiss the stars’ involvement in such causes as mere face time, an attempt to shine their images, but that Cameron borrowed from generic struggles of the Amazonian people, and then found his (very heavy-handed) eco-propaganda film validated to the point that he was moved to further action, is a very nice conflation of life and art. Avatar, once linked with a real-world corollary, moved from an alien fantasy to a de-exoticized pseudo-documentary (a similar treatment was more intentionally given to District 9, a human rights parable and pseudo-documentary of South African apartheid, wearing the skin of a sci-fi flick).

Cameron’s involvement, as well as Weaver’s, can only help the cause, even if it cannot stop Belo Monte (the construction of which was just reinstated by the Brazilian Supreme Court). As for would-be eco-propagandists, a good rule is to get as close to the real-world while being as unreal as possible, because I’m guessing it sometimes takes talking animals and giant blue people to get people out of their head.

Cross-posted on Confluey.

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The Internet vs. the Studios in the Success and Marketability of Movies

In the golden age of Hollywood, movie producers were largely responsible for obtaining funding and personnel for productions; within the confines of the studio system and without a big-name producer (or a member of the United Artists), a screenplay would rarely be realized into a movie. From the mid-1940s to the present, the output of independent filmmakers has increased tremendously, and the dissolution of the studio system allowed more people to break into the industry; films produced independently could even be distributed by a major studio.

Sadly, the same thing has not happened for television. There, producers are still largely responsible for creative output; a pilot script must be pitched to network executives, if not coming from within the company, and production remains in the company’s hands. Worse, a show’s success is largely determined by Nielsen ratings, an increasingly flawed measure of consumption (and, implicit in sustained numbers, enjoyment).

Naturally, with the rise of video publishing websites and social networks, there are a number of Web shows that are independently produced and distributed. Some, like “The Guild,” are highly acclaimed and well-suited to their medium.

There have been a few experiments in crossover: in 2008, during the writers’ strike, producer Joss Whedon went indie with “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” After streaming as a web mini-series, the show was distributed by iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, and eventually on DVD through Amazon.com and New Video Group. This summer, the show was picked up for rerelease on the The CW network. Despite high consumption online and in DVD sales, the rating for the broadcast, on Oct. 9, 2012, was a paltry 566,000 viewers. While it may be said that fans of the show already had digital or hard copies and didn’t need to tune in, it’s more likely that “Dr. Horrible” was simply more suited to viral distribution. It does raise questions about the marketability of network TV shows in the reverse direction.

Or for that matter, of studio projects to viewers before their production. Acclaimed director David Fincher is attempting to recruit the media-hungry Internet masses to an avenue traditionally not open to the public: funding a movie production. Unable to get studio backing for an adaptation of The Goon and unable to fund it himself, Fincher has turned to Kickstarter to crowdsource the funds:

So far the project has just shy of 2,500 backers raising about $162,000 with 19 days left to raise the funds. In response to the question of why Fincher does not just fund it himself, Miller said: “Hollywood is filled with the ‘vanity projects’ of successful movie stars and producers. It really is not as easy to get a film made no matter who you are.”

If Fincher succeeds, the line between the studio-made and the homegrown will be irreversibility blurred. TV, however, remains firmly stratified.

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Activist Filmmaking

The Amazon rainforest, the sweaty locale of many films, both entertainment and documentary, has many connotations: mystical, dangerous, exotic, native, prehistoric, medicinal, potent, endangered. It is constructed, often as an important area of concern to ecologists and anthropologists, in both news and entertainment media. Some examples of the latter, like Anaconda, have little to offer to society beyond cheap entertainment; others, like Fern Gully, are blatantly pro-environmentalism and conservation (“hippie propaganda,” as one of my more cynical friends puts it). The Amazon certainly deserves special consideration and protection: it is not only a garden of extreme biodiversity, but an important medical and bioregulatory source, and, of course, the home of many peoples.

The Amazon’s size and wealth has called itself to the attention of both those who would exploit it and those who would exoticize it. A prime subject for the curious ethnographer, the Amazonian natives live off the land, showing great mastery of their complex environment, and moreover have shown remarkable political interest and talent. Terence Turner is hardly the only ethnographer to explore the latter; in the early 1990s Joe Kane lived among the Huaorani in Ecuador, and gave voice to one named Moi, who traveled to Washington, D.C. with Kane to speak for the Huaorani whose homes had been devastated by oil development and spills. (Incidentally, Moi also visited my university by request of my professor, who had met him through a colleague.)

The documentation of the problems of damming, deforestation, oil extraction, poaching, and drug trafficking in the Amazon has been shared by anthropologists, biologists, human rights activists, and journalists; yet this essential information, while well-distributed, seems to have not yet supplanted the dual exoticization of and disengagenement from the Amazon. From informal observation of my conversation partners, even people who identify as “eco” or “concerned” aren’t aware of much going in the Amazon besides “deforestation” and “it’s big.”

Although the eco-minded family movies of the 90s and early 00s (Fern Gully, Free Willy, Finding Nemo, to name just a few) have given way to disaster and apocalyptic movies with an ecological twist (The Core, The Day After Tomorrow), the impact of either type of film is something to consider. The label of “hippie propaganda” might not be inaccurate (and I certainly wouldn’t consider it a bad thing).

From a post by Turner:

[I]n a march in Brasilia on April 12 [2010] that targeted all the government ministries implicated in approving the plan for Belo Monte [a new dam in the Kayapo’s region], and called for the cancellation of the project […] they were joined by James Cameron, the producer of Avatar, and members of the cast of the film.

There are clear parallels between the battle of the fictional indigenous people against the attempt by a giant corporation to extract precious minerals from their planet, modeled on the Amazon rain forest, and the struggle of the inhabitants of the Xingú valley against the damming of their rivers to generate power, much of which is intended for the production of minerals such as aluminum for export. In both cases, the collateral damage of the extractive projects threatens to destroy the ecosystem and way of life of the native people, and in both cases, they resist.

Cameron visited the site of the planned Belo Monte dam, and some of the indigenous villages that it would affect, in March of this year, and was so struck by the similarities in their situation with that of the Navi of his film that he committed himself to support their movement against the dams. His return to Brazil with members of the cast on April 12, 2010, to take part in the march in Brasilia, was a public affirmation of his support for their cause. Sigourney Weaver, of the Avatar cast, later led a similar march in New York against the Xingú dams.

One might dismiss the stars’ involvement in such causes as mere face time, an attempt to shine their images, but that Cameron borrowed from generic struggles of the Amazonian people, and then found his (very heavy-handed) eco-propaganda film validated to the point that he was moved to further action, is a very nice conflation of life and art. Avatar, once linked with a real-world corollary, moved from an alien fantasy to a de-exoticized pseudo-documentary (a similar treatment was more intentionally given to District 9, a human rights parable and pseudo-documentary of South African apartheid, wearing the skin of a sci-fi flick).

Cameron’s involvement, as well as Weaver’s, can only help the cause, even if it cannot stop Belo Monte (the construction of which was just reinstated by the Brazilian Supreme Court). As for would-be eco-propagandists, a good rule is to get as close to the real-world while being as unreal as possible, because I’m guessing it sometimes takes talking animals and giant blue people to get people out of their head.

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Dystopian TV Shows and Films: An Introduction

Dystopian settings have been a staple of speculative and science fiction for over a century. While Jules Verne was penning his tales of great feats of engineering, incredible new worlds, and the future of human expression and technology, H.G. Wells envisioned bleak scenarios of alien takeovers, the division of the human race, the devastating effects of nuclear weapons, and the dangers of genetic modification. A few decades later, Ray Bradbury and George Orwell wrote stories of oppression and destruction set in postwar, tyrannical regimes. High school students may not have appreciated their teachers’ efforts to introduce them to these cautionary tales, but as the apocalypse obsession gains steam, doubled with an uprising of dystopian and postapocalyptic TV shows and movies, one wonders what the demand for and popularity of these stories indicate about the American and British states of mind, and why science fiction in particular has largely shifted in the past twenty-odd years from triumphant tales of resistance to invasion (“Independence Day,” the latter two “Alien” films) and exploration of new worlds and species (“ET,” “Contact”), to despairing stories of crumbling societies (“V for Vendetta”), overwhelming paradigm shifts (“Children of Men”, “Minority Report”), and incredible biological (“28 Days Later”) and environmental destruction “(“Waterworld”). While not all of these films involve a major event of destruction, they all involve a complete change in the fundamental nature of the world, and, often, the revelation of underlying truths, which is the etymological meaning of “apocalypse” and the purpose of most speculative fiction.

As Rapturists secure post-Rapture arrangements for their pets, 2012 enthusiasts piddle away their savings in anticipation of the end times, and extremist conspiracy theorists stock their fallout shelters, anxiety about the apocalypse, whether or not it is followed by dystopia, makes for hot news, yet isn’t limited to the “nutjobs.” The popularity of what we might call “downfall news,” such as the now infamous Miami face-eating attack, and the constant stream of horrible stories involving rapes and murders, is plainly demonstrated even in sources as mundane as Yahoo!’s “Top Emailed Stories” feed. The fictional apocalypse and the chronicles of the days thereafter have broad appeal: children’s movies, “Wall-E” and the “Ice Age” franchise’s increasingly apocalyptic content, blockbusters like “2012” and “Battle: Los Angeles,” science fiction drama-thrillers such as “Gattaca” and “Daybreakers,” the endless stream of zombie apocalypse entertainment, the Katniss novels, and TV shows such as “Revolution,” “FlashForward,” “Terra Nova,” and “The Walking Dead.” Even the past season of “Dexter” and the current season of “Glee” involve characters who are Rapture-obsessed.

I would suggest that this prevailing interest stems not only from an urge to caution in an age where widespread environmental degradation and the threat of nuclear warfare are a part of the global reality, but an sense of disenchantment and isolation and the desire to experience a unity of humankind, even if through traumatic events. I have heard many critics complain that post-apocalyptic entertainment focuses on the trials of a small group of people, especially if they are all white/related/rich/etc., but this is done not only for production realities, but as a reflection of the viewer’s primary frame of reference…”What would I do? What connects me to this event?” In the end, a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world needs to be accessible to the pre-apocalyptic, not-utopian viewer: a sense of cynic detachment can only be resolved through the catharsis of moral certainty and confident survival attained through this genre of fiction.

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Intellectual Discussion, Smart Entertainment…Dead and Gone?

Check out this stirring article on the death of theatregoing culture and the rise of new media. A couple of excerpts.

Film culture, at least in the sense people once used that phrase, is dead or dying. Back in what we might call the Susan Sontag era, discussion and debate about movies was often perceived as the icy-cool cutting edge of American intellectual life. Today it’s a moribund and desiccated leftover that’s been cut off from ordinary life, from the mainstream of pop culture and even from what remains of highbrow or intellectual culture.

One could argue that, in our era of consumer capitalism, films have been revealed as manufactured commodities rather than works of art, and people root for certain film franchises or producers or studios in the same way they root for Apple over Samsung, GM over Ford, or the Red Sox over the Yankees.

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The Art of Immersion: Found Footage and Classical Film

The “found footage” genre (style?) of filmmaking was wildly popularized for the horror genre beginning with the (in)famous Sundance entrant “The Blair Witch Project,” and judging by the apparently exhaustive list here, horror has become its home; one might even describe such films as “Paranormal Activity,” “V/H/S,” “The Last Exorcism,” as part of a subgenre of horror. All the films present themselves as a recording of horrific events—some “intentionally” done as a documentary, some as a loose narrative involving some supernatural terror. Most revolve around young people who mirror the films’ demographic: the share-all, tech-obsessed Generation Me.

Beyond this style’s obvious reflection in the rise of YouTube artists, confessional “reality” TV programming, and emphasis on social media as a means of establishing relationships, the “found footage” style marks a new type of filmmaking, one that eschews special f/x and big names of modern cinema, but also the grand art and epic tales of classic cinema.

In fact, reading recently about French New Wave cinema and Francois Truffaut’s skewering of the literary, artificial cinematic tradition in “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” I couldn’t help but think that a similar paradigm shift is taking place now in the United States. Of course, the range of U.S. films includes the emotional indies, the riveting biopics, the sweeping historical pieces, the wide range of comedy, the disturbing drama, the provocative speculative fiction pieces, and the grandiose adventure tales. Even in the  next few months, we have “2 Days in New York,” “Lincoln,” “Argo,” “Bachelorette,” “Compliance,” “Looper,” and “The Hobbit.” None of these are in the “found footage” format.

However, to compare the construction of certain classic films with these new styles reveals several interesting similarities. To begin with, I will discuss two exceptional found-footage sci-fi movies. The first, “Cloverfield,” was released in 2008, directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Drew Goddard, one of his “Lost” writers and one of “Buffy’s” and “Angel’s” latter-season writers. The film is presented as a tape found at the aftermath of an attack on New York City, and uses the “film-within-a-film” device to contrast the lives of its subjects before the attack, with the horror they experience. (The beginning of the tape, which is preserved before one of the characters accidentally records over it with footage of a party, followed by full documentation of their attempted escape, provides a rather clever means of exposition.) This approach allows for a very natural exploration of character and a very relaxed method of storytelling: pure causality, in that the characters are shoved into one situation or another according to primarily external factors, but with the overriding impulse of the central character to save his girlfriend. By using a handheld that was partly operated by one of the actors, the wonderfully blunt and sometimes inappropriately funny T.J. Miller, we are given a greater sense of realism than we do with the self-elected documentary style. Rather than filming what’s “important,” and thus destroying the illusion of the film (which is a problem that I had with “The Blair Witch Project”), the camera is simply always on, with only some necessary cuts made when Miller’s character is forced to turn off the camera. This film has no mark of being a “film” in name, but by its fast-paced, unforgiving, accidental documentation of the monster and its associated terrors, of the trauma experienced by the characters, and the general horrific atmosphere, is so convincingly “found” that we lose ourselves in it. We become immersed…and scared.

More recently, “Chronicle” (2012), directed and written by “The Kill Point” creator Josh Trank and co-written by horror TV scribe Max Landis, appears to be in the found-footage style but takes it to the next level: rather than limit to one camera and present itself as a found recording, it is told entirely through cameras that we are made aware exist. While one would expect that this would produce a distracting barrier, it accomplishes the opposite.

Firstly, since it can be told through multiple cameras, the story may be told through different points of view. This may sound obvious, but consider the tremendous bias given by true “found footage” movies. When the actors are the cameramen (or when the cameramen adopt only the POVs of the actors), it limits the audience’s involvement. The viewer enjoys being in a privileged place of knowing more than the actors do; it’s actually surprising that this style is popular with horror movies since the viewer loses the privilege of shouting “Look out!” Imagine the classic horror films in found-footage style: there would be no sense of dread as the shadow of Norman Bates appears beyond the shower curtain, no sense of doom as the Alien unfolds behind Brett, no sense of panic when the shark edges up to the skinny-dipper’s legs. What is more frightening than something unseen?*

Yet “Chronicle” manages to frighten by going in the opposite direction: freed from the documentarian bias and couched in the entirely realistic exploits of three teenagers who happily videotape themselves engaging in various mischief courtesy of their newfound telekinesis, it oversaturates us with endless videos of their (sometimes harmful) pranks, then at the climax, when the powers are (of course) all-consuming, turns the requisite “movie media” into unwitting storytellers (as they are…). The plethora of cameraphones, security feeds, news cameras, and personal camcorders all capture this tremendous event from a dizzying number of perspectives, edited together so randomly, with unheard-of perspectives as the equipment falls and flies, and completely sucks in the viewer. We are so aware that we are watching it through cameras, but it is so overstimulating that the illusion is reverse-engineered: we cannot help but believe what we are seeing.

In a completely different genre and decade, we notice a similarly collective approach. In fact, this same philosophy applies to many films whose common denominator is their use of multiple perspectives and ambient emotion. Quentin Tarantino’s and Wes Anderson’s films are a prime example. Recently for a class, I watched Otis Preminger’s “Bonjour Tristesse” and was fascinated by the use of subtle nonverbal acting, the construction of the main story within an uneventful night in the central character’s life, and the extensive use of wide perspective and long takes. Moreover, much happens in the film that is not directly related to the central plot, which details a teenage girl’s initial support for her father to take up with a woman she has admired, and its turn into a plot to expel her supposedly wicked new stepmother from her life. The minor stories surrounding this main plotline have no impact on those events, nor do they all concern the central characters. However, they express themes or reveal character such that we have a strong sense of who the central characters, who they are not, who they are pretending to be, and in addition what we’re supposed to be considering while we watch the drama unfold. Preminger’s style is very detached, very deliberate, and very skeptical, yet immerses us in a world in which we can watch (and criticize) characters’ choice.

Despite the complete difference in genre and topic, the same thing is accomplished in Tarantino’s and Anderson’s films, among others, and in “Chronicle.” This phenomenon certainly points to humans’ complicit construction in viewing a story, and may have implications for research into story therapy—perhaps the new immersion therapy?

*As Stephen King wrote in Entertainment Weekly #1001 (2008):

“Horror is an intimate experience, something that occurs mostly within oneself…the event films that pack the plexes in the summer…blast our emotions and imaginations, instead of caressing them with a knife edge. […] Horror is not spectacle, and never will be.”