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.”

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