Like a Geek God #11 by Mark Pursell
Finding Our Footage
Part of what makes movies so delightful, so transporting, is the fantasy of it all. Even darkly-realistic, psychologically-complex movies are constructed, and no matter how engaged we are by them, there is always, at some level, the slight, smiling recognition that everything playing out before us is mummery: love and violence and awe and despair contained safely in the celluloid. However, there are some types of movies that play fast and loose with this basic compact of visual fiction. Documentaries lay claim to the “nonfiction” side of moviemaking (though some are more journalistic, and have more integrity, than others); mockumentaries use a cinéma vérité format for very much un-verite material, an approach that works wonders for satire and comedy. However, there is another subgenre at work, too, a subgenre which has been around for decades but which has risen to a new prominence (for good or ill) in the last fifteen years: the found footage movie.
For the most part, found footage movies swim in the horror school. There is something about the concept—here is mysterious footage, presented without editing, of something that really happened—that lends itself to horror. One of the earliest examples is the infamous 1980 gorefest Cannibal Holocaust, which revolves around horrific footage recovered from a team of researchers who vanish while studying the indigenous tribes of the Amazon.
Like Nicholas Cage vehicle 8mm or Mark Danielewski’s found-footage novel House of Leaves, the footage in Cannibal Holocaust is itself framed by an outer story of characters who endeavor to verify the footage’s authenticity or suppress its release.
As a subset of horror filmmaking, though, found footage truly came into its own with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
Witch dispensed with any narrative layering or framing devices, other than a title card which briefly, disturbingly states that what you are about to see is footage recovered from the Maryland woods, footage belonging to three young filmmakers who disappeared in said woods while filming a documentary about a malevolent local legend. The movie then plays out in what feels like unedited form–the camera angles sweep sickeningly up and down, shadows become pregnant with threat, and the forest’s eerie silence is punctuated only by strange, hair-raising crunches and cackles in the dark. As the beleagured trio’s desperation grows, their cries of terror become more resigned, their breathing labored and shallow as a fox driven before hounds. Indeed, a found footage approach stripped away much of what usually dilutes the power of an effective horror movie, such as overweening or manipulative background music and a sense of visual style over substance. It worked like gangbusters; The Blair Witch Project was wildly successful and, to this writer’s mind, deserving of recognition as one of the most deeply terrifying movies ever made.
Not that a movie must adopt a found footage approach to be scary, but the forced minimalism of it was a lesson that many took to heart, with the result that other found footage horrors soon began to appear, some more effective than others. The most notable successor to Blair Witch’s level of quality is 2007’s Paranormal Activity, which traded the Maryland woods for a suburban home and a folkloric witch for an (equally unseen) demonic interloper. The merits of the format, mostly evinced by these two movies almost a decade apart, helped create an atmosphere where found footage or elements of it could be used effectively in other genres besides horror, such as science fiction (Cloverfield in 2008, parts of 2011’s Super 8) and superhero action (2012’s Chronicle).
Found footage has its limits, of course. No matter how hard you try or how you creative you get, it is still a “gimmick” format at its core, and the thorny problem of creating narrative justification for “why is someone filming this right now? why would they still be holding a camera?” does not have infinite solutions. It’s important, though, to recognize how found footage has come into its own as a genre and a narrative method, because I think it points to positive developments on the horizon regarding how movies are made. We live in an age where exponentially-advancing technology has given us the ability to create art in our homes. We can make records in our bedroom, we can film YouTube shorts in our kitchen. For filmmakers, the ability to make actual full-length movies of quality—on a shoestring budget, with limited resources—increases with each passing month, each passing day. To this writer, what this (potentially) signals is the advent of a new DIY ethos, a hands-on, no-frills approach to emotionally-direct filmmaking that recalls the gritty genius of the ’70s. In a cinematic environment bloated with mediocre superhero flicks and inane, unfunny comedies, a filmmaker who can cut to the heart of what thrills people, or moves them, or makes them laugh, a filmmaker who can do this independent of big budgets and pointlessly overpaid stars and fatigue-inducing digital mayhem, is a filmmaker whose star will be hung undoubtedly high in the sky of the coming creative decades.
Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.