Saturday, January 31, 2009

Fake Real Footage

I'm a hardened cynic, or so I'm told. And I didn't have any interest whatsoever in seeing Spanish horror flick [REC]. Especially after the artistically famished Cloverfield. Yes, the main reason that put me off seeing [REC] is the YouTube-influenced shaky cam.

When the movie first came out, it caused quite an excitement among genre fans who raved about the unexpected shocks. But to me, the last great horror film was Ringu, and ever since, nothing else has come close. At least nothing else resonates that much.

The idea of mixing Blair Witch-type shaky video with zombies is a pretty nifty one, I must admit (though I haven't seen Diary Of The Dead). But with this kind of "video footage" comes a whole set of problems, which I believe has not been ironed out by filmmakers who seem more enamoured with just using the immediacy of the "format."

As much as we'd like to believe that this YouTube style puts us right smack in the midst of the action, we also cannot truly escape its voyeuristic nature. With this style, it takes a whole lot more suspension of disbelief than the traditional film method. Yes, the immediacy is there, but all the time we're also conscious of the artificiality of what's on-screen, to the point that sometimes the eagerness to make us believe nears desperation. People scream, camera shakes, total chaos - we're supposed to believe, within that moment, that all of it is really happening right in front of us. But no one goes into a movie not knowing that it's a movie and those are actors.

It worked for The Blair Witch Project the first time around because it benefited from a great marketing plan, and some people apparently did enter the cinema thinking they were going to see authentic found footage of documentary filmmakers who were lost in the woods and hunted by supernatural forces.

It works on YouTube because of the open, anonymous nature of the video-sharing community - that is, anything goes and we don't really always know the who, what, where, when or how about an uploaded video. Best case in point is this infamous video about a bunch of people in a car who supposedly pick up a hitchhiking phantom.

But for movies like [REC], we go into it knowing we're seeing a movie, and that glass wall between us and the screen isn't really removed at any moment. The "traditional" way of shooting a horror movie utilises lighting and camera angles to create atmosphere and engage the viewer, to "coerce" us, the audience, into a momentary suspension of disbelief. It's pretty much like a thrill ride on a rollercoaster - we know it's not going to harm us because it's just a movie, but we become active participants anyway for the fun of it.

It's when film tries to approximate reality that some parts of the machinery breaks down, simply because no matter how much we try, we'll never be able to simulate reality to the point where our brain would accept it as so. And a film like [REC] requires us to be so. The format, the style, seriously tells us: "This is real. What you're watching is real. Look, it's video footage captured by the people who were there when it happened."

And also, a lot of what happens in real life, be it a video from an embedded war journalist, a YouTube upload, eyewitness footage of a disaster or other such events, only last for a few minutes, at most. Sitting through one-and-a-half to two hours of such stuff isn't a good idea to begin with. Not only will people be throwing up and getting motion sickness, the shaky cam will also start to annoy, as will the screaming, the shouting, the running, the chaos.

While there are a few good moments in [REC], the best and most effective moments are when the camera "calms down." What this simply proves is that shaking the camera is just a cheat, a way to do away with the "troublesome" traditional way of setting up and blocking scenes. Disorientation doesn't always mean excitement and suspense.

I don't see this as a natural progression for film, nor do I think it's a fad that would catch on like wildfire. It's more like a signpost of the times, which will remain within these times. Perhaps what would be next is the splicing of real footage with made-up ones, the ultimate way of confusing the audience into believing what they see.

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