It’s time to talk about Found Footage — and how much I hate it. It’s a big trend now and it’s easy to see why: Found Footage gives the illusion of realism. After all, the average person documents important events on their personal camera or snaps video with their phones and we’re all familiar with those shaky, stuttering, unprofessional results . So when aliens/ghost/that Cloverfield monster launches an attack, it feels more real when their captured in such an unprofessional manner. Or so runs the theory, anyhow. In reality, I find that Found Footage movies require just as much suspension of disbelief as every other movie. After all, any realism to be gained by having a handheld camera filming aliens/ghosts/super powers is removed when you wonder what kind of idiot would take out their camera and film the aliens/ghosts/Blair Witch instead of running the Hell away, helping out a victim, trying to fight the monster or do anything at all realistic. Additionally, Found Footage movies throw away actual cinematography in favor of shaky cam wretchedness. And then there’s the dialogue. Look, I know that real people talk with lots of pauses and ‘ums’ and awkwardness. Having that sort of dialogue in your movie may make it more realistic, but it certainly won’t make it good.
So, those are my gripes about Found Footage — but it looks like it’s here to stay. I guess any genre can be spiced up by putting ‘Found Footage’ on top of it for an instant recipe for success. Luckily, a few movies are playing with the Found Footage rules and tropes and doing some great work. I’d like to talk about three recent movies that have fun with Found Footage. If you’ve got arguments or want to add more to the list, feel free to toss them into the comments section.
Rec 3: Genesis (2012): The first Rec featured zombie Found Footage craziness and apparently did a good job (I haven’t seen it, but a friend says it caused pure terror). This kind of stand-alone sequel starts out in that direction, featuring what seems like a normal wedding being filmed. You may think that the camera crew will become the documentarians of an undead onslaught once the zombies arrive, but you’d be wrong. The zombies show up, the few main characters hide out in the kitchen and someone asks the cameraman a question that every Found Footage viewer has probably asked at some point — “what are you doing with that stupid camera? There are zombies!” At that point, the camera is switched off and Rec 3 becomes a normal, if seriously comedic zombie flick — complete with an ass-kicking bride and a guy in a off-brand Spongebob costume. This may be seen as having your cake and eating it too, but for the comedic bloodshed of Rec 3, I think it works. I kind of wish more Found Footage flicks would go this route.
End of Watch (2012): This excellent beat cops in South Central story also manages to have its cake and eat it too. Parts are in Found Footage — from a variety of sources. There’s the camera’s in police cars, the camera that one of the cops is carrying as he films a project for a class he’s taking, DEA night vision surveillance of a Mexican cartel and handheld cameras carried by gang-bangers. The film bounces from camera to camera, but also drops out of those entirely and just films scenes like they’d appear in a normal movie. The dialogue manages to be realistic (the word ‘bro’ is used plenty of times) but still stays clever and peppy. End of Watch has some very good explorations of masculinity, race, and crime — but its main purpose, I think, is to truly humanize the two main characters. The Found Footage aesthetic, along with their casual banter, reinforces that by showing that these two cops are, ultimately, normal guys. It’s a good use of the form for something more than providing cheap scares.
The Bay (2012): In a happy coincidence, this movie sort of ties into the national zeitgeist as it takes the form of a sort of fictional documentary released on a wikileaks-esque website. It uses footage from a variety of sources — handheld cameras, cell phones, skype messages, dashboard police car cameras and even emails and texts — to tell a story about over pollution from factory farm spilling into the ocean and creating a monstrous attack on a small Maryland town’s 4th of July celebration. The disease-stricken people and corpses juxtaposed with copious small town American flags is a nice touch, but what really makes the movie work is its choice of monsters, which are HOLY JESUS CHRIST LOOK AT THIS UNHOLY ABOMINATION
That’s an isopod, a horrifying sort of sea insect/demon that lives in the ocean. You know what else is terrifying? THEY’LL ENTER A FISH’S MOUTH, CUT OFF THEIR TONGUE AND THEN ATTACH TO THEIR MOUTHS AND BECOME THAT FISH’S TONGUE AND SUCK THE FISH’S BLOOD FOREVER AS AN AWFUL MOUTH PARASITE.
Anyway, the film is narrated by a young journalism student who was there on the day of the isopod invasion. The camera-hopping set-up stops it from being really effective. You don’t spend enough time with each character to really care about them, though the film tries to make you care by having the narrator tell you stuff like ‘this girl is the star-pitcher on her high school team’ before the isopods devour her. It’s telling, not showing and it doesn’t really work. But The Bay does succeed as a kind of false documentary with an important message about greed, short-sighted environmental policies and bureaucratic idiocy that only occasionally falls into the ‘why are they filming this’ trap. Also, those isopods are terrifying.
So, those are some good Found Footage flicks. I think a lot of them are closer to the false documentary school or ‘traditional’ film than true Found Footage, but I think that’s a good thing. If we’re gonna be stuck with Found Footage, let’s at least play with it and have some fun.