Cameras in Orbit — Chronicle

Review: If there’s any conceit in post-modern filmmaking that strikes me as dubious, it’s found-footage.  Though of course, it certainly is a fantastic example of blatantly post-modern filmmaking, in that it deliberately makes the audience aware that they are watching a fictional world through a camera.  Conversely, classical Hollywood style — the most pervasive form of filmmaking in the world — tries to render narrative construction and the camera invisible, so that the viewer sees only the story and not the seams.  Found-footage changes the rules, reframing fictional narratives as cinema verite documentaries, and therein lies the rub — audiences don’t like being reminded of a film’s fictionality while they are watching it.  They want to be fooled.  (As an aside, this is exactly why the French New Wave persists as such a big hit with filmmakers and the intelligentsia and not regular disinterested folks; French New Wave techniques, being deliberate exposures of the filmmaking process, appeal to those who can appreciate films objectively or even ironically.  Most people just want to have a good time, and why shouldn’t they?)  To understand this phenomenon, consider dreams: the emotional power of a dream relies on the dreamer’s belief, while in the dreamworld, in the dream’s veracity.  When the dreamer becomes aware that the dreamworld is a lie, the dream loses its power, and the dreamer seeks escape or control over the dreamworld, a rebellion against the unconscious fears and desires that shape dream logic.  Movies, however, require willing suspension of disbelief.  They are, in effect, dreams on demand.  What matters, therefore, is the filmmaker’s promise to the prospective dreamer about what sort of story, and, more importantly, what sort of emotions they will experience in the fictional world.  This is why genre exists: it’s a shorthand for a promise.

Since found-footage is a conceit, not a genre, it cannot be used as such a promise.  In fact, found-footage often betrays these promises by failing to justify its use as a narrative conceit.  For example, ‘The Blair Witch Project‘, which, as perhaps the most famous found-footage horror film ever made, set the tone for all films of its type.  A great deal of its box office power came from the filmmakers’ elaborate marketing campaign, in which they promised that the fictional legend of the Blair Witch was real, and that the footage assembled into a mass-market horror film came from a real ill-fated expedition.  How or why or even if anybody ever really believed that is unclear.  But they were making a promise, one that tied directly into the found-footage conceit and supported it; though the film has lost its luster now due to endless imitations, it’s still fascinating as an experiment.  Of course, what it really proved was that the found-footage conceit is limited to how plausible it seems to the audience, making any narrative so framed vulnerable to critiques leveled at the conceit rather than the narrative itself.  In short, found-footage is dubious to me because it’s a needless risk.  That’s not to mention the aesthetic shortcuts made by filmmakers in its name, of course, although these shortcuts are arguably just as bad in classical Hollywood style films that employ lots of shaky-cam.

To counter that sour note, let’s move on to ‘Chronicle’, the first film from young director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (yes, the son of John.)  Beyond being remarkably succinct and emotionally credible as a story, ‘Chronicle’ does two really interesting things.  First, it directly challenges the superhero genre — which is in a bit of a renaissance at the moment — by playing out as a superhero drama rather than an action-adventure.  Second, it uses the found-footage conceit primarily as a character device, and at the first opportunity more or less jettisons cinema verite in the name of a unique binding aesthetic that could only exist in its particular fictional world.  In other words, it presents a real step forward for its genre and conceit, an organic evolution in narrative technique that emerges out of human drama rather than pure experimentalism.  It is, in a way, the anti-‘Blair Witch’.

There’s no attempt to get the viewer to believe any of this actually happened; instead, from the outset, Trank & Landis establish the camera as the protagonist’s method of engagement with the world.  It’s how the character defends himself against harm, makes sense of life, exercises control and renders his identity.  As the story progresses, the protagonist makes friends (with whom he gains telekinetic powers, which is almost incidental) and the camera’s use expands — it no longer functions at his exclusive command.  Instead, the movie includes cameras of all sorts, the sort of footage you could never find and assemble into a narrative like this.  That’s because “found-footage” is in this instance a misnomer — ‘Chronicle’ is too evolved for that.  Brilliantly, Trank & Landis hijack the conceit and make it do something a great deal more interesting.  Since the story revolves around three contemporary teenagers, the camera’s function as a metaphor for the nexus between the self and the world makes perfect sense.  The titular chronicle is the echoes their lives leave behind in omnipresent media devices, and the protagonist’s struggle to gain control over his world means he must direct the camera, thereby seizing the chronicle itself.  Hence, the protagonist literally fights for control over the movie, a daringly meta dramatic device that never rings false.

Earlier I alluded to the notion that this is a superhero drama and not an action movie.  While there is action, there’s no good vs. evil or find-the-MacGuffin plot, but plenty of deft writing that strives moment-to-moment to cultivate empathy for the characters.  Action, therefore, appears as character crisis.   Indeed, the biggest and most satisfying burst of action in the story emerges out of the rage of a traumatized teenager.   Furthermore, this climatic battle serves to sum up the film that preceded it, pitting the protagonist — who becomes the villain in a practical sense — against his super-powered cousin, as hundreds of visible cameras spin around them in the air, a striking image that renders the film’s main theme obvious.  Interestingly, the protagonist acts as if he’s fighting to protect his dominion over the movie, centering the cameras on him, putting them up, as he does in the opening scene, as an emotional shield.  His cousin isn’t interested in wresting the movie from his grasp, though he’s aware of its existence; he just wants to break through the shield and rescue the protagonist.  In sum, the climatic sequence functions as pure drama, simultaneously thrilling and tragic, and says everything the film wants to say with poetic brilliance.  Is it too early to call Trank & Landis virtuosos?  Too bad.  They’re virtuosos.  Deal with it.

Unfortunately for found-footage filmmakers, ‘Chronicle’ is a logical end-point for the conceit, returning to filmmaking’s raison d’être — any image created by the camera must develop the immediate experience of human emotion.  An audience, once betrayed, is never emotionally invested in the story.  Therefore, found-footage should be avoided in all cases that do not reward audiences for their faith.  ‘Chronicle’, by reinventing the conceit, builds a bridge between the audience and its characters, never once denying that it is fictional, while simultaneously being self-reflexive in order to strengthen that very bridge.  As a drama and an evolution in cinematic technique, ‘Chronicle’ is a triumph.

A Bureaucratic Cosmos — The Cabin in the Woods

Though the film has already seen a pretty wide release, I’m putting up a SPOILER WARNING right here, just in case anyone wants to preserve the surprise.

Review:  It’s a very good year to be Joss Whedon, not only because of ‘The Avengers’, his triumphant return to feature film directing, but on account of his co-writing, with first-time director Drew Goddard, the excellent and under-seen horror flick ‘The Cabin in the Woods‘.  In some superficial senses the two films are similar — they both epitomize their respective genres via the kitchen sink approach, they both feature ensemble casts with Chris Hemsworth, they both feature shadowy government agencies — but their themes are diametrically opposed.

Artistically, of course, this is a wonderful boon for Whedon, marking him as a flexible writer with a taste for genre-specific philosophies, meaning he approaches screenwriting with a critical, rather than purely exploitative, eye.  Whedon knows why filmmakers do what they do and why audiences watch them.  Better yet, he doesn’t write to deconstruct genres (at least not in the sense of dismantling to discredit) but rather to deliberately and overtly explore genre psychologies while crafting fulfilling narratives in their own right.

To see how this technique works so subtly, compare Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ to Christopher Nolan‘s ‘The Dark Knight‘; here’s two great superhero films that push their title characters to the absolute limit in search of their respective cores, hoping, at the end of each film, to remind audiences why the protagonists ought to matter to them.  Superficially, then, despite differences in tone and political philosophy, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ have the same kind of rousing conclusion.  By contrasting them, however, we see where Whedon’s technique differs substantially from Nolan’s.  In ‘The Avengers’, Whedon uses the ensemble approach to turn character complexities into a straightforward putting-the-band-together narrative, and wraps a rote summer blockbuster story around classic comic book optimism, rejuvenating the genre without resorting to major surgery.  Or, simply put, Whedon puts the fun back into it.  We, the audience, need the good guys to come together and put the smackdown on evil.  It just helps when we believe in it, and Whedon makes that possible.  Nolan’s approach to ‘The Dark Knight’, on the other hand, is to explore the post-9/11 political climate — which, worldwide, is afraid of both authorities and anarchists — by exposing Batman’s inherently fascist elements and the Joker’s archetypal resemblance to real-life terrorists.  Here’s the world on the edge of a knife; the audience must choose which way to lean.  Rather than affirming the genre’s emotional truth, Nolan goes for the big artistic bucks and tears Batman down, generating catharsis by making him a tragic figure.  In other words, Nolan takes the fun out of it so he can make us think.  The trouble with Whedon’s approach is that it’s limited; it can never be quite as definitive as Nolan’s technique, as we’ll see in Whedon’s writing of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’.  However, the trouble with Nolan’s take — at least in ‘The Dark Knight’ — is that it doesn’t allow for unironic genre consumption.  Rather than rewarding viewers for their love, it punishes them, hoping to affect their outlook towards thoughtfulness, though it often generates cynicism instead.  For Whedon, though, the audience is king; they just sometimes forget what they want.

Which is why ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is such a different beast.  Rather than just catering to our tastes, like ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ wants us to have a critical, detached look at our cake and to eat it sincerely, too.  The problem, of course, is that these demands don’t really jibe without generating an unnervingly pessimistic theme.  In order for you to understand what I’m driving at, I have to describe the film’s mechanics in detail, hence the spoiler warning up top.

In the film’s world we have three levels: on the surface is, basically, the real world, with the control bunker beneath devising murderous scenarios that fulfill horror film tropes, and deeper yet is the prison of the Ancient Ones — evil gods who threaten to destroy the world if their desires (for elaborate and sexualized sacrifices) are not satisfied.  In a psychological sense, this geography seems pretty well spot-on — well, at least if you subscribe to the dominant Western view of human nature.  The Ancient Ones are primal human instincts (soul, a wellspring of evil,) kept in check only by the bureaucracy (mind) which in turn determines events in the surface world (body) in service to the underlying instincts.  If the problematic facet of this isn’t obvious to you, well, here’s the deal: we, the audience, are the Ancient Ones.  We are a wellspring of evil.  So that we don’t run wild, the filmmakers, in touch with their own violent instincts, create fantasies to satisfy our desires and keep our darker selves sublimated.  Horror films exist to save society from collapsing into chaos. This is line with the world according to Hobbes and indeed most of Western philosophy.  Unlike ‘The Avengers’, where Whedon trumpets humankind’s ability to overcome pretty differences in service of unmitigated good, this is a deeply pessimistic film.

However, it’s also brilliant, and pretty well spot-on in regards to the spiritual machinations behind horror films.  Yes, horror films do exist to fulfill a ritual function that taps into, and satisfies, a violent and sexual undercurrent of the human psyche.  That much is clear.  What ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ doesn’t offer, though, is what Nolan might have created using his toolbox — a deconstruction that provokes real doubt in the viewer as to the genre’s legitimacy.  Whedon & Goddard never really question it; they just accept the premise of humankind’s inherent evil and roll with it, seeming to point an accusatory finger at the audience while giving them a sympathetic wink.  Therefore, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ approximates Whedon & Goddard’s solution to Truffaut’s Law; that is, the aphorism that you can never make an anti-war film, because war is inherently spectacular in the literal sense, and people like to see things blow up.  Put another way, the gross features of human nature will always undercut any serious attempt to critique them by using imagery that excites those same features.  Contrary to Truffaut’s Law, however, I suggest that it is possible to create an anti-war, or, to the point, an anti-horror film.  Just avoid spectacle, which is, after all, the exploitative fuel which war, horror and erotic films run on.  With an oblique approach, it is possible, in theory, to directly comment on these genres without participating in them.  That’s assuming, of course, that a screenwriter could resist exploitation’s pull on the page, and a director could do the same.  Again, Whedon & Goddard’s solution is that there is no solution, and we might as well make the most of it.  We can never defy the Ancient Ones; if we do, they destroy the world.  Catch 22.  Keep the spiritual bureaucracy running.

In view of Whedon & Goddard’s brilliant, if negative, writing, is it possible to make a plausible alternate reading of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’?  Yes, actually, and to their credit, Whedon & Goddard deliberately give us this option, even though it runs counter to the film’s obvious thematic statement.  Like our lead characters, we can choose to defy the Ancient Ones anyway, grasping at the dignity of the choice that prevents the leads from murdering each other, even though it unleashes a greater, indeed apocalyptic evil.  In a way, the writers are penalizing us for this reading by suggesting that, if we chose to stop making horror movies, we would release real sublimated evil into society.  Whedon & Goddard are not about to play fair on this point.  They’re kind of cheating, which is of course their right as artists.  On the other hand, if, like the leads, we decided that rising above the negative aspects of ourselves was worth the cost, there is no proof that it would actually unleash the apocalypse.  Counter to the Western view to which Whedon & Goddard subscribe, if we accept an Eastern take on human nature — namely Taoism — we could conclude that the goodness inherent in all things would overcome the temporary destabilization caused by refusing to participate in horror films.  Therefore, though brilliant, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is understandably biased towards its own conclusions, and with a more comprehensive outlook and even hand, it need not cut to black on the end of the world.  Like ‘The Dark Knight’, it could have benefitted from a conflict and conclusion based on balance, rather than acting in typical Whedonesque fashion as an absurdly well-written genre tract — though, again, such affirmations are not in any way less artistically valuable.

All of this is not to say, however, that the horror genre is necessarily a product of human evil that must be done away with.  I’m not here to make any such definitive statements, though I can sympathize with arguments for and against its existence.  Indeed, that’s ultimately what makes ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ such a terribly good movie; it provokes critical discussion deliberately while also functioning as a pure exercise in entertainment.  It’s a subtle, intelligent work, proving Whedon’s excellence once again and hopefully paving the way for Goddard’s should-be-long-and-wonderful career.

Old-Fashioned Notions — Marvel’s The Avengers

Review:  May 4th, 2012 was, in keeping with geek tradition, ‘Star Wars’ Day.  On that most, uh, Force-full of days, we the guardians of sci-fi, fantasy and comic books take a moment to remember when we first got to see the saga of a ragtag team’s struggle against cosmic evil on the big screen.  Let’s never forget those days.  They were very nice, though some of us were eleven in those days, or as yet mere concepts in the hearts of teenage lovers, or not even proper inklings in anyone’s head, really.  But in counterpoint to ‘Star Wars’ Day nostalgia (which is only too appropriate, given “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”) on that particular May the Fourth in the U.S. we were blessed with the frankly stunning apotheosis of the cinematic superhero genre: ‘The Avengers’.  And the future — at least of sci-fi action-adventure cinema — seems very bright indeed.

Capping off Marvel Studios’ ambitious (and actually quite sudden) plan to finally approximate the diverse world of comic books (with their multitude of clashing heroes, villains and subgenres) in the movies, ‘The Avengers’ is a major coup for everyone involved in its creation.  Especially writer/director Joss Whedon, who, having previously built up a well-deserved but continually frustrated cult fanbase, successfully helmed one of the biggest summer movies of all time, and if he were to die young, he would die having proven to the world that he really knew what the hell he was doing after all.  Outside the rewards reaped by its creators, however, the whole of genre filmmaking stands to benefit from the film’s success, since, like the original ‘Star Wars’ before it, it can serve as a roadmap to properly realizing fantastic concepts in an appealing human manner.

For as big and silly and wonderful as ‘The Avengers’ gets, it’s grounded by honest, fallible and likable characters that remind us, by their magnetic presence, why we ought to enjoy any of this ballyhoo.  Any hack filmmaker can pit a superhuman against an alien invasion force and call it drama; it takes a real storyteller like Whedon to assemble a team that feels, despite their colorful and disparate personalities, inevitable.  These people — indeed, they are people first, heroes second — compliment each other perfectly.  Flaws become strengths by virtue of the team’s unlikely unity.  Out here in the real world, such moments of cohesion do occur, and tend to generate shockwaves when they do.  Because the film’s structure builds to the point where the team finally coheres, the expected trope of the climatic battle suddenly becomes organic, and the team’s fight against evil, instead of being rote action, is raw humanity gloriously unleashed.  Audiences react to this instinctively in a way they never will to ‘Transformers 3’.  They may not know why the dynamic in ‘The Avengers’ thrills them so deeply, but it surely does, and some of the kids who see the movie in theaters today will turn their quest to replicate the experience into a career in filmmaking.

The team dynamic is not the only secret to the film’s success, but it’s arguably the most important one to discuss in terms of its immediate cultural impact.  It’s the team itself that excites the (to use a word I dislike) zeitgeist.  ‘The Avengers’ is incredible optimistic and fun only because the team coalesces, by doing so healing all wounds and overcoming all evils within the team and without, at least as long as the team is together.  So ‘The Avengers’ is not obviously important like ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Citizen Kane’, because it’s not a critique or a deconstruction of societal forces, but it absolutely is important and resonates so widely because it strongly affirms human community.  Basically all ‘The Avengers’ says is “We need each other.”  But does anything else really need to be said?

Let’s not presume that every work that captures the zeitgeist must include riffs on relevant real-world conflicts, i.e., the Joker-as-archetypal-terrorist plot of ‘The Dark Knight’ (which, I hasten to add, is extremely good) or the military’s presence on Pandora in ‘Avatar’ (which, like it or not, struck a chord with audiences to the tune of billions of dollars.)  Of course, even if we were to say that ‘The Avengers’ must include such imagery to resonate properly, we can easily find it in the film’s central conflict.  Eleven years after 9/11, here’s a massive hit movie that features a hostile force appearing suddenly in the sky and killing thousands in New York (sound familiar?) only to be thwarted by a team led by the embodiment of American heroism.  It’s an optimistic statement that draws (explicitly) on old-fashioned notions of teamwork, self-sacrifice and patriotism.  Indeed, while the film’s thesis is pretty much on-the-nose, so, for that matter, is ‘The Dark Knight’.  As much as I appreciate that film, it’s not exactly subtle; in fact, I’d say one reason Batfandom can be so irritating is that they do not understand how simple ‘The Dark Knight’ is, and flatter themselves for understanding a pretty damn obvious thematic message.  That, of course, is part and parcel with the common fantasy among Batfans (and I count myself among their number) of being the brilliant, dark, misunderstood vigilante — as much as I like it, the Batman concept appeals to (typically teenage male) arrogance.  It’s like walking out of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ convinced you’re the only one who realized that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, and then thinking you’re the wise Jedi master who has to explain it to everyone.  But ‘The Avengers’ lacks the haughtiness of ‘The Dark Knight’; it isn’t trying to be important, it just is, because Whedon and company have their hearts in the right place.

Films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Avengers’ impact audiences in deep, unconscious ways, making their particular brands of storytelling popular again.  Before ‘The Avengers’ hit the screen, there were many unqualified rumblings about superhero films dying off, but those diagnoses were really prescriptions, trying to cure cinema of a trend many believed was sapping the movies of their popularity and importance.  It’s much harder to make such statements now without coming off as hopelessly cynical or snobbish, because the superhero genre has just now come into its own, injecting Hollywood and audiences with new enthusiasm for superheroes and other related genres.  For the guardians of geekdom, who have taken over the multiplex yet again, May the Fourth can serve as a reminder of past glories and the possibility of future revelations.