Clinical and Critical, Visible and Real:
Uses of Digital Footage in Contemporary Cinema

  The Blair Witch Project

Something counter-intuitive is going on in contemporary cinema. So many films, whether art-house or mainstream, low-tech or blockbuster, are contorting themselves to include – indeed, to entirely build themselves around – two kinds of everyday, digitally-generated footage: on the one hand, material from automatic recording or surveillance devices, usually implacably static; and, on the other hand, rough, jerky, home-video shots, captured by cheap, domestic technology. Sometimes, it is solely the alternation between these two kinds of digital footage that generates whatever formal dynamism or narrative tension there is in the piece as a whole.


This alternation of extreme opposites is, in itself, already a curious phenomenon. It’s as if an entire middle-ground of cinema and television aesthetics – a whole century of careful, ever-refined design, lighting and mise en scène – has fallen out, leaving only, on one side, the primitive rectangle of the static screen, struck dumb before the banalities in procession before it (Warhol was the first to reinvent this strange fascination in his 1960s films) and, on the other side, the jangled blur of events in their mobile, audiovisual immediacy.


Lars von Trier was speaking for more than just his own viewpoint when he startlingly declared, a few years back, that the very concept of framing – upon which the art of cinema, in most of its painterly– or photographically-derived forms, depends – had no evident logic for him. That meant, in his case, that he either went the hand-held camera route as he does in most of his work or, as in his comedy The Boss of it All (2006), he lets a computer on an “Automavision” program arbitrarily set the co-ordinates of the fixed frame.


Of course, in almost every case it’s a mock-up – mockumentary, even – and often strenuously so: a lot of effort has gone, equally, into the bland wide-angle shot, positioned in the corner of the ceiling (evoking the view of a home security camera, for example), and the frenetic, blurry, seasick effect of studiously hand-held reportage. Mise en scène is not entirely dead yet – it only looks that way. And this is one source of the frisson we feel when watching the films that plumb and mix these two extreme techniques: this is a cinema beyond cinema, an anti-cinema almost, bearing an avant-gardish chill and a fresh blast of seeming rawness. Things appear and sound different, harsher, less contrived – even when they are, in fact, fully contrived.


Why are these films counter-intuitive? Because, in order to keep telling a story that is (as narrative theorist David Bordwell insists) still fairly classical in its structures and strategies, everything has to be up there on the screen, all the necessary information, exposition and clear plot-point moves. And how are you going to do that when you have restricted yourself as a filmmaker, at the outset, to only using domestic or surveillance footage? Thus we have elaborate horror-thrillers like Cloverfield (2008) or the REC series [2007-2014] which frantically multiply cameras in characters’ hands – snippets from which are then pieced together in a jazzy montage mosaic – and we get, in a trend inaugurated by The Blair Witch Project (1999, woeful sequel 2000), an elaborate contextualising frame of data-packed, written-on-screen prologues and epilogues, as well as superimposed titles (often of the mocked-up, digital-readout, place-date-time variety). Again, it’s a kind of anti-cinematic pull, sometimes leaden, sometimes invigorating.


The usual alibi for these modes – the ghostly stillness of surveillance footage or the discombobulated motion of the Handycam – is, bien sûr, realism: everyday life as it is flowing endlessly by the mechanical eye-witness of the camera lens; or the intense, intimate moments caught in the thick of it all. It’s an old reverie about the Real (in a Lacanian sense) in cinema: the true brush of reality, for the viewer, is either when everything is happening all at once, confusedly; or hardly anything is happening at all.


Thus, is it no mere coincidence that Warhol’s revolutionary gesture of “turning on the camera and walking away” (for his Film Portraits series) came to the world almost at the same moment in the early 1960s as the documentary movement of cinéma-vérité (in the work of Richard Leacock or the Maysles brothers) poked its camera-nose into the flashpoints of election campaigns, pop star tours or Death Row vigils. The reality-effect was never to be found in one or the other of these extreme poles, but in their alternation and vacillation, their dialectic. Yesteryear, that alternation was to be found across diverse films; today, we find it within individual films.


Cinema, in many of its forms, still lives on these dreams of realism. The Danish Dogme school kickstarted by von Trier (especially in The Idiots [1998], one of his better efforts) – even if it has degenerated as it began, as a kind of droll, conceptual joke – polices its rather bogus, suspect “rules” of spontaneity and non-artifice (but what form of filmmaking can ever escape artifice?). At the same time, a wide trend known internationally as contemplative cinema revels in what the Japanese critic Shigehiko Hasumi calls the “archaeological rapture of film”, meaning all those still, distant, long-drawn-out vistas of peasant life in contemporary Chinese, Argentinian or Iranian cinema that unfailingly evoke for us the earliest silent newsreels from the beginning of the 20th Century.


More recently, the Dogme sensibility has transmuted itself into a curious hybrid of independent and mainstream cinema style: Olivier AssayasCarlos (2010), Steven Soderberg’s Che (2008) and several David Fincher films (Zodiac [2007] and The Social Network [2010]) – films which, while fully fictionally staged, derive their realist alibi from their painstaking, even laborious attempt to follow the facts of a real-life history in all its waywardness, shapelessness and (at least in the case of Zodiac’s search for a killer) disconcerting lack of closure. And contemplative cinema at last touches the mainstream, very gingerly, in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010), with its multiplying silent looks and temps morts in the action.


If I had to pick two case studies that stake out the poles of these new trends in contemporary cinema, they would be, on the one hand, the wildly popular Paranormal Activity horror-thrillers [2007-2021] and, on the other, the little-known (but once seen, never forgotten) The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez (2000) compiled by Sami Saif – as it happens, a filmmaker who went on to document the making of von Trier’s Dogville (2003).


These works, spanning the decade of the 2000s, stand for two completely different kinds of cinema – slickly mocked-up, sensationalistic, generic Hollywood fiction vs. stark documentary assembled from ‘found’ amateur video footage and left unadorned by any obviously editorialising voice-over commentary, montage effects, digital treatments or music. But they converge, very intriguingly, on the same basic mode: they are both presented and shaped up as clinical case studies of violent, psychological aberration, where the pay-off of the narrative is precisely the unveiling of an unspeakable crime at the very heart of a nuclear family, within the family home itself. Could it be this sort of trauma, rather than the alibi of greater realism, which is the key to all the contortions and convolutions of the new cinema?


The Video Diary of Ricardo Lopez is based wholly (a few TV news shots at the very end aside) on video footage left behind by a disturbed, obsessive fan of the pop star Björk. Twenty hours of taped monologues are artfully condensed down to 104 minutes. Alone in his bedroom, Lopez’s paranoiac delusions slowly twist from love to hate for his object of fixation (he posts her a bomb). Rituals of self-preparation (painting and mutilating himself) lead to a gruesome suicide by shooting – a moment viewable in various corners of the Internet, but tactfully withheld from Saif’s assemblage.


Perhaps even more unsettling than Lopez’s mental condition is his evident sense, in the age of Reality TV and personal computers, that he is not merely “leaving his legacy” (however twisted) on tape, but already playing to a rapt, mass audience. Saif, for his part, offers up this edited distillation as a document for study, rather than for horrifying or perverse entertainment (originally made for Danish television, it has since been distributed by an institute for psychology).


The inaugural Paranormal Activity film, written and directed by Oren Peli, constituted a different kind of digital interactivity: its anticipated cult was nurtured online by cleverly strategic online marketing (urging future consumers to demand the then-unseen work), thereby transforming it from a low-budget genre experiment costing eleven thousand US dollars into a massive, international, commercial hit, and then a franchise, for Paramount Pictures. (Curiously, one of the masterminds of this plan was a prolific former-academic specialist on horror cinema, Steven J. Schneider.) Steven Spielberg himself figures in this Hollywood-capitalist success story by (as legend goes) watching a video copy supplied by the filmmaker back in 2008, and experiencing the paranormal activity of his bathroom door mysteriously opening of its own accord!


The novelty (and conceit) of the Paranormal Activity series is to rely so extensively on purely mechanical, impersonal footage: derived from a camera set up in the corner of a young couple’s bedroom by a nerdy amateur cinematographer (the husband) in the first instalment; and from multiple security cameras in the sequel. The appeal of the premise goes way back to the earliest 1870s experiments in spirit photography right on through the many Reality TV series devoted to haunted houses filmed on infra-red vigils in the dark: if you leave the lens open or the camera rolling long enough, and try not to disturb or impress your human presence too much, will you wind up recording traces of ghosts, phantoms, evil spirits, apparitions of the dead?


This curiosity concerning the supernatural realm of the afterlife is quickly coded by the Paranormal Activity movies into the familiar and rather narrow morality of Gothic horror: the dead are evil beings bent on exacting some obscure revenge against the living (although when it comes to mysterious motivations for haunting, America has nothing on the cinemas of Japan and Korea, however much it tries to appropriate their recent horror-film conventions). So, terror is milked by scenes of the menacing of children – a baby lifted (seemingly levitated) out of its crib by an invisible agent – and each film ends by unleashing a fury of supernatural violence against its central characters (the point at which the handheld camera mayhem becomes most exacerbated, as in the REC films), with some sort of revelatory plot twist added.


The 2010 sequel Paranormal Activity 2 (directed by Tod Williams) begins an ingenious process of narrative involution, stepping back slightly in time and drawing connections between various family members and friends – meanwhile insisting (with a somewhat heavy dramatic hand) that the characters refuse to speak, amongst themselves, of issues of mental illness or other skeletons in the closet.


Beyond its (sometimes trite) thematic hooks, the Paranormal Activity films return us to a type of primal pleasure in the face of the cinematic image – eliciting a particular kind of attentiveness usually erased by the classical-mainstream approach to moviemaking. Quite simply, whenever we are presented with a mute, wide open, static frame – further distorted by the wide-angle security-camera lens adopted for the sequel – we have no idea where, precisely, to look for the point of potential action (such as disturbed kitchenware, a sudden breeze blowing a curtain, a slammed door or cabinet). We have to scan the frame in tense anticipation, and here – as opposed to the generally non-threatening environments of contemplative cinema – we do so in a hasty panic, not wanting to miss the slightest index of invisible malevolence. Sound design enhances this blank terror: the filmic soundscape is built upon the idle, grating, low-level-industrial hum of cameras, air conditioners, refrigerators. (Intriguingly in light of Warhol’s place in the genealogy I am tracing, John Cale recalls how, to fashion the avant-garde, drone-based Theatre of Eternal Music led by La Monte Young in the early 1960s, the players would tune to the frequency of the refrigerator or the homely fish tank – which they regarded as the characteristic “sound of the 20th century”.)


Although these movies seem to trade, to a surprising extent, on a pre-special effects amateur-film corniness – is a door slowly swinging open really so scary to us these days? – this may be exactly the reason for their effectiveness. They take us back to the very inception of cinema and still photography alike in their interrogation of the relationship between visible and invisible, between what can be shown and what can only be intuited. With the proviso that whatever invisibility a film thinks it is exploring (like evil ghosts) may only be a symptom for other, equally unseeable or unacknowledgeable stresses and forces.


In this new mode of cinema, the decisive step from clinical to critical (to borrow terms from philosopher Gilles Deleuze) is provided by Michael Haneke’s much-debated Caché (Hidden, 2005). Its plot hinges on the secretly-filmed videotapes – of domestic spaces exterior and interior – delivered to a progressively unraveling bourgeois couple in Paris. These video images, banal at first (such as an everyday street scene), eventually point to hidden or repressed family secrets and national scandals, particularly the police murder of officially 40 but possibly over 200 peacefully protesting Algerians in 1961.


What clinches the radicality of Haneke’s cinematic proposition is, finally, the strangeness (the non-suture or lack of closure) of its surveillance-camera premise: more than any mystery of who exactly filmed these tapes, it is the impossible logic of where the cameras could have been located that undermines every certainty we may grasp at as viewers. The explanatory reverse shot that could conclude this enigma – even when it is apparently, calmly presented to us – forbids our tying up and making complete sense of it.


Moreover, this anti-logic of uncertainty spreads from the film’s clearly marked spy-footage to Haneke’s own long-take, distant, static frames narrating the larger story – as in the final image that shows but does not underline, amidst the chaos of everyday flux, its clues, speculations and hypotheses.


Caché does not simply “bare the device” in old-fashioned, Brechtian terms – if simply being aware of the camera’s presence was revolutionary, Paranormal Activity and its commercial kin would have changed world-consciousness by now. Rather, Haneke consistently interrogates and successively undermines the status of its unfolding recorded images and sounds, thus tackling the problem of what is visible – and what portion of the visible we are willing to acknowledge, ultimately, as real.


Postscript: For further development of these ideas, see my 2013/2017 essay “Frame” in Elena Gorfinkel & Tami Williams (eds),  Global Cinema Networks (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2018), pp. 37-52.



© Adrian Martin July 2011

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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