Verisimilitude AGAIN

Posted: October 20, 2010 in Braak, Horror, poetics
Tags: , ,

Jesus, when am I going to stop with this?  Okay, so, Holland wrote his bit about Paranormal Activity, and he’s right in a lot of important ways.  But I think there’s actually even more to be mined from a discussion of the subject, and since that’s basically all I do (talk about things AT LENGTH), that’s what I’m going to get up to today.

So, Paranormal Activity — and it’s cinema-verite brethren, like the Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity 2, The Fourth Kind, &c &c — is of a kind of style which focuses very heavily on the “documentary” quality as a horror-inducing element.  That is to say, all of these movies are attempting to scare the audience by suggesting that what they’re portraying is “true.”

This is not a new phenomenon; lots of folks have speculated that The Exorcist was so popular and so frightening because it was “based on a true story” (these people are wrong; I may or may not get to that later).  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre insists the events portrayed in it have, or had, or were maybe related to something that had its basis in fact.  So on, and so forth.

The thing about this kind of horror is that can eschew traditional things like character development, mood, theme, even plot, so long as it looks real.  This is the culmination of horror-via-effects:  as long as you can make it really look like a guy is getting pulled through the air by an invisible force, it doesn’t really matter why it’s happening:  the audience will be frightened because, for a moment, they’ll believe that this thing was true.

The documentary style is, interestingly, no “truer” a presentational style than the regular old film camera version; they probably did takes in Paranormal Activity, and the whole thing has been run through color processing and had special effects and everything added.  The shaky camera, grainy quality, and bad angles are all signifiers — not evidence, exactly, but symbolic elements that inform the audience “this thing REALLY HAPPENED.”

The problem with this is:  truth is not actually stranger than fiction.  I’m going to re-assert this, because I know that everyone SAYS truth is stranger than fiction, but come on:  that’s plainly bullshit.  Think for, a moment, about the strangest true thing you’ve ever heard.

Now:  add space vampires.

Voila.  Fiction is stranger than truth.  Every time!  Because:  no matter how strange the truth is, you can always add space vampires and make it stranger.  So, what do we mean when we say, “truth is stranger than fiction”?  Why do we say that?  And why does it lead us to make movies like Paranormal Activity?

It’s because the strange thing about strange truths isn’t that they’re strange, it’s that they’re true. Abraham Lincoln making presidential bodyguards out of the Secret Service right before he’s assassinated isn’t as strange as if he made presidential bodyguards out of a Secret Service of space vampires right before he was assassinated by a space vampire; but the first thing really happened, so we give it more weight insofar as strangeness goes.

The problem with this, and it’s the problem with Naturalism in general (and why Naturalism in the theater just died a boring, unsung old death), is that when you’re trying to portray true things that are strange (or strange things that you want us to think are true), the work is interesting only and exactly as far as the subject matter is interesting.

So, let me clarify:  Naturalism is an art-form in which the artist’s intervention is meant to be as invisible as possible, so that the subject can be as clearly rendered as possible.  Naturalism eschews any and every “artifice”.  And that’s fine, if you’re trying to present something that’s actually true, but it runs up against the wall of:  the story is only as interesting as the subject.

Because you didn’t DO anything to it.  Chekhov is about the limit, here:  he’s still concatenating, editing, creating character and plot in support of theme, and The Three Sisters is almost incomprehensibly boring.  Anything less than that much artifice would be like getting an icepick right into your brain.

Paranormal Activity doesn’t DO anything to the story.  They have created a fake scenario, and have tried to film it in as “real” a way as possible; and, consequently, the movie is literally as interesting as the filmmakers can realistically portray people getting thrown through the air by invisible poltergeists.  Or demons, or whatever the fuck it’s supposed to be.  Who cares?  Did you see that door close?  ZOMG!

This is why all those people who tell you that The Exorcist is scary because it’s based on a true story are wrong — The Exorcist is scary because it’s a scary fucking movie.  Because it avoided the traditional horror plot structure, because it embraced a higher quality of special effects — all things that I’m saying are part of the documentary style.  The difference is, The Exorcist is scary whether or not you really believe it could happen; Paranormal Activity uses the documentary style as fully as possible because it’s ONLY scary if you believe it’s really happening.  All of the effort and energy that might have otherwise created a rarefied ambiance, a thematic horror, is spent insisting adamantly that ALL OF THIS IS REAL, ZOMG, ISN’T IT SCARY?

(Incidentally, this is exactly the reason that Holland keeps having problems with “breaking the suspension of disbelief”; paradoxically, the more realistic you make your film, the easier it is to break that suspension.  Verisimilitude is tyranny.)

It’s also why, ultimately, there’s only going to be one of these things at a time.  I mean, I think it’s funny how different art-forms go through exactly the same evolutionary process.  The theater experimented with naturalism for about fifty years before it gave up.  Now horror movies are trying it.  Why?  Well, for one thing because we finally CAN (same with theater:  suddenly there was enough money to put horses and butcher shops on stage); and for another because we keep forgetting that basically, people are only interested in one of these things at a time.

“Oh my god, look how real it looks” is the same joke, no matter if you’re doing it in Paranormal Activity or Paranormal Activity 2 or The Fourth Kind.

  1. Moff says:

    I don’t know how I can take anything you say seriously if you don’t know that space vampires are real.

  2. Lolly says:

    I think it is a conceit that can work, but, like many conceits, can only work once. For me, anyway. I was scared shitless after Blair Witch. I saw it in the theater and I looked at that faux-authentic Blair Witch website before going and so I could, almost, in the back of my mind believe that the stuff on film was actually happening. I am also the sort of person who is easily susceptible to hypnosis, so I could rather eagerly embrace the suggestion of reality presented in Blair Witch. But still only that one time…

  3. Ryan says:

    Now I can’t stop thinking about space vampires.

  4. It’s funny how an entire conceit is born because people want to make movies cheaply. That’s Blair Witch and Paranormal on a platter. Also BSG went this route, yes they had enough money to shoot film, but they could shoot quicker, cheaper and fancy annoying zooms and shakes with the high end video cameras they used. Course, they used the extra money on good actors and good CGI (which was made better by the Firefly-esque shakeycam out of focus CGI- same principle as fog in Bladerunner composites). Oh, also they spent the money on storylines that didn’t really make sense, but whatever, it was dramatic and featured hot people and guns.

    Now you get a lot of movies who have access to money or easily could, and yet they shoot this way, because they think it’s kinetic or docu style, though the only film I think this worked properly for was The Hurt Locker–and they used 16mm film and highly elaborate setups with explosions that cost a fair bit of change. So you’ve got a trend developing which studios are like ‘yay, let’s make more money-wait, no one saw the fourth kind, fuck it let’s do another one.’ Then additionally you’ve still got independent filmmakers who use the same “style” simply because they can only afford the cheap as balls cameras and have friends work for free. Of course, that doesn’t mean all their stories are shit, just, you know, the bad ones. A few years ago Primer made waves because it had a mind blowing storyline and was shot for under 10k by a self taught ex-physicist. Similar faux docu-style, but none of this concept of ‘this is real see?’ conceit. It was a solid film with a story that actually made sense (though sadly, to someone raised on science fiction it wasn’t actually mind blowing at all-the “twist” is hinted at by a fairly obvious camera technique). But the reason it worked wasn’t because of the concept, but because we actually cared about the two main characters. Shocking, that, really, totally shocking.

  5. braak says:

    Yeah, think there’s also some bleed in terms of style (this has been happening for years, in all manner of things): indie film-makers (because they’re poor) make a film in a particular way. The poverty becomes a hallmark of indie film. And, because sometimes indie films can be great successes (because no one, but NO ONE, sends around the crappy ones), that cheap, poor style becomes associated with “art.” So, someone makes their fancy high-budget movie, they make it in a style that looks “poor” because it lends artistic credibility to it.

    Sometimes. I mean, Cloverfield was in shaky cam video camera “style,” but they didn’t film it with a video camera. It was just as expensive to make as any other movie (well, maybe less, because there were no helicopter shots).

  6. Moff says:

    Just a point: The conceit wasn’t born, exactly, because people wanted to make movies cheaply—it was born because people could make movies cheaply. Suddenly, cameras that shot movie-screen footage became a lot more affordable (as did editing capabilities, etc., via improved consumer software), and those developments removed a major impediment to getting a major release made without being a big studio.

    And of course once it became clear that audiences would turn out for movies not shot on film, then big studios started to take advantage of the savings afforded by the new technology. But to lump Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity into the same category isn’t exactly right. One broke ground, introduced the possibility; the other one took advantage of what had become a pretty well-established conceit.

  7. braak says:

    Except, Blair Witch didn’t exactly break new ground stylistically; it broke new ground as a financial model, certainly. It may be that it’s the first film to apply that particular style to horror, which I guess is breaking a kind of ground. But I think regardless of Blair Witch‘s novelty (which had a primary impact on its financial success, I suppose), stylistically there’s nothing distinguishing it from Paranormal Activity.

  8. Moff says:

    I think there’s a pretty solid connection between Blair Witch breaking ground financially and thereby popularizing the pseudo-doc style that now we see all over the place, not just in, say, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield, but in TV shows like The Office and Arrested Development, too. Which isn’t to say Blair Witch was the lone root of that style — but it was one of the first big, best-known instances of it.

    I mean, hardware influences style, and finances influence hardware. That said, maybe it’s fair to lump Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity together; maybe the chronology is irrelevant. More than that point, though, I don’t think budget-friendliness is necessarily the draw for the director, in many cases of pseudo-doc-style movies anymore — like, with Cloverfield. I think it’s that directors have seen people will accept stories told in the format and are interested in the possibilities it offers (all your valid criticisms of the format notwithstanding).

  9. Of course artists will be attracted to a new style if they feel a strong story can/needs to be told in said style. That’s one of the best parts about filmmaking, its adaptability. That said, not every story is a) worth telling and b) told with the appropriate style. But at that point the problem isn’t with the style, but the story. It’s funny, people will accept any good story told any way. They will also accept many bad stories, and ignore mediocre stories with amazing style (Scott Pilgrim). The mass market isn’t the best way to determine artistic credibility, but I don’t think anyone here was saying that. So I guess I wandered off track a bit.

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