Project X begins with a thank you from Warner Bros. Pictures to “all of the individuals who contributed footage to the film.” The suggestion is that the ensuing depiction of a house party gone horribly awry (we're talking body shots, SWAT teams and drug addicts wielding flame-throwers) is an authentically crowd-sourced production that has somehow made its way into the multiplex – a homemade, handicam version of The Hangover.
Of course, Project X isn't really a documentary. It’s the latest entry in a swelling sub-genre known as the found-footage film.
Not to be confused with mockumentaries, which approximate documentary techniques in the service of fictional material or characters (think This Is Spinal Tap), found-footage films are narrative features styled as the cinematic equivalent of samizdat: recorded images that were never meant to be seen, edited together after the fact, and usually, it's implied, after the person behind the camera came to a bad end or disappeared altogether.
When the films work, they create an effect that’s like the inverse of conventional moviemaking, which prizes flawlessly executed illusions. In found-footage films, it’s a skillfully wrought sense of raggedness and incompleteness that moves us to suspend our disbelief.
There’s a literary precedent for this in the stories of writers like H.P. Lovecraft, whose weird tales were often framed as diary entries discovered and recounted after the fact. But a more contemporary reference point might be the plethora of vlogs on websites like YouTube: As more and more people document their own experiences, Hollywood filmmakers have tried to reflect these trends onscreen.
Both Project X and last month's box-office champion Chronicle are framed as video diaries that end up records of adolescent hijinks spun wildly out of control. In Chronicle, a sulky teen named Andrew (Dane DeHaan) acquires telekinetic powers and his first instinct is to get his similarly endowed friends together for some turbo-charged Jackass stunts; in Project X, three geeky teens decide to record their epic high school party for posterity and end up with an incriminating digital record of mass debauchery
In both cases, the format works to confer a sense of authenticity on stale clichés – the comic-book thriller and the revenge-of-the-nerds comedy – while creating a bunch of its own. These include the inevitable scene where a character must explain why he or she hasn't simply turned the camera off in the face of extreme circumstances – an issue addressed most skillfully in 1999’s seminal found-footage film The Blair Witch Project.
In that film, the camera-wielding protagonists are members of a film crew looking for trouble, which accounts for the relative stability of the camerawork and also their dogged determination to keep recording even when the titular witch starts picking them off one by one.
It's not surprising that the found-footage conceit has generally been best used in horror films, which are historically lower-budget than other genres and thus contingent on ingenious, less-is-more effects. They're also less reliant on movie stars, which allows for the placement of plausibly anonymous actors into the mix.
The phenomenal success of 2007’s Paranormal Activity and its sequels proves both points: Arriving on the heels of the baroque, gore-drenched Saw franchise, Oren Peli's micro-budget riff on The Exorcist broke box-office records and millions of viewers' brains with nothing more menacing than endless, stationary shots of its unknown stars spooning in bed or staring at the wall.
Peli has tried to take the shivery surveillance shtick to television with ABC's new prime-time series The River, which lacks its predecessor's eerie simplicity. Set deep in the South American jungle, the show tries to blend a found-footage setup about a documentary crew searching for a lost explorer with X-Files-ish visual effects. The results are lacklustre: When found-footage films work, it's because they're able to sustain the this-is-really-happening tone in a way that heightens the story. Introducing obvious CGI into a naturalistic visual environment usually breaks the spell.
There are exceptions: Cloverfield (2008), a found-footage Godzilla clone about an alien wreaking havoc in New York, adroitly intermingled the everyday and the fantastic while satirizing the contemporary compulsion to document every moment: Its signature image was a horde of onlookers pausing in the middle of the ongoing monster mash to take cellphone photos of the destruction.
There's a little bit of this self-reflexivity in Chronicle as well, which uses its characters' telekinetic abilities as an excuse for swooping, vertiginous camera angles, as if the title character from Carrie had decided to go to film school. It also makes something of its troubled protagonist Andrew's (Dane DeHaan) desire to put a camera between himself and everything in his life – levitating a flotilla of iPhones to document his destruction of the Seattle Space Needle, it's like he's navel-gazing into the abyss.
There's no comparable moment of reflection in Project X, (although its black-clad, McLovin-esque cameraman is a humorously sociopathic mirror image of Andrew). The film’s goal is simply to look like the wildest viral video of all time, although the rapid-fire cutting patterns and presence of music on the soundtrack in addition to the tunes being played at the party puncture the illusion that the action is actually being captured in the moment.
Chances are that Project X’s target audience won’t care about these lapses, and if the film is a hit, we’ll likely see found-footage variations of other genres.
SOME MEMORABLE MOMENTS IN FOUND-FOOTAGE FILMS
Man Bites Dog (1992)
This sly Belgian shocker follows a camera crew shadowing a charismatic serial killer: As the filmmakers move from witnesses to accomplices in his crimes, the film reveals a wicked satirical streak to offset its decidedly non-hilarious violence.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Spoiler alert: The scariest moment in this modern classic comes right at the end, when the camera turns a corner and catches one of the characters standing with his back to the lens – an impenetrable image that lingers longer than any special-effects creature.
Brian De Palma's film isn't the first found-footage combat film (that'd be 84 Charlie MoPic from back in 1988) but it stood out in a cycle of Iraq War movies by using YouTube-ish imagery to sell the immediacy of its story – and, more controversially, for weaving real photos of Iraqi casualties into its complex visual tapestry.
Matt Reeves's critically adored monster movie has one of the cleverest tricks of any found-footage movie: It uses images stored on the main character's memory card as an in-camera “flashback;” when he stops recording in the present tense, we're taken back to images of happier times.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
The camera finally gets off the tripod in this second sequel. In a scene that's equally spooky and hilarious, the ghost-addled homeowners affix their camcorder to the base of a rotating fan; the result is an endlessly panning camera that just keeps missing the ghosts as it pans back and forth – until, of course, it doesn't.
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