A couple of years ago, I was asked, for a feature page in EW, to list my choice for the five most influential movies of the last 20 years. A few of them were no-brainers — you could write a book on the revolution set off by Pulp Fiction — but I spent some time pondering whether I wanted to include The Blair Witch Project. That it was a famously innovative and impactful movie no one could argue; overnight, it had invented the “found footage” genre and made it iconic. A number of films had been influenced by it — most obviously, the Paranormal Activity movies, which proved that the mega-success of Blair Witch was no fluke. With that in mind, I decided to add The Blair Witch Project to the list, but I confess I was flying on a whim of intuition. My choice, in this case, was highly speculative. I even said that the full impact of Blair Witch on film history had yet to be felt. For the truth was that even though the found-footage genre still had some obvious life to it (more Paranormal Activity sequels! More scuzzy Exorcist knockoffs!), you could make a good case that its heyday was behind it, that it was now running on fumes. Because, really, how much more juice could be squeezed out of this gimmick? I hailed Blair Witch as “influential,” but my secret suspicion was that its influence had already peaked.
What a difference the first three months of 2012 make! The Blair Witch Project is now 13 years old — it came out in the summer of 1999 — but up until now, virtually every found-footage movie released in its wake has been a horror film. And in that sense, the form has seemed fairly limited. Suddenly, though, something is in the air. A few weeks ago, the unheralded low-budget sci-fi movie Chronicle used the found-footage mode to tell the story of three high schoolers who acquire telekinetic powers, and the movie turned out to be ingenious fun. I called it the single best hey-we’re-making-a-documentary! thrill ride since Blair Witch itself. What intrigued me was the way that the whole stripped-down, bobbing-camera style made the special effects seem more real — that is, more effective — than they did in big-budget blockbusters. Audiences responded, and Chronicle was that all-too-rare thing, a genuine sleeper hit. Much in the way that Blair Witch had, it made the found-footage genre seem ripe with possibility.
Now, right on its heels, there’s Project X, which uses the found-footage mode in an amusingly disreputable way: It’s a teen-party flick that recycles the losin’-it tropes of the Porky’s/Risky Business/horny-summer-camp-comedy ’80s, and does so by staging a suburban high school bash so naked, so drug-and-alcohol-fueled, so brazenly writhing and over-the-top that it makes the average night at Karma, the beloved thump-thump palace of Jersey Shore, look like tea time with crumpets. Project X has been sneered at by a lot of critics, and in a revealing way, since what’s mostly gone on in the reviews is that they’ve dumped on the movie for being sleazy and shallow and salacious and a lot of other sensational words that start with “s” — but what’s really going on, of course, is that the critics, in the guise of putting down Another Dumb Teen Movie, have actually been wagging their finger at the movie’s content, scolding it for being such an unapologetic wallow in decadent behavior, and in that sense they’re fulfilling the role of all those uptight parents in ’50s news reports about the dangers of rock & roll. They’re doing the politically correct version of blaming youth culture for the end of civilization. Earth to moralistic critics: Project X may or may not be an okay movie, but this, like it or not, is what our youth culture has become. And sure, the film’s a total fantasy (geeks throw a party — and it turns into a backyard Girls Gone Wild bacchanal), but what makes it at least a halfway clever comedy is that, in this case, it’s the fake-documentary shaky-cam approach that juices up the fantasy, that gives it the kick of the real.
Let me take a moment to address two eternally pesky points about the found-footage genre. First of all, it’s a quirk of outdated preposterousness that this mode of filmmaking has come to be known as…the found-footage genre. In Blair Witch, of course, it really was: That movie created the hoax that it was assembled from actual footage that had been discovered after the people who shot it mysteriously disappeared. The hoax was so effective that a sizable number of viewers believed it. By the time of Paranormal Activity, in 2007, no one could be fooled anymore — the Ooooo, this really happened! idea was a formality — but nevertheless, the movie still operated off the pretense that the home movie and surveillance footage we were watching had been “left behind.” Now, though, even that idea has been abandoned. Chronicle, though everyone called it a found-footage movie, is not, in fact, a found-footage movie, although it does turn into the record of a disaster in which a number of people die. As for Project X, it really isn’t a found-footage movie, unless the idea is that the party is so off the hook that the film we’re watching is the only surviving record of a fist-pump apocalypse. So maybe we can agree, in the future, that these movies now have to be referred to in a different way. I’ll be happy to take suggestions.
The other pesky point, and everybody already knows this, is that there’s an essential contrivance built into the DNA of this genre, and it is this: There’s no way to believe, on a literal level, that whoever’s behind the camera just keeps on shooting — especially when really extreme stuff starts to happen. Blair Witch at least tried to deal with this fundamental implausibility by explaining that the person who was filming thought of the camera lens as a kind of security blanket. But even that was a pretty thin explanation. I mean, really, who would keep a digital-video camera held up to their eye while running through the woods in terror? In the years, and movies, since, the contrivance has only grown more threadbare, to the point that it’s not even a contrivance anymore. It’s just a basic artificial conceit to the way that these movies are assembled. In Project X, in order to buy that we’re watching a party viewed through a home-camera lens, we’d have to believe, first off, that Dax’s camera is everywhere at once: on the dance lawn, on the roof, inside the trampoline hut, creepily peering into bedrooms at make-out sessions. To even bother to think about why this is unreal would be a bore.
So if that’s the case, you may well ask, why bother with the pretense at all? More to the point: Why are these movies, 13 long years after The Blair Witch Project, suddenly exploding? I think the answer has to do with something much bigger than Blair Witch, and that’s the combined narcissistic karma of YouTube and reality TV. The new found-footage movies — I mean…uh, home-voyeur movies — aren’t so much interested in the pretense that we’re watching reality as they are in playing off the personalities of a generation that has grown up dramatizing itself, in a new fake-yet-real, moment-to-moment way, in front of the camera. Because YouTube has proved that, if you do that right, you can do it and get famous. And because the non-star stars of reality TV — the Real Housewives, the Jersey Shore crew — have created a daily panorama, a never-ending validation of 15 Minute Fame that gives people a powerful motivation to think of themselves as performers acting out their own lives.
It’s not the dusty old horror genre but, rather, the new life-as-entertainment culture that has given an injection of creative juice to a genre invented at the end of the last century. And that’s why I think, more than ever, that the genre is here to stay. But now, and this is where I’m really curious about what your feelings are, let’s take a moment to think about where it can go. So far, we’ve had horror movies, sci-fi, and racy teen exploitation. What will be next? And what, if anything, do you think might be a creatively interesting use for the home-voyeur genre? Could it bring a new life to romantic comedy? Or does the whole notion of ordinary people holding cameras in front of each other as they make up their lives need to dictate its own forms, all to channel the spirit of a culture that can’t stop staring at itself?
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