Is Found Footage Believable?

by Grace Park

Peterson proposes analyzing film by first fitting a global schemata, like a narrative, to the film, then working outward to increasingly more open-ended, local schemata, like metaphors. Peterson structures his method of film analysis by breaking down avant-garde film into minimalism and assemblage; found footage falls under assemblage and is defined as “heavily edited collection of footage from disparate sources, with an emphasis on juxtapositions of disparate images.” That juxtaposition includes the order of the images, the audio overlaid with footage, and special effects. In found footage films, seemingly unrelated images are made meaningful in the context of each other. As Abigail Child explains in her interview, found footage editing involves taking apart each source’s narrative by removing its internal links, then combining the footage with clips from other sources to allow the mind to link together a new narrative. This approach of reading meaning into found footage contrasts directly with Sontag’s claim from last week that film should be felt more and analyzed less.

Peterson categorizes these links as graphical coherence, radical metaphor, and canonic metaphors. Graphical coherence involves repetition or contrast in color, pattern, or structure, often grounded in social perceptions about the color. For example, the repeated appearance of pink on Margot Robbie in Wolf of Wall Street draws on the perception of the color as feminine. Conceptual coherence, further categorized into canonic and radical metaphors, involves repetition or contrast in subject matter. Canonic metaphors involve an explicit vision that ties into a narrative, requiring both vehicle and tenor. Radical metaphors, on the other hand, require just the vehicle, relying on suggestion without explicitly stating the narrative. For example, during the film screening on Tuesday, there was an image of a woman posing suggestively, followed by a torpedo fired from a submarine and an explosion. This could be a radical metaphor for sex. Thinking over several examples, an ad hoc rule of thumb seems to be that if the images are disjointed on first viewing, it’s likely radical.

Something that intrigued me is the difference between Peterson’s metaphors and allusion. Peterson’s metaphors seem self-contained; the connections are drawn within the film itself. This suggests that allusions like those in Child of Men (which uses a newsreel or documentary style that mimics found footage) would not count as found footage metaphors. The imagery of refugees being rounded up into cages mimics Abu Ghraib, border detention facilities, and Holocaust imagery, while Kee’s pregnancy reveal in a barn and her joke that she’s a virgin are strong Christian allusions. These allusion require outside knowledge, whereas Peterson’s metaphors seem to be the self-contained work of the found footage and its editor.

Horror is a genre notorious for mimicking found footage. Notable examples include The Blair Witch, The Bay, Lake Mungo, and Cannibal Holocaust. “Found” footage implies that what is seen on the screen could have happened in the real world, and horror that balances right at the edge of the plausible is more terrifying than the absurd. Blair Witch is widely considered a success in found footage film, partly due to its marketing’s commitment to supporting the film’s concept of being the work of college students that were lost. The film’s website featured fake police reports, and police got calls from film viewers asking why they weren’t investigating the disappearance of the students played by actors in the film.  The marketing blurred the line between art created by the filmmaker and reality documented by the camera. The Bay is another found footage horror movie whose terror relies on the plausibility of the events documented in the found-footage style production. Water pollution creating mutant isopods that consume people isn’t a far stretch—cymothoa exigua is a real parasitic isopod that eats fish tongues. The pollution, the mayor’s response (shutting down the town out of fear) and people’s reactions to being trapped are all realistic enough, lending credence to the premise that the footage was “found.” This devotion toward a plausible reality is probably why found footage/mockumentary films tend to be more realistic in their special effects than fantasy films. In the Blair Witch, for example, instead of showing the entity, we hear screams or see fairly commonplace evidence (blood, teeth, sticks, cairns, and houses are not particularly fantastical), with subtler editing.

And yet, the viewer isn’t naïve. We know that for all the gimmicks, we’re in a theatre watching a movie that was created by filmmakers to turn a profit and possibly to make a statement. No matter how believable the acting or the setting, the fact that we are watching the film gives away the game. “Found footage” is only believable as long as we are engrossed in it. I also think that found footage is more believable in modern times when technology and film are a larger part of our lives and apps like Snapchat and tik-tok make us accustomed to recording ourselves. Joel Anderson, director of the 2008 found-footage thriller Lake Mungo said he was partly inspired to make the film because “technology is used to record people’s lives and sort of tracks memories,” and it now “mediates a lot of our experiences.” It’s not super plausible that ordinary people would be walking around with recording devices and cameras, but it is plausible for people to have cell phones.

One last thought is wondering how found footage relates to media. News agencies film hours of events, only to use a few choice clips that best support their news story. News is a counterexample to the claim in horror found footage that their story is believable, because both Fox and MSNBC can take the same footage of a protest and edit it in such a way as to create wildly different narratives. Abigail Child mentions how “narrative moves throughout [their] work,” and how they see part of their work as removing the “links” that the mind wants to make.

On first glance, found footage seems like Bazin’s ideal film; eminently credible because it is simply the result of a camera—an automatic process—being left on, recording what is around it, and then being discovered later by some less biased party with no agenda. I think found footage makes an implicit claim that it is more believable than other types of film, because it was “found”; there’s an implication that the person who found the film was not searching for that particular story to be told. However, because of the nature of found footage editing, I think we should be just as wary of it as we are of film in general.

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