Oddly missing in histories of the “found footage” genre (PopMatters recently did a quick round-up of the genre here, “The 10 Best ‘Found Footage’ Films of All Time”) is a series of short, strange films “compiled” by French director Jean-Teddy Filippe: Les Documents Interdits or The Forbidden Files. First shown in 1989 by European broadcaster ARTE-TV (Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne), these grainy, flickering, fragmented documents still represent one of the peaks of the “found footage” genre (for horror and sci-fi, anyway), offering hints of supernatural eruptions from within a mundane reality and not sticking around long enough to let the passing viewer in on the joke.
The later (and kinda dumb) The Blair Witch Project (1999) got a lot more press from the idea ten years later, but the requirements of cinema’s long-form narrative can’t really compete with television and short film’s ability to send something unnerving into your late-night living room, and then be gone before you’ve had a chance to properly take it all in.
Though it pre-dates The Blair Witch Project by a decade, the roots of the genre of course stretch substantially further back. Trying to determine “bests” and “most importants” in an artistic realm like film is a pretty pointless exercise, but it’s an interesting suggestion made by Hugh S. Manon in “Qui Perd Gagne: Failure and Cinematic Seduction” that the “the most important American film of the late twentieth century” is none other than the “Patterson film”, also known as “that Bigfoot footage”.
Manon highlights the “Lo-Fi aesthetic” that lures the viewer in not simply through what’s shown on the screen, but by drawing attention to the flimsiness and arbitrariness of film’s ability to portray and reproduce reality. The footage goes against all the conventions of film as a cohesive object, and in doing so, seduces the viewer into allowing themselves to be deceived by cinematic spectacle all over again.
The fact that the film doesn’t seem to fit into the category of either “short film” or “documentary” is, in a sense, a sign of its absolute success. As Michael Renov points out, “the roots of cinema are co-terminus with documentary’s own”; both the Edison “Actualities” and the fantasies of Georges Méliès emerged organically from the same medium. They also meet at the same end point: both the ultimate desire for truth of documentary and the ultimate hoax of fantasy offer not the absolute (and impossible) representation of reality, but the insistent hint of it: the effectiveness, of both fantasy and documentary, lies not in the ability to actually convince, but in the ability to make the viewer wonder if they will allow themselves to be convinced, and to try to catch a glimpse of truth behind the obvious construct.
As Manon points out: “the real trick of the film lies in the high visibility of its formal failure—a jarringly chaotic approach to camera to which the viewer cannot but respond: and now show us what is beyond it.” The appearance of the Patterson film is perhaps all the more interesting in that Manon ties it, in all its clunky non-cinematic glory, to a certain point of “maturity” in cinematic production standards that had been reached around 1960 (according to David Bordwell, anyway).
The shaky, meandering camerawork, the implied plotlessness, the Lo-Fi aesthetic (all often pushed to ridiculously contrived extremes, as in just about every episode of the recent Battlestar Galactica) simply restore the intrigue of a highly manufactured medium by accentuating its own manufactured state: audiences can re-engage with the medium, but without really altering their understanding or process.
This emphasised gap between the “messenger” and the “message” is also nothing new. Readers who delve into the histories of King Arthur (or King Lear, or the awesome flying King Bladud) in The History of the Kings of Britain written by Geoffrey of Monmouth sometime around 1136, will quickly become aware of the problem of the “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” that Geoffrey claims to have translated. Geoffrey was certainly working from historical sources of some kind – elements of history creep in through the fantastic fictions – but the imprecise nature of this missing piece leaves an awkward gap for scholars to try to fill. It also, of course, acts as an extraordinary lure, offering a hint of something vital but lost, a missing piece of the puzzle that just might appear if we stare at the pieces long enough or look at them in just the right way.
Geoffrey may not have made up his source, but it would have been fairly good marketing if he did. The artist’s greatest power may not be in the role of creator, but as messenger: a creator ultimately parades its insufficiency (“oh, it’s him…”), whereas the messenger, by mere presence as such, constructs the lure of something missing, of words repeated, but not directly encountered. “Truth”, in a sense, emerges in the search – in something extra that can’t quite be repeated – not in the opportunity to engage directly. After all, if religion’s taught us anything, it’s that it’s generally more lucrative being an Apostle than a Messiah.
There’s an odd example of this in at least one audiobook of Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, a writer’s retelling of the life lessons taught to him by his dying former high school coach, Morrie. It’s chock full of sentiment and flowery thoughts on life, but somehow the trashy and relatively mundane notions take on an extra power being filtered through the eyes of an observer: it’s oddly affecting. But then, disconcertingly, the audiobook concludes with an actual recording of the real Morrie delivering these life lessons.
The effect is immediately undone: the lessons that, when delivered by proxy, took on some meaningful power, immediately revert to mundane, commonplace observations about making the most of life, being true to yourself, and so on… Robbed of the added intrigue of the “messenger”, the intrigue of the message vanishes, and the wisdom collapses into a mass of commonplace mundanities.
In the same way, while “found footage” as a genre may suck in plenty of viewers (whenever it’s marketed and re-marketed as “fresh” again) it rarely does more than alluringly repackage generic narratives and standard social norms. Despite the emphasis on “formal failure” in the genre, flaunting its obvious mode of production, there’s still little that’s political, philosophical or Brechtian in the popular “found footage” movies. The polish of the cinematic seduction is stripped away, but we’re still lured into the same state of cinematic fantasy rather than engaging with the actual means of production and the ideological perspectives and influences that actually shape out media environment and construct our cultural fantasies.
Some fans out there might like to find some kind of satirical message in Cloverfield‘s (2008) duller-than-dull core, but there’s really no satirical trigger in the actual film that can justify this kind of reading (nor is there any hint in the rest of J. J. Abrams’ highly conventional oeuvre): if Cloverfield is a satire, then so is every other film that has tedious characters with insipid values (by that logic, Green Lantern is a satirical masterpiece outshining anything that be produced even by a nuclear rebirth of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope as giant conjoined-twin robots).
Speaking broadly, the genre certainly brings conventional cinematic values no closer to something like Raoul Ruiz’s L’Hypothese du tableau volé aka The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978), which constructs a kind of impossible “documentary” exploring the works of a fictional 19th century painter and a highly analytical collector trying to re-construct a historical scandal from the visual hints held within the paintings (though perhaps not part of the “found footage” genre, the core focus on the “imaginary” paintings push it fairly close – the mockumentary is only a step away from the “found footage” genre, in any case).
Ruiz’s film certainly captures the inherent tension and intrigue of a focus on the messenger rather than creator, as Thomas Elsaesser describes:
Here, forming a hypothesis, in itself an insubstantial and unsubstantiated conjecture, is enough to plant the seeds of both doubt and possibility, and instantly instill the oppressive quiddity of some banal paintings with an air of mystery and suspense – not by presenting fresh evidence, but by repressing, subtracting evidence, or if you like, adding an absence.
Ruiz leads us through a series of analyses that draw attention only to their insufficiency and to our reliance on some hidden “missing link” (a la Bigfoot) to pull it all together. The film, as Ruiz says of his artist – and as is true of the “found footage” genre as a whole – “plays cleverly on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late”.
So, although this “curiosity” is usually worn down by the drawn out tedium of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield-style films, that can’t escape the commercial necessities of standard length and narrative constructions, the short, sharp bursts of the unexpected in The Forbidden Files are woven into normality carefully enough that they can still catch the viewer, if only for a moment, unprepared.
The tricks and triggers of “found footage” are probably better suited to those weird eruptions like the “Patterson film” and the gloriously audacious Alien Autopsy footage, that lure and then conveniently vanish (uh oh, out of film!) rather than finding themselves trapped by the requirements of feature-length narrative form.