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The Whole World Is Watching

...But What Are They Seeing Now That Digital Video Has Become as Unreliable a Narrator as Celluloid

MUGGING THE CAMERA: Diary Of The Dead goes straight to video for its grist.

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 6/18/2008

Just over a decade ago, when digital video was starting to rear its ugly, blotchy head in our virginal celluloid cinemas, it made a simple but crucial claim. Digital video, as cinema once did, pretended to give us an unblemished view of the real, one that we couldn't pass off as special effects or play-acting.

Once that claim had been made, it was salad days for manifesto-makers (such as the Dogme 95 group), film experimenters (including Mike Figgis' Timecode, which uses four cameras to shoot a surveillance-style movie in real time), and, in one of the greatest successes of this short-lived moment, The Blair Witch Project, which inspired anyone with a DV camera and a friend to try to make their own blockbuster.

These early stabs at incorporating digital video into the cinema didn't stick, in part because computer-graphics effects enabled big-budget blockbusters to continue to rule the day, giving time for digital technology to perfect its mimicking of film and for a whole host of reality TV shows, and its accompanying amateur aesthetic, to prepare audiences for fast zooms and quick pans. But in the last year, Hollywood has finally started to respond to the success of YouTube and other online video sites. Cloverfield, Redacted, and Diary of the Dead--which entered theaters within months of each other and are now available on DVD--are just a sampling of movies that have taken up the video project once again, only this time with different results.

The first problem for these movies is an unexpected one: Video now looks too good for it to be convincingly real. Where Blair Witch audiences complained that the shaky camerawork and auto-focus lenses gave them headaches, from the opening of Cloverfield, the simplest and most successful of this trio, we're reminded that the qualities that once defined video are now special effects. In the last few years the differences between film and video images have all but disappeared, leaving video not so much a medium as it is a way of thinking about images.

All three of these movies purport to be "found" videos, made by someone who didn't plan for their footage to wind up in a movie theater. In Cloverfield, the video in question has been recovered by the government as evidence of what happened on the day that a giant monster attacked New York. The movie opens in a borrowed penthouse apartment in the Upper West Side where Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is filming a video diary of his day with his friend and, for the moment, lover. In one of the few moments of self-awareness in the movie, she asks him to stop, because the video might end up on the internet. He continues filming and they make plans for a trip to Coney Island.

Ten minutes into the movie, the video diary ends and we are in a new space and time. We now learn that the lead character is leaving for Japan in a few weeks, and his friends have put together a goodbye party for him. In Cloverfield, video is used toward social ends, so at the party many of the partygoers talk about Rob to the camera, with the assumption that he'll watch the video when he's missing them. When the monster comes the characters continue to shoot to provide a record of the disaster, but everyone appears too panicked to have an audience in mind. The movie cleverly uses the device of a recorded-over tape to provide flashbacks to the Coney Island visit.

Cloverfield was made on a studio-sized budget and with a high-grade video camera, so even when the lights go out the movie looks good. But Cloverfield, like most American monster movies, isn't out to explain very much, about the monster or the consequences of the videographed world of the characters. The "found" video is like a Zapruder film of an imaginary catastrophe, images of a disaster that were made by chance, rather than because of filmmakers' plans.

Brian De Palma's Redacted was heavily criticized by war boosters before they realized that most Americans have already made their minds up about the war in Iraq and weren't interested in seeing movies about it. The movie's Vietnamesque portrayal of the war zone is hardly unique, created through De Palma's pretend use of "found video," which he can't help but make fit his own visual sensibilities. Much of this footage is presumably unavailable in the United States, and it tells the story of Marines who raped and killed a 14-year-old Iraqi girl.

The main sources for the movie are a video diary by the soldier Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), a French documentary on Iraq, and an Arab television station. Salazar admits early on that he hopes his video will get him into film school, and De Palma's intertwining of amateur video with TV footage allows him to create a distinct visual look for Redacted without letting go of its "found" video premise. But unlike Cloverfield, everyone in Redacted is aware that any video can find its way into the wrong hands--remember, for the Bush government, CNN is just as much a threat as al-Qaida--which doesn't stop Salazar from shooting everything with his camera.

But the movie is a failure, even on its own terms--and not because its knee-jerk anti-war politics are unnecessary when close to 70 percent of the U.S. population is ready to leave Iraq. The movie fails to surprise: Redacted's use of found video contradicts the very idea of redaction, that some things can be removed from the record. All the images seen in the movie--black-and-white surveillance footage, grainy videos produced by the wives of soldiers and terrorists, European documentaries--have been seen before, so if there are images that have been kept from view, De Palma doesn't disclose what they are. Had the movie been released before the Abu Ghraib photos appeared, De Palma's claim that images of the war's casualties, like those shown at the end of this movie, had been suppressed might have been validated. Instead, he appears to be providing evidence that even the worst images are available to us, if we only choose to see them.

It is the last point that George Romero picks up on in Diary of the Dead. Where in the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the characters relied on the television for zombie news, this time the media is unreliable, and the characters have to take on the job of collecting and distributing information themselves. When the characters, would-be undergraduate filmmakers, find safe haven, the first thing they ask is whether they can go online to post their latest videos and see what others are reporting.

Although Diary's plot is the creakiest of the three, its media analysis is the most sophisticated. Unlike the other two movies, the director of the movie-within-the-movie identifies herself early on in the process, and at several points in the story she suggests that the real problem is not zombies, but an overload of information that threatens people's ability to respond to disasters. Where information is controlled by an invisible authority in Cloverfield and Redacted, here it is distributed horizontally, with no one filmmaker more important or knowledgeable than anyone else.

When video was adopted a decade ago by experimental artists and student filmmakers looking to attack the Hollywood behemoth, its power came from its opposition to mainstream filmmaking, both aesthetically and politically. Now that the aesthetic differences have disappeared and YouTube stars have given in to the hit-count chasing commercial model, it's not clear what the future of video is. These movies all claim that video, perhaps unlike film, is a survivor, able to outlast military cover-ups, giant monsters, and zombie worlds. But we don't yet know what it's surviving for. Movie theaters have trouble filling seats, and the internet can be a lonely place, even for footage that claims to tell us what's really going on out there in the mean old world.

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