In many ways, the medium of video marks the displacement of cinema as the culturally dominant moving-image medium. Especially in widely available consumer formats like VHS, video can be seen as having ushered in the era of post-cinema by installing something like (but also quite different from) cinema into people’s homes.
Most conceptions of post-cinema, including Steven Shaviro’s important study of “post-cinematic affect,” tend to emphasize the role of digital media – and it is indeed in the context of the massive proliferation of computational devices and digital video platforms that the idea of the post-cinematic becomes most salient as a genuine alternative to the media regime of “cinema.” However, we should also attend to the transition to this post-cinematic situation, as well as to the ways that this transition (which even today is hardly complete, final, or determinate) is reflected in post-cinematic moving-image media. One approach might take off from the faux found-footage video that structures a film like Paranormal Activity 3.
Like other installments of the horror franchise, the film self-reflexively interrogates the more or less nonhuman agency of post-cinematic cameras (including handheld digital cameras, home surveillance cameras, laptops, and game-console cameras), through which it channels its narrative of another nonhuman agency (that of a demon) that is haunting a family. However, Paranormal Activity 3, a prequel to the other installments, breaks with the series’ contemporary focus and presents itself as a found-footage film mediated through a set of VHS cassettes.
These home-video recordings of the film series’ characters growing up as young girls in the late 1980s serve the narrative function of providing the franchise with a backstory. But the use of VHS also functions materially/medially as an exploration of the uncanny transition, by way of video, from a cinematic to a post-cinematic media regime. The alignment of videotape with a demonic agency reflects, obliquely, on the affective valences of the strange diffusion of quasi-cinematic possibilities and dispositions that came to permeate many lives in the 1980s when video technologies entered (and began to “haunt”) people’s homes. Here post-cinema itself discovers the material horror of its images as an after-image of the VHS era.
Horrors of the Past
This was a very interesting post, and great to see something written on one of my favourite contemporary horror franchises! While previously watching them it had not struck me, as it did you, the affective potential for the differing apparatus used to tell the story. Your post got me to thinking how, through the production of nostalgia, perhaps the use of home-videos is productive not only of the film's narrative, but also the viewers as it potentially recalls their earliest experiences of audio-visual media. However, I cannot help but think this third film is far less effective (and affective) in creating an uneasy relationship between past and present, through its choice to tell the story of the past via video recordings. It is interesting that this film appears to be displacing the object of horror onto the video format, which is then safely contained, packaged and distributed via the medium of cinema. While, as you note, the first two films had a contemporary setting, this third installment reminds the viewers that the franchise's horror originated in a past that we have only had glimpses of, through tales unwillingly told and a charred photograph. By returning to the past in Paranormal Activity 3, the film-makers have the freedom to delight us with images of horror made classic and familiar over the years, while situating viewers more firmly within the present by way of the home video format. In other words, recalling an older format underlines the distinction between past and present, placing the viewer in the safe present, distanced from the horrors of the past and, by extension, the film. While the first two films queasily brought the past and present together, the third film lifts the veil to bring the unknown past into the safe and familiar present.
Very beautifully put. To
Very beautifully put. To become a little speculative - I, and clearly you, experienced video throughout our childhood and early adulthood. I wonder what modes of pseudo-nostalgia this film, and the format, might generate for viewers of the DVD and download generation. I say pseudo-nostalgia because I would expect these viewers to be aware of the video format and I am trying to point to the possibility of nostalgia being fabricated from knowledge that is not a memory, or a memory that does not find its origin in 'the real'. Video formats have become iconic of a past that is frequently reappropriated by later generations. If this particular past taught us ways to look and thereby influences our experience of digital media, I wonder in what ways digital media has taught the current generation to look, and how this translates when they engage themselves in a past that some prefer to make their present.
Further, the recent film Unfriended would be an interesting comparison to make if discussing generational ways of looking.
Here's another quote that I could have/should have worked into the video essay -- this one's from Caetlin Benson-Allott's _Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens_: "The spectator’s identification with the diegetic camera and cameraperson exposes her to the physical threats that menace her surrogates in these movies in a way that conventional slasher cinematography does not. However, faux footage horror movies invite their spectators to become—or rather to acknowledge that they are—part of a precarious and defenceless mechanical apparatus." (192)
Hyperinformatic Video Essay
I also wanted to say a word or two about the video essay itself, which derives from some work I started at the NEH workshop on "Scholarship in Sound & Image" this past June (http://sites.middlebury.edu/videoworkshop/). Originally, I had planned to do something very different here, but I was led in certain directions by the material, and then I decided to impose a few formal restrictions on myself. Above all, I decided against a voiceover, instead opting for the "epigraphic" form that some of Catherine Grant's video essays have taken (where she uses images from a film and juxtaposes them with a quote from a given thinker, often unrelated to the film in question). When I started doing this, however, I realized that what I was after was the formal quality of these images, which demand that the viewer "scan" them for relevant information (as Julia Leyda's quote highlights so nicely), and I felt that this form of regard -- very different from the "suture" theorized of classical cinema -- was of a piece with the transition to the "hyperinformatic" media environment we inhabit today, where "information overload" demands new types of attention (what N. Katherine Hayles calls "hyper attention" -- embodied in scanning, skimming, and related reading, and I would add viewing, practices). With this in mind, it felt right to push the epigraphic form to its extreme, and basically to cram "too much" text into the essay. This makes the viewer hurry to read it all (though of course digital video allows us to pause if necessary). So I felt like some interesting self-reflexive relations were established between the object and the medium of analysis. (But, of course, others will have to judge whether this is successful or just too much, as information overload tends to be...)
I think your comments about nostalgia, Laura and Shane, echo with what I (hope I) got across in my forthcoming piece. VHS can't help but frame this film differently for its different spectators.
Something that I found in
Something that I found in common both with watching V/H/S and Unfriended was the cynicism generated by the films (I mention this briefly in my post). For V/H/S, I felt somewhat disengaged with the violence the protagonists were committing, and I think this has something to do with the casual practice of filming it on a video-camera, as you might film an everyday family event. For Unfriended, while the format clearly intended (from my perspective anyway) to place the viewer within the space of the film, as another participant in the Skype conversations as the cinema screen was transformed into a computer screen, I found myself viewing the events with a sort of bemused attachment one feels when reading a particularly hostile argument developing on a comments board on, say, youtube. While I don't feel in these instances the respective video and digital formats engaged me affectively as a viewer, I can think of one instance in the first Paranormal Activity film that did to a fantastic degree. It was the scene where Micah goes up into the attic with his camera and finds the burnt photograph. The camera, if I remember it correctly, goes first, creating an intensely vulnerable position for the spectator that made me shrink from the screen. If, at times, the video camera format can create a safe barrier (in my mind) as the actual camera sits between the spectator and the unfolding events, in this instance I was absolutely transported in the unknown darkness of the attic, which I think is captured perfectly by the Benson-Allott quote you mention above.
Great post, Shane. I'm looking forward to reading everyone's pieces. Found Footage Week is off to a great start!
Thoughts about found footage vs faux-found footage
Great post, Shane! Since this is the first post of the week, I think we need to be up front about the tension between found footage as a tradition of experimental practice and the genre of faux-found footage—primarily because some people often think I'm writing a dissertation on the latter and are disappointed to learn that I am in fact writing on the former! (Bordwell has suggested that we instead use the term "discovered footage" to avoid this confusion, but I'm not sure this helps either [cf. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/11/13/return-to-paranormalcy/].) For me, one of the central issues of found footage filmmaking is its emphasis on the way images circulate, and particularly the way in which changes in moving-image media allow for means of capture and manipulation of pre-existing images. In other words, there is an emphasis here on the foundness of the images, and indeed what it means to find footage in the first place (or search, or pirate, or rummage, etc.). The documentary nature of the image – to further distinguish between found footage films and archival films – is perhaps less important than the very fact of images and their material forms. In a sense, it's a way of negotiating an oversaturation of images and image culture – which includes home movies alongside Hollywood blockbusters, TV news, and anything else besides – and a way of critiquing or making visible the systems of image creation and distribution. The genre of faux-found footage (FFF?), as you argue here, is more about the camera, and the proliferation of apparatuses of moving-image capture, rather than of images more broadly defined. In these films, the way in which the footage is found (or discovered) is usually emphasized within the diegesis as accidental, therefore underscoring the evidentiary nature of the footage. In THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and CLOVERFIELD, as I recall, the film explains that the cameras themselves were found at the scene; in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, there is a sly title card stating Paramount Pictures would like to thank the families and local police department. (The vast amount of FFF on YouTube also surely bears mention here, and likely complicates things even further; e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RU0HypvJ2U8) The aim of this is verisimilitude within a diegesis – very important, of course, for the horror genre – and it's interesting that other, less "trustworthy" forms of image-making and circulation (e.g. news media, Paramount Pictures as entertainment machine rather than small doc production company) are in some ways suppressed in these films. This is all to say that FF and FFF are two very different things with very different aims, and I'm very curious to see what will come of placing them side by side this week. At very least it might inspire an experimental filmmaker to make a faux-found footage found footage film ... if one hasn't already been made.
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