There are no walls in Dogville, just chalk outlines on a soundstage. The artifice of the setting isn’t concealed, and yet, this world feels totally alien. Clarity turns itself inside-out and artifice becomes more accessible than transparency. The vivid world constructed in the mind of the viewer swallows the artificial constructs before our eyes. The inanimate barriers are non-existent but the murk of the human condition is relentlessly opaque. Realism and idealism dovetail, and the various coded strata dissolve in violence, repression, trauma, and fire. Certainty—a concept that seemed tangible in the avant-theatrical conceit—burns with the rest of the town.
Who is filming? What is the perspective? Where is the camera positioned? What do we see? What’s obscured? How does each object, person, and motivation interrelate? What is the quality of the footage? How does your social makeup infuse meaning in the images? How reliable is a video? How empirically sound is this as a document? How are you watching this text; what is the forum? At this moment in time, in the panopticon of the modern world—in parallel, but mutually informed: that which is institutional and that which is of our own making—every shred of evidence, and every single attempt to draw meaning from a video, must square these questions and countless more.
Your social makeup—race, class, personal history, your conception of values, and the sociocultural history that feeds and reinforces these value systems, etc.—informs your reading of any single text. It’s unavoidable. Verdicts and ultimatums to decode, digitality is with us. There is an oft irreconcilable disparity between preconceived conceptions—shaped by your lived experience—and the concrete elements that exist within a particular piece of footage. Meaning making has proven stubbornly resistant to empiricism; this is not either/or but rather an ebb and flow. With all these questions, and those that multiply out, a coherent context often remains elusive.
If nothing else, found footage films presaged the future. Implicitly, they foretold a society with the act of filming forefront, where it’s just an organic element in a sometimes-nauseatingly-jittery simulacrum. Filmic concerns previously only scrutinized by semiotics ideologues in dank, poorly-ventilated vaults, became a mainstream concern. Viewership and voyeurism cracked open—the choreography of perspective came to the fore, revealing an active, mutant network already deeply rooted. The waves of mediation have only gotten more mercurial over time; now, we’re all armchair aesthetes.
It’s no coincidence that the found footage subgenre is intertwined with horror proper. From the beginning—the ur-text Blair Witch—the plausibility of the conceit has come into question—why would one keep filming when in the midst of a traumatic and horrifying event? This has been a common thread over the last two decades, serving as a catalyst for formal cleverness within a narrow palette. Found footage films excavated the unconscious politics of watching before it was overtly politicized on a massive scale. There’s an undeniable strain of paranoia that pervades even the earlier works in this vein. They are a template for modern viewership, a rehearsal for our own engagement with a complicated and unprecedented new paradigm: where this act is bionic, grafted onto our being as an off-hand, second-nature tic, as well as an emerging defense mechanism against its inversion—“I will arm myself against the inevitability of your perspective with the documented, annotated inedibility of my own.”
Therein, lays a tangled, confounding, thorny dilemma: the inherent reliability of film/video to reveal fundamental truth. Empirical for one is not empirical for all, and the mind (and the hive-mind) has proven stubborn when approaching documents that potentially contradict preordained thought patterns. Despite the proliferation of footage documenting current events, and our enhanced proclivity deciphering it, truth and interpretation are harder to separate, not easier. Videos documenting disasters and tragedies present an immensely complex process of deciphering. Add to this, the fact that there are often multiple documents, with different information that needs to be reconciled and stitched together, and oceans of discourse to wade through to get the heart of a social ill. Rhetorically, ostensibly nigh-irrefutable, empirical documents become fodder for misdirection and viewer manipulation—media as projectile. Any notion that visual forms serve a linear purpose has broken down.
Long has this been a point of contention in visual media, and one if its principle merits—scratching at inconsistencies in cognition, honing manipulative tactics, probing lapses in information processing. Film has proven so adept at this, that it’s shambled over a point-of-no-return: We’re so good at teasing out ambiguity that images, videos, and films are no longer understood as discrete artifacts. The facts of a particular image are up for debate, despite all parties viewing the same thing. These moments in time slip through our fingers, and our collective consciousness. We’re no closer to manifesting a coherent reality, despite the constancy with which we are forced to grapple with the ingrown paradoxes of the medium. Reading footage has become a part of citizenship. To see becomes a political act.
Found footage films heighten this tension by placing the act of recording in the mix. The camera’s presence in the environment is unavoidable, and each characters’ relation to and interactions with the camera is unmasked. It creates a different geometry for how settings are interpreted, a modernist slant on lived reality where mediation is compulsory and gnarled. Indeed, the process of filming itself needs to be accounted for if we are going to have any way to intellectually engage and intervene in the tangled web of mediation that defines our daily routines—a modern correlative and amplification of cinéma vérité, maybe kino-pravda: The camera is always acknowledged; it performs the raw act of confrontation; capturing objects, people, and events, the filmmaker is a catalyst—a stab at film-truth. Found footage is the logical undermining of that concept, filtered through the illogic of fiction.
The fluid control of cameras—the amorphous process of capturing fragments of speculative realism—challenges how we understand and construe these visual forms. But, how? How does the ubiquity alter our perspectives and interpretive skills? What is the proper forum for disseminating this information? Should the discourse surrounding them be controlled or will the furor work itself out? Draw a direct line to the real-world documents that have cropped up at a steady clip, exposing information while also deepening divides between factions.
Take End of Watch—a fortuitous title in this subgenre if ever there was one—as a testing ground. It’s a film where its aesthetic is turned in line with the modern social tides, tying together the politics of watching with politicized derivatives: its milieu—cop drama in urban Los Angeles—and its conceit—loose found footage. Of the many cures bandied through the airwaves, one of the most concrete proposals, one that has gained traction, has been more widespread institution of body cameras to increase transparency. Body cameras generate freeform, continuous unidirectional material that’s later trimmed to pertinent length after-the-fact. Personal cameras—mobile devices, et al.—produce surreptitiously-captured jagged documents. Both conceivably produce authentic, unadulterated perspectives. But the grinder is inevitable. In End of Watch, this is explored and aesthetically violated—favoring an undisciplined, inconsistent patchwork of several cameras worn by and carried by the principals to create a clipped faux-grit.
Consider just the opening pieces, before any discernible, prejudicial narrative kicks in: The first sequence of shots is via a dashboard cam. The sequence is glitchy, edited for propulsion, giving two off-kilter impressions: the film is defying its conceit in the first moments; the film is curating itself (reinforced by the voice over that introduces the world, the divides, and the stakes). It’s real, but it’s still not. The two protagonist officers are in the middle of a high-speed pursuit; it ends with a truncated shootout. It’s blunt and violent and more than a little ambiguous. Our main characters, and subsequent guides though the urban murk, are first introduced committing a “good shooting,” a homicide by all accounts, but a justifiable one. The inciting incident that led to the chase is never stated. The self-defense posture is soon underscored, but at first blush, the adrenaline rush that results in exultation after the takedown is queasy. Narrative eventually devours objective empiricism; plausible deniability and suspended disbelief become harder to sustain but recede to the back of the mind. Still, for a brief period there, with no context, two warring sides are separated by little more than uniforms and the agency of the camera.
Reels of social upheaval have always been around, since the genesis of moving images. It has taken this long for it to spill into something uncontrollable, uncontainable, and sentient. It took the simultaneously explosion (saturation) and implosion (fragmentation) of this idea we call motion pictures to achieve a more incendiary and unknowable concept. It’s now ignited with a heightened and perfuse social purpose—not bound by decorum, or style, or ratings, or anything else but low-bar access. An open media landscape has stratified our lived reality. It’s a proposition that teeters on the fine line between horror and revolution. Film, and video, its tenacious offspring, has always been malleable—contorted and twisted through various ancillary devices. Tracing the discourse, and weighing form, meaning, and opinion, has never been more vital.
When words and sentiments and emotions and narratives are grafted onto images, there is no going back to the fundamentals of the initial piece. At that point it is a living document, and factions are able to see what they need to see. What was once, in theory, a piece of irrefutable evidence—a cold, hard document of an event—becomes as abstract as anything else over time. Heinous acts are regularly broadcast through social media; it’s a concept not yet codified, and it has benefits and grim associations. It has become both a forum for victims seeking justice, to build a community and a movement behind them, as well as inflammatory surges in direct opposition to this sense of community, harmony, and social progression—creating groundswells of support in a manner that was not possible, with this level of rapidity, in the not-too-distant past.
On some subconscious wavelength, the act of committing ourselves to celluloid or video or data-streams fulfills our mummification complex. It proves that we did in fact exist, that this event did indeed happen, and it provides a tangible-if-abstract-and-disjointed record. It’s a powerful and tragic and universal drive, and it has been amplified in the echo-chamber—instinct and survival intertwined with technology and mediation. We as viewers are subjected to the shock of sudden, inexplicable violence during a routine day—we watch helpless and horrified, a troubling, challenging video placed in our hands. It’s an ever-present dilemma. At some point, we punched through a wall: crash-landing in a “technico-luminous cinematic space of total spatio-dynamic theatre”—media no longer epitomizing a grasp at posterity, but rather a reflex for its own sake. Truth conceals that there is none: Even this axiom is apocryphal.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.