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A Chronicle of the unrecoverable

Posted by msunyata on Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chronicle is, not to put too fine a point on it, a paradox.

On the one hand, of all the major found-footage pictures – The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, the Paranormal Activity franchise – it has the biggest heart. Or, rather, it tells the best character-driven story the best way. Andrew Detmer exhibits a range of emotions and vulnerabilities that is substantially more expansive than Rob’s single-minded search for Beth or Josh’s angry tirades against Mike and Heather. Andrew’s an actual person, living an actual (albeit dramatized) life, with actual responses to and against his surroundings.

And, what’s more, the progression of his telekinetic abilities and the devolution of his character are actually believable. There are no gapping holes in the plot, as in, say, Star Trek: First Contact; there are no skipped beats in characterization, as seen in Elf. And as far as downfalls are concerned, Andrew’s is a lot more consistent – or is that more consistently executed? – than Anakin Skywalker’s in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (which works beautifully on the page but is lacking on the screen).

This is no small feat for a studio release (particularly from the studio that is responsible for Predator and I, Robot), and it’s no minor undertaking for a found-footage movie. The genre, for all its rewards in viewer immersion, is unforgiving in its narrative limitations; there is no intercutting, no objective camera (well, in theory, at any rate) to provide strategic close-ups or revealing performance. Every word that is spoken, every action that is captured, is filtered through the character’s prism of consciousness, of his awareness that he is being recorded. It is easily among the most demanding of cinematic storytelling structures.

 

Breaking the Rules – and the Fourth Wall

On the other hand, all of this (comparative) narrative fertility comes at a price: namely, Chronicle isn’t, technically speaking, a found-footage film. Call it the first in the non-found-but-still-conveyed-footage sub-sub-genre.

Andrew uses two cameras throughout the entirety of the movie that are ultimately discarded (or destroyed) with little to no chance of ever being recovered, let alone having their video stitched together to complete a unified whole. Additionally, at least two further characters have cameras of their own, and their contributions are small but absolutely crucial to the narrative – as is the footage of literally a myriad of security cameras.

Who found all of these cameras? How did he stitch together all of their recordings? Who is presenting the footage? In what venue is the finished product being viewed or distributed? These questions may seem utterly inconsequential to the average moviegoer, but the archivist is actually the dominant, if subliminal, force in the found-footage story. If he isn’t present – which he so clearly is in Blair Witch or Cloverfield and is strongly hinted at in the first two Paranormal Activities – then the whole convention comes crumbling down and is left being a mere gimmick. (An argument may be had for Paranormal Activity 3, given the series’s fundamental reliance on non-corporeal entities.)

Compounding the problem is the cheat the filmmakers employed during the cataclysmic final battle between Andrew and his cousin-turned-nemesis, Matt. In the midst of cell phone, security camera, and news chopper sources, the perspective abruptly shifts to that of the objective, omniscient camera that is normally employed in filmmaking, showing us, in extreme close-up, the determination of Matt to stop his rampaging cousin and his POV of the action in reverse-angle. It’s fast but definitely noticeable – and damaging.

If the rigors of a format are too restrictive or, even, challenging, the question must be asked why the authors opted not to change course and deploy a different genre. In Chronicle’s case, the bottom line is that the first-person perspective actually reinforces the storytelling methodology of the film, making for a more-or-less seamless whole. (And, indeed, if one should ever question the vital importance of format in any given work, stop to consider how generic Chronicle’s superpowered teenagers and coming-of-age story would play out in a traditional cinematic milieu.) For whatever flaws, small or not-so-small, the movie may have, it does its job extremely well and is certainly a story worth experiencing.

And isn’t this, at the end of the day, among the highest praise possible for a piece of art?

 

[Marc N. Kleinhenz has written about the gaming industry for over a dozen sites, including Gamasutra, IGN, and TotalPlayStation, where he was features editor. He co-hosts the Airship Travelogues podcast for Nintendojo and has had his creative writing published through Alterna Comics, Death Head Grin, and Smashed Cat magazine, among others.]

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