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Blog Genre Introduction

Time Capsule Cinema

I see cinema as a historical archive more than anything. Film exists in a vacuum of the time period it was made whether it is truthful or not of that era. However, there are also pictures that are more indicative of the era that they were created in than others. For example, you could really make something like Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) in any time period as I don’t believe it to be culturally synonymous with the 90s, other than the sense that it was released in that decade. However, something like Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1984) could not be made today. I hear that phrase tossed around quite liberally these days. Along the lines of, “you couldn’t make Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974)today.” Which yes, surly comedy and culture are malleable and changes with time but you most definitely could still make Blazing Saddles for the most part intact. Fast Times, however, exists in its own world. A world where a kid who has “been stoned since third grade, where “DISCO SUCKS” is written on the wall of a baseball dugout, and where three girls at the same school have “cultivated the Pat Benatar look”. The pop-culture references, while contemporary at the time have aged like fine wine, and it makes for excellent insight into the growing up in middle-class America in the early 1980s.

Now I, a person born at the turn of the millennium am for one not an authority on the topic of an era that was fifteen times my senior. However, I can say that anecdotally talking to people about Fast Times, whether it be parents or former teachers they usually go, “I knew a Mike Damone growing up” or “I was more of a Brett Ratner”. The music especially is a big part of why this is an important time capsule of the era. Opening with “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Gos setting the scene at the mall, the social epicenter for the students of Ridgemont High. The Cars, Oingo Boingo, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers span across the multiple vignettes of growing up at this time. The effectiveness of Fast Times also functions so well because director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe know exactly what type of movie it is. At the time, it was just a film about being in high school, not much else. When John Hughes made The Breakfast Club a year later, it came with a type of self-importance about what it wanted to say. Making a voice-over about the five archetypal characters the focal point of the message of the film. Fast Times has aspects of those five characters of course, but it makes it known that these are real people and not just caricatures. I think a lot of that authenticity comes from the source material as well. Based on Cameron Crowe’s novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story (1981) (where he went undercover at Claremont High School in San Diego for a year) gives it that fidelity.

Another great example of what “Time Capsule Cinema” is would be the films of Hal Needham, such as Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and more specifically The Cannonball Run (1981). When watching The Cannonball Run in 2020 the film teleports you back to the era of the racing-obsessed subculture with a cast of stars to boot. The Ray Stevens’ song “Cannonball” played in the opening credits is a lovely country and synth-infused ballad that is only emboldened in its significance as Farrah Fawcett gets out of a sports car and spray paints a red X over the speed limit sign. The cast, packed with large stars such as: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jackie Chan definitely feel almost as if we are focusing on too many characters making for a bloated and uneven product. However, in hindsight, this makes the film a more excellent piece of Time Capsule Cinema. As the huge cast of characters are all drawn on Drew Struzan’s hand-drawn poster where the characters all surround a speed limit sign. The Cannonball Run poses an important question, however: does Time Capsule Cinema have to be good? Well of course it doesn’t. Something like Cameron Crowe’s gen-x/Seattle grunge-era film Singles (1992) would not be something I would consider “good” (or for that matter entertaining) cinema. But nonetheless, it can provide a catharsis for people who either experienced that subculture first-hand or wanted to experience it first-hand.

It may be suggested by some that documentaries would be a better way to experience an event through a historical lens and while that may be true with cultural “watershed” moments like The Monterey Pop Festival, the 1960 Democratic primary between John F Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, or Agnès Varda interviewing The Black Panthers in 1960s Oakland. As shown in my examples, I believe that D.A. Pennebaker is probably the best documentary filmmaker at least when it comes to somewhat-recent cultural events. However, why I tend to disagree with the notion that documentaries are “better” examples of Time Capsule Cinema because in many ways, cultural relevance can be measured by the popular commercial films of the time than what a handful of people were doing at a specific time. Many more people are able to go see movies than say, go to Woodstock and narrative features are much more popular (the only documentary that has made over $100 million is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)). The box office receipts surrounding a film like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Charles, 2006). Borat made about $262 million at the box office (on a $18 million budget) and its popularity provides utility to the shared sentiments of people during post- 9/11 Bush-era America. Reflective on how the various catchphrases of the titular Sacha-Baron Cohen character permeated through the popular zeitgeist (“my wife” and ”very nice!” specifically). And while the humor in Borat has not aged specifically well, Time Capsule Cinema allows the viewer to appreciate it as a historical document. Which is what I would recommend people to view something with that perspective more often.

In conclusion, there may be some variance of quality in the films discussed in this piece and there can even be a debate over what qualifies as Time Capsule Cinema to different people. The only criteria for Time Capsule Cinema are that the film must take place in the era it was produced. A film can take us to a certain period with the contemporary design choices of the time and that is what makes it so magical (a recent example for me was my viewing of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966)). Using this information will help develop an extra critical lense when viewing a film can aid in a higher understanding of not just the film but also history and time itself. So now, go forth and experience the past!      

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Blog Genre Introduction

Terrifying Immersions

One of the hallmarks of the horror genre has been its ability to elicit a physical reaction from its audience, namely that of fear and apprehension, via the film’s terrifying atmospheres, disgusting monsters or the unseen paranormal. Before anything can crawl its way under a viewer’s skin, the viewer must become immersed in the diegesis of the film, or simply put, buy in to what’s happening on screen, at least enough to willingly suspend disbelief. The much-maligned found footage subgenre of horror procures this immersion through its techniques and storytelling to create films that manage to blur the lines between reality and fiction, and shake viewers with its terrifying immersions. One of the most well- known cycles of the subgenre took root in 2007 with the releases of Paranormal Activity (dir. Peli, 2007), [REC] (dir. Balagueró & Plaza, 2007), and Cloverfield (dir. Reeves, 2008), all of which would capitalize on the unique aspects of the subgenre and go on to have multiple sequels.

Before we go to deeply into that cycle, it helps to establish the origins of the subgenre, starting at its borrowing from the documentary tradition of Cinéma Vérité, which combines the observational camera of earlier documentary with the acknowledgment of the camera’s invasion of the diegesis. The found footage horror film operates similarly, with the camera both consistently observing the events placed in front of it, either with or without the human intervention of the cinematographer character and invading the diegesis of the monster. Films in the subgenre even go one step further in acknowledging the filmic apparatus by foregrounding the edits of the film to the viewer, so that every cut or change in the image is the result of the diegesis (i.e. the choices of the cinematographer and usually their untimely death), and not hidden in the way of more traditional Hollywood films.

The observational camera and transparent editing combine to create an authentic reality within the film that provides the source of horror in addition to whatever spooks abound. This idea of immersion in the authentic reality also crops up in the greater genre of horror with the use of POV shots in slasher films to provide identification with the killer while limiting spectator knowledge and reminding the spectator of the impending danger posed by the view. Of course, the found footage horror film would change this dynamic from one of power and malevolence to one of searching and vulnerability as the POV is placed outside of the source of horror, leaving the characters, (and to that same extent, the viewers) in a place of powerlessness within the diegesis of the film . Essentially, the viewer becomes trapped within the frame and helps to establish the diegetic world outside of it, by acknowledging the various nefarious creatures lurking just out of view.

Of course, to say that found footage horror’s unique immersive properties exists solely on its techniques would be an understatement with most found footage horror films taking on specific narrative properties. Notably, most films in the genre attempt to mimic amateur recordings or non-fiction media, providing it with a veneer of reality on top of a fictional narrative. These fictional personal recordings, news programs, or surveillance footage creates a simulacrum of our own reality, which in turn creates a drive in the audience to unravel some hidden or forbidden knowledge in the world on-screen, real or not. This bending of reality goes hand in hand with the proliferation and democratization of digital recording taking place in the early 2000s, allowing the found footage horror to look and feel as real as any video record of an event in the real world. With this development, all the elements were in place for the found footage horror subgenre to take full bloom in 2007 and provide some of the most interesting entries in the subgenre.

Listed Below are some of the important films in the 2007 cycle:

Paranormal Activity (dir. Peli, 2007) – One of the founding films of the 2007 cycle, as well as helping to put Oren Peli and Jason Blum on the map with one of their most lucrative franchises, it also contains some of the best uses of the limiting frame of found footage. Using surveillance footage as well as the shaky camera the subgenre is known for, the camera serves as our narrator for the film as the audience is forced to watch helplessly and scan the screen for any signs of activity from the paranormal entity as viewers become quite cognizant of the diegetic world beyond the frame.

[REC] (dir. Balagueró & Plaza, 2007) – The first in a series of influential Spanish horror films, it takes the form of a local news program following first responders into a strange apartment building. Another fascinating example of the camera as character, we follow the camera’s unwavering eye throughout the entirety of the film instead of our protagonists (with the cameraman never even being shown). The film also foregrounds its edits with filming being interrupted by events in the diegetic world as opposed to the cutting room. Moments such as the cutting of lights, the use of night vision, or physical movement of the camera, serve to maintain the idea of the film as a record of events instead of an incomplete edit.

Cloverfield (dir. Reeves, 2008) – Another successful American entry into the cycle, the film purports to be the amateur camcorder recording following a group of friends in the middle of Manhattan during an unknown disaster. The film uses such frentic and amateurish footage to evoke the news coverage of the 9/11 attacks, where records of the event were taken by eyewitnesses instead of professional and polished news/documentary footage. By referencing these real-world events in a fictional setting, the lines of reality and fiction blur to create a simulacrum of our post-9/11 world.

While certainly not the definitive list, the films above I hope will serve as a starting point for one’s own critical re-evaluation of the subgenre or tentative first steps into it. This is not to say that every found footage horror film is a masterpiece waiting for reclamation, but instead I hope that this will inspire you to look past the shaky camera to see something truly unique and immersive just outside of the frame.