Documentaries and intentional film-stock degradation

A good documentary is one that blurs the line between reality and fiction in film. Recently, there has been a wave of documentaries that leave this line barely visible if not completely eliminated. When the audience can barely figure out the difference between the two, it is safe to say the film has done its job. Surprisingly, while films are sometimes supposed to act as an alternative to reality, in this instance the closer they are to reality the better. Catfish (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, 2010, USA) blurs the line between reality and film fiction by using various amateur film techniques.

In the opening shot Yaniv ‘Nev’ Schulman is clearly using self reflexivity to point out that the film is documentary. Using dialogue to point out that this is a documentary already establishes voyeuristic atmosphere in the film. It feels like someone just grabbed a simple cheap camera and started filming an unwilling subject. Nev complains that he does not want to be filmed but the person behind the camera keeps on doing so. There are several simple quick cuts that violate the 30 degree angle rule. It is then followed by a couple of zoom ins and outs with no particular purpose while the camera is shaky. This establishes the notion of an amateur film maker who has no idea about basic film making techniques. Diluting the film by making it look more like an amateur stock encompasses the film claim of amateurs deciding to film for the sake of filming. It is reality at its best, doing something for the sake of doing it. To drive the point home, the filming person replies to Nev complaints are barely audible. They are complemented by subtitles. The voyeuristic approach adds realism because the audience feels they are eavesdropping on a conversation. And there is no better way to accomplish that than by the camera eavesdropping itself.

A good documentary, in terms of blurring the line between reality and fiction, should not be perfect. Faults are a well known human condition and are bound to appear on a regular basis. If Catfish had been made perfectly with no goofs, it would end up looking far from reality than it wanted. Imagine seeing the film with perfect sound, perfect lighting and perfect dialogue. It would feel scripted very much distinguishable from real world. To do so would mean condemning it to the fictional world. In the scene where Nev realises that the song sent to him is fake, the sound quality degradation is clearly used to this effect. Nev first plays song with sound coming from his computer. At first it is not even clear how the original song from a website and that sent to him are similar. Surely they sound similar but it takes multiple listening to prove so. In the film Nev plays the songs multiple times and even by then it is not clear how they do sound the same. It would have been easier for any filmmaker to add the sound onto the film in the editing process in order to clear up the confusion. In this case however, recording the sound directly from the computer in the filming process adds doubt to his case. Nev uses the oldest technique in the book by asking the camera “Is this not the same recording?” It is not that dissimilar to popular horror pseudo-documentaries, when characters ask “What was that?” in a scene where nothing is clearly seen. The suspense added by such a statement increases doubt to the audience. To play the music clearly would be a grave and, ironically, amateur mistake.

As previously mentioned, by deliberately inserting mistakes in the film, the filmmakers achieve an unprecedented amount of success in blurring the line. Just as in the music scene above, the filmmakers will constantly make ‘amateur’ errors instead of editing them out. There are several scenes where the camera is just laying around while filming nothing in particular but rather recording the sound. In reality one would rarely pay attention to the camera 100 percent of the time. An amateur filmmaker will, from time to time, forget about the camera and pay attention to other scenarios. The difference between an amateur filmmaker and an experienced one will be the footage that makes it in the final cut. In the car scene where Nev finally arrives in Angela’s house, there are multiple shots taken with the camera lying in absurd angles. It applies that the camera was just thrown on a car seat while still on. At the same time, it adds continuity in the filming process. One feels like he has been watching the whole adventure continuously without any cuts. These mistakes do wonders in achieving the voyeuristic reality in the film.

Achieving a good documentary that blurs the line between a film and reality requires deliberate mistakes. One has to film as if s/he is an amateur filmmaker regardless of their experience. The final product is desired to look low quality and in an ironic twist achieve a superior effect to the audience in comparison to high quality one.

Zero Dark Thirty: Bigelow’s dark moment


There’s a reason Zero Dark Thirty is in the news for its torture controversy. I watched Bigelow’s appearance in Colbert Report a week or so ago and not once did she talk about the film. Let me rephrase that, not once did she mention a word about the film as a work of screen but rather the controversy surrounding the film. Sure, may be it was her 60 second for promoting the film. What about Jessica Chastain a week earlier on Jon Stewart. She, too, never said a word about the film’s main point. She implied that the film generates dialogue by asking us “Where do you want to go?” as the films last words. My answer was, “I want to go online and ramble about how much time you wasted building this thing up only to never deliver!”

Let me back up a bit and acknowledge my misconceptions. I went into this film only knowing the controversy surrounding the torture used and [SPOILER ALERT] Osama will be captured and killed. In Chastain’s interview with Stewart, she implied that the film will be seen from Maya’s (Chastain’s character) angle. I expected the film to introduce me to Maya and at least get me to view and understand this whole ordeal through her eyes. Bigelow did this brilliantly last time around with Hurt Locker. I got to know the Iraq/Afghan war through the eyes of a battle zone addict marine which helped me gain a new perspective as opposed to my simpleton assumptions. Even a documentary like Restepo, through clever editing and camera work, allowed me to understand the dynamics of a regiment. Zero Dark Thirty offered none of this. Who didn’t know that torture was used? Whether it was cohesive in the attainment of high ranked terrorists’ information will never be clear but enough has been written and filmed about it. The subject of torture was in the news well before this film was even conceived. Most people were aware of the Abu Gharib scandal. And Bigelow’s new film added nothing to the discussion.

Now Chastain’s interview tried to imply that Maya was the focal point of the film. And here’s why the film failed. Maya is as shallow as a low tide. There’s a brilliant bit in the trailer where she’s asked by the CIA director whether she has done anything else other than Osama’s pursuit. She answers, “Nothing, nothing else.” And that summed her up for me. We know nothing about her. Whether this is to allure us into the mysterious background of CIA operatives then it fails terribly. In an ironic twist her coworker, the interrogator/torturer we see in the beginning of the film, happens to have deeper character background than Maya. He has his domesticated birds in an army camp, tries to leave the Middle East after staying for little too long for his own liking and acts like a mentor to Maya. We understand why he does the things he does. This is not to say that we are tricked into agreeing with him but at least we understand his side. Maya is quite the opposite. Some will say that she was fueled by the loss of her friend, Jessica but that isn’t even doing the film any justice (Side note: I loved Jessica. She was probably the best character in the whole film). As a matter of fact, their relationship felt very forced. From the earlier scenes you could tell that the two were written just so they could be friends. Typical manly-serious-female character against homely-girl coworker. (What is it with female characters forced to appear as masculine as possible in order to be regarded as strong?) Feminism film theories aside, this whole dynamic was just wrong.

Now to anyone who feels that Maya was even remotely deep I pose one question. Remove Maya from the screen. Replace her with anything. Does the film feel significantly different?

Looper: The rebirth of classic sci-fi



It was last summer when I watched the trailer to Looper. It was a promising time for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as he seemed to be picking up gigs left and right. At the time it looked like another cash-in on this new A-list figure before Daniel Radcliffe is old enough to not be associated with wand jokes. I wondered whether JGL was taking it all in to quickly without learning to say no. Premium Rush had just come out and JGL was the lead actor as a NYC bike messenger being chased around by cars due to a package he was in charge of delivering (?). At least that was what the TV spots led me to believe. Let’s not forget his role in The Dark Knight Rises, his second work with Christopher Nolan (and hopefully many more to come between the two). Not surprising, I was waiting for JGL’s first bad casting decision because it seemed all too inevitable.

My initial reaction to Looper was the complication with time travel plots. Ever since Terminator 2, there hasn’t been a film that involved time travel and pulled it off (12 Monkeys probably comes the closest). The setback with time travel on film is you need to base the plot on it while fully aware of the complicated paradoxes that emerge. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban struggled with this and to this day it’s a well known joke around the fan base. Terminator 2 succeeded by never quite focusing the story on time travel but rather the consequences of time travel events. Looper seemed to take the second and dirty road. The trailer allowed just enough to know that the film will be completely engulfed with paradoxes. Why do they send these guys back in time to die? We get it, you need someone else to do your dirty work, but surely the writer could’ve used better story devices. Is time travel worth the risk? Why would you risk your audience over-thinking while watching the film?

How wrong I was. Looper knew its audience. And it did answer my first question rather early. When 30-year senior Joseph Simmons (Bruce Willis) from the future and the present Joseph (JGL) sit in a diner, they tackle this issue head on. Let me allow the dialogue to explain my case:

Old Joe (Bruce Willis): It’s hard staring into your eyes. It’s too strange.
Joe (JGL): Your face looks backwards.
Old Joe: Yeah.
Joe: So, do you know what’s gonna happen? You done all this already, as me?
Old Joe: I don’t wanna talk about time travel shit. Cause if we start talking about it, then we’re gonna be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws. It doesn’t matter.
Joe: If I hurt myself it changes your body. This is what I do now, change your memory.
[suddenly old Joe snaps in anger]
Old Joe: It doesn’t matter!

Looper screamed at us to shut up. It knew that we are looking for answers that don’t matter and wouldn’t solve the current problem. Just like the young arrogant Joe, we wanted to find a fault with the logic used just so he could dismiss the entire plot. It’s a form of composition/division fallacy that is quite common with audiences. I have been guilty of this quite a fair number of times.

On the subject of self awareness, let’s not forget Jeff Daniels’ character that mocks JGL. He smirks, “The movies that you dress like, are just copying other movies. Goddamn 20th century affectations. Do something new!” Could the film be any clearer? And he, too, clears up on the confusion of time travel paradoxes, “On top of which, a man from the future runs free long enough — [in a disgruntled and frustrated voice] — this time travel shit fries your brain like an egg.” It is quite clear the film knows it stands on pillars that might or might not exist (Schrödinger’s pillars?). But the fact it’s not falling, makes it pointless to worry about the pillars.

One of the classic rules of cinema is simply “Show, Don’t Tell”. Sci-fi as a genre benefits a lot from this. Blade Runner is a renowned Sci-fi film and I can vouch that its accolades stem from respecting this rule. Looper took lessons from this. The Mise-en-scene is full of interesting bits that we never quite fully explore. Here is where Sci-fi gains an advantage over other genres. Directors and writers get to take us on a tour in their worlds and allow us for the 2 hours to explore as much as we can. Minority Report allowed us to wonder whether targeted advertising was appealing or creepy. Blade Runner was filled with police paranoia and their omnipresence. These anecdotal memories are what stick longer than the actual plot. Looper introduced telekinetic characters who constantly played with lighters. It introduced eye-drops as recreational drugs. To some extent, it felt like the film didn’t even need a plot. The mere fact I get to live in the world for 2 hours suffices. A plot, however interesting, seems to act like a gateway into this magical world. The plot shouldn’t be there to hold together the fictional world. Quite contrary, the world should be large enough to hold up the plot and several others too. This applies to any fictional world whether in film, book or any other work of art. I caught myself imagining the despondent revelation of the telekinetic characters on their seemingly promising powers yielding disappointing results. The eye-drops drugs seemed to have an interesting story as Joe was quite addicted to them. These were heavy elements with equally interesting stories when compared to our main plot. Looper exposed these elements but never said a word about them. Leave it for the imagination.

In a time when the genre seems to be replaced by “comic-book sci-fi” Looper loudly reminded Sci-fi, “Do something new!” Ironically, ‘new’ involves going back 20 years and learning the core elements of classic Sci-fi. I would go as far as claiming that Looper would fit in any of the past 4 or 5 decades. It has easily established itself as timeless.