Tuesday, July 1, 2014


I wonder, are we past the point where a found footage film needs to justify the approach by pushing its viewers into being witnesses. This didn't start with Blair Witch, that just had the first instant global reach, but all of them since have been measured against it. The Upper Footage begins with an overture suggesting a true life mystery, dipping us into the impact on social media and fiercely soaring to the celestium of TMZ to tell us that we ought to brace ourselves for what we are about to receive.  

Blair Witch used two title cards to set itself up. That was after months of tease and intrigue using the still young internet, infiltrating newsgroups, bulletin boards and chatrooms with something that felt fresh, however tried and true it was: even if you didn't believe the movie was real footage playing into it felt fun and, in a way that's difficult to understand in today's online environment, privileged. This can't happen now. So, when The Upper Footage folk set out to get their film seen they have to YouTube it without accreditation and then, after some aided virality, yank it from view as though someone powerful had ordered it, and sit back and wait for everyone who'd copied (or just cached) it to upload it again. Then it's reappearance was the stuff of popular heroism. this crime cannot go unpunished etc etc.

Dig? The decade and a half since Blair Witch has been so bloated with the same thing that if you want to do it now you have to give in to the same arms-race bullshit that the big studios wage. This is a pity because the result is that those few genuinely substantial morsels that make it through will sink under all the piano cats and farting preachers never to be seen beyond the friend network. Not only are we not past the point where found footage audiences are meant to be witnesses, that's the future of it. This is not to say that you can't make a lofi masterpiece anymore or that even one couched in the found footage conceit will necessarily be outdone by its own marketing, it'll just be harder for it to get through.

So, is The Upper Footage any good?

Mostly, yes. Four young socialites (it is my belief that our American cousins refer to them as preppies) start their night in a limo, guzzling Kristal and phoning around for something zippier. After a brief detour in a nightclub they are joined by a girl called Jackie. Jackie's face is pixelated to conceal her identity (but, really, this identifies her as the victim). The furious five then make it to someone's cloud level apartment and they all get into some more neural mutation, variously dancing, personally plotting, matchmaking etc etc. When pixelgirl gives the bidet great big blood red kisses and then doesn't get up again, everyone panics and they scream at each other about what to do. The rest is in your rental fee.

So, what's good about it?

Well, first, what isn't. The media overture which is supposed to be the deluxe version of the online guerrilla campaign is energetic but by now just too ho hum. It's not just that we've seen it all before it's the the contrary motion of the solemn infotitles mixed with the zappy TMZ editing make its five-ish minutes feel like half an hour. It's like those get rich/thin/healed/etc FB clickbaits that give you slide after slide of platitudes that almost say different things until you bail amid a flurry of grasping protest slides that scream about you missing out on being the real you I started following one for amusement until the goofy joke wore numb and I had to go and have a shower but that's a story for another day).

And then we're into the roll call opening. This has been done since Blair Witch where the character with the camera picks out the main players and after some shuffly shakey moments we settle into the rest of it, knowing names and keynotes. The clever and wonderful Chronicle almost perversely delayed this by having its opening shot of a road from inside a car while the dialogue started. It relented but it did that first.

The role of the camera character here is more central than in most and this is where The Upper Footage ventures a little further than its fellows. For a while we get what we are used to, characters getting used to the camera being on and variously avoiding, forgetting or playing up to it. This is guided by the dialogue which feels pleasantly raw and the focus literally changes accordingly, taking care to intrigue by omission and confirm by exposure.

One moment of this pretty good verite improv is really good. It's the  moment I started giving credit to the filmmaking and it happens quite early. In the limo amid the miasma of taunts, jibes and shoulder punching the lens rests on the effect of light through a glass of champagne. It's only a few seconds but it's exactly the kind of thing a twenty year old with a video camera would do, come across a stunning image and gorge on it, however briefly, in the belief, however brief, that they have been tapped on the shoulder by a hitherto dormant genius.

My brother used to do this when Dad mistakenly allowed him to use the super 8  on holiday. It's the moment during the schoolnight screening where the endless wavering pans of the edge of one of the waves of the Sydney Opera House begin and the absent brother is ridiculed with howls of resentment. Later, my flatmate borrowed a video camera to record a celebratory tape for two friends overseas who were getting married. He'd written a funny script but when he got together with a few friends and allowed them to handle it we ended up getting zonked in the loungeroom as one or other of them made slow directionless pans of the walls while a dull pool of mumbling splodged below. The next morning he and I shot what was salvageable from his script at home and the went out and did some slightly rehearsed freer stuff out in the neighbourhood. We even managed a body spin from two angles that matched in camera! Using a second vcr he was able to send his friends something of the charm he possessed in quantity that his friends would recognise.

The champagne glass, like the unmoving ten minute shot of he back of a girl's head later while muffled screaming arguments happen on the audio and some of the road trip toward the end, demonstrate skill, real skill. Not only do they give the character seen least on screen the most substance by showing us his unspoken decisions, they add flavour to an otherwise unremarkable plot. They also serve to illustrate what might have been if convention had been thwarted just a touch more. Found footage marches on with a weary mechanical gait. That the greater part of the skill on screen here is devoted to fulfilling that mechanism's requirements results in a film that will divert and even absorb. But I will bet a silk pyjama that you won't catch yourself caring about what you learn in the closing moments.

Maybe it's time to have idea sessions for lofi video features that put the found footage suggestion on serious trial before committing to it. The Upper Footage asks you to bear witness to something that holds no shock value, something that can only look like conventional fiction in this cultural clime, something that might have gained more power from the lessons of an older school or by venturing outside a current one.

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