Friday, October 28, 2011

Chronicle - and the Question of Realism

MTV have recently posted the trailer for the found footage-style superhero film Chronicle. Initially, the footage is reminiscent of the home video used to introduce cheerleader Claire in Heroes (2006-2010), showing somebody demonstrating and testing their new-found weird abilities, but it soon becomes clear that the majority, if not the entirety, of the film is shot in this style. This approach is not without precedent in relation to comics, with Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels (1994) using Ross' photo-realistic artwork to illustrate events in the Marvel universe as seen by an ordinary person, giving a different viewpoint on events.

The use of this style in films is typically associated with attempts to add to the verisimilitude of the film, even one with a fantastic premise, as with The Blair Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield (2008) or Troll-Hunter (2010). These films seek to position the dramatic visual effects of the fantastic within a "real" universe, drawing on the long tradition of fantastic literature which has used a documentary form, including Frankenstein, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and numerous stories by Poe, Lovecraft and others. Within the framework of fantastic film, however, these approaches have to leave aside the sublime approach to special effects that Scott Bukatman identifies in the work of Douglas Trumbull, where the visual effect is less integrated with the narrative of the film than it is with the audience and the theatre, placing them inside the visuals. Instead, these films have to aim for the more realistic, simulationist style of effects in order not to breach the apparent 'realism' of the allegedly documentary movie.

What does this mean for superheroes, whose powers are often spectacular and almost specifically something to be gazed at, a dazzling display? A film in such a style would seem to be more suited to a lower-powered story than something like a Superman or X-Men film, but then Cloverfield was a generally successful attempt to transfer something of the scale of a Godzilla film to the found-footage style, and the trolls of Troll-Hunter become steadily larger and stranger. And that may be where the clue is as to the way this style works, as it is with the fantastic documentary literary style. The strangeness of such tales is often introduced gradually, building from a glimpse of oddness, up to occasionally apocalyptic levels, allowing for a build of effects from simple sleight of hand, or sleight of camera, up to an extravagant display which no longer seems weird in the setting of the film. An examination of the Chronicle trailer suggests that it promises just such a build, and just such a dramatic conclusion.

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