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Why We Respond to “Chronicle” – Part 2: Found Footage and Narrative Immersion

He crumples the car without touching it... similarly, we live out our dark desires onscreen without actually being on the screen. (image courtesy of Fox)

Hey, I’m not sure if my point concerning time in part 1 was entirely clear—and, as you can see, I’m still feeling my way along in the dark here, one hand on the tunnel wall, the other tapping at the keyboard.

So… one reason the diary format is so compelling concerns how, by some strange alchemy of narrative structure, we seem to be sharing the same time frame as the protagonists. Life is occurring to them in these daily increments in much the same way that it occurs to us in real life. And the author’s apparent lack of knowledge about what will happen in the next installment seems to place him/her in our position… and thus places us in the narrator’s as well. It’s just like Roger Ebert’s observation about characters who descend dark stairways in movies: because we can’t see what’s coming next, we assume that they can’t either. The artifice of the entire situation melts away, our perceptions becoming theirs—and vice versa.

Of course such strategies just represent some additional ways in which we “identify” with the protagonists in a given text, whether print or moving image. Any decent writer of fiction can name the syntactical and psychological methods by which readers come to feel a deep affinity with the main character(s); in film and TV, any theorist, or even Cinema Studies 101 student, can hold forth on concepts like “the gaze” and the “suture” that editing provides to describe how audiences come to feel that they’re practically up on the screen with the stars.

In the 21st century, these media are joined by a third that speaks to their same enveloping goodness, plus more: transmedia.

Transmedia is too big a topic to get into here, but let’s just note how it kicks things up a notch: often the promise is that we can now participate in the narrative, not just experience it.

Participate… as in video games.

So powerful, in fact, is the notion of participation that even a facsimile of it, conjured with equal parts sleight-of-hand and hand-waving, is enough to do the trick. Just consider the “subjective shot” in movies, and how it has been exploited. If you’re a film noir enthusiast, you’ll immediately recall Lady in the Lake with Robert Montgomery. There the entire story is told in the “first person” (we don’t see Montgomery unless he looks in a mirror) and in the present tense… which is one of the reasons I referenced the classic private eye story in part 1: the more we share the same

  • Space
  • Perspective
  • Psychology
  • and Time Frame

as the protagonist, the more we fully inhabit the same storyworld—no, make that the same story. That’s why it’s always interesting to me to note the division between print and non-print camps in this respect since in both cases the “reader” seems to be seeking a nearly identical sense of participation.

I’d even go as far as saying that if you’re not helping students grasp the affinity between first-person narratives and first-person shooter games, then you’re losing out on an opportunity to help them understand something essential about the medium that they do prefer. There’s not only an overlap, in other words, but a vital one. So any young people who dismiss video games as only “shallowly involving” compared to literature need to consider the depth of the actual participation involved. Similarly, those who don’t respond to traditional methods of participation/identification in prose are possibly missing something in terms of reading fluency or the processing of “voice”: a connection with the point-of-view character isn’t being made because words and ideas are somehow getting in the way of immediacy rather than reinforcing it. So when we attempt to show the cost of not appreciating literature by referencing the beauty and profundity of those words and ideas, we’re, in a way, compounding the problem.  (By the way, this is one reason why comics are so fascinating—they represent a kind of middle ground, providing instant visual immersion while also requiring that we read interior states… I mean, thought bubbles, anyone?)

Someone should have told Scorsese that "Hugo Cabret" already had "depth" back when it was a book. (art by Brian Selznick)

In film we have the aforementioned technique of camera-based subjectivity… plus, let’s not forget, 3D. Indeed, Martin Scorsese recently announced that he’s shooting all his future films in 3D because the format fulfills one of the medium’s original promises to audiences, that of “depth”—which I freely interpret as meaning a shared space (because, after all, movies always have depth; that’s what background is). Yep, Scorsese states the purpose of 3D perfectly: “You want to recreate life.”

So, of course, do found-footage films, of which Chronicle is arguably the most impressive recent example. Far from being a short-term fad, the found-footage approach will always remain a stylistic touchstone because simultaneously audiences get a subjective perspective, a sense of shared space, and that real-time/present-tense immediacy. The equivalent in prose fiction might be those rare tales that are told in both the first person and the present tense… like The Hunger Games, come to think of it. (Come on, you knew I’d work that in somehow.)

Chronicle is particularly inspired in terms of found-footage films and the immersion they signify because it weds these formal elements of fantasy—let’s pretend that we’re actually in the movie—with fantasy content (let’s pretend we’re doing the things we really want to do but never can in the real world). By “fantasy” here, I don’t just mean the genre to which superheroes naturally belong. I also mean that realm of private desires which one is reluctant to share with others.

…and high on that list of fantasies, of course, is the adolescent revenge fantasy that we touched upon in part 1 in relation to Spider-Man and Carrie.

I didn’t mention it at the time, and perhaps the parallel here is so obvious that you picked up on it regardless: both the Stephen King work and Chronicle are about the power of telekinesis becoming manifest in teens. As such, they draw attention to the impotence/omnipotence dichotomy at the heart of much adolescent angst. It’s a period where one senses that one is considerably more powerful, more autonomous, than during childhood. Yet that persistent childhood fantasy, the “omnipotence of thoughts” as Freud called it, still hangs vestigially in the shadows of our hearts and minds: what if we could think certain things… and then they happened for real? (Freud said we naturally then feel guilty about our negative thoughts in this respect, which is one reason Chronicle features a “good” and “bad” teen: we need to be brought to justice when our violent urges run too rampant.)

This fantasy, as with any fantasy, points firmly to its opposite: we’re more than aware of our own limitations—and with teens this means a full appreciation of the fact that they’re not yet quite adults despite clearly deserving adult autonomy and freedom—and so seek refuge in a scenario that dramatizes limitlessness spectacularly. It’s a road map that shows how we can escape our parents, our past, even our friends, if need be. Even the person we’ve always been.

So it’s to these darker wishes and dreams that Chronicle connects, or re-connects, us. And that’s why we’ll always respond to it and stories like it… even if we’re not quite sure why or, if we do, not quite sure we want to own up to it.

About Peter Gutierrez