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Why We Respond to “Chronicle” – Part 1: Anne Frank’s Vlog

A sad and lonely teen who has reasons to be sad, if not lonely... where have we heard this story before? (image courtesy of Fox)

I’m groping along in the dark a bit on this one, so please bear with me. Or just go ahead and help me out by lighting a candle if you have one handy.

Here’s what set me off:

When I first saw Chronicle in theaters a few months ago, and later as I reflected upon it… and have since re-screened parts of it via DVD (which happens, by the way, to have been released today)… I tried to figure out what was so captivating about the movie. It had several things going for it in terms of its generic content, its skillful filmmaking, and so on, but none of them quite explained the appeal.

And then it hit me: chronicle—the meaning of the title. Or rather, the idea behind the title, which was a conceit so obvious that I hadn’t given it much thought beyond the fact that it seemed a clever way to incorporate the found-footage element into the proceedings.

How many friends does the protagonist have now? I count three: 2 humans + 1 camera -- and only one of these is a confidant. (image courtesy of Fox)

But it was more than that, really. Unlike many other found-footage exercises, this one wasn’t shot by a third party—a videographer collecting footage for a doc, a faithful friend/sidekick of the protagonist, or a news crew or security detail that’s recording all the details for professional (if vaguely spurious) reasons.

No, Chronicle was about a teen painting a self-portrait, an often candid one at that, and doing it all with digital video.

This was a video diary, then, or a vlog if you will, but one consisting of only the raw content itself: there was no Web site, no framing device or place to leave comments—it’s just pure, unadulterated footage pumped directly from one life into ours by means of that big, loud screen that we like to ping our dreams back and forth on as a culture.

So I started thinking about diaries. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series came to mind. But before that I thought of something else, and then dismissed it because it seemed the product of a random synapse backfiring: The Diary of Anne Frank. (Or, to use its eventual book title, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.)

…which is a work that has always fascinated me because, apart from being compelling and heartbreaking no matter how many times I revisit it, it also represents a neat case study in transliteracies and how we follow a story differently—or, more surprisingly, in the same way—across media. After all, the text originated, as do all real-life diaries, as something intended for an audience of one: the author.

Over time, of course, The Diary of Anne Frank became a “book,” an acclaimed stage play, a popular movie, and then eventually a TV mini-series and probably some other incarnations that I’m blanking on.

What a distance to travel for something that was initially intended to be private.

—and the same thing can be said of Chronicle, naturally. The private become not only public, but hugely, spectacularly, public.

And that’s the guilty pleasure—emphasis on both “guilty” and “pleasure,” with each feeding each other as only true guilty pleasures can—of reading text in the diary format… whether fictional or not. Simply put, you the reader are made privy to personal thoughts and feelings that you have no business seeing.

In this respect the diary format just represents a more intense, and more obvious, version of the voyeurism that takes places with all narratives that feature point-of-view characters. We spy on these characters, we travel alongside them like a second, invisible yet all-seeing head on their shoulders, we peer inside their skulls, and later we say we “identified” with them as if that is something they would have wanted and not just a glorified name for vicarious thrills.

But I digress…

Want to know something even neater about the diary format? It plays with time. In fact, it allows time to play with us.

It does this by replicating the immediacy of present-tense storytelling without actually using the present tense.

That’s because such a story has something of the episodic feel of a good private eye yarn told in the first person, but opened up and made far less predictable:  this is not a story chopped up into pre-planned pieces called chapters, but a story that’s lived. Clearly that’s where much of the power of Anne Frank’s tale comes from, apart from her personal qualities and engaging voice—tragically, we know where this is all going even if she doesn’t. That same sense of being-in-the-moment is present in effective fictional diaries. We get the illusion of the narrative not being composed at all, but rather a quickly jotted affair that relates events that happened only moments ago. The freshness, the not-quite-real-time experiential factor, is palpable. We allow ourselves to believe that since the narrator doesn’t know what the next day will bring, neither does the author. Indeed, the author doesn’t know what will happen on the succeeding pages because, simply, it hasn’t happened yet. Classic fictional diaries going back to Gogol’s “Diary of Madman” trade on that feeling of unpredictable spontaneity. Alternately, when events seem spontaneous to the narrator but we, as with Anne Frank, know or at least suspect where they will end up, the effect can be (again) heartbreaking. A good case in point that also happens to be part of  secondary curriculum? How ’bout “Flowers for Algernon.”

The opening of Keyes' famous short story; since we're interlopers in a journal, not even the spelling and punctuation has been cleaned up for our sake.

Does Chronicle belong on this level? I’d argue that as a work of popular culture it does, and largely because it so expertly cross-weaves all of these diary considerations with themes that we already know and respond to.

Teenagers don’t “share,” we know that; they keep to themselves. I put that verb in quotes because clearly that’s a stereotype. Or, in this case, an archetype. You see, this teen, Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), he doesn’t share either, not really. The only way, in fact, that we can get full access is through our voyeuristic viewing of his private footage. He’s that “troubled kid” that we have a perfectly sound reason for wanting to observe via hidden camera. It’s for his own good, after all—he might hurt himself or others. No, it’s not remotely for entertainment purposes, as with those nasty TV viewers in Panem who peep on teens’ most personal moments during the Hunger Games.

This theme of teen privacy, which Chronicle deftly up-ends, lies nicely on top of the film’s other themes. Whenever there’s a teen with new “powers,” we’re dealing with a quasi-obvious metaphor for the physical, social, and psychological upheavals of adolescence. This move can even be explicit with no loss of power, as in the case of Stephen King’s Carrie. In fact, its primal, decidedly unsubtle handling of this theme is one of the reasons the story is currently being remade, and probably always will be in some form or other.

But guess what? This same metaphor is also part of the origin tale of Spider-Man—the nerdy teen who’s picked on and becomes a superhero. What Chronicle does is play up that I’ll-get-back-at-the-world motivation and remove Uncle Ben from the equation: there is no voice of conscious, at least not one that’s sufficiently strong. Peter Parker as he appeared in the original comics was certainly more restrained, but consider the scene in Sam Raimi’s 2002 film in which he enacts his revenge on bully Flash Thompson in the school hallway. It’s played for action thrills and laughs, but tweak it darker and you’ve got Chronicle. Tweak it monstrous and you’ve got Carrie.

All right, I know there’s more to say about all of these stories, a lot more, actually, but I’ve got to end this somewhere. Thanks for letting me flail around in the dark, and thanks also for not saying anything when I accidentally smacked you in the face. See you in part two.

About Peter Gutierrez