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Critic’s Notebook: Why 2012 Is A Banner Year For Found Footage Films

Critic's Notebook: Why 2012 Is A Banner Year For Found Footage Films

When the list of directors for the upcoming sequel to “V/H/S” were announced, one name stuck out: Gareth Evans. A Welsh filmmaker working in Indonesia, Evans is best known as the director of the martial arts films “The Raid: Redemption” and “Merantau,” and seems like a strange choice for a horror anthology. Although he will only co-direct a segment in “V/H/S 2” (along with Singaporean director Timo Tjahjanto), the choice reflects the dramatically shifting role of the found footage genre in modern day cinema.

In 2012, found footage took a few promising steps out of the horror genre, expanding its reach to both superhero and party films (“Chronicle” and “Project X,” respectively). Although “V/H/S” is explicitly a horror film (and the sequel will presumably be as well), Gareth Evans’ involvement potentially adds martial arts action to the growing list of genres (which includes Sid Bennett’s upcoming adventure film “The Dinosaur Project” and an untitled sci-fi film produced by Michael Bay) that the found footage approach has invaded.

While those films hold plenty of interest, they still reflect various genre trappings. When the plot begins to fail, these movies tend to fall back on tricks and gimmicks to keep things lively (something especially true in “V/H/S”). Then there’s “King Kelly,” a dramatic low budget production scheduled for release next week. “King Kelly” doesn’t fall into any well-defined genre, so it must rely on its story while using its found footage aesthetic to further the narrative.

The movie follows the exploits of the titular Kelly, a young adult who strips (and more) on webcam for tips. The sole gimmick is an unorthodox camera choice: the iPhone. Aside from the opening two shots — video captures of Kelly’s computer screen — everything seems to be shot on the iPhone that she can’t seem to put down (the issues of recharging and/or running out of system storage are never addressed, nor do they particularly matter). In reality, the filmmakers often used a rig which attached an iPhone to a Canon PowerShot ELPH, allowing them to use footage from either camera while giving the impression that the source is always the phone, and the effect is generally convincing. Kelly’s best friend, Jordan, appears equally obsessed with filming their exploits from her phone, which gives the “King Kelly” a narrative explanation for being able to cut to different points of view.

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That may seem like a contrived device, but there are scenes where Kelly and Jordan are in completely different areas, and the multiple cameras/phones help flesh out the world. Severely limited perspective has been a defining feature of the found footage genre, but a number of recent films, such as “Chronicle” and David Ayer’s pseudo-found footage cop drama “End of Watch” have been pushing that boundary by using multiple cameras. “King Kelly” does the same.

The movie’s most significant addition to the found footage genre is the connection between theme and technique. The inherently voyeuristic nature of found footage films fits nicely into the narrative of a young woman who sells herself online to strangers. There’s no specific reason for “Cloverfield” or “Paranormal Activity” to take place as found footage; they just do. “King Kelly” must.

Without its narcissistic, psychopathic protagonist always filming herself, whether for “fan videos” or just for herself, “King Kelly” would fail. The film also addresses a frequently asked question associated with the genre: “Why are they still holding that stupid camera?” Few such films even attempt to justify people filming their experiences the duration of a plot. For Kelly, though, there’s never a question about it. She needs her phone. Even Jordan eventually puts her camera down because at some point life just gets in the way. But not for Kelly. Faced with Jordan’s rejection, she Kelly picks up her friend’s phone and watches a video of herself that had been posted on Facebook, while simultaneously filming the screen of Jordan’s phone with her own. If that sounds ridiculously, that’s the point.

READ MORE: ‘King Kelly’ Is a Ferocious Indictment of Generation Me

But somehow the illusion never breaks down. Kelly’s instability leads to the perception that anything is possible. And unlike many found footage films, which appear to be single tapes put together and played back by some mysterious figure (something that the presentation of segments in “V/H/S” implicitly represent), the editing in “King Kelly” has a narrative justification. Kelly herself put the film together so that people would believe what she experienced. In a clever twist, the trailer for the film is actually narrated by Kelly herself, as she explains what exactly the movie is, and the film’s official website is a fittingly ugly Tumblr.

“King Kelly” fills an important role in the expansion of the found footage genre: It stands as proof that grounded drama can be created within a found footage film. Kelly’s pal Jordan is the best example of that. The only truly sympathetic character in “King Kelly,” she deals with a lot of difficult situations over the course of the film. Watching her deteriorate is tragic, particularly because the filmmaking effects in tandem with the narrative give her role additional weight. Utilized properly, the camera as an actual object helps to realize the film world in a more visceral way than it can as an omniscient observer; the addition of such a technique to a filmmaker’s toolbox is likely a good thing, but we’ll have to wait for “V/H/S 2” to find out.

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