Sunday, November 8, 2009

Paranormal Garbage

I regret to inform my readers that I saw Paranormal Activity at a local theater yesterday. On a positive note, I went with a friend who was dying to go and who generously bought both of our tickets and the popcorn. When I hear about the contrast between how little this movie cost to make and how much money it has made at the box office, it seems incredible how much audiences will pay for garbage (this comment could apply to an increasing number of big-budget efforts from Hollywood as well). As for the quality of the film...well, there is a lot of truth in this old saying: "You get what you pay for."

While there are some funny moments in this movie, it just seems like the most recent work in an increasingly long line of what I think of as "faith-based" movies. This is not to say that these films are biblical or have a religious subject matter, but rather that they require a great deal of faith on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief. For some reason, whenever I watch movies that are shot in a "cinema verite" style that also deal with paranormal or supernatural subject matter, I can't help but feel that they are even less believable than over-sensational or spectacular works. It also seems more worthwhile to pay to see characters that are a bit more interesting or unique than the average jackasses that can be found at any local shopping center. Maybe PA was actually written that way, but it feels much more improvised, as though the actors were given cards describing each scene, which they then played out in a realistic, unimaginative way. Just an observation, not exactly a criticism.

(In contrast to many well-known screenwriters, film critics, and film goers, I prefer memorable, clever dialogue to unimaginative if entirely believable dialogue that could have been thrown together by any illiterate. Screenwriters that exhibit their own style and personality will always win out for me compared to screenwriters who strive for authenticity above all else.)

It is difficult to articulate why I feel this way, but after thinking about it last night, I came to the conclusion that the simplicity of a movie like Paranormal Activity is partly to blame. When the viewer is incredibly conscious of the camera, and is fully aware that there is only one camera being used, the artifice of the movie becomes more apparent. PA consistently places the camera in one spot during the nighttime sequences when the characters are asleep. Although I recognize that this is the way real people might attempt to record mysterious phenomena occurring in their bedroom, this single camera angle prevents viewers from experiencing anything else happening in the house. Whenever there is a strange noise, it is too easy to assume that either the effects were dubbed in or that there were accomplices elsewhere in the shooting location creating these sounds while the video and audio equipment were running.

By contrast, a movie such as The Exorcist is much better at suspending disbelief because events, characters, and spaces are seen from more than one perspective. Although anyone cognizant of how films are made will acknowledge that standard filmmaking equipment must have been used to make that movie, the filmmakers were smart enough to use such equipment as storytelling tools rather than as a focal point within the film. PA places such emphasis on the presence of video/audio recording technology that it is impossible to become totally immersed in the story that is being told. The audience is constantly reminded that these "real" events are happening for the benefit of Micah's camera.

I'll admit that there are some strange visual effects sprinkled here and there, and to be honest, I really don't know how all of these were accomplished, but I suspect that some fancy editing (film's longtime and most faithful bedfellow) may be at least partly responsible. PA probably works most effectively for audience members who already have a strong belief in demons, ghosts, and other malevolent spirits, who will carry this faith into the theaters even before the movie begins. I can't say definitively whether this planet is swarmed with spiritual entities or not; what I can confidently state is that a movie is much more likely to impress me if it draws me into another world through the use of well-written stories and characters than if it makes me acutely aware of the way in which the movie was made.

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