Paranormal Activity: Less Is More

Well, well, well. In my last post I talked about the empty vacuous spectacle of 2012; that it’s one of those all surface movies that’s the equivalent of pornography. No depth, no care and no soul. The very next day along comes a film that in many ways is the exact opposite. The story behind Paranormal Activity is well documented; made by a young director for a budget of around only $15,000, it’s become one of the most profitable films of all time. It’s a ‘found video footage’ story in the tradition of films like (recently) The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.  Micah and Katie live together, and Katie’s experiencing some strange things; Micah buys an up-market video camera to record everything that’s happening – most crucially, to place in their bedroom overnight (which is where most of the instances are happening) in order to get to the truth. Things slowly unravel from there. Friends are of limited help (we meet two of them); a supposed psychic is a calming influence the first time; when he returns towards the end, his fear and inability to do anything only adds to the escalating sense of panic. On such a small budget, there are no special effects to speak of – we start instead with some odd sounds, and a door that opens or closes at its own pace. From there, stranger and stranger things happen, but crucially very little is seen. Probably the film’s single most haunting moment involves nothing more than one of the characters simply standing up.

There are two places that a film like this will stand or fall. The first is in its understanding of genre and tradition. This is it has in abundance. I’m not really horror film, but clearly the director loves the genre and understands it. It uses conventions cleverly without feeling forced. It draws from outside the more obvious horror pool also – without wishing to spoil the surprise, let‘s just say that certain aspects of types of Victorian fiction are bought to bear here to devastating effect. This lends depth and weight to the scares and shocks – and makes you think it’s actually trying to do something, in addition to the genre convention of fear and fright.

The second place the film will stand or fall is on the central relationship; and here’s where it really soars. We don’t know the actors, but this is a realistic portrait of what the director has said he wanted to show – a relationship under pressure. Ill-timed jokes, misunderstanding, apology, the slowly emerging secrets of the past…..it’s all here as Kate and Micah start to be overwhelmed by fault lines so much more memorable and damaging than those we see in 2012. Drawing on the Victorian fiction just alluded to, this is all played out in the bedroom. Metaphorically, that is – we never see any sex, but it’s no coincidence that most of the shocks and scares take place around the bed. A different and terrible intimacy overwhelms them, and even if you see the ending coming it’s no less powerful and memorable for that. By the end there’s shock, fear  – but also a kind of sadness and grief that’s invests a genre horror film with depth and soul.

It would be silly to say this is a film for all. Most will find this deeply scary – in a way that for some will stay with you for a long to come. Some in the screening I was in ended up in tears. It may do that to you – if so, you may want to stay away; and if you do see it, try to make sure it’s a fairly busy showing. There’s a lot to be gained from an awareness of how others are (or are not) reacting to what you’re seeing. This, though, to ponder. There’s more truth and weight in this film than in the ponderous nonsense of 2012. Paranormal Activity has a depth that 2012 could never reach, for all its millions of dollars and billowing sweeping tsunamis. Think on that next time your Pavlovian response to the latest big-budget eye candy kicks in.   Restraint can release an ingenuity, intelligence, creativity and profundity that gets lost in the blaze of box office chasing high-concepts. Less is so often more.

2012: All surface, no feeling

Skin, not soul. It’s the curse of the lad-mag/chick-flick obsessed generations – beauty, relationships, sex become about appearance and not reality, about surface not feeling, about sensation not depth. It’s well recorded the corrosive impact this has on expectations or experiences of relationship – nothing can ever match up to the image in the head, to the fantasy in the head. All surface, no feeling as the Manic Street Preachers once sang.

Special effects film run a similar risk – spectacle not soul. They needn’t be, of course. At their very best, special effects laden films enhance the soul of a film. Take the Lord Of The Rings movies, for example. Or Batman Begins. Too often, though, it’s all flash and bang, smoke and mirrors, to divert away from an empty heart. Enter, then Roland Emmerich, shadowy and sinister purveyor of this new destruction pornography. The vapid remake of Godzilla took out a city or so. Otherwise it’s been pick your end of the world poison: aliens in Independence Day; supercharged climate change in The Day After Tomorrow; and in 2012 (his latest offering), it’s an accelerated ‘natural’ process, originally prophesied by the Mayans. It ticks off all the disaster movie conventions (dog, estranged family, maverick scientists proved right), without either a sense of humour or of drama or of depth to make any of them stick. Of course, the visuals are desperately impressive, but all it does is distract from the vacuous nature of the allegedly thrilling roller coster ride that we’re given. The spectacle deflects from an empty heart.

You could argue that just makes the film overwhelmingly cynical. It is cynical, but that’s not why. That comes in an appallingly insulting ending; the remnants of humanity have survived aboard  a series of super ships (arks); they discover after a few weeks afloat that Africa, until that point completely unmentioned, has not flooded much, and is the place to make for. So doubtless in some way this was an attempt to tack on a sheen of respectability and worldwide awareness to the standard Western-centric model of the rest of the film. Instead it’s just doubly crass and misjudged, in fitting with a film that has nothing in its heart and soul, and nothing to add to the tradition and genre of end-of-the world and/or disaster movies. It’s not even good eye-candy; it just makes you sick.

The Men Who Stare At Goats: End as you mean to go on

It probably shouldn’t be the case, but a film’s ending is really it’s beginning. It’s the last thing in your mind when you leave the cinema; so a satisfying ending if likely to define an audience’s response to a film. Similarly  a poor one. One of the most famous examples of this is the original cinema release of Bladerunner. This film was always going to divide audiences, with its dark palette, moody atmosphere and serious themes for a sci-fi story with the star of Star Wars. Some responded well to what they saw, though – struck by the film’s seriousness, skill and depth…until a tacked on ending under studio pressure, that undermined much of went before with a happy and upbeat conclusion. It’s taken 25 years to fully fix that, with a Director’s Cut that wasn’t really, and a Final Cut that probably is. With a suitable ending in place, it stands clearly as the masterpiece it undoubtedly is. A film of Bladerunner‘s quality shouldn’t have suffered so much over its last few seconds; but it did, hampered for years by a few misjudged seconds (as well as the needless narration).

The Men Who Stare At Goats is no Bladerunner, but it shares a similar problem with its ending. Its based on a non-fiction book, about the ‘secret’ psychic spy division of the US army. The unit’s story is told in flashback, as Ewan McGregor’s journalist accompanies George Clooney’s army man into modern-day Iraq – it’s a device that’s not in the book, understandably added in to give the film narrative momentum. The flashbacks tend to work better; the road movie plot is unconvincing and could have been done more simply and effectively. There is, though, a lovely light comic tone that carries the film along over the many flaws along the way. Some truly hilarious moments will live a long time in the memory – Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor are all engaging presences. This, though, is Clooney’s film, and his pitch perfect portrayal is funny, skeptical, satirical and kindly all at the same time. He is truly a master of his craft; there are few contemporary actors capable of this kind of role.

All of which makes the ending all the more disappointing. Until the last two minutes, the narrative flaws are largely ignorable thanks to the film’s good-nature, fine performances and well-paced laughs.  Up until the end, the viewer’s given just enough to make you understand why people can fall for the nonsense of psychic spies; to see that coincidences can sometimes look like more than that. The film’s conclusion, though, is a ludicrously miss-judged attempt at feel-good up-lift; it’s no less than an insult to audience intelligence and devalues so much good that’s gone before. It’s an attempt at joyful wonder, ignoring that true wonder is about undeserved grace and favour and beauty rather than achieving something patently impossible.

It could be argued that such an ending allows a more honest view of the film’s flaws; that’s understandable, but unfair. See it, but close your eyes and shut your ears for the last minute; that way you’ll walk out laughing at a flawed but entertaining comedy. If not, you’ll just feel let down.