Monday, August 6, 2012

V/H/S (2012) dir. Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Adam Wingard, et al.

Logline: A gaggle of mustachioed, camera-equipped idiots are tantalized by the offer of breaking into some slob collector's house and stealing a nondescript "VHS tape." What's on the tape? We'll never know. But we will get to peep in as they load a couple other tapes into the machine and watch as some of today's best horror directors (and then some others) totally phone it in.

What a crushing blow. At the end of the final installment of my recent Found Footageathon, I tried to offer up some of the hope I felt for the future of the horror genre's latest cash cow/whipping post. I presumed, or at least hoped, that the innovators and storytellers would be arriving soon to usher the found footage film into new territory by tinkering with its aesthetics and possibilities. So one might correctly imagine that I've harbored some optimism for V/H/S, a new anthology FF film featuring the talents of some of horror's best new filmmakers (specifically Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) and Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way to Die, You're Next)). Not only would it have some bonafide horror storytellers in tow, but they'd all be crafting their own segments in an anthology context (one of horror's oldest and most reliable traditions). It could have been something special.

Instead, we're given six half-hearted FF films as opposed to the usual lone entry. It might be a case of "too many cooks," or maybe simply too many films, but no individual narrative is concerned with anything more than scare-making (which each summarily fails at, either through over-reliance on CGI, breakneck pacing, or unimaginative set-ups). Moreover, the frame narrative--courtesy of Wingard--is somehow nonsensical in its ludicrous simplicity and therefore tosses out any hope for a cohesive, coherent film in toto. It's a mess, and considering that the general level of quality in each segment barely registers above similar fare from The Asylum, one wonders why anyone bothered. It seems pretty clear that each director was approached separately, and each resulting segment has that feeling of being a dreadful little island in the tepid ocean that is V/H/S.

Worse is that I guess the filmmakers thought bro-culture was hankering for its own FF film, so what we're given here is the bro-iest horror film imaginable. The majority of the characters (across all segments) are either meatheads in various stages of inebriation or skeevy chaps attempting to coax their girlfriends out of their clothing on camera. And hey, don't worry, you don't even have to ask, because yes, the women do get naked all the time, as gratuitously as possible. (Hey, I guess they are innovators after all! Before this, FF films only had the nipple shot in Evidence and the near bump-and-grind in Paranormal Activity 3 to tide over the horndogs in the crowd. Way to go, movie). To be fair, we are given one brief dong shot, but the scales still seem tipped in the other direction. I'm making a point of this because this testosterone-drenched attitude is, if anything, the unifying factor between the segments. The film returns again and again to images of dudes attempting to take advantage of women (sometimes forcefully; see: a recurring image of some poor woman being sharked in public), and even though these dudes are clearly despicable it's never clear that the various segments agree with that assessment. Sure, the males are cows prancing to the slaughter, but this punishment hardly condemns their boorish behavior. The moral of the first segment, David Bruckner's "Amateur Night," could be "don't take advantage of drunken women; it's wrong" but seems to fall closer to "don't take advantage of drunken women; they are infernal hellbeasts and will eat you later, bro." The most we can commend this segment for is just barely avoiding a case of date rape. I suppose I'm being uppity, but there are contexts in which these things are more than acceptable and the gleeful, leering fraternity party-esque atmosphere of V/H/S is not one of them.

Some of the pieces aren't quite so bad, even if the movie as a whole does them a disservice: Ti West's segment, "Second Honeymoon," is the closest to anything worthwhile in the film on the level of horror, though it amounts to little more than a jokey twist, even if that twist does serve as a sort of cheeky corrective to the rest of the film's rampant machismo. Joe Swanberg's segment, "The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She Was Younger," a probably accidental remake of the earlier bizarro FF film The Collingswood Story (2002), fares better in this department of gender relations, portraying for us a weaselly, manipulative male clearly eligible for our scorn, but falters due to its narrative's failing to make the slightest sense (despite some late clunky exposition). And even this segment cannot avoid the gratuitous shots of breasts. (Additionally, this segment also breaks the film's aesthetic conceit, as we're forced to accept that a series of Skype conversations have somehow been transferred to a VHS tape. Not that I mind (see below)).

Peter Gutierez over at Unseen Films put up an intriguing post about the film today. While I concur with his assessment that V/H/S fails to come to any sort of fruition as a unified film, I wouldn't entirely agree with his overall theories regarding the inability of the FF film to sustain the anthology format. Using the example of V/H/S, he writes that the constantly transforming points of view between segments (both through distinct directorial approach and literal diegetic camera hand-offs) blows any chance the film has to immerse its viewers in the story (for any prolonged period, at least) and so prevents them from viewing it as anything other than a deliberately-constructed set of short films (instead of, y'know, actual footage). Maybe. I'd say it's hard to tell with V/H/S as the only piece under consideration once you acknowledge its wider narrative failings (Wingard's wraparound neglects to make any effort to dredge a coherent story or universe out of this communal urinal). But, speaking generally, I think too much has been made of the immersive quality of FF films, or--maybe more specifically--too much has been made in the wrong direction. While I do believe the M.O. for more than a few FF films is to give their audiences a sense of total immersion and involvement with the action onscreen, I don't buy that verisimilitude is the desired outcome from either the filmmakers or the viewing audience (The Blair Witch Project--and to a smaller extent Cannibal Holocaust--was the beginning and end of any such ruse). Simply put, we're too savvy at this point to ever buy into it being really real. Our brains can't turn themselves off to the extent that all of a sudden we believe in zombie outbreaks, violent poltergeists, or alien invasions. The joy and adrenaline we derive from found footage films rests in their ability to give the audience presence. The found footage film renders the cinematic eye (the audience as voyeur) an interactive piece of the environment by embodying it in the camera itself, allowing it to be more openly manipulated without creating the distance that calculated cinematography does. This is a contentious embodiment the audience faces, for while they are given physical presence through the camera they also become hypersensitive to and aware of those forces that manipulate their view. Whether it's the director or a character shaking the camera around, conveniently missing all the good parts, the effect is the same: the viewer is a part of the events, but never in control of them. The FF film then becomes one of denial and obfuscation, providing a sort of pleasure that a traditionally-lensed film cannot due to its visual requirements (I wrote a bit in my review of Chernobyl Diaries about how this last point might be changing as aspects of the FF genre begin to rub off onto traditional horror). An anthology of found footage films, in theory, would only increase the amount of first-person tampering we're subjected to and, possibly, our enjoyment of the tussle. V/H/S is far too careless a film to prove anything of the sort, but I'm not giving up all hope yet. Maybe a little, but never all.

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