Letter From The Editor - Issue 41 - September 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2009

Running dry

'[REC]' runs out of ways to explore the first-person format

[REC]
Sony Pictures
Director: Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza
Screenplay: Jaume Balagueró, Luis Berdejo and Paco Plaza
Starring: Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Pablo Rosso, Jorge Serrano, David Vert and Carlos Vicente
Rated R / 1 hour, 20 minutes
Released on DVD July 14, 2009
(out of four)

For all the merits of the first-person POV technique, I'm just not so sure if it has any legs. When it was first introduced to the masses a decade ago with The Blair Witch Project, it seemed like an anomaly - particularly because, despite all the hype, audiences largely disliked the movie.

But the style has reappeared with a new vitality over the last couple of years, ushered in as both a byproduct of the handheld, doc-style filmmaking trend (Lost, the Bourne movies, just about every action movie you've seen the last few years, etc.) and a reflection of (and commentary on) the voyeurism of 21st Century culture.

But when the style is applied to a traditional plot scenario, it runs the risk of losing its novelty - as is the case with Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's [REC]. To be fair to the movie, it was first released in Spain in 2007 (before finally hitting the U.S. on DVD this summer), so anyone accusing it of aping the Cloverfield formula is misinformed.

But just because it got the jump on the first-person gimmick doesn't mean it did it exceptionally well. On the contrary, the style ultimately comes across, oddly enough, as rather irrelevant. It may feel superficially different at the start, but the problem is the filmmakers are using cinematic language in the exact same way as any traditional horror movie would. The proceedings are still made up of things lurching out from around the corner, or suddenly jolting toward the screen, or characters turning around to find themselves face-to-face with one horror or another. It's all the same.

The cameraman, Pablo (Pablo Rosso) and the on-air talent, Angela (Manuela Velasco), began their night shooting a routine shift at the local fire department, only to get brought along on a job at the worst possible time - when people are being mysteriously and savagely killed in an apartment building in what seems to be some sort of government and/or police conspiracy.

Despite several characters' reservations, Angela and Pablo keep on shooting everything that happens. The fact that we're getting a supposedly "heightened" sense of perspective from the POV format is supposed to be the novelty of [REC], but in actuality it enhances very little - and does less to differentiate itself from the norm than it thinks it does.

The reveals are carefully set up and carefully exposed, utilizing none of the chaos that would seem to be the appeal of a "raw" first-person viewpoint. Each shot accomplishes virtually the exact same thing as they would in the same scene with traditional camerawork. What's the point, then? What's the difference?

That the TV cameraman serves as our proxy is a moot point - something the filmmakers never realize - because that type of perspective is something that films intrinsically have anyway. The camera always stands in for the viewer. That gets to the central fallacy of the film's conceit - its first-person style is, essentially, redundant.

To be fair, the very limitations of the technique open up interesting aesthetic possibilities, in that we can't get the same traditional wide shots and establishing shots. And so the way we're fed the story has been altered. The problem with [REC] is that, once it gets into its most crucial scenes, it falls back on absolutely ordinary stylistic choices.

Not to mention that the secrets of the story, once they gradually get uncovered, are somewhat underwhelming.

You can do intriguing things with this kind of technique - it's just that it's not as easy as it seems to actually make it unique. Cloverfield, despite all its shrill melodrama, utilized its style far more effectively. It was offbeat, it was frantic, its reveal moments - which appeared with an unnerving lack of rhythm - made an impact. Even George Romero's Diary of the Dead, while not entirely successful, still managed to infuse the format with irony and wit.

And while The Blair Witch Project was ahead of its time 10 years ago, [REC] already seems to be behind it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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