It’s interesting that Galloway mentions The Blair Witch Project in this week’s reading, and I was surprised that he didn’t spend more time on it. This notion of “camcorder subjectivity,” albeit “not a subjective shot per se,” provides a number of very personal effects for the films in which is used. Though I have not seen Blair Witch, two other films (which I thoroughly enjoyed and) which come to mind are Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity.
“Camcorder subjectivity” can play multiple roles, all of which are seen between these two films. It is certainly capable of performing the role of subjective shots, especially when it is clear that the operator is looking through the eyepiece, such as the interviews during the party in Cloverfield or when Mica is annoying his girlfriend in Paranormal Activity (which, interestingly, includes several mirror shots); it can provide more passive shots when put down by the operator; but it maintains a definite distinction from typical cinema cameras, which are not typically supposed to be a part of the film world. Batman, for example, could not accidentally bump into the camera and disturb its perspective as Mica does in Paranormal Activity (during one of its otherwise terrifying, passive tripod scenes). The camcorder is clearly on the same plane as the events unfolding in front of it–it is a part of the movie, and is bound by all that this entails.
The story of Cloverfield unfolds almost entirely through a handheld camcorder, held by various characters as they endure the monster’s assault on New York (aside from the camcorder, the opening frames indicate that the footage is being accessed through a government database. No footage of the world post-camcorder is shown). Carried by previously-partying twenty-somethings with presumably no background in film-making, the camera’s view is terribly shaky and unreliable. The danger and urgency of many scenes is greatly accentuated by use of the camera, both because of the disorienting shakiness as well as the limitations it provides. The camera is often not pointing in the direction of what’s important, whether it be the danger behind them or the way out in front of them. The audience is alerted to danger via screams and other loud noises, and is left to squirm and sweat, waiting desperately for the operator to turn and reveal what exactly is causing alarm.
Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, creates tension with the opposite approach. The times at which the camera becomes relatively passive and sits on the tripod are generally the most terrifying. True, this is partially because the characters are often in more vulnerable states (asleep) during these scenes, but there is more to it. What makes this movie so terrifying to me is what it doesn’t show, and it doesn’t show us because the camera is not in a position to move. Events and violence unfold, but the action often moves off screen, leaving the viewer helpless, either waiting for something horrible to appear or watching characters be dragged helplessly out of sight.
A similar effect is seen in the videogame Resident Evil. Zombie games are certainly fun, but I’ve never played one that scared me like that game, and it was because of the perspective. Though not viewed through a camcorder (or in any way that interacts with the world around it), it is the same fixed view which gives each scene its terror. As you move from room to room, the camera shifts to some awkward position, such as looking down the hall or from a corner of the ceiling. The character is controlled from this static view, a) making the controls unintuitive and thus very stressful when quick response is needed and b) allowing things to surprise the character suddenly from off screen, or even disturbingly reveal themselves ahead of time with an approaching shadow from the corner.