Not long after M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense opened in 1999, my parents dragged my brother along to the theatre to watch it because “we had to see it.” They’d seen it already, of course, and I suspect their second visit was as much motivated by analysing the construction of the film’s famous twist as reliving that ‘gotcha’ moment through our reactions. I loved the film: it was scary, it was clever, but most of all it opened my eyes to the invisible assumptions that I had unknowingly approached movies and TV with for as long as I could remember.
Jean-Luc Godard is famously quoted as saying, “Cinema is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie,” but the significance of that last part was inconceivable to my teenage self. While I’d been aware of the artificiality of these moving pictures for almost as long as I can remember (I can vividly recall an episode of The Toxic Avenger cartoon where the animated heroes hunted down a copy of the script for the show they were in), I’d never really noticed editing. Sixth Sense, by leveraging the implications of the frames in-between, the scenes unseen, revealed the immense power of cinematic grammar to exploit one’s imagination.
Editing, of course, is not called the “invisible art” for no reason; in most cases, the editor strives to be unnoticed by the audience. The rhythms of conventional editing – the shot/reverse shot, the 180 degree rule, the establishing shot, the dissolve – are so intuitive that they feel natural (though, of course, these conventions are reinforced by years of mindless consumption). That invisibility becomes tenuous in some contexts, however – chief among them the found footage sub-genre.
The name of the sub-genre suggests the problem; if we are to believe that someone stumbled across this grainy footage of randy teenagers being stalked by a lizard or whatever, who on earth spent all this time and energy carefully editing the footage together to maximise tension. If we’re going to accept the premise that this is real footage, then doesn’t that come across as a little … sadistic? There are ways around this, naturally; the first found-footage film, Cannibal Holocaust, somewhat clumsily spends much of its runtime in the screening room where said footage is being shown. The first popular found footage film, The Blair Witch Project, concocted an elaborate extratextual charade to convince gullible audiences that it was, in fact, edited together from, well, found footage.
But with the increasing popularity – and profitability – of these films, the editing begins to make less and less sense. Who’s compiling and fast-forwarding the videos in Paranormal Activity? Why does a film like Afflicted – which justifies its conceit and semi-professional sheen by establishing its characters as wannabe filmmakers – still look so carefully-composed when one of those characters is dead and the other a vampire? The very verisimilitude these films strive for is compromised by their inability to easily justify the most natural thing in cinema: the cut.
A common solution to the problem is to provide a diegetic explanation for these cuts; the camera operator has simply switched off the camera. It’s a convenient excuse that tends to require some awkward contortions, screenplay-wise, with characters providing clumsy explanations as to why they turned their camera on right now and, probably more importantly, why they don’t just switch it off and leg it when the zombies attack a couple minutes later. Outside of playful riffs on the aesthetic like Chronicle, it’s increasingly hard to see the justification for an incredibly restrictive sub-genre (aside from the obvious budgetary advantages). By 2015, I’ve given up on found footage films that can’t come up with a compelling reason to exist.
Enter The Visit. It’s fair to say, in 2015, audiences have a right to be sceptical approaching a found footage film from the director responsible for The Happening and The Last Airbender (okay, and The Village and Unbreakable and Sixth Sense). Thankfully, that cynicism is unrewarded; much like Sixth Sense, The Visit demonstrates its directors confidence with the rules of cinematic grammar – and how to manipulate them. The film is, yes, a “return to form”, a reminder that M. Night’s early reputation was not undeserved.
There’s nothing particularly impressive about The Visit’s screenplay. This is a horror movie (sort of) about a pair of teenagers (Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould) staying with their creepy grandparents (Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie) that’s pretty well bereft of scares, yet packs more than a few clichés. It’s more interested in – and adept at – mining laughs from its talented young actors than scaring its audience, which is totally fine. But Shyamalan’s real achievement here is how perfectly he plays with found footage conventions.
His first clever choice is provide – and commit to – a plausible explanation for the perpetually rolling cameras. Becca, the older of the two kids, is an aspiring young director, who patiently educates her brother, Tyler, in the meaning of terms like mise en scène. Packing a pair of expensive cameras along on their trip, The Visit is then framed as constructed and edited by Becca, to the point where we watch her editing the footage together. The choice of which scenes to include, where to cut, when to use, say, an establishing shot is all justified as Becca’s decisions and – for once! – it’s believable (with some smart in-jokes at the end for those paying close attention).
(Sidenote: as someone who teaches intelligent, mature teenage girls as a day job, it’s immensely refreshing to see a character like Becca on screen. She’s brainy and somewhat introverted, but not ‘nerdy’ or overly awkward. She’s articulate, but in that very teenage way where big words are often used to sound smart rather than for clarity. She’s simply a wonderful character, thanks in large part to DeJonge’s acting.)
At one point, Becca asks for a portrait of a visiting neighbour from the local … I guess, ‘mental hospital’ is the word (that isn’t especially politically correct, but neither’s the movie). The visitor poses uncomfortably, a frozen smile on her face as she proffers her gift (a casserole or something). “Act natural,” pleads Becca, but of course that’s much easier said than done. On other occasions, passers-by reveal that they used to be an actor when they see Becca’s camera, breaking into uninvited soliloquies to prove their apparent talent.
This all ties in to the other really clever thing about The Visit. Beyond the challenges of explaining away editing and why that fucking camera is still fucking rolling Jesus the monster is right there, found footage films are the rare fictional film where the camera is explicitly a presence within the story. In a well-written found-footage film, people act differently. They’re conscious of being recorded, so they amplify their performative persona by, say, busting out a monologue (it’s very much like the exaggerated caricatures of humanity seen on contemporary reality TV).
Rather than merely paying lip-service to this, The Visit makes this performativity central to its storyline. Becca assumes the role of competent film director to allay her feelings of inadequacy tied to her absent father (shades of Shyamalan’s idol, Spielberg). Her younger brother has created a rap persona – T-Dog Something-or-other – to conceal his own germophobe anxieties. When they visit their grandparents – who they’ve never met before – everyone is playing some kind of performance; falling into the roles of the doting grandparents and the obedient grandchildren despite being, to all intents and purposes, strangers. These themes are exaggerated in the final act (yes, there’s a ‘twist’ of a sort); at one point Tyler, throwing a tennis ball up in the air to disguise their uncertainty over the grandparents’ increasingly unhinged behaviour, tells his sister, “This is how children play!”
Look, let’s not go too crazy – The Visit is no masterpiece. It’s an entertaining, often funny horror movie that’s an entirely decent way to spend an hour and a half. It’s also a demonstration that, with enough understanding of cinematic grammar, there’s potential yet within found footage films.