Thursday, April 2, 2015

Slasher, Cinematographer

Here's why Michael Myers is scary: from the very beginning of Halloween, the camera is tenuously equated with his vision. You never quite know if what you're watching is something that he is seeing. As the film goes on, he moves into being associated with the dark spaces that the camera shows, in addition to the whole POV. It's a movie with a lot of dark spaces, so he ends up being a constant potential; potentially watching with us, potentially in sight but unseeable.

Freddy Krueger works because he is functionally a switch. When he's off, the film plays Hollywood realist-melodrama. When he's on, the world is no longer subjected to those arbitrary restrictions. Freddy means that cuts become expressive in themselves, (special) effects.

The It that Follows is, very clearly, meant to be in this lineage. The opening shot absolutely reeks of Halloween, a film-grainy widescreen circle pan of a woman running out of her suburban house, staring at an unseen pursuer, juking it to run back in, and then back out again to get into the car and drive off. It seems dead obvious that, whatever the diegetic explanation will end up being, the It that will presumably be following someone is going to be formally the camera. Not just because of the Halloween references, or the fact that she spends the bulk of the sequence looking directly into the camera, but even that the camera is literally an it that follows actors. It's easy, sure, but it seems promisingly executed at first, and doesn't have to devolve into some cheap moralizing and self-aggrandizement. Just look at Halloween, where it is used to provide a specific framework in which to explore the lives of some teenagers in a specific place.

It Follows ends up deciding that the monster is going to be the opposite; rather than the POV, it functionally becomes the (visual) background. More specifically, the extras. By the midpoint of the film, at the very latest, your attention is necessarily split; any shot that isn't a close up is not just a technique for establishing your moment-to-moment relationship with whoever is in focus (or their relationships to one another), but a reason to actively engage the whole composition. The dark corners of Halloween are effectively, here, the presence of other people. There's a strange way in which the movie most functionally similar to It Follows is something like Dark City, with all its painterly compositions drawn to attention by the pseudo-anonymity of its villains.

The Myth Time of the movie is an attempt, I think, to enhance this; an early scene has a group of friends watching a black and white SF film on a rabbit-eared television while one reads Dostoevsky's The Idiot on a custom clamshell e-reader. Jay, the protagonist, goes on a date to a movie theater with an organist; her sister Kelly works at a roadside ice cream stand with architectural hints of the raygun gothic; the girl from the opening shot answers her flip phone before she gets Barrymored. The disjuncted technology, like the nature of the monster, compels the viewer to partially refocus on the stuff rather than the action.

The characters, too, play into this. Yara, who is functionally an extension of the e-reader, dissolves into the background until It takes her shape. Paul refocuses Jay, who gives a performance that seems to dare the viewer to look past her. The neighbour children establish early that the being-watched is both mundane and threatening, bridging the gap between the camera/POV and the extras. Greg (who Depps it up) is embodied transportation, necessary to move between those backgrounds. Kelly, Jay's sister, is, well, maybe the only human among them.

The setting is important as well, in exactly the same way. That Myth Time of the film, presented primarily through the technology, is talked about in terms of timelessness, but that's hardly the case. It Follows is largely set in suburban Detroit, and the city proper is remarked as being considered dangerous by the core groups' parents. It is obviously a post-white flight, postindustrialized Detroit. The fact that a blighted Detroit surrounded by (at least) primarily white, middle class suburbs can be described as timeless is, well. The point, though, is that postindustrial Detroit is the very essence of the sort of place that we see for its settings rather than the people in them. Ruin porn, and all that.

All of this works together to create a film which has an incredibly effective mood. Or, more precisely, that works overtime to instill the viewer with anxiety*; not only is the monster frightening within the narrative, but you are being pressed into a form of active viewing that acts as a sort of counter-pedagogy to what films -- even horror films, even of this exact lineage -- normally abide. It Follows' referentiality plays into this, most obviously by its rule: It will follow you once you have sex with who it is following, and you pass it along by having sex with someone else. If it kills who you passed it on to, it returns to stalk you again, and back down the line. Halloween stumbled into the sexual conservatism that Friday the 13th codified and Scream named; It Follows literalizes it. What has been taught remains learned, but the lessons only mirror their plan, not consume it.

For a film to place so many demands on the viewers attentiveness to its cinematography, it is perhaps not surprising that this cinematography is almost entirely aimed at facilitating the mood. Stoker-like circle pans and cameras mounted to cars (and a wheelchair) break up meticulous medium shots that want movement the same way the tension rises and spikes or collapses with it. It's all, as they say, very gorgeous.

Ghostface works because, nearly two decades after Michael Myers, the consensus was that the operation of the movie monster was a form of psychology, amenable to the establishing of rules of engagement. Because characters in a film can be observant of dark spaces and sexual mores, but not on the operation of the camera that captures them, the edits that constitute them.

*Admission: I was anxious by the time the fucking Poltergeist remake's trailer played, and knew next to nothing about It Follows going in, so probably overidentifying that bit.