I’ve watched Chronicle 4 times now, each viewing with a somewhat shifted response. Each time has deepened my understanding of it, however – as a superhero movie and as an art film, and the ways it manages to be both. But, perhaps my affection for it is the thing that has impressed me the most and that affection doesn’t have as much to do with superheroes or art, per se, as it does to character and characters.
A very interesting article on Rhizome entitled Diegetic Cinematography first prompted me to seek it out. (I relied on that article to clarify my thinking quite a bit.) I’d previously passed up Chronicle when trolling my usual pirate sites for something to download. The name was vague and the synopsis promised something like Heroes, the TV series, meets Cloverfield, which didn’t sound promising to me – obnoxious and overwrought comic-book inspired heroics with lots of sincere mutants but no real payoff combined with a monster movie that was impressive technically but thin on theme and without any real humans.
In that article on Rhizome, Critic John Powers does a good job explaining what diegetic cinematography is – in fact he coins the word — so I won’t repeat his longer explanations here. The Blair Witch Project; Apollo 13; The Paranormal Activity franchise; Cloverfield; the television show, The River. Those are all examples of film or video work that employs diegetic cinematography. In short, either a person with the camera is also a character in the film’s narrative or any other POV can be explained as being from the viewpoint of a “real” camera within that fictional narrative space, as well. In fandom and the industry it’s been dubbed “found footage” movies. I don’t like that much since this Hollywood product has nothing do with a found-footage experimental filmmaker like Bruce Connor, for example.
Regardless, you can immediately grasp the philosophically provocative possibilities of such a setup. You can grasp it but none of those previously mentioned films explore those possibilities. These films also go to great lengths to maintain this aura of “authenticity” and immediacy and usually bookend the film itself with some sort of explanation of how the “footage you’re about to see” was discovered later and reassembled by unnamed persons. Often the final product is said to have been broadcast as part of a news report.
Chronicle is after something else, as the first few minutes indicate.
Before I begin talking about the movie, here’s a very short synopsis:
Three high-school students, two of them cousins, and one of them armed with a video camera, find a possibly extraterrestrial object underground. There, a mysterious event occurs that gives them super powers, specifically telekinesis – the ability to move objects through willpower alone. They begin exploring these powers and one of them changes forever because of that.
Chronicle begins with a black frame with sound: We hear footsteps, the sound of a zipper and then a pounding. A boy’s voice asks, “What do you want?” An older male voice answers, “Why is this door locked, Andrew?” He pounds again. This all happens over black. “I’m getting ready for school,” Andrew replies. Then, click, Andrew turns on the camera.
It’s a diegetic moment preceded by several seconds of…what? Diegetic sound over non-diegetic visuals? Sound outside of time? There’s no indication that Andrew has taken off the lens cap, for example, to start the movie, a shot which we do see a little later in the film. The movie begins before the record button is pressed, which if that isn’t a clue to the film’s ambitions, I don’t what is.
An easy interpretation for these first few seconds of black is: Nothing is real unless it’s recorded and shared.
In this opening shot, Andrew declares, that “I’m filming everything now,” as a defense against his abusive father who’s the one pounding while drunk at the door. The audience can see the camera now, but is also behind the camera. In diegetic cinema, the camera’s viewpoint always has a real-world origin, there’s always someone or some thing behind it.
But in Chronicle, every shot has agency. Every shot is a human POV, direct or implied.
This POV implicitly includes the audience, as this shot establishes. As the film moves forward, Andrew begins to identify with the camera — constantly pointing it at mirrors and therefore at himself and us — and uses it as a tool of self-discovery and self-regard. His cousin Matt addresses the camera at one point, recording a message for Andrew that reassures him that “things are going to get better for you from now on.” He doesn’t say that to him in person. By the end of the film, Andrew has become the camera. In fact, it’s all that’s left of him. But has the audience slipped away? That depends on the individual viewer, I think. Another indication that Chronicle is after more than what this genre normally delivers.
Eventually, Andrew no longer has to hold the camera to maintain the POV. His telekinetic powers allow him to manipulate it from a distance – floating, gliding, observing from overhead, drifting in slow sweeps and pans. This is Chronicle’s most clever update of the diegetic cinematography in the other films I mentioned. It’s the occasion for some lovely camerawork, as well. It’s also the point at which only Andrew holds the camera. Previously, the other two boys occasionally held it, but as soon as Andrew can manipulate it with his mind, his two friends no longer have access to it. The POV is now a meld between the God’s eye view of traditional diegetic cinema and the subjectivity of the main character, Andrew.
These shots depict a personality who has never received this kind of focused attention before, as he looks happily, even longingly at the camera drifting overhead.
This melding of POVs emphasizes his narcissism and symbolizes powerfully Andrew’s objectification of everything and everyone around him as he eventually acts out on the abuse dealt to him by his father and the bullying he receives at school.
Before that, however, the film shows the developing friendship between the three super-powered boys as they bond over what they share and what they can do together that no one else can. I don’t know how much of the dialog was improv, if any of it was, but much of it is very funny and sounds spontaneous and authentic, avoiding the shrill, forced overacting typical of this genre. They sound like boys of their time and most importantly, they really sound and act like boys — playing tricks on strangers with their powers, playing catch football in the sky, shouting “I can fly! I CAN FLY!” into the camera and convincingly avoiding the high moral comic-book dictums that guide the narratives of Marvel movies.
With great power comes great responsibility? No. With power comes the possibility of having fun, of losing one’s virginity, of winning talent shows and becoming popular. This strikes me as what real high-school boys would do with super-powers, and it’s that attitude and these characterizations that make me quite fond of the movie in general, spearheaded by two very fine performances from Alex Russell as Matt and Michael B. Jordan as Steve. The latter, particularly, creates a richly detailed, effortless, always-on performance of a smart. ambitious jock — running for student council president, wants to be President — who also happens to be a really good guy.
Despite the fact that Matt and Andrew are cousins, Andrew’s scenes with Steve are the most intimate, full of confessions and offers of support. It’s clear that Andrew has never experienced a friendship like that before. Unfortunately and tragically, it proves to be not enough and too late, because a childhood of abuse — harrowingly depicted in a couple scenes with his father — and because of serious personal flaws of his own, it all turns Andrew into the monster that we’ve been waiting for. One of Chronicle’s strengths is allowing us to be ambivalent to that.
The climactic, chaotic scenes of destruction that end the film shatter the POV into multiple viewpoints, mirroring Andrew’s loss of control. A lame, literal sci-fi movie might have shown Andrew’s consciousness invading the network of cameras that records these scenes. But, Chronicle, an art film not a sci-fi film, suggests that Andrew is already there, as we all are, united in our divided attentions, making viral spectacles out of other people’s pain.
In a clever scene in the sky near Seattle’s Space Needle, Andrew, bloody and battered and off in his head, and refusing the entreaties of his cousin floating nearby, breaks the windows of the Needle and gathers to himself all the laptops, cameras, iPads and mobile phones from the people inside. They swirl around him in a cloud of recording technology. They’re all his. He controls the broadcast. Or at least he tries.
If Andrew is the camera, the somewhat pathetic symbol of the mediated self, who edited the final film?
We did, and then we uploaded it to YouTube.