Filmmakers who are reading this: please, just stop with the found footage already. Seriously. Stop it. For the love of all that is good in the world, please stop it because you’re hurting the quality of your own work.
Actually, let me clarify. Some movies do found footage very well, and it’s a reminder of what can be done with subjective cameras and invented verisimilitude. But the thing is, at least half of the movies that are found footage movies would be better if they were not found footage movies.
Case in point: Mr. Jones. A strong concept for a horror film that’s botched because it’s both a found footage movie and fake documentary… well, at least for a while.
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Director: Karl Meuller
Release Date: TBD
The opening of Mr. Jones had some shades of the film Resolution, which Alec and I both enjoyed at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Scott (Jon Foster) goes to a remote cabin in the woods to make a nature documentary of some kind. His wife Penny (Sarah Jones) comes along to help, or maybe just hang out. Or maybe they were going to move there a long while? It’s hard to say. There’s friction in their relationship as Scott tries to make his doc, and Penny gets angry at him because she claims to have left her job and her friends just to be out at the cabin with him.
The first few weeks of their stay are condensed into a montage of wildlife imagery and Walden-esque dallying, over which Scott asks rhetorical questions in a voiceover that gradually becomes more depressing. Ostensibly the entire film that follows is a documentary that Scott has made. The duo soon finds out that they have a neighbor out in these remote parts: an artist known only as Mr. Jones. As Penny puts it, he’s like a mix of J.D. Salinger and Banksy. The documentary eventually becomes about Mr. Jones and his eerie scarecrows that he mails to people, and what he’s actually doing out there in the woods.
A fake documentary about nature that becomes a fake documentary about a person possibly going mad can be promising, especially since the larger mythology constructed around the Mr. Jones character is pretty cool. Jones is also pretty striking from a visual standpoint: he looks like druid or a drifter or a guy in the background of a black metal video. Or, in this case, it’s promising until it isn’t anymore. Mr. Jones eventually dumps its found footage conceit, which just left me wondering why it began as a found footage movie in the first place. Found footage doesn’t add anything to the film and only detracts from its strengths because the use of found footage makes no sense once you start to think about it.
If Scott is making a nature documentary, why would he film himself and Penny in bed at night? The camera’s on all night long as well. Is there some sort of fruit bat that swoops through the house that they’re hoping to catch at an awkward angle? Do they have a pet barn owl that likes to cuddle with them at night? Why waste time with meaningless footage? There’s a meaningful interaction between them, but it doesn’t make sense that this moment would be something captured on video given the kind of documentary that Scott is making.
Scott heads to New York to find out more about Mr. Jones the artist, and that footage didn’t pass the smell test either. Why the extended, sped-up, hip-hop montage to signify the trip to New York? It’s not that hard to denote New York City in a few shots, but the most banal aspects of the city are aesthetically fetishized in this film — streets, hotel rooms, subway turnstiles, the entrance of MoMA. The footage he shoots dumps lots of exposition about the work of Mr. Jones, and info dumps like this are transparent and reek. More than that, it’s a cross between raw talking-head interviews and properly edited taking-head interviews that artfully dovetail together. Did Scott partially edit the artist doc material? And why have it half-raw and half-finished? When the form doesn’t work, these things just become glaring to me.
Similarly, Scott makes a camera rig that allows him to shoot his own face while shooting footage. Basically it gets around the one-camera, one-POV dilemma common to all found footage movies. It’s an admittedly clever way to add reaction shots during the scary moments, but it makes absolutely no sense in-story. If Scott is making a nature documentary that becomes an artist profile doc, why would he be shooting his own face as well? Why would he want his own reaction shots to ants and pine needles and scarecrows? And when he eventually goes around trying to uncover the mysteries of Mr. Jones’s own home, why bring the rig? Why not just use a regular camera that’s less cumbersome?
The point of using found footage and fake documentary forms, at least to me, is to create a sense of verisimilitude — that this is stuff that actually happened and the method of shooting and the footage shared takes that sense of reality to its conclusion. This applies to comedy mockumentaries like This is Spinal Tap as well as horror movies like [REC] and Cloverfield. Sure you have to suspend disbelief to an extent, but if things can be justified in-story well enough, that’s all that’s required, and it’s just not here.
Which brings me back to the odd break in Mr. Jones when it stops being a found footage movie/fake documentary. That’s when the movie’s pretty good (until it feels boring and drawn out), and it just makes the found footage material seem so unnecessary. Unless this is still somehow part of Scott’s abandoned nature documentary turned abandoned artist documentary turned supernatural-descent-into-madness documentary. It’s all just so slapdash and ill-considered, and after I left the theater, I felt agitated and said to two other critics who also saw the film, “Jesus, I fucking hate found footage movies!”
While it’s true that found footage films are cheaper and quicker to make than other kinds of movies, I can’t help but feel that there are too many filmmakers who aren’t using it properly as a storytelling tool. The creativity and inventiveness is there in Mr. Jones, but it’s stifled rather than enhanced because the movie is a dumb found footage film, which is a damn shame. (It also doesn’t help that Scott and Penny are total nitwits.)
So please, make it stop.
[For tickets and more info on Mr. Jones, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]