“Chronicle is a 2012 science fiction film directed by Josh Trank in his directorial debut, and written by Max Landisbased on a story by both. Three Seattle high-school seniors, bullied Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and more popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan) form a bond after gaining telekinetic abilities from an unknown object. They first use their abilities for mischief and personal gain, until Andrew turns to darker purposes.” (From the Wikipedia entry)
In his influential analysis of historical representation, The Content of the Form, Professor Hayden White (UC Santa Cruz) distinguishes between annal, chronicle and narrative modes of telling about factual experience. The annal is a chronological compilation of dates and the events, an historical list rather than a story. The chronicle, for its part, “represents historical events” as “unfinished stories.” It is for the narrative that we reserve the term history, insofar as “it has given to reality the form of a story.” (White, pp. 4-5)
While the consequences for historical representation of our cultural preference for story telling over event listing are outside the scope of this post, I was struck by how the presentation of information (“found footage”) in the Chronicle trailer corresponds to White’s description of the manner in which a chronicle presents fact and lived experience. Moreover, in the signal editorial gesture of the trailer, a quick rewind that occurs about 80% through, we return to a period before the first scenes shown, at which point as yet-unseen events are recorded but also left, “unclosed,” unfinished, and unformatted into a story as we typically understand the term.
Perhaps the trailermakers were enrolled in the History of Consciousness Program at UC Santa Cruz when Prof. White was actively teaching. Most historians–and lay persons alike–are resistant to his ideas since they expose the rhetorical, subjective and fictionalizing activities beneath the objective, “facts only” facade of historiography. It’s one of the most persuasive, accessible and mind-blowing pieces of critical theory with which I’m familiar, and it’s a treat to see that its influence has escaped the ivory tower. Let’s take a look.
As yet another addition to the “found footage” school of filmmaking, Chronicle became a surprise hit, grossing 126M worldwide, leveraging an effective social media campaign and this, intriguing and effective trailer.
The trailer opens with three attractive, middle-class high-school aged boys, videotaping themselves on a hand held camera as they drive to school, singing and acting goofy. Typical shots from an American High School campus establish the context, before the presentation of a scene that confounds expectations. One boy jams a fork into another boy’s hand bending the fork but not puncturing the skin of the other. Cut to the boys in a toy store experimenting with what appears to be telekinetic powers. They remotely “mess” with a male peer and terrify a small girl with a levitating teddy bear, laughing in alarm and confusion at their own ability.
Speculating on their newfound talent, they compare it to a muscle that requires exercise. In the next shot, one is shown moving a automobile across a parking lot, while the others laugh at the confounded owner. Excitement and lighthearted pranks give way to a life-threatening incident in which a motorist is forced from the road, down an embankment and into a pond. Rescuing the hapless victim, they argue among themselves. As the screen goes black, one of the boys, in voice over states, “I’m worried about Andrew.”
In the next scene, Andrew (presumably) is shown exercising his telekinetic muscles, the first of a series of scenes that demonstrate his growing power and the growing apprehension of his friends, escalating into a standoff in downtown Seattle with dozens of members of the police, whose cars Andrew has levitated. At this point, timecode appears on screen and the events witnessed previously rewind in 10 seconds. We go back beyond the opening to the initiating event of the action. The boys find a large crater-like hole in the ground into which they descend. As they enter a grotto filled with a glowing, bluish light, one of the boys expresses their reaction: “Holy…” as the image goes to static then black and the facebook URL appears on screen.
In this trailer, there is no voice over (apart from diegetic dialogue) and no copy cards. There is no cast run nor graphic cards for the director, writer, producer or distributor. It is, in keeping with its pretense, presented as found footage. The shots are bordered with static and color bars, “inexpertly” framed and shot from awkward angles, with the zoom in/out testifying to putatively realistic, in-the-moment capture.
So, to recapitulate: the trailer, with its absence of V.O. or copy narrative, relies on our ability to combine scenes 1, 2, 3…N into a coherent story. And then, prior to “completing” or “closing” that incipiently narrative connection, it rewinds, undoing, as it were, the presumably causal because chronological relationships among them. It returns to a point before the first manifestation of “paranormal” ability in the 3 protagonists. But there, too, it refuses to state, reveal, or insist on a meaning or explanation. Rather, it carefully, intentionally and skillfully obliges the viewer to speculate, to invest, to draw conclusions on the basis of incomplete information.
In a chronicle, the sense of completeness or closure is withheld because of the simple fact that it is recorded by one who has yet to live or experience the next event. Whether that event would conclude or merely defer the story is unknown and unknowable. The trailer for “Chronicle” operates according to that logic. In its foregrounding of the “found” and “recorded” visual artifact, vs. the filmed and produced scene, it exploits the “documentary” appeal of the genre to audiences who might be bored or suspicious of the cinematic presentation of events, while also, and cleverly so, leaving space for them to perform the imaginative work of story telling.
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.