Diegetic Cinematography

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Dane DeHaan, playing Andrew, the film Chronicle's diegetic cinematographer; the sort of boom arm invisible to film characters.

Diegetic sound is the part of a film's score that the characters can hear. We understand scary music that accompanies a blond babysitter as she checks on a clamour in the basement is something we the audience can hear, but that she cannot. That sort of mood music is non-diegetic sound. If we see her dancing to a song on the radio on the other hand, we understand that the music is embedded within the fictional narrative. The film Chronicle is the latest Hollywood film to explore "diegetic cinematography."

In most films we the audience understand that everything we are seeing is non-diegetic vision. That the perspective we are shown is from an invisible point within the fictional universe we are watching. The actors are not supposed to acknowledge the camera, because the characters are not supposed to be able to see it. Conventional cinematography is God-like, their swinging boom shots and  gliding zooms are soundlessly invisible. As Manohla Dargis points out in her review of Chronicle the film builds on "the first-person perspective of 'The Blair Witch Project' and 'Cloverfield'” previously limited to jerky hand-held shots with actors looking into the lens to address the character/cinematographer.

The Blair Witch Project (1999); Cloverfield (2008)

Dargis’ main criticism is that Chronicle lacks the "creepy-freaky" territory explored by Brian De Palma in his 1976 film Carrie. But this is less of a criticism of what Chronicle is, and rather just Dargis wishing it had been an entirely different film made by different filmmakers and aimed at a different audience. This is not a film that trades in "psycho-sexual terror" of the 70s. In an era of superhero films, however, it is the best superhero film I’ve ever seen. Unlike Carrie, which was made for a generation that grew up watching the Vietnam War unfold in one hour nightly episodes,  Chronicle was made by, and for, the generation who was sitting in home room when the World Trade Center was attacked. And more than the content, the way Chronicle was filmed reflects psycho-social terror of that experience.

Sissy Spacek, Carrie (1776); Michael B Jordan, Chronicle (2012)

Up until now the device of diegetic cinematography (to coin a phrase), has been anchored to one camera and whatever it happens to record, in whatever order it happens to be recorded. And for a short time we are given every reason to believe that that is what we can expect with Chronicle. Andrew who, as owner of the camera, is our first unit diegetic cinematographer, his cousin Matt, and their popular friend Steve, gain their God-like powers to move things with their minds (including, crucially, the camera) and transform the genre’s amateur-esque camera work into series of telekinetically driven steady-cam and boom shots. But even before trio of superboys stumble into a hole and come out with super powers, the filmmakers introduce us to a more important innovation then super-powered diegetic cinematography.

Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) recorded by Andrew’s POV; Matt (Alex Russell) texts while Casey’s camera records the action

As it turns out, POV in Chronicle isn’t anchored to Andrew’s camera, or whatever camera Andrew happens to be holding, but is instead within whatever camera, within the narrative, that happens to be focused on the action. Like Blair Witch and Cloverfield, our POV is still solidly diegetic. But unlike those earlier attempts, our POV is unconstrained; God-like. Like a conventional Hollywood film, our attention circles the narrative, skipping through time, past events we don’t need to see, but also occupying any camera within the narrative we require to witness the action we do need to see.

Camera work is used all the time as a storytelling device in film — the zooming contracting shot of a terrified or shocked character, focus centering on an object we are meant to notice, even lens flare is used to tell us things. After a century of filmmaking there are all sorts of devices cinematographer have to actively push a story along. The least interesting imaginable film would be one that just "objectively" records the action. In Chronicle the film work begins to shift after Andrew gets his super powers and begins using them to move the camera. There are long shots of him quietly staring into the camera, moving it smoothly with his mind. He is clearly taking pleasure from mastering this new skill, but he also seems to be enjoying its attention.

Andrews God-like control of the cameras' movement, and our, equally God-like, ability to follow the action through any and all cameras surrounding the action.  

When I saw Chronicle in the theater I was surrounded by an audience of teens and twentysomethings, who like the characters Matt and Steve, were all looking at, texting with, and talking on their phones throughout the screening. But no one around me was being obnoxious or rude. These kids seemed to have an etiquette for how to use them in settings where they knew they should not be. A lot has been made of this generation's obsession with self-chronicling. The logorrhea of Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter - but that entirely misses the film’s center. Just as this is a generation who grew up using cell phones, it is a generation that came of age at the birth of the roving POV.

Chronicle was written by Max Landis and directed by Josh Trank, both of whom are 26. In 2001 they —and the actors— were all teenagers. That made them just old enough to watch the endless loops of video shot on September 11th, and feel its full impact. But they were too young to know how unprecedented the media coverage of that event was. The attacks were the first time any of us witnessed an event on so enormous a scale and so profound a significance. It was also the first time many of us would have been aware that we were ling in a new era: an age of cheap and therefor ubiquitous cameras. It was the first time we, as a public, were confronted by how entirely our lives were being chronicled - as the days turned into weeks and more and more new footage of the event, no matter from what source, was found and combined with older more familiar shots. For those of us who grew up watching the news shot by professional camera men, this was our first introduction to the traveling POV that Chronicle hitches to the task of cinema. A POV where news, cell phones, closed-circuit security, and camcorders were all equivalent, where all that mattered was the focus of attention, not the quality of focus.

Andrew trying on the role of "apex predator"

 

The coverage that morning demanded that, for the first time, equal importance be given to the POV of most skilled journalist and the most amateur. We all watched as footage was pasted together into an increasingly dense and overwhelmingly complete image of huge explosions, tiny falling figures and finally, collapsing buildings. The first images we had were news cameras late on the scene, then there were a few random amateurs that happened to be pointing in the right direction, then the French documentary crew... As the days progressed the possible POV multiplied and became God-like in the ways they captured the event. On and on until any iconic image of the event was overwritten by a cloud of mismatched POVs (even for those of us who watched it from our roof tops).

For the twentysomething who made Chronicle, but also those who watched the film in the theater around me, there would have been nothing remarkable about the way that event accumulated its motley POVs, that was just the way the world looked.

God-like POV