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Abbas Kiarostami to direct Paranormal Activity 4?

November 1, 2011

Almost certainly not… but you never know.

Aside from confounding search engines and the countless websites that survive by publishing idle film industry gossip, the title of this post does actually have a point. Namely that I see a number of similarities between the films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and the latest iteration in the Paranormal Activity series directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost.  In short, these cameras are all about forcing us to dwell on that which we do not see.

Cinema (and art in general) works by taking the cognitive skills and biases that we use to make sense of the real world and putting them to work on a man-made artefact. For example, when a film projector runs hundreds of images of an arm past our eyes, our brain will take all of these images and link them together to create an impression of smooth movement. Thus, our brain’s capacity to link together isolated pictures allows us to see coherent movement instead of isolated stills. Similarly, when we see someone’s lips moving on screen and we hear a human voice, we tend to assume that the words we hear are coming from the person whose lips are moving. In short, the medium of film is reliant upon a collection of tricks and illusions that transform disconnected images and sounds into something that is fundamentally human: a story.

Nor does film’s use of cognitive skills and biases end with the basic ability to make audiences perceive a coherent series of events.  Our tendency to take isolated events and link them together also accounts for the emergence of narrative. Consider the following:

  1. We see a handsome young farmer marrying a pretty young milkmaid.
  2. We see the milkmaid being murdered by a black knight.
  3. We see the young farmer setting off to kill the black knight.

In real life, events tend not to fall into easy cause-and-effect relationships but because our brain tends to look for these sorts of relationship as it helps us to navigate our way through the world, we cannot help but infer cause and effect between these three images: The young farmer is setting off to kill the black knight because he wants to avenge the killing of his wife. Our brain links the images together and our knowledge of culture (as well as this type of story) prompts us to formulate an explanation as to why the farmer should want to kill the black knight.

However, while this process of jumping to (more or less credible) conclusions is pretty much fundamental to the way in which humans apprehend the world and each other, the process is not philosophically stable. As David Hume pointed out in An Enquiry Regarding Human Understanding (1772) about the process of one billiard ball striking another and causing it to move off in another direction:

The mind can never possibly find the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and consequently can never be discovered in it. Motion in the second billiard ball is a quite distinct event from the motion in the first. Nor is there anything in the one to suggest the smallest hint of the other.

Given that our minds cannot directly perceive cause-and-effect, humanity was forced to develop a set of protocols through which various potential causes might be investigated as possible sources of a particular effect.  We generally refer to these protocols as the scientific method. However, because the worlds depicted in film are ultimately nothing more than fictions subsisting in the mind thanks to our brain’s capacity for generating false positives, it is easy for directors to play with cause and effect by drawing attention to these cognitive biases and subverting them for greater effect.  One of the directors who is most adept at unpacking cinematic conceits is the Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami.

Though Kierostami’s career spans five decades during which he has attracted numerous cinematic prizes and sufficient glowing critical praise to blot out the stars at midnight, his techniques are still largely unfamiliar to the non-art house crowd and so, before talking about Paranormal Activity 4 I will discuss a couple of his more recent films in order to establish a baseline for comparison:

 

Firstly, Shirin (2008) is a film that is famously composed mostly of women’s faces.  Set in an Iranian cinema, the film documents the emotional journeys undertaken by a number of different women as they sit and watch a film based upon a work of Persian poetry. Though we never actually see what happens on the cinema screen, we hear (or rather read) the words of the poem and see the effect they have upon the audience: Some women cry, some women laugh and some women just look monumentally bored. By refusing to show us the images on screen and what we might normally think of as the cause of these emotional reactions, Kiarostami is inviting us to speculate about that which we are not allowed to see.  As the faces flick by, we muse both upon the potential images on screen and upon the potential causes of the differences in the women’s reactions:

Why do some women look bored while others weep? Presumably because they arrived to see the film while in different moods.

What caused those different moods? The details of those women’s lives.

Thus, by showing us nothing more than a bunch of women watching a film, Kiarostami has made us speculate about what it means to be a woman in modern-day Iran. In fact, one could even go so far as to say that the film is all about that which Kiarostami pointedly refuses to show us: life outside of the cinema.

 

Secondly, Certified Copy (2010) is a much less obviously deconstructive piece of filmmaking set in a picturesque Italian town. The film’s tone is set when a woman meets up with an author and proceeds to grill him on the content of his book. While the author responds in a manner that is nothing short of reasonable, the woman’s questioning becomes more and more aggressive as though the level tone itself is somehow inflammatory. The woman’s over-reaction to a disagreement about the history of art is so extreme that we cannot help but wonder whether these two people might not share some past that remains hidden from us. As the film progresses, Kiarostami introduces the idea that the pair are actually a married couple but this revelation is introduced in such a way as to suggest that this new-found married status might be some game that the couple are playing and the more we learn about the couple, the deeper the mystery grows. This is a relationship that makes little obvious sense and while there may be some fantastical or psychological context that explains the couple’s bizarre actions, Kiarostami never lets us in on the joke. Again, by refusing to show us something, Kiarostami is forcing us to attend to it.  Kiarostami further highlights the relationship between audience and subject matter by having his couple tour a scenic village without ever showing us any of the things worth seeing.  We know that there is an ancient golden tree, but we do not see it. We know that there is a beautiful statue, but we do not see that either.

 

While these two recent films may highlight some of his more attempts at deconstructing cinematic spaces and lines of perceived cause-and-effect, Kiarostami’s playful attitude towards the basic grammar of cinema is present in all of his more recent films.  For a master class in non-traditional approaches to depicting space in film, consider one of the opening sequences in Taste of Cherry (1997) where Kiarostami shows us a particular area by having his character drive around with the camera pointing at the side of his face.  Paying careful attention, it is possible to work out how the various things we see out the window relate to each other but by eschewing standard camera moves and viewpoints, Kiarostami forces us to think about what we see on screen and, more importantly, that which we do not see.

One of the first rules in making a horror film is that a monster ceases to be frightening the second you put it on screen. A brilliant example of this is Victor Salva’s much derided and hugely derivative monster picture Jeepers Creepers (2001).  As long as Salva’s Creeper remains the unseen driver of a sinister truck or a looming presence capable of attacking at any moment, the film retains its capacity to scare. However, the second Salva reveals the Creeper in an attack on a police station, the film’s capacity to frighten us dissipates like a fart in the breeze.

Though this rule may have been formulated at a time of small budgets and limited effects technology, it continues to hold true even in an age of photorealistic CGI. The fact still remains that nothing is as terrifying as that which you cannot see. Good horror directors build their reputations on their capacity to trigger fight-or-flight responses and tweak our cognitive biases till our palms sweat and our hearts race. Horror is all about making us afraid of something as harmless as a flickering series of still images projected onto a screen.

 

One exception that proves the rule is Bong Joon-Ho’s monster movie The Host (2006). Bong announces his attention of moving beyond genre expectations by refusing to hide his monster. In fact, he has his mutant tadpole attack a campsite in full view of the camera. By stripping the monster of secrets, Bong diverts our attention away from the monster and towards the dysfunctional family that has decided to hunt it. Bong refuses to flesh out his characters or their relationships and so invites us to speculate about them and their significance as the family prepare for a war they are ill equipped to fight. By subverting the rules of the genre and showing us his monster, Bong is making it clear: The Host is not about a mutant tadpole attacking Korea.

 

Oren Peli’s ultra low-budget Paranormal Activity (2007) may function as a human drama but its real artistic mettle lies in its use of the power of suggestion to terrorise audiences. Lacking the budget for even basic practical effects, Peli’s story of a couple that are attacked by a demon pointedly never reveals its antagonist. All we ever see are doors opening, doors slamming shut and people screaming. When Paramount Pictures picked up the film, the film’s new producers (including Stephen Spielberg) made a number of changes before releasing the film onto the global market. Aside from some alternate endings and the use of more traditional horror movie sound effects, the film now featured a number of CGI effects-shots designed to heighten the film’s visual impact. While there is no doubting that these additions helped the film to reach a wider audience, they also served to lessen the film’s stark cinematic power. By relying purely on the power of suggestion and inviting our brains to focus upon that which we do not see, Peli produced a film that was nothing short of terrifying.

Fast forward a few years and the producers of what is now the Paranormal Activity series recruit Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, two directors riding high on the wave of success and controversy generated by their social media film Catfish (2010). Much like Tod Williams’ Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Paranormal Activity 3 is a prequel set prior to the events of the original Paranormal Activity. However, where Paranormal Activity 2 rewound the clock only a few months, Paranormal Activity 3 takes us all the way back to the 1980s to recount the tale of a wedding videographer and the strange goings-on that he manages to catch on camera.

 

Three films in and the Paranormal Activity series has collected quite a substantial narrative infrastructure with ghosts, demons, witches, spirits and a web of family relationships and history that link the three films together. However, when Peli first introduced the concept of a demon in Paranormal Activity, the concept felt somewhat out of place. The problem is that while such stock phrases and generic beasties as ‘ghosts’ and ‘demons’ may explain what it is that the audience is seeing and help the filmmakers to play with our expectations, they cannot help but feel comparatively empty and bland when compared to the lavish world building and evocative mythology of films such as Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999). However, far from crippling the film, Peli’s stripped back mythology serves to focus our attention on the film’s cinematography.  Because the film’s script cannot answer the audience’s questions, they are forced to look ever deeper into the details of the film.

Paranormal Activity 3 begins with an introductory recycling of the tricks used in the first two films: Doors open and footsteps sound in a manner that makes it clear that something is in the house. However, while the first two films in the series teased and teased, Schulman and Joots leap begin to extemporise within the first twenty minutes when an earthquake rocks the house causing the outline of a demon to be captured in falling dust. This reminds us of the film’s rules of engagement: We never directly see that which scares us, we only see the evidence of its passage.  The dust collected on the outline of the invisible demon is very much like the slamming doors and the echoing footsteps of Paranormal Activity and the bone of emotional contention in the first act of Certified Copy: it is an invitation to speculate about that which the director refuses to let us see.

 

The greatest moments in Paranormal Activity 3 are those in which Schulman and Joost make the most of their capacity to deny us visual access to the things that we are desperate to see. Using the oscillation mechanism from a household fan, the film’s protagonist rigs up a device that allows his camera to pan between kitchen and dining room and so record twice as much ‘space’ as a camera on a fixed tripod.  The choice of a fan’s oscillation mechanism is far from accidental as it means not only that what the audience sees is determined by simple mechanical algorithm but also that audiences will be familiar with how quickly the camera moves back and forth between two spaces. One of the most common charges levelled at films with peek-a-boo camera work is that the director is actively conspiring to deny us access to something. Think of the way in which Stanley Kubrick worked to keep naughty bits from the orgy scenes in the American R-rated release of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Roger Ebert’s comparison of such techniques with those used in the credits sequences of the Austin Powers movies and you will know exactly what I mean.  By placing the camera under the control of a familiar oscillating mechanism, Schulman and Joost are making sure that we know exactly when the camera will show the kitchen and exactly how long it will then take to pan back towards the dining room. It is in such mechanical movement that the need to see is most pressing.  In such moments, the camera simply cannot move fast enough. Indeed, it is in the moments when the panning camera is in use that Paranormal Activity 3 is at its strongest.

In one sequence, we see a babysitter doing her homework in the family kitchen. The camera pans to the empty dining room and slowly returns revealing not just the babysitter but also a figure covered with a sheet.  Because this sequence follows a scene in which the babysitter horses about pretending to be a ghost, we imagine that the sheeted figure might be one of the kids but, as the camera starts to pan away, the sheet drops to the floor.  When the camera pans back to the kitchen, we see a speechless babysitter visibly worried by the unexplained presence of a sheet on the floor.  Brilliantly, Schulman and Joost do not show us the babysitter’s immediate reaction but we can guess what it must have been. The directors then repeat this trick towards the end of the film when the mother of the family walks through the house at night.  She walks into the kitchen and fills a glass of water.  We see that the kitchen is filled with kitchen-y stuff.  The camera pans back and forth and we see the mother staring at a kitchen that is suddenly empty.  For a second, it is not obvious what has gone wrong… we know that something has changed while the camera panned towards the dining room but we cannot say what. Then the entire contents of the kitchen falls from the ceiling.

While the Paranormal Activity series may lack the intellectual sophistication evident in the films of Abbas Kiarostami, it strikes me that both sets of films stand united in their capacity to force our attention away from the events on screen to events and contexts that exist outside of the camera’s visual field. By adroitly filming the spaces around the actual paranormal activity, the Paranormal Activity series causes the source of that activity to swell in our minds until even the tiniest and most innocuous of events can seem absolutely terrifying.  Similarly, by filming the characters reactions to the important things in their lives rather than the things themselves, Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Shirin both force us to speculate about what those things might be.

Clearly, there is something ludicrous about the idea of a great director such as Abbas Kiarostami suddenly deciding, at the age of 71, that his future lies in disposable genre cinema. However, as ridiculous as this idea might be, I feel that there is indeed a profound kinship between the films of Kiarostami and the Paranormal Activity franchise.  Both share an absolute commitment to exploiting and deconstructing the basic grammar of film. To move beyond stock camera tricks and traditional forms of visual exposition to grapple with the ways in which the brain takes unconnected images and sounds and weaves them into a comprehensible whole.

Had Paranormal Activity 3 been as much a rehash of the original as Paranormal Activity 2 then I would never have thought to write this post but the freshness of Schulman and Joost’s approach to the material suggests that the future of the Paranormal Activity franchise may very well lie in more and more experimental uses of sound and light. If the producers of the Paranormal Activity series are curious as to where to go next, I suggest considering directors with a track record in visual experimentation rather than outright genre. What might Gaspar Noe make of a Paranormal Activity 4? What might Alexandr Sokhurov do to refresh the series’ use of continuous camcorder footage? As Werner Herzog’s successful take on the Bad Lieutenant template demonstrated, the walls of the cinematic ghetto have long-since crumbled into dust and many directors with less commercial track records might jump at the chance to reach a wider audience while earning a reasonable wage without the hassle of having to secure funding.

I conclude this piece with an open request to both the producers of the Paranormal Activity series and to the more experimentally inclined directors working in the field today: Talk to each other, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost have shown that Paranormal Activity can produce true works of cinematic art… why not continue the tradition by pushing the boundaries of visual exposition even further. Be bold, be innovative and be paid… cinematic golden ages were built on much much less.

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