Tag Archives: fake documentaries

The Curse

The Curse

Director: Kôji Shiraishi

Writers: Kôji Shiraishi, Naoyuki Yokota

Original title: Noroi

Cast: Jin Muraki, Rio Kanno, Tomono Kuga

Japan 2005

115 mins

The Blair Witch Project (1999) might have made millions and become a milestone in the history of cinema, but it didn’t inspire a great many films worth watching. Although spoofs and knock-offs proliferated quickly, it wasn’t until the rise of reality TV and cheap, readily available digital cameras that the format started producing interesting results, including [Rec] (2007) and its sequels (and to a lesser extent the US remake), George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007), Cloverfield (2008), the Paranormal Activity films, and most recently André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter (2010). Released in 2005, Kôji Shiraishi’s The Curse (Noroi) predates all these, but strictly speaking it does not belong with the ‘found footage’ films. Instead, it’s the conceptual descendant of the BBC’s notorious 1992 Ghostwatch Halloween Special, in which another trashy ‘celebrity in a haunted house’ TV show began documenting real phenomena, both on location and in the studio. With millions of viewers convinced they were watching a live television broadcast, Ghostwatch attracted acclaim and outrage in equal proportion when the deception was finally revealed. The Curse is presented as the final work of Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), a reporter and filmmaker who specialises in documenting - rather than debunking - supernatural and occult phenomena. After finishing his latest investigation, Kobayashi disappeared and his wife died, leaving behind only the almost finished documentary and a few minutes of unseen footage - apparently shot on the night he disappeared - as a possible clue.

Kobayashi’s documentary begins with the disappearance of a possibly unhinged single mother and her introverted young son, but before long he is drawn into a world of psychic children, alien religious rituals, gruesome sacrifices, a surplus of dead pigeons, an insane visionary clad in a tin foil hat and coat, and the root cause of it all, a town that now sits at the bottom of an artificial lake. Most of the footage is shot by Kobayashi and his unseen cameraman, but the narrative is also supported by extracts from the television news and a number of clips drawn from TV shows that introduce key characters and highlight their connections to the world of the supernatural. After Kobayashi, the most important character is actress and part-time psychic Marika Matsumoto, star of Takashi Shimizu’s Reincarnation (Rinne, 2005), and one of several guests playing themselves. Following a trip to a supposedly haunted shrine as part of a TV show, Marika finds herself becoming the focus of a steadily escalating series of supernatural events, including half-glimpsed figures on the TV footage, bizarre sleepwalking incidents and a growing number of pigeons that commit suicide by hurling themselves against her windows. As she grows increasingly frightened, Kobayashi realises there is a connection between the story he is pursuing and Marika’s otherworldly experiences.

As in a great deal of contemporary Japanese horror, much of the material in The Curse reflects the Japanese fascination with all things mysterious and unexplainable, from the occult to urban legends. The fake TV show clips that Shiraishi uses to add authenticity work mainly because they’re exceptionally realistic. Shows that test the psychic abilities of a class of schoolchildren have been seen on Japanese television, complete with tacky graphics and multi-coloured subtitles. Rising starlets like Marika Matsumoto - and Maria Takagi, who also appears - often end up as panel guests or celebrity interviewers. They might only be on screen for seconds, but you can also spot noted horror author Hiroshi Aramata, popular TV host and former AV star Ai Iijima and comedy duo The Ungirls. Wisely, Shiraishi avoids allowing these cameo appearances to dominate their scenes and distract from the main characters and the supernatural events.

Shiraishi’s approach has a definite advantage over Blair Witch-style ‘found footage’; by presenting his footage as part of a documentary, the director is free to edit, manipulate and process the material as much as he likes, in order to achieve the necessary effect. This is most apparent in the disembodied, multi-layered baby cries that can frequently be heard, as well as the muted thuds of pigeons hitting windows. Digital manipulation allows Shiraishi to insert the briefly seen ghostly figures and twisted faces that appear throughout the film. However, these are not the half-glimpsed phantoms found in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (Kairo, 2001); because The Curse is supposed to be a documentary, when such images or phenomena are caught on film the footage is sometimes replayed and analysed, reducing its impact on the viewer. Despite this, Shiraishi leaves a great deal unexplained - the pigeons, for example, or the knots - and simply allows the cumulative effect of all the horror and grotesquery to speak for itself. There’s no need for him to explicitly describe the rituals taking place since the implications are clear and the viewer’s imagination can fill in the less-than-pleasant details.

The same applies to the film’s final sequence, which is presented in full with no edits, overdubs or modifications. Without the director’s own commentary it isn’t completely clear what happens in the minutes prior to Kobayashi’s disappearance and the death of his wife, but this ambiguous conclusion is entirely appropriate for a film that documents a wealth of supernatural phenomena without managing to explain any of them. There is a slight misstep before the end, however. Like almost every found-footage film, there comes a time when one character ignores his own safety (and that of his companions) to pick up the camera and start filming. Realistically, such individuals would either run or assist their friends; preserving the event for posterity would probably not rank highly on most people’s list of priorities, selfish or otherwise. That minor glitch aside, The Curse is one of the best of its kind, competing easily with The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast (1998) and considerably better than Cloverfield or the Paranormal Activity series, including the made-in-Japan alternate sequel Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010). Unlike Tokyo Night, The Curse is a terrific example of the kind of atmospheric, well-composed horror films that Japan became famous for in the wake of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998).

Director Kôji Shiraishi has been an active figure in the world of low-budget Japanese horror since the early 2000s. He cut his teeth on the prolonged V-cinema (direct-to-video) Hontô ni atta! Noroi no bideo series before contributing to a clip show called Nihon no kowai yoru, released in the West as Dark Tales of Japan. This made-for-TV anthology project gave Shiraishi the opportunity to work alongside some of Japan’s most famous horror directors and with Takashige Ichise, the driving force behind Ring (1998) and the Ju-on series, who went on to produce The Curse. Although widely considered to be the director’s best work, it has yet to be released in Western countries, despite the continued interest in atmospheric Japanese horror. Shiraishi would visit the same genre territory again a number of times, including in Shirome (2010), which features real pop group Momoiro Clover exploring fake sites of supernatural interest, and the serial killer investigation Occult (2009). Neither has been released in an English-language version yet. Recently Shiraishi’s career has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his notorious ‘torture-porn’ effort Grotesque (2009), which was refused a certificate from the BBFC, effectively banning its release or screening in the United Kingdom.

Jim Harper

Punishment Park

Punishment Park

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 23 January 2011

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Peter Watkins

Writer: Peter Watkins

Cast: Patrick Boland, Kent Foreman, Carmen Argenziano

USA 1971

88 mins

All you non-conformists, step this way.

The Vietnam War is intensifying. Nixon is ordering bombing missions on the Laos-Cambodian border and civic unrest is reaching new heights with violent demonstrations in the inner cities and on the university campuses. A pair of documentary crews, one from West Germany and one from Great Britain, follow two groups of detainees. One (group 637) is being processed through a tribunal, while the other, having already chosen the option of Punishment Park over significantly long prison sentences, is finding out just exactly what Punishment Park is.

Peter Watkins had already made his reputation as a provocateur with his Wednesday Play The War Game in 1965, which was banned by the BBC for 20 years. Punishment Park, released in 1971, is in many ways just as incendiary. The pseudo-documentary style is complemented by the improvisational techniques that Watkins employed. It allows Watkins to portray a topical moment of confrontation (Kent State Massacre was in 1970 and the Chicago 7 trial began in 1968), but it also seems part of the point that America is dangerously improvising with its own polity and identity. Throughout the film there is a radical sense of people making stuff up as they go along. This goes for the activists, who are a melange of counter-culture figures, from an obvious Bobby Seale stand-in, to a poet who looks like Allen Ginsberg and a Joan Baez-style protest singer. But it is also true for the kangaroo court that tries them and the police and National Guard, who are never quite sure of what their role is supposed to be. The media are also included in this free-for-all. The documentary filmmakers are complicit in giving the legal procedure legitimacy as well as producing a striking warning not to fuck with the government. Their protests are feeble — ‘you bloody bastards’ — and largely ignored by the trigger-happy police who, anticipating criticism of Watkins’s own origins, point out their outsider status: ‘why don’t you go back to Europe?’

Tension mounts in the film as it becomes increasingly clear that the Punishment Park experience is not about education or rehabilitation but is a cynical sadistic game, similar to something out of Pasolini’s Salí², or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), an experience the prisoners have little hope of surviving. To add to the tension, the soundtrack is dominated by the incessant sounds of gunfire and passing fighter jets in the background. This is America: constant bitter and angry argument with a clear and present threat of heavyweight and disproportionate military violence.

It would be a stretch to say that Watkins is in any way even-handed - his is a bitter and a furious film of denunciation. The court is composed of recognisable faces from the news, sociologists, a housewives-of-America spokeswoman for the Silent Majority, a big union man and politicians. They are easily hissable straw men and their depiction is the weakest element in the film. And yet the film does allow for some ambiguity. It is the prisoners who draw first blood, when some of them decide that they won’t follow the rules of their own punishment and ambush and kill a policeman. What we end up watching then is perhaps the tragedy of 60s radicalism, which saw street fighting pitching middle-class radicals against often working-class police and soldiers, to the great relief of the ruling class.

Listen to the Electric Sheep I’m Ready For My Close-Up programme on Peter Watkins with BFI archive curator William Fowler on Friday 20 January, 5-5:30pm, Resonance 104.4FM.

John Bleasdale

I’m Still Here

I'm Still Here

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 10 January 2011

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Casey Affleck

Writers: Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Sean Combs

USA 2010

108 mins

Few mockumentaries have received as much media attention as I’m Still Here, although this is largely due to the manner in which the press was coerced into participating in the project: in late 2008, movie star Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was retiring from acting to pursue a music career, a statement that was swiftly reported by entertainment news programmes and the celebrity-obsessed blogosphere. Phoenix received Academy Award nominations for his performances as a Roman emperor in Gladiator (2000) and as country singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), while maintaining independent credentials through his frequent collaborations with writer-director James Gray. If he had yet to achieve megastar status - an increasingly unrealistic expectation for any actor in a movie-making era dominated by special effects-heavy franchises - Phoenix was certainly well-known enough for his ‘retirement’ to fuel the rumour mill: was this a very public breakdown, or a hoax, or a genuine desire to try a different form of self-expression? The media further speculated on the actor’s professional shift when Phoenix performed his latest rap material at a Las Vegas club in early 2009, with his friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck filming his set for a documentary project that would be titled I’m Still Here. Writing for the Chicago Sun Times in September 2010, Robert Ebert described the film as ‘a sad and painful documentary’, dealing with a ‘gifted actor who apparently by his own decision has brought desolation upon his head’. Ebert also noted ‘subtle signs’ that I’m Still Here may be ‘part of an elaborate hoax’.

The suspicions of Ebert and other critics were proved correct when Affleck explained the intentions of his collaboration with Phoenix in a number of interviews that followed the theatrical release of I’m Still Here; they wanted to explore the nature of celebrity, commenting on the relationship that both audiences and journalists have with stars in the era of new media and reality television. What their mockumentary actually observes is a breakdown in such relations, as Phoenix becomes increasingly isolated due to intense media attention. He begins the film by claiming to feel trapped in ‘a self-imposed prison of characterisation’ due to the mass perception that he is ’emotional, intense and complicated’, an identity that he concedes to creating through his choice of roles but one that he feels has been exaggerated through media pigeonholing. As he no longer wants to ‘play the character of Joaquin’, Phoenix abandons his acting career to record rap music, with Sean Combs producing his debut album and live performances scheduled in Las Vegas. Industry commentators do not wait to listen to any material before passing judgment, labelling this choice as career suicide, while ridiculing the ‘former’ actor’s increasingly unkempt appearance as Phoenix goes from svelte leading man to bearded rapper with noticeable weight gain. He becomes a laughing stock in Hollywood, alienates his ‘general assistant’ Antony (Spacehog guitarist Antony Langdon) and gets into a fight while performing to an audience that is more interested in capturing a falling star with their camera phones than in listening to his lyrics.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that I’m Still Here is a ruse, albeit a well-conceived one: scenes of Phoenix ordering hookers and snorting drugs are calculated self-destruction staples that are designed to shock, and interactions with other performers often feel contrived. Ben Stiller visits Phoenix at his Los Angeles home to pitch Greenberg (2010), suggesting that the ‘retired’ actor should play the supporting role eventually undertaken by Rhys Ifans, only to be accused of ‘doing Ben Stiller’ by Phoenix, who no longer cares for Hollywood pleasantries. With comedy star Stiller cast in his familiar straight man role to Phoenix’s imploding artist and dialogue that references Stiller’s earlier success There’s Something about Mary (1998), their meeting plays more like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm than a genuine conversation. The centrepiece of I’m Still Here is not Phoenix’s rap performance - we hear some of his material, but never a full track - but his now legendary appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman to promote his ‘final’ film Two Lovers (2008). It’s an exercise in awkward humour as Phoenix seems to be more interested in the gum in his mouth than discussing his work, only becoming slightly engaged when Letterman brings up the subject of his rap music. ‘I’d like to come on the show and perform,’ offers Phoenix, only for Letterman to deliver the put-down, ‘That seems unlikely’. Phoenix manages a few chuckles at the expense of the host, but Letterman gets the last laugh - ‘I’ll come to your house and chew gum.’

Phoenix disappears into ‘character’ as he becomes distanced from those around him due to media ridicule. Although he turns to music to escape the artifice of acting, Phoenix finds the rap world to be similar to Hollywood: Sean Combs states that both movies and music revolve around the circus of production, while the audience that Phoenix is trying to reach may change, but reactions to his celebrity status do not. He eventually retreats from public view, travelling to Panama to spend time with his father and, in the parting shot, disappears underwater while swimming. The three-word title of I’m Still Here recalls not only D.A. Pennebaker‘s classic Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967) but also Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007), a fictionalised deconstruction of Dylan’s ever-changing persona, with media reaction to Phoenix as rap star exemplifying a celebrity culture that now forbids such multi-faceted behaviour. In this respect, the process of making I’m Still Here had more impact than the completed film as it received a brief theatrical run that grossed a mere $568,963 worldwide, suggesting that the cultural and economic value of artists or celebrities as ‘public commodities’ is greater than that of their actual work. A clean-shaven, slimmed-down Phoenix would return to the Letterman show to discuss the film, thereby re-establishing his movie star identity through the promotional process. I’m Still Here is technically a mockumentary, but the manner in which its subject unravels due to media scrutiny makes it a painfully real portrait of a creative spirit in crisis.

John Berra