As far as I’m concerned, if you’re already addicted to cinema, it’s easy to become utterly bewitched by found footage films. It’s like a baker who tastes his first freshly cured Tahitian vanilla pod and never turns back—you’re witnessing and accessing something primal about the art form, the conundrum of what it means to film something with the intention of it being seen, and then to watch it later, with different eyes and intents, and after time has jumped the rails of ordinary progression, yielding a magic show of resurrection, reconstitution, memory and agelessness. Found footage films seem so simple, and yet offer up bottomless implications and an infinitely varied idea about what any particular piece of cinema “means.” From Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) to the new assemblage film Our Nixon (2013), it’s the black hole of film subgenres, a Heisenberg Principle arena where who’s watching, and who’s reusing and why, completely changes the import of the raw material.
Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye’s Our Nixon has a distinctively outrageous payload of “meaning” attached to its recycled footage. The doc pivots on hundreds of reels of 8mm home movie footage shot in and around the White House by self-professed camera bugs H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman and Dwight Chapin, from the 1969 inauguration to 1973, when the staffers were forced to resign and face the Watergate hearings. Four short years, but what a toxic weight of historical poison, and what a time in the secret history of modern American government to have these aw-shucks soul-sellers acting like film-crazy tourists in private. When you consider the Nixon regime’s neurotic obsession with surveillance, proactive espionage and secret keeping, the circumstances in which this footage naturally occurred is almost more astonishing than the images themselves.
Inevitably, because these are home movies, the aggregate focus is not on Nixon but on the three busy shooters—squares and nerds to the last—and their unabashed delight in walking the halls of power, participating in what they clearly saw as a watershed moment in modern history. (Why exactly they thought this remains fuzzy to us, but perhaps it is the red-cheeked, starry-eyed idealism that accompanies the ascension of every new administration.) Haldeman, Erlichman and Chapin are a goofy trio of starfuckers, turning their cameras on every world leader and celebrity they come across, and often filming each other. Haldeman and Erlichman are even seen preserving each other for posterity and grinning like fools while visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972.
Perhaps ruefully for them, Lane’s assemblage is the only posterity all of that filming receives. Naturally, because feature films require narrative to reach most people, Lane modestly recreates the Nixon administration’s history step by step, buttressing the 8mm footage with news footage, TV interviews, and, best of all, large swaths of recorded phone conversations between Nixon and the filmmakers, as they all confront, with splenetic bigotry, first the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers, and then the self-immolation that began with Donald Segretti, the Plumbers, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, and the Watergate Hotel. Retrospective TV interviews with all three men give voice to the rationalizations and regrets we’ve all heard since, but the home movies are filled with boyish hope, and serve as a kind of counterpoint to almost everything else we know about the Nixon White House, suggesting an almost pathological narcissism, or at least a giddy sense of privilege and power that these convicted schemers would do almost anything to protect. As history, it’s nothing new, although Our Nixon does engage, as it perhaps should, in irony and sardonic editing, beating itself at its own game with hilarious opening credits that introduce the three Nixon appointees in shots from each others’ footage, accompanied by sitcom typography, freeze frames and Tracey Ullman’s 1983 cover of “They Don’t Know About Us.”
Found footage cinema is all about the original context of the filming—and then, contrapuntally, about its opposite, its antithesis, its sociopolitical or aesthetic transformation in the service of a brand-new context. The original footage all by itself can be revealing and beautiful and loaded; Haldeman’s distracted filming of squirrels and hummingbirds in the White House gardens is by itself poignant and strange, even before Lane layers secret-tape Watergate damage control conversations over them. It’s as if the original cameramen didn’t have much else to do, or couldn’t dream of anything more important. That’s just it: Haldeman was filming because of the hummingbirds, but we’re watching because of Haldeman, seeing through his eyes, wondering what was going on under that crewcut but also becoming dazzled by the ironic poetry of footage recontexualized by history.
This is how the subgenre works—as an inflicted autocritique. This is what Werner Herzog did to Timothy Treadwell’s footage in Grizzly Man (2005) and what Andrei Ujica did, with spectacular resolve, to Nicolae Ceausescu’s footage in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010), and so on. Even Bruce Conner’s seminal found-footage shorts, from A Movie (1958) to America Is Waiting (1982), lacerate and ironize and objectify 20th-century American culture with its own ephemeral images. Found-footage maestro Craig Baldwin raised the bar by rewriting history into an absurdist harangue, using such a cornucopia of disposable celluloid sources that the very idea of cinematic function, and “meaning,” gets roasted like an elderly comic.
For politicians and corporations and mass cultures alike, this kind of movie reveals the mysterious mutability of cinema, which serves its maker’s intentions until it becomes a mirror. Thereafter, all bets are off, and film images become rogue impulses co-optable and twistable into virtually any form. Taken apart and reassembled, totalitarian propaganda can become anti-dictatorial farce, educational films can become music-video satire, blockbusters can become antique kitsch, exploitation movies can become surrealism, everyday cutaways can become, via Christian Marclay, a vast and watchable 24-hour timepiece, simple home movies can become memorials or espionage pulp (as in the neglected Cuban film The Mists in the Palm Trees, which toured the festival circuit in 2006) or visions of political revelation. We talk so much about what films, and their visual forms, mean, but it’s clear from the found-footage paradigm that they can mean almost anything, and therefore may not inherently mean anything at all. Every shot in every film is a Rorschach blot, waiting for translation.
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times, Time Out Chicago, Fandor, Turner Classic Movies and LA Weekly. His latest books include FLICKIPEDIA and the novel HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT.