A Dramatic Catalogue of Hollywood Clichés in "Misty Picture"

in 67th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen

by Fritz de Jong

How the searched-found-and-arranged-footage mourns what is lost

A camera circles around the Statue of Liberty, one of the most iconic structures in New York City, reveals in the background those other iconic structures: the Twin Towers. Then again, at night, but with different angles and lighting – the same sequence: circle the Statue and end with a view of the World Trade Center. This aerial choreography is repeated more than ten times: by day, at sunset, and even with the Statue covered by scaffolding, apparently during renovation. Some of the scenes have opening credits. George Gallo is mentioned as a director, as is Joe D’Amato. But they, and many other filmmakers, are merely responsible for providing the source materials for Misty Picture, a found footage film that in just over 15 minutes evolves from a wry comment on cliches in mainstream filmmaking into an elegy for a city that still mourns the loss of these buildings and the thousands of people who worked and eventually died there.

Here, the use of the label, found footage, is problematic in itself. While it’s true that none of the footage we see in Misty Picture was shot by its directors, Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, you can hardly accuse them of just accidentally stumbling over some old stuff and then haphazardly assembling it. Quite the opposite: their catalogue of diverse cinematic uses of the Twin Towers is deliberate and thorough. It’s better to label Misty Picture as a searched-found-and-arranged-footage film.

We see the Towers being approached from a low angle, by boat, and from a higher vantage point, from cars driving over Brooklyn Bridge. The WTC is seen at night, with the lights in the offices forming mesmerizing glittering patterns. There are also many special effects shots from action and disaster movies, in which one or both towers are being attacked and destroyed. You could call these ominous by hindsight, but at the time, they were just speculative destruction fantasies.

Interesting are the shots where the camera tilts from the very top to the very bottom of the towers or vice versa. Shots that start at the top and end at the stairs, looking down on the square below, present themselves as establishing shots. In these sequences, the location is linked to an anonymous protagonist who walks or drives into the frame. A shot like this could be filmed at any famous international location, be it the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, or the Taj Mahal. Completely different are the shots in which a camera tilting towards the top follows some (inter)action on the ground. In this movement, the Twin Towers are unapologetically used as unique phallic symbols of great financial and national power, linking the characters to that power.

As a catalogue of Hollywood cliché’s, Misty Picture is already very convincing. Even funny from time to time because of the relentless repetitions. What really makes it stand out is the dramatic impact it has, which may partly be attributed to the very atmospheric and drama-evoking score by Chris Jones. The filmmakers whose footage was used probably believed that the Twin Towers, which were completed only in 1973, were built to last for an eternity. Of course, Girardet and Müller know, just as the viewers know, that for the WTC, eternity ended in 2001.

In Oberhausen’s International Competition, I saw 44 short films, confronting me with thousands of images and hundreds of ideas. Some quite original, others, not so much. But no series of images resonated as powerfully as this tightly edited parade of cinematic platitudes. Misty Picture shows us that, before the Twin Towers became the defining symbol of terrorism and a power struggle between Us and Them, they were mostly seen as a fancy backdrop. That sense of (perceived) innocence lost is quite disturbing.

Fritz de Jong
Edited by Justine Smith