Saturday, October 30, 2010
The Blair Witch Project
From the moment the "Haxan Films" logo comes onto the screen, I'm hooked—I'm plunged back into an utterly unique cinematic mood; a blend of mundanity and dread, of ugly visual noise and fleeting, nearly transcendental beauty that can only mean one movie: The Blair Witch Project (1999). The "haxan" logo gets me because it manages to express the central theme of this excellent movie so immediately and viscerally: the minimal, archaic-looking black-and-white graphic for a tiny production company you've never heard of, blown up to the enormous dimensions of a 35mm movie-theater print of a major Hollywood release. A small and delicate thing has been retrieved and made huge: the essence of the "Project."
And what does the title mean, anyway? Is the titular "project" meant to refer to Heather Donohoe's doomed attempt to make a documentary film in 1994? Or does it refer to the work done by whatever nameless (fictional) archivists saw fit to spend what must have been months of intense, grueling effort re-assembling the "footage" "found" (according to a title card) near Burkittsville, Maryland a year after Heather's disappearance (along with the two technicians who accompanied her)? Who made that title card? Whose movie is this, anyway? The clever meta-fictional envelope around the horror story isn't just a device for suspense and exposition (as is the case with Quarantine, Cloverfield and other 'found footage" movies); it's much more interesting. You can't spend too much time thinking about the surrounding circumstances of Quarantine or Cloverfield -- in each case, you're just watching a tape from the camera that recorded the horror story. But Heather and her crew had two cameras (only one of which captures sound) operated by two people, and a separate audio track associated with a third; simply creating a straightforward narrative out of all the resulting footage would be a daunting task in and of itself, notwithstanding the additional overlay of paranormal irrationality and mystery. In the first five minutes of the movie, Heather and Josh circle each other in the driveway, pointing their cameras at each other as we cut back and forth between them, and you get the point immediately (whether you realize it consciously or not): somebody had to work very hard to put this together -- to find the videotape of Josh that matched the 16mm film of Heather and actually sync them up with each other -- and, for me, those nameless people and the work they did is as much the "Project" as is Heather's documentary. The Haxan people, whoever they are, finished her film for her...and, in so doing, accomplished a artistic miracle of alchemy, wherein a incomprehensible tangle of retrieved film cartridges, DAT tapes and Hi8 videocassettes is woven into a shimmering, horrifying Greek Tragedy in the woods; a spellbinding, dream-like excursion into fear. (We all know how this was accomplished -- how the actors were actually given the cameras and surprised by the surrounding events that they hadn't been told about -- but the method worked so well that its difficult to find anything wrong with it.) I can't emphasize this point enough: from the Haxan logo through the silent title cards to the first white-balance-adjusting fade-in on Heather's face against a blank wall, the viewer is keenly aware of being shown something -- of being privy to a post-facto awareness of the tragedy of the filmmakers' disappearance and the need to understand what happened in the woods -- that surpasses the work of all subsequent "found footage" movies (or at least the ones I've seen). The title card at the beginning of Cloverfield is really scary, but it doesn't convey that same unsettling sense of thwarted investigation, of pieces having been carefully put together by somebody who was keenly interested in penetrating into the darkness and finding the truth.
A truth that's never found, by the way. That's an element of this movie that so many people dislike, but which I think is a great strength, putting The Blair Witch Project in the same category as 2001: A Space Odyssey: we can point our cameras at the infinite, but we'll only be dazzled by the light. Heather tried to get to the bottom of what had been going on in Maryland (decades of disappearances and other, stranger elements of local legend which are masterfully unspooled in the movie's first twenty minutes), and she failed, as do the nameless editors and archivists who try to complete her task. What's out there in the woods, anyway? What do Heather, Josh and Mike do wrong, if anything, or are they simply traveling across forbidden terrain, a zone of disorder (where the compasses don't work)? As the filmmakers enter the woods for the first time and their empty car disappears slowly behind them in a long, lingering shot, I'm reminded of Disney's animated clouds forming a hand the covers the moon in their Sleepy Hollow movie (Ichabod and Mr. Toad). They never see the car again, and while they don't know this, the post-facto editors certainly do, and you can feel their fingers on your spinal column as they choose to show the entire long languid shot of the car disappearing forever.
Why does Heather keep insisting she knows the way? Why does Michael throw away the map? What makes Josh's voice so strange in the movie's final twenty minutes? (Michael Williams screaming "Tell us where you are, Josh!" over the DVD menus is so terrifying you're almost afraid to press the "Play" button.) The framework and the concept are powerfully inventive, as I've described, but the actors provide the rest of what makes this movie a classic, and, as I said above, the too-clever-by-half methodology of the (actual) filmmakers is forgivable because the results are so striking. The dialogue, the mood swings, the camerawork (which the actors did themselves, unlike the far-more-conventionally-made Cloverfield), the odd touches and, of course, the portrayal of fear are all explosively effective because the method (as in "Method") of the acting is so powerful, tapping into veins of emotion and expressiveness that few actors get anywhere near. (The fact that these three actors have gone nowhere in the decade since this hit suggests that the filmmaking "method" was the sole reason for their triumph here.)
Watching again, a decade later, I'm struck by how old-fashioned all of this looks when viewed in today's iPhone/Facebook/Twitter world. (The lack of cell phones is, of course, the reason the movie was set five years before it was made, which, in turn, is the reason for the incredible analog video footage, complete with ghosting.) (Pun intended.) But it's not just advances in technology and communication that "date" this movie; it's the movie itself. Cinematically and culturally, we're living in a post-Blair Witch world, and I would argue that even big unrelated Hollywood productions like J. J. Abrams' Star Trek show the influence of this movie. There are some obvious shortcomings, but I have no trouble disregarding them. The images shake a lot, but it's worth putting up with the dizziness (and it's not nearly the same on home video, although I would love to see this in a theater again). And you don't really penetrate the mystery and find out what's in the woods, but based on what we do see, I'm perfectly happy not to know. As Heather and her friends learned too late, you exlpore the darkness at your own risk.