Today on Movie Geeks United, check out the discussion, analysis and retrospective of The Blair Witch Project (1999) with directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, actor Michael Williams, and yours truly.
Now, I know that there are some horror enthusiasts who vehemently dislike The Blair Witch Project (1999).
Some folks feel they were taken in by the movie’s (very successful) hype and marketing. Others feel The Blair Witch Project is a shaggy dog story that never reveals the titular “monster” and ultimately goes nowhere.
So it’s a controversial genre film, to say the least.
However, I firmly believe The Blair Witch Project holds up as both great horror movie and also as a great, immediate movie-going experience more-than-a-decade after its theatrical release. The film is a neo-classic of the 1990s self-reflexive age; a decidedly ambiguous film that either concerns three film students bedeviled by an evil witch in the woods, or three film students be-deviled by their own inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.
I will never argue that The Blair Witch Project isn’t chaotic and even a bit messy.
I only argue that it is chaotic and messy in a manner of tremendous significance and artistry; in a manner that very craftily supports the movie’s thesis: the idea of chasing your own tail, alone, when your technology can’t be of assistance and — in fact — hinders you.
Out in the woods, a movie camera can record your shrieking terror or tape your final confessional, but it can’t telephone the police for you, or point in you in the right direction to find your way home.
The manner of the film’s first-person presentation reflects this content strongly, this idea that multiple interpretations of reality are possible. So the movie sometimes has the audience watching video tape, sometimes watching film stock. Sometimes the action is a live event unfolding before our eyes, apparently unstaged. And sometimes, we’re watching staged bits of a student’s documentary project…deliberately staged.
All these visualizations successfully fragment the film’s sense of reality, making said reality that much harder to find. Hoax or horror? Is the movie about arrogant kids who can’t cope with nature; or about kids attacked by a force of the supernatural?
What’s the point of the movie’s meditation? The point is that this was life in America at the turn of the Millennium, and even more so today, in 2010.
I like to use President Bill Clinton — impeached in 1999 — as a perfect example of this facet of our public discourse. Was he a great commander-in-chief who through his steady stewardship saved the American economy and brought prosperity and boom times to a nation formerly in recession? Or was he the cheating “Big Creep” as Monica Lewinsky called him, and worthy of the impeachment the Republicans so gleefully prosecuted?
Or — and here’s the tricky part — is he simultaneously both things at the same time? Meet the moral relativity of the 1990s. Again.
By the end of that decade, we had 24-hour news cable stations, the Internet, and even the nascent blogosphere, yet we were no closer to understanding the truth in the important case of this one man, the most famous man in the nation.
In other words, technology wasn’t helping in the quest for answers. We had at the end of the 1990s (and now as well…) more science and technology at our disposal than ever before in the history of our species and yet we couldn’t agree even on the most basic facts, let alone the interpretation of those facts. As a nation, we devoted more hours and more words to the Monica Lewinsky affair than any event in modern history up to that point, yet we remained divided about what it was all about, why it mattered, and what it represented.
In a nutshell, that’s what The Blair Witch Project is all about: the unresolved anxieties of the new technological age (the age of the dot.com boom and bust). We are asked to pull the narrative pieces together — pieces of media, literally found footage — and to seek sense, reality and truth for ourselves. But the tools aren’t up to the task.
And, heck, why is no horrific special effects monster revealed at the end of this motion picture?
Well, when was the last time you were certain you saw the real Loch Ness Monster uploaded in a YouTube video?
When was the last time you had a 100% clarity that you were watching a video of the real Sasquatch on Veoh or Vimeo or whatever?
Never, you say? Exactly right.
For every such claim of “authenticity” you must now bring your experience, skepticism and technological know-how. Was the video a special effect? A green screen? A matte? Photo-shopped? Very cunningly staged?
This is the bailiwick of The Blair Witch Project. It dwells meaningfully in that haze of tech-savvy uncertainty; factoring in technology and your experience with the tools you use every day. Think you see something? What did you see? Are you certain?
Again, the point of a good, transgressive horror movie is to disturb, to unsettle. In The Blair Witch Project’s deliberate ambiguity, we do feel uncomfortable. Human life is ambiguous too: we don’t always get the answers we want about why things happen to us; why fate can be cruel. And movies, through their three act structure and process of “learning,” cheat about that simple fact. Movies give us answers. They show us monsters. They resolve mysteries. We are…content.
But horror movies, especially decorum shattering ones, have no such responsibility to preserve our peace of mind. To the contrary.
So The Blair Witch Project is really about those things in our existence that, even with the best technology available, remain disturbingly opaque. We can put a boom mic on things, and point a camera at them, and still, we can’t understand them.
Information doesn’t always provide clarity. Sometimes it merely confounds and obfuscates. Thus the Blair Witch Project also concerns the way that mass media often shields viewers from reality; for better or for worse distancing us from unpleasant facts.
Late in the film, this theme is given voice. Joshua picks up Heather’s video camera and notes that the image it captures “is not quite reality.” Rather, “it’s totally like, filtered reality. You can pretend everything isn’t quite the way it is.”
He’s right. The modern audience is accustomed (nay, conditioned) to the longstanding rules of filmmaking and television production, where the rectangular (or square) frame itself is structured rigorously, and compositions of film grammar symbolize certain accessible and concrete concepts.
But life isn’t like that. Life is –at its best — disordered. It doesn’t exist within a frame; you can’t capture life’s complexities within a frame or a traditional narrative. And The Blair Witch Project, with its oft-imitated first person point-of-view and semi-improvised screenplay, reminds us of that. Like life itself, the movie is gloriously messy.
As I’ve written before, The Blair Witch Project takes a very simple Hansel and Gretel story and then re-casts it in a technological, modern culture, and suggests that these three filmmakers are lost — metaphorically and literally — because technology has failed them. They are abandoned by a culture that believes science and technology can solve any mystery and explain everything.
And the intense images in the film are but the bread crumbs for the audience to follow in vain; in a circle. Reality is elusive in those flickering pictures, and finally the only end is silence. Our last act in a technological world is turn away; to face the corner. But the camera still rolls.
You can hear more about my thoughts on this unique and controversial film on Movies Geeks United today. Check out the show.