Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Today on Movie Geeks United: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

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 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.


  1. I certainly respect and appreciate your intellectual observations on this film John. They are always impressive and interesting, but this film left me cold.

    I recall being quite excited about it following all of the hype and overblown publicity. In the end, I was horrified by the end result and my reaction to it. I felt I had truly been duped. Perhaps that is the point, but it wasn't the least bit scary and for all its influential film techniques to affect cinema since it was boring.

    But I suppose that was my reaction and my lack of appreciation for it may speak to my fairly ignorant grasp of horror.

    But the Blair Witch Project was oddly uninvolving for this cinemagoer and left me flat.

    I loved your review of Texas Chainsaw Massacre too. Now there is an influential film too, but one I really connected with. My reaction was one of complete and utter fear with its frighteningly real cinematography and its approach to the ugliness of humanity.

    Films like the original TCM and Halloween are the kinds of influential pictures I appreciate. TBWP just didn't cut the mustard for me.

    I'm probably in the minority.

    By the way, Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of those films I had on my frosty VHS tapes along with Fort Apache/ The Warriors and EFNY. All the best, SFF

  2. I've been checking out MGV audio clips and they are well worth the listen. I'm not that much of a fan for this film, but I think the discussion is always interesting. Thanks for this, John.

  3. I really enjoyed this film and found it quite fascinating..the concept, the shooting style and so on. I think I am in the minority thinking this is a great film!

  4. Hello, my friends,

    Sci-Fi Fanatic -- I love you like a brother; have no concern that you disagree with me on BWP.

    That's your right and privilege, and I'm sure you have a solid argument. Truth be told, I think you ARE in the majority on this subject. Many, many people dislike the film vehemently, and yet I still love it for what it accomplishes. I'm sort of obsessed with the movie; I could literally watch it again and again to pick up clues or come up with new theories.

    It's okay if we're so polite, I appreciate it! And heck, we agree on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- an amazing movie!

    Le0pard13: Ditto, my friend. I understand you might not like BWP, but I appreciate you taking the time to listen to Movie Geeks United. Like Sci-Fi Fanatic, you're awesome!

    Troy: Awesome x 3! :)

    Thank you for writing this, my friend! I'm glad you enjoy the film too; Like you, I truly find it fascinating in conception, approach and meaning. Alas, I do think we're in the minority on this one, buddy!


  5. Anonymous12:36 AM

    My father-in-law always described Blair Witch as "that film about trees." :)

  6. I adore The Blair Witch Project, but I can't watch it over and over like I have with, say, Halloween, Alien or Deep Red. It's not beautiful or seductive or even that much fun - I think it asks the viewer to join the three characters on a journey into sheer panic. If you step back, the film can appear stagey and limited... but let yourself slip in to those woods along with them and it is terrifying.

    I first saw BWP on UK release at a midnight showing on Halloween in a packed cinema, and it remains one of the greatest horror experiences of my life.

    One of the most remarkable legacies of the film has been the myriad tv shows that have popped up aping it. Most Haunted and the like might adopt the psychic investigator nonsense angle, but their visual language is pure Blair Witch Project.