A Cinematic Wedgie
“Kill it before it grows!” Bob Marley sang. I’m cringing at the puerile celebration of The Blair Witch Project. This home video by the Florida-based team Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez is the worst of this year’s movie offenses so far. Calling it a “movie” is a bothersome technicality (it’s been transferred to celluloid and is being exhibited as film, okay?). But its Unsolved Mysteries premise—pretend footage left behind from a search for the occult—makes a mess of what used to be known as basic film grammar. If cinema has a language, a vocabulary, an alphabet, this is nonsense. And so, of course, this “project” is being acclaimed as an esthetic breakthrough. Project? Oh, for the sanity of looking at movies as movies.
Evidently a terrible thing has happened in film culture. While the rest of the world was sleeping, pseudo-postmodernism has taken over the souls of festival coordinators, film critics and a whole generation of media brats. In the desperation to claim something of their own, the makers of BWP have ignored movie history, including such point-of-view experiments as Intolerance, Sunset Boulevard, Chelsea Girls, Made in the U.S.A. They assert primitivism as an innovation. But this story of three college-age film buffs—Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard (playing themselves)—making a documentary about a (fake) local legend in the Maryland woods hasn’t got the rigorous plainness of films that luxuriate in the rough surfaces and genuine perplexity of real life like Ira Sachs’ The Delta, a Ross McElwee documentary or just about any Iranian film you care to name (especially Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema). In old-fashioned huckster tradition, Myrick and Sanchez flaunt their oafishness as sleek, modern news. (They’ve already extended their inanity to an Internet website, making this an ultimate example of the pathetic 90s need to be deluded.) Only dishonest or hopelessly ignorant people will go along with this charade.
Unable to question issues of faith or ideology in the terms of a Reinhold Neibuhr or imagery of a John Boorman, Myrick and Sanchez proceed with lo-fi self-assurance that could only result from combined naivete and arrogance. Their horror film is based in idiot savantry; the schlock gimmicks of excitation (spooky noises, unseen threats) only a moron would want to claim as original. If it’s not a generational trend, it’s an essential fault of this uninformed era. Based on disrespect for the cultural past, or for logic, BWP flatters today’s indie-film audience with the soggy nonsense that their lack of skill, preparedness and imagination—their lack of skepticism—can suitably entertain others. The foolishness of every badly acted, facetiously written, poorly photographed film you’ve suffered for the past 20 years (Laws of Gravity; Man Bites Dog; Clean, Shaven; Henry Fool; L’Eau Froide; I Stand Alone) culminates in BWP‘s basic premise: Its supposedly lost footage enshrines the work habits of rank amateurs.
For all Myrick and Sanchez’s appeal to contemporary film enthusiasts, their movie requires an astounding suspension of disbelief—gullibility strained to the point of stupidity. Don’t ask how the team’s battery pack for lights and camera lasts so long. Don’t ask who’s holding the camera at any given moment of threesome crisis. Or who’s turning it on—even when it’s simply pointed down at the ground (80 percent of the imagery is shaky cam footage of leaves, rocks, branches). What’s outside the frame is not intimidating when what’s inside is insipid. Myrick and Sanchez want audiences to condone their cosseted notion of youthful inquiry, even though—as Heather, Michael and Joshua are portrayed—it’s nothing more than a badly planned career gesture.
Abjectly humorless, Myrick and Sanchez take horror movie cliches to heart. Their film (like its Internet offshoot) fulfills a post-70s idea of movies as private fantasy rather than social or cultural tool. Myrick and Sanchez fetishize the careers of such quasi-professional, up-from-the-ranks film geeks as Robert Rodriquez, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. Eager to join that league, their horror tale indulges wannabe-ism. The scariest thing about the film is its insistent (implicit) indulgence of trustfund filmmaking. The Me-Too Project. Their trio goes to the woods not for the perfectly good horny-teen reasons in Friday the 13th or like the unsuspecting cemetery visitors in Night of the Living Dead. They’re really longing to go Hollywood or bust. First bust, Maryland; second bust, your pocket. The proof—as always—is in the filmmakers’ moment of truth: Heather, lost, wet, frightened, humiliated, gets the camera turned on her by an angry teammate berating her ambition. Her competence and her moviemaking dreams attacked, Heather blubbers, “Please, it’s all I have left.”
To hell with Heather’s illusions—and Myrick and Sanchez’s. Art requires honesty and a movie like this further requires the discipline, talent and craft to sustain a conceptual conceit. There have been many beautiful ones in the history of cinem —Blood of a Poet, L’Age D’Or, Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, Last Year at Marienbad, M*A*S*H, Killer of Sheep, Gertrud, Excalibur and many others, high and low. But it’s not likely that Myrick and Sanchez have seen them or that they (or their enablers in the media) have learned anything from those films. BWP simply wants in on the blockbuster game; it’s a low-rent version of Die Hard, Speed, Titanic disguising its corruption in rags.
Here is the slippery slope. When critics support tripe like BWP it’s one of the little digs at civility, sophistication, truth, that kill movie culture by approving and ratifying silly concepts and technical ineptitude. Middle-aged critics do it in order to seem hip or, simply, wishing their fatuousness to be accepted. I’ll bet none of the critics praising BWP have seen Joel DeMott’s superb 1980 Demon Lover Diary—not a faux documentary but an insightful look at the culture of pop transgression and the working-class ambitions it cloaks. BWP hype proves audiences are more dupable than ever. You think you’re losing your mind when nonsense like this is praised. As a friend said, “If it’s on the cover of the Village Voice it must be bullshit.” The critical laxity, the esthetic slovenliness, the moral dishonesty of praising BWP typifies why today’s film culture is in the toilet. These mundane acts of chicanery eventually, down the line, produce even worse movies and dumber audiences.
Periodically, there’s some artifact that should get b.s. detectors clicking but that imbeciles (and hypocrites) attempt to foist upon the public as profound (The Truman Show, Leaving Las Vegas, anything by Neil LaBute). But BWP signifies a special millennial variety of con. Along with a debased notion of suspended disbelief, BWP is selling sham esthetics—distorting cinematic realism as a metaphysical conundrum. Hear the carny barker: We got ya John Carpenter wannabes here! We got ya wet-behind-the-ears cinephiles! We got ya scary-unknown life metaphor! We got ya post-college-minimum-wage blues! We got ya student loan ghosts!
Today’s youth movie market (including adult professionals who keep their jobs by catering to demographic naivete) has been so pleased, teased and congratulated of late that they’ve probably never felt the irritation of a cinematic wedgie. That’s all BWP is and the skepticism that rises up one’s craw ought to make viewers angry. Yet, a hundred years into moviegoing, audiences no longer have the confidence to cry “foul!” even as Myrick and Sanchez pretend to be making a documentary using actors who don’t know how to improvise (or keep a straight face); a cinematographer who never varies compositions in monotonous locations; an editor who fudges continuity.
Until BWP, I had thought the most useless drivel presented onscreen this decade was Dadetown, a completely non credible pseudo-documentary that some grownup film critics willingly swallowed. They took its snide ridicule of small-town downsizing as a serious representation of modern American crisis. BWP continues that idiocy, using the horror movie form to suggest levity yet seeking acclaim and serious regard. If Myrick and Sanchez want to pull the wool over the modern audience’s eyes, they lack the showmanship of Orson Welles’ Martian attack for 1930s radio and the political purpose of Brian De Palma’s “Be Black Baby” sequence in Hi, Mom!, a two-pronged satire of late-60s political zeal and media presumption. Those landmarks of sophistication were, themselves, tributes by Welles and De Palma to their audiences’ intelligence. The camera placement and editing in Hi, Mom! shifted point of view from tv-network style, to home-movie style, to revolutionary live-theater style. De Palma kept illusions aloft, then deflated them to reveal how our ideas about media were tied to political sanctimony and credulity. The most Myrick and Sanchez reveal is how happily unsophisticated contemporary moviegoers have become.
It’s like they never read Nathaniel Hawthorne but got their notions of fear and anxiety from the trivial concerns of indie success. That’s why the expedition is headed by a female: to mulct p.c. fashion. That’s why the title object remains unspecified, to avoid the complications of naming one’s fear or confronting the reality of dread. The film’s deliberate lack of closure (its refusal of authorship) is actually an act of denial and shucked responsibility—anathema following Hawthorne’s evocation of the early American psyche and what De Palma and Godard usefully illustrated about modernist philosophical superstitions.
In the remarkable 1947 melodrama The Red House, Edward G. Robinson warned a trio of high-schoolers to stay out of the woods and away from the “haunted” mansion at its heart. It was clear from the way director Delmer Daves weighted the teens’ curiosity and hoked up their adventures twixt quicksand and threatening tree branches that they were approaching dangerous enlightenment, the prohibitive cultural aura around sex. Trepidation in The Red House was both highly wrought and compelling because it defined the characters’ prelapsarian lives. The Red House was better on superstition by virtue of examining its cultural and psychological roots. BWP is merely a blueprint for mindless moviemaking as the prerogative of a nonthinking generation.
Heroizing—indeed, martyring—their yokel protagonists, Myrick and Sanchez flatter a careless, maladroit movie culture. Heather, Michael and Joshua are to filmmaking what the fake-rockers of Spinal Tap are to Nirvana. (And think how many people still refer to Spinal Tap as genuine.) All that’s genuine in BWP is ineptitude. Don’t just blame this on film schools but on the failed influence of the Boy Scouts of America. The three morons get lost in the woods because they can’t create a trail, build a fire or follow a river. Unable to read a map (they lose it), or a compass (they keep it but don’t use it) or a book (Heather buys a how-to but never reads it), they’re utterly hopeless. It’s meant to inspire fear and pity but impatience wins. A movie this fatuous creates such silly and inconsistent contexts; it makes you think bad thoughts like: Never go camping with girls, never believe the buzz at Sundance or never trust any filmmaker under 30.
As the revelatory Election dies on the vine, BWP is being feted as zeitgeist-movie-of-the-month. Its dumbfounding praise will haunt us. After this, filmmakers nursing original, sensible projects won’t even get the encouragement to dare.
Film Nerd, Part Two. Although TheNew York Times has declared that after digital censoring Eyes Wide Shut “remain[s] the same,” we know from Short Cuts—the decade’s greatest movie—that certain sights are irreducible. Julianne Moore’s pubic bush in Short Cuts charged up the scene of a woman’s argument with her husband. Director Robert Altman made the audience complicit in their intimacy, but also in meta-cinema audacity—frankness Kubrick never quite dares in his cinema of contemplation. Seeing nude bodies in (simulated) fornication is not essential, but the ideas triggered by such detail can’t be denied. It’s part of the insight and power possible in a film about human relations and erotic consciousness. Eyes Wide Shut, censored or not, lacks them, despite Kubrick’s very serious intention (a goal ruined by the inexpressive presence of Tom Cruise in the primary role).
EWS is, at last, Kubrick’s Ophuls’ movie—a film fearing desire’s trap. But think back: Nothing of this movie’s blatancy has as powerful an erotic or psychological effect as Vittorio De Sica and Danielle Darrieux’s close, fully clothed dance in Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame De… (or even the erotic monologues by Mireille Darc in Godard’s Weekend and Bibi Andersson in Bergman’s Persona). An Ophuls movie without terror isn’t a movie at all. It’s simply, tediously, an artwork.
That Tom Cruise could have commanded center ring of today’s insipid cinema circus is proof that something is terribly wrong with film culture. Kubrick (apparently attempting to ensure Warner Bros.’ investment) couldn’t see what’s wrong with Cruise. And had Kubrick never seen Short Cuts! Last Tango in Paris! Or a Madonna video! (Kidman watches tv clips of Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love, a wack irony.) The movie is so ponderous you can’t help but question its premise. And the thought of Kubrick doing innumerable takes with Cruise is hilarious. Apparently no one on set whispered to the nerd-genius, “Stan, Tom doesn’t get any better.