Blair Witch's Corruption

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:24

    A Cinematic Wedgie "Kill it beforeit grows!" Bob Marley sang. I'm cringing at the puerile celebration ofThe Blair Witch Project. This home video by the Florida-based team Daniel Myrickand Eduardo Sanchez is the worst of this year's movie offenses so far. Callingit a "movie" is a bothersome technicality (it's been transferred tocelluloid and is being exhibited as film, okay?). But its Unsolved Mysteriespremise-pretend footage left behind from a search for the occult-makes a messof what used to be known as basic film grammar. If cinema has a language, avocabulary, an alphabet, this is nonsense. And so, of course, this "project"is being acclaimed as an esthetic breakthrough. Project? Oh, for the sanityof looking at movies as movies. Evidently a terrible thinghas happened in film culture. While the rest of the world was sleeping, pseudo-postmodernismhas taken over the souls of festival coordinators, film critics and a wholegeneration of media brats. In the desperation to claim something of their own,the makers of BWP have ignored movie history, including such point-of-viewexperiments asIntolerance, Sunset Boulevard, Chelsea Girls,Made in the U.S.A. They assert primitivism as an innovation. But this storyof three college-age film buffs-Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and JoshuaLeonard (playing themselves)-making a documentary about a (fake) local legendin the Maryland woods hasn't got the rigorous plainness of films that luxuriatein the rough surfaces and genuine perplexity of real life like Ira Sachs' TheDelta, a Ross McElwee documentary or just about any Iranian film you careto name (especially Makhmalbaf's Salaam Cinema). In old-fashioned huckstertradition, Myrick and Sanchez flaunt their oafishness as sleek, modern news.(They've already extended their inanity to an Internet website, making thisan ultimate example of the pathetic 90s need to be deluded.) Only dishonestor hopelessly ignorant people will go along with this charade. Unable to question issuesof faith or ideology in the terms of a Reinhold Neibuhr or imagery of a JohnBoorman, Myrick and Sanchez proceed with lo-fi self-assurance that could onlyresult from combined naivete and arrogance. Their horror film is based in idiotsavantry; 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 audiencewith the soggy nonsense that their lack of skill, preparedness and imagination-theirlack of skepticism-can suitably entertain others. The foolishness of every badlyacted, facetiously written, poorly photographed film you've suffered for thepast 20 years (Laws of Gravity; Man Bites Dog; Clean, Shaven;Henry Fool; L'Eau Froide; I Stand Alone) culminates in BWP'sbasic premise: Its supposedly lost footage enshrines the work habits of rankamateurs. For all Myrick and Sanchez'sappeal to contemporary film enthusiasts, their movie requires an astoundingsuspension of disbelief-gullibility strained to the point of stupidity. Don'task how the team's battery pack for lights and camera lasts so long. Don't askwho's holding the camera at any given moment of threesome crisis. Or who's turningit on-even when it's simply pointed down at the ground (80 percent of the imageryis shaky cam footage of leaves, rocks, branches). What's outside the frame isnot intimidating when what's inside is insipid. Myrick and Sanchez want audiencesto condone their cosseted notion of youthful inquiry, even though-as Heather,Michael and Joshua are portrayed-it's nothing more than a badly planned careergesture. Abjectly humorless, Myrickand Sanchez take horror movie cliches to heart. Their film (like its Internetoffshoot) fulfills a post-70s idea of movies as private fantasy rather thansocial 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 KevinSmith. Eager to join that league, their horror tale indulges wannabe-ism. Thescariest thing about the film is its insistent (implicit) indulgence of trustfundfilmmaking. The Me-Too Project. Their trio goes to the woods not for the perfectlygood horny-teen reasons inFriday the 13th or like the unsuspecting cemeteryvisitors in Night of the Living Dead. They're really longing to go Hollywoodor bust. First bust, Maryland; second bust, your pocket. The proof-as always-isin the filmmakers' moment of truth: Heather, lost, wet, frightened, humiliated,gets the camera turned on her by an angry teammate berating her ambition. Hercompetence and her moviemaking dreams attacked, Heather blubbers, "Please,it's all I have left." To hell with Heather's illusions-andMyrick and Sanchez's. Art requires honesty and a movie like this further requiresthe discipline, talent and craft to sustain a conceptual conceit. There havebeen many beautiful ones in the history of cinem -Blood of a Poet,L'Age D'Or, Citizen Kane, Singin' in the Rain, Last Yearat Marienbad, M*A*S*H, Killer of Sheep, Gertrud,Excalibur and many others, high and low. But it's not likely that Myrickand Sanchez have seen them or that they (or their enablers in the media) havelearned anything from those films. BWP simply wants in on the blockbustergame; it's a low-rent version of Die Hard, Speed, Titanicdisguising 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 sillyconcepts 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 thecritics praising BWP have seen Joel DeMott's superb 1980 Demon Lover Diary-nota faux documentary but an insightful look at the culture of pop transgressionand the working-class ambitions it cloaks. BWP hype proves audiences are moredupable than ever. You think you're losing your mind when nonsense like thisis praised. As a friend said, "If it's on the cover of the Village Voiceit must be bullshit." The critical laxity, the esthetic slovenliness, themoral dishonesty of praising BWP typifies why today's film culture is in thetoilet. These mundane acts of chicanery eventually, down the line, produce evenworse movies and dumber audiences. Periodically, there's someartifact that should get b.s. detectors clicking but that imbeciles (and hypocrites)attempt to foist upon the public as profound (The Truman Show, LeavingLas 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 metaphysicalconundrum. 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 demographicnaivete) has been so pleased, teased and congratulated of late that they'veprobably never felt the irritation of a cinematic wedgie. That's allBWPis 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 confidenceto cry "foul!" even as Myrick and Sanchez pretend to be makinga documentary using actors who don't know how to improvise (or keep a straightface); a cinematographer who never varies compositions in monotonous locations;an editor who fudges continuity. Until BWP, I hadthought the most useless drivel presented onscreen this decade was Dadetown,a completely non credible pseudo-documentary that some grownup film criticswillingly swallowed. They took its snide ridicule of small-town downsizing asa serious representation of modern American crisis. BWP continues thatidiocy, using the horror movie form to suggest levity yet seeking acclaim andserious regard. If Myrick and Sanchez want to pull the wool over the modernaudience's eyes, they lack the showmanship of Orson Welles' Martian attack for1930s 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 zealand media presumption. Those landmarks of sophistication were, themselves, tributesby 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 illusionsaloft, then deflated them to reveal how our ideas about media were tied to politicalsanctimony and credulity. The most Myrick and Sanchez reveal is how happilyunsophisticated contemporary moviegoers have become. It's like they never readNathaniel Hawthorne but got their notions of fear and anxiety from the trivialconcerns 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 avoidthe complications of naming one's fear or confronting the reality of dread.The film's deliberate lack of closure (its refusal of authorship) is actuallyan act of denial and shucked responsibility-anathema following Hawthorne's evocationof the early American psyche and what De Palma and Godard usefully illustratedabout modernist philosophical superstitions. In the remarkable 1947 melodramaThe Red House, Edward G. Robinson warned a trio of high-schoolers tostay 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' curiosityand hoked up their adventures twixt quicksand and threatening tree branchesthat they were approaching dangerous enlightenment, the prohibitive culturalaura around sex. Trepidation in The Red House was both highly wroughtand compelling because it defined the characters' prelapsarian lives. TheRed House was better on superstition by virtue of examining its culturaland psychological roots. BWP is merely a blueprint for mindless moviemakingas the prerogative of a nonthinking generation. Heroizing-indeed, martyring-theiryokel protagonists, Myrick and Sanchez flatter a careless, maladroit movie culture. Heather, Michael and Joshua are to filmmaking what the fake-rockers of SpinalTap are to Nirvana. (And think how many people still refer to SpinalTap as genuine.) All that's genuine in BWP is ineptitude. Don't justblame this on film schools but on the failed influence of the Boy Scouts ofAmerica. 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-tobut never reads it), they're utterly hopeless. It's meant to inspire fear andpity but impatience wins. A movie this fatuous creates such silly and inconsistentcontexts; 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 Electiondies 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. Clipped Film Nerd, Part Two. AlthoughTheNew York Times has declared that after digital censoring EyesWide Shut "remain[s] the same," we know from Short Cuts-thedecade's greatest movie-that certain sights are irreducible. Julianne Moore'spubic bush in Short Cuts charged up the scene of a woman's argument withher husband. Director Robert Altman made the audience complicit in their intimacy,but also in meta-cinema audacity-frankness Kubrick never quite dares in hiscinema of contemplation. Seeing nude bodies in (simulated) fornication is notessential, but the ideas triggered by such detail can't be denied. It's partof the insight and power possible in a film about human relations and eroticconsciousness. Eyes Wide Shut, censored or not, lacks them, despite Kubrick'svery serious intention (a goal ruined by the inexpressive presence of Tom Cruisein the primary role). EWS is, at last,Kubrick's Ophuls' movie-a film fearing desire's trap. But think back: Nothingof this movie's blatancy has as powerful an erotic or psychological effect asVittorio De Sica and Danielle Darrieux's close, fully clothed dance in Ophuls'The Earrings of Madame De... (or even the erotic monologues by MireilleDarc 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 havecommanded center ring of today's insipid cinema circus is proof that somethingis terribly wrong with film culture. Kubrick (apparently attempting to ensureWarner Bros.' investment) couldn't see what's wrong with Cruise. And had Kubricknever 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 thoughtof Kubrick doing innumerable takes with Cruise is hilarious. Apparently no oneon set whispered to the nerd-genius, "Stan, Tom doesn't get any better.