Friday, April 15, 2016

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project
IFC viewing

I didn't believe it was real. Not completely. I remember the tremendous hype for it and I remember following it until the release, so I kind of had a pretty good idea that while they were trying to pass The Blair Witch Project off as real, I kinda knew it wasn't. But I wanted it to be real. I remember wanting to believe in it, too, because it was so completely unlike any horror movie - hell, any movie - that had come along. I mean, it made the cover of Time.

I saw it with Jenny on opening day at the Angelika. The line was HUGE. I remember seeing a display in the lobby explaining the extensive "history" of the Blair Witch, and there were people debating whether or not this whole thing was real. By opening day, people still weren't 100 percent sure.

BWP almost made Jenny nauseous with all of the scenes of running with the camera - and she is so not the type to get freaked out by a movie, any movie. But I remember her telling me afterward how uncomfortable she was with all those scenes of them running around in the woods at night. Can't say I blame her. Watching it again for the first time in years, those scenes were still a little unnerving.

BWP came out around the time that reality television was starting to take off, thanks to shows like The Real World and Survivor. At the time, I still thought it was a minor fad that would never really catch on, but in a way, BWP showed why it blew up. Heather, Mike and Josh were convincing because they really were hiking through the woods and filming themselves, but they were also improvising from within a rough outline written by directors Eduardo Sanchez & Daniel Myrick. The film-within-a-film aspect allowed them to make the movie dirt cheap. No doubt network execs found this sort of thing appealing.

And now much of network and cable television is dominated by this aesthetic, in one form or another. During my recent hospital stay, I got re-acquainted with reality TV for awhile - not by choice. The TV in my room had very limited options. I actually found myself drawn to the Animal Planet channel. There was a show about different kinds of dogs and how to distinguish them that wasn't bad. It made me think of my friend Lynn, who owns a service dog (and was actually featured on Animal Planet once).

There was another show that was not unlike BWP: these dudes go hiking not in the woods but in the mountains, in search of some kind of legendary treasure, if memory serves. I forget the title and I'm not sure what it has to do with animals. Anyway, we see footage of them climbing through caves and down rivers and over rock faces and all this stuff, and there are points where they bicker, just like the protagonists of BWP. Like The Real World and Survivor, there are also interview segments, presumably taken, after their little adventure, so we can see them provide commentary to their story. 

Like BWP, reality was manipulated to fit the design of a "storyline." For instance: will Jack and Joe make it to such-and-such a location on the mountain before the storm hits? Footage of their hike is spoon-fed to us a bit at a time and edited just so, in order to fill an hour, complete with commentary from other members of the expedition and a few "experts" for added context. While it was entertaining, to a certain degree, I couldn't help wondering how much manipulation of the actual footage - real people doing things that can't be faked, just like with BWP - was being done, like I do whenever I happen to stare at a reality TV program.

In re-watching BWP, I was aware of Heather's role as camera operator in certain emotionally charged scenes. For instance, when Mike admits to throwing the map away and Josh blames her for getting them lost in the first place, she's furious. She physically charges Josh, trying to attack him, but she's also holding the camera, and you can sort of tell that she's trying to keep him within the frame at the same time. At least, that's how it looked to me. Heather, Mike and Josh are actors within the movie, but they're also their own DPs, and in trying to balance both tasks at the same time, sometimes the "reality" of the story gets compromised.

BWP is a movie that would be difficult to pull off today, in the age of social media giving away every last secret of a movie. Plus, the ubiquity of cell phones makes it harder to get lost (Heather was right about that much when she says it's hard to get lost in America these days) - though who knows if you could get a signal that deep in the woods?

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