Saturday, 31 October 2009

Back Into the Woods: The Blair Witch Project 10 Years On

Today, Halloween 2009, marks the tenth anniversary of the original cinematic release of The Blair Witch Project. With that fresh and altered perspective, the film seems, inevitably, much less ‘new’. All those elements that received press attention at the time – its independently financed, lo-fi, and unscripted qualities – now seem less of a threat to the studio system than they did in 1999, when the film was chomping at the heels of The Phantom Menace.

Indeed, with the notable exception of its exploitation of the internet as a means of promotion, none of the film's innovations have seriously entered into the mainstream in the following decade. Here, in box-office order, are the 2000s’ 10 top-grossers:

Batman 6 (The Dark Knight)
Shrek 2
Pirates of Caribbean 2
Transformers 2
Star Wars Episode 3
Lord of the Rings 3
Spider-Man 2
The Passion of the Christ
Lord of the Rings 2

Every single one (with the very notable exception of The Passion) is part of a sequel franchise, every one the product of a major studio, all hi-fi, and ‘properly’ scripted.

But, as the years pass, the film seems less portentous of some future 'Collapse of the Industry', and more representative of the more distant past. Specifically, it hints back at the tangled history of America, and the underlying land itself.

The fictional mythology behind the film, meticulously developed, but only hinted at on screen (another example of Haxan Films’ multimedia innovation) stretches all the way back to the earliest pre-Revolutionary years of the nation. The timeline, given in books such as The Blair Witch Dossier, runs as follows:

1620 – Nathan and Virginia Blair set up an outpost in Colonial America
1776 – The Declaration of Independence signed
1785 – An old woman, Elly Kedward, accused of witchcraft, for ‘drawing blood’ from children in the town of Blair
1786 – Half of the town's children vanish, and the locals flee the town
1809 – A book published detailing the events
1824 – Burkittsville founded on the site of Blair
1825 – Eileen Treacle (10 years old) dragged into Tappy East Creek by a woman's hand. The creek is clogged with oily bundles of sticks and the water becomes unpotable.
1861-5 – The Civil War
1886 – Robin Weaver (8 years old) disappears. The search party are found tied together and disemboweled at Coffin Rock.
1941 – Rustin Parr emerges into the village, saying that he is “finally finished.” Admits killing 7 children in his house, claiming the voice of an old woman in his head commanded him to do it. His house is burnt to the ground, and he is hanged. At the end of the year, America enters WWII.
1994 – Three students enter the Black Hills surrounding Burkittsville, to shoot a documentary about the Blair Witch
1995 – A backpack full of film equipment is discovered in the forest.
1997 – The case is declared inactive, and unsolved. The Donohue family send the 19 hours of footage to Haxan Films, asking them to assemble a rough cut, to raise awareness of the events.
1999The Blair Witch Project is released.

These details, all elaborated with old manuscripts, woodcuts and photographs, are very carefully assembled. Names, while all realistic, are deliberately chosen to evoke past figures: the possessed murderer, Rustin Parr, recalls the infamous figure whose occult practices led indirectly to the collapse of Tsarist Russia. And aren’t his last words, anticipating those of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, a grim re-utterance of Christ’s “Consummatum Est”? The witch, Elly Kedward, on the other hand, is a precise anagram for Edward Kelly (1555-97), the Renaissance alchemist who claimed to communicate with hordes of angels using his own ‘Enochian’ alphabet.

Using these signposts, and others (such as situating the story in 1994, the last days of grunge, rather than in the more immediate past), the story has the uncanny sense of a half-recollected truth, an occult thread beneath the more familiar history of the past 300 years. We are glimpsing a parallel history of America: what lies beneath.

The fundamental structure of the film itself, advancing from these outside elements, is the erosion of human identity in the face of Nature. The film works, deliberately, as a modern piece of dark Romanticism, that typically American genre, recalling Melville at his most despairing, or the theological/existential terrors of Lovecraft. If Heather’s to-camera monologue suggests the Antarctic death of Robert Scott (as Roger Ebert hinted), the two dropped cameras at the end enact a shared version of the ‘dropped pen’ at the end of a piece of Gothic fiction, by Edgar Allen Poe, or the like.

The film gradually loses its three human faces in a mass of trees, water, leaves, and light. As much as Tarkovsky, Malick, Kiarostami, or Tarr, the directors are experimenting with slowing our attention to the rhythms of nature (a simple flicker of day - night - day – night), and encouraging our eyes away from the human and towards the other ‘living things’ constantly before our eyes. Like The Thin Red Line, in which our attention is pulled from a battlefield to a chick in a tree, or a curling frond of sensitive mimosa, we are gradually seeing, more and more, the sunlight winking through the trees, and the patterns and differences between the thousands of plants in the forest. The humans, it seems, are already dead.

Perhaps the major legacy of the film (in the subsequent decade, at least) has not been a reinvention of the language of the blockbuster, but of the art house. Gus Van Sant's “Death Trilogy” (Gerry 2002, Elephant 2003, Last Days 2005) marked the director's return from the mainstream (his previous three films were Good Will Hunting, Psycho and Finding Forrester) to the independent fringe. The form he used, in making this change, was deeply reminiscent of Sanchez/Myrick’s earlier film: his trilogy showed doomed Generation-X youngsters slowly surrendered to nature (Last Days), the elements (Gerry), and each other (Elephant).

Moving even beyond its subject matter, Van Sant's trilogy seemed to draw its fluid (ab)use of Time and Space from The Blair Witch Project. In all three films, scenes unfolded in an unnerving un-chronological manner, spatially wandering, as if editing circles around a moment of tragedy. In The Blair Witch Project, the characters are physically walking in extended circles – heading south all day, only to end back at the same river (much as the characters in Elephant are always drawn back to the moment of the massacre), like so many moths to bulbs. And, even while the space of The Blair Witch Project coils into itself, the filmmakers impossibly “lost in America” (a world that believes it has tamed its wildernesses beyond recognition, as Michael points out in a key scene), the same thing is happening, imperceptibly, with time itself. “It’s all around us.”

In the material surrounding the film, it is noted, disturbingly, that a search party was launched for the filmmakers after they had been in the forest for only four days (having “failed to return for classes”). Yet they wander, here, for eight days and seven nights, spiraling through the Black Hills, an area that is not, as they keep telling each other “that big”.

So, where are they? The abandoned house, into which they plunge in the film's indelible final moments, the horrible magnetic core of the horror, is the clue. It was, once, the house of the child-murderer Rustin Parr, but it no longer even existed in 1994. It had been burned down, the false newspaper reports on the website, in the TV documentary, and in the ‘Dossier’ book tell us, back in 1941. Furthermore, their film cans were actually found buried beneath the foundations; yet, as the fictional ‘Professor Mercer’ tells us, the “pilings for the house have been in the ground since before the Civil War…”

The house at the end of the film, then, which burnt down over half a century before they entered the woods, conceals their bags, impossibly, beneath 150 troubled years of American history. Like the blank hotel room at the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this house is not the simple structure that it initially appeared: it is a passageway, a path back from the modern America with which the film began (a land of marshmallows, headphones and Gilligan’s Island) to an earlier America, or, even, a continent before Columbus. A stepladder, in the end, the film reaches into a land of infinite space, of un-glimpsed and incomprehensible threat, of mile after mile of trees, water, leaves, and light.

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