' Cinema Romantico

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: Into the Night (1985)

Ed Okin (Jeff Goldlbum) hates his job, his marriage is stagnant and he can’t sleep. Of course, the requisite irony is that while he can’t literally get to sleep, he can’t figuratively wake up, spiritually unable to arouse himself from the soul-crushing slumber into which he has apparently unintentionally fallen, and so if he catches a few z’s then perhaps he can rise and shine. The other irony, however, is a movie that yearns to spur its main character to life is oddly, relentlessly, agonizingly lifeless, assuming the zombie-ish air of its main character. Given that “Into the Night” stretches out across two surreal Los Angeles nights and includes all manner of outlandish encounters, it is tempting to compare John Landis’s film to the operatically madcap “After Hours.” But “Into the Night” is not operatic; it is opera as filtered through a white noise machine.


Counseled by a co-worker, played by Dan Aykroyd, foreshadowing a spate of cameos we will address momentarily, to go to Las Vegas to blow off some steam, Ed finds himself driving to LAX in the dead of the night where, as the fates dictate, a jewel smuggler named Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) winds up in his car. She is being pursued by four Iranians who want the six necessarily precious emeralds she has in her possession. It’s obvious to say that hijinks ensue, of course, but the hijinks here are as uncreative as they are strangely real, as throats are graphically slashed and walls are inundated with blood when brains are blown out for no other reason, it seems, than shock value.

Rather than train his focus on rendering the various escapades themselves as humorous, Landis is oddly committed to cameos. While I am unwilling to do the research to know for sure, it is possible that “Into the Night” has the most cameos in movie history. There are so many you quickly become inured to them. I have no idea what they are meant to convey other than, hey, John Landis got to hang out with some friends on the set. Which is completely cool, of course, because I have long championed “Ocean’s Twelve” as an example of a bunch of stars getting together on a movie set to have a good time, except that those stars genuinely look like they are having a good time. No one in “Into the Night” looks as if they are having a particularly good time. Jim Henson shows up in “Into the Night” to field a phone call and Amy Heckerling serves ice cream at a diner and David Cronenberg is Ed’s boss and so what? Are we supposed to be awed because they are Jim Henson and Amy Heckerling and David Cronenberg? What else? Anything? Nothing? Nothing.

Jeff Goldblum, of course, is best when he is allowed to operate amidst so much craziness and react to it, whether dinosaurs have run amok or aliens have invaded earth. Theoretically that’s what should be happening in “Into the Night” except that Goldblum has nothing much to react to. All the craziness around him is tamped down and un-realized. Diana’s emeralds, it turns out, come from a Persian king’s scepter but never has such a plot point been rendered so run of the mill. It’s a bad sign when the movie’s many transitional scenes, often taking place in ever changing vehicles, as Goldblum and Pfeiffer go from place to place are filled with more oomph than the sequences actually meant as the heart of the thing. The soundtrack, conjured up by Ira Newborn, unexpectedly brilliantly melds the sort of 80s smoky neon synth with the B.B. King’s Lucille, and so scenes that are basically filler become unexpectedly compelling.


The only element of “Into the Night” that can match the soundtrack is David Bowie, though, sadly, he merely turns up for two scenes as a British hitman. His devious grin alone packs more punch than all of the other cameos combined, and the little moment where he gleefully puts a gun in Ed’s mouth and then lifts the gun, prompting Ed to raise his head in unison, is just a little bit of actorly business, yes, but the kind with a purpose, giving Goldblum something to play to, that is lacking pretty much everywhere else. Bowie adds so much spice that I kept expecting his character to turn up at the refresh-the-clock-on-my-phone conclusion, hoping he would drop in from an air duct, or rise through a trap door in the floor. It’s possible that his character had been killed off in an earlier scene but I realized, frankly, I couldn’t remember. It’s also possible the movie just glossed over that plot point, and it’s also possible my eyes were just glazed over and I missed it.

“Into the Night” is so utterly hapless, and so strangely not beholden to its originating plot point of Ed needing to spiritually wake up, that I at some point I also became convinced this whole slapdash cinematic nonentity would end with Ed waking up in bed, realizing it was All Just A Dream. No such luck. If anything, Ed is probably still asleep, even now, thirty-one years later, his alarm clock failing to go off, still dreaming in 80s neon, still wishing he could be having a more lively dream.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

5 Almost Famous Roles Michael Shannon Could Have Auditioned For

In a recent interview with Vanity Fair Michael Shannon explained that he was anti-acting coach on account of a less than stellar experience he underwent with an acting coach in advance of auditioning for Cameron Crowe's seminal rock 'n' roll opus "Almost Famous." What interests me there is not the anti-acting coach stance since nearly all evidence Mr. Shannon has so far submitted would heartily suggest he does not need one, but the fact that he auditioned for a role in "Almost Famous." This got me to thinking, because of my God of course it did, about what role could Michael Shannon have auditioned for in "Almost Famous." A few possibilities:

Russell Hammond

I'm pretty sure that Michael Shannon did not audition for Russell Hammond. 2000-era Michael Shannon did not have the spot in the public eye afforded to 2016-era Michael Shannon. Nevertheless, I find it fascinating to think about Shannon taking the role of self-professed "golden god" guitar hero Russell Hammond, and not, actually, because envisioning Michael Shannon give the "I am a golden god!" speech from a fan's Wichita rooftop sorta blows my mind. No, it's because I imagine Shannon going in a different direction altogether. It's been said that Russell Hammond was based on Glenn Frey, but I imagine Michael Shannon playing Russell Hammond more like Buckethead.


Angry Promoter

Marc Maron's one scene walk off as a concert promoter who gets into a heated argument with Stillwater's manager (Noah Taylor) is pretty memorable in its own right. But even when Maron is cursing and hollering at Taylor, his voice maintains its innate level of comicality, and so it is entertaining (hugely so) more than menacing. But think if Michael Shannon was the Angry Promoter. Suddenly this scene becomes something else. Suddenly the humor is replaced by tension. Suddenly Shannon, in the middle of the scene, ditches the golf cart his character is supposed to be riding and just runs, runs like a Frankenstein monster would, and probably catches the bus, and rips it to shreds with his bare hands.


Dennis Hope

I cannot really imagine Michael Shannon playing Dennis Hope, the band's professional, money-making manager who comes aboard halfway through, if only because it's sort of impossible to imagine Michael Shannon playing a Jimmy Fallon role. And I'm not sure that Dennis Hope would have been right for someone who was not a Jimmy Fallon type since Dennis Hope is a very specific type. And so I like imagining Michael Shannon, in forced accordance with this acting coach he apparently hated, trying to squeeze a Jimmy Fallon-ish energy out of himself in that audition and failing miserably.


Darryl

Darryl is the boyfriend of William's sister, Anita, who is only glimpsed briefly near the beginning as he ferries her off to become a stewardess. But there is a famous deleted scene, one that Cameron Crowe says only failed to make the movie because he could not secure the rights to the song, and it involves William sitting his Mom, and a few of his teachers who want to encourage his Mom to let him go on the road with Stillwater, and Darryl, who is there for "moral support", to play "Stairway to Heaven" in its literal entirety to demonstrate "blazing intellectual pursuits." As they listen, Darryl struggles to restrain his inner musical spirit, lightly air drumming, and then really air drumming, and then air guitaring, induling his inner rock 'n' roller right there for all to see. And look, Jesse Caron is just fine here. But..... Imagine Michael Shannon playing a game of Guitar Hero. I imagine something close to Marty McFly going berserk at the end of his "Johnny B. Goode" cover, but more unnerving, and Cameron Crowe and Casting Director Gail Levin sitting there with their hands over their ears.


Larry Fellows

Larry Fellows, bassist of Stillwater, really does not have much to do, though he at least gets to occasionally speak, unlike the drummer, and so it retroactively would have been something else for Stillwater to have Billy Crudup, Jason Lee and Michael Shannon. But that non-existent trivia interests me less than imagining what Shannon could have done with the line "I'm just hungry, man. Let's just go out and find some barbecue or something."

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Celebration of Headphones in the Movies

There was an article (pointedly not linking) a little while back that blew up the Interwebs in which a mid-level Men’s Rights Activists explained in great detail how a Man should communicate with a Woman with whom he finds himself smitten when that Woman is in public but, alas, wearing headphones. Women, rightly, were incensed since a fleet of Romeo-less goobers telling them to take off their headphones to talk about doing the Wiota Stampede, “which is probably the toughest 10K Obstacle Course in the Midwest, though I don’t really like to brag, I just like to stay in shape”, as a means to impart their rank Alpha Dog musk is, if not the very last thing women need, among the last things women need. And while every woman in the world wearing headphones should absolutely, unquestionably be left alone, this written word garbage barge spoke to the broader Headphone Culture too. Because there is also the anti-P.C. contingent constantly whining on Twitter about how political correctness is more dangerous than nuclear fission and how safe spaces will probably, in the end, kill us all. But let me tell you, the area between your ears and your headphones is a safe space that no Men’s Right Activist, anti-P.C. chest-beater or human being period should violate.

Headphones, after all, provide oft-needed solace, from the world around you, from the world within you. Like Psalm 40:3 said, “He put a new song in my headphones.” Okay, all right, please, stop yelling at me, Psalm 40:3 did not say that, I know, and I apologize for re-arranging words in the Bible but that’s only because in Biblical times they didn’t have headphones, see. Man, if Paul had headphones he would’ve put down his quill and handed over some headphones to someone who needed some consolation and said “You gotta hear this one song – it’ll change your life, I swear” and then played “Sea Stories” by Sturgill Simpson.

I was thinking about this when Apple, those philanthropic crusaders, chose to radicalize their vaunted iPhone 7 by removing the headphone jack. When asked why they did this, Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller, who sort of resembles a dude who back in the day might have asked a comely female to take off her headphones cuz he had some truth bombs to espouse, replied “Courage”, which made me think of Nadia Comaneci wondering “if courage is just another word for desperation”, not that Apple is desperate for your bucks because they made their wireless earbuds available for $1,999 a pop in lieu of headphones. And yes, you can still use headphones with your iPhone 7 so long as you buy an adaptor which connects to a connector which attaches to an attachment which plugs into a plug-in that’s portable and costs another $450. In other words, I sense the beginning of the end of headphones, which makes me sad, so sad. But rather than stay sad, let’s celebrate by remembering the good times.

A Celebration of Headphones in the Movies


It is difficult to begin our cinematic headphones reminiscence anywhere else but “Dazed and Confused” when, after the most eventful day of his young life, Mitch Kramer lays down, slips on his headphones, cranks Foghat, closes his eyes, and uses music to drift into memories.



No director is better equipped to capture beautiful melancholy on camera than Sofia Coppola and in “Lost in Translation” she does just that with a few shots of ScarJo retreating into over-the-ear soundscapes. (See also: this blog’s banner.)



Headphones are, of course, integral to the existence of Rob Gordon in “High Fidelity”, tethering him to the music spirit world where he prefers to exist. Which is what makes the opening moments so powerful when his girlfriend Laura, about to walk out on him, unplugs his headphones with a flourish, severing that connection.



“Oh, you know, strikes and gutters, ups and downs.”



The Power of Headphones, even those rickety numbers from the Golden Age of Radio Shack, is so aptly displayed in Marty McFly suddenly becoming totally unconcerned about being late for school while filling his ears with “The Power of Love.”



My beloved electropop diva Little Boots has this fantastic track where she spins the virtues of wearing headphones to the club and it is what I thought of when I saw this blessed shot from “Begin Again”, where the headphones provide connection even as they push the rest of the mean old world away.



One of the 2.2 million reasons “Summer Rental” continues to endure in my mind is Kerri Green wearing those elephantine headphones throughout, as kids do on vacations, where even if they are having a good time, they are still convinced their parents are being a drag, and try to melodically get away from their getaway.



You can barely see it, but there, in the back of the frame, Omar Epps has his headphones plastered to his ears and is completely lost in the rhythm, oblivious to the rest of his blithering pals.  



“Music can be such a revelation / Dancing around you feel the sweet sensation”



that feeling when some moron woke you up on a Transatlantic flight while you were blissfully zoned out to Thievery Corporation



Even our elders with deadly diseases gotta close off for a little while and get their groove on. Otherwise, what’s the point?



When first we meet “A Serious Man’s” Danny in Hebrew school, he is having his earphones, piping in Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” confiscated. Later, when he finally confronts imposing Senior Rabbi Marshak, the Rabbi returns Danny’s radio, and does so by quoting “Somebody to Love.” “When the truth is found to be lies. And all the hope within you dies. Then what?” What indeed? “A Serious Man” has a lot of thoughts on the matter. Maybe you do too. I’ll just be like my boy Danny and meet this “Then what?” impending storm by just putting on my earphones. Whattup, existensial crisis?


    
You didn’t think I’d forget, did you? This one is dedicated to all the anti-emotionalists fronting so hard in their Twitter profile pics.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Complete Unknown

“Complete Unknown” is something of a conundrum, a movie that seeks to know a woman (Rachel Weisz) we can’t really know because her life’s work as a serial identity changer has been all about being someone else. If that sounds like an opaque experience, well, exactly, because Weisz’s character is deliberately written as someone withholding her real self from everyone around her, even when she ends up in the presence of someone who knows her way from back when. She is not changing identities because she’s running from the law, or because some nefarious character is after her, or even because, like The Great Gatsby himself, it is the means to a particular end. No, she simply likes sliding into other lives. And if “Complete Unknown” never gets to the bottom of exactly who she is, that is because she will not allow it to. If you are the kind of viewer who fancies movies and their characters as puzzles to solve, suffice to say this one might leave you feeling frustrated. I rather fancied it.


After a crisply editing opening sequence, in which see this mystery woman cycle through various personas, from a trauma doctor to a magician’s assistant, we settle into the present, where, going by the name Alice, she has returned from Tasmania having done research on a new frog species, which she uses to essentially engineer a romantic meeting with Clyde (Michael Chernus), some sort of vaguely defined government official. And Weisz plays this sequence like she played her character in “Confidence” running a con on a portly banking vice president, smiling too widely, laughing too hard at Clyde’s bad jokes. Clyde is smitten, of course, inviting her along to the birthday party of his semi-tightly wound associate Tom (Michael Shannon), whose wife Ramina (Azita Ghanizada) has just announced that she has been accepted into a California school. If this feels conspicuously like a story turn meant to set up a Decision That Will Have To Be Made, well, Shannon still plays the moments with an effectively unfair resentment. His character has just had a breakthrough at work and so how can he be expected to adjust for her?

The ensuing birthday party is an electrifying sequence as Weisz allows Alice to wring immense pleasure in owning the room, wrapping everyone around her finger. Everyone, that is, except for Tom, of whom Alice steals telling little side-eyed glances, while he can barely mask a gruff awkwardness around her that suggests all is not as it seems. Eventually, in a moment alone, the truth emerges – they had an affair 15 years early, when she was “Jenny”. What transpires then, as Tom is suddenly forced to confront this person from his past who is masquerading as someone else, becomes an all night walk and talk, where she tries to impart the virtues of her strange existence.

This is evoked best in a sequence with an old married couple (Kathy Bates and Danny Glover) whom our central couple meets by chance. If the genesis of the scene feels forced, the interaction comes across natural and delightful, as Alice, or Jenny, or whoever, forces Tom into a role-playing exercise where he masquerades as a doctor. If Shannon purposely refuses to allow his character’s innate disposition to change in these moments, he still conveys in his matter-of-fact willingness to go along with the charade, that yes, maybe acting like someone else can be a kick, and dammit.


And as the evening progresses, the film’s focus moves just as much from “Alice” to Tom, a character whose introductory scenes about firing off emails regarding “fall grazing trends” do not factor into the plot in any substantial way other than to make our eyes and his eyes glaze over. After all, he admits his entire job basically boils down to sending emails, what fun, and while in that moment we are expressly made to understand his unhappiness with his place in life, Shannon has already allowed that sort of gloom to seep into his performance, where he looks at Weisz’s character with as much envy as incredulousness for what she has done. Could he do it too, you see him wondering in those twitchy eyes, and walk out of his current life?

It’s tempting. In one deft sequence Alice, or Jenny, or whoever, takes Tom to her research lab to hear the songs of the frogs she has been researching, signaling how Alice’s persona alterations are not merely about throwing away a previous life when she is worn out with it, but to explore new possibilities. In the flashes of being other people, Weisz is not so much crafting an entirely new character each time as conveying the palpable joy of her character sinking into a whole other existence. You see this best in her turn as a magician’s assistant, where she enters a box and drops through a trap door. She then waits, listening for the crowd’s applause post-trick, and when she hears it, a smile spreads across her face. God, it feels so good to disappear.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Indignation

That Winesburg College, the principal setting of “Indignation”, adapted by director James Schamus from Philip Roth’s novel, is fictional comes across entirely apropos. After all, this film is set in 1950s America, an era that very much looks a particular way – that is smiles, suburbia, religious piety, and conservatism – through the prism of time. And through this film’s unrelenting formal precision, so precise even costumes match the wallpaper, where you can imagine Schamus and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt waiting for just the right light to twinkle through the campus trees, where even a flashback to the Korean War feels conspicuously airless, that particular portrait is crystallized. This is not to say that Schamus buys into it, of course. He does not so much shatter that image of the 1950s as simply allow pockets of resentment and unhappiness to burble up from below, always threatening to burst.


As “Indignation” opens, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) has come to Winesburg from New Jersey on account of being an exceptional student, but also to avoid fighting in the Korean War, where so many boys in his New Jersey hometown have gone to die, the ravages of his which his parents (Danny Burstein and Linda Edmond) seek to protect him at all costs. As such, Marcus maintains strict focus on his studies, ignoring overtures from a Jewish fraternity and shunning his roommates. Yet the film also uncovers how this single-mindedness stems just as much from Marcus’s own self-seriousness and satisfaction. Lerman plays straight to the latter with the haughty air of a freshman convinced he has already figured everything out, committed to a worldview that isn’t so much his own as worldviews borrowed from philosophical texts.

This worldview, such as turning up his nose at required chapel service given his preferred atheism, puts him directly in the sights of Dean Cauldwell (Tracy Letts). The Dean easily could have become a caricature, but Letts outfits him with a kind of arrogant amusement, as if he’s seen a number of Marcus’s in his time and can’t wait to let this kid’s own sense of self-worth dig his grave. This is seen in the film’s most mesmerizing sequence, a philosophical tete-a-tete between the two in which the Dean wants to ensure Marcus is fitting in, which is to say he wants Marcus to adhere to the proper beliefs, spiritual and otherwise. If Letts plays it like he’s about to burst into a grin, Lerman lets his character’s unhinged indignation arise. Essentially these are two know-it-all’s throwing down. It ends with Marcus throwing up, purportedly on account of appendicitis though you could have fooled me; it’s definitive proof that academia should be standardly equipped with vomit bags.

Though Dean Cauldwell and his rigid conditions eventually doom Marcus, the insistent freshman’s path of slow burning destruction is set in motion by Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), with whom Marcus becomes smitten one day in the library where she has draped her leg over the chair. It’s the one moment where I’d wished for Schamus to really lay it on thick, to really dial up Marcus’s sudden infatuation in the film’s aesthetic, carnal athenaeum knowledge. Alas, it’s not to be. But maybe I’m wrong, because if everything about Marcus is buttoned up, maybe his erotic fantasies would be buttoned up too. After all, upon commencing a relationship, one that begins with sexual pleasure in the front seat of a car and then graduates to even more public places, the love scenes are conveyed dispassionately, almost clinically, akin to the rest of stodgy aesthetic.


Marcus, who knows so much, knows nothing about sex and it terrifies him. This is why he pushes Olivia away. Still, even as he pushes her away, she keeps returning to his thoughts anyway, even after his mom shows up in the wake of his appendicitis, gets one look at Olivia and her scar and tells her son to send this girl packing. And, of course, the emergent irony is that for someone who refuses to be told by anyone else what to do, when his mom, who turns up in the wake of her son’s appendicitis, gets one look at the scar on Sarah’s arm and tells her son to stay away, he does exactly what mother demands.

We never really get to know Olivia outside of a few broad signifiers, and why would we? We are not hearing this story from point of view, but that of Marcus. And he see her as everyone else sees her – that is, a slut. Harsh word, yes, but Gadon carves out something else, allowing her rigid mannerisms that are almost always set to burst to convey a repressed attitude where she struggles to express what she really feels. Her being forced to stifle by what she supposes society wants, and probably does, is just as self-defeating as Marcus pushing her away, pushing everyone away, closing off, shutting down, diving into this studies rather than diving into himself. And so the real indignation here, the one that eventually does everyone in, is a frenzied unwillingness to let it all out.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday's Old Fashioned: Casual Sex? (1988)

(I understand critical tradition – or: law – does not dictate opening one’s review with a parenthetical tangent but hey, here we are. And the esteemed critic Wesley Morris once said on his ex-Grantland podcast how he sometimes enjoyed feeling out his warmth or resistance to a movie by seeing if he could recall the names of a movie’s main characters without visiting IMDb. In that spirit, I tried, really, really tried, to remember the names of the main characters played by Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson in “Casual Sex?” without visiting IMDb. But, I could not. I just.........could not. We continue.)


There is a scene in Geneviève Robert’s “Casual Sex?” when Stacy (Lea Thompson), unabashed celebrator of the titular activity (sans question mark), visits a doctor’s office to confirm her health. She wants to confirm her health because of the headline on the Time Magazine in which her face is buried while she sits in the doctor’s waiting room. It is the famous Time Magazine cover of the mid-80s that some of you may recall, referring to “the growing threat” of AIDS, a legitimate real world concern. But before Stacy could conceivably have had time to finish the article, she is already tossing the magazine away when her doctor appears to advise her that everything is okay. She doesn't have AIDS. Phew! In other words, this national crisis relates only to her, no one else, and matters only in how it relates to her sex life, which she now plans to rein in to find Mr. Right because apparently even with AIDS swirling about all it takes to be happy is Mr. Right.

The film at least opens on a promising note, on a blackened stage, a nod to its theatrical roots, where Stacy and her best friend for life Melissa (Victoria Jackson) discuss the eruption of the AIDS crisis, and their feelings toward it, and then their feelings toward promiscuous sex. It’s an intriguing moment. After all, you hear the movie’s title, you see its poster, and you immediately think of a maddeningly puerile romp. But to hear them in this moment, looking right at the camera, right at us, and the confessional tone it strikes suggest a film suggests a film willing to mix it up with mature themes.

Quickly that’s lost, however, when the answer to promiscuity is apparently to visit Oasis, a health resort spa, like if this was “Couples Retreat” but you went to get coupled off. To reach Oasis, Stacy and Melissa excitedly pile into Stacy’s car as the movie’s unofficial Buster Poindexter theme song wallops away on the soundtrack, only to have the car – uh oh! – go belly up, prompting a transition from the car to the bus. Here, readers, is where we glimpse the kind of comedy that will follow – spit takes, health drinks that DON'T TASTE GOOD, falling into pools at inopportune moments, and smoke pouring from a car’s engine. This is monotonously derivative stuff. If “Casual Sex?” wants to abandon any pretense of seriousness to be funny, fine, but then, like, you know, be funny, and this movie mainly traffics in diluted sitcom material that only the sub-hacks would have thought amusing in moments of 4 AM and we-haven’t-written-anything desperation.


Melissa finds Mr. Right right away, Jamie (Jerry Levine), a spa employee. If there are rules and regs about employees dating customers, this is never addressed, but whatever. What is more interesting is how obvious it is from their first introduction that these two are meant to be together, and that it all boils down to self-defeating Melissa finding the wherewithal to know it. Stacy, on the other hand, cycles through a couple guys, from a devastatingly handsome idiot to The Vin Man, played by an obligatorily obnoxious yet strangely sweet Andrew Dice Clay. And if the first guy is revealed to be an idiot, maybe the second guy will not be as idiotic as he seems, while in all this hoopla to couple off, the societal consternation about AIDS will be forgotten.

That is the most damning detail about “Casual Sex?”, how it initially yearns to proffer commentary and then forgets all about it amidst the sun, water and health drinks of Oasis. That name, in fact, Oasis becomes more emblematic than even the movie itself could have imagined. Here the answer to a health crisis is not to confront it directly, but to escape to a non-existent paradise, where the health crisis hardly even seems to exist, where every worry the characters initially cop to becomes a mirage, where if at first you don’t succeed at monogamy, you don’t have to worry about trying again.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Some Drivel On...The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch of “The Blair Witch Project” is a spook that got inside the head of a guy who said the witch commanded him to take six kids to his house in the woods and murder them. This is how a few locals in and around Burkitsville, Maryland, who are interviewed by three kids, Heather, Mike and Josh who are making a documentary about The Blair Witch, explain it anyway. The story they tell is inherently terrifying, but it’s been blunted with the passage of time. The murders happened half a century ago. The witch hailed from the 18th century. This means they have passed into folklore. They are half-remembered, told cheekily. A couple fishermen Heather interviews briefly debate the Witch’s merit, wondering if it even happened. After all, it becomes hard for people to take something like it seriously because time wipes away so much.


Time was the ally and is the enemy of “The Blair Witch Project.” It was released in 1999, a pre Y2K-world where information was not quite so over-accessible. Its makers, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, used this to their advantage. They filmed it in a documentary style, pitched it as authentic, making the jumping off point that the entire movie was found footage, tapes discovered in the woods of these three kids who went off to film a documentary about the Blair Witch and disappeared. Sanchez and Myrick backed this up by creating a web site and paying the actors to keep on the down low in the run up to its release, as if they weren’t really out there, as if they had disappeared. Wesley Morris is among the critics who have copped to not really knowing the truth when they went to see it, a critic’s blessing. By the time I got around to it, at the point of its official release, the cat was out of the bag. Then more time passed, of course, and found footage films became the norm for horror and shaky cam became de rigueur and the Internet became so prevalent that the “Blair Witch’s” pre-movie secrets now seem quaint. In all that there seemed to emerge the idea that “Blair Witch” only got by on its gimmick, which never felt right to me.

It is, to this very day, the scariest movie I have ever seen. And when I say it was the scariest movie I have ever seen, I want to make clear that I already knew it wasn’t true and that it not being true did not matter one single iota. Lord help me, it felt as real as anything I’d ever seen. I had nightmares. And I had nightmares, I think, because “The Blair Witch Project” isn’t so much shock and awe as an insidious burrowing into your brain. It’s not so much about scares as it is about slowly settling fear, the way you dismiss it initially, this idea of a Blair Witch, which is similar to the way in which Heather, Mike and Josh dismiss it, and the way locals who have heard the story so many times dismiss it, because you know it can’t really be real. And even when weird things start happening, it’s easy to brush aside, until you can’t brush them aside any longer, at which point fear has overtaken you without you even realizing it. What you do or don’t believe at that point is immaterial; “it’s” got you. In that way, the pre-movie ad campaign, stoking rumors of “Is this real?” underscored that very idea.

As with so many things, the passage of time has blunted the initial phenomenon of “Blair Witch.” Now, with the release of a third sequel, which did its best to ape the original’s obfuscated ad campaign by acting as a different movie until it premiered, at which point it revealed its real title, so many remembrance pieces have cropped up, measuring “Blair Witch’s” impact, talking about its influence, dissecting its marketing. Its inherent nature as a horror movie almost seems beside the point. Its scare tactics of sticks tied together and stick figures hanging from trees are laughed off. Yet the people laughing them off then start to sound like chest-puffers who don’t think much of haunted houses. They start to sound like the one fisherman in “The Blair Witch Project” who doesn’t think much of the Blair Witch legend. And you realize that’s where we are, seventeen years later, the original sensation that was this movie having transitioned into something approaching folklore, where those of us who lived it gather those who did not around the campire and do our best explain that yes, this cheap-looking little movie really did terrify us. “The Blair Witch Project” is no pre-millennium marketing myth, not to us; to us, it’s still real.