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Après Blair Witch le déluge. It’s possible that no film has ever been ranted about and speculated upon within a year of its release as much as The Blair Witch Project, even movies that have vacuumed up a lot more money and satisfied a lot more people. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is merely a windup tie-in toy to keep the brand name circulating. A year on, the first, serendipitous Rorschach test of a movie is too many things to too many people: worn-out news item, burlesque-able icon, myth well, landmark indie stat, Hollywood air-raid siren, motion-sick bad memory. Not to mention a paradigm to be exploited and trumped. What’s missing is acknowledgment of the revolution filmgoers began last summer when they opted for home-movie frenzy over The Haunting‘s nine-figure CGIs: millennial cinema not as plutocratic illusion manufacture, but unfakable, pro-am doc rock.
Too much is, apparently, not enough: The promotional addendum Curse of the Blair Witch was its own cable/video hit, spawning the Showtime special The Burkittsville 7, which elaborated on the backstory with excerpts from a Wiseman-like asylum documentary. Of course, the cataract of Internet culture incited by the films has more tributaries than any movie. Made concurrently, the hammily faked Last Broadcast got video circulation it never deserved, while imitators The St. Francisville Experiment and Incident at Haystack Landing purport to be actual ghost-hunting documents, both supported by elaborate Web sites. (The former has disappeared from Trimark’s fall schedule, and the latter, after a single local fest screening, has dropped off the radar.) Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves co-opts the handheld syntax of Blair Witch for its nonexistent movie-within-the-book, The Navidson Record (which would be nearly impossible to film believably). Because MTV’s Fear fudges the “reality” of its reality TV with music, unaccountable camera angles, teenage posturing, and editing-room chicanery, it’s been easily dismissed.
In another universe, BW2 cops a plea with a badly acted, F/X-laced teen-horror wig-out; to no one’s surprise, milking the suburban-legend macguffin was easier than reinventing, again, the experience of the horror film. As the ads for Last House on the Left used to say, it’s only a movie. After all, what made The Blair Witch Project a pop-cult shake-up wasn’t mere occultism or publicity or Goth-ism: It was the purity of its formal attack. Three people, two cameras, two mikes, a lot of darkness. Film audiences are like trial juries—we sometimes have to rely on eyewitness testimony, but the only thing that’s not suspect is what we receive as undoctored footage. It’s a secret, transgressive tradition, descended from Orson Welles’s notorious 1939 fake-news radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and extending to Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1979), in which self-shot footage of a documentary crew tortured and dismembered by an Amazonian tribe is persuasive enough to burn in the memory. In each, the calming formal undulations of entertainment gave way to the chilling grip of reality twisting out of control.
It’s primal cinema, it’s the Lumières, it’s the surprising realization that the latent faculty of film to simply record what happened might prove to be the most frightening ghost in the machine. Orthodox narrative style evolved over the first decades of the medium by virtue of its ability to provide pertinent narrative data in a predictable, reassuring fashion. Thus, ordinary movies are enjoyed in a sort of bipolar trance, attended to by your left lobe while your right lobe naps. Audiences swarmed to Blair Witch at the suggestion that they might have a genuinely dangerous time, and yet no one has bothered to notice why: its aboriginal return to film-as-sight and its nerve-racking discard of cinematic codes. When you’re watching a movie, you’re in its hands—what if those hands were unreliable, sweaty, on the verge of hysteria?
Vision itself, when it’s framed, is an anxiety factory. Try walking around someone else’s house with a camcorder pressed to your eye—because of how little the frame allows you to actually see, simply turning corners creates a feeling of doomed inadequacy that the narrative syncopation of movies has worked to nullify since The Great Train Robbery in 1903. More than any film before it, Blair Witch subverted that system and succeeded where decades of alternative films have not: in interrogating, or at least unsettling, our sense of civilized control and our social presumptions.
It’s a mother of a piano for Hollywood to catch, but heads up. Could we read the proliferation of Blair Witch cinema, as well as its sister manifestations, reality TV and Dogme 95-school moviemaking, as a breed of filmgoers’ rebellion? Have we grown sick of the usually invisible bullshit principles by which movies tell us stories? Where the not-ever-quite-real “reality” will go is impossible to guess—war-atrocity footage, snuff films, mainstreamed porn, celebrity death shows à la Timothy Leary?—but we know one thing: In the era of CGI anything-and-everything, reality is the greatest special effect.