Film Noir

Fearflix 37

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

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Seventeen years later the story is now being continued in British cinemas. Blair Witch is not the sequel to the original film but it is the first to return to the original plot of The Blair Witch Project. The first film was made in 1999 for little money and it earned a lot. Advertising and hype played a big part.   The filmmakers created a website that pretended that the Blair Witch really did exist. A financial phenomenon was created, and in that sense the movie resembles the literary blockbuster Fifty Shades Of Grey, a book that suggests sex is much more about what our heads want rather than our bodies.

The film was conceived by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. Since The Blair Witch Project neither man has achieved cinematic success. The Blair Witch Project was their one big and original idea. Sanchez and Myrick are not the first to use tight budgetary restrictions to create something different. The idea of using supposedly rough film taken by amateurs during an investigation has now been adopted in other movies. The rough technique has been smoothed and improved and it works well in films like REC and The Troll Hunter. Arbitrary restrictions on approach and content can benefit creation, force creators to invent something fresh. Lars Von Trier may have his psychological problems but he understood. The rules he created for his Dogma movie factory were like the Ten Commandments, mainly a list of things not to do.

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Many have assumed that the absence of explicit horror in The Blair Witch Project is merely a consequence of the tight budget. No doubt the lack of money played a part but Sanchez and Myrick exploited the financial constraints to create a film that challenges what we think of as authenticity. The Blair Witch Project also debates what it is that terrifies humans. The penultimate shot is very clever and leaves the viewer with a mystery much grander and more important than whether the witch exists or not. This is because that nothing or no one in The Blair Witch Project is as important as a camera that is constantly redefining reality.

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Sanchez and Myrick made the film in an unusual way. The three actors, whose real names are used as characters in the cast credits, not only had scope to improvise but were also obliged to respond without warning to events and situations created by the filmmakers. This approach can only go so far but there was enough improvisation and genuine surprise in the process for the actors to be uncertain about what they were doing and the audience to be confused by what they were watching. Modern technology pretends that what we see is authentic. The better we pretend, the more real it might be.

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The absence of sophisticated technology in The Blair Witch Project is consistent with the doubts about authenticity. The more real it looks, the more we worry about what is being pretended. The actors in The Blair Witch Project act but not everything we see in the film is cinematic acting. The notion of authenticity is even challenged in the film by the actors. Heather is accused of not understanding the difference between performance and honest reaction and expression.   The result is we may be watching acting intended for the film, performance designed to impress the other actors or whoever happens to be around or a genuine response to external suggestions and internal ideas.   The difference between performance and honesty, and reality and invention, is a dilemma for human beings, and the modern glut of movies, books and songs that fills our brains and coexists alongside reality amplifies the confusion. The same theme is explored by independent filmmaker Monte Hellman in his classic film noir Road To Nowhere. In that film Hellman makes a film about people who are unable to see the world as anything but action on a reel of film. The work of Hellman is inspired by existential theory. The Blair Witch Project puts the theory into practice.

Confusion reigns everywhere but what is left on film is preserved. Film has an editor, and decisions can be made about how supposed reality and performance are defined and remembered. Our lives are messier, and the actors who have conviction not only prevail but also deny us the authenticity some think is our entitlement. If many are not concerned about this aspect of our lives, it is because they have become lost in their own performances.  The actors in The Blair Witch Project walked away after the filmmaking was finished. The rest of us are not as fortunate. Our imaginations and those of others will surround us all our lives.

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Reality for humans is filtered by illusion, invention and creation. Much of the illusion is soothing, especially when technology produces bright colours and dramatic sound effects. Sunshine does something similar in the daytime. Bright colours are avoided in The Blair Witch Project but, of course, this is a horror film. Horror, though, has the same problem with illusion and invention as everything else. From the darkness The Blair Witch Project poses a fundamental question and it is this, just what terrifies us?

At the beginning of the film the horror is created by oral tales. We see and hear local residents tell their version of the Blair Witch myth. Each individual adds a twist to the tale and proves that the more information they exchange the more reality is beyond the locals. Their imaginations have polluted the truth. The pollution can be as terrifying as what did happen but imagined horror also consoles. We are reassured by being here to talk about what may or may not have been invented.

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But outside playful conversations horrible things do occur. If we are fortunate, we will miss the worst. These usually happen in remote conflict. Most of us do not experience the real horror that is out there. Our fears instead are rooted in inadequate interpretations of mundane mystery. Often this mystery is inconsequential to our existence, no more than an odd noise or a blurry momentary image. We have two responses to this terror that we create from inconsequential mystery. The first is chosen by the trio in The Blair Witch Project. They pursue a myth that will stimulate their imaginations. The second option is to avoid the myths, the locales or the horror movies that encourage dark fantasies. But this second option makes us doubt our worth and courage. A safe retreat is inadequate for the human imagination.   We avoid real horror but dilute our timidity with imagined threats and we pretend that the different and inexplicable are dangerous. The imagination is at its most potent in darkness and when we feel isolated. Odd noises and poorly defined images can be claimed as the noises and movement of monsters. This happens in The Blair Witch Project but the moments when the trio experience the greatest terror are when there is nothing, no noise and no light. When a dark blank screen appears in The Blair Witch Project, the trio become hysterical. Monsters have substance. Nothing is a terrifying vacuum in which all that is possible is the torture of our imagination and confusion. More worrying is that we do not know how long nothing can endure.

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From the beginning of The Blair Witch Project the audience has a sense that the team is capable of engineering their destruction. There are no direct references to the Howard Hawks horror classic The Thing From Another World. In that film a small team accepts responsibility and the need to cooperate. Such behaviour redeems the human race. Compared to Hawksian heroes the three people in The Blair Witch Project are inadequate. In the Hawks movie the humans survive by trusting each other and acknowledging the skills and worth of other people.   Howard Hawks is proud of his American heroes. These men and woman have confidence and they are inspired by the achievements in American history. In The Blair Witch Project everyone in the team soon decides that the others are unqualified and useless. There are moments when they try to bond but these usually occur late at night or when they are tired and hungry. The tasks that they have to do to complete the project only create antagonisms within the group. The folk history of American pioneers does not give them confidence. At one point in the film the American anthem is sung but the rendition is tuneless and sarcastic.   Heather mentions America a couple of times but she describes a tamed plastic country in which adventure and risk is impossible. Heather, of course, is wrong. America may be in decline but her notion of her country is smug and biased towards contempt. The teams of Howard Hawks may have consisted of simple-minded patriots but the cynicism of Heather and her two friends is also a limit on understanding. Educated, but nowhere near as curious as they think, their imaginations are incapable of appreciating not only the American wilderness but also what is inside their heads. In most movies there would be a final revelation and important evidence but disclosure is only useful to those who know how to establish what constitutes the authentic. The camera encourages dependence from the curious, faith in an independent eye, but, like the people who carry cameras, it cannot be trusted. At the end of the film it reveals everything it can but it amounts to nothing, and that encounter is what really terrifies us.

 

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Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

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Xmas Special Film Noir –Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins

The movie, Saving Mr Banks, portrays the creator of Mary Poppins, P L Travers, as stiff-necked.  Some Americans think that if you drink tea from a cup and saucer it automatically follows.  Travers was a bohemian and a fan of the wandering hippie prototype, George Gurdjieff.  The Beatles discovered their equivalent, Mararishi Mahesh Yogi, in the late 60s.  The film, Mary Poppins, was released in 1964.  This has significance.  Mary Poppins appears and tells children and their parents that we live in a crushing conformist world.  In the decade that followed, teenagers argued that the lives of adults were unbearable.  For a brief period, people believed we were obliged to escape the demands of the money making machine.

Mary was adamant.  All we need to do is relax and laugh and we can float up to the ceiling.  Unlike Poppins and the children, the bank manager dies from laughing on the journey, presumably because desperate conformists will not be suitable for the freethinking world that is within our grasp. The wealthy will always be preoccupied with money and have to grab ‘tuppence’, every last penny.  The bank manager is called Mr Dawes but the doors he opens are traps.

The hero of Travers, Gurdjieff, describes bourgeois conformity and consciousness as ‘the waking sleep’.  At the end of the movie, when Mr Banks flies the kite, a marvellous dreamlike pun, he has escaped this waking sleep.  The family will be happy in their small island of financially secure non-conformity.

Much of the mysticism that mars the books was not included in the film.   Travers had script approval, so perhaps she had mellowed by then.  The film critic of Time magazine described the film as ‘impeccably sentimental’.   It is the hippie moments that constitute the acceptable sentimentality and, although the happy ending is not convincing, they make the film enjoyable for children.  As do the animated sequences, which allow an escape from conformity and the demands of powerful oppressors.

What is best about the film, and qualifies it as film noir, is the bleak vision of the fate that awaits ordinary man.  Travers is clear.  No one should endure what the powerful demand.  It crushes the spirit and wastes too many lives.  A similar message exists in A Christmas Carol but Dickens is too savvy to alienate his middle class readers.  Scrooge is presented as an extreme and isolated example.  Mary Poppins is bleaker because it reveals that to survive we all acquire elements of Scrooge.  Travers hated the animation sequences but raised no objections against the chimney sweeps celebrating their temporary freedom on top of the London houses that they clean.  Not only can they dance and sing, they look at St Pauls and claim its grandeur as relevant to their lives.

Travers may have created books that entertain children but she also knew how to nag and the film nags continually at the compromises we make.  The adult who watches Mary Poppins without feeling guilt or regret needs to worry.

Howard Jackson has had three books published by Red Rattle Books.  His next book, Nightmares Ahead, will be published by Red Rattle Books in Spring 2015.  If you want to read more by Howard Jackson click here.