Friday, August 22, 2014

it was like a woman

There are two things that need be covered today, and they will connect at least in part, but mostly they may up tangentially passing each other in the night. They are an old standby—feminism, sexism, gender roles, whatever you want to label it for simplicity’s sake—and something relatively (I covered, somewhat, the same area two weeks ago, while writing about The Ring Two) new—the sequel and what it does to the original.

I watched Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 last night after finishing yesterday’s entry. As it got going, I actually thought it was interesting and I wondered why I had horrible memories of watching it before. Then, it got further in, and I knew why. The movie is a mess. GoodBadFlicks makes a pretty good argument that the film should have been far better than it is; you can see his video here:

(Or click here because that video embedding doesn't seem to be working.)

The movie was supposed to be something... else, for sure. But, it probably still would not have been that good because, ultimately, whatever its form, it undermined The Blair Witch Project. As I mentioned the other day, The Burkittsville 7 also undermines The Blair Witch Project, or at least our impression of it. That short film undermines what we know, it doesn’t actually undermine The Blair Witch Project—the film—itself. I’ll explain: if we accept Carrazco’s notions about Kyle Brody, then the ending of The Blair Witch Project gets even more ambiguous because, well, if Kyle killed the other seven kids, then his story about anyone being forced to stand in the corner must be taken with a grain of salt. So then, the ending of The Blair Witch Project potentially negates Carrazco’s theory about Kyle Brody being the killer or, alternatively, The Burkittsville 7 adds, well, a very human dimension to the ending of The Blair Witch Project... but I want to talk about that tomorrow.

Long story short, The Burkittsville 7 undermines our Blair Witch Project experience in a manner that actually adds to the mystery, adds to the fun. But, Book of Shadows tells us outright that The Blair Witch Project was a hoax, but then has all new supernatural goings on, effectively negating the first film while also undermining its own first act—and that first act is actually pretty good (minus the apparently added at the last minute flashbacks to Jeffrey being in a mental hospital). There are two big problems with Book of Shadows as it exists.

1 - the movie is a convoluted mess. Full of brief flashes to violence and other acts that may or may not actually have taken place, the film tries to present a sort of idea that, as Jeffrey says at one point, video never lies but film does. The film deliberately lies to the audience, repeatedly. Aside from my personal dislike of this sort of thing (see any of my comments on the web about, say, Lost‘s “Ji Yeon” episode, for example), there’s an objective issue with dishonesty on the part of a film in that the audience cannot really trust anything it sees if, potentially, none of it is real. And, in a film that begins by telling us the previous film is not real at all, then, we’re put in a place where we cannot trust any of this to be real (The Blair Witch Project) or a reenactment of something real (Book of Shadows). Which leads me into...

2 - the movie contradicts and counteracts itself so much that, in the end, what’s real or what isn’t barely even matters. Weirdly, given the way this blog got started (i.e. with Groundhog Day), the time loop-type stuff in Book of Shadows actually is interesting. The two visits to the local convenience store including the same people doing virtually the same thing—that’s interesting. The lost time camping in the ruins of Rustin Parr’s house

(And, don’t get me started on the contradiction of Parr’s house being more ruins than it should be—the rundown but still fairly intact house at the end of The Blair Witch Project should be the very same house as the ruins in Book of Shadows. Of course, if we accept that The Blair Witch Project was an outright hoax within the universe of Book of Shadows, then this contradiction is irrelevant, but... well...

I should get out of the parenthetical, because this ties right into the second problem with Book of Shadows. The film operates under the premise that a) The Blair Witch Project was a hoax but b) the Blair Witch is an actual legend, and c) supernatural stuff regarding the witch is apparently real. The problem is that “c” contradicts “a” somewhat. The initial premise, that The Blair Witch Project has gained so many followers that they are flocking like tourists to the Black Hills of Maryland—that is a fantastic premise for a film, and easily applicable to another found footage film, except the documentarian they hired to direct didn’t want to make a found footage film.

Anyway, Parr’s house that we see in Book of Shadows, if we take everything at face value, is supposed to be a reproduction (because this film is a reenactment) of the “set” from the first film, so shouldn’t it look—I don’t know—exactly like the house from the original? And, for that matter, shouldn’t more be made of the fact that a fully grown tree has emerged in the center of these ruins that was not there—if we assume The Blair Witch Project was a hoax, and thus not filmed five years earlier—only one year earlier? It’s a mystery that gets namechecked a couple times and then forgotten, like so many of, well all of the things in Book of Shadows. And, what’s with that flash of Jeffrey being executed as if he’s on the electric chair? If it’s a flash forward to his execution because he’s found guilty of killing the people in this film, then shouldn’t the film confirm that event will happen? If it’s a flash of him as Rustin Parr, since Kim had just mentioned Parr, then he should be hanging, not being electrocuted.)

is interesting but the timecode jumping on the videos is just plain silly. Even if time was distorted, the video cameras—especially given what Jeffrey has told us about video—should record realtime... which is sort of the implication of the shot in which Erica dances around the tree naked but all we see is a blur and a flicker; she is out of sync with the video, so the video is apparently recording in real time, though events are not happening in real time... it’s confusing to write about because it just doesn’t make sense. It’s inconsistent within the film; either the video is accurate or it is not. If our experience is as jumbled as that of the characters’, well then, the movie becomes pointless because it is simply doing whatever it can to ensure that we just don’t know what is going on, what has actually happened and what has not.

The third problem with Book of Shadows is less structural, but possibly more insidious. As Powell (2001/2002) suggests, “It’s probably impossible to tell a story of witchcraft—especially one whose backstory is rooted, as this one [The Blair Witch Project but also Book of Shadows] is, in the era of the witchcraft delusions in America—without tangling with issues of woman-hating” (p. 139). Lindemann (2000) refers to our “cultural compulsion to label certain types of (usually female) deviant behaviors as witchery, a threat to social order” (p. 758). Witches, on film, end up being either negatively stereotypical female roles or they attempt to be positively stereotypical roles—the problem is, most any commercial film out of Hollywood that involves witches is going to necessarily play with broad strokes and stereotypes, rather than really get into what a Wiccan is, for example. Book of Shadows gives a us a Wiccan character (Erica) and a Goth character (Kim), but neither one gets fleshed out in anything but a stereotypical, simplistic fashion. And, ultimately, what we get is the third female, Tristen, as the possessed one (sort of), meaning at one point or another, every one of the three females is either overtly sexual, murderous or duplicitous, or all three. To be fair, both of the male characters in Book of Shadows are also murderous and duplicitous at one point or another, and Stephen is overtly sexual at least once (and right after his girlfriend has a miscarriage, no less). But, combine these things with the simplistic presentation of Wiccan, Goth and “girlfriend” and the female roles are subservient to the male roles—in American (and in American film) we tend to define people by what they do, their job. Jeffrey runs the Blair Witch Hunt tour and Stephen is an author, working on a book on the Blair Witch. But, the three women are defined in simpler terms.

Erica comes to the defense of Elly Kedward (i.e. the Blair Witch), calls her a “good witch.” (Heather feels a “kinship” with Elly, remember, as noted in her journal in the Dossier.) She describes how the people of Blair “banished” Elly by tying her to a tree in the woods, left her to die. Tristen replies, “You make her sound helpless. Can’t you witches summon powerful energy?” Skip right past the offensive nature of that question. Erics says, “We can, but we still have to eat, shit and die like the rest of you.” Beat. “We just look good doing it.” Nevermind that the only other “witch” we are offered in this film is rather, conventionally ugly, here we have Erica defined by power from Tristen, sure, but defining herself by her looks. Then, just a scene later, when the other Blair Witch tour shows up, we get Erica hitting the guy’s camera (overreacting), saying, “You scared the shit out of me.” The horribly (and unnecessarily) sexist bit here is that random guy on the other tour responds immediately, “It answered every single one of your wet dreams.” So, in the space of a few minutes, Erica has linked herself to a character we are all supposed to assume is evil (even if she may not have been prior to her banishment), defined herself by her looks, and now she is immediately objectified by a random extra who comes and goes in a matter of seconds. That’s Erica.

Erica even says what may be the dumbest line given its context—she asks Jeffrey, regarding his Blair Witch merchandise for sale, “This is what the Wiccan religion needs, more capitalism based on fear and lies. Do you really think it’s fair to exploit our culture just to sell stick-figure key chains?” She would have a great point there, except she exists in a film that is doing exactly that. The script is trying to have its cake and eat it too.

Kim is little more than a couple stereotypes. She’s the goth, so they find her in the cemetery (lying on Eileen Treacle’s grave, though no one mentions it). She is looked at as strange by the locals in the convenience store (both times). Entering the store the second time, she is hit on by no less than three guys, one referring to her as Morticia (a fairly sensual character considering she was a on a sitcom), another calling her Elvira (a character defined entirely by her gothic sensuality. Oh, and her weapon of choice when she kills Peggy, the woman at the register (who Kim has just referred to as a “bitch,” a particularly female insult (Jeffrey later refers to Kim and Erica as “two little bitches” as well)) is a nail file. And, Jeffrey treats her like a secretary, demanding she make a pot of coffee. And, bonus, she crashes the van, because she’s a bad driver... well, that one’s a stretch; she’s avoiding ghosts of the Burkittsville 7. And, the first thing Sheriff Cravens tells her at the police station is to wipe off her makeup. Her makeup is a sign of both her femininity and her gothness.

Then, there’s Tristen. She is the “girlfriend” though she does claim the research for Stephen’s book is “our” work, when he laments it as “my work” finding it shredded. She is pregnant but doesn’t want to keep the baby, for no other reason but to have her miscarry, which ultimately means nothing except to tie to her own dream about leaving a baby in a river, either to kill it or to get rid of the body. Her dream, though, is meaningless without the miscarriage and the miscarriage is meaningless without the dream. And, I guess it gives the film an excuse to have her be bedridden or walking around pale and weak for the rest of the film.

Backtracking to The Blair Witch Project, we need to look at Heather. Powell (2001/2002) tells us,

Blair Witch not only blithely ignores this dimension [the woman-hating mentioned above] of its narrative, spinning a yarn of a monstrous, supernatural feminine menace; it compounds it, intensifies it through a narrative that vilifies its principal female. If Deliverance is about masculine hubris, Blair Witch is in some respects a story of the hubris of a woman who dare to lead two (surly, complaining) men

[Heather refers to their “Boy bonding” (p. 152) and their “boy stuff” (p. 154) in her journal in the Dossier. She worries about being the “bitchy boss lady. They need to know I am in charge and that I have the ability to be so” (p. 154). ]

into the woods. It’s a story of Heather’s failure as a leader, her overestimation of her abilities. The film’s most famous (and most parodied) scene, its emotional climax, is Heather’s teary confrontation with her own helplessness, her confession of her total responsibility for the disastrous expedition, and her apology to the parents of the men whose apparent death she causes. (p. 139)

I would note that Heather’s apology is to “Mike’s mom and Josh’s mom and my mom.” She does say she loves her “mom and dad” but the apology only mentions mothers. Additionally, at the beginning of the film, Heather mentions meeting Mike’s mom, and Heather says she’s going to call her mom before the equipment check. And it is Heather’s mother who drives the investigation into the disappearance. And, Josh is thankful that his mother gave him rain gear for his birthday and he misses his mom’s mashed potatoes. These two films are full of feminine characters, but not toward much end. Tristen is a failed mother, arguably, more because she didn’t want her baby than because she lost it, but that doesn’t really mean anything.

Heather is shrill, yeah. Stephen’s joke in Book of Shadows, sitting around the campfire, goes something like this:

How many Heather Donahues does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

The answer: Just one. Except the joke is he’s shrieking when he says it, because that is all that Heather is, of course, a shrieking punchline.

Nevermind that, since the first film’s status as hoax is not presented as proven, only presumed, he may be joking about a dead girl—my daughter, who as I mentioned yesterday, did not realize The Blair Witch Project was not real, and she thought that when I would mock the characters earlier this week, I was essentially mocking dead people, and not very nicely.

But, I was talking about women. Heather, in her journal in the Dossier notes, “It never hurts to play ‘the girl’ though, either. A balance of good ol’ feminine manipulation mixed with maintaining the respect due my position should be an interesting quest” (p. 151-152). She also suggests at one point that she may “behave cuntishly” when she’s excluded because she’s the lone female on the expedition, but speaking of quests, I’m reminded of Daughton’s (1996) description of the masculine and feminine quests. I’m sure it’s not Daughton’s original concept but that’s where I take the idea from. She describes Phil Connors’ quest in Groundhog Day as a “feminine rather than a masculine quest, journeying inward in order to encounter and submit to the power of the dark goddess, rather than outward in order to master and claim some object in the external word” (p. 140). Heather Donahue’s quest in The Blair Witch Project, then, is a masculine one, even if she is ultimately seeking the feminine. She may feel a “kinship” with Elly Kedward, but her journey is not inward, at least not deliberately. She is venturing into the wilderness to, for lack of a better word, hunt a witch. Despite her feeling of kinship, I don’t get the impression that Heather thinks of the Blair Witch as a “good witch” like Erica does. Heather is a little like Rita Hanson (since I’m invoking Groundhog Day here today, already), eager to get her camera(s) out there, to find all the evidence she can, and get the story.

And, Heather does get her story. She is tenacious enough to keep filming because, she writes in her journal,

Whatever is chasing us has to be documented. I am in a situation now where I have no choice. If something is going to harm me that I can’t stab or kill and if I am defenseless in the face of it, the least I can do is capture it so that people will know it is real. (Stern, 1999, p. 164)

But, in so many other ways, she fails. Heller (2002) even suggests that the film

portray[s] female creative arrogance that seems to recognize no boundaries [and] the film highlights the feminine as the site of cultural chaos and mayhem, a suggestion relentlessly underscored by the unnerving, unstable camera work... The Blair Witch Project suggests that the ‘inroads to feminism’ lead to a deadend with no roads leading out. (p. 92)

Finally, I find it interesting that the film, after spending so much time in the rugged outdoors—in America, the land of rugged masculinity—it ends (and Heather’s failure climaxes) in a house, in a domestic location instead of a wild one. Heather and Mike go into the house together and never come back out, a marriage of sorts forever unconsummated. Hell, they make a point in Book of Shadows of wondering how two guys a girl spent that many nights together in the woods and didn’t have sex.

Works Cited

Daughton, S.M. (1996). The Spiritual Power of Repetitive Form: Steps Toward Transcendence in Groundhog Day. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 13. pp. 138-154.

Heller, D. (2002). Found Footage: Feminism Lost in Time. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 21:1. pp. 85-98.

Lindemann, M. (2000). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Witch? Queer Studies in American Literature. American Literary History 12:4. pp. 757-770.

Powell, D.R. (2001/2002). Truth or Consequences: The Blair Witch Project, Stranger with a Camera, & Regional Cultural Politics. Appalachian Journal 29:1/2. pp. 138-143.

Stern, D.A. (1999). The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier. New York: Onyx.

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