Wednesday, August 20, 2014

you're still doing your documentary thing

Or, maybe I won’t get to found footage films just yet. There is still more to say about how The Blair Witch Project overflows its own boundaries, not just to the Dossier but to a couple other (fake) documentaries.

Before I get to them (and as the film, primary, plays on the TV), a little behind-the-scenes information:

I’ve already written about the website—blairwitch.com—at least in passing. The website was conceived along with the film; it wasn’t something added after the fact. Artisan did update the website after buying the distribution rights to the film (Owczarski, 2007; McDowell, 2001; Telotte, 2001). But the site was already there. In fact, Myrick and Sanchez conceived of the whole fake documentary setup from the beginning, when they were in film school back in 1992. Myrick explains:

The basic idea was those old documentaries; those old “In Search Of” episodes that came on in the ‘70s. We just watched those shows as kids and it really freaked us out. And so we thought it would be cool to do a modern day horror movie formatted like one of those documentary shows. (Telotte, p. 141)

Telotte argues that the combination of the website, the supplemental material and the film suggests that we “see the film not as film, but as one more artifact... which we might view in order to better understand a kind of repressed or hidden reality” (p. 35). Owczarski takes this further (though citing Telotte), saying the film is no longer “the primary site of textual meaning, the Web site* situated the film as merely an additional piece of the Blair Witch puzzle” (p. 6).

* note: Neither Telotte nor Owczarski deal particularly with supplemental material like the extra documentaries or the Dossier, only the website.

Just as Mike says in the film that he agreed to a “scouted out project,” the three actors here were participating in a well-scouted project. Myrick and Sanchez went out into the woods themselves, figured out where the actors would camp and where major scenes would be; there was a script, only without dialogue (and some details that would only come from the dialogue), and it set up the various sequences of the film, and one of those was the crossing of the log, one of those was the location for the stick figures, etc.

(I really don't know why some of the photos I take with my iPad show up upsidedown sometimes).

Myrick explains further:

All that stuff was predetermined, and we used a... little GPS handset, that allowed us to plug in these points, these coordinates, into the GPS so that we could give this hand set to the actors, and each day, give them a new set of way points so that they could rendezvous with these pre-determined points without the aid of any markers and without the aid of us. They could just literally wander as the crow flies through the woods and get to our coordinates. Their only instruction was to be there at a certain time... and as they got to one of these check points, there was a basket and a bicycle rack. They’d know they made it and they would have fresh batteries and fresh magazines for their camera and directing notes. (Telotte, p. 143)

They would find separate instructions for their characters and they would leave their footage behind for Myrick and Sanchez to see how things were going and adjust the direction accordingly so the film went along as they intended. Actually, there’s one moment in the film that I wonder if their response was to just leave it behind and not speak of it; when they are all running around in the dark, Heather sees something offscreen and screams, “Oh my God, what the fuck is that?” But, they never mention that she saw anything, and there’s no real indication otherwise that anything was out there to be seen. But, they probably couldn’t just scrap the footage because that would add to the workload.

An interesting bit here that I noticed in Telotte—though Myrick describes a basket and a bicycle rack with film canisters in it (one for each actor), Telotte asks him, “So they left their daily tapes in the bag when they moved on?” The interesting detail: recall, the premise to the film is that all of their tapes and film was found in a bag left behind after, well, they have moved on.

Myrick calls all of this “method filmmaking” which he describes when prompted:

Well, basically, it’s just an approach from both the actors’ side and the filmmaking side of reducing the process of the filmmaking technique. Basically, it’s a—when you look around you, there are no filmmakers. When you look around you, there are no crewmembers. When you look around you, there are no cameras shooting the actors; they are shooting it themselves, so the process of filmmaking is as much a character as the actors themselves, and that was what our goal was. It was not to make the actors aware of the filmmaking process around them, and then we just kind of dubbed it the method filmmaking approach. (Telotte, p. 143)

And, for the record, they knew that all of that shaky camera footage “would be taxing on the audience.” But, while their

original vision of the film was to be formatted more like one of those original documentaries, where this found footage that you see as the final product was really only intended to be several moments in the final movie, framed by interviews with parents and things like that, more like a PBS documentary. It wasn’t until the editing process that we decided to kind of jettison that original idea—just kind of go strictly with the kids’ footage. But knowing the sacrifice of that would be a lot of shaky camera and kind of some intolerable moments for those of us that are a little queasy. We figured that there was going to be a section of the audience that wasn’t going to be able to tolerate that, and that was the price we were willing to pay for the realism, you know. (Telotte, p. 144)

Of course, they did also make that documentary—it’s called Curse of the Blair Witch—and another one—The Burkittsville 7.

(There was also Shadow of the Blair Witch which apparently tied into the horrendous sequel Book of Shadows, but I can’t find a copy of that, so I probably won’t get to it this week. I will be watching Book of Shadows again and am not looking forward to it.)

Now, on to those...

First, Curse of the Blair Witch, which I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen all the way from start to finish. It aired on the Sci-Fi channel the week before the film was released (in limited release; since I live around Los Angeles, I saw the film right away; fairly sure it was opening night, or possibly at a midnight show that Thursday even). It plays quite well as a television special about some missing college students—interviews with teachers, friends, family, and even a historian (many of these same characters, if not all, are in the Dossier), plus news clips—the kind of stuff you might see on 48 Hours or whatever basic cable show does that sort of thing nowadays.

This documentary actually includes a clip from Mystic Occurrences, presumably the documentary that, in the film, one of the Burkittsville residents (the one holding the kid) says she saw once on the Discovery Channel. It’s also quoted in the Dossier.

A lot of great detail work done here, with historical artifacts and documents, including a lot that are not in the Dossier. Ultimately, this doesn’t really tell us much more than The Blair Witch Project does. It’s a great companion piece for the Dossier, though.

One detail I like in particular is one of the interviewees, Professor Charles Moorehouse (a “noted folklore expert” according to the Dossier), is kind of an idiot, a simplistic sort of contrarian (a bit of a straw man if this were a back-and-forth debate). If every detail here corroborated the story, it would be a little too clean, a little too neat. But, it isn’t. I like that.

Next, The Burkittsville 7. This one aired on Showtime if I recall correctly. I watched it the night it premiered, had it on video until sometime recently; I only just noticed this past week that that videotape was not in my boxes of tapes I’ve still got. Anyway, this documentary focuses initially on a film archivist, Chris Carrazco, who doesn’t buy the whole Blair Witch legend, thinks the various events attributed to the Blair Witch were either made up or were isolated incidents that just got tied into the ongoing legend.

The style here is different, a little more polished, more quick cuts, a little too much editing (and too much moody background music), and odd angles/images. This documentary, just like Curse of the Blair Witch uses footage of Rustin Parr confessing to the murders of those 7 children. Carrazco seems to distrust the conviction of Parr, like it was a rush to believe Rustin’s confession a little too much. Kyle Brody, the 8th captive of Parr’s, the one who survived, he was the only witness.

Like Curse of the Blair Witch using footage from Mystical Occurrences, The Burkittsville 7 has its footage from White Enamel, a documentary about mental hospitals, including the mental hospital where Kyle Brody ended up. Turns out Brody was a bit crazy—he would, for example, cut the legs off of frogs. Carrazco thinks Brody kills those 7 other children, not Parr (or rather, that Brody directed Parr).

Five minutes of Kyle Brody in this film within the film, particular a scene in which a naked Brody repeats over and over “Never given,” grabs Carrazco’s attention. Apparently, Rustin Parr chanted the same thing in his cell before he was hung. Carrazco sought unused footage from White Enamel—amusingly, White Enamel‘s director calls Carrazco a “maniac” for being obsessed with all this. Carrazco finds a scene of Brody writing in Transitus Fluvii, which he calls “the language of witchcraft.” In the Dossier, Hampshire College Linguistics Professor Peter Walling says the writing on the walls of Parr’s house at the end of The Blair Witch Project (mixed in with all those child handprints), was also Transitus Fluvii. Well, technically, it’s “A Hebraic alphabet... Transitus Fluvii... [but] some of these symbols don’t belong. They’re not Hebraic at all—they’re Futhark... runes” (Stern, pp. 137-138).

I like that this documentary actually undermines the story we have prior... like a proper sequel, adding a new element to the story so far, altering what we already know, augmenting it. It’s also interesting how this documentary relies on more “found” footage, the older documentary White Enamel, for footage dealing with Kyle Brody. And, a monologue by a film historian regarding White Enamel evokes a very real documentary (that obviously doesn’t even exist) with a very real message to it about how we deal with ugly things.

Plus, ultimately, this is about a rather arrogant guy—Carrazco—who really shouldn’t be the topic of a documentary, which actually makes it seem more real.

Works Cited

McDowell, S.D. (2001). Method Filmmaking: An Interview with Daniel Myrick, Co-Director of The Blair Witch Project. Journal of Film and Video 53:2/3. pp. 140-147.

Owczarski, K.A. (2007). The internet and Contemporary Entertainment: Rethinking the Role of the Film Text. Journal of Film and Video 59:3. pp. 3-14.

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

Telotte, J.P. (2001). The Blair Witch Project Project: Film and the Internet. Film Quarterly 54:3. pp. 32-39.

1 comment:

  1. Ahh, except White Enamel *does* exist, as an interactive web experience, created by Dan Karcher (the guy at Haxan who is behind the original blairwitch.com).

    www.whiteenamel.com

    When I say interactive, I mean it in the very best possible way. You have to navigate your way through the site by finding and clicking on various links (some of which are very well integrated). It's a pretty remarkable experience.

    ReplyDelete