The Blair Witch Project and more
The Blair Witch Project
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard, Bob Griffin, Jim King, Sandra Sanchez, Ed Swanson, Patricia Decou, Mark Mason, Jackie Hallax
(Artisan Entertainment; US theatrical: 30 Jul 1999 (General release); 1999)
Amidst all the talk it generates, we too easily forget the intense, arresting shots of The Blair Witch Project: stark sun light streaming through trees; the unreal colors of Hi-8 on rock and water; a single, stuttering light flying through the forest at night; the agonized face of a young filmmaker. Its images are immediate, vividly capturing the the sublime isolation of the fall woods. The mood of the camera is intensified by the story of young filmmakers who hope to document the reality of desire and death but find themselves and their technologies outmatched. With brisk editing between video color and 16mm black-and-white, the story takes us deeper into the woods and the terrors of trifling with the sacred. In the end, the woods and the Witch will win.
The Blair Witch Project galvanized our attention in 1999. Its charismatic and unusually raw cast were unlike the more polished and overproduced stars of that year. Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard and Michael Williams weren’t Hollywood pretty: they were real. Stumbling in the rain, shivering and crying, their charisma was undeniable. Indeed, the marketing of the film played on this, suggesting this was an actual documentary. A slew of television specials, internet websites, and books would encourage this seductive idea. Such unprecedented networked marketing succeeded in making The Blair Witch a smash, but it wouldn’t have worked without the cast and the story. Heather carries the film with her icy, piercing eyes and urgent voice. Most often she holds the camera, turning it on the men, commanding, embodying the young director fighting for her film. The misery of rain and cold and frayed nerves is evident, and something more than acting produced it as those other directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, kept the cast guessing. Their real distress is produced by hiking, sleeping in leaky tents, being harassed with eerie noises that almost exclusively makeup the soundtrack. Yet those hallmarks of cinema vérité—improvisation, sharp argument, ambient sound and the shaky camera—work because they serve the story. The film is economical, and always the scene pushes us forward for the story and our delight in imagining the worst.
Reaction to The Blair Witch seemed to mark a generational shift. Those who grew up with video cameras were haunted by these shaky, pixilated images, while the pre-video generation was unmoved and more often dismissive. Parody was everywhere, with all the late night comedians taking a shot at Heather’s tearful, nasally raw apology. Taken out of context that shot dissolved into the ridiculous, and the film seemed overwhelmed and lost in its reception. In the film, that shot works, more powerful today as we encounter it as an organic moment in the film. It is painful and riveting to watch. We are taken into a totally vulnerable moment by an actress who is brave enough to abandon vanity.
Looking back to 1999, it is hard to imagine a film that more accurately glimpsed what would ironically become the world of millennial television. At first, The Blair Witch Project seemed to signal a giddy moment of hope that filmmaking would realize the Zoetrope dream of personal films made for less that a million dollars, but such inexpensive films have not captured our imagination like The Blair Witch. Instead, it conjured exploitative small screen entertainment, and ever since the endlessly rolling videotape has subjected us to not so ordinary people fighting among themselves for far more dubious projects: The trouble, of course, is that these poorly conceived productions lack both compelling setting and story, leaving their directed-improvisations adrift. Alas, even the fates of The Blair Witch stars are one with an emerging television form, as none of them quit leaped to the Hollywood fame that seemed so inevitable. Its actors have found homes either fully behind the camera or as television series regulars.
But time is kind to this film, and as the talk, the marketing, the parody fades away, its beautiful, disturbing images are free to haunt us for years to come. David Banash
The Boondock Saints
Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus, David Della Rocco, Billy Connolly
(Indican Pictures; US theatrical: 4 Aug 1999; 1999)
Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith’s Overnight might not quite rank with Burden of Dreams, but it does serve as a vital document about the creation of Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints, one of the most beguiling cult video hits of all time. There are many backhanded superlatives one could use to frame the audacious film, but none could match the language Duffy uses throughout the making-of documentary to secure his status as a born legend. None could believe more strongly in the power of Duffy than the man himself. Overnight doesn’t fully explain how the self-described lout originally secured the rare opportunity to write, direct, and score his debut script with a healthy late 1990s Miramax budget, but Montana and Smith painstakingly follow the way in which Duffy single-handedly sets a new high bar for hubris.
Total cinematic self-immolation is rare in an industry where most everyone is terrified to burn a bridge or two. But Troy Duffy, like Rod Blagojevich in recent months, possesses a confidence that surpasses common sense and not one trace of shame. To review the troubled production history of The Boondock Saints is to predict only one possible conclusion—one of frustrated potential, wasted opportunity, and guaranteed obscurity. And yet the film has become one of the most popular home videos of the decade, long since recouping its entire production budget (and then some) and gaining a worldwide fan base. Perhaps as Duffy suggests in Overnight, he does have a few things figured out.
Riding the scuzz film wave that was spawned by the early 1990s crime film trend and crested (or bottomed out, depending on one’s perspective) with films such as Truth or Consequences, N.M. and 2 Days in the Valley, Duffy’s directorial debut brings to mind David Mamet’s comparison of filmmakers to gangsters. However, Duffy and his film take this analogy to the extreme. The plot of The Boondock Saints concerns two vigilante brothers (played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) who claim to be on a mission from God as they brutally dispatch cartoonish Boston-area mafia figures. A flamboyant FBI agent (Willem Dafoe) tracks the brothers and their crimes. The entire film is an extended riff on the combined rites of religion and violence, juxtaposed so efficiently in The Godfather and aped ever since.
Duffy says he wrote the script out of frustration with a culture indifferent to evil. While nothing within the script or its execution is especially outstanding, the subconscious world of the film is extraordinary as it aggressively engages in the double fantasy of auteurism and gangsterism. These two drives are already culturally intertwined, but Duffy’s script brazenly flexes the connection. He taps into a reflexive staginess as he unapologetically works out his own aspirations both within the film and through the film. As a result, what The Boondock Saints offers in spades is a raw supertext about the experience of making and watching a movie. Operatic violence is paired with a literal opera soundtrack. As Agent Smecker, Dafoe “blocks” the crime scenes and becomes the surrogate director. Over and over, characters respond to action and dialogue with commentary that refers to the coolness of the action and dialogue. In doing so, these characters form an audience for the very movie they’re acting out. The actors are to be commended for attempting double or triple duty as avatars in Duffy’s film fantasy camp.
In the end, ardent fans respond most to the forceful determination that surrounds the work, and Duffy’s overnight success would seem to justify such naked ambition. He might have gone down in a blaze of glory and sabotaged his standing in the industry, but to die is gain for a director/gangster intent on becoming a legend. One wonders if Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, currently in post-production, will reflect the defeat Duffy faced in being unceremoniously dismissed from Hollywood or the validation he gained by creating a film that would not die, despite the power structure’s attempt to bury it. Ten years later, The Boondock Saints is still not high art, but it is endlessly fascinating as a piece of cinematic wish fulfillment that continues to feed the fantasies of its viewers. Thomas Britt