The Terrible, Clever Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

I’ve been prepping a course on horror films over the summer. While reading through materials on The Blair Witch Project, I decided it was time to rewatch Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. I saw this film in an actual theater in the year 2000 and could only recall 1) that it was terrible, and 2) it had aerial footage of the forest floor at the beginning and end of the film. That’s it.

Why? Because Joe Berlinger directed it. I had no idea who he was in 2000, but I now know him as the talented documentarian responsible for films like Crude, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and the three Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three. What in the world, I wondered, led Berlinger to direct this terrible film.

The answer, at least according to Berlinger’s director’s commentary, is that he imagined the studio would allow him to create “a taut psychological thriller” radically different from its predecessor. It seems obvious, though, that they hired Berlinger because he was a noted documentarian, and they imagined someone with his resume could quickly produce a film in time for a Halloween release. If it had Blair Witch in the title, then they figured it would make them some money. In essence, they wanted BWP to become something like Halloween, a monetizable franchise.

The demand for quick turnaround seems to be why they allowed Berlinger to make a film that essentially attacks the first film for the problems that it posed to documentary filmmaking. In his commentary, Berlinger struggles to be complimentary about BWP. Toward the end, he says that he thought selling the original film as a documentary was “not right,” and then describes the conflation of fact and fiction in its marketing as “evil.” That’s not what sequel directors usually say about the wildly successful film that’s the basis for their new film. But it is this problem of the indetermination of fact and fiction that Berlinger makes the thematic core of BoS, and in doing so, effectively monkeywrenches the BWP as monetizable property for Artisan.

Whether that was his intention or the outcome of the studio’s interventions in the film’s final cut is unclear. At the very least, the key conceit of Berlinger’s film would pose a significant problem for the franchise. After all, he wanted to begin BoS by discussing the success of BWP as an explicitly fictional film, and then to build a new film about the ways in which fictional representations affect the people who cannot distinguish them from reality. I’d guess the studio okayed his initial script for sheer expediency, fully intending to insist later–as they did–that he remove references to the first film being fictional.

On first viewing, the elimination of the fictionality of the BWP makes BoS incoherent. On reflection, though, the change also undermines the realist pretenses that the first film achieved through both plot and form—most especially, first person shaky cam—more than Berlinger’s initial idea. The plot in a nutshell: a BWP tour group blacks out in the woods and awakes to find themselves embroiled in either a supernatural plot or a murderous group hysteria. Berlinger uses 35mm film for character perspectives as they experience supernatural terrors, and ends the film with the surviving group members confronted by video footage that shows them committing the horrors they imagined had been perpetrated by a supernatural entity. “Someone got to the tapes!” one of the men shouts, and the film ends.

The conceit here is that, while characters in the film imagine that video can’t lie, savvy viewers know that it can. It’s no mistake that Berlinger mentions the OJ Simpson case in his commentary. This is a very ’90s documentary concern. That said, it seems unlikely that this move to create ambiguity for horror audiences would have worked for either the studio or for test audiences unless they either knew of or were Bill Nichols. Judging by the edits, it’s clear they didn’t and weren’t.

So it’s possible that the film made more sense when (or if) the film had a clearer division, narratively and formally, between fiction and fact. The final version, however, not only lacks a clear distinction between the two but has also worked overtime through its interpositions of gory cutaways and mental ward flashbacks to set up its characters as guilty and unreliable. Berlinger tells us that the studio demanded these cutaways—they wanted more gore and to heighten the villainy of one main character. (How badly did they want them? He tells us they were shot five weeks before the film’s international premiere on over 3,000 screens.) This alteration refracts fictionality across all levels of its plot and essentially monkeywrenched the BWP as a franchise.

Why? It is impossible for viewers to believe either version of the film’s events. When I left the theater in 2000, I didn’t ponder for one moment the question that Berlinger wanted me to ponder. I wasn’t wondering what had really happened to those characters. Of course, that question would have been in keeping with the first film. We don’t know what happened but we’re left to wonder. Berlinger’s plan for the sequel attempted to make audiences think about this problem from a more ethical position, one informed by his work as a documentarian.

But I didn’t think about that at all when I left the theater. What I thought was, “What a terrible film.” Where the first film threatened to break out of its narrative space, then, the sequel collapsed the myth entirely, in large part because the studio insisted that it include more gore and less uncertainty. The result is a bad fiction film.

But bad films don’t typically end franchises. That this one did—for sixteen years—is what makes it interesting.

Part of the trouble is that Berlinger seems to have wanted the film to be read in and against the grain of the documentary tradition. Fair enough. That’s what is interesting about the film, and it clearly mattered to him because of the problems to documentary ethics posed by the first film. But audiences came to this film as a horror movie. If he’d raised these concerns in an entertaining horror movie, there would be no problem. But this emphasis on documentary is what poses aesthetic and thematic problems in imagining subsequent films.

In terms of aesthetics, BoS shows that the camera eye of documentary is almost alien to horror. BWP overcame this because of its highly subjective shots. BoS avoided this approach because it seemed both a bad form of documentary aesethics and too readily parodied to Berlinger. But the horror films that he references as influences–The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby–port viewers into the hallucinations of its characters through tight focalization. The clean camera work in BoS is the hallmark of a well-shot documentary, but it is largely too detached from characters.

The best sequence in conveying a group experience is the 35mm campfire montage, which conveys a group feeling (i.e., getting wasted in the woods). The film struggles to manage this visually otherwise, in large part because it wants to give us a visualization of a group hallucination. This makes the construction of narrow focalization almost impossible. The whole film has to become a hallucination–or, what it seems at times, a parody of itself. Kubrick managed it in The Shining by making nearly every shot a creepy experience of ghostly visual floating, and Argento does it in Suspiria through similar killer camera mobility. BoS has no engagement with the camera as the perspective of a terrifying threat. It’s a medium, with all the fallibility of mediums. That empties the visual field of the fact/fiction question. It’s a question of how viewers relate to the medium.

It also matters that BoS was scripted and BWP was the result of long form improvisations carefully edited together. This conjunction of a scripted follow-up to BWP combined with the visually flatness of this fact/fiction problem make it difficult to see where one might push another film.

It also cuts at the heart of the first film. In BWP, video is medial mark of truth, and the “directors” largely abusive methods for coercing Method-style performances from their actors relied on their ability to improv. BoS unmasks that performance and the attempt to make video a medial guarantee of truth. The crucial video undermines its explanatory power: the video of their blood orgy in the woods includes footage of one of the women hiding under the rocks the video of her hiding the video under the rocks. I’d guess that Berlinger means to reference a recurrent truth problem for documentary, reenactment. (In fact, the title card tells audiences that the film is just such a reenactment.) If one wishes to believe the video, then one has to believe that she hid it twice, once for the camera, once for sure. This is Blair Witch Project as directed by Robert Flaherty. The conscious production of video in this context undermines its truth claims, and once video becomes the same space of lies and as film, the franchise is left in a truly difficult medial position. What kind of medium would be appropriate for a followup? What would carry the same claim to authenticity?

Hence a long pass of silence from the BWP franchise.

The success of the first film and the failure of the second also points to something I’d hadn’t pondered much. The wave of found footage films in horror seems not a result of BWP at all but rather of successful scripted found footage films (e.g., Cloverfield). The formula only takes off once its controllable.

On Cuarón’s Great Expectations

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I applaud everyone who has forgotten Cuarón’s 1998 remake of Dickens’s Great Expectations. It’s an offensively bad adaptation of the book, but for whatever reason, I am increasingly convinced that there’s something to be said about cultural production in the twenty-first century and the way that the film adapts Dickens’s text.

The key, to me, is how the film adapts the character of Pip to a postmodern US setting. In the novel, Pip is essentially a character without a profession. His desire to rise in status means that he leaves his apprenticeship as a blacksmith to become a gentleman, but this new status comes without profession, and he does not seek one out. Instead, Pip lives off the wealth of his unknown benefactor, lost in fantasies and mired in debt. When his expectations disappear, his adopted blacksmith father pays off his debts and he takes on the most gentlemanly but least skilled work he can find, as a clerk under his friend Herbert. What’s important here is Pip’s incapacity. It is central to his character. (Indeed, that he simply enjoys his new wealth without reflecting on the future has led biographers to connect the story with Dickens dissatisfaction with his adult children.)

The film renames Pip as Finn, and gives him artistic pretensions. His sudden rise to fame is classed, but heavily mediated through art and the art world. Thus his class ascension includes a fancy NYC art show. The film smartly situates him as an outsider artist. Handled differently, this could use the art world to represent the much more diffuse and difficult to represent realities of class in the US. One can imagine the acceptance of Finn’s work by the art world—all of which is purchased by his criminal benefactor—as variant on the rigid yet permeable Victorian class system, willing to recognize a new member only insofar as that member accepts a particular set of values and holds a certain amount of wealth. That’s not the case in the film, though. The outsider artist story becomes a means of adapting Pip’s shame of Joe, so that he at once narrates Joe out of his outsider story and is then embarrassed by his gauche appearance at the gallery opening. The fault lies with the outsider artist, not with the broader social, political, and economic milieu.

Yet this reframing of the gentlemanly-as-artist is suggestive, and I guess that’s why Cuarón’s adaptation sticks in my craw. Rather than taking this suggestive new situation and using it to explore the key thematic issue of the novel—how understands one’s position in the broader social world—the film chooses instead to insist that Finn’s new position in the world is the right position for him. Why? Because is a talented artist. This change in characterization is the film’s critical mistake. If one follows the thematic logic of Dickens’s novel, Finn should either be a terrible artist or one who wastes his talent by refusing to put in the effort of honing his craft. Were Finn even a merely passable but unimpressive artist, this thematic logic would hold. What matters is that the character needs to be in a fragile enough position that the final revelation of his criminal benefactor precipitates an all-encompassing destruction of his tissue of fantasies. After all, Pip does not get to be a fashionable gentleman at the end of the novel. He manages to land a job as a clerk and then, in the novel’s epilogue, to become a partner in his firm. He has come down in the world and is content to be respectable. In Cuarón’s film, however, Finn does not come down. Instead, he achieves further artistic success after he discovers his benefactor. Crime launches his career without scruple, and the only expectation lost is his expectation of Estella.

These shifts raise a number of intriguing critical possibilities. Is this a commentary on cultural production? Is it meant to imply that cultural production now relies on unscrupulous funding to secure positions for the economically tenuous cultural producers? And vis-à-vis Estalla, one might argue that making Finn an artist is a way to explore Estella via cinema’s scopophilia, and thus make his expectations of Estella part of her objectification by the camera. The scenes of her being sketched nude certainly offers the possibility of such an idea.

The reason I hesitate to explore these possibilities is the film’s insistence that Finn is a talented artist. That is the basis of the narrative conclusion, not the criminality of cultural production or an exploration of Estella’s experiences or thought beyond such objectification. The renaming of Pip as Finn underlines this problem. What’s the difference between a pip and a fin? Pips come in groups and you spit them out after eating the fruit. One might become a seed, but maybe not. A fin, though? The answer is embedded in the film’s production design. By relocating the initial scenes to the Florida coast and making our convict pop out of the water at Finn, the film telegraphs its meaning. A fin is a sign above the waterline of something substantial below. Making Finn an artist is thus an indicator of something more substantial underneath the apparently inconsequential signifier. It is this that makes Cuarón’s artist Finn different from Dickens’s no-occupation Pip.

This change in characterization effectively guts the meaning of the novel’s title. Pip’s great expectations are class and sex based delusions that the revelation of his benefactor shatters. The only thing below the surface with Pip is the possibility of being a better human being than the class-focused horror show that he is for most of the novel. By contrast, Finn’s talents mean that he has great expectations in and of himself that no revelation can shatter. He has no better humanity to find, no revelation of connections with others, only a sense of his own specialness. In effect, the film endorses the very adolescent fantasies that the novel skewers.

It’s this fundamental selfishness that makes the film stick with me. This deformation of the novel’s thematics is consistent with the valorization of cultural production in the 1990s: Art becomes a form of work that can move Finn out of the working class in one of the many fantasies of the petit bourgeois in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. More than that, though, the film turns the great tale of adolescent selfishness and class priggishness into its artistic defense. I guess that’s why it still gets me angry.