I went to see The Blair Witch Project in the theater where it premiered, the Angelika, and left in a daze, wondering what all the fuss was about. Only later did it occur to me that the response to the film is the shadow to the public madness surrounding the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane. The movie opened July 16, the same night as Kennedy set out for Martha’s Vineyard, and, like that fateful trip, involves a party of three led by a reckless leader into the dark outdoors, and so on to death. In a way, the success of The Blair Witch Project was necessitated by the hateful carnival surrounding Kennedy’s death. Because the film’s values are everything that public orgy was not.
Those values are so disarming that they’re easy for anyone of any sophistication to miss. A cinéma vérité treatment of a search by three young filmmakers for a legend of the Maryland woods, called the Blair witch, the amateurish movie drags and drags.
Nothing much happens, and the jokes are few and far between. (My crowd laughed maybe four times.) There’s little in the way of conflict between the characters, and what conflict there is has a Method gloss to it–O.K., we are about to have some conflict. There is more real, intense feeling on MTV’s The Real World .
Despite the billing, this horror movie isn’t horrifying, either. The woods the filmmakers chose aren’t deep woods. “They couldn’t really have gotten lost,” a girl said as we exited onto Mercer Street. Right. The forest in the film is young, the land has obviously been cleared not too long ago for farming. Human settlement cannot be too far away. Anyone who has done any hiking, as Heather and Josh both seem to have done, would be able to get out of the situation in a hurry. Walk in a straight line for a couple of hours. Follow the creek down to a river or a town.
Yet The Blair Witch Project possesses one fine quality in abundance: innocence. It is thoroughly refreshing. It is built around a simple refreshing idea, and the characters are transparent and plain, even when they are trying to be guilesome. The sensibility of the movie is as unpretentious and straightforward as the jeans and flannel shirts its characters wear.
It’s this simplicity that people are responding to. They want refreshing. The culture is so logy and overpaid that it is a joy to see something work that is plain and real and amateurish and fresh and underpaid. The movie’s success reflects a groundswell determination to reward anyone who might offer a plain, even homely expression.
Time and Newsweek both put Blair Witch on the cover four weeks after it premiered and tried to argue that some calculated acts of hype had created the phenomenon. Their articles talk about Sundance, a giant team of marketers, the Internet and some cool TV shows. The New York Times also said that the Internet had been used skillfully to push the film.
But all this is a self-justifying media delusion: Something can only succeed by cagey manipulation of the media. Time even ended its timeline of the marketing of Blair Witch with the Aug. 16 Time cover–as if that were part of the plan. The cover of Time would have killed this picture. Any big hype would have killed it. There wouldn’t have been a Time cover in the first place. All the 40ish editors in the mainstream would have checked their watches–as I did–through the movie.
The media are just playing catch-up to the viewers. The response to Blair Witch is a populist response that has nothing to do with hype. People crave refreshment, they want to relish innocence and lack of sophistication.
Which is where the Kennedy carnival comes in. I have only good feeling for Kennedy, but the response to his death was the most staggeringly sick expression of orgiastic media culture ever. The misrepresentation, as brilliant or serious, of someone who had not yet achieved very much in life, and whose charm lay in his not taking anything too seriously. The solemn expressions of loss from reporters who had bumped into him once, at a party. The deification of a woman, Carolyn Bessette, who in spite of her magnificent style and bearing, was a silent presence.
It was impossible to imagine that any one of the dead would have wanted such oleaginous veneration. John might have been amused by it. But the Kennedy family was surely appalled. No, the celebration of these people was fed by one thing, the obsessive-passive-voyeuristic-masturbatory-statusy media. Do any of these reporters have a life? No. They stare at screens and live in tubes, and count their money. And, oh yes, remember the time that they shook hands with Kennedy.
I don’t think I was the only one who felt personally diminished by the carnival. It was a perversion of honor. I wondered what I was worth, in America, what I amounted to, a nobody. I kept thinking how far we were from Emersonian values, the democratic ideals that hold that the greatest meaning is an individual engaged in what interests him, without respect to conventional observance. There was something terribly antidemocratic about the Kennedy keening, a sense that anything you do doesn’t amount to anything in the eyes of the celebrity culture. Of course, people who want to do or think for themselves have always had to ignore social currents. But the relentless celebration of two charming people as royals was only hateful. It lessened the rest of us. One was left with the bitter hope that the new American culture would somehow collapse on itself, that the celebritymongers and grief-glommers would all go off a cliff.
The Blair Witch Project is that cliff. The misbegotten trio in the drama are everything the Kennedy trio were not. They’re nobodies. One actor is good-looking, the other two are plain. They are led by a dumpy woman, and their motivation in life is innocent and appealing. Kennedy’s plane cost 10 times what their whole adventure ran. Except for the fact that they smoke cigarettes, they are uncool. They are not into drugs, sex or hip youth culture. Despite their best efforts, and their creative sideburns, they are not twisted or detached or celebrity crazed. Maybe they will save us.