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Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Myrick’

(Part 33 of an ongoing series)

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There’s no excuses, Paul. No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse. No one has ever faced a black screen that says: “Well, if we had these set of circumstances, we would’ve shot this scene… so please forgive us and use your imagination.” I’ve been to the movies hundreds of times. That’s never occurred.

Mark Borchardt

I can’t stress enough how thrilling it was to be a freshman film student in the fall of 1999. In the spring of that year, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Matrix: terrified by the idea that we might be unwittingly imprisoned in an artificial reality controlled by hostile machines, and delighted by the idea that we could shatter the boundaries of cinema just like the Wachowskis  (at least if we were lucky enough to get our paws on some big-studio blockbuster money). Then in the summer of ’99, most of us aspiring movie-makers had been terrified and delighted by The Blair Witch Project: terrified by the idea that America’s Middle-Of-Nowhere was truly haunted by devious demonic forces, and delighted by the idea that hey, maybe we could make our own boffo blockbusters with little more than chump change and a few brilliant ideas, just like Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick.

Then there was Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie, which delighted and terrified us aspiring movie-makers in a different way: delighted us with the addled antics of aspiring movie-maker Mark Borchardt, and terrified us with the implication that for most of us, our cinematic endeavors would actually go a little something like this.

Granted, movie-making has become considerably easier since the late ’90s, with the proliferation of digital cameras and the internet, but the message still rings true: you’ve gotta be a fool to try and make it in this business- or any artistic field, for that matter. 

One of the most insightful things about American Movie is its subtitle, “The Making Of Northwestern.” Northwestern is a feature film that Borchardt sets out to make, a personal, dramatic film based on the experiences of his young adulthood. Yet very early on, the documentary’s focus shifts away from that passion project and toward the making of Coven, a short horror film that Borchardt decides he must finish in order to do Northwestern. After all, aren’t most of us with artsy-fartsy dreams perpetually making a Coven in order to make a Northwestern? Or, as Borchardt’s girlfriend Joan puts it: “He wants to be somewhere where he’s not. But then, don’t most people want to be somewhere where they’re not?”

Yes, American Movie milks a lot of laughter from Borchardt’s foibles and failures, but it doesn’t come off as mean-spirited or condescending. The film not only has deep affection for Borchardt, it seems to have great admiration for him too. So what if after 15-plus years, Northwestern is still “in production” (according to Wikipedia)? By the end of American Movie, the dude finished Coven and eventually outsold his goal of 3,000 copies at $14.95, even if he had to literally clean up other people’s shit to do it. In a way, that’s more inspiring than The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project combined.

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(Part 7 Of An Ongoing Series)

It’s very hard to get lost in America these days.  It’s even harder to stay lost.  So, we have that on our side…

Heather Donahue (Heather Donahue)

In the introduction to A Treasury Of American Horror Stories, the editors cite the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke Colony settlers as evidence that “American history began with a touch of horror, a red thread stitching through its colorful fabric.”  Fitting, then, that The Blair Witch Project, pound-for-pound one of the most powerful American horror movies ever, extracts so much of its power from the idea of getting lost in the wilderness, and not knowing just what the hell is out there.

We all know that Heather, Mike, and Joshua are doomed the minute they set out for those haunted Maryland woodlands.  Naturally, they don’t know that- not at first.  Only after Mike admits he deliberately kicked their map into a creek do the characters’ previously-subdued fears and tensions come snarling out of their cages.  (I almost get the feeling he’s not rebelling against Heather’s incompetence as much as he’s subconsciously realizing they’re helpless to escape the Blair Witch.)  It’s one of the movie’s most unsettling moments, especially since it’s one of the few scenes where the witch isn’t the monster.  Once we hear the sick desperation in Mike’s laugh (around 1:40 in the video below), we know for a bloody fact that these poor kids have crossed the Rubicon.

Of course, there are so many other extraordinary scares in this movie.  If you’ve paid attention to pop culture since 1999, no doubt you’ve seen those scares referenced and parodied beyond death.  The rocks, the stick figures, Heather’s final monologue (“I’m scared to close my eyes…I’m scared to open them“).  Watching The Blair Witch Project in 2012, however, I was kind of amazed at how well it holds up. Despite how familiar it all is, it still creeps me the crap out.

A big part of that has to do with how authentic it feels.  The premise is so brilliantly simple, and the actors are so uncannily natural- from the stars down to the local townsfolk they interview- that I almost can’t believe it’s fake.  The number of “found footage” horror films has mushroomed since 1999, but few of those films suspend disbelief as effortlessly as The Blair Witch Project.  (A bit of serendipity helps, too.  I love when, around 1:51 below, the scared child tries to stop her mom from talking.  I’d bet big money that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were high-fiving each other after they got that shot.)

The Blair Witch Project is so much more than a mere timeless, ingenious horror flick, which is what makes it so 1999.  It was one end of a spectrum that exploded what movies could do.  Over on the end with all the big Hollywood blockbuster money we had The Matrix, Fight Club, and Three Kings.  Meanwhile, The Blair Witch Project redefined how much could be done with (relatively) nothing.  Freshman film-school brats like me debated the movie’s scariness a lot in the fall of 1999.  Yet even the ones who proclaimed it was shit compared to Cannibal Holocaust must have, deep deep down, wished they thought of The Blair Witch Project first.

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