No self-respecting cultural critic could resist a potshot at Time and Newsweek for putting The Blair Witch Project on their covers–even though it is the best movie showing at the moment. So here goes: The media are right to hype this movie, but they’re hyping it for the wrong reasons. They’re playing it as a breakthrough-in-marketing story–small-time filmmakers hit on big-time strategy–when it’s actually the oldest marketing story in the history of culture: scaring and delighting audiences and making oneself rich and famous by pushing back the boundaries of what is commonly thought of as realistic.
This would be a fairly obvious thought to have if you saw the movie, as I did, in the eastern Catskills, a few miles away from the outlandish Moorish-style mansion, called Olana, built by the richest and most famous (in his day) of the Hudson River School of painters, Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900). On the one hand, Church was as much of a marketing genius as the Blair Witch distributors are said to be. His best-known painting is a giant canvas of the Ecuadorian mountains called Heart of the Andes (1859), which he displayed as if it were a theater of the real unto itself. He had it framed by heavy curtains, surrounded by semicircular benches, and lit by gaslight, so people could sit and stare at it at night, as if in attendance at a play. He charged a quarter per visitor and handed out opera glasses or special metal tubes, so viewers could pick out this detail and that one. This was a whole new way to exhibit art, and it made him not only the most notorious artist in America–the Steven Spielberg of his generation–but also the first mere artist who could afford to build a mansion on what was then the superritzy Hudson.
The painting that makes Church worth remembering, though, came two years earlier, when he took the most overrepresented theme in American art to date, Niagara Falls, and convinced everybody they’d never seen it before. In retrospect, Church’s style doesn’t seem realistic at all, at least as we tend to mean the word today. He left out the factories and hotels that lined the banks of the tourist trap, as well as the thousands of visitors who rubbernecked there every year. But his painting felt more real than what had come before it, because it was bigger and wider and more maniacally detailed, and because every brushstroke contributed to the general sense of the water’s ferocious power as it rushed to the edge. Coming as it did not long after the invention of photography, Niagara Falls exploited that reigning convention of “the real” to communicate a sense of what lay beyond reality–the divine forces just under the surface of things, there for America to harness on its way to its Manifest Destiny.
The Blair Witch Project is more Niagara Falls than Heart of the Andes. The reason it’s so scary is that it feels so real, even though, being a work of supernaturalism, it breaks all the rules of so-called reality. The reason it feels so real is because it uses the latest signifier of realism–home video–and not just because it’s the style of the moment (the reason most music video makers employ the technique) but because it’s the best way to get across the filmmakers’ Gothic vision of the world just outside your door–the nameless evil just beyond the video camera’s little pool of light. Oddly, as visions go, it’s not depressing in the least. What’s depressing is critics who celebrate a movie like this for its commercial, rather than its aesthetic, triumphs.