When The Blair Witch Project turned out to be a smash hit, it was inevitable in this franchise-obsessed world of ours that we would soon be hearing about sequels and prequels. Made for $30,000, the film had been bought at Sundance for a cool million by Artisan Entertainment, a figure that, at the time, prompted the joke that the scariest thing about the movie was the amount of money Artisan paid for it. But the pooh-poohers were wrong: The film grossed $141 million in the summer of '99 and made the cover of Time. On the other hand, they turned out to be right: If a cheapo scam like The Blair Witch Project can command those numbers, then look out. In the high-stakes world of Hollywood hucksterism, there is nothing scarier for the movie studios than being beaten at their own game.
Artisan's much-admired and envied marketing campaign for the film, involving extensive use of the Internet and a cable documentary chronicling the movie's supposed real-life happenings, was much more original than the film itself, which, while occasionally terrifying, was undone by its motion-sickness-inducing cinematography and its screaming-meemies heroine. One wishes the witch, or whatever it was, had gotten to her a lot sooner.
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 acknowledges the bogus nature of its predecessor while creating its own bogus mind warp. Five obsessed fans of the first film, led by a local (Jeffrey Donovan) recently released from a lunatic asylum, participate in a guided tour of the same Black Hills location where the first film was shot; the quintet includes a perky Wiccan (Erica Leerhsen), a mime-white-faced Goth (Kim Director), and a grad-student couple (Tristen Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner) researching the Blair Witch phenomenon--is it truth or mass hysteria? All come to a bad end, but since the next film in the franchise is supposedly the prequel, their fate is presumably of lesser importance.
Book of Shadows does not require Dramamine to sit through, and for that it has my most grateful thanks. But why sit through it at all? The first film was marketed for the willfully gullible; even after the supposedly slaughtered protagonists turned up on David Letterman, there were still those who thought the whole thing was real.
For Book of Shadows, the target audience, besides the first film's fans, is all those pointy-headed cynics who place themselves above the fray. This selling technique is known as expanding your franchise base. Joe Berlinger, a respected documentarian making his dramatic-feature-film debut, offers up a Director's Statement in the press notes that explains, "I thought it was important to examine and comment upon the impact of the general conflation of fiction and reality that has occurred over the last decade or so." There's a sucker born every minute. (In this case, the director could be his own best sucker.) I don't think this approach will work as well as the old one, not because cynics are any less gullible than the booboisie but because this sort of thing has already been done to death by the likes of Wes Craven and David Cronenberg. The cheapo horror films from many decades past didn't have to carry all this academic baggage. Nowadays even something as crassly commercial as the sequel to Blair Witch palms itself off in postmodern doublespeak. Now, that's scary.
Bahman Ghobadi, the young Iranian whose first feature is A Time for Drunken Horses, has a marvelous eye for children's faces. He brings out not only their innocence but also their preternatural gravity. At times, you feel as if you could look into one of these faces and see the whole life that will be imprinted upon it.
Ghobadi's film takes place near the Iraq border in the remote and mountainous Kurdish region of Iran, and the harshness of existence there strips away the artifice from people's lives. Ayoub, who struggles to survive with his three sisters and two brothers, is a fiercely resilient young adolescent portrayed without sentimentality; when his ailing, dwarflike brother Madi requires an operation to survive, if only briefly, Ayoub places himself in great danger to raise the money for the surgery. He accepts the danger and its consequences matter-of-factly. His persistence in saving his siblings makes him a hero, though he would never think of himself in that way. We've become so accustomed to Hollywood portrayals of childhood, sappy with uplift and cant, that Ghobadi's view has a cauterizing effect. The heroism in this movie is fully earned.
David Gordon Green, the 25-year-old writer-director of George Washington, has a feeling for children's faces, too, and a light, lyrical, impressionist touch. Set in a rural southern town, with a mostly African-American cast of preteen nonprofessionals, George Washington has the amble of a movie that's trying to discover itself in the process of being made. George (Donald Holden), who, because of a cranial deformity, could die if his head gets wet, is the film's standard-bearer; his tart sort-of girlfriend, Nasia (Candace Evanofski), dubs him George Washington, and there's much ardor in that appellation.
He's her savior because his shining example reminds her of what her possibilities are in life. Green, with his cinematographer, Tim Orr, captures the wayward beauty and rot of the town, with its rusted-out carcasses of machinery sitting out in the tall grass like modernist sculpture. What he isn't able to do is bring his lyric impressions to a boil; or maybe he's not interested in that--he's more the simmering sort. When one of the children dies accidentally, and the rest of them must deal with the ramifications, the playing-out of the tragedy feels lackadaisical, unbuttressed. Green is so intent on not pushing the melodrama that he goes to the other extreme, into a dreamtime dreamland. George Washington is a gracious sleepwalk of a movie that could have used a firmer strut.
In Brief: Josh Aronson's Sound and Fury (at Film Forum), a documentary about two families contemplating the controversial use of cochlear implants to boost their deaf children's auditory capabilities, gets at the intense divisions within the deaf community over the ways in which their handicap is to be perceived by both the hearing and nonhearing worlds. These divisions, which run as deep as any long-standing rift between countries and can be just as hurtful, are given a fair airing.