10/40/70 #14: Blair Witch and House of Leaves


This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine the Blair Witch Project and compare it with the novel House of Leaves, which I sample at the 10%, 40%, and 70% marks.

The Blair Witch Project (1999, dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez)
House of Leaves (2000, Mark Danielewski)

In many ways, the Blair Witch Project and House of Leaves are flip sides of the same coin, experimental works in the guise of horror stories. If it weren’t for the fact that they were from the lowly horror genre, they might have been nominated for Big Prizes like an Oscar or a National Book Award. How many horror films have won a best picture Oscar in the last 40 years? Silence of the Lambs (1991) and…?

But that’s a whole other can of chopped up, bloody, carnivorous worms. I wanted to write about Blair Witch, but every time I think about it I also think about House of Leaves. And yet House of Leaves isn’t a movie, although Mark Danielewski’s father was a noted experimental filmmaker, and Danielewski has said that “most of the typographical setting is influenced by film.” And Blair Witch isn’t a novel, although its dual cameras suggest alternating first-person narration. Others have noted the comparison in passing, and not always kindly. Bob Wake at culturevulture wrote that “when the postmodern footnotes are stripped away, and when we look beyond the helter-skelter page layouts, House of Leaves is a shockingly pedestrian piece of writing.” But how to separate form and content? It’s akin to saying that Breathless wouldn’t be a very good movie if you took away its jump-cuts, its long takes, its hand-held camera work. Well, maybe, but then it wouldn’t be Breathless.

So I decided to apply the 10/40/70 method to the film and the book. At first, it seemed natural to treat each page of the book as a minute, so that pages 10, 40, and 70 would act as the equivalent of movie minutes. But the book is 709 pages (minutes) long, or just under 12 hours. 70 minutes barely takes you into it. So I converted 10/40/70 into percentages, and have selected 10% into the book, 40% into it, and 70%. I was curious as to whether or not looking at the book and film together this way would reveal any strange correspondences.

10 minutes:
In their hotel room after the first day of shooting, Heather (holding the Hi-8 video camera; the other camera is a 16 mm shooting black and white film with sound recorded on a separate digital audio tape recorder) asks Mike (off-screen left, laying on a bed) and Josh (pictured in the frame), “How do we feel about today, guys?”

Josh: I did learn a lot.
Heather: You learned a lot about Mary Brown?
Josh: No, I learned a lot about . . .
Heather: 16?
Josh: Just shooting out here. Shooting doc.

The frame captures Josh as he hoists his gear onto the bed, and watching the film again after several years I realized how besieged Heather is in the most basic way. She is on a journey with two men for a week, sleeping with them (platonically, the film suggests) in the same hotel room and tent, as they often gang-up on her verbally with a subtle mixture of resigned “you’re the boss, ma’am” weariness and cynicism. As the snippet of dialog above suggests, Josh and Mike are on one level simply reacting to Heather’s abundant talking and interruption, as she leaps ahead to finish their sentences for them. I remember watching this with a film class after its DVD release and there was so much unexpected hostility towards Heather — some even cheered at the end as she’s attacked and silenced, a sort of that finally shut her up moment. And yet as the 10-minute frame suggests, she is in a position of power as the de facto “director” of the film. Although both Mike and Josh do some of the filming, Heather’s camera gaze (the female gaze! Oh, Laura Mulvey!) dominates the film, as we are mostly oriented to her point of view and her narration. In this sense, Blair Witch is really not a faux documentary about a witch, but a real documentary about three people (Heather, Michael, and Joshua) pretending to be alternate versions of themselves (Heather, Mike, and Josh).

10% / page 71:
Johnny Truant narrates. “Sucking on teeth, teeth already torn from the gums.” Later in Blair Witch, Heather will find what appear to be Josh’s bloody teeth outside their tent, from which he has gone missing. And later on the page, Truant says, “I should be dead,” which, of course, the three characters in Blair Witch are: they have unwittingly made a documentary of their own final days.

40 minutes:
Because Blair Witch is narrated in the first person without any flashbacks or flash forwards, we mostly learn information at the same time as the characters do. In this shot, Heather (holding the Hi-8 camcorder) and Josh have just learned that Mike, out of frustration, has kicked their map into the creek. Lots of screaming ensues. At a canted angle: the grass and weeds, the trees, the creek, everything spilling downward from left to right. As a genre film (but isn’t every film a genre film or a hybrid of genres, and what are genres except narrative categories, and aren’t genres useful categories when it comes to marketing?) its shots are not accorded the same reverential status as, say, shaky shots in a John Cassavetes movie.

40% / page 284:
The majority of the page is blank, as blank as a movie screen, while the text at the bottom portion is right-justified. The font here is different from that at the 10% point, as we are reading Zampanò’s description of the short film the Navidson Record. The various fonts serve as a short of shorthand for cuts in movies. On this page, the blank space makes the page read faster; the blankness of the page at the 40% mark is similar to the blankness of the image at the 40-minute mark.

70 minutes:
Strange, perhaps to me only, that last week’s 10/40/70 on the Host did not yield any images of the tadpole monster (the very reason-for-being of the film) while this week’s yields what is the single most iconic image from the film, and the one that graces the cover of the DVD case. Self-shot by Heather, the image shows her, near the end of the film, confessing her wrongs and apologizing. Because it comes across as so sincere — a sort of radical Method acting that results in the withering away of acting altogether — it’s easy to laugh at the scene. But it’s a cheap laugh, the equivalent of kicking out a small fire your little nephew has just struggled to make at the campsite. Earlier in the film, Josh takes Heather’s camera from her and make this generational accusation: “It’s not the same on film, is it? I mean, you know it’s real, but it’s like looking through the lens gives you some sort of protection from what’s on the other side.”

That was in 1997, during the shooting of the film. Over a decade later, Josh’s accusation — like something Jean Baudrillard might have said — has the ring not of accusation, but of fulfillment. Heather’s apology at the 70-minute mark (“I just want to apologize to Mike’s mom, and Josh’s mom, and my mom”) is filtered through the very lens that Josh used to level his accusation.

70% / page 496:
Upon his beating to death of Gdansk Man, Truant writes: “It quickly became something else. No logic, no sense, just the deed fueling itself, burning hotter, meaner, a conflict beyond explanation.” You get the sense that the very novel is “just the deed fueling itself,” something beyond the control of its author, not because Danielewski handed over his writing instruments to his characters, the way Myrick and Sánchez handed over cameras to the actors, but because any time we sit down to string together words on the screen or the page we are already writing as a second self (very much the implied author lovingly detailed by Wayne Booth), a self who comes from us but who is not us. If the Blair Witch Project and House of Leaves exert some lasting power today — other than the power to frighten on a visceral level — maybe that power comes from a recognition that the voice we claim to be our own is not entirely our own. In the age of screens, we are haunted ever so deeply by our second self, whose traces now are everywhere.

How does it feel to hear that alien voice that is yours, out beyond page 496?

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →