The blockbuster season, which began with May’s stories of vast crowds and huge profits for the new Star Wars film, has now hit its August peak. And what do we hear? Stories of vast crowds and huge profits–for The Blair Witch Project. Nowadays, when the naked emperor parades, blue jeans are as proper as ermine robes.
On a recent Monday, I scored a rare ticket to The Blair Witch Project and squeezed into a theater that was thrillingly jammed–at 10:30 pm–with the young and multi-hued. All had heard that Blair Witch was scary. The more credulous may also have taken at face value the film’s premise, which had been circulated (as if true) on the Internet: We were about to watch the raw footage left behind by three student filmmakers who disappeared in the Maryland woods while shooting a documentary about local legends of witchcraft. Those addicted to entertainment “news” knew that the real filmmakers are named Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez and that they shot this fiction on a reported budget of $60,000.
The picture started. Latecomers stopped pacing the aisles and settled into the neck-ache seats. On the screen three “student filmmakers” wandered about in the woods while in the audience a couple thousand moviegoers echoed the characters’ main question: Why did we come here?
It turned out that Blair Witch offered a few laughs, one or two moments of shock and a hell of a lot of point-of-view footage–all of it expressionistically shaky and much of it nocturnal, with the average shot consisting of a floodlight’s circle scanning a tangle of tree branches. “What happened? What happened?” the woman behind me kept asking her date. Had she put the question to me, I’d have said we’d been told, at tedious length, never to let a woman head a film crew. I could take away no other thought from Blair Witch, a fable about the disaster that ensued when “Heather Donahue” (impressively played by Heather Donahue) got to boss around her fellow film students. The guys even allowed her to read the map. No wonder they came to grief.
With “girls are trouble” as its sole idea–and the pushing of the audience’s buttons its only goal–The Blair Witch Project brings to a new low the current meaning of independence in American film, even as it brings to a new cinematic high the American myth of the Big Score. Yes, George Lucas (an independent producer-director) is making a bundle on his new Star Wars. But Myrick and Sánchez have famously outdone him. Their film grossed more than $55 million in its first weeks in release, yielding a return on investment of 45,833 percent! This isn’t a movie–it’s an item of business news, about one of those gazillionaire-producing Internet stocks.
Fortunately, the summer has also brought a corrective in the form of Bowfinger, which gives you a more down-to-earth view of movie finance. According to its title character–a would-be filmmaker who’s the goyish, West Coast cousin of Mel Brooks’s producers–the budget of Blair Witch is nothing special. In fact, after you’ve accounted for the usual millions in front-end back-end deferred whozimawhatzis, all movies, all of them, are made for $2,184, cash.
It would take Steve Martin to convince you that such a statement might be true. And as it happens, by a lucky coincidence, Martin wrote Bowfinger and plays the lead. His absolute sincerity brings home the moral of the story: that in Hollywood, the improbable (not to mention the totally untrue) often turns out to be fact.
For example: When Bowfinger wants someone to perform a low-budget (and therefore life-threatening) feat for his cameras–dashing across eight lanes of freeway traffic–he assures the poor shnook that the cars are all operated by stunt drivers. This is a double joke. The butt of the first half is Jiff (Eddie Murphy), who lets himself believe Bowfinger’s patent lie and then has to flex every part of his body, including the ears, to survive his little assignment. The butt of the second half is you. Once you ask how the director of Bowfinger, Frank Oz, got that shot of Eddie Murphy hopping across the road, you realize he must have used stunt drivers.
But then, no one in or around this movie can distinguish truth from lies–especially not Kit Ramsey (also Eddie Murphy), Hollywood’s biggest action-movie star. Having proven himself a fool by claiming that the world is a white man’s conspiracy, Kit soon falls victim to a conspiracy engineered by Bowfinger, who is (to all appearances) a white man. It seems Bowfinger wants to make a film with Kit, and the best way to do so on a cash budget of $2,184 is to follow him around with a hidden camera and a cast of affordable actors, who walk up at opportune moments and say their lines. Already loose on his hinges, Kit falls right off the frame–not least because Bowfinger’s actors tend to behave like Norma Desmond starring in The Seagull (Christine Baranski) or a Transylvanian-Irish go-go dancer (Heather Graham). If it’s true that Hollywood’s winners make their money by drawing the audience into a delusion, then we may say that Bowfinger and his pals succeed by driving a star crazy.
It’s a happy thought–which is to say that with Bowfinger, this summer’s movie fun (as long-deferred as a screenwriter’s paycheck) at last begins. That’s the good news. The better news is that the mental independence embodied in Bowfinger has shown up in other films as well, sometimes arriving from the unlikeliest sources.
Mystery Men, directed by Kinka Usher from a script by Neil Cuthbert (which in turn is based on a comic book by Bob Burden), combines all the elements that critics love to bemoan as the Death of Cinema. You’ve got elaborate and expensive sets (by Kirk M. Petruccelli), computer-generated special effects, cartoonlike violence, wafer-thin characters and at least a dozen fart jokes. However: Universal Pictures might have assembled the stars for this project by having a casting director poke a broomstick under Christina Ricci’s bed. I have no other explanation of how the company put Hank Azaria, William H. Macy, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Reubens, Tom Waits, Wes Studi, Eddie Izzard, Louise Lasser and a silly kid named Kel Mitchell into an umpty-million-dollar movie. (Only Greg Kinnear fulfills the movie image of normality, and for this presumption he gets charbroiled.) The story, should you care, concerns a bunch of badly self-deluded people who think they can be comic-book superheroes with nifty outfits and strange powers. The moral (a far better one than you get from Blair Witch): Ordinary people are superheroes, too, because they keep the world going.
Two stunningly ordinary people turn out to be the heroes of Dick, a movie that markets itself as a seventies-nostalgia teen comedy but turns out to be political satire. The premise: Deep Throat, the tattler who helped bring down Richard Nixon (Dan Hedaya), was a couple of high school kids (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) who’d been serving as White House dog-walkers. Going against everything Hollywood believes about demographics, Dick fearlessly assumes the audience knows about events of twenty-five years ago. You simply don’t get the jokes unless you can identify G. Gordon Liddy, Bob Haldeman, the eighteen-and-a-half-minute tape gap and CREEP. This pleasant surprise was directed and co-written by Andrew Fleming. If you think he chose too safe a subject for satire, you should also weigh the contribution of co-screenwriter Sheryl Longin, who presumably was responsible for the trickier material in Dick: affectionate but clear-eyed observations of the behavior of teenage girls.
What happens when a girl grows up, grows embittered and finds no relief in Manhattan for her rage against men’s faithlessness? Maybe her emotions manifest themselves, many miles away, as a thirty-foot-long crocodile. This seems to be the premise of Lake Placid, the first motion picture written by David E. Kelley, creator of TV’s Ally McBeal. Bridget Fonda plays the Ally surrogate, a heartsick paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, who is called to Maine to help investigate a chomping. Who will snap more dangerously: the crocodile or the woman driven to sarcasm? Cheap, slapdash and thoroughly entertaining, Lake Placid offers not only gory, cartoonlike violence and rollicking flights of verbal abuse but also a force-of-nature performance by Oliver Platt (as a professor of mythology, no less). Under Steve Miner’s direction, it even has patches of the near-lost art of film sequences: linked shots, in which one event leads to another. They’ll still be effective when you finally see them, on video.
Which brings us to the defining motion-picture experience of summer 1999: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. It took two movie studios, a cable channel and one big-name Hollywood producer to bring out this animated feature, which was made by a couple of independents (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and looks like it was assembled with scissors and glue. I would have felt like an idiot, spending $9.50 a ticket to watch such a thing, except that I laughed nonstop for ninety minutes and intermittently for a week afterward.
At a moment when opinionmongers fret over the supposed raunchiness of American Pie–a movie packed with so many moral lessons it could be taught in high school health classes–the adventurous grammar-school characters of South Park pose the key question: What are you afraid of? Pictures made with scissors and glue? Rude noises? Morphemes that turn into babble after the thousandth repetition? The scariest aspect of American culture might be our willingness to be scared.
Or maybe it’s our affection for big musical numbers. South Park has several, and they’re more chilling than anything in The Blair Witch Project, not to mention funnier and more thought-provoking. Wise (or at least wise-assed) about everything from pop culture to male sexual ignorance, from the demonization of Saddam Hussein to the digestive problems of fifth-graders, South Park is the film against which all others this summer must be measured.
Get used to it.