The Blair Witch Project – Masters of the Internet Age

Another Blair Witch movie! Who would have thought? Cash-in! we cry. Not another ‘fake presented as real’ malarkey! we holler. Nothing original these days, we sniff. While that may be true, let’s think about the original for a second.

The Blair Witch Project was a game-changer. Not necessarily in its format – ‘found footage’ narratives have been floating around since the 70s, with Cannibal Holocaust and all the other video nasties. However, what set the film apart from its predecessors was how it created a mythical hype at a time when easy access to information was starting to boom.

When I saw the original film, I was only fourteen years old. Back then, the internet was still finding its feet. All I knew about the movie was contained in a little promotional booklet full of clippings that detailed the film’s legend. ‘Googling’ wasn’t a thing, and nor was jumping over to IMDB to get all your answers. Come to think of it, at that time we didn’t even have an internet connection at home. Dial up, anyone?

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Fingers crossed every time.

The ambiguity was a huge part of the appeal. I was also impressionable enough to think/hope there was some truth to it. While a little bit of common sense told me that in all likelihood the actors were not dead, there was still a twinge of doubt. Did these events happen on some level, but were exaggerated for the movie? Was the Blair Witch folklore itself actually known in its locality?

Of course, it wasn’t. The success of The Blair Witch Project was mainly due to its ambiguous marketing – the tie-in website was not presented as a movie website at all, but rather a collection of anecdotes, evidence, and spooky stills from the silent woods. Big deal, we might say. That’s nothing new. Yes – but remember, back in 1999, the internet was still experimenting. It was new.

Given how big a role the internet plays in our lives today, it’s strange to know that it hasn’t always been there.  There was a time when if we wanted to learn more, we had to buy magazines, listen to radio and watch TV interviews. We really had to work for our information. Now we have RottenTomatoes, Wikipedia, IMDB, blog posts, podcasts, and fansites everywhere. With everything available in a few clicks, the excitement just isn’t the same.

Creating myth as reality for promotional purposes is ubiquitous today. One recent example? The Jurassic World website. Look at the detail. Look at how much effort has gone into creating the illusion that yes, we can go to a dinosaur theme park. Look at the park cams, and the map detailing the restaurants. We can even view the restaurant menus.  We can check how crowded the rides are, or read up on the company’s investors. Hell, we can even apply for a job with them.

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We all want to go.

Presenting illusion as fact is now a given in movie marketing. But let’s not forget its pioneers.

 

 

Lake Swimming in Berlin

My love affair with Germany began when I was about twelve. As is often the case with most young people, I hated everything about school. The only class I liked was Art, because we were allowed to plug our music in and create youthfully pretentious masterpieces while being serenaded by The Offspring.

In accordance with all English secondary schools, we also had to be put through French. I hated French from the very first minute. I hated struggling through the pronunciation, the useless, silent sounds, and the awful textbooks. However, in our second year, we were required to take another language. In contrast to French, German was a dream. There was logic in the grammar. It was easier to remember. The pronunciation was titter-inducing, and in comparison to French, relatively fun.

That is not to say I was any good, or that I even enjoyed it. German, like any other subject, was mostly a necessary evil. However, there were moments. While learning about the seasons, I remember the teacher (I disliked her immensely, but I can’t remember why) wrote a bonus sentence on the board for us to translate – “Im Winter trage Ich meine neue Jacke.” I was the only one in the class who knew what it meant. I was a genius! Granted, the school would be shut down years later for underperformance and below-average grades, but in that moment, I felt like I was on the right track.

I was fifteen when I had my next German moment of enlightenment. By then I had joined the masses of British kids seeking individuality – basically, hanging out with the goths and grungers. This was 2001, and emos as we know them today hadn’t been invented yet. We just wore embarrassing black shit and drank cheap cider in parks. Like thousands of other young individuals across the country, we also read Kerrang! Magazine. We would spend hours gawping at pictures of black-clad musicians, deciding whose looks to copy so that we could express our individuality more effectively. I can only recall a few of these bands’ names now, but I do know I had to force myself to listen to most of their horrible songs.

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Being authentic was hard.

Kerrang! also occasionally included free DVDs and music CD samples so that we cretins could decide what to be obsessed with next. On one of these DVDs was a music video by Rammstein, the likes of which I had never seen or heard before. The video was a dark reenactment of Snow White, and six big men were the dwarves. The music was metal, yes, but it had a rhythmic, almost machine-like precision in its execution, occasionally dipping into electronics and wistful opera. And the lyrics were unashamedly all in German.

My fascination quickly became an obsession. The band conjured up images of unabashed masculinity, in deep contrast to my friends’ interest in the effeminate likes of Placebo and Queen. The lead singer, Till Lindemann, was brutishly male, large, muscled, and burly, with a snarling roll to his R’s that only his native tongue could allow. He swung from soft crooning to a deep baritone. He quickly replaced all my other favourite famous people. I saw the group live (twice in fact), and felt the heat on my face from the stupendous onstage pyrotechnics. I used fansites to piece together some background information on the band’s GDR history (Wikipedia was still in its early days then). German classes took on a new meaning. I even found I could sing along to some of the lyrics, even if I didn’t know exactly what Till was saying.

A-Levels came around, and by this time I had decided I wanted to be the next Tarantino, Scorsese, or similar. When tasked with writing an excerpt of a screenplay, I immediately knew what I wanted to write. I wrote an extract about a disillusioned young man trapped in the 1980S GDR, shortly before the Wall’s demise. His imminent downfall into alcoholism is cut short by an encounter with an opposition leader, and soon he’s out protesting, rallying, and helping his new mentor dig a tunnel under the wall. It wasn’t great, by all means, but I loved reading up on the GDR. Also, I got my A, which was the important thing. I hadn’t seen Goodbye Lenin! yet, but when I finally did, it fast became my Number One.

Skip forward to the final year of university, where I specialised (majored? Do we ‘major’ in the UK?) in German Cinema. I learned about Heimat, Tom Tykwer’s themes of destiny and chance, and a great deal of Ostalgie. This time, I liked my German teacher. She was awesome. She had a lovely accent, and she loved film. She asked if she could get my work published. I don’t think she did in the end, but it was nice to be asked.

I lived in Japan for six years after graduating, and while I went through the usual ‘fitting in’ tedium of Japanese language classes and dutifully scratching out kanji, the joy just wasn’t there. While sitting in coffeeshops with my Genki textbook, I soon came to realise that learning a language out of necessity just wasn’t for me. I kept it up for the sake of appearances, but I also bought a German language course. I found myself straying to the Deutsch books more often than not.

Upon returning to the UK, I hit the German quite hard. Every day for several months, I sat and learned German as I never could with Japanese. Without pressure, there is a joy in learning. That’s just my way. As soon as something becomes an obligation, the desire dies.

All this, and I had never set foot in Germany. Until last Thursday.

Finding myself with a couple of weeks to spare before starting my new job, I decided it was time to visit the Fatherland. Upon checking into my hotel in Berlin, I wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner.

Along with Checkpoint Charlie, Stasi HQ, and the DDR Museum, the first thing I wanted to do was swim in a lake. This, as I understood, was a regular summer pastime for Germany’s cityfolk. Unlike us poor Londoners, Berlin residents can hop on a train and arrive at the beautiful lake areas of Wannsee in under an hour. Having spent my summer pitifully looking for a new job while everyone else swanned off to Greece, Spain, and other sunny climes, I was determined to have some sort of watery summer experience.

Schlachtensee wasn’t so crowded, as it was a Friday. As the late summer sun scorched down, I walked through the cool forest alongside the shimmering blue. I was able to find a good spot on the water’s edge, and after much deliberation, waded in. The silt rose up, and I disturbed a couple of little fish investigating my ankle. It was cold – very cold. As I went further out, the sun dyed the clear water a fascinating, effervescent green, like a Perrier bottle. Not a soul was in sight, but I could hear some German shrieks of delight from across the lake. As I lolled on my back, staring up at the cloudless sky, I heard someone shout. Three young men had gathered at the bank. They asked me if the water was cold. “Ja,” I shouted.

As I towelled myself, I marvelled at how clean I felt. Better than any seawater.

One of the young men sidled up and stared pensively at the water. “Ich habe Angst,” he said quietly.

“Nein, nein, es ist schön,” I reassured him. Because it was.

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The 10 Most Visually Stunning Iranian Films

Another guest post for Taste of Cinema – this time a collaborated piece.

The 10 Most Visually Stunning Iranian Films

Top 10 Iranian Films of the 21st Century

Another guest post on Iranian film at Taste of Cinema.

The 10 Best Iranian Films of The 21st Century

The 10 Best Iranian Films of 2015

A guest post I wrote for Taste of Cinema. Persian films are on the way up, baby.

The 10 Best Iranian Films of 2015

Deutschland 83 – We’re Not Stupid After All

Audiences are becoming smarter.

It wasn’t always like this.

TV rots your mind! Chewing gum for the eyes, as Father Ted says in one episode. And it’s quite hard to deny, having grown up in the UK with the likes of terrible laughter track sitcoms such as Birds of a Feather, One Foot in the Grave, and, later on, the atrocious My Family. Lines were spoon-fed, we were told when to laugh, and every double-entendre about drainpipes/drawers/bedsprings was rolled out for our despair on cue, like a hungover clown before an audience of snivelling toddlers.

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Ahahaha! Kill us all.

Today’s comedy is a different animal. The evolution of the cringe comedy à la Ricky Gervais ushered in the arrival of such shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, a mockumentary following the life of a cantankerous old man. It was basically Victor Meldrew all over again, except this time no one was telling us when to laugh. And thank goodness for that – it was, and still is by today’s standards, a pretty good series. The lack of canned laughter is now the comedy standard – no one tells us what to do!

No one has to.

What about drama? We’ve had a spate of ‘clever TV’ in the past decade, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to the Ayn Rand stylings of Mad Men. Perhaps the greatest sign that the TV execs don’t just think we’re a bunch of thickos is evident in the decision to broadcast the excellent German spy thriller Deutschland 83 over here. Not an English adaptation like The Experiment, not redubbed, but subtitled. It’s also the first German language drama to air in the US. We follow a young East German spy’s foray into the West for the first time, where he is just as overwhelmed by the choice of brands in the supermarkets as he is by the covert operations he must undertake in the name of the DDR. It’s a new world for him, and, in many ways, for us.

It takes a huge leap of faith in the audience to launch a historical show that, for the most part, does not concern us. The two Germanys and their polar ideologies might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Why take the risk?

Because it’s damn good TV, that’s why. With a coveted score of 100% on RottenTomatoes, the show is slick, clever, and totally gripping. It injects life into the spy genre, and scenes where young “Moritz Stamm” (his spy alias) plants bugs and retrieves floppy disks from hotel safes are so painstakingly nerve-wracking that they have the viewers covering their eyes. He’s not a pro, but a football-loving everyman plucked from his normal life who just wants to go home. He is us.

It’s the small stuff that makes Deutschland 83 outstanding. It’s watching downtrodden East Germans savoring a cup of naughty (verboten!) Nescafé, instead of their usual state-issued shit. It’s Moritz silently marveling at the array of bath products in his luxurious Western hotel room, or listening to the Eurythmics in bemusement. It brings Goodbye Lenin! to mind, where we watch Daniel Brühl’s character scramble to replicate minute details of the DDR in a reunified Germany, so as not to upset his ailing, fiercely socialist mother.

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Don’t turn around.

The small details are what make drama compelling. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner points out how watching ad man Don Draper scrub his mouth out with dish soap after cheating on his wife is far more daring, and far more revealing of character, than what any other show was doing at the time. It’s worth noting that Weiner cut his teeth as a writer for The Sopranos, perhaps the first of the dramas to take a far more ‘internal’ approach to story and characterisation. Every look, every nuance, even a sip of a drink has meaning, and the camera picks that right up. Tony Soprano’s trips to the psychiatrist add another outlet for inner struggle. As he pours his poor old mob boss sob story out to the aloof, mostly silent Dr. Melfi, we are able to pick up on when he is putting on an act, trying to elicit sympathy, or even admiration. We call out his shit right along with Melfi, and not because we are told to.

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Matthew Weiner elaborates:

“…Because to see something that was that good be financially successful was very important. To prove that the world was not filled with idiots. And even if they liked it for the wrong reason. Every argument that you heard in a writers’ room, every time you tried to do something good, was that people wouldn’t understand it. And they wouldn’t like it and therefore it wouldn’t sell. And everything good that had ever been made had flopped.” 

The audience doesn’t need to be told. We can decide for ourselves.

Here’s a bit more from Weiner about how we aren’t morons.

 

And here’s the trailer for Deutschland 83, if you haven’t seen it yet.

Buster Keaton and the Craft of the Misquote

I’m in the middle of My Wonderful World of Slapstick at the moment, Buster Keaton’s own contribution to an already impressive body of work covering his extensive career as an auteur (although I’m sure he would have balked at the idea of being labelled in such terms). It’s a pretty thrilling read – we get the man’s own story behind his film-making, including his early start in vaudeville theatre at the tender age of four.

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The vaudeville years, I have to say, are absolutely enchanting. Keaton’s anecdotal writing style treats us to a glimpse behind the scenes of showbiz, before showbiz even existed in its own right. Back then, it seems, it was simply another way of making an honest living. Speaking of honest livings, here’s a favourite passage of mine:

It seems to me that if you are a good craftsman your principal concern should be to keep working. If you manage to do that your employers will have to pay you sooner or later exactly what you are worth. How can they avoid it?

Wise words, Buster. How indeed?

Between travelling between cities, Keaton regales us with rites of passage that are not unfamiliar – his childhood hijinks at the family vacation spot, the panic of losing siblings on a stroll about town, and his first taste of the “pure evil” whiskey aged seventeen that would eventually contribute to the end of his career. The documentation of these small moments of his life is what sets his own writing apart from the more scholarly analyses by Marion Meade, Kevin Sweeney, Robert Knopf, et al. What better way to learn the workings of such a great mind than to get the story straight from the horse’s mouth?

With this philosophy dancing around in my head, I set out to see what other worldly wisdom my favourite director had to offer. Not such a mystical quest – in this modern age, this merely consists of brewing another coffee and simply opening your browser.

That’s when I came across this gem:

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What a beauty! Could there be anything more relevant to the principles of Keaton’s work? It’s a paradigm of that classic cinematic philosophy – show, don’t tell. As Keaton tells us through voiceover in Tony Zhou’s recent The Art of the Gag, Keaton used no more than 56 title cards in his each of his features (at a time when the average was 240 per picture). There is no doubting his hardy little character’s determination in The General, or the case of mistaken criminal identity in The Goat. No caption can rival the subtle emotional shifts in the character’s face, or his explosions of physicality.

In his autobiography, Keaton recalls a minor dispute with his best friend and comedy mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle:

“You must never forget,” he told me that day, “that the average mentality of our audience is twelve years.”
I thought that over for a long time, for three whole months in fact. Then I said to Roscoe, “I think you’d better forget the idea that the movie audience has a twelve-year-old mind. Anyone who believes that won’t be in pictures for very long, in my opinion.”

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Buster Keaton trusted viewers’ ability to use their brains, to interpret what they saw on the screen and read between the lines. They didn’t need to have storylines spoon-fed to them. In other words, he believed in his audience.

He may also have disagreed with Arbuckle for the following reason – if you don’t respect what you’re doing, then why do it at all? He leaves this point out of the book, but the implication is there.

Silence is dignity and reverence for your craft. Shouting from the treetops is better left to the apes.

Thrilled with this discovery, I posted the quote to The Buster Keaton Appreciation Society on Facebook (I know – once I get my claws into an interest, it’s hard to shake). Within moments, a flurry of Likes appeared. My work was done.

That is, until someone asked where the quote came from. And I had no idea.

I found no evidence that suggested Buster Keaton had ever uttered those words. However, I eventually discovered this 1921 article.

As it turns out, the quote does not come from Keaton himself, but from Wilis Goldbeck, his interviewer in Motion Picture magazine:

“Silence is of the gods; only monkeys chatter.” I sat once in a famous theater in the London Haymarket, and heard that proverb drip from the oily tongue of an aged Chinese philosopher. It glittered for the moment on the surface of my mind and then sank into the depths; depths termed by a recently famous philosopher and theorist, the Unconscious.

Disappointing, perhaps. The Buster-monkeys quote is repeated over and over on quotation sites, Goodreads, IMDB, Pinterest, and all manner of spiritual healing websites. And next to most of them, you’ll find a picture of Buster’s hauntingly melancholy face. It’s funny how time warps perspective. It brings to mind the “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best” feel-good meme attributed to Marilyn Monroe.

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This one.

Does a quote lose its depth when it is wrongly attributed? Does misdirection render it meaningless? I think not. The Keaton quote is just as much about superior film-making as it is about medieval Asian philosophy. Even though we can’t claim our role models uttered it, can’t we, the audience, make the connection independently? In the 1920s, Keaton argued that his viewers didn’t need title cards to form opinions. In the 21st century, nor should we.

The Amazing Buster Keaton – A Video

 

I’ve been on a real Buster Keaton kick recently. I go through these phases, usually on an annual basis, where I can’t get enough of something. British stand up, Hitchcock, the writings of Bukowski, Frank McCourt, you name it. However, the one I always return to, my ‘default’ craze, if you will, is always Buster.

There isn’t really anything new to say about the man – his early start in vaudeville, his collaborations with Fatty Arbuckle, and his terrible personal life have all been meticulously documented. The best of these writings, in my opinion, is Buster’s own – My Wonderful World of Slapstick is a work like no other. We can almost hear his incongruously gravelly voice as he dictates his memoirs. The occasional lapse in his own grammar only adds to the book’s charm.

Apart from reading about him, there are few avenues to really get involved in my fandom. Sure, the Royal Albert Hall is hosting a live accompaniment to ‘The Frozen North’ next week, but these events are few and far between in London.

To that end, I decided to make some music videos to celebrate my love of the little man. What better way to watch his work than in an editing window, with the opportunity to relish his work frame by frame? You can learn a lot about his films that way – every shot, when slowed down, or viewed backwards, is perfect. Good job, Buster.

I’ve set the clips (thrilling chases, unrequited love, one shot gags, tons of dancin’) to Parov Stelar. Electro swing and Buster go hand in hand.

Capturing the excitement a 1920s audience must have felt in the playhouse while watching ‘The Goat’, with Buster’s feline leaps through windows only a foot tall, is a challenge. With the right editing, I hope I’ve done him some justice.