That both of these successful films are independent gives one a giddy sense of grass roots pride.
They are called independent films, or “indie” films for short. Independent because they don’t have the funding of the monolithic production companies. Nor do they boast big name directors and cinematographers behind the megaphones and cameras. They are the epitome of low-budget filmmaking, a sort of purist version of an artform that has long since been monopolized and sanitized for mass consumption.
- Plot: legendary witch vs. mad scientist
- Inspiration: Hitchcock vs. Frankenstein
- Soundtrack: moody silence vs. frenetic techno
Superficially, yes, these two films differ in their plots. Yet, the comparison is more than pedantic. Blair plays out like so many scary campfire stories. In fact the story will almost sound familiar in a nostalgic sort of way. “As legend has it…” in the 1700s a woman of Blair, Maryland, was accused of drawing blood from the local children. The town promptly deemed her a witch and excommunicated her. Within a year, all her accusers and their children vanished and the town was condemned. Though she was never found, the Blair Witch was blamed for various horrendous deaths and mysterious disappearances in the decades to come.
Herein lies all the ingredients for Blair‘s unique yet simplistic story line: a horror plot built around the most universal of fears, i.e., ancient legends of unspeakable evil. With a live breathing mythos in place, enter three unsuspecting film students into the plot. Meet Heather Donahue, Mike Williams, and Joshua Leonard, classmates from the University of Maryland. As a group project, they trek into the wooded town of Burkittesville in search of the Blair Witch and a passing grade. They never return. The film itself is actually part of the fiction, claiming to be actual footage recovered from the Maryland forest, spliced together as a last testament of the students’ demise. Blair is the epitome of the Man vs. Nature literary mode.
Pi is far from horror. It’s the story of a genius mathematician, Max Cohen. The prodigy is a stereotypical recluse, hiding behind multiple locks in his cramped Manhattan apartment amongst stacks and layers of whirring computer hardware. Max has been working on the ultimate number crunch: the Theory of Everything, or something like it. The details are sketchy but suffice it to say that Max is feverishly trying to find order in chaos by interpreting patterns within the number pi, that irrational infinite mathematical constant. He makes Jeff Goldblum’s chaotician in Jurassic Park look rather silly. Max’s view of the universe is pure Aristotelian syllogism; that is, a highly ordered classifiable system, static and constant. Director Darren Aronofsky promotes his hypothesis with recurring nondescript shots of trees and other naturally occurring fractals.
Max is a man simultaneously plagued by both his own immense understanding of the universe and his complete inability to predict it. For as a good scientist, Max is busy applying his theory: he’s trying to crack the stock market. His discoveries don’t go unnoticed. He is soon hounded by a high-powered Wall Street firm, as well as a Hasidic cabalistic sect intent on assimilating Max’s knowledge of numerology for their own studies of the Torah.
Neither group is benign, and Max’s only respite is the counsel of an aging professor, a shut-in much like Max, and their games of Go, the ancient Japanese strategy game. Pi is most obviously the Man vs. God literary scenario, despite the many human parties that try to harness Max’s cranial wonders.
Besides plot differences, another major difference between these two films is their inspirations. With Blair, Hitchcock would be proud I think. His specialty was setting up a morbidly fascinating idea and leaving the details to the minds of the viewers. The man himself said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” With tenacious intensity, Blair demonstrates this simple tenet which has eluded big-budget Hollywood for so long. Like Hitchcock, Blair succeeds by tapping into the very primal sources of fear instead of trademark gimmicks (see the Jason slasher series) and self-referential satire (see the Scream slasher series). There are virtually no special effects. There are no sets, save exclusive location shooting in the thickly wooded forests of Maryland.
Nonetheless, Blair is truly terrifying. It fits in eerily with our culture’s latest infatuation: real-time news broadcasts and embarrassingly personal home videos. With a few clicks of a remote, we can feast on The Deadliest Car Crashes or join infantrymen in a march behind enemy lines on CNN. This shocking voyeuristic tendency is part role playing fantasy (the denial of self) and part media frenzy (insatiable craving for alternate reality). With the absence of personal contentment, we replace traditional living with a nihilist desire to become someone else or follow the demise of others.
Whether Blair is actually making such a succinct commentary on cultural addictions is suspect. Still, one is reminded of these issues as the film’s images are etched in our minds. To be fair, Blair certainly isn’t the first horror film of its kind. Last year another independent film captured the documentary-gone-wrong motif in The Last Broadcast, but was unable to match Blair‘s internet-savvy marketing storm. Exactly 20 years ago was the original documentary / horror Cannibal Holocaust, from the decade of Italian splatter movies.
Pi‘s inspiration is certainly no Hitchcock, but no less hearkens a masterpiece. Instead, the story of mathematician Max stems from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Where Dr. Frankenstein elevated himself to deity proportions by birthing life from transplanted corpses, Max Cohen arrogantly defines God by unlocking the secrets of the number pi. Max journals, “11:15, restate my assumptions: 1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.”
Yet for all its numerology, the real glory of Pi is that it really isn’t about mathematics. Max represents mankind, despite his above-average brain power. In searching for order in the universe, Max is really trying to comprehend the overall structure of Creation. Why are we here? What purpose do we serve? As Max transposes Religion, Nature, and Economics with mathematical interpretation, we have a fascinating metaphor for the universe as a whole.
Max’s stubborn determination to categorize nature empirically makes Pi a veritable mad scientist movie. But all of this is not without a price. Max’s experiments bring on terrible migraines. He works himself into a kind of frenzy as his brain is on the verge of exploding. Each successive attack brings him closer and closer to the breaking point.
Accompanying his frenzied state of mind is a pulsing soundtrack, entirely techno. It may seem out of place at first, but the electronic ambience eventually lends to the undertone of Max’s mental breakdown, as well as provide an audio parallel for the evolutionary trend in music.
Blair‘s soundtrack differs completely. There is none. In fact, there is a complete lack of suspenseful music which so typifies the standard “scary movie.” In Blair, no high-pitched violins strategically heighten our freight prior to a predictable “jump” scene, no sweeping movements prolong our emotions.
- Jacks of all trades (writing and directing)
- Unorthodox photography and public response
- Atmosphere and characters’ demise
- Low budgets
- Promotion posters
- Web sites: heartbeats of the underground
- Festival favorites
The few similarities between Blair and Pi are mostly from an esthetic viewpoint. Being independent, the writing and directing tends to rest on the shoulders of the same person. Pi is no exception, with Darren Aronofsky at both helms. On the screenplay, Aronofsky teamed with his lead actor, Sean Gullette, who played the part of Max.
The photography is also similar between the two. Pi was shot completely in black and white with much Kubrick surrealism. One particular shot has the camera actually mounted on Gullette at the waste. The view then is looking up at his face as he runs through the subway tunnels, but the camera is itself motionless with respect to the actor. The effect is unnerving and slightly nauseating. Used in some music videos without much purpose besides visual effect, it’s put to great use here, indicative of Max’ growing mental delusions.
Filling both writing and directing shoes as well, Blair was the product of two real-life film students, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. Their finished product (also black and white) is quite professional though, and their success is nothing short of stunning. Considering the logistics nightmare that must have been Blair, their achievement is all the more impressive. According to the two directors, their three actors really did camp out in the Maryland woods without a defined script. There were no lines to speak of, just a broad outline. Each actor knew exclusively how their respective characters would develop. The reason for keeping each other in the dark was to encourage genuine dialog and the element of surprise. The characters were also given only a days worth of script at a time. Sanchez and Myrick would leave a neon painted tube of instructions each night near their campsite with general plot direction. It was then up to the actors to move their scenes along to follow the updated plot.
Blair also employs some unorthodox photographic techniques. For starters, Blair is the first film in history to rely solely on its actors to shoot the film as well as ad lib their lines. Even their real names were used as character names for the sake of realism. As if to answer society’s sudden infatuation with experiential entertainment, Blair seems to have become the genre’s landmark film.
Another more first-person property of Blair is aspect ratio. Almost the entire film takes up only 2/3 of the screen, because most of the film is footage from a camcorder. The aspect ratio of a standard movie screen is 16:9, whereas that of a camcorder is square. Also, if the shakycam in Saving Private Ryan made you nauseous, then Blair will make you vomit. Many times the camera is moving so much the entire screen is a blur. While effective and intentional it has been known to cause seasickness.
These avant garde photography styles in Pi and Blair have elicited one of two reactions from people: love or hate. Neither films have tried to strike a chord with general audiences. For this, they are truly bold projects.
Nevertheless, not many people will appreciate Blair without a tangible payoff at the end. I can only say that this is really a Hollywood conditioned response. It’s no surprise that the Blair witch never comes out of hiding by the end of the movie. In leaving the majority of fear just outside of the camera’s view, Blair plays like prelude for the witch’s eventual grand entrance.
But by giving an audience what it wants in the end — discernable resolution — any psychological horror that built up until then is relieved or even negated. Not the case with Blair. Cheap thrills are substituted with a gradual atmosphere of doom and the steady decline of human spirit. Methodically, the three lead characters are reduced to hunted animals. At the outset, we know their fate, but are never given the satisfaction of the details.
A similar atmosphere in Pi makes it unpalatable to some. Chaotic and seedy is the journey with Max into the underbelly of his mind. We watch his health and focus deteriorate as he becomes the deluded Icarus (Max relates that looking into the sun as a child after his mother warned him brought on his migraines).
Instead of questing to discover God by his handiwork, he is determined to master Creation himself. The scenario: God controls cosmos with seemingly chaotic complex systems. Man sees patterns of these infinite fingerprints in the language of mathematics and tries to decipher them. Man has nervous breakdown. God wins.
Most amazing of all is how effective these two films could be with the budgets they were filmed on. Aronofsky reportedly solicited $100 investments to family members and friends to fund his picture, eventually pulling in the needed $60,000. Meanwhile, Blair also had a shoestring budget of about the price of a fully loaded Taurus, a cool $30,000.
Contributing to the underground popularity of these films are well constructed web sites. At the Pi site (www.pithemovie.com), similar manic imagery is used. From the pulsing front page, there are brief journal-like explanations of miscellaneous mathematical aspects of the film, as well as character bios and production info. Pi‘s cult status is concrete.
Equally compelling is Blair‘s peripheral hype. Most of its success grew out of internet popularity. The official web site (www.blairwitch.com) retraces all the history and mythology of the story’s ghoul without a hint of the fiction of the story. Initial press literature came in the form of missing persons flyers. After the film’s success, cable’s SciFi Channel released a special entitled, “The Curse of the Blair Witch.” It’s actually about an hour of footage that was cut from the film. Snippets include a local news story accounting the facts of the students’ disappearance in 1995. Local personalities like Bill Barnes, the town historian of Burkittesville, Montgomery College film professor Michael DeCoto, professor of folklore Charles Moorehouse at Hampshire College, anthropology professor David Mercer from the University of Maryland, Burkittesville Sheriff Ron Cravens who was on the missing persons case, Private Investigator Buck Buchanan, and the brother of one of the students are all interviewed. Right to the end, the story is presented as fact, causing many people to confuse reality with fiction (obviously the desired effect).
Interestingly, Blair has simultaneously become both a cult phenomenon and a mainstream success. There have been only two movies all year that I’ve actually stood in line for over an hour to see. The first is rather obvious: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Blair being the second is rather surprising, especially without the benefit of over 20 years of cultural fervor on its side as with Lucas’ space opera. What it has concocted is a brand new spin on ages older fear. Blair embodies the stories we used to tell each other as children — how Old Man Smith in the shack in the woods used to eat bad kids, or how the abandoned bridge over Webb Creek had trolls under it. Fitting right in with a local’s anthology is the lore of the Blair Witch.
Although Blair was by far the more successful commercially, Pi too did much for the independent film community. Where Blair smashed preconceived notions of marketability, Pi disproved the stigma of production value on a small-budget picture. It criticizes Descartes’ notion that man is the measure of all things, that the human brain can solve any problem, physical or spiritual. It contends that there is something beyond us that can’t be conceived.
Both films were completely successful in their execution: Blair in resurrecting Hitchcockian minimalist terror, and Pi in redefining original cinematography and screenplay. Indeed, Pi took home the Director’s Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and Blair was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the British Independent Film Award. Coupled with the fact that both are independent gives one a giddy sense of grass roots pride.