Underground America 1999
Issue #46, December 1999
When we deal with underground film, the temptation is to think in binary terms. Either there is an underground but we have very little access to it, or there never was an underground, and the films called underground represent a phony form of subversion foisted on us by hipster journalists.
Although problematic, "underground" is a useful term, and moreover a deeply seductive idea: it suggests that despite the usual blizzard of politically cowardly and culturally unremarkable films, there is a hidden cache of daring, revolutionary, and independently created movies which lurk literally just under our feet, if we'd only look. I think it's clear why, from a radical perspective, this idea would be something to swoon over. And I'd call it useful because even if the underground doesn't exist, the term itself is still a good way to designate films that break rules and remind their audiences that "common sense" is anything but.
As we near the turn of the millennium, two films from 1999 stick out in my mind as examples of what the U.S. underground is doing, and where it might be headed. American Beauty and The Blair Witch Project, seemingly as unalike as two films could be, are nevertheless both contemporary speculations about the social importance of making non-mainstream movies. And they are also fixated on death, a subject which often leads to some kind of overt political or ethical judgment in a story. Since "judgment" is usually deemed -- probably correctly -- to be the opposite of entertainment, this detail in itself makes these films unusual in an industry devoted to the visually spectacular and politically safe.
It wasn't until the 1960s that audiences and theater-owners started to seek out what critics dubbed "underground films," typified by the outrageous, socially transgressive work of Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger. At the same time, independently-owned studios like American International Films (most famous for producing the underground hit Easy Rider) and independently-funded directors like George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, 1969) were releasing movies in record numbers. By the end of the 1960s, an underground film would be loosely defined as either a subversive art film or an independently-produced movie made outside the commercial demands of Hollywood. American Beauty and The Blair Witch Project fall neatly within the categories that define "underground": American Beauty offers underground artistic content, and Blair Witch Project was produced and distributed by independently-owned companies.
The White Person's Problem
In the 1980s and 1990s, the term underground was often used synonymously with "independent" or "alternative." The Sundance Film Festival, famous for championing indie films, popularized the notion that independent production necessarily meant there would be liberal or alternative content in a film. Obviously, as I will explain shortly in relation to Blair Witch Project, this isn't true. To their credit, however, independent films of this period -- unlike most underground films -- often tried to deal with the lives and experiences of racial minorities in a progressive way.
With this distinction in mind, I'm calling American Beauty and Blair Witch Project underground films partly because they are about social problems and issues confronted by white people. They exhibit a monocultural underground sensibility, rather than participating in the multicultural indie tradition. Like underground movies of the 60s, cultural differences in American Beauty and Blair Witch Project are those of class, gender and sexuality, rather than race.
American Beauty and Blair Witch Project take place in regions stereotypically associated with the privileges and horrors of being white: the suburbs in American Beauty; and a quiet, rural Maryland town in Blair Witch Project. American Beauty's suburbs, often framed in strangely beautiful overhead shots of lookalike houses and carefully landscaped trees, are full of affluent white people whose posh family lives are punctuated by moments of extreme violence, tabooed sexual desire, psychological torture, madness, and profound economic anxieties. While the suburbs in American Beauty are figuratively haunted by dysfunction, the tiny town of Burkittsville, Maryland featured in Blair Witch Project (and on the film's high-traffic website at www.blairwitch.com) is supposed to be literally haunted by the ghost of a woman named Elly Kedward who was accused of witchcraft in 1785 and banished from the village, then known as Blair. After her supposed death during a harsh winter, people from the village -- especially children -- begin to disappear, only to turn up dead and mutilated in various symbolic ways.
Blair Witch Project's advertising billed the film as found footage which chronicles the last days of three doomed film students making a documentary about the Blair Witch. Filmed reality-TV-style with handheld cameras, Blair Witch Project's action is propelled forward by the slowly disintegrating relationships between Josh, Heather, and Mike after they get lost in the "haunted" woods and begin to find weird, menacing pieces of folk art. Because we know how it will all end -- the protagonists are already dead -- audiences can focus entirely on how this inevitable death came about.
On a very basic level, the film seems to suggest that Heather, the director, leads her crew astray. She's constantly getting Mike and Josh lost, and in the film's now-famous "tearful eyeballs in close-up" monologue, Heather admits that she bears responsibility for their fate. It doesn't take a degree in women's studies to see that this film is more than a little uncomfortable about female authority, since a woman director leads everybody into the hands of a vengeful female witch. At the very least, one might say that gender difference motivates many of the film's conflicts, especially given that it's based on an invented legend about a woman accused of witchcraft.
While the characters in Blair Witch Project struggle with gender,American Beauty is unrelentingly focused on the sexual proclivities of its characters. Our protagonist Lester Burnham, who announces in a wry voice-over at the beginning of the film that he loves to masturbate and that he's about to die, is sexually obsessed with his daughter's surrealistically gorgeous friend Angela Hayes. His wife Carolyn, whom he hates, is having an affair with an egotistical real estate agent named Buddy King. And their daughter Jane is having sex with next-door neighbor Ricky Fitts, whose character is fleshed out for us in a series of scenes where his father, Colonel Fitts, beats him and discourses hotly about the evil unnaturalness of "fags." As the film unfolds, it becomes apparent to the audience that something about the tragically interconnected sexual lives of these people will lead to Lester's death.
Films Within Films
Lester's path to death brings him into contact with Ricky, who offers Lester a pleasurable escape from a boring office party being thrown by Carolyn's real estate agent colleagues. "Do you get high?" Ricky asks Lester, who chooses to share a joint with Ricky outside rather than endure the stifling atmosphere of "success" that Carolyn so admires. "Getting high" is what ultimately seems to lead Lester to quit his job in advertising, blackmail his boss into giving him a severance package, and begin a second adolescence of pot smoking, listening to rock, lifting weights, and pursuing sex with teenage girls.
Rather giving us the typical Hollywood morality trip and portraying Lester's drug-induced decisions as some kind of downward spiral, American Beauty surprises us by representing them as a moral re-awakening. Lester's pot-dealer Ricky becomes the conscience of American Beauty. Using the considerable profits from his business, Ricky is able to fund his artistic obsession: videotaping everything he possibly can. As a filmmaker, Ricky is the opposite of Blair Witch Project's Heather, whose shaky camera work and lack of direction (literally and figuratively) lead to death, ugliness, and betrayal. The films that Ricky makes are about, as he says repeatedly, how beauty lurks in everyday things. He films people, dead birds, and sex with equal passion; in one particularly memorable scene, he shows Jane his favorite film, a fifteen-minute shot of a plastic bag drifting in the wind.
What's particularly remarkable about Ricky's filmmaking is that he regards his subjects with an earnest reverence and seriousness. Although American Beauty itself hardly suffers from a lack of irony, it's telling that one of its most sympathetic characters is portrayed as "good" in large part because he genuinely respects the people and objects he films. The beautiful floating bag is not a snide joke. It's one of American Beauty's many efforts to represent hope as something ordinary, something anyone might express without being laughed out of the room.
Blair Witch Project's filmmakers are hopeless -- and anything but earnest. Their Gen-X-ish ironic patter makes up most of the film's dialogue, and they treat the people they interview for their documentary with cynical condescension. A woman in a trailer whom they talk to about the Blair Witch causes them to giggle and roll their eyes; later, they blithely ignore warnings from two fishermen they run into on their way to the haunted forest. What they film in Burkittsville is not for beauty's sake, but rather to fulfill a class assignment in film school. Heather, Josh, and Mike are also filming the haunted forest without any respect for the legends about it. Although they want to cash in on the frisson their subject will inspire in viewers, they don't believe in it themselves. Ultimately, they are making a movie in bad faith, using credulous townspeople and popular folklore for purely cynical, self-serving reasons: to generate a groovy film about a cool thing, rather than to honor the people and histories they see around them.
Despite the opposing motivations of filmmakers in American Beauty and Blair Witch Project, the films themselves are stylistically similar. They are both works of naturalism, a term that refers to realistic stories which focus on such extremes of human behavior that they seem practically unreal. While American Beauty and Blair Witch Project look very different in terms of how they are photographed, both films nevertheless are careful to stick to a naturalist agenda, keeping their action within the realm of the possible and even the probable.
Certainly it's not every day that a repressed homosexual military officer murders his neighbor in a moment of sexual panic, as Colonel Fitts does Lester in American Beauty, but weirder things have happened. Indeed, various forms of gay bashing are fairly routine in the United States. And while Blair Witch Project toys with supernatural imagery, we are also reminded at every step that there are realistic explanations for what Heather, Josh, and Mike are experiencing. The menacing sounds and objects they encounter in the forest could be made by people who are "just fucking with them," as the trio often remark to one another. And when Josh disappears, we're given ample evidence that he may have gone insane and run away. Because the camera shuts off enigmatically right before the characters die, we're left to speculate about what has really happened. No witches, ghosts, or demons ever appear.
The Real World
The importance of realism has often been at the heart of twentieth century debates over the politics of media; the recent furor over Dutch filmmakers' "Dogme 95" -- mandating a stringently minimalist version of cinema verité as the only legitimate aesthetic for alternative film -- is only the latest chapter in a complicated history of disputes over what constitutes a truly subversive artistic style.
When early twentieth century Marxist critics Georg Lukacs and Theodor Adorno butted heads over the meaning of radical art, they spawned one of the great leftist debates in cultural studies: whether "objective" realism or a "subjective" modernist style were more politically progressive. Their disagreement was about whether people would be more likely to question the (oppressive) status quo if they were told stories that were realistic recreations of everyday life, or modernist meditations on our emotional and philosophical perceptions of it.
At century's end, we might couch this ongoing debate in terms of the underground. Is it "more underground" to be realistic, or to use whatever means at your disposal to tell your tale, no matter how fantastical it might end up seeming? What American Beauty and Blair Witch Project teach us is that even when you take two basically realistic films in the naturalist style, they can be politically at odds with one another. Finally, if you're interested in politics, content matters more than style.
Indeed, Blair Witch Project's conservatism is part and parcel of its cynically realistic perspective on human relationships. We see our three heroes coming to believe that they are being destroyed by a supernatural force because they have such disdain for the rural and lower-class people whose legends they hope to chronicle in their documentary. At one point when they have found yet another batch of spooky stick figures hanging from the trees, one of the characters remarks, "Rednecks couldn't have done this," implying that Burkittsville's "redneck" residents are simply too stupid to outwit and terrify a group of educated film students. Therefore, they are obviously dealing with the ghost of the Blair Witch. The disdain that Josh, Heather, and Mike have for Burkittsville residents is matched only by their distaste for one another. In a crisis, the three of them begin to torture each other psychologically, rather than forming an alliance. Mike perniciously destroys Heather's map because he thinks she's reading it incorrectly, and the longer they remain trapped in the woods, the more the team's witty banter turns into hysterical accusations and fighting.
Led astray by a woman, tormented by what they imagine is a witch, the filmmakers in Blair Witch Project are destroyed by all the things that the American Right fears most: women in positions of power, the liberal education that inspired our young documentarians, and an unseeable Satanic force. We are left with the message that these filmmakers were undone not because their film disrespected the locals (who are, after all, only "rednecks"), but because they didn't have faith in the existence of an evil force that is quite literally destroying the children of America. Moreover, if we decide to go the anti-supernatural route and read the film "realistically," then we must assume that poor, rural Americans are every bit as savage and animalistic as conservatives claim they are. Rather than get jobs, they'd rather whittle sticks all day and murder a bunch of nice middle-class kids for fun.
While Blair Witch Project occasionally breaks with realism to flesh out a fantasy of dark supernatural forces, American Beauty connects its characters' fantasies with agonizingly realistic sexual forces that are neither good nor bad. Like the harried filmmakers in Blair Witch Project, Lester is also destroyed by a fantasy -- the homosexual fantasy of his neighbor Colonel Fitts, who watches his son Ricky selling Lester drugs through a rain-soaked window and mistakenly believes that Ricky is actually giving Lester a blow job. Arriving in a weirdly zombified state at Lester's door a few minutes later, Fitts tries to kiss Lester, whom we assume is the first person privy to the secret desires Fitts has been hiding all his life. When Lester gently refuses, Fitts returns home, picks up a rifle, and shoots Lester in the head.
But Lester's death, as it turns out, is no tragedy. He dies with a smile on his face. Like Fitts, Lester has also finally indulged in his secret sexual fantasy -- but rather than sending him into a murderous rage, his moment of sexual desublimation makes him happier than he has been in years.
When Lester acts on his potentially disturbing fantasy of sex with his daughter's friend Angela, we're given ample evidence that this "taboo" act is precisely what both characters need. Jane and Ricky have just told the ultra-conventional Angela that they're "freaks" and she'll never understand them because she's "so ordinary." A weeping Angela runs downstairs and literally into Lester's arms, allowing him to confess his desire for her. During their subsequent erotic encounter, Lester's sexuality is not portrayed as monstrous, but rather a legitimate form of affection which salves Angela's hurt feelings. "Am I ordinary?" she asks him as they kiss. "No," he reassures her earnestly.
Implicitly, Fitts has become destructive because -- unlike Lester and Angela -- he associates sexual desire with horror rather than human connection. After nearly having sex, Lester and Angela demonstrate what American Beauty believes is the point of erotic desire when they end up having an honest conversation about their lives. Angela tells Lester about Jane falling in love with Ricky, and it's this information that inspires him to smile shortly before Fitts shoots him.
Lying in bed with Jane upstairs, Ricky hears the gunshots and is the first to find Lester's body. In a peculiarly moving scene we watch him acknowledge the smile on Lester's dead face with his own smile. It's a moment of raw, grisly hope -- even though the forces of social repression have literally murdered Lester, Ricky and Jane's self-described "freak" romance will live on. American Beauty ascribes destructiveness to people who refuse to acknowledge their human urges to be sexual, and survival is for those who know how to take pleasure in things both forbidden and forgotten by status quo culture: drugs, sex, and all the ordinary objects and people that populate our daily lives.
American Beauty's hopeful position is linked to a moral generosity and somewhat shocking honesty about human failure as well as the ambiguity of what constitutes success. Politically, it suggests that people are destroyed by what the Right would consider admirable personal qualities: self-denial, devotion to work, sexual repression, and family values. American Beauty indulges in its own version of Blair Witch Project's supernaturalism by featuring a narrator who is already dead (and therefore "in heaven" or some other afterlife location), but it never uses the supernatural as an opportunity to dismiss what we've seen as possibly fantastical and therefore irrelevant to our real-life experiences.
Life After Cynicism
Blair Witch Project and American Beauty, both slightly surreal works of naturalism, demonstrate that the underground at the close of the twentieth century may be intensely fascinated by realism, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's getting more politically progressive. In fact, the American underground is capable of generating independently-produced, stylistically innovative films like Blair Witch Project that are politically conservative and treat the project of filmmaking itself with nothing more than clever, market-savvy cynicism.
Despite being produced and distributed by mega-media company DreamWorks, American Beauty manages to carve out a genuinely radical and hopeful vision of both American culture and the role filmmaking might play in it. While American Beauty is saturated with typical Hollywood flourishes -- lavish production values, high-wattage stars, achingly beautiful main characters, and a white, middle-class setting -- the film nevertheless comes down on the side of "freaks," the people whose (filmed) vision of status quo America recognizes that so-called deviance, lawbreaking, and perversion are simply ugly labels for things that might in fact be beautiful if we could only look at them without bias. Ricky's perspective as a filmmaker is offered as one possible way to "look closer" at social issues most people would prefer to dismiss.
What separates Blair Witch Project from American Beauty, in the end, is its realistic depiction of hope. Blair Witch Project might be a hopeful sign for a flagging independent film scene, in that it has truly been a word-of-mouth sensation, but its content is just a really riveting update on the same old horror movie fears about gender, Satan, and rural culture.
American Beauty suggests that we might be seeing a new trend in underground film toward social criticism which doesn't forget to leave some ideals standing. To the Gen-Xers who are gradually taking over our mass media, it will sound exceptionally cheesy for me to say this, but American Beauty makes us remember that love and the free expression of sexual desire are socially constructive forces. Everything in the world does not necessarily need to be treated with knee-jerk cynicism.
Perhaps the next century will inaugurate a new kind of underground film that won't be afraid to find out what comes after irony.
Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer in San Francisco. When she isn't writing stuff for money, she's working on a book about monsters, psychopaths, and capitalism in American pop culture. Send her your rational comments, dirty pictures, or violent opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.