[Excerpt from “‘She’s Making Movies’: The Blair Witch Project and Mulvey’s Theory of the Gaze,” written as the culmination of my critical writing studies at Carnegie Mellon.]
Mulvey’s three gazes and The Blair Witch Project
Mulvey’s theory of the three gazes relies on traditional cinematography, because her analysis of film’s scopophilic pleasures is predicated on the way that traditional cinematography subordinates and collapses two gazes into one and makes them reliant on the third. The characters gaze at each other; the camera gazes at the characters; the spectator gazes at what the camera captures. Traditional cinematography encourages the spectator to lose his awareness of his own gaze and the camera’s gaze, to identify with a character on-screen, and therefore to subordinate the camera’s/his own gaze to the character’s gaze.
The Blair Witch Project resists collapsing the three gazes in the same way. The spectator is made constantly aware of the camera and its gaze, for a start. One of the earliest scenes in the movie is Heather and Josh filming each other filming each other, Heather on the 16mm and Josh on the Hi-8. The characters constantly reference the camera throughout the movie, particularly as things become more tense and Heather insists on continuing to film events. The shaky camerawork—the inconsistent and sometimes obscured gaze of the camera—also makes it impossible to forget the camera’s presence. However—with a few exceptions, such as the documentary-style shots near the beginning of the movie—the camera also functions as the characters’ gaze throughout the film. When the trio runs through the woods at night, the cameras provide light for them, metaphorically acting as their eyes. Heather seems to do the bulk of the filming, and her footage is the last that we see, so the events of the movie are primarily shown to the audience the same way she sees them. Often, the gazes of camera, character, and spectator are all collapsed into one—but at times, particularly moments of high tension, the three gazes are fragmented. The characters are looking elsewhere, ignoring the camera so that it only captures confused glimpses of the woods, and the spectator cannot help but be aware of the fact that he is watching a movie (albeit one that he may think is a documentary, not fiction). The movie drags the spectator back and forth between making him acutely aware of his own voyeurism by fragmenting all three gazes, and making him identify strongly with a character without the comforting ability to look at his on-screen self by unifying all three gazes.
Changing the way the gazes are prioritized opens up new possibilities for analysis. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the way The Blair Witch Projectcomplicates the gender of the spectator. Mulvey’s analysis of narrative cinema assumes a male spectator. That is not necessarily to say that every spectator that watches a movie identifies as male in everyday life; rather, the way traditional narrative cinema guides and manipulates the spectator’s gaze constructsthe spectator as male by privileging the viewpoint and story of an active male protagonist, a subject, and de-emphasizing the viewpoint of a passive female counterpart, an object. In The Blair Witch Project, though, the privileged story and viewpoint belong to Heather, and all of the characters on-screen, male or female, are more acted-upon than active. Heather tries to be masculine and in charge of the excursion, but she is very quickly rendered powerless once the trio is lost in the woods. Yet she remains a subject in the film by staying behind the camera most of the time. When Heather turns the camera on herself for her tearful, terrified (and much parodied) confession near the end of the movie, the spectator can see her as an object, as Mulvey would have us believe the camera always does; she is a distorted fragment of a face, all eyes and comically prominent nose, and she is abject and paralyzed with fear. At this late point in the movie, though, the spectator can also uneasily view her as a reflection of self, having been with her—indeed, been her—through so much of the movie.
Identifying with a female protagonist happens rarely in mainstream cinema, but happens more often than most people would expect in horror films. In “Her Body, Himself,” Carol J. Clover argues that the female protagonists of slasher films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday the Thirteenth—the character that she calls the Final Girl—is uniquely situated as a figure adolescent boys can identify with:
The Final Girl 1) undergoes agonising trials, and 2) virtually or actually destroys the antagonist and saves herself. By the lights of folk tradition, she is not a heroine, for whom phase 1 consists in being saved by someone else, but a hero, who rises to the occasion and defeats the adversary with his own wit and hands. (Clover 244)
Heather is indeed the final girl in The Blair Witch Project, which bears many similarities to the kinds of slasher movies Clover deals with, but she is not a Final Girl because she does not save herself. The Final Girl’s trajectory is from passive, victimised female to active, powerful male; Heather’s trajectory is from masculine director to feminine victim. In this way, The Blair Witch Projectis fairly unique in narrative cinema, then, because it ultimately constructs its spectators as female.