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[whitespace] Looking Shaky

"Unknown Curator" Mickey McGowan on movie-addiction, the 'Blair Witch' craze, and the growing trend toward really bad camera work

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a film review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, ideas, and popular culture.

Mickey McGowan is a movie addict. Hard-core. So am I. That's why we're friends. We understand each other's addictions, having shared countless cinematic trips, abandoning our responsibilities on sunny weekday afternoons to sneak into matinee screenings of films most other intelligent adults over 40 wouldn't even bother with. We start with the good films, but when the celluloid worm is crawling in our psyches, we will settle for almost anything.

"I've tried to swear off of bad movies before, of course," McGowan is saying today, "but it never lasts very long. I'll say, 'That's it. No more crap. I'm going to be more selective from now on.' But after a few days, If no decent films are out, I get to missing the dark theater and the smell of popcorn. Today's a good example. It's Wednesday. I haven't seen a movie since Bowfinger on Friday, and I'm beginning to feeling edgy. But there's nothing good out that I haven't seen two or three times. It's terrible."

Tell me about it.

Fortunately for us, McGowan and I each have a socially acceptable defense for our behavior: while I write about popular culture, he observes, organizes and catalogues it. McGowan is the curator of the phenomenally curious Unknown Museum, a mysterious repository of "artifacts" from '50s, '60s, and '70s. Currently, the UM's vast collection of Gumby's, Lincoln Logs, and Bozo-the-Clown lunch boxes, long located in Northern California, is being warehoused right here in McGowan's secret Marin County bunker, pending his upcoming move to a new, as yet undisclosed location.

A wall of rare records--Pee Wee King and the West Coast Swing Band, Eartha Kitt, the Banana Splits--stands floor to ceiling around us. Scattered around the record room are cases bulging with Babe Ruth model kits and other oddments. Overhead, an enormous sign--acquired from an old book store--proclaims the words SCIENCE FICTION.

"Have a seat," McGowan offers, moving a stack of old Frank Sinatra LPs.

"The worst thing," he says, taking a seat himself in front of a table scattered with old magazines in plastic slip covers, "is that movies seem to be getting worse. I'm no snob, but in a year where the best film might be The Blair Witch Project, you know that quality is slipping."

Yikes. He's mentioned the B-word. Blair Witch, if you a scrape away the hype and the hyperventilating praise, may in fact be the worst good movie to come along in years. The ultra-spare "mockumentary"--three amateur filmmakers get lost in the woods, something's out to get them, and they won't stop filming--has now reached Titanic levels of hype, and a backlash is now brewing.

I've seen it once. McGowan's seen it three times.

"The primary importance of Blair Witch lies in the inspiration it's given to young filmmakers and wannabes," he points out. "Kids all over are out buying digital cameras right this moment, even as we speak, because of this film."

"Yeah, and most of them will make lousy films," I remark.

"Well, sure," he laughs. "We'll see a lot more shaky camera work at film festivals. There will be more people throwing up from motion sickness."

"What? You didn't like the wobbly camera work in Blair?" I ask.

McGowan rolls his eyes. "Even if you've never held a camcorder before in your life," he says, "you'd be hard pressed to pick one up and shots as bad as some of the shots in The Blair Witch Project. Those kids could have gotten hold of a Steadycam, couldn't they? There's no real reason for all that shaky stuff on the screen, all that bobbing and weaving and sudden drops of the camera. I couldn't stand it in Breaking the Waves and Husbands and Wives--and I can't stand it in NYPD Blue.

"There's no excuse for the camera to be aimed at Jimmy Smits or Dennis Franz, and then have the shot drop for no reason whatsoever--to aim at some ashtray or a corner of the desk or out the window, whatever--and then back up. It's always disturbed me greatly. I don't like it."

"I like it," I confess, "because it simulates what my eye does optically."

McGowan just stares at me, so I continue: "Right now, my eyes are pointed at you as we speak back and forth, but every so often, something will catch my eye in the room--over there, down on the floor, up on the shelf--and my gaze will shift up there for a second, my brain will register that thing, and then my focus will shift back to you. It's the way people see and interact. It puts me in the room with Jimmy Smits. I like it."

"Okay,' he says, raising his hands in surrender. "Your point is well made. In NYPD Blue, there might be a reason for it. But would you want to see it all the time?"

"Um, no," I agree.

"But you're going to," he nods, "because of this one movie."

Fortunately, The Blair Witch Project is significant for more than just the trend-setting sea-sickness of its visual style. According to McGowan, who just yesterday saw INV-BS--that's Invasion of the Body Snatchers--for his thirty-sixth time, Blair Witch may signal a return to a simpler form of storytelling.

"Today, we'd never be scared by anything as subtle as an overgrown bean pod bubbling away in a greenhouse," he says of INV-BS' once shocking imagery. "Or by something as simple and innocent as a big blob of Jell-o rolling down the street in The Blob. Blair Witch is a throwback to the days when we were easily frightened, when the merest suggestion of a threat was enough to have us on the edge of our seats.

"It's a primal need," he continues. "It's ghost-stories-around-the-campfire, it's spooky-faces-made-with-our-flashlights. It's a wonderful thing to be scared by so little."

"That's the real reason Blair Witch is so important., in spite of its flaws," he says. "It's a much needed flashback to a kinder, gentler time. On the other hand, 20 years from now people will be laughing at themselves for having been scared by this. You watch."

We stand up. The matinees will be starting soon. McGowan checks the listings, mumbling that we might have to sink to seeing Mystery Men.

"Gee," I mention as we head for the door, "maybe we should try to just kick the movie habit altogether. Cold turkey."

"Of course not," McGowan shrugs away the thought. "I'll put up with a few bad movies, but I'd never quit movies altogether. And either will you.

"Really," he laughs, "why would we punish ourselves like that?"

 

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From the date-date, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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