AMORES PERROS

Amores Perros is not a film about dogs. It is not a film about love. It is not a film about car accidents. It is, however, about the human instinct to seek love and the ultimate destruction of the human spirit when that love is lost. With Mexico City as the backdrop to a brutal indictment of class disparity, three tales of love and destruction crash together in Alejandro González Iñárritu's classic film.

            Produced and distributed by Alta Vista Films, Amores Perros is the first film in a triptych called "The Trilogy of Death." Iñárritu's debut film of the series communicates similar themes to the following two: love, loss, regret, violence and class disparity. While Perros is the most 'Mexican' of the three, starring Mexican actors and taking place in Mexico City, the triptych represents Iñárritu's overall exploration of the national identity. The film is reminiscent of Luis Buñuel's surrealist cinema, but it plays more deeply into the typical themes of telenovelas. Solidifying all aspects of the film with Mexican themes, locations, actors, etc., allows the film to truly delve into what it means to be Mexican.

            The film opens with a disclaimer, reading, "No animals were harmed in the making of this film." Already, Iñárritu sets up a rather troubling theme throughout the film: violence against and by dogs. Each tale contains action that is motivated by dogs, placing the characters in constant opposition and alignment with their pets. Dogfighting then becomes indicative of the dark underworld of Mexico city. Cofi, the Rottweiler belonging to Octavio and Ramiro, is the vicious champion dog in the numerous fights Octavio puts him in. Cofi is essentially Octavio himself. In the beginning of Octavio's tale, Cofi is simply a pet. The working class family he belongs to is somewhat unaware of his presence until he represents a money-making opportunity. Octavio is also relatively docile in the beginning of the tale, simply lusting after his brother's wife. However, as he begins to use Cofi in dog fights, his character unravels into a crime-prone character who has degenerated into a life of violence. Cofi and Octavio become more and more violent and aggressive toward the end of the film as Octavio grows more lustful for Susana. In the climactic end, when Cofi is shot, Octavio suffers a similar fate.

            Valeria, the protagonist of the second tale, owns a dog named Richie. It is a small lap dog, the K9 darling of her upper class status. Richie is eager for her attention, following her around as she seamlessly moves through her privileged environment. Once Valeria is injured in the fateful car accident, she loses Richie in the floorboards of her elegant apartment. Richie suffers a very similar fate as her owner: he is a victim of fate, of circumstance, and sets off a chain of events that leads to Valeria and Daniel's demise. She was once a supermodel, winning the love of a married man. Once she loses her only value, her beauty, her life spins out of control. Richie and Valeria survive, but are reduced to pitiful versions of their once thriving selves.

            El Chivo, the homeless hit man of the third tale, surrounds himself with stray dogs he takes care of. Their multiplicity resembles his varied identity: respectable revolutionary, terrorist, hit man, homeless man, father, etc. The dogs fill the void of the family that he lost. El Chivo takes Cofi from the car accident of the first tale and helps heal him after he is shot and left for dead. However, Cofi kills all of his dogs, invoking El Chivo's past. As a hit man, Chivo stands in for the Mexico City underclass living on the fringes of society. When he exercises kindness, he is punished for it by a violence-prone animal, much like himself. Cofi will resort to violence because it is in his nature. Because of this violence, El Chivo will never have a family again, no matter how hard he attempts to reconnect with the one he lost.

            The triptych of Iñárritu's three films is repeated in the triptych of his characters. Three tales literally crash together in the opening scene of the car crash. Uniting each character with the car crash allows Iñárritu to connect their stories with a greater story of Mexican identity. The non-linear narrative also reinforces this portrait of life in Mexico City, as it feels more like a slice of life from different perspectives than an unrealistic linear progression. Examining each character reveals the class disparity they represent. Octavio is the working class man driven to a life of crime because of his economic struggles. His brother, Ramiro, is also a criminal. Their story is that of the struggle to survive in Mexico City and the struggle to find well-paying work. The indictment of the working class struggle is shown through the violence the characters are forced to commit. Valeria represents the privilege enjoyed by the high class. She is not bound by economic struggle until she reaches her own violent end in the car crash. Her value as a beautiful woman is diminished when she loses her leg. Daniel begins to stray and she will not find work as a model. Iñárritu creates an indictment of the upper class by portraying the frivolous values and the suffering that occurs when these values are lost. Finally, El Chivo represents the underclass of Mexico City, living on the fringes. He lives in poverty in an abandoned warehouse, dressing in shabby clothing and appearing dirty. When he attempts to regain his lost status in the middle class, he fails, literally walking into the sunset in the end of the film. The indictment of the underclass struggles is shown through his inability to rise out of the depths and back into society, even after he shaves, bathes, and redresses himself to reflect the values of the higher classes.

            Amores Perros is not about dogs, love, or car accidents, but rather the many struggles of life in Mexico City. The opening of the film literally places us in a car whizzing through the expansive city, and we leave it on the outskirts with El Chivo. This excellent film holds true in Iñárritu's undoubtedly canonic contributions to Mexican cinema.

 

TABU

Cinema as an art form offers a unique opportunity to reimagine, reinterpret and reexamine the past. Films become objects of memory. The images they contain immerse themselves into a public discourse and create new meanings. Perhaps the most interesting element of cinema is the meta-narrative that emerges from dialogue between filmmakers. Miguel Gomes employs this meta-narrative in his most recent feature film, Tabu (2012). Gomes, a prominent new Portuguese filmmaker, has given an audience a reimagination of a colonial past that is a rather controversial object of memory. The public discourse surrounding Portuguese colonialism is relatively lacking in film, literature and music. However, his feature cleverly analyzes and critiques the complexities of this discourse. Gomes' Tabu is a meta-critique of cinema, using cinephilic references to expose the artificiality of the art form, storytelling and memory. We are left with what appears to be a love story but is in fact a critique of an audience's preoccupation with an over-indulgent cinematic memory of infidelity against the backdrop of a more controversial colonial past.

            Educated at the Lisbon School of Film and Theater, Gomes became a well-versed cinephile. He previously worked as a film critic and author of theoretical writings on cinema and it is exactly this level of cinematic expertise that we see in Tabu. He has directed three feature films, with a fourth released this year. His first, 2004's The Face You Deserve, received little critical acclaim in the international circuit. The second, 2008's Our Beloved Month of August, fared a little better. But it was Tabu that sent waves through the community, premiering at the Berlin Film Festival and receiving both the FIRPRESCI Prize and the Alfred Bauer Award. Gomes has been receiving critical acclaim as an exciting new Portuguese director ever since. His three feature films contain many cinephilic references alluding to his education in cinema. He explores the themes of national and personal remembrance, memory, melodrama, myth, folk narrative, etc. Gomes' popularity in the festival circuit has allowed his films to appeal to a cinephile audience.

            Tabu was received by this cinephile audience when it premiered at the 2012 Berlin Festival. It stars Laura Soveral, Carloto Cotta, Teresa Madruga, Isabel Cardoso, Ana Moreira and Henrique Espirito Santo, himself a prominent Portuguese film producer. Shot on black and white 35mm and 16mm film, Tabu cleverly references the time of transition between silent and sound cinema, old Hollywood and new Hollywood. The film is separated into a bifurcated narrative with a prologue. Beginning with the prologue, we see an explorer kill himself to be with his dead wife and reincarnated as a crocodile. We transition to "Paradise Lost," part one of the film, with Aurora, Pilar and Santa at the heart of a story of post-colonial struggle. Part two, "Paradise," takes us back in time through Gian Luca's story of this colonial past and the ensuing love affair between him and Aurora.

            The film opens with the prologue, employing a piano track that will be used later in the film. Gomes reads the voice over narration, which shows the explorer in a dialogue with his dead wife. She tells him he "can't run from [his] heart," a phrase that will set the tone for the rest of the film. After he throws himself into the river to be killed by the crocodile, he is reincarnated as one. The melancholic crocodile appears throughout the rest of the film as a metaphor for forbidden desire and freedom from entrapment. The explorer is only free from his sadness when he becomes the crocodile and a sort of apparition with his wife. The prologue is characterized by awkward acting and symmetrical framing which jars a viewer that is otherwise unprepared for such kitsch. In true Gomes style, this sequence is part of a larger meta-narrative of the artificiality of cinema that we will see employed in part one and two of the film.

            Part one, titled "Paradise Lost," opens with a shot of Pilar sitting in a cinema, almost a mirror image of the viewer. This somewhat breaks the fourth wall, jarring the viewer and creating an awareness of the film as an artificial representation of a story. He continues with this technique in the airport scene. Pilar meets a Polish activist and they exchange an awkward dialogue, repeating each sentence three times. Not only is this again jarring for the viewer, but it alludes to the language barrier they both experience, speaking an English that is native to neither one. Their exchange shows Pilar as a quiet, awkward individual with very little character development for the viewer to see. This hollowness allows her to become a witness to the other stories of the films, especially Aurora's. She works as a human rights activist, which we see in another awkward staging of a protest against the UN. Gomes starts with a wide shot of the protest, then zooms in to a whispering Pilar as she prays to St. Anthony. The camera movement isolates her among a crowd of silent protesters, developing her representation as a hollow individual; we don't know what she is protesting. Her job as an activist also develops her role as a witness to Gian Luca's story. Gian Luca is played by Henrique Espirito Santo, a prominent film producer in Portugal, which Gomes cleverly cast to appeal to his cinephile audience.

            Throughout Paradise Lost, we see the characters each interacting with a story that references the colonial past of Portugal. When Aurora is found at the casino, penniless and ashamed, she tells Pilar a story of a dream that persuaded her to go there. The camera stays stationary but the background, blurred and dark, subtly rotates behind each character. We have no information regarding the actual construction of the casino so it is safe to assume that Gomes employed this technique as a stylistic device. The spinning background essentially isolates the viewer with the two characters in a separate space of storytelling and dreams. As the background spins, the viewer stays completely engulfed in Aurora's dream. The setting itself is dreamlike and dizzying, exposing the artificiality of her story and the construction of cinematic space. As she speaks about her dream, she refers to monkeys...her late husband...all in present-day Lisbon. This fuses her colonial past with the present-day Lisbon. Gomes uses this scene to create a metaphor of Portugal's own dizzying, strange memory of its colonial past.

            Santa's interaction with the colonial past and post-colonial present manifests itself in the form of a book: Robinson Cruesoe. The novel was used as a manual for early colonialism but Santa uses it to learn Portuguese. The irony that emerges from this connection exposes Santa's post-colonial struggle through illiteracy and underpaid employment as a housemaid. The novel tells the story

of obedient, domesticated 'savages' that are best used as servants and slaves. Again, we see Gomes' critique of the post-colonial struggle of Africans in Portugal because Santa works as a sort of servant to a former colonist. In the scene when Santa is in her language class, she is asked to explain the novel's synopsis. Gomes pans left to a close up of the back of Santa's head and as she turns to explain, he cuts to the next shot. We essentially leave the cinematic space before we can hear her perspective on the story. Gomes cuts away in order to show that the story of the colonial past is too complex to be told through one story, especially by someone who has lived it. Although part two attempts to take this task on, he does so through the gaze of the white colonists. We end Paradise Lost in a café with Gian Luca, Santa and Pilar having a coffee. The café is decorated with plastic recreations of an African landscape. Gomes cleverly places the characters here to begin his transition into part two. The fake African landscape makes Gian Luca's story a perfect metaphor for the artificiality of storytelling and memory. The very next shots we see are of the real landscape, smoothing the transition between the two parts.

            Part two, titled, "Paradise," refers to a cinematic past long gone. It is like a memory of the transition between silent and sound cinema, playing on the quality and construction of old Hollywood films. The first line of Gian Luca's story is, "She had a farm in Africa." This line is the exact same line in 1985's Out of Africa, a film about infidelity in colonial Africa. The parallel being drawn between the two films is not necessarily that of infidelity, but rather the memory and representation of colonial Africa and the pre-occupation with the stories of the white colonists. He also refers to 1962's Hatari! and 1953's Mogambo with the theme of a group of men, big game hunting in Africa and disturbed by the intervention of a beautiful white woman. The references to a cinematic past go beyond the black and white, 16mm, semi-silent quality of Paradise. The film's own title, Tabu, plays on the 1931 Murnau film Tabu: A Story of the South Seas. Murnau also divided his film into 'Paradise' and 'Paradise Lost,' although the order was reversed. Sally Faulkner, in her essay titled 'Cinephilia and the Unrepresentable in Miguel Gomes' Tabu,' writes, "This is filmmaking that is intertwined with memory, including, but not limited to, the living memories of the period that remain in Portugal, but encompassing too the prosthetic memories of Portuguese and transnational audiences, acquired through accounts of the experience of family members and--especially here--acquired through film."[1] end quote The memory of colonial Africa has been preserved and severely distorted through cinema. Gomes borrows from the technique of these old filmmakers to critique their very representations and to assert that the memory of the colonial past is false and prosthetic.

            The sound design of Paradise is not entirely silent. We receive some diegetic sonic cues, like the splashes of Aurora's rocks in the pool where her crocodile swims. However, using a mostly-silent sound design makes part two an object of memory of a cinematic space where these themes were first explored. Gomes connects his use of silent-cinema to the death it experienced, as well as the death of colonialism. The two are both invoked as remnants of the distant past.

            Gian Luca's voiceover drives the narrative and we are only given the information that he controls. He is able to tell the story but not every detail that occurred, including dialogue. To enhance the theme of storytelling in part two, Gomes simply left out the words that the characters exchange. Mark Peranson, in his review titled 'A Few Crazy Thoughts on Tabu,' writes, "The voiceover for that very reason captures the feeling that (as Gomes notes), 'Nothing can be said,' the lovers' silence foretelling the fated end of their affair."[2] end quote Their silence allows Gian Luca to control the entire story and all of its information. Gian Luca tells his story to a spellbound Pilar and Santa. Paradise then becomes the cinematic imagination of Pilar, the cinephile from part one. Her imagination of the story would be cinematically constructed, owing to her love for film that we see in part one. The romantic, silent-era film quality of part two comes from her interaction with this era of filmmaking, and the lack of African representation comes from her own lack of experience as a colonized person. Sally Faulkner writes, "The game here is that of a self-consciously cinephilic re-imagining of a Portuguese African colony, which is closer to a dream than a documentary. It is obviously and self-consciously subjective--the period would hardly be described as 'Paradise' from the perspective of the colonized."[3] end quote. Pilar's prosthetic, cinematic re-imagining of the colonial past lacks the depth of personal experience. As the hollow character of the first half, we have no reason to believe she has ever been to Africa, which explains her absolute involvement in Gian Luca's storytelling. Faulkner continues, "As he begins to speak, Gomes' camera focuses on the spellbound Pilar and Santa, which echoes the earlier self-reflective scenes where we have watched Pilar watching films."[4] end quote Opening 'Paradise Lost' with the shot of Pilar absorbed in her film in the theater and closing part one with the same level of mesmerized involvement places Pilar at the center of part two in a cinematic space of imagination.  

            The affair occurs against the backdrop of African laborers, which creates a feeling of over-indulgence and ridiculous behavior. Faulkner writes, "Rather than relegate the work carried out by Africans to the background, Gomes crosscuts between their toil and the Europeans' antics, rendering the latter all the more self-indulgent."[5] end quote Gian Luca's story sounds all the more ridiculous as we see the plight of the colonized. It is almost as if the white colonists are bent on self-destruction. When the lovers read their letters in the end, Gomes uses shots of the landscape dotted with African laborers to further his critique of their over-indulgence and the artificiality of the story.

            Finally, Paradise ends with the murder of Gian Luca's best friend and the birth of Aurora's daughter. The African village where it all occurs alters the cinematic space we have previously been shown. For the first time, we see the colonized in their own environment, unobstructed by the white colonists. This is also the point where Pilar's perspective shifts to Santa's perspective. Instead of an absurd European love affair, we see a lived colonial past that could only be imagined by Santa. Gomes gives us several cinematic cues to mark this perspective shift. When Aurora shoots Mario, we see the first point-of-view shots in the whole film. First, we peer through Gian Luca's fingers at Aurora. Then, we shift to Mario's canted, 90 degree angle as he lay dead on the floor. Last, we see through the eyes of the two African children watching from the window. As the point-of-view shifts finally to that of the Africans, the final sequences shift to a documentary style rather than an old Hollywood style. Gomes uses handheld camera shots as the truck pulls away from Gian Luca and also shows the last POV shot through the eyes of the African men sitting on the back of the truck. This shot is an exact mirror to an earlier shot from the sequence in which Aurora is hunting. However, we don't see the POV of the men in the truck because the sequence occurs in Pilar's imagination; we have not yet shifted to Santa's. In the end shot, we see their POV, enhancing the documentary style and perspective shift. Gomes ends his film with Santa's lived imagination of the colonial past to complete his critique of storytelling and cinema as memory.

            Tabu begins as a kitschy, romantic love story that experiences a heartbreaking end. However, Gomes uses part two to criticize our preoccupation with a flimsy love story in the style of romantic, old Hollywood cinema. His meta-narrative of the artificiality of cinema as memory allows us to see his greater initiative of exposing Portugal's lack of an accurate film representation of its colonialism. Instead of producing a film about the colonial past that examines its complexities, Gomes gives us Tabu as a critique of our artificial, prosthetic memory of this past.

 

[1] Sally Faulkner, "Cinephilia and the Unrepresentable in Miguel Gomes' Tabu (2012)," Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal and Latin America, (2015): 352

[2] Mark Peranson, "A Few Crazy Thoughts on Tabu," Cinemascope, (2012)

[3] Sally Faulkner, "Cinephilia and the Unrepresentable in Miguel Gomes' Tabu (2012)," 352

[4] Sally Faulkner, "Cinephilia and the Unrepresentable in Miguel Gomes' Tabu (2012)," 352

[5] Sally Faulkner, "Cinephilia and the Unrepresentable in Miguel Gomes' Tabu (2012)," 355

THE FATHER, THE SON, AND THE UNHOLY FEMININE

An unholy female is hardly an unusual character in American films. These women act out in ways that are socially taboo, threatening the 'order' of things and requiring a form of punishment in the end. Female iniquity is frequently explored in the horror genre, transporting its own set of genre conventions that create a formulaic representation of the 'unholy feminine.' And within the horror genre exists a subgenre: the possession film. Arguably one of the most famous examples of this subgenre is William Friedkin's 1973 classic, The Exorcist. Numerous iterations of this film have been produced and reproduced over the decades, sometimes gaining success and sometimes not. But an unlikely match comes in the form of Robert Eggers' The Witch (2015). Both films deal with a family torn apart by an infiltrating force of some kind, whether it be the Devil itself or forces of black magic and witchcraft. Horror movies that deal with the subjects of witchcraft and possession do so by depending on and reinforcing the gender binary and patriarchal structures, especially when considering two bastions of patriarchal order: i.e., the church and the home. However, I argue that The Exorcist and The Witch both subvert this genre history and redefine the possessed woman as an agent for her own empowerment and resistance to male control.

            The possession film and its genre conventions have been subject to much debate and scholarship. Various critics have noted, however, that these genre conventions tend to place the male protagonists at the center of the narrative. Barbara Creed writes, "Although a great deal has been written about the horror film, very little of that work has discussed the representation of woman-as-monster. Instead, emphasis has been on woman as victim of the (mainly male) monster."[1] The focus is typically on how men influence the story. However, these narratives are rooted in the feminine.  The conventions introduce a possessed woman who must undergo a ritual of purification to restore the patriarchal order. Creed continues her criticism with, "The presence of the monstrous-feminine in the popular horror film speaks to us more about male fears than about female desire or female subjectivity. However, this presence does challenge the views that the male spectator is almost always situated in an active, sadistic position and the female spectator in a passive, masochistic one."[2] The genre conventions almost require the men to be agents of change and purification. The possessed women are not only frightening to the audience, but to the men who must control them. While the typical possession film places emphasis on the male efforts to restore female purity and patriarchal order, this is not the case in The Exorcist or The Witch. I argue that these 'possessed women' should really be read as agents of their own will, rather than the will of whatever male is controlling them. The conventions The Exorcist and The Witch subvert and redefine then become a vehicle for narratives of female resistance rather than a regurgitation of yet another restoration of patriarchal repression.

Part One

            To understand the subversion of genre conventions in The Exorcist and The Witch, we must first understand why these women are possessed. I argue that women are the foundation of the home, and repressed sexuality is the glue that holds this home together. The possession of the female characters in the two films, Regan and Thomasin, respectively, occurs because they begin to possess their own sexuality. Rather than a possession by an exterior, infiltrating force, they undergo an act of self-empowerment and ownership of sexuality that threatens to topple the foundation of the homes in which they reside. And in both films, they do.

            Both Regan and Thomasin are introduced as pure, innocent young women. They are susceptible to possession, or ownership of sexuality, for several reasons. Regan lives in modern Georgetown, portrayed as a city outside of religious rule. Her father is absent, her mother is single and the two share a rather affectionate relationship. Although she begins as an almost pure character, we see the first signs of 'bad behavior' in the doctors' office. She immediately begins cussing, acting disobediently and harboring resentment for male characters. Thomasin's susceptibility appears much sooner in The Witch. She is beginning to 'tempt' her younger brother with her new womanly body, defies the authoritative rule of her parents, and thinks for herself.

            Both Regan and Thomasin undergo transformations that allude to their sexuality and empowerment. Creed writes, "Regan's transformation from angel into devil is clearly a sexual one; it suggests that the family home, bastion of all the right virtues and laudable moral values, is built on a foundation of repressed sexual desires..."[3] The strength of the home is dependent on patriarchal order; the men allow the women to express sexuality only when it benefits this order. Regan and Thomasin, both on the cusp between girlhood and womanhood, are also deciding between sexual repression and sexual expression. Their choice, sexual expression, manifests itself as a possession. This time between girlhood and womanhood represents the paramount time in which a new family is built and an old family is abandoned. The exploration of sexuality therefore threatens the household. We see Regan's sexual transformation occurring gradually as her possession takes effect. She makes sexual comments to her doctors, grabs the genitals of a hypnotist, and in a climactic scene, forces the face of her mother into her bloodied genitals. The bed is also the center of her transformation. It is the location of her sexual empowerment, growing more volatile as she grows more possessed. Regan's sexual transformation is perhaps most explicit when the doctor tells her mother, "Mrs. MacNeil, the problem with your daughter is not her bed. It's her brain."[4] The male doctor attempts to condemn her sexual behavior as a matter of abnormal mental behavior, rather than an expression of the female form. Thomasin's transformation is also sexual. As she grows more defiant and outspoken, she entertains the sexual curiosity of Caleb. Though hers is less gradual than Regan's, her final transformation occurs when she sleeps with the Devil, strips naked, and wanders into a circle of dancing naked women. She effectively owns her own sexuality, completing her transformation from girl to woman.

            Regan and Thomasin's ownership of their sexuality threatens to topple the foundation of the home built on repressed sexuality. However, the mothers in both films are able to own their own sexuality while still playing a role in the patriarchal order. It is just the women undergoing transformations from girls to women that can destroy this order. The mothers' abilities to be both sexual and patriarchal are attributed to their benefits to patriarchal order. Though Chris, Regan's mother, is supposedly in an extra-marital relationship with her director, she is still beholden to the patriarchal structures of the church and the home. She requests the help of the male priests and believes in their ability to purify her daughter and restore order. Katherine, Thomasin's mother, delivers a particularly sexual speech when she speaks of Christ's "affection far exceeding that of the most affectionate husband."[5] However, her position in the patriarchal order is protected because of her attempt to repress Thomasin's newfound sexuality.

            If The Exorcist and The Witch were beholden to genre conventions of the possession film, then the possessor would be a male force. However, neither Regan nor Thomasin are possessed by a male devil. Rather, they are possessed by sexual liberation and empowerment as an act of their own agency. Creed writes, "In films depicting invasion by the devil, the victim is almost always a young girl, the invader the male devil. One of the major boundaries traversed is that between innocence and corruption, purity and impurity. The Exorcist is usually seen as involving a case of possession by the male devil. However, I will argue that the devil, in this case, may well be female."[6] If Creed's assertion that the devil possessing Regan is incorrect, then Regan is just another possessed girl who must undergo a ritual of purification to return to a place of patriarchal order. If her assertion is correct, which I argue it is, then Regan is an agent for female resistance to patriarchal order. Invasion by a male devil would reinforce the patriarchal order because of the inherent male-on-female violence. But Regan, possessed by a female devil, commits female-on-male violence that destroys this order. This violence against men, from grabbing genitals to tossing them out of windows, exposes her female resistance. When Damien plays a recording of the devil's voice backwards, it is Regan's voice. Regan's possessor is in fact a female devil, and one that sounds quite a bit like Regan herself. The devil in The Witch is clearly male, revealed in the end to be the family goat, Black Phillip. But is this the infiltrating force possessing Thomasin? I argue that the peril of the family, the destruction of the Puritanical home and the sexual transformation of Thomasin have nothing to do with Black Phillip or the witch of the wood. The infiltrating force is actually the dissolution of faith and patriarchal order. Again, genre conventions are subverted because Thomasin is not possessed or compelled by an exterior, male force. The horror of the film occurs at the behest of a patriarchal family collapsing in on itself.

            In the end of each film, the sexuality of both Regan and Thomasin is fully expressed. However, the final frames of each film exposes a divergence of their overarching subversion of genre conventions. In The Exorcist, Regan's sexual transformation is a monstrous one. She becomes grotesque. In the final sequence, the last living priest character walks past the stairs where many of her victims died. This not only alludes to the danger of Regan's newfound sexuality, but also leaves her 'purity' ambiguous. I argue that her purity is not restored, but her sexuality is not entirely liberated either. Regan, as a woman, is still an object of suspicion. Thomasin's sexual transformation is not monstrous. She remains feminine, floating light as air towards the sky in her most female form. Her naked body is unmarked and she appears joyous and completely empowered. Creed writes, "Central to these imitations was a strong sense of the vulnerability of the         body and its susceptibility to possession. They also focused attention on the graphic detailed representation of bodily destruction."[7] Again, Regan's monstrous transformation marks her entire body. However, still in line with subverted genre conventions, her grotesque image is healed when she has destroyed the remaining pieces of patriarchal order, i.e. Father Damien. Thomasin's body, unmarked, does not suffer this typical graphic representation of transformation. Her only physical, graphic representation comes in the form of her naked body floating above the circle.

            If the foundation of the home is built on repressed sexuality, then both homes have suffered from the liberation of this sexuality. Regan's home is not destroyed nor restored of patriarchal order, just moved to a different location. This also alludes to the ambiguous ending and her status as an object of suspicion. Thomasin's home is completely destroyed with no chance of restored patriarchal order. Once her entire family has died, she re-enters her home to undergo the final sequence of transformation. 

Part Two

            The Exorcist and The Witch subvert genre conventions through their portrayal of sexuality and the foundation of the home. Also central to these two films is their representation of men and women. The conflicts in both films arise from a power exchange between men and women, rather than Christ and the Devil or purity and impurity. Centralizing the conflict between men and women, again, subverts genre conventions of the possession film and places the power in the hands of the female characters.

            In The Exorcist, Regan is constantly at odds with male characters. Creed writes, "Various patters and conflicts in The Exorcist suggest that the central struggle is between men and women, the 'fathers' and the 'mothers.' This struggle is played out in relation to the black-garbed crones/witches and Father Merrin; Chris MacNeil and her husband; Father Damien and his mother; Father Damien and the abandoned women in the hospital; Regan and the fathers of the Church as well as the men of the medical profession. The wider struggle is played out or concentrated in the relationship between Regan and Father Damien. Whereas Regan-as-devil is powerful, Father Damien as a representative of God is weak and impotent. Not only has he lost his faith, he is thinking of leaving the Church."[8] Not only is the central conflict played out between men and women, but men are portrayed as weak and unable to defeat the empowered woman. A similar conflict plays out in The Witch as Thomasin clashes with her father and Caleb, and between her mother and father.

            In both films, the women and men are portrayed as either powerful and threatening or weak and impotent. The women in The Exorcist are all portrayed as abnormal and threatening. In the opening with Father Merrin, he encounters only toothless, old women clothed in black robes. They stare with scrutiny at him, and he grows more and more threatened by their presence. Regan, while seemingly innocent and pure, possesses some characteristics of an already empowered young girl. Her name even recalls King Lear's daughter, the serpent-like girl who disobeys her father. In The Witch, the women are portrayed as doubtful and scrutinizing. Thomasin, although virtuous and well behaved, questions her father's decisions and attempts to control her family. Her mother is also quite empowered, constantly clashing with her husband and even striking him. The men in The Exorcist and The Witch are all infected with some form of impotence. In The Exorcist, the priests are unable to do anything about Regan and the doctors are completely stumped. Her father is absent and doesn't call her on her birthday. In The Witch, Thomasin's father can't grow corn or hunt; he cannot control his spiteful wife or provide for his family. All of the men also suffer from a lack of belief and faith. Father Damien questions his faith until he sees an image of his dead mother within Regan. Thomasin's father accuses himself of being prideful.

            The central conflicts of each film originate at the hands of the patriarchal order. An absent father and impotent priests and doctors make way for Regan's complete ownership of her sexuality. A prideful father delivers Thomasin and her family to the brink of collapse. His blind ignorance of the danger he puts his family in becomes clear when he tells Caleb on a bed of dead corn, "We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us." His wife attempts to alert him of his pride when she tells him, "You've cursed this family." Placing the fault on her husband only solidifies the rising conflict at the behest of the patriarchal order he refuses to let go of. He neglects to admit fault for the damage he has done until his daughter is accused of witchcraft, at which point he shouts, "Corruption! Thou art my father!" Again, the patriarchal order is at fault for the conflict, placing the corruption in the hands of the father.

            The patriarchal structures and institutions that attempt to control these conflicts are unable to do so in both The Exorcist and The Witch. According to Ian Olney, these films "...openly celebrate transgressive femininity by making both the possessed and the possessor women, and by refiguring possession as a transmission of female excess that representatives of religious or patriarchal authority are, more often than not, powerless to prevent."[9] Regarding the church, the hospital and the home as patriarchal structures exposes their inability to prevent collapse when one possessed female arrives. Regan and Thomasin are powerful, their religions and homes are powerless. We see this powerlessness in The Exorcist when every priest who comes in contact with Regan dies. The doctors also suffer when they are unable to understand Regan's transformation. They stare at her as her body violently convulses in an act of sexual aggression, powerless at the sight of a woman owning her own body. When Regan and Damien are fighting in the final climax, she tears off his St. Joseph medallion, the symbol of the universal church and fatherly protection, and then kills him. Although Regan returns to her original state, she is not cured nor purified by Damien's act. Damien is simply disposed of. In The Witch, her father's attempt to restore Puritanical religious order fails and he dies at the hands of Black Phillip. His impotence is fully expressed when the most sure-of-faith character is killed by the devil himself.

            The power exchange between male and female causes conflict for the characters. Possession film genre conventions construct the feminine as something that must be controlled, and this control is restored through a ritual of purification. The ritual restores the patriarchal order, but neither Regan nor Thomasin undergoes this purifying ritual. In The Exorcist, the order is not restored because all of the men are dead, the father is still absent, and the female devil is not banished. In The Witch, Thomasin blossoms in the absence of patriarchal order. Her transformation, that of pure empowerment, is untouched by a ritual of purification. The conventional representation of a woman going through a ritual of purification is subverted when both women flourish in the absence of patriarchal order. This blossoming is most evident in Thomasin. In the first frame of the film, we see Thomasin's face. The camera is placed above her, so the audience looks down on her in a position of power. Gradually throughout the film, this shot is repeated. However, the camera moves gradually downward until the final frame when we are looking up at her in the position of the powerless. This represents her absolute empowerment and agency in the absence of patriarchy.

            The typical act of ritual purification to restore patriarchal order leads to conflict in both films. The attempt to purify Regan ends badly for Burke, when he fills the absent father role and is thrown out the window. The attempt to purify Thomasin ends badly for her mother who tries to kill her. I argue that Regan and Thomasin ritually purify the patriarchal order rather than the patriarchal order possessing them. When Regan kills all the men who try to purify her, she is fully transformed into a liberated woman. The significance of only the men dying in the film alludes to a reversal of the ritual of purification; the patriarchy is 'purified' of its impotent men. Similarly in The Witch, Thomasin purifies the patriarchal order when she kills her mother. This effectively liberates her from her Puritanical future. Caleb also undergoes a ritual of purification in perhaps the most religious scene of the film. After he is led into the woods, an anecdote told by the mother about Christ earlier in the film, Caleb gives into his desire with the witch. When he returns, he spits out the apple that represents his 'sin' and is purified of all evil. He then recites a John Winthrop poem about love of Christ and 'enters heaven.' Caleb represents Christ being led into the woods by the devil and expelling this sin when he devotes his love to god. This purification, though fitting for their devout faith, comes at the expense of his life and puts the final touches on the destroyed patriarchal order.

            This order, as argued in part one, is dependent on the repression of sexuality. Creed writes, "Woman is constructed as possessed when she attacks the symbolic order, highlights its weaknesses, plays on its vulnerabilities; specifically, she demonstrates that the symbolic order is a sham built on sexual repression and the sacrifice of the mother."[10] Regan, upon sexual empowerment, effectively destroys her mother's career after killing Burke. Thomasin actually murders her mother. The expulsion of the mother is significant because it represents the other half of the patriarchal order; there is no patriarchy without the wife and mother. This symbolic order is expelled to make way for a new, liberated, sexual woman who has undergone a complete transformation. Thomasin's future diverges into two possibilities in the final sequence. She can either accept the symbolic order in place and become her mother, or kill her mother and become the witch. When she kills her mother, the witch becomes not only a principal character but also a representation of Thomasin's future. The witch is Thomasin the entire film. It doesn't become clear until the end when she makes her deal with the devil. The seduction of Caleb, loss of the baby, and murder of the twins are all accusations thrown at her by her family. They do not become the truth until she chooses her fate, effectively liberating herself from the scrutiny of her family and the Puritanical patriarchy.

Conclusion

            Fearing the unholy female is paramount to the possession film and the horror genre. Capitalizing on the male fear of women who own their own sexuality, conventional possession films create a problematic narrative of female subservience to this symbolic order. However, The Witch and The Exorcist subvert these genre conventions in their narratives rooted in female resistance. Barbara Creed writes, "She may appear pure and beautiful on the outside but evil may, nevertheless, reside within. It is this stereotype of feminine evil--beautiful on the outside/corrupt within--that is so popular within patriarchal discourses about woman's evil nature."[11] These dangerous women threaten the foundation of a sexually repressed home. The ownership of their own sexuality will tip the balance of girlhood and womanhood in a direction that does not favor the patriarchal order. Witches are scary because they are not beholden to the wills of men. Female devils are scary because they reveal the powerlessness of the strongest patriarchal structures. Both
The Exorcist and The Witch subvert genre conventions to argue that women are powerful when liberated or made agents of their own sexuality. Rather than condemn and punish them, they are freed from patriarchal chains. The unholy feminine is therefore redefined in Regan and Thomasin, revealing a new set of genre conventions that rely on female resistance and self-empowerment.

 

[1] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 1

[2] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 7

[3] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 35

[4] William Friedkin, The Exorcist, Film, directed by William Friedkin (1973; USA: Warner Bros.), DVD.

[5] Robert Eggers, The Witch, Film, directed by Robert Eggers (2015; USA: A24)

[6] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 32

[7] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 31

[8] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 37

[9] Ian Olney, "Unmanning The Exorcist: Sex, Gender and Excess in the 1970s Euro-Horror Possession Film." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 31 (2014): 561

[10] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 41

[11] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge, 1993), 42

EASY RIDER

After the decline of the Studio System, Hollywood had to adapt to the changing audience. The American youth was gaining more power through countercultural movements in the 60s and the advent of the drug culture. With the Vietnam War raging overseas, the youth grew more and more suspicious of authority and the government. The films emerging from this cultural turbulence can be classified as New Hollywood. For the first time, the directors of this movement had attended film school and returned with a breadth of aesthetic knowledge to apply to their films. Some of the thematic characteristics are iconoclasm, anti-establishment, sex, drugs and rock and roll.  These themes were achieved through aesthetics such as open endings, non-linear narratives, location shooting and an emphasis on realism. Easy Rider (1969) by Dennis Hopper is perhaps the most poignant film to emerge from New Hollywood. This film exemplifies New Hollywood’s thematic, aesthetic and industrial concerns through the use of location shooting, an emphasis on realism, a more lax ratings system and countercultural themes, especially in the scene in which the two men take acid.

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            The acid trip scene successfully mirrors the culture of the time. American youth were experimenting more with drugs, sex and ideals. This scene not only shows the men taking acid, but portrays their trip through a series of disjunctive images. The women, who are also on acid, are either naked or engaging in sexual acts with the men. This also mirrors the cultural themes of the 60s with the loosening of sexual standards for men and women. Perhaps the most prevalent theme of this scene is the lack of negative light cast on doing a hard drug like acid. It is almost romanticized instead of cautioning the audience about the dangers of acid.

            This scene accurately portrays the hallucinations of an acid trip, adhering to the emphasis on realism that New Hollywood was known for. First, the scene is shot on location in New Orleans. Taking the production out of the studios emphasizes the reality of the scene due to the uniqueness of the New Orleans cemetery. The scene is also heavily reliant on natural lighting. The light leaks and shadows cast by the real cemetery make the acid trip feel authentic. The non-linear construction of images creates a disjunctive narrative that, again, authenticates the acid trip. Flashes of spinning branches are intercut between images of the woman stripping and the man holding the bible. These are just a few images out of the many, rapidly cut shots that construct a realistic acid trip.

            All of these thematic and aesthetic features of the acid trip scene were achieved by the removal of the Hays Code. In its place, the new ratings system was set up. This system allowed for more controversial themes in the films emerging from the New Hollywood era. The acid trip was a graphic portrayal of a hard drug’s hallucinogenic properties. Before the ratings system, this kind of controversial content would not make it into the final cut of the film. The ratings system also allowed the films to portray more realistic characters because of the allowance of controversial content.

            Easy Rider emerged from the New Hollywood era as an extremely influential film. The anti-establishment theme coupled with the characters’ yearning for a new order and countercultural interactions created a youthful, iconoclastic film that adhered to the aesthetics, themes and cultural references of the time.

VELVET GOLDMINE

Todd Hayne’s 1998 film Velvet Goldmine tells the story of several queer musicians in the glam rock era through the memory of Arthur Stuart. The film is known for its lavish mise-en-scene, indulgent editing techniques and garish cinematography. However, its most poignant portrayal is the struggle for glam rock to define a queer identity. Brian Slade and Curt Wild each represent actual musicians from the era, but exaggerate their pop culture presence by playing up the queerness of their identities. The film unfolds in the temporal loops of Stuart’s memory, often blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Velvet Goldmine portrays an attempt to construct and maintain a queer identity through temporal, non-linear narratives and the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality in a historical narrative of the glam rock era.

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            Arthur Stuart’s mind acts as a portal to the era of glam rock. We witness the various identities, performances and relationships of the time through his memories. When Stuart is given the assignment to track down Slade and write about him, he asks why he was chosen. His editor replies, “Because you remember.” This validation of his motives sends Arthur on a turbulent journey to the past in an attempt to construct a narrative of Slade’s life and career. It is this precise use of memory that is so necessary to forming a history. The rest of the film is characterized by Arthur’s memory of the glam rock era and especially of Brian Slade. In the film, glam rock is portrayed as a kind of queer discovery. Stuart’s memory of Brian Slade is his own queer discovery, and he relies on glam rock to validate this discovery.

            The narrative, driven by flashbacks to Stuart’s past, raises a question of “truth.” History is only a construction of memories, and Stuart’s memories represent his own truth about the glam rock era and the queer identity that emerged from it. In one scene, he is sitting in front of the TV, watching as Brian Slade declares his bisexuality on national television. Stuart leaps in the air, screaming, “That’s me! That’s me!” only to return to his position on the floor, his parents unaffected. This immediately tells us that his interjection occurred entirely in his imagination. He remains trapped in his own mind, in denial of his homosexuality. The first shot of him leaping up and declaring his identity is replaced by a shot of him in the same position, creating juxtaposition between the fantasy of his leap and the reality of his stagnant position on the floor. He remembers this moment as the moment he internally recognized his identity. We recognize this moment as a blend between what verifiably happened and what he remembers happening. This acts as a characterization of the entire narrative. Stuart’s memory is a construction of reality and his desires of what could have been. In a sense, the history of the glam rock era, Brian Slade, and his own sexuality is simply a product of his own construction. It contains truths as well as exaggerations and false realities. Rather than viewing the rest of the film as an accurate way of peering into the past, we understand it as a construction of memories.

            Stuart’s truth about his sexuality emerges as a temporal fold between the origin of his identification and the present moment of his silence as he sits on the floor, gazing back at his unwavering parents. The moment in which he identifies as a homosexual also introduces the role of glam rock in his identification, carried out by Brian Slade. The TV scene is constructed with a jump cut between the two shots in which he leaps, and is returned to his seated position on the floor. The rest of the film encapsulates this editing technique with fades, dissolves, cross-cutting, etc. This kind of indulgent, lavish editing reflects the indulgence and over-the-top identity of the queer glam rock era itself. The narrative is told through a series of disjunctive, non-linear flashbacks, passing temporally out of order. Haynes chose this creative editing structure to tell its own, separate narrative. The non-traditional, discontinuous progression of scenes and shots create an interaction between the film and the audience that is extremely self-aware and even garish at times. The editing becomes a reflection of not only Stuart’s disjunctive memory of the glam rock era, but also its developing queer identity that is often confusing and non-linear.

            The glam rock era identity is most poignantly shown through lavish mise-en-scene. The costumes, hair and makeup are colorful and showy. The setting is almost always dark, lit by an array of colorful lights that cast a romantic glow on the characters. The mise-en-scene accurately portrays the identity of the characters and glam rock, especially in their desire to return to the era. When Stuart tracks Mandy Slade down to find out where Brian is living, she is wearing all black. She sits in a club under an unflattering, bright light. Her costume is boring and lacking the indulgent colors and shapes of glam rock. This scene portrays her as bitter, wanting to return to the past where her identity as the queer wife of Brian Slade remains. She reflects on her relationship, and she flashes back to a brighter, more colorful and showy setting, complete with the over-the-top costumes. Her identity was shaped in that era; it flourished there. She desires nothing more than to return to glam rock. The harsh lighting of the club on her dark costume contrasts the warm lighting, textures and colors of her flashback. We see this desire in each of the characters at some point throughout the film. At the “End of Glitter” concert, Curt Wild performs an emotional “Gimme Danger” while Mandy and Brian look on. He is framed as if he is alone on stage, riddled with the desire to return to Slade. Brian is in the back of the auditorium, looking at Wild perform, unable to confront his ex-wife or ex-lover. The characters create a trifecta in the filmic space of the auditorium, with Stuart in the middle. Their layout reflects their detachment from the glam rock era and in effect, each other. Stuart remains in the middle, connecting the three with the various interactions he shared with each. However, the three remain on an inevitable path away from their identities as glam rock superstars. Each desires a return to the “good old days” but cannot due to the clash of their individual identities.

            Stuart’s temporal, disjunctive loops of memory slowly accumulate to an overarching narrative of struggling identities. Brian represents the catalyst to Stuart’s identification as a homosexual. Mandy and Curt represent two characters on the fringes of their own identities, seeking nothing but a return to the past. The textured, lavish and indulgent mise-en-scene builds to a climactic rise and fall of the glam rock era, and the identities of each character involved.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA

            Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) was screened at the Cinematheque series and I was in attendance. I chose to attend this event because of the critical acclaim of its Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Born in 1959, Ceylan is internationally renowned, winning the Cannes Grand Prix for this 2011 film. He is considered an auteur because of his deep involvement with his films. Ceylan’s background in photography is very clear in this film with the dependence on natural light. Ceylan’s lighting in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia reveals the vast landscape of the Eastern Turkish region in a tense, eerie manner to reinforce the suspenseful narrative.

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            The film begins with a long take of the setting sun over Anatolia. A car drives up from the distance, casting a yellow glow on the landscape from the headlights. The cars are greatly contrasted against the vast, barren hills. This kind of lighting is heavily depended on throughout the film as it takes place primarily at night. The same headlights frame the men as they travel around the countryside, searching for a body. As they search in the dark, we either see their silhouettes or an extremely striking, bright image of the men. This reveals the vastness of the landscape and the hopelessness of searching for a body in the dark. At several points, there are light leaks from the headlights, making the presence of the camera very obvious.

            The hopelessness of their search is revealed through the use of lighting. In a climactic scene, the men are searching in a canyon and the headlights illuminate it from behind. The wind blows and leaves from the trees fall all around the doctor and the inspector. There is only diegetic sound of leaves and wind, creating a tense, ominous feeling which mirrors the climax of the scene. It is at this point when the men decide to search in the morning, essentially giving in to the hopelessness of the darkness and the landscape.

            My favorite scene in the film occurs when the mayor’s daughter brings the tired men drinks. She enters the room quietly, illuminated by a single lantern. She appears in the darkness, with the light cast only on her face. It gives the impression of an angelic, surreal image. Her appearance coincides with Kenan’s hallucination in which he sees his victim in the room. This adds to the surreal tone of the scene, but also represents the turning point of the film. After they see her, their search becomes less daunting and ultimately leads to the discovery of the body.

            Throughout the film, the various locations in which they search become increasingly more hopeless. The eerie, unnatural light cast by the headlights is the only source of illumination for the men. Before the mayor’s daughter sparks a turning point in their investigation, Anatolia remains a vast, barren land, impenetrable by even the brightest lights. Ceylan’s photographic background gives him a great advantage to understanding light and its abilities to drive and create a narrative.