Sunday, February 18, 2007

Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon: The Exorcist

This is my contribution to Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon.

Nothing I thought of since this was first announced really excited my critical muse, so I did not, as I had planned, write and consider, edit and re-edit a truly excellent piece of film criticism. I'm told, however, that my blog is like the guy standing outside the theater stating his opinion just a little too loudly to make sure plenty of people outside his group hear him, and I'm vaguely pleased with that take.

Yesterday, I dismissed Silence of the Lambs to a friend, as a means to explain my disinterest in the new Hannibal Rising. For a moment that seemed a good choice.

Ultimately, while I think it was overpraised a mainstream "thriller", a legitimate genre description, here used as a marketing euphemism. I think Manhunter did a much better job capturing the world of Thomas Harris as drama, especially the performance of Brian Cox as a malignant yet brilliant psychiatrist who uses people's confidences against them. There is a bizarre big-budget horror movie by the director of Caged Heat featuring Anthony Hopkins chewing the scenery as the most deliciously evil madman in movie history madness about the Oscar sweeping Lambs that I admire on its own terms , even if that doesn't quite equate to enjoyment.

But I am a horror movie guy, or so I'm told, so I did feel I was on the right track, which brings us to The Exorcist. The fact that I pretentiously named my blog after an effective image in a mediocre movie by the same director only makes it more appropriate.

There's good reason why this movie stood out in 1973. It was directed by William Friedkin, as follow-up to his Oscar-winning turn directing The French Connection. It starred Ellen Burstyn, coming off an Oscar-nominated performance in The Last Picture Show, along with Max von Sydow, then known mostly for his long association with Ingmar Bergman.

If ever a horror movie demanded to be taken seriously as cinema, in the eyes of the general public, it was this one.

Not only that, it is shocking. The day a 12-year-old girl stabbing her bloody vagina with a crucifix loses its shock value is the day it won't even be worth attempting to shock.

But now we've passed all of that. Now, it's a movie of the past, to be examined on its merits rather than on the excitement and hysteria of the moment, however its cult continues. In 2001 it was named #3 on The AFI's 100 Most Thrilling American Movies. Critics and audiences alike hold it up with regularity as shining example of genre cinema.

The effective shocks are pointless to note in its defense. A dozen Lucio Fulci have all those shocks and more, and I would argue present them more effectively. I wrote Narrative logic is for the weak before and it touches on this, but where horror is, or should be, the stuff of nightmares, The Exorcist spends much of its duration trying to make sense of the madness we are to witness.

And don't even get me started on the earnest use of a Ouija board.

No, worse than that, it meanders through a series of weak potential explanations, seeming to hope something will stick in the minds of the audience as plausible. Never properly explaining the phenomenon nor leaving it as a vague terror of nightmare, as such failing as drama of fantastique as well as horror.

Here's where it gets sticky for me. I have some comprehension how some of the explanations stick for people raised within the Catholic faith and my condemnation of its effectiveness does not necessarily apply to them. However, I wasn't. I went to Catholic church perhaps a half dozen with my paternal grandfather's family and always found it absurd. In fact, it gets a proper, if indirect, skewering in my short film Lakeside, which I should be able to show off someday.

Ultimately, the most reprehensible aspect of the movie is its unsubtle metaphor for a single mother raising an out of control child and her responsibility for allowing the Devil as well as "the devil" to take her child's mind and soul. Understandably exploitable at a time when divorce was just becoming easier and more common and single mothers were becoming a phenomenon that the public was more aware of, but hardly excusable. Not, mind you, because single mothers or parents who divorce easily leaving their children to broken homes with less consideration for the good of the lives they took responsibility to mold than was called for, but rather because, despite its pedigree of makers, it chooses to use it as a blunt-force metaphor of condemnation, hiding in plain sight, rather than explore the human complexity.

Burstyn's Chris MacNeil seems as good an example of a single mother as one could expect; her concern and efforts on behalf of her daughter seem genuine and caring, not to mention the fact of her clear ability to provide more than adequately for her. I don't wish to exonerate her completely, as she is shown to have some tendency toward self-interest and absence in the opening scenes, although as this seems to lead directly only to the already dismissed Ouija incident, I can't concede it to be effective. It's as simplistic and disconnected from the individual as a Papal edict.

In the end, it wants to be much more than it is. Its ludicrously literal religiosity makes it a poor example of '70s cinema. Its ponderous attempts at family drama make it an often dull device for delivering thrills. It's merely Catholic propaganda disguised as entertainment, which is how, I suppose, propaganda ought always come, but I can ultimately find it no less than deplorable or boring.

1 comment:

Carl S. said...

just wanted to say how completely I agree with you. I find the Exorcist singularly ineffective precisely because it tries so hard to conivince you of its plausibility. I don't believe in demonic possession and no film is going to change my mind. Of course I don't believe in zombies, vampires and werewolves either but I can enjoy Dawn of the Dead, Nosferatu and The Howling because they don't spend their running time trying to earnestly convince me that "this could really happen!" but get on with the job of scaring/entertaining me instead.
I also want to challenge the accepted wisdom that Linda Blair gives a great juvenile performance. What effect the possession scenes have is down almost entirely to Dick Smith's amazing make-up and the brilliant voice work of Mercedes McCambridge. Outside of these scenes Blair's work is amatuerish at best.

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