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Article ID: 4704
Age Group: Adult
Posted: September 15th. 2002
Witch Cinema 10
by Peg Aloi
Hello, media mavens! I trust you are all looking forward to a new season of films and TV shows to stimulate your senses and maybe your cerebellums, and lure you from your more important tasks! We'll talk about TV a bit more in weeks to come (Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be at the top of the list, naturally, and what will we do without The X-Files? Yeah, I know it had become pretty much unwatchable in the last season or two thanks to some truly mediocre writing, but has Chris Carter really spent his creative genius already? Apparently so. I hope some other artists step up the plate and give us some more spooky and supernatural TV fare to chew on. And soon! But for now, let's talk about movies.
The summer, as usual, was a bit of a crap shoot. I did not see too many movies since I was busy traveling and also spent a lot of time in the woods. I am wondering why we did not have the third Blair Witch movie this summer! I look forward to the prequel (ya know, how the Blair Witch became the Blair Witch), which is being made by Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez and their production team, whose first no-budget folly made them many, many millions of dollars and fans. Also, of course, we all wait with bated breath for the next installments of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings (not necessarily in that order)!
I want to recommend, in general, Australian director Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence which is due to open in November. I also absolutely loved the British buddy movie about two women whose challenging friendship spans several decades from the 1970s to the present, Me Without You. And if the documentary about the music behind the anti-apartheid movement, Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony comes to your town, see it! Very powerful film.
The one summer film I was curious about in terms of its pagan relevance was M. Night Shyamalan's Signs Crop circles fascinate me and I have seen them being made during summer solstice week in England at West Kennet near Avebury. Of course, most crop circles simply appear and the creators of them are never identified. The center of this activity on the planet is without question Wiltshire in England; and a great many people have become scholars and experts on this topic. There is even a magazine devoted to it: The Cerealogist. When I saw the maker of The Sixth Sense (which I liked very much) was making a crop circle story, I was very excited. But the film disappointed me.
I guess my expectations were very personal. I wanted to hear about crop circle lore and theories and history and experience a mystery that led to uncovering how they were made, and more importantly, why. For they are most certainly made by humans. Whether these are "hoaxes" or not, they are still remarkable achievements of design and artistry, not to mention engineering. But the film, which offers some subtle and mysterious events in its opening moments, disappoints when it posits a widescale alien invasion which uses crop circles as mapping devices. The promising thriller structure gradually becomes more and more implausible and becomes one more "green men from Mars" movie dependent on computer-generated special effects. Signs is also a story of a minister's crisis of faith, and though I think Mel Gibson is a good actor, in this film he seems a bit out of place as a man of the cloth. To me, the storyline of the minister's loss of faith and subsequent return to his position as a minister is a bit too pat. It struck me that, after experiencing what he did, he would have even MORE questions about the nature of reality and what lies at the heart of spiritual questing: a desire to understand our place in this vast universe. If he'd gone back to being a minister who has a wider view of the world and his place in it, a man of one specific religious faith who nevertheless has his eyes opened to all possible worlds and pathways, that would have been much more satisfying than his, in effect, going backwards to what he was before his wife's senseless death stripped him of his beliefs.
That said, I really did enjoy the film's performances (especially the children who were stunningly good) and its atmospheric visuals; the scenes where the crop circles are discovered in the corn fields are suitably spooky and very tactile and real. It did annoy me that Gibson's character kept referring to his cornfields as "crops," though. It's corn, plain and simple. And though this is the quintessential American grain, most crop circles are found in fields of plants that grow lower to the ground, like barley or alfalfa or wheat. And the characters of the film seemed a bit too much like mouthpieces when they kept dismissing the human makers of crop circles as losers, geeks and guys who can't get girlfriends. Clearly they have not seen some of the easy-on-the-eyes pagans in Wiltshire that make these mandalas every solstice! I look forward to Shyamalan's next film and am curious what sort of supernatural ground he will tread upon next. I hope he returns to his more subtle methods of storytelling that first put him on the map.
The first exciting film this fall for pagans is the stunningly beautiful new anime masterpiece from Hayao Miyazaki: Spirited Away. Readers will remember my enthusiastic review of Miyazaki's last film, Princess Mononoke. Although this film was very successful and critically acclaimed (it broke all previous box office records in Japan), Miyazaki announced his retirement. Rumor has it he was moved to return to filmmaking one more time when he met a young girl who inspired him to make the story of Chihiro, the heroine of Spirited Away. How fortunate for the world that he has given us another film. Spirited Away is even finer than his previous effort, and that is high praise indeed.
It is the story of a young girl who must enter the spirit realm to save her parents from an evil witch's curse. In many ways the story is an archetypal one, and its themes are found in fairy tales and stories of shamanic journeys the world over. Young untested person, pure in heart but na•ve and prone to rash action, overcomes trials and tribulations and is helped by magical beings who reward her kindness, bravery, and honesty. What makes this film so outstanding is its unusual treatment of the story: ancient Shinto mythology meets the very modern world and it all blends seamlessly within Miyazaki's fantastical art direction. Chihiro (beautifully voiced by Daveigh Chase, a promising young actress who appeared in one of my favorite films from last year, Donnie Darko) and her parents are driving to their new neighborhood where they will be mobbing into a new house. Her folks are impatient, somewhat shallow Yuppie types. Thinking they have found a shortcut, they find themselves stopping their car near what they think is an abandoned amusement park. They find a table laden with amazing food and greedily stuff themselves even as Chihiro insists it is stealing. Her mother and father are transformed into pigs, and it becomes know that they ate food set aside for spirits. Chihiro then enters a parallel world over a bridge found in the amusement park: a land of spirits whose hub is a bathhouse run by hundreds of domestic servants. Chihiro is told by a young warrior she must obtain a job there to be able to find a curative spell to change her parents back to humans.
The bathhouse's overseer is the evil witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette does an amazing job voicing this character). Yes, an evil witch! Surprise, surprise. She has an enormous head, a Victorian hairdo, turns into an owl at night, and is genuinely creepy to behold. Later on, we meet her twin sister, who looks exactly the same but is a benevolent grandmotherly type who lives in the forest in a charming cottage and exemplifies the herbal wisewoman we are all familiar with. An interesting treatment of the witch archetype, to have two very different personalities that are to all outward appearances identical. I leave it to the Jungian scholars amongst you to articulate this intriguing plot point! Even though one is evil and the other good, the sisters both have a fairly strict moral code and this adds to their intrigue.
Chihiro meets many helpers and enemies, and some (like her young mentor Haku) who seem to both befriend and betray her. As with many fairytales, not everyone is what they seem and Japanese stories are full of beings who have been transformed from their true selves by spells and curses which can only be lifted after many trials are passed. The world of the spirits is a complex and beautiful one, and the concept of spirits visiting a bathhouse to rejuvenate themselves makes for endlessly rich visuals and some very thrilling and funny scenes. Some of the spirits are objects of ridicule, like the oafish, lumbering "radish spirit" encountered by Chihiro on her first day. One segment that is destined to become classic is the one in which Chihiro is sent to bathe a loathsome enormous "stink spirit" whose stench and effluvia overpower the entire bathhouse and send people running in disgust. Her kindness and diligence allow her to lift the curse this spirit has suffered under. She also has repeated run-ins with a faceless spirit who she invites into the bathhouse where he begins to devour everything in sight after showering the workers with false gold nuggets. She is helped by a variety of odd beings, including little drones made of balls of soot (reminiscent of the phosphorescent mushroom spirits of Princess Mononoke), and a charming mouse and horsefly duo. I think it is a horsefly, at any rate. And the giant baby that Yubaba keeps hidden away is a truly strange and often disturbing spectacle to behold.
No computer-generated imagery found here: all the characters are hand-drawn, the backdrops hand-painted. The setpieces are so incredibly wrought I literally found my jaw dropping again and again while watching (do see this on the big screen for maximum effect!), and was reminded of the great master landscape painters: Monet, Turner, and Parrish, as well as the fantasy art of Yerka, Magritte and Dali. This is as thrilling and beautiful a film as I have ever seen. I am not a big anime fan, nor do I normally think of animated films intended primarily for children as great cinematic masterpieces. But Spirited Away has an appeal that transcends audience age groups. Its visual beauty and universal story cannot fail to please all audiences. Is it aimed at pre-teen girls? Perhaps. But I personally found it sophisticated and childlike, simple and enormously intricate, profound and delightful, all at once. A confusing recommendation, perhaps, but cinematic experiences this impressive do not come along every day. Just go see it.
Next time: Okay, let's talk about Buffy...
Viddy well, my friends, viddy well...
Media Coordinator - The Witches' Voice
Monday, September, 16th 2002
Email: [Staff Email]
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