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Article ID: 6245
Age Group: Adult
Posted: March 30th. 2003
Witch Cinema 13
by Peg Aloi
Signs of Spring?
I don't know about the rest of you, but the arrival of spring seems especially welcome this year. Perhaps it's because we've had one of the harshest winters on record in Boston. Maybe it's the war. Or the difficulty my own life has been mired in on various levels. But I am glad to be going back to my garden, and looking forward to seeing the blossoming trees and return of birds and wildlife to the parks. As well as the reawakening of long-dormant human impulses of warmth and passion: we really do seem to come to life again in the spring. Witches see spring cleaning in a magical as well as pragmatic way; we try to clear away all our negative energies and fears and stumbling blocks as we beat the dust from rugs, wash the windows and launder the drapes! And those of us who do a bit of gardening welcome the feel of the softeng soil beneath our feet and hands, the smell of decayed leaves and rain and growing things, new colors to shock our eyes after the sere, dull palette of winter. Changing seasons means changing trends in movies and TV, too!
First thing, readers: I want to tell you all to tune in to Dragnet tonight on ABC at 10 PM EST. Word has it tonight's episode will deal with a ritualistic killing in the teenage goth community, in which one suspect wants police to investigate him because of his suspicious behavior and lifestyle. I am told the episode's producers contacted the West Memphis Three Support Fund for information, because the fictional murder case portrayed in the show has similarities to the 1993 Arkansas case where three eight-year olds boys were brutally murdered. Three teenagers were convicted and two are serving life sentences in prison, and one on Death Row, and the case has spawned two documentary films and a wide network of supporters who believe the convicted are innocent. For more information on the West Memphis Three go to www.wm3.org , or check out the Witchvox coverage on the Protests and issues pages. Tonight on Dragnet I am told there will be some positive mention of the West Memphis Three. Thanks in advance to ABC, for helping spread awareness of this travesty of justice.
Another bit of news relating to the West Memphis Three: it has been confirmed that there is now a feature film in the works. That's all I know and I will report more as I find out more. The good thing is that this sort of film may well reach a much wider theatrical (or television) audience than the documentary films about the case, since so many more people are likely to watch fictional feature films (even those based on true stories) with big stars than documentaries. If you haven't yet seen the excellent documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills or Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 you can get them both on DVD now. Highly-recommended; but if you come away outraged at the justice system, don't say I didn't warn you.
In the movie business, spring heralds the season of the summer blockbuster: an important one for Hollywood. For television, it means the season end sweeps and finale episodes. Sadly, this year, we say farewell to a fine and well-loved show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hard to say what the show's producers are planning in terms of a spin-off, or the involvement of Buffycharacters on Angel (Willow has been seen in L.A. a bit lately... ), but the one thing that is definite is that the show's star Sarah-Michelle Gellar has opted not to renew her contract and is leaving the show for good. Apparently the character of Giles (Buffy's "Watcher") will be featured in a show based in England, and Anthony Stewart Head will continue playing this role. Rumor has it Faith will replace Buffy as the Slayer of the Moment; but it's not clear how this will happen. This topic is being bandied about on fan discussion groups online, but no one but the producers and networks know anything for sure; and if they do, they're not telling. Not much, anyway.
Our friends in the UK are lucky, though; after years of getting their Buffy a whole season and a half later than fans stateside, they will get to savor the show's last episodes longer than we will! I am sad to see this end but, as with all change, something better often is made possible. In the meantime I have the first three seasons to get caught up on.
Speaking of DVD collections (was I?) I have been amazed at the number of TV shows now becoming available on DVD. This is big business and I am sure distributors are banking on the nostalgia factor of fans of shows that haven't been seen much except maybe on Nickelodeon or the Sci-Fi channel. A friend recently taped several episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker for me from Sci-Fi. This was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid. It only ran for one season, in 1974-75. It starred Darren McGavin as a crusty Chicago reporter who had a penchant for uncovering supernatural explanations for crimes, from vampires to werewolves to witches. One of my favorite episodes, "The Trevi Collection" (named for a fashion designer) centers upon a conceited fashion model who is also a witch named Madelyn. Kolchak investigates the mysterious deaths of other models and discovers Madelyn is the source. Kolchak ends up visiting a "coven" in their home and attends a "sabbat" where he is asked to don a hooded robe, and where there is some chanting and pacing of robed figures before one blurts out that someone in the room "who is under the influence of a black witch!" (gasp!!!) As he prepares to leave, Kolchak (in a gag repeated throughout the series) reaches into the donation bowl by the door and removes the bills he'd put in earlier when the witch who greeted him said "We don't charge admission but will accept a nominal fee" and after Kolchak drops a bill in the proffered bowl the witch says drily "Not that nominal."
This episode is a perfect time capsule for the public knowledge of and opinions towards witches in this time period. The occult revival and hippie movement (with its dissemination of concepts like cosmic consciousness, free love and the expansion of the mind through hallucinogens, meditation and tantric yoga, not necessarily in that order) had helped make witchcraft a growing trend and popular literature like LIFE and LOOK magazines profiled people like Sybil Leek and Anton Lavey, giving readers a glimpse inside covens and magical groups. Fortune tellers and psychics who charged money for readings, as well as organizations like LaVey's Church of Satan which charged a membership fee, were obviously the target of the "nominal fee" reference. But the television and movie writers of the period did not always research their occult subject matter very well, any more than, say, TV and movie writers of the 1990s (it's getting a bit better), and so Kolchak's use of a "mojo bag" full of copper threads and sharks' teeth to ward off evil seems silly now. One male witch refers blithely to "Salem" while making downright inaccurate statements involving witches being burned (they were only hanged there), and other references applicable to the European witchcraze but not to Colonial America. So do seek out this show for its wonderfully campy and nostalgic appeal, as well as its genuine ability to creep you out late at night (Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files and Millennium cites Kolchak: The Night Stalker as a major influence upon his work). But don't expect too much authenticity! And mark my words, we will probably see this short-lived but well-loved classic on DVD soon enough...
Speaking of Salem, did any of you catch Salem Witch Trials on NBC a couple weeks back? I did. I was more less impressed that this mini-series was far better than I expected it to be. The quality of the writing (based upon actual events and characters and not upon Arthur Miller's excellent play The Crucible which took some liberties in inventing or embellishing characters for dramatic purposes) and the acting (with outstanding performances from Rebecca de Mornay, Alan Bates, Kirstie Alley and Shirley MacLaine, among others) was very fine.
I took issue with a few historical inaccuracies which seemed to be trotted out for modern audiences: like when the servant from Barbados, Tituba (played by ER's Gloria Reuben) refers to a "shaman" of her acquaintance (and pronounces it "shay-man") who gave her cards remarkable similar to tarot cards (which originate in Europe). I did enjoy the somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference to the trendy "ergot theory" which posits that the madness in Salem Village was attributable to ergot poisoning from a type of fungus that grows on rye flour, which can cause hallucinations. Though this theory has been roundly criticized over the years (it was first introduced in the 1980s I believe) one does still run into people who buy into it (maybe because it's such an unusual explanation). When one female villager suggests it might be a fungus making the community's teenage girls act so peculiarly, the response from a man is "No, 'tis no fungus."
I also was offended at one scene at the beginning of the mini-series (which then told the rest of the story in flash-back): in the courtroom a number of the accused are portrayed as their accusers must "see" them and they are photographed with strange angles and effects, their hair wild and their faces distorted as they flail about with wild abandon. No explanation is offered for this sensationalistic portrayal, but the suggestion seems to be that the teenage girls are so wrapped up in their pantomime (for they were clearly faking the majority of their symptoms and the show and the young actresses do a great job in making this clear) that they effectively decide to see the accused as evil and threatening. Several scenes stood out as rather daring for network television: as when Kirstie Alley (who plays Ann Putnam, a woman who goes to village herbalist Bridget Bishop for help in conceiving, and who refuses to stand up for her when Bishop is one of the first women accused of witchcraft) is shown having a nightmare in which the corpses of her stillborn children visit her.
I also was moved by the scene in which Shirley MacLaine, who plays Rebecca Nurse (a pious Christian woman who urges villagers to pray for the accused, and is ultimately accused herself when she questions the antics of the teenage girls), is forced to stand completely naked in a courtroom so that "witchfinders" may examine her for witch's marks like warts. There is no body double used in this scene, and we see the naked flesh of this mid dle-aged actress, filmed in blunt natural light. It is hard to say what is more powerful: a Hollywood icon's decision to be filmed in this unflattering way, or Hollywood's decision to show a nude woman clearly over the age of sixty. It was a profound reminder that nudity is not about sex, and this is something we seem to have forgotten in this still-puritanical nation of ours, perhaps largely due to the influence of Hollywood's purveyance of the body (especially the female body) as a commodity of titillation.
Well, readers, I have spent much of this installment of "Witch Cinema" talking about the glass teat (as Harlan Ellison calls it) and not the silver screen. But I also have a film recommendation for you. Most likely those of you who live in larger cities will be able to see this one on this big screen but it may come out on video at some point, particularly since it was one of the nominees for Best Documentary at this year's Oscars. The prize in this category went to Michael Moore for his brilliant documentary on gun culture in America, Bowling for Columbine. Okay, Oscar diversionary rant: Yes, I did watch the ceremony, and I was thrilled Moore had the guts to actually say something (controversial though it was) about the, uh, elephant in the living room. And kudos to Chris Cooper and Nicole Kidman and Adrien Brody for sharing their personal thoughts on the war during their acceptance speeches. Oh, and Cloris Leachman won my personal Best Dressed Award; she looked great in that blue velvet number!
So, the wonderful documentary I want you all to watch out for is from France --you know, that country that gave us French fries, French toast, French kissing, haute couture, lots of wonderful cheese, and the moving picture (Merci to the Lumiere Brothers!). It's called Winged Migration. I saw this at a press screening this week and thought it was absolutely astounding and utterly charming. On some level it could be called a mere nature documentary; yet it is so much more. Filmmaker Jacques Perrin has created a stunning film which chronicles the year for a number of migratory birds from all over the world, and does so with heart-stopping and often impossible-seeming photography. The opening credits state that no special effects were used when photographing the birds. One thing that is fascinating to behold is the sounds made while the birds are flying; a quiet, rhythmic flapping noise, or sometimes a whooshing noise, so subtle as to be barely detectable. The sound design is as beautifully-executed as the photography. The cameras get unbelievably close and some of the aerial shots are epic: even showing parts of the globe from higher up than most of us go in airplanes. There are also sequences of birds in their resting phases of summer before they return to their homes. Narrated partly with subtitles and partly with voiceover (with a French actor's heavy accent reminding us this is a French film, but his narration and the titles are all in English), we learn about the many thousands of miles travelled by different species for survival, some up to 12,500 miles (the Arctic tern, which flies from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica every year). Some viewers might think the narration is a bit melodramatic at times, or the accompanying soundtrack (instrumental and vocal music from all over the world, taking a cue from films like Baraka) is over-the-top at times, but I found myself completely entranced and mesmerized. I hope that soundtrack becomes available soon! It includes Bulgarian throat singers, African drumming and intricate choral arrangements sung by various groups including an all- boy's choir.
I think pagans in particular will love this film because by and large we are all animal lovers, and the progression of the seasons is also a key structural element in this film. An early sequence shows a young boy cutting a Greylag goose free from a net, so it can join its flock as they begin their migration. We see this same goose again and again, flying, feeding, swimming, identifiable by the frayed blue netting still stuck to his foot. This seasonal cycle is the only real structure the film follows. There are scenes where the various birds are attacked or killed by predators (including hunters), and others where they are injured or killed by weather. In one moving sequence, brightly-colored Amazon parrots are help captive in wooden cages on a poacher's boat. One blue and gold parrot manages to undo the latch on his cage and fly to freedom; not so fortunate the other birds and monkeys left behind, bound for zoos or pet-shops. Geese, ducks, cranes, eagles, hawks, puffins, parrots, terns, toucans, flying over forests, fields, cities, glaciers, oceans, mountains exploding with giant avalanche clouds of snow. Leaving their homes to search for food, and returning again when the weather changes. Year after year, as accurate as a compass, as predictable as the waxing and waning of the moon. A simple film, but as beautiful and thrilling as anything I have seen in years. I hope you all get to see it for yourselves.
That's all for now. I'll be speaking to you again when the weather has (I hope!) turned a bit warmer...
Media Coordinator - The Witches' Voice
Monday, March, 30th. 2003
Email: [Staff Email]
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