Sunday, May 27, 2007

Which Witch?

360 years ago the first witch was executed in Salem Massachusetts, poor thing. Well... today is the anniversary of the first recorded execution at least. There were probably others: there's always trouble for those on the fringe of societal norms. By and large humanity just ain't kind to the different. Maybe that girl just wasn't pious, subservient, or god fearing enough?

Witches have been great fodder for entertainment for centuries but I've always found their screen treatment suspiciously two-faced. In portrayals of the Salem trials and other witch hunting movements you're always asked to be on the side of the accused. But, here's the double sided catch: they're innocent. Think of Goody Proctor in The Crucible. She is done in by Abigail, the type of woman that the witches are accused of being. When witches are actually bonafide spell casting characters, as opposed to stand-ins for historical types or allegorical statements, they're often viewed as dangerous to themselves and others. There's plenty of fear but little sympathy when the ladies work real magic. Doesn't it sometimes seem like the fictional "witch" is just an exaggerated projection of ideas about women in general, sometimes sympathetic (when victimized falsely) but just as often all kinds of sexist and anti-woman. It's a simplification, sure, but Goody Proctor (god fearing, husband-obeying, churchgoing) is actually the ideal. Abigail (sexually driven, difficult to control) is the witch. So we're still up for burning dangerous women at the stake --for proper retribution to come their way.

When I was a little kid I enjoyed TVs classic Bewitched. Right I was drawn to supernaturally laced fiction. Obviously I was the ideal audience for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And though that shows focus was on the vampiric, I think it does a fine sideline job of covering the wide spectrum of options when it comes to screen witches. If you look at the portrayals of Willow, Tara and Amy (the three witches with the most screen time) you'll see a collective portrayal that's fascinating in its reach, however loose its magic rules may have been for plot needs and however misleading its controversial free use of the term "Wicca" was.

I'm just thinking and typing aloud but there's an enormous amount of material begging for proper exhaustive analysis. What kind of ugly/beautiful portrait of women do films about witches paint? Imagine what would happen if you stirred the witches from Chronicles of Narnia, The Brothers Grimm, The Craft, Practical Magic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bewitched, Macbeth, The Witches, Hocus Pocus, Bell Book and Candle and Disney films into one giant pop culture cauldron. My guess is you'd churn up a fascinatingly schizo stew of sexism and feminism.

Which witch portrayals do you find most spellbinding... or do you think the great witch film or television series has yet to be made?

9 comments:

Marius said...

I have yet to see a film that really explores Wicca as a religion or way of life. Wiccans seem to be very tolerant--gays and women are highly regarded among Wiccans or so it seems. So, I would love to see a film about Wiccans and their beliefs. They're usually portrayed as these scary pagans, but they're people, too.

For some reason, I love the idea of a gifted person (natural witch?) overcoming adversity and finding his or her place in the world. The Craft wasn't the greatest movie ever made, but I loved Tunney's Sarah Bailey. Sarah had a powerful gift. She was an ethical character who chose to conform and lead a normal life. In De Palma's Carrie, Specek's Carrie had an equally powerful gift, but she was pushed too far and many paid the price. I know Carrie wasn't portrayed as a witch in the film, but to me, she kind of was (if it looks like a duck . . .).

Anyway, I think writers, producers and directors need to come up with a new way of portraying witches, Wiccans, or whatever you want to call them. We need something new.

Amy said...

Hocus Pocus is a fabulous movie, although it doesn't have much substance.

The episode in "Charmed" in which Shannon Doherty's character gets killed off after their magic gets exposed also gives us a glimpse into what would happen if witches did exist...

Woodstock said...

when i studied wicca i got fascinated by the femininity strength it transmited and great part of my feminist ideals were endorsed in that time. but i confess i never looked the portrayals of witches in movies through the sexist prisma and i now see that a lot makes sense.
my favorite "witch movie" is the mists of avalon [which i feel like must revisit asap]. the fact i could recognize a lot of those nomenclatures, symbols and rituals made me enjoy it more than any other person i knew at the time, besides i'm always a pro of the feminine power thing. real life witches "were" women connected to nature and intuition, therefore enemies of christianity that back then [?] was all about the praise of power-junkie men. the change of g-d into a man was [imo] precarious and did in a prejudiceful way. in spite of being imbibed in such idea, i find myself mostly rejecting it and rectifying myself for such a slip.

Kamikaze Camel said...

I'm not into the exploration of witches and wicca in the real world, but in the reel world they are fascinating. Their movies aren't always the best, or even good (I remember hating The Craft).

Just last night I watched Rosemary's Baby and it had some fascinating stuff about witches in it. I think it's the historic aspect of them. People have never believed in zombies or vampires (well, on the majority) but witches were very much believed and believable (when they're not green-faced cartoony ones) so it's interesting to see them in movies (and tv) because they could actually exist.

One of the scariest episodes of X-Files involved a group of teenage witches. it scared me when I was 10.

Ron said...

I agree with Marius. It would be great to have a film that realistically, truthfully and fairly shows Wicca and how it is practiced.

As for TV, I've always wanted a Willow spinoff. That would be AMAZING.

sunny said...

The Witches of Eastwick wasn't a perfect film, but I think the metaphor of earthy, fertile, poawerful women who, combining forces, defeat the "source of evil" (misogyny)was witchy good fun!

Joe Valdez said...

The Craft had visual allure, but if you introduce any kind of camp or snickering into these movies, it tends to ruin them. Rosemary's Baby came the closest to giving us a sophisticated, adult thriller about witchcraft because it took itself seriously.

Anne Rice's novel The Witching Hour, if adapted the right way, would be even greater than Rosemary's Baby; spooky, sexy, bloody.

javi said...

I think Carl Dreyer's "Day of Wrath" is probably the greatest film ever made on the subject of witchcraft. It neither demonizes nor victimizes anybody, but it explores the sexual tension between the witch and religion in ways movies haven't shown since. Incredible stuff. As a "Passion of Joan of Arc" fan I highly recommend it, Nat.

Deborah said...

The only fictional movie ever made which attempted to show real-life Wicca is an obscure indie called Drawing Down the Moon. Walter Koenig is the villain. I've never seen it, unfortunately.