Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Crisis of Blood: Carrie

In some ways, this film is just too bizarre: a teenage girl with the power to move things? And yet, that is exactly why it's so truthful, and why the generation of girls growing up in the 1970's needed this film to be made. Director Brian de Palma's 1976 mega-hit Carrie is still considered one of the essential Halloween films to watch every year, but it's also essential in another way: it brought attention to another film character, a character who did massive damage to the social practice of femininity in the 60's and throughout the 70's: Sarah.
There are reasons this is the iconic shot of the film.
Piper Laurie, who plays Margaret White in Carrie, is best known for her role as Sarah Packard in the 1961 classic The Hustler directed by Robert Rossen about a pool shark trying to make it big. Starring Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats) and George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), Piper Laurie's Sarah is Eddie's girlfriend with whom she lives on the road, going from one place to another; towards the end of the film, Bert has sex with Sarah who then kills herself afterwards. In the preceding scene, Sarah complained about the "perverted, twisted and crippled" society but doesn't realize the power her choices have contributed to making society perverted, twisted and crippled. A generation of women saw her living with Paul Newman's Eddie, and given that was in 1961 and Carrie came out in 1976, Carrie was the "fruit" of their relationship, but the other girls at Carrie's high school were, too.
Paul Newman and Piper Laurie in The Hustler.
The one extreme of sexual promiscuity of The Hustler on one hand, and the extreme puritanical restrictions on the other by Margaret White in Carrie, made for a terrible vice-grip for Carrie to be in; but the one motion gave way to the other, and Carrie tries to summarize what damage had been caused, what other damage could still be caused and what the best course of action to take would be.
Piper Laurie in Carrie.
The idea of a "crisis of blood" is very intimate, because it's only a crisis if a person's free will decides that it will be so. Margaret White's theology is reflected in her last name: "White."  As I noted in How To Eat Art  under "white" in the colors category, the color white denotes both faith and death. In terms of invoking faith, white is associated with it because white is spotless and that can be taken as a "lack of the stain of sin," meaning, that a person has faith that there is a treasure in heaven worth waiting for so they try to overcome their sins in this life; it can also denote death because a corpse turns white when it is in the process of decay. Margaret White has been slowly dying for a long time. Carrie, on the other hand, has the choice to make which way she will live; because of her mother's overwhelmingly bad teachings and decisions, and because the girls at school have also hardened her heart, Carrie doesn't "care" enough about the right things to not get "carried away" using her powers.
Note how Carrie's hair is messed up in this shot and how Margaret White's hair is so frizzy and "out of control"; the hair for these characters symbolizes their thoughts and how their hair is looking at that moment, you can tell what kind of thoughts they are having; the brain power "energizes" their hair, so to speak.
The reason Carrie's starting her period at school is so humiliating is because it's the breaching of the public and the private; the visual aspects of our body, which anyone can see, and the private functions which every woman shares or every man shares, is communal knowledge that's regulated in a social contract of non-discussion or disclosure to protect from embarrassment and maintain self-respect and dignity. Carrie doesn't have such a luxury of being a member of that social contract and protected by its unspoken norms and codes.
Yet there is another unspoken norm which doesn't protect her but should: Christianity. Just as the functions of our bodies are kept private, so, regrettably, the functions of our souls and what keeps our souls alive, Jesus Christ, who gave His Blood for us, is also kept quiet. The girls at school don't keep their bodies a secret but, if they have any faith, they keep that a secret. Why is this an important dichotomy? A woman's body gives life, but faith gives Life, and if a woman doesn't have the Life of Faith in her, her body will not bring life to a new generation but bring death to herself and the man who is foolish enough to want her.
Amy Irving as Sue Snell in Carrie
Sue Snell (Amy Irving) is not only the heroine of Carrie, she's the only heroine. When she's reprimanded for her behavior towards Carrie, she has an immediate conversion and tries to make it up to Carrie. This is, essentially, the paying of a debt, and it was the debt of Original Sin which Christ offered His Blood to pay for our sins. So by giving Carrie her own date to the prom and even her best friend (Sue would rather protect Carrie from the humiliation awaiting her than to protect Chris from getting into trouble) Sue "runs the race" and survives the night of terror because she is protected by the Blood which she, too, in her way, has shed for her sins and become a better person for it. Everyone else, however, is exposed because of the pig's blood. For example, the fire hose coming on and attacking the principal, that's a phallic symbol, and Carrie using that to "kill him" both socially and physically says that, if they are not going to extend the benefits of the social contract to her by respecting her body's dignity, she will remove them from the protection of the private and expose their private functions as her private functions have been exposed.
It's not that going to the prom is bad, it's that--as we have seen so many times throughout this series on horror films--she's choosing the wrong idea of what Life is, just like Renfield. She wants to be popular like the popular girls in school and so she grounds her choices on how to become like them, not how to become like Christ. The death scene at the prom literally becomes a dance of death because none of them who are there has the Life of Christ in them.
Why is this the most iconic shot in the film?
Because it succinctly summarizes the power of free will which girls have: to become or not to become.
It could be the fire of the Holy Spirit (as at Pentecost) but instead, it's the fire of passion and lust. It could be the Blood of the Lamb, but instead, it's the blood of a pig (the appetites). It could be the marriage banquet of the soul, the wedding dress of Christ's bride, instead, it's the senior prom and it's a death shroud. This is the iconic scene, the thesis shot of the film, because it condenses the symbols into the statement: you have the power of free will.
What will you use it for?
So why does Carrie have the power to move things?
Because we all do.
Remember, film is art, and in art, things become literal and the the literal becomes symbolic. When Carrie flips over the Principal's ash tray, she's turning knowledge upside down: she's demonstrating that she knows the long cigarette in the round ash tray could be taken as a phallus and vagina and she wants to show that she knows more than he thinks she does. When the little boy rides by, taunting her and Carrie crashes it, the "vehicle" of his superiority was knowledge of what had happened to her her and her low standing in society, by him crashing, Carrie both expresses her own mental state--she has crashed--but a crash can happen to the boy, too. When Carrie closes all the windows in the house, she's closing off the "reflection" of her mother on what prom means as a sin (the house is a symbol of the soul and the windows, like humans eyes, are the "soul" of the house). Each action she makes "with her mind" is no more than an expression of her thoughts and emotions "coming to life" to literally express themselves.
The last scene is deeply symbolic: Margaret White attempts to kill Carrie but Carrie uses her powers to kill her mother instead. The first knives which Carrie throws at her mother "nails" her hands to the wood beams of the entry, denoting that Margaret falsely taught Carrie about the Truth of Christ's Passion.
The other items to stab Margaret White is a carrot shredder, which is both a feminine and a masculine symbol: feminine because it relates to cooking which women usually do, so Margaret has given Carrie a false sense of what it is to be a woman, but masculine because it could emasculate a man and that's what Margaret has done to the image of men Carrie has. The other items penetrate Margaret White as in the sexual act (and her groans verify this) because Margaret has blasphemed the Sacrament of Marriage to Carrie. But knowing that she herself is the fruit which Margaret White has given birth to, and being governed by guilt, not by hope, Carrie takes her mother with her to the place where her sins, and her soul is for sale: hell.
There is one last aspect of power which Carrie and every other woman has: sex.
It's the woman who decides the standards of the relationship, and either it will be a tribute or a curse to her. Carrie was made to remind girls growing up of the importance of their bodies, their dignity and the power of free will and the consequences of our decisions, but also to help us contemplate on the powers that control us (bad images of religion, our peers, the Church, Hollywood, what has holds priority in our decision-making process?). Yes, Carrie and every other woman can move things, even the world, and it starts when we move towards the Cross of Christ and become His Bride first.