Monday, October 31, 2011

The Exorcist: Absent Fathers

I am merely going to do a context analysis of the film, but if you would like to read the experience of a priest who was actually in an exorcism, please read The Problems With Possession by Father Longenecker. Any questions which you may have about it can be posted to his comment forum. 
William Friedkin's 1973 supernatural thriller The Exorcist remains a film that employs the classic formula in art: what is literal becomes symbolic and what is symbolic becomes literal and that's where its great power originates. I will be doing pretty much a scene by scene analysis of the film (it's on Netflix instant view this month; it's not the director's cut, which is the edition I am familiar with, but it's scary enough as is).
It opens with the Islamic call to prayer, which is intended to "make available to everyone an easily intelligible summary of Islamic belief. It is intended to bring to the mind of every believer and non-believer the substance of Islamic beliefs, or its spiritual ideology" (Wikipedia, Call to Prayer; I regret that there are some things I won't be able to discuss because I can't afford a lawsuit to be launched against me but I hope you will be able to understand the purpose of The Exorcist without me spelling it out). In Northern Iraq, an archaeology dig is taking place and something has been found: Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) removes the dirt covering a small, black figure and realizes it's the carved head of a demon. In a open-air restaurant, he takes a drink with shaking hands, and a pill from a small box. Walking to a work area, a man takes off his hat, turns and looks at the camera: he's blind in his right eye.
The incomparable Max von Sydow as Father Merrin.
Why an archaeology dig? Because that's what we are inviting to be doing throughout the film, to "dig through" the layers of meaning, realizing that some will be ancient and covered in symbols, but others will be new. The man with the blind eye? That's us, the audience, because we are "half blind" as most of the film we watch we won't "see."  But that doesn't excuse us from the task of seeing what we can. One thing we can see are examples of the art work exhumed from the earth during the dig, and from the stylizations of the statuary and pieces, we know this is an archaeology site in the ancient Biblical city of Nineveh, famous for the prophet Jonah having gone through the city and crying out that the destruction of God was upon them and moving them to penance so they would be spared the wrath of God so justly deserving.
An example of an archaeology site in ancient Nineveh.
Father Merrin takes a silver medal which had been found at the same time as the black demon's head, but "not of the same time period," and examines it: it's a religious medal of St Joseph holding the Christ child. This can't be an accident because one of the many titles of St. Joseph is as the "terror of demons," because of his purity, humility and humble obedience to the Will of God, hence it is that a medal of devotion to him would be found at a sight which had been devoted to the worshiping of the devil. That it is not of the same period attests to the demon's head being an older curse, but the defense of St. Joseph and his model for all Christians--especially Christian men and fathers--was a gift of God later to help people overcome the sin of false worship. 
St Joseph holding the Christ Child, Guido Reni, c. 1635.
As the assistant is talking, he makes the comment, "Evil against evil," and the clock stops. The clock doesn't stop because there is some reaching out of evil at this moment, the clock stops to invoke the eternal, because there is not time for Eternity. What the assistant says, "Evil against evil," isn't accurate, unless he's Muslim and that's what Islam teaches; in Catholicism, evil will always give way to a greater evil, e.g, someone telling white lies will soon start telling bigger lies; the lies will turn into manipulations and so on. We learn from the assistant, however, that Father is leaving and there is something that he has to do. Walking behind a line of Muslims praying, Father Merrin doesn't stop, signifying that, despite his time in a Islamic land, he has not been converted to their practices or beliefs. As he walks through the streets, a coach with black horses and an old woman wearing black in the back seat of a coach nearly runs him over. This, I think, we can take as evil trying to destroy him at this point because the coach is black and the horses are black.
In this shot, the yellow/gold blanket is like The Village and the "safe color," because it invokes the dignity of the human body and soul. Father Merrin appears to be the only one capable of fighting this battle but it's Father Karras who actually wins.
Going to a heavily guarded archaeological site, he's looking out over the horizon when something is "blocking the sun," the statue of a demon, which he "ascends" in order to observe it. A man in a turban steps out and looks at him as Father Merrin looks at the figure of the demon; he hears the growling of dogs and sees three of them, two of them fighting viciously not so far off. The scene of two dogs fighting invokes Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, when Dracula has turned himself into a dog and as such, ripped the throat out of another dog. The image in The Exorcist is an important one, because it translates to one sin giving way to another, stronger sin.
There are important reasons why Regan's always associated with the bedroom.
Now we are in Georgetown. We have made a leap from a very ancient place to a very modern place.
Chris (Ellen Burstyn) is in bed in her room, and the two things we notice are: she's working in bed and she has a cigarette. Her working in bed is a sign that she has developed bad sexual habits, namely, replacing sex (because she's divorced) with the joy of work. Work is supposed to be a joy, and that she's divorced means that she gave up those joys in exchange for no longer being married, but she has crossed and blurred a line that is going to have negative consequences for Regan (Linda Blair) growing up and trying to make sense of the world. She hears a loud noise and gets up to investigate. We notice that her room is messy, specifically, clothes lying around. The room provides a good "state of mind" analysis for Chris: she has been messy with her life. This explains why she thinks as she does in the next scene.
Note the cigarette in her left hand and the notes she's taking with the right.
Leaving her room, she keeps hearing noises and sees thinks they are coming from the attic where the attic access stairs are. Being up, she opens Regan's door and sees her daughter in bed, having gotten out from under the blankets and the window is open. This scene, in and of itself, is sufficient to tell us why everything that happens in this film happens. The noises Chris thinks she hears are not rats, as she will tell Karl the next morning, it's the Grace of God, which got her up to examine the situation which Regan is in so she could help her; not being a Christian, Chris doesn't know enough when she sees Regan that her daughter is in danger. The blankets that are not on her means she's "exposed" and since windows are symbolic of reflection, it means that her reflections are open and "anything can come in." Leaving her daughter so vulnerable, no wonder the rest of the story takes place; since she hasn't spent any time in church, however, how could she possibly know?
Chris is an actress and we see her on the set at a school in Georgetown talking to the director; low and behold, there is Father Damien Karras in the audience, laughing at Chris' jokes. It appears that she cares very much about the meaning of her movies (she wants to know the reason the building is being torn down) and that she's not vain (make-up artists keep following her to touch up her make-up before she goes on and she keeps shooing them away). Father Damien continues to watch the scene as we see Chris taking a megaphone and talking about education and human rights, and the establishment has to be changed from within.... The name of the movie she's making is called Crash Course which she's about to go through in real life, a crash course in possession and exorcism, because she hasn't given her own daughter an education in religion or on the human dignity of the soul and the body and she hasn't given her daughter the right to choose God (most parents don't want to "shove religion down their kids' throats" or let them make up their own minds, but really, the parents can't teach the kids what they themselves don't know, and they are denying their kids a basic right: the right to know their Creator.
This is, however, an interesting situation between Father Damien and Chris: they are watching each other in their respective "worlds." As Chris walks home from the shoot, she passes a group of children dressed for Halloween; then she sees nuns in their flowing white habits on the other side of the street. She passes a building and overhears a man saying, "All day long I feel like a complete fraud," and looking into a garden area, she sees Father Damien talking to another priest. Chris has just had an interesting moment, because the children she passes are certainly "little monsters" just like her own child is becoming, but on the other side of the street, on another path of life, are the beautiful nuns, their souls filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit as their habits billow in the breeze. What she overhears is what most non-Christians overhear (i.e., what they want to hear) about being a Christian and serving God: what good is it?
Just as the doubting priest finishes talking, Father Damien takes him by his shoulders and begins to talk when an airplane flies overhead, drowning out what he says so that neither the audience, nor Chris, can hear him. This is a perfect example of noise (as we have discussed in Contagion and Scream) draws out attention to what the director doesn't want us to hear to what he wants us to see. Watching this scene, Father Damien's sleeve on his right arm is half-way up his forearm, as if he's having a "wardrobe malfunction." However, if we examine the situation more closely, we can make sense of it. The other priest has something that's covering his left arm, so we can distinguish that Father Damien doesn't have anything "up his sleeve," while the doubting priest is "hiding something" (please see my post Gestures: the Significance Of the Insignificant for more on such circumstances in films).
The next scene is just as significant. Chris arrives at home and talks to Regan about what she did that day, and Regan tells her about seeing a beautiful gray horse a man was riding, and it was so beautiful and that she wanted one as soon as possible. Then, while Chris is talking to her assistant Sharon Spencer, Regan sneaks a "cookie" (well, anyway, it's in a cookie jar and that's what's important although we don't see what it is, and we don't need to) and runs off, with Chris behind her telling her to "give it up" or she'll regret it. Chris, playfully, then wrestles Regan to the ground in front of the staircase. The gray horse is the Holy Spirit (gray is often the color used to denote a novice, because they are not evil, wanting to turn their back on the world, but they are not freed from sin, but gray is also the color of penance, consider Gandalf the Gray as a pilgrim in The Lord of the Rings). Even if Chris isn't doing anything to help Regan in her struggles right now, that doesn't mean that God isn't trying. Regan taking "something" when she's not supposed to is the taking of the forbidden fruit and we'll see what it is that she's taking and will "regret." The two of them wrestling at the bottom of the staircase symbolizes that neither of them knows what is really going on, but a "higher plane" of thought isn't far away.
The next thing which happens is extremely disturbing to most Christians. Coming up the stairs, Father Damien waits for the subway to stop. Behind him he hears a man's voice saying, "Father, can you help an old altar boy, I'm a Catholic," and Father Damien looks at him for a moment and then turns away. On the surface, this appears to be Father Damien lacking charity "for the one who gives he gives to Me." Having come up the stairs, read: being on a higher plane of thought, Father Damien is discerning who it is that asks him for something, and he discerns it's evil; as the subway passes him, the light illuminates the man's face and "reveals itself to Father Damien." I'm not saying that this man is the devil, nor that he is possessed by the devil, but that he's being the instrument of the devil; notice the mess that he's sitting in (remember the mess of Chris' bedroom, it shows an unorganized mind) and being a master spiritualist, Father Damien is able to discern the situation: the man is asking for something because he has reasons for deserving it it's not in the name of charity that he's asking nor in the name of Jesus, but because he was an alter boy and a Catholic, he deserves help. This is the race that's being run: every day, sometimes every moment of every day, the Lord prepares us with little events such as this so our spiritual capabilities are continuously being put to the test and strengthened. Father Damien knows what he's doing and this scene proves that he's not weak.
When Father Damien walks through a run-down neighborhood, he sees kids jumping on an old car, beating it up. This old car (a model from the 1950's maybe?) represents the Holy Spirit within their selves and how they are treating it; if we are not being led by the Holy Spirit, we are being led by the Devil. Why does Father Damien pass them by and, like St. John Bosco, not lead them to a deeper knowledge of Our Lord? He's not called to do that. If anyone has ever tried to convert someone that the Holy Spirit had not prepared to receive the News, you know it's an impossible task; on the other hand, when the Spirit has prepared them and uses you as His instrument, it's as if we have done nothing at all and we know it was all the Lord's work. Father Damien knows that, too.
Going up the stairs again (surely you know by now what that symbolizes), Father Damien pulls out a key and enters a bedroom where there are many Catholic crosses and saints. He takes off his Roman collar and glances at some photographs, including some of him when he was a boxer and a picture of his mother when she was young. Now, everything that we have noted has been validated, because the spiritual life is a battle and Father Damien is a "fighter." Going into a living room, his mother greets him. She symbolizes Holy Mother Church in her advancing age. How do we know this? Father Damien enters the apartment through the bedroom, the marriage chamber, so to speak, because he is married to the Church that is both his Mother and his Bride. The meal she prepares for him is the meal of faith, the Eucharist, and the weakness in her legs which he binds up for her are the sins of the world "wounding" the Church and his ministry and hearing of Confession binds it.
Mercedes McCambridge who does the demon's voice.
What is it that Father Damien says is the cause of her leg problem?
Going up and down the stairs.
In terms of the Church, this would translate to the Church's dual mission in terms of the everyday affairs (the downstairs where daily life takes place, tending the sick, missions, counseling, etc.) and the contemplative life, the upstairs (the religious life, the writings of the Church, the great Apologetics, etc.). Why would Father say this? Because, as we discover in his next scene, he himself wants to stop going up and down the stairs, he doesn't like his assignment and wants to do something else. This is Father Damien being human, but (as we know when it's someone else and not in our own lives) the Lord is the One who knows what we must do to overcome all our sins, the Divine Physician who assigns us medicine in our lives to dispel the lesions of our souls where Grace is destroyed. When Father Damien meets with the other priest and tells him he wants a new assignment, that he's losing his faith, it's easy for us to see that Father Damien is being tested and going through spiritual aridity of the soul so he can be prepared for the upcoming exorcism of Regan.
The problem with Father Damien's mother reflects the problem that Chris McNeil is having with Regan: how to decide what is best for the one that you love? Father feels it's best to have his mother in a nursing home, but this, literally will come back to haunt him. In this situation, I don't think his mother symbolizes Holy Mother Church (at this moment) because it's linking too closely with what Chris is going through and is meant to illustrate how, when we are bogged down in our own problems, we never really know what's going on with everyone else, but always, it's the Will of God. How do we know this? Because they are being drawn together: he watches her shooting a movie, and she sees him talking to another priest.
Pazuzu the demon possessing Regan.
Downstairs, in the basement, Regan is making a doll.
The doll is a bird, rather like Big Bird of Sesame Street and signifies to the audience what Regan's understanding of the Holy Spirit is: a doll, a joke, something big and cartoonish. Then, Chris puts it away and takes out a oujia board. Regan starts getting hesitant when Chris asks her questions and starts playing with a ping pong paddle. She says she found it in a closet (a dark secret that's being hidden) and it doesn't take two you can do it with just one (like the "game" of ping pong she's playing)... Translated, this means that Regan has started masturbating and this is the source of her possession, because she wants to be possessed by a man, since, at 12, she has started puberty. What is hidden now will become graphically violent later and be bloody and blasphemous in a way no one can deny. When we were examining Count Dracula, what was one of the conditions which was necessary for Dracula to enter a home? He had to be invited, and the same holds up in The Exorcist: Captain Howdy is the demon that Regan has invited in (please see For the Dead Travel Fast: Dracula and The Children Of the Night: Dracula 1931 about Lucy and Renfield).   
Sitting in this position she looks like the man in the subway who asked Father Damien for help.
Obviously, Chris shouldn't be letting Regan play with this, and "Captain Howdy" knows that Chris knows better because he won't let her play and won't answer the questions, knowing that, somehow, Chris is strong enough to repel him but Regan isn't and can easily be taken. What is it that Regan asks Captain Howdy? "Is my mother pretty?" so this is the source of why Regan turns so ugly: Regan's jealous of her mother's looks and that makes Regan feel ugly. Remember, Regan is in bed with a Photoplay magazine and she's on the cover with her mother; Chris takes it away and, not noticing herself, tells Regan that's not a good picture of her. There's really only one moment in the film when Chris seems to be conscious about being a star and that's on the bridge when she's meeting Father Damien and he says her name and she asks the person to go away, not realizing it's him. Her stardom appears to be something she's very "gracious" about, but Regan isn't.
Regan's birthday is on Sunday, but the idea of going to Church never enters their minds even though at the party Chris gives later on, there are at least two priests there... maybe there's something about that in the book, but I think that's rather odd. Then, Regan tells her mom it's okay for Mr. (Burke) Dennings to come to along on her birthday, and there's an exchange about Chris' feelings for him. I think this is a subliminal reason for "Regan" to kill Mr. Dennings later on, he threatens her relationship with her mother. On her birthday, Chris, identifying herself as "Mrs. McNeil," tries to get through to Mr. McNeil in "the hotel Excelsior, Rome." This symbolizes an important mis-prioritization on Chris' part, because she should be calling the Holy Father in Rome, instead, she repeatedly takes the Lord's name in vain trying to get a call from an earthly father. I am NOT saying that a father calling his children on their birthday isn't important (I'd cry my head off if my dad didn't call me) but I am saying that, artistically, this is what Chris should be doing and her daily items of concern conflict with her eternal concerns. Likewise, she had been asked to dinner at the White House, and that was a big deal, but what about dinner at the Lord's Table?
Regan not getting a call from her father on her birthday, corresponds to Father Damien not feeling the "call" to his current assignment and losing his faith (his belief that God cares for him). Regan overhearing the drama of her mom trying to get a hold of her father emphasizes her feeling of rejection. I hate to put it this way, but her invitation seems to open even more after this to Satan because he wants her. While there are definite signs that God has not abandoned Regan and Chris in their dark night of the soul, He--like St. Joseph--is quiet and doesn't always answer in the way we want or expect. Chris is trying to make a call instead of answering the call of God and, because she hasn't answered that call, the only call she will answer is the call of a demon.
But when Regan realizes her mom isn't getting through to her father, Regan sits down on her bed and takes off her shoe... what other female have we seen "lose" a shoe? Barbara in The Night of the Living Dead (please see My Favorite Zombie: Night Of the Living Dead). The feet symbolize our will--because the feet take us where we want/need to go--so for Regan to take off her shoe means that she has removed her own control from her will and it can now be occupied by a stronger will, to be the instrument of the devil in doing the devil's work. Conversely, because Father Damien is losing his will, it now makes him more available to be the instrument of God in doing God's will.
When it's dark and Chris gets a phone call in the middle of the night about work and takes the call in bed, that re-enforces that she's married to her work (for more on the dangers of being a work-a-holic and what it does to us, please see Se7en and the Eighth Deadly Sin). Beside the phone is a cigarette. We've seen Chris with two cigarettes but haven't seen her smoking. I think this has an definite sexual reference, but I won't spend time on it now. When she sees that Regan has gotten into bed with her and Regan says her bed is shaking, that she can't sleep, this is the sign that she has lost control of her will as in the preceding scene. The "noises" in the attic are now definitely the noises of the demons who will come in through any means possible and in any way that they can get in. She has to light a candle because that's the only source of "illumination" she's going to have. Going through the attic, the flare up of the candle, I think, symbolizes that she has started to understand--at least in a very vague way--what is happening, but she still doesn't want to see it. And this is why she goes "up the upstairs," i.e., the attic, to get the best possible view on the situation that she can (I mean, her daughter just told her that her bed is shaking, of course a loving mother is going to think about what that means). 
This is the scene of the "stolen cookie" where it all started.
The bouquets of flowers which the priest carries into the chapel in the next scene is one of the most disturbing for viewers, and it should be. The flowers symbolize the virtues and the white "basket" the flowers are in is the body, the vessel of the virtues. The flowers are yellow, orange and green: yellow for gold, the royal dignity of the soul being in the Likeness of God; orange because it's the symbol of vibrancy and life of the Christian and green because it is both the symbol of hope and of rebirth. This is the "garden" of Eden, the garden in which Christ appears to Mary Magdalen for each person to achieve within their individual soul. As the priest places flowers before St. Joseph holding the Christ child, he turns to place flowers before the statue of Mary. The reason flowers are placed there is as a sign of honor, love and reverence, but also as perpetual prayers that we will receive the virtues of which the flowers symbolize.
The most famous scene not in the movie but in director's cut.
When he sees the statue of the Mother of God, it has, to say the least, been desecrated. The breasts have become like horns and there is a "horn" shape coming out from between her legs. This is the work of Regan, because every person's sins effect the body of Christ because he died for every person. Although Regan sees herself as only being of the body of Chris, not Chris(t), Jesus died for her sins and she's not living up to her calling of chastity for her station in life. This is a graphic illustration of how serious the sin of masturbation is, because society and even the Church doesn't always emphasize how damaging it is, but when seen on the purity of the Statue of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, it bears a different message. Lastly, the statue is smeared with blood, meaning that Regan has started her period and, like Carrie, she has the choice of her femininity being holy or lustful and so far, Regan is being lustful (please see The Crisis Of Blood: Carrie for more on the role of blood in horror films).
At the hospital: the mother of Father Karras has had an accident and is in a mental hospital (who else has been in an insane asylum? Renfield). This is not to say that mental patients are all sinners and that sinners have mental problems! There is, however, a conflict between what the mother thinks is best for her and what her son thinks is best for her; she, unlike Regan, is in the hospital for God's glory--there is no doubt that, although shes angry, she's still saying her prayers and offering it up--whereas Regan is going to be in the hospital to isolate her from God with the diagnoses of doctors who don't believe that God exists. The hardest moment of this scene is when his Uncle tells him that if he hadn't have become a priest, he would be a famous psychiatrist and his mother would be living in a penthouse instead of this hospital.
Father Damien rightfully ignore his uncle because, as we find out when he meets Chris, if he hadn't have become a priest, the Jesuits wouldn't have sent him to school to study psychology. So, as is typical of the devil, he's putting Father Damien in an impossible situation, and Father Damien recognizes it immediately. Spiritually, Father Damien is very advanced, however, his education is getting in the way of his perfection and Regan will be the instrument to achieve God's end. When he wants her to "be put somewhere else," his uncle asks him who has the money for it; there is then a sudden cut to Father Damien in the gym, boxing a bag. We should take this very symbolically, that he is still fighting and it's this ordeal which the Lord knows his soul needed to shake him out of his spiritual lethargy.
At Chris' party, when Regan had been sleeping and then "wakes up," we should read that symbolically, too: Chris things her sexual appetites have been asleep, but Regan's appetites have been awakened. Why does she tell the astronaut that he's going to die up there? He will lose his faith and die from that. Because having some knowledge of the devil gives her some knowledge of the devil and she recognizes their behavior; when she urinates on the floor, the human waste is the opposite of God's lifeforce, Grace, so it shows that she's full of waste, not of God's Life. Her mother gives her a bath and she sits hunched over in the bath, for she now feels shame (like Adam and Eve when their "eyes had been opened" like when Regan's eyes suddenly opened earlier).
What's up with Burke Dennings?
He's directing hostility against himself.
His provocations against Karl the butler and Karl's resulting violence foreshadows the "sleeping beast" within himself. The chances are that what really happens when Burke stays with Regan and she twists his head around and throws him out the window is that the devil has been using Burke as an instrument and is now ready to claim his soul so he provokes Burke the way he used Burke to provoke others; why is his head turned? In the eighth circle, Bolgia 4 of Dante's Inferno, the Fraudulent are condemned, including the false prophets and sorcerers, who have their heads turned backwards because of the twisted nature of magic and twisting the of the soul. We probably learn more here about Burke from his punishment than from his life, but because "false prophets" fall into this category, we must deduce that his movies were false, putting emphasis on the wrong issues in life, just as he puts emphasis on Karl being German and linking him to the Gestapo for that mere reason and nothing more, he probably did that throughout his work. And it can't be forgotten that he's thrown out a window--symbolic of reflection, so we have to reflect on what he's done--and he "falls down" the staircase, so he falls from grace.
So why does the bed shake?
First, the bed is a symbol used in the Old Testament and the Song of Songs as a prophecy of the Cross of Christ, upon which he would "lay down" his life in suffering for the church. For Regan's bed to start shaking as such means that she's not only NOT laying down her life for Christ (she's freeing herself of the duties Christ has called her to, namely, chastity) but also that her bed is shaking replicates the sexual act (remember, for example, in Poltergeist, towards the end when Diane is in bed and she starts being shaken violently, the scenes are exactly the same, please see The Family Graveyard: Poltergeist for more). With sin, we always give in a little bit, like a drug addiction, because we think we are the ones in control, and the violent shaking of the bed verifies that Regan is losing control of her sin and it's starting to "possess her."
But speaking of possession,...
Father Damien is now, almost, completely possessed by God, and we know this when Father Tim--wearing a red turtleneck symbolic of his appetites--comes to see Father Damien with a stolen bottle of alcohol. "Stealing is a sin," Father Damien tells him, just after Father Tim has taken his shoes off (remember what we said about Regan? Father Damien is emptied enough after the loss of his mother to be the vessel God wants him to be and Father Damien will be a better instrument of God's will now), Father Damien has a dream.
There, falling, is a medal like the one in the beginning, St. Joseph holding the Christ child, the one that Father Merrin found in Nineveh, the black dog symbolic of Satan, the pendulum of the clock that stopped in Father Merrin's Iraqi office, his mother that he can't help (the Church that needs him to help with sticking to his vocation but he wants to help differently but that's not what God wants him to do)... this symbolizes the fullness of time and the Lord is ready to start bringing Father Damien into his real vocation, his real calling: martyrdom.When the medal hits the stone floor, that's an image of Father Damien's heart, because the name "Damien" means "tame," and he has tamed the passions within himself (he still has emotions, but that's different from the appetites). The devil is already trying to use guilt over his mother's death to weaken him, but the Lord is using it to strengthen him.
The funny thing about the doctors is, as the audience, we see everything they are saying as total nonsense, while they see everything Christians say as total nonsense. The painful spinal taps Regan is put through is far more excruciating than a good examination of conscious and a trip to Confession. These doctors are not apt comparisons for Dr. Van Helsing, a man of science and faith, but it's the doctors who suggest to Chris that she get a psychiatrist. When she does, and the "shrink" puts Regan under hypnosis, and Regan grabs the groin of the doctor, this means literally that the man isn't a man, that he doesn't have what it takes--like Father Damien and St. Joseph and Father Merrin--to overcome the devil (he doesn't try that with any of them, does he?).
When the devil really reveals that he has total control over Regan, the doctors are called to see her violent motions in bed. The horrific language describing vulgar sexual acts (which I shall not be repeating) are literally being enacted on Regan as they are watching by Satan himself and they are all forced to watch it; this is the problem with people who are dead in faith, as we were discussing in Night of the Living Dead, when those who do not believe want proof, they say what proof they want and when you produce it, they say that's not what they wanted (please see My Favorite Zombie: Night of the Living Dead). This blatant display of sexuality is, as was noted earlier, the cause of Regan's being possessed now.
When the devil says, "The sow is mine," and calling Regan, basically, a pig, he's revealing the cause of why she belongs to him, he is, truthfully, fulfilling her appetites, she just didn't realize the price she would have to pay for it, as we seldom realize the price we have to pay for ours (for more on the religious significance on pig's blood vs. the Blood of the Lamb, please see The Crisis of Blood: Carrie). Why can the doctors not diagnose this? Because they don't see anything wrong with sexuality or a difference between the chaste and unchaste. There are reasons why, just as the guard rail the car crashes through in Carnival of Souls, dumps the girls into the muddy river, that unchaste sexuality perverts and dirties the soul, and this example of Regan clearly illustrates the truth of it (please see Being Unto Death: Carnival of Souls).
We have already discussed reasons associated with Burke's death, but it is now beginning to get cold in Regan's room: why? Hell is cold. In fact, it's frozen. When the life of grace has left the soul, the cold of death takes over, and Regan is dying to grace. Her sitting on the bed with her head turned around seemingly invokes the death of Burke, however, it also invokes a part of Regan's sin: the body is being turned around, from a holy dwelling place into a den of demons, from a vessel meant for Grace and to give life, to a heap of flesh used for personal pleasure. Just as she abuses her body, so, too, does she abuse the Crucifix: the suffering Christ offered up in expiation for our sins is being used to commit more sins, and the Love of Jesus is being perverted into sexual desire and lust.
Now Father Damien and the devil will be brought together.
As Father Damien is about to enter Regan's room, Karl, having been up in the attic, says something about the mousetraps. This is a direct reference to St. Joseph (please see this great explanation of St. Joseph and mouse traps) but it clearly refers to God being ready to spring his trap on the devil. Father Damien still has a problem: his education is going to get in the way, he will "reason through" something that, at this time, requires faith, not books. Education is a gift, but faith is a greater gift. This can be illustrated by the scene with the holy water: Father Damien tells Chris that it wasn't holy water he sprinkled on Regan but tap water, but I think he's underestimating the Holy Spirit, a sign of his technical learning interfering with the work of faith. We know, God knows, that Father Damien is destined to become a martyr, so for this priest to be making the sign of the cross, any intention that Father Damien has of causing pain to the demon will be enacted by the Holy Spirit because of the blood that Father Damien will shed (priests are welcome to leave comments or email me regarding this, however, I believe the act of Father Damien blessing Regan and the water truly caused the demon pain because it worked on Regan's venial sins and that weakens the devil even that much).
Renaissance artist Robert Campin's Merode Altarpiece, the right wing, featuring St. Joseph, the guardian of Mary and Jesus, working in his shop at the moment when Mary experienced the Annunciation. Renaissance artists were found of depicting St. Joseph as the mousetrap, not because St Joseph was bait for the devil, but because St. Joseph's holiness would trap the devil in his own games. .
When Father Karras hears the voice of the man who had asked him for some help in the subway, but the devil can't tell the maiden name of his mother. This demonstrates the devil's limitation of power, the devil has power, but it's contingent upon us giving our will over to him. When Father Damien says they are going to introduce themselves, and he just introduces himself as Damien Karras, and then Regan says "And I'm the devil!" that's sarcasm on the devil's part, because the devil knows a priest when he sees him, especially a holy priest. But being caught up in words, instructions and definitions, Father Damien can't see through his learning at this point to grasp what's happening. Why would it be an excellent day for an exorcism? The devil overestimates his power with Father Damien and Damien's weakness in his faith. Father Damien is slowly gaining greater sight of faith seeing the devil exposing himself. The demons' desire for Father Merrin suggests that this is the same demon that Father Merrin, in Africa, exorcised and is now wanting a "rematch."
So who is "The Exorcist?"
Father L. Merrin symbolizes the old Church, pre-Vatican_II. His wisdom and experience makes him eligible to do the job, but he's old and no longer has the strength needed to fight the day's battles of evil. It's the same, ancient demon, as Father Merrin knows, but he doesn't have the needed gift to overcome this demon again, as he did in Africa, only Father Damien does, and for this reason did he have a vocation. The strength and perseverance of Father Merrin during the ritual strengthens Damien sufficiently to be able to take over when it's required of him. The role of Father Merrin is necessary because it's the knowledge and holiness of the Church which has preserved the wisdom of Christ's teachings to face the new battles; but it's the love and faith, the devotion and strength of the new generations of priests like Father Damien who will save the Church and the flock of Christ.
Why does Father Merrin die? It's not just because of his age and the sickness which requires him to take the medicine. Remember his time in Nineveh? Well, it just could not, not have effected him, and in some ways, little ways, that time there in that culture was sufficient to weaken him so he couldn't completely get all his strength together. This image just above is one that Father Merrin sees in his mind (because Regan is on the bed in the next shot) so he's remembering that statue he saw in Nineveh. This is a sign of regret that he didn't destroy that statue because if he had, the power from the statue wouldn't be able to be possessing Regan now. This is something of a message from God to "the exorcist," of why he is NOT the exorcist of the film.
But all the strength of Fathers Merrin and Karras together is too much for the devil; so what does he do? Divide and conquer. 
By attacking Father Karras' memories of his mother, and Damien's guilt over it (this is why it's so bad to harbor guilt, the devil uses it, not God), the devil is able to get Father Merrin alone; because Father Merrin didn't destroy the statue when he had the chance the devil will destroy him now that he has the chance.
But we can't be hard on Father Damien, because God knows what He is doing.
When Father Damien goes back into the room and sees Father Merrin dead, he's seeing all that Father Merrin stands for dead, too, and this is what ignites his love for the Church, and for God, so much so, that Father Damien willingly gives his life for Regan. When he tries to get Father Merrin's heart started again (opposite of Regan's heart which is beating too fast) he's pounding it like the boxer that he is, because he's a fighter. Grabbing "Regan" and throwing "her" to the ground, he starts pounding her like the fighter that he is, and what comes to his mind?
Mark 5: 1-20.
Knowing the demons would want to go into the swine herd, Jesus gave them permission, and then threw the pigs over the side of the cliff. Father Damien, commanding them to leave Regan, knows these many demons want "another pig" to enter, so, being a sinner, he gives himself up and thereby becomes holy... Only after Regan claws off the holy medal of St. Joseph holding the Christ Child can he enter into Damien because St. Joseph is the Protector. What was being "thrown out the window" for Burke is a leap of faith for Father Damien because, as he goes down the stairs, we can see the graffiti "PIGS" written on the left-side ledge in red/pink spray paint, invoking the Scripture of the demons going into the herd swine and casting them off the cliff.
Father Tim is reborn in his faith as a result and, we might deduce, because he has been given the St. Joseph medal, he will no longer be "an absent father" who doesn't live his vocation, but a protector like St. Joseph and a protector like Father Damien. We might also conclude that the ordeal has had very little effect on Chris and Regan getting ready to go to Europe, like the Freelings in Poltergeist, but that's were Regan's father is, and that's where their Holy Father is, so we can hope that they do make a pilgrimmage and, remembering not only the power of the Church, but the love of its priests, they will enter into Christ's flock.
Please feel free to leave questions, comments and your own observations about the film. Thank you!

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.