Dear Jim (#19) Re: Turning Heads and Changing Minds

BY JON PILL

exorcist

I understand that people think of “The Exorcist” as a horror film, I totally get it. You don’t have to worry about it, it’s only a horror film. But I think it deals with issues far more profound than what you find in the average horror film. To be frank with you, [writer] Bill Blatty and I never set out to make a horror film. The idea never crossed our minds.’ – William Friedkin, Director of The Exorcist

Dear Jim,

Advocate for something, you said. Sell you something. You don’t need to ask me twice.

I don’t know if I can necessarily swing your opinion on The Exorcist. You’ve seen it, and weren’t hugely convinced of its myriad qualities. But it is my favourite film. Perhaps at the very least, I can help you understand why I love it, even if if I can’t be categorical that you should.

But I can say I don’t think you should just be scared or disgusted or any of the visceral stuff that makes The Exorcist so entertaining. I want to talk about the other stuff that makes it moving and thought provoking. It is proper art, serious art. With serious intention behind it.

I watched it for the first time when I was fifteen or sixteen, having been raised in a house where we were never allowed to watch a film rated higher than our age. I had my DVDs of American History X, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs confiscated, in the case of American History X I don’t think I ever got that one back. So watching The Exorcist was a taboo experience from the get go, ramped up by a genuine belief in the voodoo of the Church and its pitchfork-tailed opposite down below.

It was scary and disgusting and visceral, and also deeply uncomfortable: the blasphemy, the sordid sexual undertones, and the existential challenge of eternal damnation and priest without faith.

Demonic possession in broad daylight in an urban street felt close and real in a way a backwoods cabin doesn’t. Isolated characters are easy to see as vulnerable, easy to root for, but when you step out of the cinema onto a crowded street the film evaporates. The Exorcist happens in Washington and the victims are surrounded by people. The movie follows you home.

When I rewatched it, older, wiser and more skeptical of religion, I was struck by the diagnostics of the film. The House-like elimination of the alternatives and the fact that the Priest – himself struggling with his faith – is only called in as a form of hypnotic suggestion. The reading that suggests that it all might just be hysteria on the part of Regan and her mother seemed to live alongside the more straightforward superstition of the ‘real’ possession. I think one of the great things about the film is that it maintains ambiguities in just the right places to allow you cognitive dissonance. You can believe in the pit and in medicine, can fear God and fear madness, at the same time as you watch.

Around this time I also found a video* which makes the case for an undercurrent of sexual abuse that lends the film a different sort of dramatic intensity and a new different sort of discomfort.

New things occur to me each time I watch it. So much of the story telling happens indirectly, Regan’s desecration of the church – an act that could just be an atmospheric coincidence or sign of the evil spreading – is confirmed not by a line, but by drawing attention to Regan’s clay animals the design of which mirror the additions made to the Virgin Mary’s statue. The infamous masturbatory scene, is prefaced by the Mother removing the crucifix from the room, making its return all the more sinister. The whole film is full of this sort of detail.

The more I watch it the more I appreciate the technique of it. The special effects (you can see their breath in those final scenes because the set was an icebox), the make-up on Regan, the performances, and above all the sound design. My favourite piece of cinema is the first ten minute of this film, the almost wordless sequence with the ominous stopping of the clock, the one eyed man, the creepy old crone, and then the drive out to the statue of Pazuzu and the shot of man opposed with the statue as the wind howls and the dogs bark and fight.

It’s exciting, and unsettling and sets the scene perfectly for the transition to that chilly room on the first floor with the noises in the roof, and moving furniture, where something very old and evil waits.

A lot of what made me fall in love with this movie comes out in the re-watching. You’ve been talking about going back to re-read old books. That can be your topic for next time.

Yours faithfully,
Jon

P.S. It was while ranting about how great The Exorcist is to a friend that I was first put on to the BBC’s Flagship Wittertainment. Which seems as good a reason as any to say ‘Hello, to Jason Isaacs.’

P.P.S. * Watch the revamped version of that video here.

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3 Comments

Filed under Reading, The Silver Screen, Writing

3 responses to “Dear Jim (#19) Re: Turning Heads and Changing Minds

  1. Simon Turner

    Hi Jon,

    Enjoyed this post, and it’s always wonderful to know that there’s another “Exorcist” obsessive in Warwickshire. I love the film for reasons very similar to your own, and it’s paired with “The Shining” as a horror film that feels almost bottomless in its capacity, not to instil dread in the audience, but rather to inspire interest, even obsession. I would concur with you, too, on the Iraq sequence: it’s like a code, the key to which would unlock the ultimate meaning in the movie, but the cypher’s been lost, possibly dying with Merrin the final reel. Perhaps that’s overstating it, but when I first saw the film, the prologue was marked by a quality that seemed to somehow go beyond film – I can’t explain any more clearly than that, I’m afraid – and plunge into a realm more akin to myth or dream. I also love how, for a film dealing the unleashing of unspeakable horrors from the depths of hell, it’s so incredibly precise, almost clinical, in its narrative motion. There’s not a frame wasted.

    Interestingly, and almost certainly irrelevantly, the moment in the Iraq sequence when Merrin is almost struck down by a horse-drawn carriage housing a mysterious and sinister crone has an almost exact corollary in the 1940s British film, “The Queen of Spades” – which is also wonderful, and quite, quite mad – suggesting either a massive coincidence, or that Friedkin was a big fan of “TQOS” (Scorsese certainly is). Either way, it opens up a whole new avenue of consideration, which is all the movie obsessive ever asks for, right?

    Simon @ G&P

    • S,

      That opening sequence though… As a movie it must have one of the best non-musical soundtracks — although oddly lo-fi, I always feel there is a microphone present in all the sounds — in the Iraq sequence particularly, every sound is loud and close be it the ticking clock, or the crowd at the tea house. One of the most sinister sound cues is the magnets in the imaging device.

      Whereas the iconic musical moment: where tubular bells kicks in feels wrong to me. The music there just doesn’t fit. Screams, ragged breathing, howling wind — more of that please.

      Is TQoS anything to do with the Pushkin novella of the same name? I do note that it is advertised as written by the writer of ‘The First of the Few’ one of those aviation movies that I saw when young and loved. I have no idea how it stands up but the story of how R J Mitchell came to design the Spitfire is one of those great British inventor stories. Amusing then that the movie was written by one Anatole de Grunwald.

      J

  2. Simon Turner

    Jon,

    Yes, TQoS is indeed based on the Pushkin story, and as such it’s a little (or a lot) at odds with the British movie landscape of the period: although there’s plenty of historical drama from the 40s, it doesn’t tend to the exploits of decadent French noblemen and Russian gamblers at the height of the Napoleonic conflict. I don’t know ‘The First of the Few’, but if it’s half as good as ‘The Dambusters’, then I’m already sold.

    RE: the sound design, I agree with you regarding the music cues. They sound great on the first viewing, as they’re iconic and expected as a component of the mood, but later viewings do reveal ‘Tubular Bells’, and some of the other non-orchestral cues, to be rather jarring. The ambient noise is altogether more terrifying – the shifts between noise and silence in the film, in fact, is one of its most consistently unsettling special effects – and particularly so during the prologue. I wonder how different the film would have been if it had taken the route Hitchcock pioneered in ‘The Birds’ and ‘Rear Window’, shunning a traditional score altogether in favour of a kind of ambient collage.

    Also, James: yes, I’ve just checked my shelf, and apparently ‘Maps and Legends’ has not left the house.

    S

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