Monday, November 29, 2010

Coming in 2011: JANE EYRE

My favorite novel of all time, Jane Eyre, was tailor-made for cinematic adaptation, despite being written in an era when such art-forms were undreamt of. A rebellious orphan, cruelly ostracized, she makes her way in the world as a governess, and goes to work for a seemingly hard-hearted man of considerable wealth and not a few secrets. But the best part of the story, for me, is when Jane, overwhelmed by her situation, decides to venture into the wilderness, alone. With little more than the clothes on her back, she becomes one with the landscape, until ultimately her solitude and hardship lead her to make a life-changing decision. Now if that's not a Vision Quest, what is?

In 2011, there will be a new cinematic version of Jane Eyre, based on this popular and well-loved novel by Charlotte Bronte.

There have been many filmed versions of this story, of course. The most recent is a Masterpiece Theatre mini-series shown in 2006. Franco Zeffirelli's 1996 version starred Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane and William Hurt as Rochester. Strange to have a Jane with a French accent, but it was wonderful nonetheless. I confess, my favorite version was the 1970 made for TV version starring Susannah York and George C. Scott: a triumph of casting with two stunning performances.

The 2011 version will be scripted by Moira Buffini (the writer for Tamara Drewe), and directed by Cary Fukunaga whose film Sin Nombre was among my favorite films of 2009). Mia Wasikowska (the daughter in The Kids are All Right) will play Jane; Rochester will be played by Michael Fassbender (who I loved in this year's historical drama Centurion). Imogen Poots (who also starred in Centurion) will play Blanche, and as Mrs. Fairfax, none other than the legendary Dame Judi Dench. It looks as thought this version may even delve into the story if Jane's relationship with St. John, a character often ignored in filmed versions of the story for some reason.

The just-released trailer is delightfully gothic and spooky, right down to a snippet of music that will be faminilar to those who have seen Dario Argento's Suspiria.

Some very exciting and intriguing films will be making their way to theatres in the next calendar year. I think these may well be of interest to pagan-minded folks, just as Jane Eyre is. I'll be looking more closely at these new films in a series over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rest in Peace, Ingrid Pitt

News has come from the BBC that actress Ingrid Pitt has died at the age of 73. Ms. Pitt was a holocaust survivor who spent three years in a concentration camp and went on to have a successful career as a film actress.

Horror fans have loved Ms. Pitt for her roles in some of the finest Hammer Horror films, including Countess Dracula, The House that Dripped Blood and The Vampire Lovers. Ingrid was a well-loved icon among horror film fans and maintained a delightful website for fans devoted to her horror roles. A great interview with Ingrid about her roles in vampire films appeared on Amanda Norman's horror photography website in 2009.

But pagan movie-lovers will more likely remember her for her role as the seductive and devious librarian who helps to trap and prepare Sargeant Howie for his untimely end. Born in Poland, Miss Pitt's exotic accent lent an added air of mystery to her character (although unlike her co-star Britt Eklund, Miss Pitt's dialogue was not dubbed).
The Den of Geek website features a funny and insightful guest column by Ingrid following her participation in a documentary about filmmaking in Scotland. Ms. Pitt was a gracious and accomodating performer when it came to her fans, willing to participate in interviews and fan events over the years. She is also interviewed at length for her work in The Wicker Man in the documentary accompanying the extended DVD release, The Wicker Man Enigma.

Ingrid Pitt was also a prolific author, with more than ten books to her credit, and was briefly involved in writing scripts for the British television program Doctor Who. Her books included The Ingrid Pitt Bedside Companion for Vampire Lovers (1998), The Autobiography of Ingrid Pitt: Life's a Scream (1999) and The Ingrid Pitt Book of Murder, Torture and Depravity (2000).

This beautiful and classy actress brought decades of joy and fascination to legions of horror fans, and she will be dearly missed.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Trials of the Moon: a brief critique

Over at The Wild Hunt, and on the Witchvox Facebook page which links to a short review on this pagan blog, there is discussion of a new self-published book by Ben Whitmore, Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft,which seeks to critique and question many of the assumptions and statements of Ronald Hutton's historical examination of the roots of modern pagan witchcraft, The Triumph of the Moon.

I've read the (free) download of Whitmore's book, which is nearly the entire text including footnotes (although not a bibliography). I think there's a great deal of interesting writing there. But I also noted a number of statements that don't inspire confidence. By his own admission Whitmore is not an historian, nor even an academic. And this shows in his failure to observe the most rudimentary rules of objectivity and neutrality of stance. (Then again, those rules are flouted by many so-called "scholars" of paganism, too, who are writing under the auspices of the academy; this also troubles me a great deal.)

Whitmore's writing is also highly conjectured at times, for example:

"Leland’s transcription from the original manuscript still exists, and it appears that he misunderstood some of the dialect Italian and introduced minor errors into the translation. This in itself would, it seems, substantially clear
Leland of doubt."

HUH? Leland's shoddy transcription makes him a flawlessly accurate ethnographer? I don't think so.

Whitmore's refutation of Hutton's discussion of the lack of evidence for widespread matristic cults or goddess worship reads thusly: "To take a leaf from Freud, it seems only natural to me that an all-powerful mother figure should appeal
to at least a few people in any era."

That's nice, but your personal insights are not proof of anything. That is the difference between what historians do and, apparently, what those who are unqualified to critique them do.

In refuting Hutton's description of Gerald Gardner's long list of fraudulent claims about his own pedigree, Whitmore writes: "So, given the interests of his friends and acquaintances, I would be surprised if a man of Gardner’s leanings hadn’t been a Co- Freemason and a member of the Holy Royal Arch.174 He certainly would have been foolish to falsify this degree to Aleister Crowley, who could easily test him."

Again, HUH? HUH?, I say.

Regarding Dorothy Clutterbuck, and Hutton's claims that her diaries don't reveal any explicit evidence of pagan or occult belief, Whitmore opines: "Is this really the Church stalwart Hutton has portrayed? 'Simple, kindly, conventional and pious'? True, witchcraft is never explicitly mentioned in the diaries, but then, Dorothy intended them to be viewed by her visitors. I think their 'relevance to paganism' is worth a more careful look. We may possibly gain a further insight into them by comparing them with the writings of Katherine Oldmeadow, who lived near Dorothy and was her best friend. Dorothy always intended the diaries to be given to her, and she received them upon Dorothy’s death."

Soooooo...Whitmore is saying we should read into Dorothy's diaries, inferring things that aren't there, by assuming that what is written in her best friend's diary is somehow closer to what Dorothy actually meant to say?

Generally, Whitmore's writing is readable and engaging, and often insightful. But at other times, it's maddeningly vague: "Ultimately, it remains entirely reasonable to ask whether paganism has survived to the present day, and whether witchcraft is one expression of that paganism — reasonable, that is, given certain (entirely reasonable) usages of the terms ‘paganism’ and ‘witchcraft’. Hutton’s usage differs, and there our ways part."

Hutton's usage differs...from what, exactly? Your own? Please say so, then.

Whitmore continues on, in what is perhaps the most self-serving and cluelessly-narcissistic passage in the book, a passage that proves for good and all that one's own personal religious beliefs must never be invoked if one is to be taken seriously in a critical context:
"One point Hutton and I certainly agree on is that Wicca and its various off-shoots have value regardless of their origins. As a priest of the Goddess and God no historian can take away what I’ve learnt and experienced, or the joy and wisdom I’ve found within the Craft. I’m well aware that the founders of our religion were flawed people (as am I), and yet they have bequeathed to us a thing of great value.
And here is one of the mysteries that priesthood reveals to us: through our training we become more sensitive to the faults and oddities of the human personality — our own and others’ — and yet we also begin to see how this imperfect human vehicle can paradoxically express divinity, and be a channel for great inspiration, energy and beauty. Sincere or cynical, having once offered our service to the Gods there is every chance that we will deliver, and wittingly or unwittingly be drawn to their work. The founders of our cult were imperfect, and Hutton is imperfect too; and if ever Hutton was inspired to honour the Goddess in some way, I think She has taken him up on the offer: he says his book is a triumph for the Moon, and perhaps it shall prove so, for it stands as a challenge to all the Craft, an incitement to us to seek the real truth."

Let me get this straight: you're saying the gods, in their infinite wisdom, set Hutton's book before you as an opportunity, nay, an incitement, to expose its flaws so you could reveal the "real truth" to the rest of us?

Wow. Just, wow.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One

The Dark Ages, the Light Within

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One

For all of you who think the Harry Potter franchise can do no wrong (and of course they will have already seen this newest installment by now), you’ll be happy to know that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, directed by David Yates, is by far the best of the films so far, a close second to the third film (my own personal favorite), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Even with stellar casting every step of the way (with some of the UK’s finest actors happy to join in), it was not always clear that the three young stars would continue to mature and carry the films at the level needed as the stories became darker and more adult. For a time, I was somewhat concerned that the adorable Rupert Grint was simply not a good enough actor to cut the mustard; earlier films found him working too hard at acting, with absurd facial expressions (what experienced thespians call mugging). But he’s grown into the role beautifully (and perhaps has had some more sensitive directors), and it’s Ron Weasley who undergoes the darkest and most troubling transformation of the three in this, the sixth and penultimate film in the series.

The story begins with a feeling of unease, with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron leaving their families to protect them from the increasingly dangerous pursuit of the seedy underbelly of Hogwarts’ Old Boy (and Hag) network. Led by Severus Snape (didn’t he used to be a good guy? Alan Rickman is so much more interesting as a villain, in any case) and Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) and son Draco (Tom felton), as well as Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the team bent on destroying Harry and those close to him also now includes Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, whose career has moved from period dramas to spooky fare, thanks perhaps to her marriage to Tim Burton), and a motley crew of mercenaries and Death eaters. But despite the three friends’ pleading attempts to leave their loved ones out of it, the Weasleys and various others (like Hagrid and Professor Lupin) risk their own lives to protect Harry. As various threats close in on them, and Ron decides to abandon the cause, Harry and Hermione draw closer, and do their best to fight back against the evil magics aimed at them.

There is more to it, of course. There are horcruxes and woodland creatures made of light. There’s a tale of three brothers who cheat death (the “Deathly Hallows” of the title is rendered in a brilliant animated segment narrated by Hermione). There’s a cross country journey that finds our intrepid witch and wizards camping on limestone cliffs and beside lake valleys. There's no shortage of references to current political situations taking place in the world. There are some intriguing new and nearly-forgotten characters played by more cream of the crop British actors (Rhys Ifans, John Hurt, Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton). And there’s a lovely vignette featuring a song by Nick Cave.

Although the film tends to skim over seemingly-significant plot details and actions, there is a wonderful mood and pacing to this film, full of suspense and an increasing sense of forboding and finality. The visual effects and overall production design are simply excellent, perhaps the best so far in this series, despite having very few scenes set in the grand halls of Hogwarts (although the exterior locations are thrilling, shot in Wales, Scotland and throughout England). The animated sequence I mentioned earlier is one of the film’s finest moments, and it’s some of the most stunning animation I’ve seen anywhere in recent memory.

Those who have read the books know, of course, how it ends. But it’s a testament to the film franchise’s artful adaptation that one need not have read any Rowlings’ books to appreciate this epic story. And I really see no reason not to break Deathly Hallows into two parts: it gives fans one last film to look forward to, allows the story to be told in more detailed fashion, and, of course, makes the studios another wad of cash. And Deathly Hallows does end on a razor-edged note, perfectly poised to make us all groan and wish that Part Two was not so far away.

So, what of the story's magical and occult content? I have felt that the teacher-student relationship probably does carry some resonance for those witches who have followed this model. The death of an elder, such as we saw with Dumbledore's passing, can be a profoundly sad experience. In Deathly Hallows, Dumbledore has bequeathed some of his magical tools to his three prized pupils. But, despite the many magical baubles, spells and teachings, I've found all along that the films basically deal with the trappings of magic as metaphors for life, specifically, the journey from childhood to adulthood, with the stormy turbulence of adolescence a time of troubling transitions. The franchise mines this metaphor for all it's worth: I recall when the third film opened with Harry under the covers reading his magical books with a flashlight, as if they were skin mags. Harry now seems to wear his "chosen one" status like a reluctant mantle of privilege, as a paparazzi-plagued young prince might. Hermione's shift from tomboyish bookworm to attractive, sensitive young woman who sometimes lets her emotions get in the way of her judgment, has perhaps disappointed those who had hoped for a "witchcraft is empowering!" message. And Ron, our favorite scruffy underachiever, seems to have grown into a loveable but imperfect youth who is capable of childish jealousy and even violence in other words, a man.

Since Part Two will pick up immediately where Part One has left off, the characters will not have aged significantly. But maturity is another matter. The trials our three young magic users have endured have forced them to make some very adult decisions, some of them hasty, others measured, and often with regrettable results. I've no doubt the story will end on an uplifting and redemptive note, and for that, I am happy to wait.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What are Your Favorite Witch Movies?

John Morehead of Theofantastique shared this link on Facebook today: offers a great list of Thirteen Top Witch Films. I like that they list a number of classics and older films, like Witchfinder General (1968) and Mark of the Devil (1970). They even named The Wicker Man (1973) their Number One choice!

But I did notice they omitted several films I'd have included: most notably, The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). And despite including a quote from The Witches of Eastwick (the novel, not the film), they don't include that film in their list.

So what are your favorite witch films? What do you think of the list?

My own list of 13 (good number) would be as follows:

1. The Wicker Man (1973)
2. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
3. The Craft (1997)
4. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
5. The Devils (1971)
6. Stranger in Our House (aka Summer of Fear) (1978)
7. Sorceress (1995)
8. Excalibur (1981)
9. Witchfinder General (1968)
10. The Initiation of Sarah (made for TV) (1978)
11. Satan's School for Girls (made for TV) (1973)
12. The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (TV mini-series) (1978)
13. Midnight Offerings (made for TV) (1981)

Note that a number of these were made for television films. 1978 was apparently quite a fertile year for them. I miss the wonderful occult-themed programming from the 1970s! It was practically non-existent in the 1980s.

Technically, The Wicker Man isn't about witches, but about paganism. But that's a minor quibble, I suppose. It's become a seminal film for neo-pagans and its representation of a pagan community that lives in a Shangri-la-like location in Scotland has inspired a novel (Whitley Streiber's Cat Magic) and has been called the Citizen Kane of horror films. The sequel is eagerly awaited.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Season of the Witch: Finally!

After seeming to lie fallow for a number of months, it now appears that SEASON OF THE WITCH, the medieval horror thriller starring Nicolas Cage, will be opening in theatres January 7, 2011. The website 'I am Rogue' debuts the new poster for the film, with the tagline "This January Raise Some Hell."

The Internet Movie Database gives the following description: "A 14th century Crusader returns to a homeland devastated by the Black Plague. A beleaguered church, deeming sorcery the culprit of the plague, commands the two knights to transport an accused witch to a remote abbey, where monks will perform a ritual(italics mine) in hopes of ending the pestilence."

Yes, folks. One woman, the cause of the plague that ravaged millions of lives in medieval Europe. Even though it's also possible the plague was caused by bacteria spread by fleas, carried on rats, produced by filth, it being, you know, THE FRICKING DARK AGES.

Interestingly, the bubonic plague (aka the Black Plague or the Black Death) has made a comeback in recent years. Found on cats, no less. The modern witchcraft movement is continuing to grow, too. Coinkydink?

THE WICKER TREE gets a sneak Wales.

So, those of you who live anywhere near Aberystwyth, are in for a treat! As the BBC website reports, Robin Hardy's new film THE WICKER TREE, the long-awaited sequel to 1973's THE WICKER MAN, will be having a promotional event there this Sunday, November 14th. A 12 minute clip of the film will be shown, to get people excited for the feature film's release, which will be in the spring of 2011. Robin Hardy, interviewed for the article, says he had not really had much interest in doing a remake or sequel until he saw the 2006 aberration starring Nicolas Cage and written-directed by Neil LaBute. It's heart-warming to know that Hardy, who is now in his eighties, felt strongly enough to give the world another taste of his influential and legendary film. The article also mentions that Hardy is beginning work on a THIRD film in the series.

Jason at The Wild Hunt has been covering the progress of the film so far, as did Wren at Wren's Nest (which has been replaced by a wonderfully active news link page on Facebook), and I know the pagan blogosphere will be abuzz about it in the months to come! I am going to try and score an interview when the time comes, so watch this space.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The West Memphis Three: Will Justice Be Served, at Long Last?

Today CNN reported that the Arkansas Supreme Court has ordered that the cases of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. be remanded to the lower court for a new hearing, which means that new evidence may be presented. That means DNA evidence and other evidence which may well exonerate Damien Echols; and if Echols, the alleged "ringleader," goes free, it's likely that Misskelley and Baldwin will also be released.

As the article reports, previous DNA testing conducted between 2005-2007 (nearly ten years after the initial trials took place) was not allowed to presented at an evidentiary hearing because the circuit court misinterpreted the state's DNA testing laws; this is the error the Supreme Court took issue with in granting the hearing and the potential for a new trial. The DNA testing revealed DNA consistent with the hair of Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Stevie Branch, one of the 8 year old victims, and also consistent with a friend of Hobbs.

The article also states: "Prosecutors successfully argued that the defendants were involved in a satanic cult and that punctures and cuts on the boys' bodies indicated a ritual sacrifice." There were other statements made in court testifying that there were numerous indicators of "satanic crime" (including the wearing of black nail polish), according to an idiotic expert witness named Dale Griffis, a self-proclaimed occult crime specialist who obtained his degree from a mail order university (this fact was also revealed in court). For more information on the case, visit the official supporters' website, or see the films Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Revelations: Paradise Lost 2, by award-winning documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. (A third film is in the works).

You've probably read it all before (the Witchvox coverage of this matter has been extensive). Damien Echols wore black, Damien Echols practiced Wicca. Damien Echols wrote Aleister Crowley's name several times in one of his school notebooks. Damien Echols listened to heavy metal music. Damien Echols changed his name to "Damien" after the priest who worked with lepers (but of course it's also the name of the child born of Satan who is selected to take over the American government in the 1976 film The Omen).

In 1993, when these horrific murders took place, the community of West Memphis, Arkansas was a very Christian place with a very sensationalist understanding of the occult. Numerous television specials by self-styled journalist Geraldo Rivera in the late 1980s and early 1990s hyped the idea that there was a nationwide epidemic of satan worship and related activities, and lathered many Americans into a panic. He even played a scene from the 1987 fiction film The Believers to set the mood. Yes, folks, if you thought these people must have been watching too many movies, you were right. In this blog, a self-proclaimed "conspiracy nut" uses this photo from the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut beneath his definition of Satanic Ritual Abuse.

To his credit, Mr. Rivera eventually apologized for his role in playing up the satan scare (in 1995; two years too late to save the West Memphis Three from Death Row and life in prison).

No apology has been forthcoming thus far from Ms. Oprah Winfrey, who also hosted episodes of her famous talk show devoted to talk of satanic panic. During one such episode that I viewed, Winfrey said "The only possible explanation for this behavior is that these people are possessed by the devil." Winfrey hosted many so-called "victims" of satanic cult crimes and their families, many of whom were later revealed to be complete frauds, or whose experiences (such as the friends who accompanied Mark Kilroy, a young man murdered by drug dealers in Mexico) were unrelated to any occult crimes in the United States. A brief video from one such episode, in which Winfrey interviews a woman who claims to have been brought up in a "nice Jewish family" of murdering satan worshippers who have been practicing since the 1700s can be viewed here. Such stories seem ludicrous now; but at the time, many people took this seriously.

Despite the inept and, some have said, corrupt actions of the police and the courts in Arkansas where this case is concerned, despite, all the ridiculous and false testimony given that the jury took at face value, despite the sensationalist tactics of the media that made it impossible for potential jurors to remain impartial, despite everything that went wrong in Arkansas, we have to acknowledge that the indulgent circus of satanic panic that gripped our country for well over a decade (and, to this day, still has a foothold in many communities) is to blame for this injustice.

Contemporary witches and pagans everywhere are duty-bound to learn the facts of this case and to take to heart its lessons. This could have been any of us. But it happened to three boys from a poor community in Arkansas.

Three boys were murdered in cold blood, and their killer or killers have not yet been apprehended. Three more boys who were wrongly accused and convicted of the murders have been rotting in prison for a decade and a half. We need to do everything we can to demand that justice be served, to all six of them. So Mote it Be.