The Exorcist (1973)

This was one of the films that was at the very bottom of my to-watch list. I’m serious, the last thing I wanted to see was a film about a 12 year-old girl who has been possessed by the devil; talk about nightmares! But when it’s assigned for class, you’re obligated to watch it. Plus, I mean, isn’t college partly about experiencing things a bit out of comfort zone? (And no, I’m not talking about unsafe things or events, but rather ideas.)

It’s really hard for me to watch a film from the 1970s now and NOT think about the role women play in the film and their relationships with the world (and men) around them. But then again, this film begs you to read it in that light. Come on, the (single!) mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a famous and successful film actress. She leads a life of luxury, one where she can employ two or three people to do the everyday chores around the house. Remember when the detective comes to ask if she remembers if she was to receive any packages or visitors the day the director Bruke died? “I don’t know, Karl usually takes care of all those of things.” (More or less what she said, but you get the picture.)

So not only does Chris live in a well-furnished house that she rents while filming her movie, but she has an extremely happy and close relationship with her daughter, Regan. Regan is Chris’s world, and there is nothing in the world she wouldn’t do for her. (The film is a testament to that.) But then the strange things start happening, and I’m not talking about the devil entering Regan’s body.

Paralleling this story is that of Father Damien Karras. He’s a priest, good-looking, maybe in his mid to late 30s, and isn’t completely sure of his faith anymore. Part of this comes from his guilt for his mother’s death. It’s mentioned that had Damien become the psychiatrist as a lay person, he could have afforded comfortable living arrangements for his mother. It isn’t until after his mother’s death that Damien is asked to perform the exorcism.

This film isn’t really about an exorcism or the devil, but rather an awareness and anxiety of women’s awakening sexuality. This really isn’t a revelation in the film studies world, but I had no idea this (and other themes as well) were underlying the film. Not just an anxiety of female sexuality, but of female independence. Remember Chris and her conversation with the detective? The moment she says that Karl takes care of the things around the house, like the mail (AKA stereotypically a “woman’s” concern), the detective gives a face that renders like disapproval. When Chris asks him if he wants her to call Karl back, he says no, that it “doesn’t matter.”

The thing that struck me about the devil inhabiting Regan was every obscene thing it said had to do with sexuality. While saying a sexual obscenity once or twice is bad, there are many other evil and awful things the devil could say. This constant reference to sex and sexual aggression makes sense when one remembers that Regan is 12 years old, just at the verge of womanhood. So, essentially what I derive from this is that female sexuality is shocking and evil, in a sense. Remember what sets Damien off when talking with the devil is that his mother is in hell having, er, relations with many men.

While the film is interesting and brought much more than I thought it would, I don’t think I actually like it. I just wish blockbusters like this existed nowadays. (Or maybe I’m too narrow-minded in thinking blockbuster = superhero movies.)

William Friedkin is quoted as saying he wasn’t “aware of any far-reaching social problems” in The Exorcist. This baffles me because it seems that for someone working on it for at least a year would begin to notice these things- I mean, you’re living and breathing this project. Unless it’s subconscious; I’m not sure. Regardless, the social problems are there and they’re glaring.

 

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Why I Love Robert Altman (and Why I Think You Should Too)

Think of the directors of the New Hollywood era and write down the first few names that come to mind. The names you most likely wrote down are Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, etc. AKA the big directors we still talk about and worship today. However, I’ll bet you that one name that you didn’t write down was Robert Altman. Why? Well, were you to ask me two years ago during what period Robert Altman directed, I probably would have asked if you meant Robert Aldrich, because who is Robert Altman? My poor eighteen years-old self.

Why is it that one of America’s greatest directors is forgotten and hardly discussed in that crucial turning point in film? Is it because of his being labeled as a misogynist (which I do not agree with and believe is an overused and misused label), or because he didn’t have a consistent string of popular, money making films like so many of the other New Hollywood directors? It really boils down to a one word question: why?

I can’t answer that question, and I don’t think I ever will be able to answer it for it’s beyond me. All I can do is enlighten others to the unique world that is solely Robert Altman’s in hope that some day he will be given the recognition he deserves. With that, I wanted to tell you why I love Robert Altman and, thus, why I think you should love him (or at least give him a chance) too.

Perhaps it is best to start with, quite simply, the Altman style: long takes, long lens with zooms, overlapping dialogue, in essence, everything I’d aspired to do if I wanted to be a director. There is nothing in the Altman style that suggests mindless movie-watching. In fact, if you’re not active enough, you may find yourself becoming “bored” with what is on the screen. Instead, Altman respects the audience’s intelligence and patience. Why “cut, cut, cut” when you can shoot with long takes and let things play out as they do in real life? In a world today where everything is about immediate gratification and getting to the point, Altman is a relief for this poor, stressed college girl. Why? Because Altman trusts me with his films.

For most of this post I will be focusing on Nashville, as it is the Altman film I have seen the most. I have yet to watch Nashville (a movie I have seen at least 20 times, I kid you not) and not have seen or heard something new. Every single time I sit down and watch it, I discover some new layer to the plot or another dimension to one of the characters. Every rewatch has been worth it and not a waste of time. Perhaps that is what drew me back the second time; I had only grasped the surface of the film, maybe because I was tired or I didn’t realize just how much Altman needed from me, and I knew I needed to go back for more for a clearer understanding. Yet here I am, a good 20 rewatches later, and I feel there is so much more to be discovered.

As if his directing wasn’t enough, Altman’s personality and attitude is everything that I aspire to be. I had never heard of someone say one bad thing about John Ford (whom I am not a fan of) but right there in an interview, Altman said he never liked any of Ford’s films. In that same interview, Altman dismisses the notion of being an auteur for, truly, he is not. While he is the director and one of the editors, he encourages everyone on the crew to contribute, most notably for the actors and actresses to improvise. The contribution of everyone is essentially the number one no-no of the auteur theory; while it is the Altman style, this does not mean he is the sole creator because he did not tell his actors and actresses what to do. As you may guess, the auteur theory isn’t exactly my favorite theory nor do I believe it should be the ultimate mode of production. What I admire about Altman is his ability to reign in all of what everyone has contributed into one complex and rich theme. Now how impressive is that?

When you watch an Altman film, there is always much more than just the surface. It is impossible, especially in his large ensemble casts, to just have a surface level. Overlapping dialogue and long shots tracing over multiple actions on the screen beg you to look deeper and make connections. To me, Altman is pure cinema as he can only exist as cinema. As screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury says, Nashville “literally moves through time and space,” and that’s it. You cannot write a book or paint a painting of the plot of Nashville; it’s impossible.

There are so many other films of Altman’s that I’ve yet to see. Like any director, not all of them are fantastic or a masterpiece, but they are still important to watch. I’m going to take my time with Altman because there is so much to learn from him. Altman is my favorite director and I refuse to let the ride end too soon.

So I leave you with this post and encourage you to seek out some Altman films. You will not be disappointed, I promise. While I have not seen all of Altman’s films, these are some that I have seen and highly recommend: Nashville, The Player, The Long Goodbye, and 3 Women. {Other films (I have not seen) include: McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Godsford Park}

(If you loved this post on Robert Altman, stay tuned for this spring I will be beginning my undergraduate thesis on women in Robert Altman’s films!)