Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Movie Quote of the Day (‘The Exorcist,’ As the Demon Strikes at Human Weakness)

Demon (body of Linda Blair, voice of Mercedes McCambridge): “Your mother's in here, Karras. Would you like to leave a message? I'll see that she gets it.”—The Exorcist (1973), screenplay by William Peter Blatty, adapted from his novel, directed by William Friedkin

When I first caught this blockbuster supernatural shocker on the big screen nearly 40 years ago, my small group staggered out of the theater, weak-kneed after the spectacle of suddenly spewed, greenish pea soup, a head turning completely around, an adolescent girl using a crucifix in a way none of us Catholic school grads ever thought of, and God knows what else. It was all we could do not to clout on the head a joker among us who suggested a post-show stop at a pizzeria (as if we could keep down any food after all that).

This past weekend, I saw bits and pieces of this film of my youth on IFC. The rough bits remained intact, but what stayed in my mind this time was how novelist-screenwriter William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin lifted the suspense through subtler means than the more remarked-upon aspects mentioned above—i.e., through a contemporary psychological study and a parable about family.

I’m afraid that horror movies following The Exorcist picked up on its more sensational elements while ignoring its artistry: what Roger Ebert rightly called “the craft of the film--how it embeds the sensational material in an everyday world of misty nights, boozy parties and housekeeping details, chats in a laundry room and the personal lives of the priests. The movie is more horrifying because it does not seem to want to be. The horror creeps into the lives of characters preoccupied with their lives.” (The documentary-style look that Friedkin wanted--and got, courtesy of cinematographer Owen Roizman--did much to achieve this necessary realism.)

Blatty's Oscar-winning Best Adapted Screenplay provides an excellent blueprint. The film is at its best when it suggests horror rather than shows it (e.g., the terrible fate of hard-drinking director Burke Dennings is described by a detective rather than shown), when it spotlights the struggle for faith rather than special effects. Actor Jason Miller was right years later when he pointed to the movie's real strength: "I think The Exorcist in some way is not a genre horror film. It's something else. It's more of a philosophical horror film."

The call for the exorcist is a last-ditch resort, after every means of modern psychiatry has been unsuccessfully employed to determine the source of increasingly violent language and attacks seemingly perpetrated by a young girl. Yet, for a film that squarely sets out the limits of modern medical care, it is at great pains to set out the psychological elements that open them to the snares of the Devil.

In his introduction to the fine Library of America anthology American Fantastic Tales, horror writer Peter Straub writes of  “the universal sense of loss, grief, and terror produced by the gradual replacement of the Enlightenment’s orderly, rational, reassuring world view with the unstable and untrustworthy universe that came into being during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’’ That “orderly, rational, reassuring world view” reached an apotheosis with psychology. The sense of “loss, grief, and terror,” a product of our age, goes far to undermine the secularly constituted modern sense of self, especially for this movie's mother, daughter, and “father” called in to save them.

An article from 2000 in the British magazine History Today by Nick Cull usefully summarized elements in the zeitgeist that the film touched on, including gender politics, evil touching Hollywood (the Tate-LaBianca murders), American violence in Vietnam, genocide, and unrest in the Middle East (Merrin’s initial encounter with the demon in Iraq serves as a foreign source for the longstanding fear of an “enemy within” the United States). But nothing feels more grounded here than the examination of the strains on the American family. Its resonance only deepens today for adults wondering how to save both their children and elderly parents from the worst life can throw at them.

When I was growing up in the late Sixties and early Seventies (the same time Blatty was writing his novel of demonic possession), the culture was consumed with talk about the “generation gap.” The question in the mind of so many parents then was, “What the hell is happening to my kids?” The novelist’s answer, one that struck a chord with all too many readers, was, “Hell is happening to your kids.” Literally.

The plot vector of The Exorcist depicts the heart of the generational dilemma in the bond between mother and child, with two adults--a mother and a son—at different ends of the relationship, yet each rendered vulnerable by their unease over how they’ve deal with their respective situations. Actress Chris MacNeil (reportedly based on Blatty’s friend Shirley MacLaine) wonders if her absent, divorced husband and her frequent absences because of film work have left her 12-year-old daughter (because of her mother's atheistic beliefs, with no grounding in religion, either) subject to wracking psychological disturbances—and, as events unfold, something even worse.

No sooner has Chris, following a series of disturbing incidents (in a wonderful, slowly uncoiling release of repressed tension and sorrow of tension, by Ellen Burstyn), closed the door behind the kind, inquiring Lt. Kinderman than all hell breaks loose upstairs. As the daughter finally turns violently on her, following an escalating series of disturbing incidents, the girl fully seems to merit her name: “Regan,” the youngest (and arguably most viperish) daughter in King Lear.

Fr. Damien Karras may be even more racked by guilt: already alert because of his calling to issues of sin, he blames himself for being financially unable to afford the mental care his aging mother desperately needs. The “Quote of the Day” comes from his first meeting with the demon, who immediately lays out the marker for his struggle with the haunted priest: Karras’ guilt, so all-consuming that the Jesuit believes he might be losing his faith. (The mounting understanding of Chris and Karras that they face something beyond the rational comes in the scene immediately following, when the actress tells the priest that Regan did not know beforehand that Karras' mother had died.) 

The veteran exorcist of the title, Fr. Lankester Merrin, implicitly warns Karras about these very snares: “Avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant, but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don't listen to him. Remember that—do not listen.”

Of course, humans being humans (and Hollywood being Hollywood), that is not going to happen. In an exquisitely calibrated performance, Jason Miller (then having a career year, following his Tony and Pulitzer awards for his play That Championship Season) traces the journey of a wounded spiritual healer, as undermined by his realization of the limits of the science of mental health as he is by his own frailty. (At this juncture, it's impossible to think of anyone else--particularly two other actors reportedly in the running, Jack Nicholson and Ryan O'Neal--doing a better job with the role, and Miller deservedly won an Oscar nomination for his performance.)

Karras’ first name, Damien, is not merely a saint’s name that a priest might be expected to assume, but in this case a foreshadowing of the sacrifice he’ll make for another human being. In this case, the guilt-ridden “father” makes common cause with the guilt-ridden mother. “Is she [Regan] going to die?” Chris asks Karras toward the end. “No,” he answers, less out of desperate reassurance and more out of grim resolution. And almost immediately, in this unlikely battleground for a soul, the modern home—the modern American home, at that—the man unable to save his mother goes upstairs to save a child, from far worse.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

This Day in Vice-Presidential History (Sherman Death Forces Reshuffling of GOP Ticket)

October 30, 1912—The death of Vice-President James Sherman while in office wasn’t in itself unusual—he was the seventh holding that sorry position to do so—but the circumstances were: only days before one of the most topsy-turvy elections in American history, with the Republican Party split between a conservative wing that backed Sherman and his boss, President William Howard Taft, and a liberal faction that, as the Progressive Party, nominated Taft’s predecessor and former friend, Theodore Roosevelt.

Sherman’s passing left Taft once again in the midst of an intraparty split. Unable to get the party old guard to go along with his preference, Governor Herbert S. Hadley of Missouri, he simply decided not to name anyone at all—meaning, in effect, that he had a deceased running mate.

In the following January, the GOP--like the President, considering it all a formality anyway—designated as the recipient of Sherman’s electoral votes Nicholas Murray Butler. The latter did not only want to be President of Columbia University, as he had been for the past decade, but President of the entire United States. But not only was he unsuccessful in seeking the GOP nomination in 1920 and 1928, but his last-minute replacement of Sherman did Taft no good, either, as the incumbent won only eight votes, finishing not only behind the winner, Woodrow Wilson, but, to add insult to indignity, T.R. himself.

You could, I suppose, think of Sherman as Dick Cheney with a smile: a man with a disposition genial enough to win him the nickname “Sunny Jim,” but also a conservative darling who consistently tried to steer his boss in a more retrograde direction.

His initial selection as Veep in 1908 was, in a sense, a harbinger of the tensions that would splinter the party four years later. The conservative and liberal wings had been squabbling at the GOP convention in Chicago. Several candidates vied for the party’s nomination, and though the delegates eventually went along with T.R.’s hand-picked successor, Taft, the interests of unity compelled the selection of Sherman, a Congressman from New York and member of the Old Guard, as Vice-President.

Taft and Sherman did not get off on the right foot. When the incoming President suggested that he would use Sherman as a go-between to reactionary Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon, Sherman barked: “You will have to act on your own account. I am to be Vice President and acting as a messenger boy is not part of the duties as Vice President.”

Other Vice Presidents have found themselves dangerously isolated for saying less than that, but Taft—initially distrusted by the Old Guard—found Sherman an increasingly congenial figure. In presiding over the Senate (which was one of his duties as V-P), Sherman displayed utmost fairness, good humor and mastery of parliamentary procedure. In private, he encouraged the President to strike at opponents—including the progressives that Sherman had long opposed at virtually every turn. (When Taft demurred about using his appointive power against liberals livid over passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, Sherman growled: “"It is your only club. You have other weapons, but the appointing power is your only club.")

Sherman’s strong support for Taft’s firing of a T.R. favorite, U.S. chief forester Gifford Pinchot, and his nomination as chairman of the New York state convention in 1910 increased Roosevelt’s dismay with his protégé. (The ex-President’s prestige was such that he was able to derail Sherman’s assumption of the chairmanship.) Moreover, the conservatives' threat to nominate Sherman instead of Taft for the Presidency in 1912 helped to keep the incumbent in line.

Because of Bright's Disease, which had afflicted him since 1906, Sherman had grown increasingly uncomfortable because of the Senate’s inability to appoint a president pro tempore who could spell him in his duties. His medical condition became more virulent as Taft sought reelection in his knockdown fight with Roosevelt for the Republican nomination. The conservative wing, left with a shell of a party after the progressives bolted for T.R., renominated Sherman as V-P, but that was just an indication of how despairing they had become about their future prospects.

Sherman was mourned by his longtime Congressional allies. But he had done neither his President nor his party any favors in opposing progressive legislation and candidates. Little-known today, he remains one of the reasons why the GOP has, in the century since his death, engaged in bitter faceoffs between its right and moderate wings.

(Photo of Vice-President James Sherman at a 1912 baseball game is from the Prints and Photographs division of the Library of Congress.)

Quote of the Day (N.C. Wyeth, on Teddy Roosevelt)

“When you said, ‘Roosevelt for me!’ I jumped clear out of my chair! ….I am deeply moved by your decision and congratulate you. I’ve gotten so much inspiration from him that my admiration has grown into affection.—I am not worshipping him like a fool, but have based my belief in him upon constant reading of his speeches and writings for years back, and feel that he represents, on the whole, the kind of leader we need. A letter from him not long ago, in answer to a very brief appreciation of my own, convinced me of his value to me. I am stirred to stronger manhood every time I read it!”—N.C. Wyeth, letter of October 30, 1912 to friend and fellow artist Sidney Chase, from The Wyeths: The Letters of N. C. Wyeth, 1901-1945, edited by Betsy James Wyeth (1971)

When I was in elementary school, the illustrations of N.C. Wyeth lingered in my consciousness even more profoundly than the boys’ adventure books they accompanied: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, The Mysterious Island. Now, following a tour of his studio (as well as the one used by his even more famous son, Andrew Wyeth) and a viewing of his work exhibited at the Brandywine River Museum while I was on vacation last week, I’ve grown as fascinated with the artist as with his work. And one of the things that endears him to me is that he was a huge fan of the 26th U.S. President.

I’m not terribly surprised that N.C. Wyeth took so strongly to Theodore Roosevelt. After all, the illustrator and the President were both larger-than-life figures: men given to all kinds of fun and games with their children, ardent bibliophiles who especially loved history and adventure stories, bespectacled “dudes” from the East who went to the West for a few years in their 20s in short-lived attempts to make livings. Wyeth had not only received, as his letter indicates, a letter from T.R., but as far back as seven years before, he had attended the President’s inauguration in D.C.

Wyeth was likely to be especially excited on this day a century ago. For the first time since the attempt on his life earlier in the month in Milwaukee, T.R. would be speaking at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The words of the former President (now seeking a third term, as the Progressive Party candidate) reverberate as much now as they did then. Would that as many now were inspired by this call as the likes of N.C. Wyeth was then:

“We must not sit supine and helpless. We must not permit the brutal selfishness of arrogance and the brutal selfishness of envy each to run unchecked its evil course. If we do so, then some day smoldering hatred will suddenly kindle into a consuming flame, and either we or our children will be called upon to face a crisis as grim as any which this Republic has ever seen.”

(Photo of Theodore Roosevelt campaigning for President in 1912 from the New York Times photo archive; you half expect him to say, “If my hat’s not in the ring, it’s about to be!”)

Photo of the Day: Like Something Out of ‘Tom Sawyer’

It’s hard to believe that a week ago yesterday, I took this photo of Brandywine Creek, on the trail next to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Penn.  When I saw this tree overhanging the sun-dappled stream, it struck me as the kind of place where Tom Sawyer might have hung out with pal Huck Finn. It’s a far more benign image of Mother Nature than we’ve gotten used to up here in most of the Northeast these last 24 hours.