Saturday, June 11, 2016

Shedding Light on the Horrors of Hearth and Home: "The VVitch" 2015

"To me, 'jump scare' horror movies aren't scary, because if you shine a flashlight on the darkness and run away giggling, that's not scary."   - Robert Eggers, Writer/Director

The "Horror" genre has inspired a new post after a long hiatus from visual storytelling analysis. The last few years have been spent fully immersed in a new adventure as an Asst. Professor at Montserrat College of Art. During the past few years there has been a renaissance in lower budget Horror movies. It has culminated in the transformation of a genre and business that typically has traded on "jump scares". While it is possibly the result of that old economic chestnut "the law of diminishing return", it is equally likely the result of auteurs seizing the opportunities that this special genre has always had to offer.

This genre has both my respect and my gratitude.

We are in a time when "social" and "news" media are fostering intense piousness, judgment, division, alienation and horror. Both are capable of promoting addictive and intoxicating cognitive distortions without offering any insight regarding how adhering to these distortions might facilitate living a life of vitality and purpose. What makes "The VVitch" so timely is the commoditization of hearsay, paranoia and alienation by both "social media" and "news media". The largest for profit "social media" corporation, Facebook, Inc., added a feature called "Trending" in 2014. This feature may not be removed, and, in adding this feature, Facebook, Inc. went from a forum for the news of 'hearth and home' to a forum for the aforementioned commodities.

One of the most disturbing trends this has led to is the rise of what I would call 'social piousness'. "Social media" as a judge or be judged world and one where "trending topics" allow for us to embrace this form piousness by keeping us moving from 'witch-hunt' to 'witch-hunt'. The pay off being that we can bolster our self-concept by fixating on the mistakes of others that we would never make (or the faults of others that we could never have) and then reveling in self-righteousness.

From Merriam-Webster:

Full Definition of WITCH-HUNT

1: a searching out for persecution of persons accused of witchcraft

2: the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (as political opponents) with unpopular views

"The VVitch" has some insight to offer regarding the perils of piousness and it is clear that writer/director Robert Eggers appreciates that "insight" is the purview of the artist.

So what makes "The VVitch" so special? It discards one of the great, narrative "hooks" that many period witch movies leave a mystery or matter of conjecture before we've barely had a chance to wonder. When tragedy strikes an unsuspecting 17th century family living on a secluded farm they on the edge of a large forest, the film wastes no time in informing the audience of the fact that a witch is responsible because the witches of folklore are real in this story. Before the film is over, we will have equally conclusive evidence regarding the existence of the "Devil" and by proxy, "God".

Auteur Louis C.K., in the interview film "Talking Funny" (2011), espoused a fondness for starting his comedy stand-up sets with his strongest "bit", thus putting himself in the unenviable position of having to work without having his strongest material as a backstop. That is what parable-laden ghost or witch stories do when they maintain ambiguity regarding what is "real" and what is not. The historical critical bias being that ambiguity is the highest virtue of "high art". Movies that declare 'There are ghosts!' or 'There are witches!' tend to rely on "jump scares" or the elaborate sound and fury of CG "world building" (often deemed "low art").

"The VVitch" is something better than both, and as such it is great art.

In a dramatic movie where religiously pious parents and their progeny are confronted by the presence of an actual devil and real witches, what narrative "hook" do we hang the "horror" on? "The VVitch" addresses this issue by drawing its horror from the rich well of the dynamic of a "dysfunctional family". The horror is not in whether or not there are witches or how convincing the special effects are (though the special effects by Intelligent Creatures are fantastic), but in the knowledge that this family are doomed by how utterly inept its parental leadership is. When faced with the ultimate test and, ironically, validation of their faith, they resort to blaming and alienating their daughter and they respond to the escalating crisis with decisions that cost the lives of almost all of their children. Their only surviving child, their eldest daughter, is driven by her parents religious piety away from "the light" and into the arms of Satan. It's as damning an indictment of a severely "dysfunctional family" as one can imagine.

If you are unfamiliar with how a "dysfunctional family" is defined, take a moment to read the definition available here.

There are only two non-infant healthy individuals in the family portrayed in the movie, the eldest daughter Thomasin and the eldest son Caleb. The other non-infant children are their younger fraternal boy/girl twins and they are portrayed in the film as unlikeable for a reason that is specific and important to appreciate. The twins play the role of the dysfunctional family's "mastermind".

From the Wikipedia page:
The Mastermind: the opportunist who capitalizes on the other family members' faults to get whatever he or she wants; often the object of appeasement by grown-ups

Thomasin is the "scapegoat" child and Caleb is the "caretaker" child.

The witches and devil in this story are, in the end, almost incidental. The children are killed and 'damned' as a result of their parents' decisions and piety, and a core feature of the self-righteously pious is illustrated brilliantly in the opening minutes of the film. The father places his family in harms way because he believes that he knows better than the leaders of the Puritan plantation in which they are living. In his mind he is superior in his relationship to god. The only way he can maintain his self-concept is to create his own little utopia that is populated by the only people who are not in a position to question his assertion of moral superiority. If there had been no devil or witches on the farm he would have failed in his role as the leader of his self-made social order. His crops did not yield and his family's emotional wellbeing was neglected.

Thomasin is becoming an adult and reaching sexual maturity and, of her own accord, kneels before god and asks for his forgiveness and for him to show her the way to the light. The movie explicitly shows that the burden of persuasion is clearly on the shoulders of the devil. This is important because her desire to commit herself to the ideals her parents claim to serve is ruthlessly squandered by their toxicity as authority figures.

A feature of the story that is of particular note is that Thomasin's sexuality is not used as a device and the absence of this particular trope is welcome. It is her brother Caleb's sexual awakening that the film uses as a device, but this too is handled in a sensitive fashion. Caleb does not understand these feelings and he is troubled by his awareness of his sister's attractiveness. He has no one to go to and at the same time he is plagued with concerns over whether his infant brother's soul has been damned and whether his will be. When he seeks reassurance from his father he receives none. When he finds himself lost in the woods trying to fill the role that his father is too inept to perform, he is met by a fully matured and sexualized witch whose advances he receives as a frightened child.

Caleb and Thomasin are both depicted as unclothed in two scenes that are mirrors of one another. Caleb returns home from the forest unclothed, likely following a sexual experience with the witch. He suffers from a mysterious illness and appears to have been bewitched. He convulses and seizes until his life ends with what appears to be his spiritual salvation. Two aspects of Caleb's salvation are compelling. When Caleb begins to seize he is portrayed as being locked in a battle between good and evil (a battle that involves him expelling an explicit symbol for Judeo-Christian temptation), this continues until his parents and Thomasin join hands around him and pray over him. The family harmony that Caleb valued so much in life is manifest briefly as he achieves salvation. The second compelling aspect of Caleb's salvation is the fact that his salvation and forgiveness by what it is reasonable to assume is god, comes following a sexual experience with a witch in league with the devil. This is powerful context to the, supposed, disciples of the same god who offer neither salvation nor forgiveness to their children.

It is very important that, as soon as life has left Caleb's body, his parents shift their attention to their obsession with needing to find someone in the family to blame to avoid making themselves responsible.

This is why the audience's understanding that there are in fact witches is so important. The audience knows that Caleb's death is the result of his encounter with a witch in the forest, but even claiming to believe in the devil and witches does not seem to stop the parents' need to blame their children for the death of their sibling. With so much real horror going on around them, audiences are forced to question how much faith they have in the existence of either, if their response to Caleb's death is to board up their three remaining children in the barn outside the house. This decision leads to the deaths of the twins while their mother has a fevered vision of communing with her deceased son Caleb and nursing her deceased infant son Samuel.

In the end, the last two family members alive are the mother and her eldest daughter Thomasin. The mother's last act before she dies is an attempt to choke her daughter to death before being killed in an act of self-preservation by Thomasin.

It is Thomasin who now brings this story of parental failure to its conclusion. Alone and bereft of any hope that her mother ever saw any good in her, the light within her has been snuffed out. By the time that she finds herself in conversation with the devil, signing the devil's book, disrobing and following the devil into the forest, it is merely the formalization of her life as tragedy. She lacks the ability to even sign her own name and, in a twisted act of "parenting", the devil assists her. Even upon removing her clothes (as per the devils instruction), she is much like Caleb was, at the time he was kissed in the forest by the witch. She is still a child being sacrificed on the altar of her parents' self-righteousness.

This is not what Thomasin wanted, nor is it what the character deserved. She is left unclothed by the end of the film because every shred of dignity that she had was stripped away by her parents' refusal to see her as a young adult rich with possibilities and a desire to walk in the light. If one were to speculate as to why she alone was spared by the forces of darkness, it might be reasonable to speculate that her inner light was too powerful to be destroyed by anyone other than her parents. She walks into her meeting with the devil as one who is dead. In the end, she does not find acceptance so much as she accepts the identity her parents assigned to her and a life of everlasting horror. When Thomasin goes to the "Witches' Sabbath", she does so as a sacrifice on the altar of her parents' piety.

"The VVitch" is a rich work of cinema steeped in metaphor, animal symbolism and visual poetry. It eschews narrative clichés and achieves greatness.

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