Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973)

Imagine you were held at gunpoint by a seven year old. This seven year old makes you do exactly what he tells you to do, and though you suspect he will not shoot you, you must do as instructed because it is not worth the risk. Later, you learn there were no bullets in the gun.

This would likely make you feel cheaply manipulated. So does the Exorcist. This film approaches scares in the way the chase scene in The French Connection approached speed. When Friedkin makes you want to think a car is going fast, he makes the camera go fast. The mechanism and the effect are one in the same. In the Exorcist, what you see (or hear) is what you get. And we get an utterly vapid subtext to boot!

The soundtrack is not complex, but it is damn loud; the early scene with the plethora of pickaxes made me think "this has Sound Design Oscar written all over it." Sure enough, I was right. The effect of this, er, technique has is that your visual perception is restricted to the image in front of you (Max Von Sydow and the pickaxe workers you see), whereas you hear all the pickaxes off screen as if a mic were attached to each. This creates a certain spatial awareness and a sense of objects residing outside the frame, but in a very brute manner. This is utilized throughout the film.

Similarly, we explicitly see needles penetrating skin, because that's, like, creepy. Everything is exploited to create a hightened sense of fucked-up-itude. A man enters the house, says "a guy died," and leaves. This man's death is an expendable but strong plot point, yet it's delivered in the same brutish (I guess that term is proving useful for me today) manner as everything else. I believe it is shortly after this that the possessed child crabwalks down the stairs. Just because we needed another jump scare. Similarly, the child's head can spin completely around, but this is not mentioned when proof of possession is demanded. A psychiatrist could fix that right up.

The idea seems to be that the possession is an affirmation of faith by negation. The mother and girl both seem indifferent to religion. The doctors and psychiatrists keep suggesting non-supernatural methods of dealing with the situation, those bloody heathens. The poor conflicted psychiapriest even doubts that a possession is in fact taking place. I guess, to William Peter Blatty, it takes an occurence that NEVER HAPPENS to prove the validity of faith, apparently Catholic faith. So, if you are thinking about taking up religion, keep an eye out for little girls with scarred faces projectile vomiting green bile. That's how you know your prayers were heard.

On top of this, all the demon/Satan(?) does is cuss and talk about promiscuity. Both of these activities are evil and should be avoided at the price of your soul. Teh Blatty has spoken.

I guess I should be thankful that the younger priest did not survive to scream "hallelujah!" and realize he was wrong to doubt, but the surrogate isn't much better. He takes the demon into himself and flings himself through a window, echoing the earlier murder and killing the demon's host (himself). Self-sacrifice in a film attempting to vindicate belief in Catholicism, yawn. Even worse, on a human level we feel nothing. This young priest's loss of his mother and death, Von Sydow's character's death, the suffering of Regan and her mother, all provoke no sympathy. The film is so utterly mechanical with its "I punch, you flinch" mentality that all feeling has been drained from it. Despite the fact that Fathersonholyghost comes out on top, there's not even a feeling of adoration toward the supposed God. Even the film's faith is a conceit.


Blogger JavierAG said...

Very interesting thoughts on this movie. I've always found Friedkin to be the ultimate observer - nothing escapes his sight, from a basic human emotion to the big supernatural connotations inherent in this tale of (we suppose) faith. But his observation, feels, indeed, horribly dettached from everything, and I always find myself half-fascinated, half-appalled by what he presents me with.

Put off because of the lack of genuine emotional investment in the movie; fascinated because I love what he is doing by placing a sense of hopelessness in everyday life. The settings are so normal, Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair are, at first, so overwhelmingly human (even if Friedkin keeps us at a distance), than when the horror of the unknown finally begins to make its way in the sense of unease becomes almost unbearable.

I don't think Friedkin is at all interested in religion or faith, but I do give him credit for putting the cynical ways of contemporary life to shame (even if he does this through all the wrong ways, and by highlighting precisely the most disgusting aspects of religious faith). I'll always like this as a horror flick; as a movie, though, it's another matter altogether.

PS: Ellen Burstyn IS God, though :)

5:04 PM  
Blogger Nikolus Ziegler said...


Well, I think the thematic shortcomings can be safely attributed to William Peter Blatty (and, sometimes, the disinterest Friedkin seems to have in the themes). As for Friedkin, I think he's mainly interested in muscling a reaction out of the audience.

After writing this entry, I read Pauline Kael's review and it's uncanny how similar our thoughts were (and I don't always agree with Kael, and sometimes she goes further than I do with analysis). What I did find interesting, though, are some quotes of Friedkin's she mentioned: "People only go to the movies for three reasons, to laugh, cry, or to be frightened;" "There are only three reasons to make a movie, to make people laugh, to make them cry, or to frighten them;" and "I'm not a thinker... If it's a film by somebody instead of for somebody, I smell art."

At least he's aware of the directorial image his films project, because I could scarcely put my feelings about his approach to filmmaking better.

10:48 PM  
Blogger JavierAG said...

Friedkin's quotes are quite interesting, because in some way he seems to share something with Kael's "emphasis-on-emotions" view on films (which I share) though his filmmaking appears too studied in trying to get those reactions from the audience (fear, excitement, etc) precisely by taking emotional investment out of the picture.

In other words, I can totally see why Kael hated the guy, though they at first would seem to be sharing similar views on the matter (the cinema of "feelings" rather than the cinema of "thought").

7:45 AM  
Blogger Nikolus Ziegler said...

Yeah, maybe. But, reading Kael's reviews, you begin to think that her real stance is "given that analysis will take place, the film must be entertaining/interesting." Some films are entertaining and fascinating only on an analytic level, anyway.

Friedkin seems to me more of a mainstream filmmaker catering to the lowest denominator. Since he worked in the '70s and such, his films look a lot better to us than something by, say, Michael Bay, but they share similar philosophies.

9:42 AM  
Blogger JavierAG said...

You're probably right. I remember Kael's review of a Jean Vigo film, in which she said (the movie) "looked greater on the memory than while you're watching it", or something of the like.

12:40 PM  

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