Tuesday, May 08, 2007

188. The Devil's Due

I've been wanting to see Haxan (1922) for a long time. Its images of witches and devils are legendary--better yet, archetypal, at least in the movie-cosmos, ur-symbols that have settled deeply into the occult crevices of cinema. Haxan promised to be my favorite kind of movie: a descent into the First Questions, before which are offered no explanations.

And the scary pictures of Haxan do live up to their reputation, filled with shivers and groans--but the film lays heavily on them a strange internal contradiction, at once disclaimer and progenitor, as Benjamin Christensen, the movie's director (and star, if Satan's brief appearance--or Jesus' even briefer cameo--in the film fills that capacity), works phenomenally hard to make three movies at once:

The first is a God Is Not Great-esque denunciation of religion--at least as the film's "historical review" characterizes it: a self-serving, lubricious marketing campaign that both fulfills and creates desires, explaining complex problems with small-minded "ideas" (superstitions), all slopping around in a sadomasochistic soup of retarded babbling, repressed desires, and expressed malignancy. While his chronology is not entirely clear, Christensen in part sees the "Dark Ages" stretching as far as did Petrarch, who coined the term--and, living way up in the 1300s, felt he was still in them, deeply dissatisfied and nostalgic for Greco-Roman literature and culture (and that is the most bittersweet of nostalgias: fond recollections of a past one never had to actually live through). But Christensen is not mourning "the grandeur that was Greece, the glory that was Rome"; his feelings seem more aligned with the historians of the Reformation, who weren't bashing religion as much as Popery. And even more so, he was siding with the Freudians--but that is the third movie, which we'll get to soon enough.

The opening section of Haxan almost kills the film before it has a chance to live, by presenting professorial mini-lectures and presentations with static shots of woodcuts and statues, interspersed with models and tableaux. He even employs a lecturer's pointer, sweeping along the images, pausing here and there for emphasis. Actually, in some ways it's kind of endearing, a dimly lit mini-museum of antique notions. The models of early conceptions of the universe and Hell are particularly captivating, evoking the hand-make dioramas of a pre-digitized era. Like many such films, this crafted aesthetic has its own charm, even potency. Still, for later audiences Haxan is famous as a psychedelic phantasmagoria, not a pseudo-scholarly treatise, so this first section threatens to dampen spirits and quell all prickly anticipation. (I suspect that even Christensen's contemporary audience in 1922 may have grown a bit fidgety; and I wonder what the audience for its 1941 re-release made of this impulse, since the film included a long introduction by Christensen himself, finally getting the chance to shed his Halloween costume and play doctor, as he calmly informs his audience how stupid everyone used to be.)

In the second movie he made--composed of the middle sections of the film, at best a partial "history" of European witchcraft and a "case study" of a witch hunt/trial--Christensen finds his greatest strengths, both as a polemicist and filmmaker. The former, as heavy-handed as it may be, compels the viewer to share his disgust with the creeps who unjustly accused, tried and executed old ladies and fresh-faced girls. The ridiculous "tests" for witchcraft, the "sentence-first-verdict-afterwards" mentality that trapped the accused--and, most of all, the sick minds that motivated the whole enterprise--combine to condemn the condemners with as little mercy as they showed their victims. The fact that the whole thing is an exaggerated mess, narrow in scope and partial in understanding, can make some viewers--yes, me--angrier at Christensen almost more so than at his targets; but I can lay aside my ire, if only because this second movie has what we all came for: the meticulous, unhinged imagery of demonism and dementia, warty and glistening with sweat, eyeballs rolling in damned sockets while tongues dart like the last promise anyone ever wanted kept. All told, he conjures about twenty minutes of unadulterated delirium, true cinematic upheaval, in which Christensen makes us all kneel to kiss Satan's unsettlingly convincing arse, while cold fires glow and impish faces loom. Over the years I have probably seen stills from Haxan, but something more is happening here: the creation of an aesthetic, one powerful enough to generate its own memories, right there on the spot, and to give them to its viewers as if all along they had been their own.

Which leads us to the inevitable conclusion, Christensen's third movie, in which he seeks to explain how the Dark Ages got that way: Superstitions were adopted to explain psychological illnesses, and opportunistic clerics took advantage of the resulting confusion, fear, and mistrust to cement their authority. And what were these illnesses? Aside from some nods toward physical deformities and the generally "witchy" appearances of old folks, mostly women--and again Christensen becomes the curator, having his hunchbacks and crones pose for the camera, while the pointer moves along their irregular outlines--the real problem was--here it comes--"hysteria," both personal and mass. Christensen was a True Believer of the early-twentieth-century pop psychology that replaced one error--the ignorance and greed of Dark Ages* witch-trials--with another: Freudian misogyny, that labels as "hysterics" with "nervous conditions" middle-class female somnambulists and kleptomaniacs. I watched him in the 1941 introduction, firm in his convictions and convinced of his rationalism, scolding the past and warning the present. To be fair, he does suggest an association between the methods of the witch-hunters and the modern psychiatrist: There are some neatly juxtaposed images of accused witches bound to the instruments of the Inquisition and female patients in their cold showers--

--But there it is, the final aesthetic dilemma, the contradictory heart of the film: Christensen's attraction to the "sick" image, the loving attention to the very impulses that literally put on the screws in the first place. Christensen wants all three movies to co-exist; but there's too much of the Grand Guignol in him to remain calm; in the end, his own dark age gets the better of him, and in his pity for those poor hysterical women he himself becomes the hysteric, and indicts himself, the twentieth century's version of the marginalizing male, who never pauses to wonder why his diagnosis comes as easily as an accusation, condescending and simplistic. I cannot resist reminding us that he decided to play Satan, and jokingly presented a female actress' giggling Ouch! as she tried on a thumbscrew.

The 1968 wigged-out re-re-release of Haxan--featuring a jazz score with Jean-Luc Ponty and narration by William S. Burroughs, and re-titled Witchcraft Through the Ages--retained some of Christensen's agenda, but cut about thirty minutes from the original. The focus in this version is on the hallucinatory and ineffable nature of Christensen's images, underscoring the most potent urges to make such a film. At the start of this I had made a slighting reference to Christopher Hitchens. In his latest book, one of his "irreducible objections to religious faith ... [is] that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking." Hm; it seems I'm not the only one who isn't yet tired of Freud, who does relate compelling myths that have informed artistic minds for, well, ever--which I guess makes him retroactively influential. But of course he is most infamous for not only inventing psychoanalysis but screwing up both his field and the minds of those analyzed with his clumsy measuring instruments, reducing patients--particularly women--to truths he found difficult to deny, once proclaimed. Christensen's images, too, work like Freudian dreams: wish-fulfillment with the comfort of historical distance and the stubbornness of self-sustained truth, just as Hitchens keeps the dead-god dream alive, smoothing over rough edges and subtleties to fulfill his own wishes. In the "Credo" to his Civilization of the Middle Ages, Norman F. Cantor quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1145):

"There are some who wish to learn for no other reason than that they may be looked upon as learned, which is a ridiculous vanity. ... Others desire to learn that they may morally instruct others; that is love. And, lastly, there are some who wish to learn that they may be themselves edified; and that is prudence."

If only Christensen has focused merely on his aesthetic urges. He would have avoided much vanity, and maybe even inadvertently spread some love; in any case, it would definitely have been the most prudent course. And speaking of "vanity," Hitchens as well could stand to be a bit more fair--hey: "vanity," "fair"; Ah made a funny. Get it, son? (Sorry; I haven't done my Foghorn Leghorn impression in a long time.) In any case, once the socio-political agendas are played out--and, if you're smart, discarded--the instructive nightmares of Haxan remain, "irreducible truths" of the still-obscure inner workings of the viewing mind.

*I can't resist at least one historical truth: the heyday of the witch-hunt was actually in Early Modern Europe, circa 1450-1750. As usual, nobody pays any mind to Humanists.

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