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They don't call it “the magic of cinema” for nothing. From its earliest days, special effects, in-camera tricks and creative editing were used to show the impossible taking place. As the idea of narrative took hold, excuses for depicting the impossible were sought, so early films like F. W. Murnau's Faust (1926) and Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922), visualised classic tales of sorcerers and witches, producing an impressive body of spectral evidence.

The idea of magic is very useful in story-telling. The popular tropes of Everyman-solves-problem-stumping-the-experts and Everyman-defeats-enemies-by-whom-he-is-vastly-outclassed are facilitated by magic as by few things. It doesn't need to be taken seriously, especially in what if? scenarios (What if I could regain my youth, read minds, fly—the conclusion inevitably being that friends and family are more important) and anything that begins with a preteen opening a large book. Nonetheless, some films do take magic seriously, as a system with rules and consequences, a means of understanding the universe, and an actual, cultural phenomenon with a present as well as a history.

I have therefore selected my favourite 8 scenes in which a spell is actually cast, a magical working performed, in 8 different films. Criteria include a genuine occult frisson, adroitness in depicting the intangible, and sheer, dramatic impact. Spoiler: there's no Harry Potter.

 

1. “Conjure Up Your Deepest, Darkest Fear.” Gothic, Wri. Stephen Volk, Dir. Ken Russell, Virgin Vision, 1986.

A pivotal scene from Russell's magnificent adumbration of that night at the Villa Diodati. The conceit is that Mary Shelley's inspiration for Frankenstein came from something much more sinister than an evening of ghostly talk. At the instigation of Gabriel Byrne's Byron, these brilliant minds come together to generate a thought form, with regrettably dire consequences.



This is a recognised procedure in many traditions, sometimes used to created guardians for a magician's sanctuary, but always with restrictions on duration and scope of action. However—and with the caveat that I have been unable to establish a connection—the events of Gothic bear a distinct resemblance by “the Philip experiment”, conducted in 1972 by a group led by Canadian mathematician A. R. G. Owen and the psychologist Dr. Joel Whitton. Ostensibly, the purpose was to see if the phenomena of seances could be explained by the expectations participants brought to the table. A completely fictional identity (“Philip”) was created by the group and concentrated on intensely for a sustained period of time by its members, who then attempted to contact the “ghost”. Although subsequent explanations differ, the sought-for phenomena certainly manifested.

Whatever the case, Gothic is sheer genius. The scene captures something of the feverish intensity and focus of such a working, and provides a warning they are not to be undertaken lightly, or under the influence. Watch the film to the end to see Gabriel Byrne snogging Julian Sands.

 

2. “I'm Sorry, Miss Taylor, I Feel A Little Weak.” Suspiria, Wri. Dario Argento & Daria Nicolodi, Dir. Dario Argento, Seda Spettacoli, 1977.

I resolutely decided to limit myself to just one iteration of Suspiria, though I adore them both. This scene was the clincher, along with the original's sumptuous art deco design. New student Susie Banyon has declined to take up her room at the exclusive Marcos Ballet Academy, preferring to stay in town. This does not sit well with the resident coven (devoted to Mater Suspiriarum, the Mother of Sighs—if you are not familiar with de Quincy's formulation of Our Ladies of Sorrow, take yourself immediately to Bartleby.com and read) .When she arrives the next day for class, steps are taken to ensure she comes under their control.


 

Belief in the Evil Eye—that a person can bring illness or ill luck to another just by meeting their gaze—is both old and widespread. Writing in the first century CE, the Roman author Pliny the Elder credited some sorcerers with the "power of fascination with the eyes”, who could even kill those on whom they fixed their gaze (Natural History, VII.2). In the fifteenth century CE, Heinrich Kramer, the generally credulous author of the Malleus Maleficarum, goes to some trouble to deny his witches this power, instead explaining its effects as the natural impression of a strong personality upon susceptible minds (generally children). This may be down to the number of prominent men to whom the ability has been ascribed through history, up to and including Pope Pius X. To all this, Argento's direction adds a slice of sympathetic magic and the potency of rhythm. It's a good thing Suzie is able to draw on a friend's research to turn the tables.


3. “But How To Prove It?” Curse of the Demon (aka. Night of the Demon) Wri. Charles Bennett & Hal. E. Chester, Dir. Jacques Tourneur, Columbia Pictures, 1957

Bizarre things have been happening ever since psychologist John Holden discovered a strange parchment covered with runes amongst his conference papers. If he acts on the assumption he is under a death curse, he compromises his lifelong skepticism. If, however, he does not...

With a script based on M. R. James's “Casting the Runes” (1911), Tourneur created an intelligent and intensely atmospheric occult thriller, that is referenced in the Rocky Horror Picture Show's “Science Fiction”. The studio's insistence on adding a tell-all prologue and a wildly premature reveal, is infamous, and does undercut the film's essential conflict. But otherwise, this takes its subject seriously, grounding the story in research and allowing characters their dignity. This scene, where Holden confronts the self-proclaimed diabolist Doctor Karswell, suggests he has elementals bound to his service as well as a demon.


Summoning elementals—spirits of the natural world, sometimes thought of as actual creatures, others the “awareness” of natural forces—is common in magic and considered much safer than demons. In either case, symbols representing the entity, it's “name”, are basic to proceedings. The actual runes are depicted elsewhere in the film and, according to Renorseful, are Anglo-Saxon Futhark and don't actually say anything. If these are the demon's name, this is entirely likely: strings of consonants and “nonsense words” represent demons in texts ranging from the Greek Magical Papyrii to the classic grimoires. Don't pronounce them out loud.

 

4. “You stole our things. You gonna die.” The Last Wave, Wri. Peter Weird, Tony Morphett & Petru Popescu, Dir. Peter Weir, McElroy & McElroy, 1977.

This is Sydney, Australia, in the 1970s and lawyer David Burton has trouble coping with a yellow capsicum. His life is about to get much, much more complicated.


 

With riveting performances by David Gulpilil and Nandjiwarra Amagula, this brilliantly atmospheric film features indigenous Australian mythology from an external viewpoint, spinning a story from the very clash of cultures this involves. When the dead man's friends are charged with manslaughter (despite the coroner's inability to fix the cause of death), the greatest mystery is why they insist upon Burton defending them. But a reason there is, and uncovering it will bring him face to face with his own past and Sydney's bleak future.


Kurdaitcha, a magical execution performed with the kundela or “pointing bone”, was practised in Central Australia, although there is evidence for considering it was once more widespread. The word itself derives from the Aranda language group. It seems to have been reserved for those who broke tribal law. The concept was introduced to western culture through the work of early anthropologists—importantly, The Native Tribes of Central Australia by Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen (1899)—prompting any number of dismissive comments about the power of belief in primitive societies. The thing is, no one ever seems to deny that the procedure worked. Sceptics point out that former Australian Prime Minister John Howard is still alive, despite being cursed in 2004. However, events since that time suggest it was not the man, but the office, that has been slowly dying.

 

5. “Love Me.” The Love Witch, Wri., Dir (and nearly everything else) Anna Biller, Anna Biller Productions, 2016.

Elaine is the new witch in town. She has come to Arcata, California, to start a new life in a place where she hopes her beliefs will be accepted and she will find the love that has eluded her for her entire life. The only problem with this scintillating sequence is that it simply cannot convey the impact of the full movie. In many ways, the entire 120 minutes are one, intricate ritual, with every image, sound, the slightest article of costume an expression of Bilmer's will. The magnificent pentacle rug that Elaine lies upon? According to her interview with Barend de Voogd (Schokkend Nieuws, 13th February 2016 ) it was woven by the writer, designer, editor, director, producer, and composer herself, so it would be exactly right. The culminative effect is enchantment, a means of overriding your perceptions until you see precisely what the enchanter desires. This, of course, is precisely what Elaine herself is doing.


 

In this narrative, witchcraft is presented as a legitimate route to female empowerment (as well as a metaphor for how men of a certain stamp insist on seeing women). However, the pitfalls are many. By the end, possessing “perfect love and perfect trust” has become a terrifying prospect.

 

6. “I Have Awoken Him.” Excalibur, Wri. John Boorman & Ross Pellenberg, Dir, John Boorman, Orion Pictures, 1981.

Come on, all together now! “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis's bethad, do chél dénmha...”

Boorman's achievement in distilling the Arthurian myth cycle into a movie-length narrative has seldom been attempted and never with such triumphant chutzpah. Much of the thematic weight is carried by Nicol Williamson's Merlin—a sterling performance. Before assisting Uther Pendragon to acquire carnal knowledge of his rival's wife, he extracts an oath that will have heavy consequences. In this scene, he delivers, and we the audience hear the Charm for the first time.


According to linguist Michael Everson, it translates from the Old Irish as approximately, “Serpent's breath, charm of death and life, thy omen of making”, although he emphasises this is a contemporary confection, with no actual equivalent in the literature. And it's true, we have no direct evidence as to what took place in Stone Henge and its sister circles, apart from certain astronomical markings. But every year at the Winter Solstice, contemporary druids and witches descend upon the plain outside Salisbury (in an orderly fashion, having acquired the appropriate permit), to work their own charms. No one can tell me that chanting a mantra in a stone circle at sunrise or sunset doesn't feel magical and that kind of resonance is powerful in itself. Boorman stated (in an interview with Harlan Kennedy, American Film, March 1981) that the real story of Excalibur was the coming of Christian man, and the relegation of magic and paganism to the shadows. If that's so, I think it misfired.


7. “Show us your glory. Show us your power!” The Craft, Wri. Andrew Fleming & Peter Filadi, Dir. Andrew Fleming, Columbia Pictures, 1996.

Did I mention elementals? Here is another kind of summoning, inviting them to secure the four stations of a magical circle in the Wiccan tradition.


Like The Love Witch, The Craft equates witchcraft and female power, as four outcast teenagers form a bond and rebuild their confidence through magical practice. Much of what is depicted may be described as generic Wiccan—based loosely on Gardner, but passed through too many iterations to really track. The young witches experiment with levitation and glamours, before conducting the ritual above in order to obtain for each her true desire. Although it annoyed a lot of real witches at the time, with its focus on an invented witch's god rather than the goddess, a lot of this film rings true and it should, given that The Craft‘s technical advisor was Pat Devin, a Dianic Elder Priestess. According to this interview, she advised the director to go with an invented deity, “Manon”, because she “didn’t want hordes of teenagers running down to the beach or out to the woods invoking anybody real.”

Regrettably, the little coven starts to implode over romantic rivalry and issues of precedence. Girl after girl turns to witchcraft to obtain revenge. The threefold law is invoked as what began in light turns dark. The essential difference between this and any number of morality plays is that the heroine's salvation does not lie in rejecting her magic and embracing any kind of hero—it lies in accepting her nature and taking responsibility for her own power. As an interesting side note, Devin also says that “Manon” has started appearing in various sources as an actual deity, possibly confused with the Welsh Mabon or Irish Mananan.

 

8. The Shrug, Stardust, Wri. Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn, Dir. Matthew Vaughn, Paramount Pictures, 2007

Talk about plot devices! The highly visual, instantly recognisible voodoo doll has suffered more than most at the hands of cinema. Sympathetic magic, in the form of ritually killing or binding an image of a dangerous or desirable animal, is the oldest form of magic for which we have evidence. The dedication of model organs and body parts at the shrines of healing deities, such as Imhotep and Asclepius, demonstrate the potential of the technique to aid. But everyone knows what happens when a voodoo doll is primed with the hair or nail clippings of the intended victim.

Based on the 1997 novel by Neil Gaiman, the plot of Stardust is romantic and convoluted, brimming with unserious magic. Unserious, yet ingenious. What you need to know is that two parties have been hunting the obvious hero and heroine. The witches have succeeded in trapping them in their sanctum, but Septimus the assassin, only surviving heir to the throne of Stormhold, has followed the trail. Septimus originally had 6 brothers (and one sister), but there have been a lot of “accidents”. Their ghosts follow him, invisible to anyone except the audience, and act as a grisly Greek chorus, commenting on the action which comes in two parts.



 

And that's my 8 scenes worth! Honourable mentions go to the “hold the door” scene from Conan the Destroyer, the opening scene of Geoffrey Wright's Metal Skin, the scrying scene from Dragonslayer which also features a rare instance of successful necromancy, and despite being television, I have to invoke the, well, in “An Exorcism in Greendale” (The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Season 1, Episode 6). I was truly tempted to add the finale of the original The Wicker Man, but, spoilers.



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It may fairly be said I am obsessed with masked balls. Their inherent glamour, intimations of decadence and self-indulgence, the possibilities for game play and perhaps above all, their visual richness. The sequences in this list bear ample witness but otherwise represent nothing more than my own preference and opinion, with a smattering of interesting facts. Needless to say, I hold no rights over the clips herein and use them only for purposes for review. In all cases, I urge the interested to purchase an official copy of the complete film for their uncompromised enjoyment.

 

1. The Crystal Ball, Labyrinth, wr. Jim Henson, Dennis Lee & Terry Jones, dir. Jim Henson, Lucasfilm, et al. 1986.

A fantasy within a fantasy, a ball within a ball, for number one, there was only ever one choice.

This magnificent sequence is the Goblin King playing dirty. In her quest to reach the centre of the Labyrinth, Sarah has overcome frustration, fear and despair, so his next gambit is desire. The ball is everything she has ever dreamed of and, like much of the Labyrinth, picks up on motifs that may be observed in her bedroom at the start of the movie. Brian Froud, who designed the masks as well as everything else in the movie, has described the scene (Inside The Labyrinth, 1986) as “...they were the gentry, dressing up, and they were playing at being goblins”. Given the way Jareth's court looks most of the time, the inverse has been proposed. Despite the quite terrifying potential consequences of joining the dance, generations of viewers have considered it worth the risk. Live versions have been staged; the 30 anniversary in 2016 saw a spate of such events across the world. I once played it as a LARP.

 

The original was choreographed by Cheryl McFadden, to music by Trevor Jones that segues into David Bowie's “As The World Falls Down”.

 

2. All Hallows Eve Ball, Van Helsing, wr. Stephen Sommers, dir. Stephen Sommers, Universal Pictures, et al.

Say what you will about this film, they were trying to do something different with the material. Although staged as a trap for the titular character, this stunning sequence stands on its own merits. The cathedral of St Nicholas in Prague is transformed into a gothic carnival, complete with acrobats, contortionists and fire-eaters, with the waltz at its heart. It's one of those moments when you really do think the undead have the right idea.

The masks and costumes are sumptuous and the choreography, by Debra Brown, suitably spectacular. The music “All Hallows Eve Ball” is composed by Alan Silvestri. The gag with the wall mirror is as deliberate as everything else—it was borrowed from Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), but is a nice touch.

 

3. The Masquerade, En Kongelig Afære, wr. Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg, dir. Nikolaj Arcel, Zentropa Entertainments et al. 2012.


Mads Mikkleson in frock coat and cravat. What more, really, do you need to know? Actually, an English translation of the dialogue may help:

 

Johann Friedrich Struensee: Your majesty.

Caroline Mathilde: You recognized me.

Johann Friedrich Struensee: I would recognize you blindfolded.

Caroline Mathilde: But your costume is not very imaginative.

Johann Friedrich Struensee: I'm afraid I'm not very good at the masquerade.

Caroline Mathilde: I believe this is the one night when everyone can be themselves.

[pause] But you never remove your mask. Do you?


Based on fascinating, actual shenanigans during the 18th century reign of King Christian VII of Denmark (who was clinically insane), this film chronicles the affair between an isolated young queen and the court physician. Choreographed by Niclas Bendixen to music by Gabriel Yared and Cyrille Aufort, this pivotal scene is perfection by candlelight.

 

4. The Max-querade, Batman Returns, Wr. Daniel Waters & Sam Hamm, Dir. Tim Burton, Warner Brothers et al. 1992.

As the Penguin says, “You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” But in this scene, Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle drift through the glittering crowd (to the strains of “Face to Face” by Siouxie and the Banshees), the only naked faces in a costumed whirl. Their normality is their mask and anyway, the party's about to be crashed by a giant rubber duck.

The design in this sequence is truly spectacular. To fit in with the film's general tone of overblown gothicism, the costume department created such things as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and walking, talking Mona Lisa—in the video clip that accompanied the single's release, Siouxie is shown toying with the latter. Back in the ballroom, those with an appreciation of classic literature may further recognise a crimson-draped figure standing on the stairs before Selena enters, then ascending as she does. Which brings us to...


 

5.The Masque of the Red Death, The Masque of the Red Death, wr. Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, dir. Roger Corman, AIP et al. 1964

There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.”

There have been a number of attempts to film this, but this one not only has Vincent Price devouring the scenery as Prince Prospero, it folds Poe's “Hop Frog” into an already heady, Pathecolor mix. Quarantined in his castle as the plague advances, Prospero's efforts to stave off boredom have escalated to Russian roulette with poisoned daggers and full-on Satanic ritual. The masquerade he decrees for midnight seems almost innocent by comparison. Hop Toad, as he is here named, accurately predicts the costumes; “Everyone will dress as usual; a harlequin, a Chinese, a soldier or a princess. They will be either beautiful or humorous, but all will be human.” While this does not quite live up to Poe's immortal words, it possesses its own horrific logic and a wonderful energy.



 

6. Climax, Eyes Wide Shut, wr. Stanley Kubrick & Frederic Raphael, dir. Stanley Kubrick, Warner Brothers, et al. 1999

Sure, you say, the occupants of the manor were wearing masks, but they weren't, ah, dancing. But they were! Still mostly naked, to a charming instrumental rendition of Bert Kaempfert's “Strangers In The Night”. This is a short and comparatively tame scene coming just before the denouement, a terrifying sequence in which a galaxy of masks gaze down upon the hapless Bill Harford in punishment for his voyeurism.

Masks and masquerade permeate this film, to extent of having a character named Domino. The masks featured in the orgy were bought by Stanley Kubrick's art director from a number of Italian workshops, including Mondonovo Maschera in Venice, founded by sculptor Guerrino Lovato. Four of Lovato's masks were featured—Screaming (inspired by the Maddalena of Niccolò Dell'Arca), Columbus (created to mark the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America), Diamante and Archaic Sun (maskedart.com). There are plenty of traditional types on display, neutral voltos and spatulate bautas, and one bearing a resemblance to Picasso's “Woman With Green Hat”.



 

7. The Bal des Victims. Napoleon, Wr. & dir. Abel Gance, Cine France, et al. 1927 (restoration conducted by Kevin Brownlow, 2016)

This silent magnum opus is five and a half hours long (and used to be longer). The Bal appears in Part Three and is the only cinematic depiction of such an event I have found. Bal des Victims are rumoured to have been held in revolutionary Paris after the execution of Robespierre ended the Terror. To be invited, one had to have lost a close relative to the guillotine, or been in danger oneself.

Set in the Carmes prison, it picks up on previous visuals in the film and inverts their meaning. Now the cadaverous guard who read out the names of the condemned recites the menu. Men are dressed as women, one joker appears with a balloon as a head, that revellers gleefully pop, and a woman is “guillotined” by having her head thrust through the back of the chair. Through this bacchanal, Napoleon stalks like the front man of a new romantic band.

A short clip from the Bal, focusing on Napoleon and Josephine, constitutes No. 6 of this list. www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/napoleon-highlights-abel-gance-silent-film


 

8. What, no Phantom?

Here's the thing: I've never much liked Lloyd-Webber's Phantom of the Opera. Partly, I suppose, because of the conditions under which I saw it, but partly because I was already familiar with actual opera, and this opera above all. Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera remains one of my favourites.

Based on the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden (who was quite sane, but nonetheless shot by a friend in 1792), Verdi adds an illicit affair and a prophecy of doom (“You will be killed by the next man who shakes your hand.”). I have seen several productions. This one, staged at London's Royal Opera House in 1975 (directed by Otto Schenk and conducted by Claudio Abbado) isn't one of them, but is absolutely spectacular and has sufficient subtitles to convey the plot.

Keep watching till at least 2:12:08.


And that's it! Honourable Mentions go to Amadeus, The Masque of Mandragora, the ball in the “Whistler” section of Monster Club, Stephen's induction to Lost Hope in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and the footage taken by my brother at my 21st birthday party. See you at the masquerade!

 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 

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