The Witch (2015)

witch

What makes The Witch a very good, even a great film is the way director and screenwriter Robert Eggers not only dramatizes the destruction of a Puritan family in early New England, but that he takes their world view seriously. The people who founded the Salem, Plymouth, and the Massachusetts Bay Colonies in the early Seventeenth Century were – and who would briefly overthrow the Stuart Monarchy during the English Civil War – were in some ways just like modern Americans. They considered money to be a sign of God’s grace. They respected, even fetishized education. They wanted to establish their dominion over, not live in harmony with nature. In other ways we would have found them very strange. They did not believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible – that would come later in the Jim Crow South – but they believed in a literal hell. In 1636, the majority of the faculty at Harvard believed the devil was perfectly real. He was not only a metaphor for our moral failings. He lived in the woods outside of Boston.

The Witch opens with a man named William, his wife Katherine, and their five children – a teenage girl named Thomasin, a teenage boy named Caleb, two smaller children named Mercy and Jonas, and a baby named Samuel – being expelled from a settlement in New England that strongly resembles the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We’re not told exactly what William did, but for students of history, he will immediately bring to minds early religious dissidents like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, rebels who refused to live under the discipline of the Puritan government. When he refers to his judges as “false Christians,” we also begin to realize that the family is headed for a bad end, that William has fallen into the sin of pride. The Puritans believed that we have to fight the devil’s never ending attacks through constant prayer and Bible reading. Whether or not we are eventually saved, however, is entirely up to God. To declare someone else a “false Christian” is dangerously close to declaring yourself part of the elect and him part of the damned.

After William and his family establish their own settlement miles outside of the town, the devil strikes the fatal blow almost immediately. While Thomasin is playing with the Samuel, a witch snatches the baby away in the literal blink of an eye. How the ugly old woman was able to move so fast and so stealthily is never explained. Eggers simply assumes that the Puritan belief in the supernatural is true. As a catalyst for the family’s dissolution, however, it’s psychologically accurate, with or without the devil. Thomasin is a intelligent and rebellious girl and she’s beginning to come into her own sexually – during the movie she has her first period – with no contact with any boy her own age except for her brother Caleb, who it’s hinted, is occasionally tempted by incestuous feelings for his sister. There’s nothing particularly obvious in Thomasin’s spiritual banishment from her family’s love, but it’s the subtly of her growing estrangement that contributes to the film’s sense of dread. William, who sold his wife’s prized silver cup in order to trade for traps and ammunition, not only takes Caleb into the woods – where the devil quite literally lives – to hunt against his wife’s wishes. He allows Thomasin to take the blame when Catherine notices that the cup is missing.

William has accused the elders of his former colony of being “false Christians,” but he has not lived up to his sense of moral superiority. He has lied to his wife, allowed his eldest daughter to become the family scapegoat, and put his eldest son at risk. Thomasin resents how her family seems to consider her potentially evil. She’s also intrigued by it. When Mercy and Jonas accuse her of being a witch, she plays along with the joke so enthusiastically that she terrifies the two younger children into submission. When she overhears William and Katherine planning to hire her out as a servant to another family back in town, she agrees to go out into the woods with Caleb, who, anxious to prove himself a man, hopes to bring home food, to successfully kill a rabbit or a deer, something William had failed to do earlier in the movie. The expedition ends in disaster when the same witch who took Samuel, now in the form of a beautiful, buxom young woman, takes Caleb.

It is here where we can most discern the effectiveness of the Witch’s screenplay, the skill with which Eggers bridges the world view of a modern American with that of a Seventeenth Century Puritan. For a modern American, the beautiful young witch is simply the reflection of Caleb’s incestuous lust for his older sister. A Puritan in Seventh Century New England would agree. The witch appears because Caleb’s journey into the woods with Thomasin is also a journey into their incestuous feelings for each other. The major difference is that the he would not see the witch as a metaphor but as a flesh and blood woman who’s sold herself into the service of the devil, whom he would see as perfectly real. The witch isn’t a reflection of Caleb’s lust for Thomasin. Caleb’s lust for Thomasin has made him vulnerable to being taken by the witch. It’s not easy to describe the sense of dread this scene can instill in the viewer. I’m not a Christian and I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I jumped out of my seat when the beautiful young witch revealed her true physical appearance as she embraced Caleb. Thomasin’s eventually journey towards the devil is creepier still. Like the best sermons by Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards, The Witch makes our skin crawl in order to awaken us to the possibility, even the inevitability of our own damnation.

The Puritans may have banned the theater in Oliver Cromwell’s England, but in The Witch they have also inspired a work of cinematic genius.

A Few Thoughts on Muhammad Ali

The first time I heard the name Muhammad Ali was on April 1, 1973 at exactly 7:30 AM. I was 8 years old. The night before, he had suffered his second loss as a professional to the now all but forgotten Ken Norton. Norton, who won a split decision at the San Diego Sports Arena after breaking Ali’s jaw in the eleventh round, was also the greatest fighter ever to come out of the United States Marine Corps. My father, who always read the New York Times at the kitchen table from 7:30 to 8:00 AM, right before driving my brother and me to school, was pleased.

“I don’t like Ali,” he said. “I don’t his attitude.”

My father was rarely, if ever, openly racist. At least in the morning when he was sober, whatever bigotry he may have had against black people was usually kept within the bounds of polite, suburban, passive aggressive liberalism. On the surface, he was simply rooting for a fellow veteran of the United States Marine Corps. After all, Ken Norton was black. Nevertheless, the message came though loud and clear. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, a patriotic American who quoted self-help books instead of Malcolm X, had put the “uppity” draft dodger Muhammad Ali in his place.

The next year, I was sitting at the snack bar at the Federal Lanes, a bowling ally in Elizabeth New Jersey where I belonged to a children’s league, eating French fries covered in ketschup, and watching the television set behind the counter. It was Sunday morning, and. Ali and Joe Frazier were being interviewed by Bob McAllister, the host of the children’s show Wonderama, the night before their first rematch. I was waiting for my mother, who was always late, and who always gave me a dollar for French fries, to pick me up. Looking at the episode of Wonderama after all these years, I’m struck by a certain innocence. Ali and Frazier actually appeared the night before their famous match on a low budget children’s television show, put aside their differences, and put on a good humored comedy routine for an audience of mostly black elementary school kids. Even the manager of the snack bar, a surly Polish or Italian American – I forget which — probably a Republican and probably a racist, was charmed, laughing along with McAllister, utterly taken in by Ali’s and Frazier’s playful game of marbles. “I don’t that guy,” he said, “but he’s pretty funny. I’ll admit that.” Later on, when McAllister asked Ali if he had any advice for the children in the studio audience, Ali advised them not to become boxers.

“Stay in school,” he said. “Don’t be a bum like me.”

If the line sounds familiar, it’s probably because Sylvester Stallone ripped it off almost word for word for his movie Rocky, putting it in the mouth of Rocky’s antagonist Apollo Creed. I don’t know if Stallone watched the same children’s shows I did. I doubt it. I’m sure Ali used the same routine in multiple interviews, but it shows just how well Stallone had read the Ali’s cultural significance. Stallone didn’t only want to see Ali knocked out. He wanted to coopt his image as a rebel. So he invented Apollo Creed, a very thinly fictionalized version of Ali, and Rocky Balboa, a somewhat more loosely fictionalized composite of Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Chuck Wepner, the white heavyweight who almost, but not quite went the distance with Ali in 1975. Wepner, a dirty fighter was also, like Ken Norton, a veteran of the Marine Corps, an apolitical conservative. In the form of Rocky Balboa, however, he becomes the personification of the underdog, a gritty and authentic working class underdog. Ali, in turn, a real underdog who faced down the awesome power of the United States government, becomes the establishment, a flashy capitalist showman who enters the ring in red, white, and blue shorts to the sound of the Marine Corps Hymn.

I was much too young to have seen Ali in his prime, or even in his early 30s, when he defeated an amazing trio of rivals in Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman. The early 70s really was the Golden Age of professional heavyweight boxing, lacking only the participation of the great Cuban fighter Teófilo Stevenson. I did see Ali fight a few times on TV in the late 70s, when he was pushing 40, and had no business in the ring. Boxers, unlike writers or musicians, can only excel as young men. Middle aged men are best advised to stick to long-distance cycling, that old man’s sport par excellence. But it was only when I turned 30, after I saw the film When We Were Kings, that I truly began to understand the importance of Ali’s black nationalism and resistance to the draft, just how much he gave up to resist that evil and genocidal war against the people of Vietnam. A documentary about Ali’s comeback fight against the overwhelming favorite George Foreman, it’s testament both to how much he gave up for his antiwar politics, and how much he struggled against media and government attacks to become the icon we know today.

I have little use for black separatism or for nostalgia for the Civil Rights Era – Hillary Clinton’s successful use of John Lewis against Bernie Sanders is proof that what’s progressive in time almost always becomes conservative – but Ali’s willingness to give up his prime years as a fighter in order to prevent the United States government from sending him to Vietnam transcends not only his loyalty to the Nation of Islam and his betrayal of Malcolm X, but the (brutal and corrupt) sport of boxing. One only has to compare him to Michael Jordan, by far and away the greatest basketball player who ever lived, but a politically shallow man who has never meant much outside of the world of basketball, or making money. Jordan, his youth gone, is mainly known by the millennial generation as a the old man in the “Sad Michael Jordan” meme on social media. Ali, even after he contracted Parkinson’s disease and disappeared from the public view, still loomed large.

Even for the greatest athletes, if all you’re about is the sport, your life ends when you turn 35 or 40 (if you can keep going that long). If you’re also about money (like Jordan) you eventually become just another capitalist who had a more interesting life than most people as a young man. But if you’re a nationalist, anti-war activist (proof that in spite of his membership in the Nation of Islam Ali’s “circle of empathy extended beyond black Americans to people in Vietnam), and an idealist, you can continue until the day you die. That day came way too early for a lot of black nationalists in the 1960s. One only has to think about what happened to Fred Hampton. Ali’s celebrity wouldn’t have saved him if the government had really wanted him dead. One only has to think about what happened to the Kennedys or Martin Luther King. By his very public opposition to the war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali was risking more than just jail time or the end of his career. He was risking his life.