Monday, April 28, 2014

Chick Flick Deconstruction: Practical Magic (Part One)

I love Practical Magic.

Let me say that again: I love, love, love Practical Magic.

And since this movie was a bit of a bomb to say the least, I want to be very clear about the fact that I don't love it because it's bad. I've never been a huge fan of the so-bad-it's-good genre of movies, for various reasons. So believe me when I say that I love this movie genuinely, because I really think it's a good movie. And it's a tricky one. It was critically panned, but everyone seems to love it. I'm always a little fascinated by movies that critics hate and the audience loves (a lot more so than the reverse, if I'm honest) and when the movie deals with women, how they relate to each other and what they learn from each other, that's definitely worth exploring.

So when I tear this movie a new asshole for it's problematic content, remember: picking out the flaws in the things we love and forgiving them is how we learn to love our fiction in a whole new way.

(Content note: bullying, magical removal of agency, religious persecution of women, slut-shaming)

The story goes a little something like this:

Sally and Gillian Owens have always known they were different. Raised by their aunts after their parents' death, the sisters grew up in a household that was anything but typical--their aunts fed them chocolate cake for breakfast and taught them the uses of practical magic. But the invocation of the Owens' sorcery also carries a price--some call it a curse: the men they fall in love with are doomed to an untimely death. Now adult women with very different personalities, the quiet Sally and the fiery Gillian must use all of their powers to fight the family curse and a swarm of supernatural forces that threatens the lives of all the Owens women.

Before I begin, let me just quickly highlight the main problem with deconstructing this movie: in this universe, magic is real.

I would very much like to deconstruct this movie in terms of its symbolism. It certainly wants me to, with its constant talk of the Owens women being different and the various reasons people fear them. It's established right off the bat that people fear and hate the Owens women because they are "different", wanting to convince us that this is simply the lot of those who don't conform. (You! And me!) But I don't buy it, because the movie won't let me. Magic is real, and the Owens women cast actual spells on people. Nasty spells. Honestly, it seems to me that the people on the island where they live have every right to be scared of them. The whole lot of them are consistently shown to have very little regard for the boundaries and agency of others. As much as the movie tries to play it off that people hate them because they are different, it sure looks to me like they hate them because they cast nasty spells on people without their consent.

We'll get to it, but trust me, they do.

I wanted to put that out there straight away, because it's the reason that I won't be talking about the deeper implications of the ostracizing of the Owens women. There are none. I'm sure it wants to tap into the feeling many people share of being disliked for perceived flaws or harmless quirks, but that's not what is presented to us on the screen. So I won't be going that route.

Also note that this movie came out at the height of the pop-paganism phenomenon: think Charmed, Buffy, The Craft, that sort of thing. All these movies reference Wicca, but do not portray it. This movie to references "the craft" and would very much like us to believe that these women are witches in the pagan sense, but no, they are not that. The constant talk of "innate magical ability" and the type of magic they practice (with spoons stirring coffee by themselves and raising zombies for example) makes that very clear. These are witches in the fairytale sense, and magic is portrayed as a genetic trait that some people just have. The Owens women have certainly adopted the trappings of modern paganism, bit that's as far as it goes. So I won't be talking about paganism and Wicca in this deconstruction either.

With that said, let's get started with the opening scene, which... Boy. If I'd stopped watching after this sequence, and I very nearly did, there would be no talk of love.

The movie opens in 17th century Massachusetts with the impending execution by hanging of a local witch. Think The Crucible, but with jaunty music.

A female narrator tells us the story of Maria Owens, who was convicted of being a witch. You know, because she totally was one. We see this when Maria escapes her hanging by magically breaking the rope, which freaks out the townsfolk so much that they run away screaming. After escaping the gallows, Maria is banished to the island where the rest of the movie takes place. I guess the townsfolk decided hanging her again would be pointless. Which begs the question, if Maria was so powerful, why did she allow herself to get banished at all? Possibly because she was carrying the child of some unnamed, unseen lover. We are told that she waited for him to rescue her. From what, I don't know. Maria seems pretty on the ball to me. She built a whole goddamn house with her bare hands and apparently delivered at least one child by herself. Maria is a goddamn badass.

Yeah, maybe less shots of her weeping and gazing mournfully into the middle distance and more of her building that house and raising her child? No? Okay.

So when her lover doesn't show, Maria becomes so bitter and heartbroken that she casts a spell on herself so she will never know the agony of love again. Over time, the spell grew into a curse: any man who dares love an Owens woman will suffer an untimely death.

So there's your setup, and man, it's a problematic one.

First of all, witch trials were real things that happened to real women who were not witches. It's a pet peeve of mine, I admit, but for years I've heard people claim that all throughout history women were tortured and murdered for being pagans and worshiping the old gods, and as an amateur historian, this makes my blood boil. The history of religious persecution perpetuated against women is a frighteningly complex one, so I won't get into it here, but suffice to say that this depiction of the victims of religious zealotry is disrespectful at best.

But this is a universe where magic exists, so I'm left wondering what Maria actually did. The visual and narrative cues in the movie want to telegraph "helpless, abused, persecuted woman" without touching on "hang on, this is a woman with real magical power", but no, seriously, what did she do? Well, we get a hint. Owens women were always feared and loathed, and it "didn't help Maria was a bit of a heartbreaker, and most of her lovers had wives on the hanging committee."


So, yeah, in a universe where witches have actual magical powers, the reason the clan founder was tried and convicted was "slut". Which...

See what I mean how the movie wants me to delve into the deeper implications? I'd like to do that here, because this isn't necessarily problematic on its own. Throughout history millions of women have been victimized for their sexuality, and slut-shaming is an honest-to-goodness minor theme in this movie, but I can't go there. Because remember, magic is real. Who knows what Maria actually did? She gets a bit of side-eye from me, because I cannot stress enough how much the Owens clan does not give a shit about the boundaries and agency of others. So I can't get into it. I have to take this at face value. It's frustrating.

I will highlight one thing though: the movie insists that both in Maria's case and in the case of the girls, not only do people hate them because they're different, it's people who hate them because they're different. This is untrue. Not all people hate them. Just women, exclusively. Granted, the gender balance on this unnamed island is more out of whack than Summerisle. Again, it's frustrating, because I totally want to get into the subtle undercurrent of slut-shaming that is implied by having only women antagonize the Owens clan, but I can't. Because magic is real and they use it on non-consenting Muggles. That's sort of where it ends, you know?

So, do I object to the portrayal of Maria being a victim of slut-shaming? No. It's a real thing that happens to real women every day, and I always appreciate it when fiction highlights those things and condemns it. But seeing as how she is not powerless, and is in fact more powerful than any person there, and has hardcore magic on her side, would I have preferred a less victimized clan founder? Yes. I mean, just yes, no two ways about it. It's nice that the movie wants to illustrate how powerless even a strong woman can become under this kind of patriarchal bullshit, but Maria isn't powerless. I would have much preferred the story of a magical woman who really was ostracized because she was "different", as the movie keeps hammering in, but did good things and built a legacy despite of it. Much more interesting, I think, but your mileage may vary.

Second, in the first three goddamn minutes of this movie, there are two women who die of Broken Heart Disease. Broken Heart Disease is not a real disease. It's a way for lazy writers to kill female characters. (If you've ever seen a movie wherein a man dies of Broken Heart Disease, please let me know! I'd genuinely love to see it.) Granted, we don't really know how Maria died, but it sure looks like Broken Heart Disease to me.

Third, yes, 17th century puritans could be a rough lot with the hangings and the witch trials, but they categorically did not execute pregnant women. They just didn't. The end.

Lastly, that goddamn curse is going to be a thorn in my side for the duration of this movie. That's one vague-ass curse. It's literally "a curse on any man who dares love an Owens woman." Well, shit. I guess that explains why there are no men in the Owens family. Little boys who love their Owens mom? Dead. Teenage boy who develops a crush on the Owens neighbor? Dead. Only... no, not really. Because from here on out, the women act like the curse is actually "untimely death for any man an Owens woman is truly in love with," which is... you know, different.

Can I just say again, for the record, that I totally get why people would be scared of these women? I'm just saying, curse or no, if there was a family in my community where all the men and boys dropped like flies under suspicious circumstances, I would find that shifty as fuck. 

Also, I'm pretty miffed that in a movie where one of the the main conflicts to be overcome is a curse that kills lovers, not one character thinks to even mention the existence of QUILTBAG folk. Is it okay if a trans man dare love an Owens woman? Or if an Owens woman's true love is a woman? Do they just get violent tummy aches? Oh god, what if an Owens woman turns out to be trans*? Does the curse get confused and just start slaying people left and right?

This curse makes my goddamn brain hurt. Just... fucking roll with it.

No, I do love this movie, really! I'll get to it, I promise.

The narrator goes on to tell us that this is what killed the father of the girls who she is telling the story to. Their mother heard the sounds of the deathwatch beetle and knew then that her husband was going to die.


Look, I promise I'm not going to go on a rant for every thirty seconds of screen time I recap, but I have goddamn questions, and they're not inconsequential ones. Did the father know about the curse? Did she bother to tell him about it before they married and had children? Seeing how the Owens women have a habit of trampling all over people's right to agency and informed consent, I'd say probably not. If you believe in the curse honestly enough to become upset at the sound of a beetle, you believe in it enough to know it's real, okay? So, did she tell him? We never find out.

The narrator turns out to be Aunt Frances, sister to Aunt Jet, and she's telling the story to little Sally and Gillian. With their father's death-by-curse and their mother being tragically taken by Broken Heart Disease, the girls move in with their aunts, and this is where they grow up. It's shown to be a very loving home where, despite being bullied by neighborhood children, the girls have a happy childhood with aunts who love and support them. It's established that Sally has a greater aptitude for magic than Gillian does, but the girls are never shown to be in competition, and the aunts don't press either of them to work at it more than they want to. It all very nice.

The aunts are shown to be the type of witches who perform spells for the women in the community for money. In a crucial scene, little Sally and Gillian see a woman in their kitchen, crying and besides herself because the married man she loves won't leave his wife. The woman begs the aunts to put a love spell on him. After some gentle resistance, the aunts agree and perform a spell that includes the killing of a dove. The girls are visibly shocked. This short scene is presented as being a very traumatic experience for them. Sally, seeing the anguish the woman is suffering (the agony of love, as her ancestor Maria would have called it) is so frightened she hopes she never falls in love. Gillian for her part sees the passion in this woman, the raw emotion of it all, and proclaims that she can't wait to fall in love.

It's a short scene, but it's very powerful and establishes a lot of things right off the bat.

First of all, it establishes that we didn't even need the curse as a narrative device. This is skipping ahead a little, but the only reason the curse is there is for the girls to tailor their life choices around it. Sally will go on to close herself off to romantic love and Gillian will try and get around it by moving from one lover to the next. This is something that could have easily been achieved as a result of this scene. With the curse in place though, these women just seem incredibly callous. Every time they romantically interact with men, you can't help but think "Um... curse? Remember? The thing that we established killed your father and uncle and many men before them?" If the curse was completely done away with, you could keep the narrative completely intact by having the conflict revolve around this childhood trauma instead. It would be way more poignant and a lot less problematic. Instead they waffle on whether the curse even exists at all to get around this moral pickle, and by "they" I mean both the characters and the writers. So... just leave it out. It's pointless. Worse than pointless actually, since it takes the place of the much better alternative of having their problems with love be internal instead of external.

In terms of character, the aunts are established as being the sort of people who will let people make their mistakes. They know they are doing wrong, that this woman's wish will come back to haunt her, but they consciously let her make the mistake. Which would be fine and dandy if the mistake didn't include taking away this man's agency. We never find out what actually happens, but it's pretty obvious that this man has now been magically roofied and this woman is going to take advantage of him. Which is to say nothing of the marriage, possibly with children, that man is going to leave behind under the influence of that love spell. Seems like a whole lot of collateral damage for this one woman to learn a lesson about "being careful what you wish for."

To be fair, the movie does know that this is a flaw of the aunts and will address it later on, but that's probably not much of a consolation to the man who got raped under the influence of magical roofies. And we never do learn whether the spell is eventually reversed, so for all we know, that man lived out the rest of his days being "so in love he can't stand it" (which sounds unpleasant) with the woman who paid to have him permanently roofied. Nice.

Again, I will give this movie credit for actually addressing all these problems later on, though in a different context. I'd be a lot more pissed off if it was swept under the rug or presented as being a thing we should approve of. They know it's wrong, so points for that I guess.

Traumatized and shocked by what she saw, Sally decides to cast a spell of her own, a love spell for a man she is sure can't exist. That way, if her true love can't possibly exist, she can't ever fall in love. It's a solid plan I guess. With a curse that nebulous and vague, why not take a shot? But Sally is about eight years old at this point, so the traits she wishes for in her true love are not actually all that uncommon.

And even Roger Ebert made fun of the movie for this, but I think it's wonderfully sweet. It reminds me of when I was a very young girl, and what my idea of love was like, back when love was uncomplicated and happiness was guaranteed. I still remember what I thought the most important things in a partner would be, and honestly, they weren't any less silly in retrospect. So I like the emotional undercurrent of this scene. It's simple, it's innocent, and it forms a wonderful basis for the journey Sally will take into womanhood.

So Sally's spell floats away in a cloud of rose petals, and that's the prologue.

Now I know I've criticized pretty much everything in it. It's probably clear by now that I don't love this movie for it's premise or even its plot, really. But I do love it, and now that my biggets complaints are out of the way, it's time to get into why I love it. Short answer: the characters, and the actors who play them. Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing are just delightful as the aunts. I really like Aiden Quinn, and I... don't mind Nicole Kidman. But Sandra Bullock carries this movie for me. I will absolutely cop to being a raging Sandra Bullock fangirl at this point. I love her comedy, I love her sincerity, she is genuinely talented and a delight to watch. And going forward, she and Kidman will give me every reason in the world to love this movie to pieces despite all the bad things I've said (and meant!) about it.

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