Sunday, May 11, 2014

Chick Flick Deconstruction: Practical Magic (Part Three)

Last time on Practical Magic: the aunts are evil, sisterhood happens, and an abusive asshole gets killed. Twice. It was lovely.

Wait, isn't this a romantic comedy?

So it is!

(Content note: partner abuse, gendered slurs, Jimmy gets killed some more, and wouldn't you know it, even more magical removal of agency)

But first, actually interesting things happen.

Soon after the misadventure with Jimmy, the aunts come home from their outing and are delighted to find Gillian has moved back in. To the characters' credit, they notice her bruises and correctly assume they were caused by physical abuse, and they don't put Gillian on the spot. Just like Sally did, their first reaction is to make sure she knows that she is welcome and loved, and they make it clear, once, that they know what happened and they support her. It's quietly assumed that Gillian can confide in them should she choose to, but nobody pressures her for explanations or blames her for falling for an abusive man. This is twice now that the movie does this, and I'm a complete and utter sucker for this type of interaction. It's just very subtle, very real, and very inspiring, a textbook example of how to be there for an abuse survivor in a kind and loving way.

Then, Midnight Margaritas.

The four women get to drinking heavily and opening up in that boisterous way drunk people do. The scene starts out as pretty much a chick flick cliche: women dancing to silly pop songs and drinking, cackling about men and their man-appendages, and it continues in that vein, until they're around the table. They're drunk, they're unfiltered, and slightly mean things start slipping into the conversation. Gillian makes fun of Sally for "ending up a frigid old hag." The aunts tease her about the love spell they "had" to cast on her to get her to open her legs. The word "slut" is dropped several times, and it starts getting weird after a while. It goes from unfiltered drunk teasing to hurtful jabs very gradually. It's utterly surreal and it really does sneak up on you. It took me (and the characters) a while to realize that the tequila bottle on the table was actually Jimmy's bottle that the aunts found on the porch. It's implied that it's his misogynist attitude, his thoughts and vocabulary that are slipping into these women's minds and words, and it's fucking terrifying.

See what I mean with this movie? It's too clumsy and technically inept and problematic to ever take serious on the surface, but then it blindsides you with brilliant scenes like that, with deep implications and shockingly genuine character moments. When it tries to make a character sound misogynistic without being a over-the-top evil villain about it, just casually sexist like real people often are, they flat out succeed. It's so strange that these two things can exist within the same movie. It really has to be seen to be believed.

Now, this is where the aunts figure things out. Not completely, but they know something's up and get angry when the sisters refuse to tell them why they're freaking out over the tequila bottle and other weird Jimmy-related happenings. They just know shit is going to go down, and they're right. And as is their weird little wont, they decide it's time for the sisters to "learn a lesson." What lesson? Fuck if I know. The aunts know nothing about Jimmy the Twice-Dead. They just fuck off and let their wards deal with it. But what about Sally's very young children, you ask? Not to worry. The aunts would never leave them to their fate. They give them both a magical charm to protect them from all harm. Why don't they wear those charms all the time? Shut up.

And yes, the charms do protect the girls from physical harm. It doesn't protect them from seeing deeply traumatizing stuff several times during the rest of the movie. So again, spot on job there, aunts. You freaking nailed it.

I seriously want to like them. Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest do such a marvelous job with them. They are genuinely funny and engaging, but the characters are written so poorly and their lack of respect for anyone's boundaries is so blatant that I just can't with these witches. Their characters are completely mishandled and treated as plot devices while the actors are capable of so, so much more. It's at this point where I started wishing for this movie to turn into Arsenic and Old Lace starring the aunts, because holy crap, I would watch that forever. Someone make that spin-off happen.

But no, they fuck off basically because the plot needs them to go away for a bit. Exeunt aunts.

Enter love interest.

It occurs to me that this movie does not lend itself particularly well to deconstruction, not just because it has little to no internal logic, but also because of that one huge magic-is-real problem that the movie never acknowledges.

That, and the fact that this movie didn't need a love interest. It had plenty of interesting things going on without it: the aunts and their slow realization that fucking with people's agency is no good, not even if you're trying to help or teach them a valuable lesson. Sally trying to raise her daughters as both a single parent and a witch, while dealing with her aunts' betrayal of trust. Sally and Gillian and their constant and unwavering dedication to each other in the best possible way, without judgement or cattiness. Twice-dead Jimmy under the gazebo. Hi-jinks. Shenanigans. And so forth.

But love interest it is. And thank god it's only Sally who gets one. Their interactions are sprinkled throughout the rest of the movie, but I find them wholly uninteresting and can't say anything too engaging about them beyond meet-cute, conflict, resolution. It's that simple.

The love interest comes in the form of an investigator for the state prosecutor's office, Gary Hallet. Remember this bit?

He read Sally's letter to Gillian about being lonely without a man as part of his investigation. He whistles a song Sally apparently likes. While flipping pancakes. He's got a star-shaped badge he's very proud of. And he's got one green eye and one blue. So obviously it takes Sally forever to catch on that he's her true love. I just...

I'm not going to talk much about Gary and Sally. I would like to, because some of their interactions are nominally interesting from a character standpoint, but there's no point. Because he is under a spell. It kind of taints all these supposedly romantic interactions they have. I'm not going to be too rough on the character of Sally for casting the spell, since she did it specifically and explicitly because she thought he didn't exist. She does the decent thing by immediately telling Gary what happened when she realizes the consequences of her spell. But I'm not okay with the writers presenting the interactions of a witch and her magical roofie victim as this sweeping romantic drama. Just... no.

Oh, Gary makes some noises about magic and curses only being as powerful as you allow them to be, but... What? Movie, seriously, what the hell? No. She put a love spell on him, he falls in love with her, we do not see the spell get reversed.

Well, actually there is this, way at the end:

That could be read as Sally breaking the love spell. The original spell involved sending fresh rose petals to the boy she thought didn't exist. There seems to be a certain symmetry in sending a withered leaf to that same man, hoping he will come back to her because he chooses to. I personally choose to read it that way, because it makes a lot more sense than the alternative, but let me be clear about the fact that it's never really framed as such.

Anyway, Gary is on the case of Jimmy Angelov and reveals what we already knew: that he is a very bad man indeed and has tortured and killed several women. (Jimmy, not Gary. Although can you imagine?) Thus begins the subplot of the sisters lying to him and keeping Jimmy's body hidden.  Badly. I mean, I can't fully express just how bad a job they did hiding the evidence. His car is parked on their driveway. With the murder weapon inside. I just... I can't...

Weirdly enough, Sally finds she can't lie to him. I honestly think they cut an earlier scene where it's established that it's magically impossible for her to lie to her true love or something to that effect. That's seriously the only explanation I have for that weird little piece of nothing.

Sally and Gary grow closer while she tries to explain the whole "witch" situation and he displays all the strength of character and personality of a flipped pancake. They get together in the end. I'm done with this.

Meanwhile, in the interesting section of the movie, Gillian shows up to Sally's PTA meeting. Sally is very much bummed out that the other moms never rely on her or include her, and that she never gets to be at the top of the phone tree. So Gillian magics her name on the paperwork. It's sad that I have to give these movie gold stars and cookies for having an Owens woman not blatantly mess with the agency of others. She just changes the paperwork.

Oh, and then she totally messes with the agency of others.

In an attempt to make the bad policeman leave town, she whips up a potion, with the help of Sally's daughters no less, and puts it in his pancake syrup. Because it's smart and not at all unusual for investigators to have breakfast with the people they (correctly) suspect are murderers. This plan is foiled when the daughters realize he is mommy's true love (they got over the sudden and tragic death of their dad mighty quick, I gotta say) and throw the potion off a cliff.

I am so not messing around with this magic roofie stuff. Unlike the Owens clan.

Eventually, Sally cracks under the pressure of lying about what happened. All her frustration comes bubbling to the surface, and the sisters have a huge fight in which all their grievances are aired. Gillian screams at Sally about how she must be jealous of her, because Gillian lived her life while Sally was trying and failing to be "normal". Sally yells that she's sick of cleaning up Gillian's messes.

In any other movie, this would be the part where I go "yeah, of course, can't go a whole movie without women bitching at each other, can we? That'd be madness." But here, for me, it works, because the movie has spent nearly every single minute of its runtime setting them up as loving and devoted sisters, because Bullock and Kidman have such wonderful chemistry, because this is first and foremost a movie about two sisters and how they relate to each other through good times and bad, so it doesn't come off as cheap here. Your read of the situation may differ and frankly, I'm almost there with you. But when it comes to the relationship between Sally and Gillian, the movie has earned a lot of goodwill with me by this point. So this little scene rings true for me. It's not cheap conflict, it's been bubbling under the surface for the entire running time, and again it's very true to life. Just because they support and love each other doesn't mean they agree with each other's life choices, and under intense pressure it all comes out.

Sally runs out of the house to go and confess the murder to Gary, but that doesn't quite happen. She senses there's something very wrong with Gillian and runs back to the house to find her thrashing and screaming (in front of those very young children I mentioned) and clearly possessed by the angry spirit of Jimmy the Twice-Dead. While Sally tries to protect Gillian, Jimmy materializes as a ghost, just as Gary runs into the room. Gary manages to defeat Jimmy with his badge, as it is a symbol of justice that he truly believes in.

If you're keeping score at home, that's three times Jimmy has been killed now, and it just never stops being entertaining.

Sally does her best to explain what Gary just saw and basically confesses the whole thing, but there's more pressing matters at hand. Gillian is still possessed, which... Never mind, roll with it! Climax! And it's a good one!

The aunts come back to survey the mess they could have easily prevented and declare that to definitively exorcise Jimmy the Thrice-Dead, they will need a full coven of witches. So Sally activates the PTA phone tree, and I just find that charming as all hell.

All the moms show up. The movie never clearly explains why they go from outright hating and fearing these women to helping them out with something so bizarre, but the movie does offer a few hints.

The movie actually calls this Sally's "coming out" (as a witch) and treats this like a great and wonderful thing that all the women in the village are celebrating. Which...

Two things.

I loathe when the term "coming out" is applied to anything other than QUILTBAG people confirming their sexuality for their loved ones and surroundings. I recently read an article that claimed someone was "coming out" as a feminist and a politician was "coming out" as a socialist, and nope. Coming out is a very serious, often terrifying and potentially life-changing event in the life of QUILTBAG people, and I do not like the term being co-opted one little bit. Following a social movement or philosophy by choice and being open about that by choice is very different from being born with inherent traits that cannot be changed. That being said, in this universe magic is an inherent, genetic trait that cannot be changed, so fine, I'll cut them some slack, but not enough to not point it out.

Then again, this movie is so deeply gynocentric that I can't help but wonder whether the writers didn't pick the exact right term here. A curse that prevents women from being in hetero-normative relationships, romantic relationships being nothing but bad news, the day being saved by two women hugging and saying "I love you" and the end-of-movie implication that Maria's curse is broken when the sisters (not Sally and Gary, the romantic couple) express a love so deep that it negates their ancestor's bitterness...

It's not not there, is what I'm saying.

Moving on with the plot, the moms and women of the town all gather in the Owens mansion. One of them sheepishly admits that "she always wanted to know what your house looked like inside." Another claims that "ugh, I know, I've had guys like that too." All in all it's carefully implied that they're there because they sympathize with Gillian: they know what it feels like to be done wrong on some level, and they want to help her metaphorically move past her terrible experience of abuse. I mean, this isn't all that ambiguous: the climax of this movie is literally of group of women gathering around a dying abuse survivor to drive out the evil spirit of the man who hurt her. So don't tell me I'm reading too much into this sequence. This isn't subtext. It's text.

And Fair Use gods forgive me, I just need you to watch what happens next for yourself:

Look, I know it's silly. I know the script isn't exactly perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I know there's gaping plot holes like whoa. But suspend your disbelief for a second. Because this is a movie where the main conflict is solved by two sisters saying "I love you" and meaning it. The flashy exorcism doesn't work. The spells and chanting, they do nothing. What works is Sally and Gillian drawing on a lifetime of unconditional love.

And "love conquers all" is hardly a fresh and new thing in fiction, but 99% of the time, they mean romantic love between a man and a woman. And that's nice and all, but how often do you see this message as the culmination of a story about sisters? In a story as simple and messy as this one, it may not be the smartest resolution, but it is absolutely the best one.

Oh, also this:


I will never stop praising fiction that promotes healthy and loving relationships between women, romantic or no, and unlike Legally Blonde, this movie didn't need any cattiness and girl-on-girl violence to get the simple message that love is better than competition across. The women of the town being catty and mean was a C-plot at best, it doesn't really get in the way of the other themes, and it's addressed and resolved head-on. The core of this story is the bond between Sally and Gillian. They loved each other since the first second of screen time, and carry that love throughout the entire movie, to the very last second.

I also want to point out here, because I didn't get a chance to do it elsewhere, that Gillian's bruise doesn't disappear until after the exorcism. This is worth pointing out, because it's proof to me that the abuse isn't just a plot device to get the ball rolling on this climax. Someone made the conscious decision to have Gillian's face visibly swollen and bruised for the rest of the movie. She wears sunglasses to hide it from the little girls. So every time you see her, whether she's having fun or fighting with her sister or just living her life, that reminder of what happened is there. That is unequivocally a conscious choice. Whether it was one of continuity or character or both I can't say, but I appreciate it being there until the end.

Oh, right, there's an epilogue. Everybody likes the Owens clan now, Sally and Gary make out, the curse is maybe broken perhaps, so good luck Gary, I guess. Also he lets the sisters know that they're no longer suspects in the murder case, even though he knows for a fact they did it, and he falsified evidence, which is a totally cool and super okay thing for an officer of the law to do. Is he genuinely in love with Sally? Is she in love with him? What with the spell? I dunno. Depends on your reading of the scene I mentioned way up there. Shrug. Handwave. The end.

And that's Practical Magic. 

Now, on to the larger themes of the movie. I think this is going to be a brief one, but first, something that I need to address:

An alternate reading

I've heard it suggested that Practical Magic is a deeply problematic movie beyond the issues with magical overriding of agency, and I can see why. I can't find any iterations of it online, but it goes a little something like this:

Sally is set up to be the "good" sister. She is monogamous, humble and all-round nice. Gillian, by contrast, is the "bad" sister: slutty, impulsive and irresponsible. The movie is basically a story about the bad, slutty woman being relentlessly punished for her promiscuity and eventually saved by the good, chaste woman. The good woman gets a man and happiness at the end. The bad woman just barely gets to live.

And yes, I see it. If that's your reading of the movie, I can definitely understand why that is. But for my part, I saw it differently. I intuitively gravitated toward the many, many instances in this movie where characters are shown to be supportive of Gillian despite their misgivings. The movie does this way too consistently for it to have been something that just slipped in there. Every time one of the sisters needs help, the other is there, without judgement or condescension. Every single time. They don't slip up even once with this. That to me is an undercurrent of genuine understanding strong enough to make me personally disinclined to read the movie in that way.

What about the book?

It exists. I've skimmed it, but I found the tone too different from the movie to bring it up in a deconstruction. The movie keeps a lot of the plot points of the book, but the characterizations are very different. In the book though, the sisters do find out that they didn't kill Jimmy directly. What killed him was months of belladonna poisoning, the herb Gillian slipped him to make him stop beating her at night. The abuse is much more overt and visible. And she marries a teacher in the end. Different strokes and such, but I like that the movie made the choice to not pair Gillian up at the end, given all she's been through.

The book also spends more time with Sally's daughters, who are teenagers in the book, while they are complete non-entities in the movie, so points for that.

Is it a good movie?

Oh no. Not by any definition. Technically speaking, it's barely adequate, but that doesn't really factor into a feminist deconstruction, so never mind. From a character standpoint, it hardly even makes sense most of the time. The plot is a ramshackle monstrosity held together by duct tape and wishes. And while the problematic content is addressed with varying degrees of success, it's still blatantly there.

But I think I made all that clear. And I'd still answer yes. Yes, it is a good movie. Something about it just works, and it works in two very different ways.

You can watch it as a light magical romcom, and if that's your thing, this movie mostly works. There's a lot of funny jokes and scenes, and the actors do a good enough job with the romantic portion to make that engaging as well. The magic adds a cutesy little flair to the whole deal that I find very charming. But if that's how you watch the movie, I can imagine you'll find the tone horribly uneven, switching from drama to comedy to horror and back at the drop of a hat and never settling on anything scene to scene. That's how most of the critics saw it. And again, if you go into this movie to watch a romcom, you'll probably see that too.

I think it's more valuable to see this movie as a metaphorical exploration of the effects of tragedy and specifically partner abuse on a family. I honestly do. And I've outlined my reasons why throughout this whole deconstruction, so I won't repeat myself here. If you watch the movie that way, the otherwise jarring tonal shifts actually make a lot of sense. the narrative flows a lot smoother (though by no means without a hitch) and the characters seem much more consistent.

Obviously this is a very personal deconstruction for me, and I definitely came into it from a specific point of view. But at the same time, I wonder if my point of view is really all that unique. A lot of women out there, way too many women, have had roughly the same experiences I have. And I can't help but wonder whether they see the same things in this movie as I do.

This, by the way, is why I have very little patience for people who are dismissive and condescending towards chick flicks in general. More often than not the whole genre (such as it is) is the focus of derision and upheld as proof of how stupid women are and how they like silly, vapid things. That makes me very angry indeed.

Let me be clear here: I don't deconstruct chick flicks as a gimmick. I'm not being cute reading too much into silly lady movies that don't have any real merit. I'm not going into these movies desperately searching for something, anything I can present as a way to legitimize inherently stupid movies.

I deconstruct chick flicks because underneath all the silliness, behind all the scorn and derision and problematic content, there is often a core of real emotion that does speak to deep, personal, and very real female experiences.

Practical Magic deals with partner abuse, and I do mean it full on deals with it. It deals with the complex relationships we have with the people we love and how we can't always agree with them. It tells us how to support those loves ones anyway. This isn't a movie about how family is sacred always because family is family and that's just how it is. It's a movie about how difficult it can be to see your loved ones self-destruct, and how much it hurts when they betray our trust. Ironically, given it's deeply problematic content, it's a movie about acknowledging that the ones we love are allowed to make their own choices, and about understanding that they need our love and support when things go wrong. It's a movie about never saying "I told you so."

It is a bad movie in many, many ways. But it is not a frivolous movie. And it is not silly.

(Plus, they kill Jimmy like four times. Four times! Hell, I'd watch an entire movie that's nothing but women killing Jimmy.)

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