This is Part I of a two-post series by myself and Eran Zelnik on recent films & questions of representation in film. Just, trust me, we’ll get there.
“Thought I’what vile and mean Things are the Children of Men in this mortal State. How much do our natural Necessities abase us, and place us in some regard on the same level with the very Dogs’…Accordingly I resolved that it should be my ordinary Practice, whenever I step to answer the one or the other Necessity of Nature, to make it an Opportunity of shaping in my Mind some holy, noble, and divine Thought.” – Cotton Mather, reflecting on pissing on a wall and then witnessing a dog do the same.
This week I went to see the movie The Witch. Going into the theatre, I was intrigued by sharply conflicting reports on the quality of the film: one friend of mine said it had become his favorite movie, while a friend of a friend thought the dialogue was absurd and the content rankly sexist. Before I get to my own impressions, however, a quick summary of the film.
The Witch is the first film of Robert Eggers, who both wrote and directed the film. It follows the fate of a Puritan family banished from their settlement for, apparently, being more puritan than most Puritans. Relocating to an open field in the middle of the forest, they are tasked with surviving in a near absolute wilderness.
I will tell you now that the film indeed involves an actual witch. You might think this merits a spoiler warning, but it is actually something you discover within the first five minutes of the film, and it is not subtle. This opens up the rest of the story to focus not so much on the mystery of the supernatural, but the dynamics of fear, grief, and religious belief in the context of traditional Calvinist patriarchy.
I recognize that most audiences are not likely to walk in or out of the theatre thinking, “what an interesting mediation on traditional Calvinist patriarchy!” But this is certainly what I thought and, whether or not they use such academic lingo, what they might be thinking – probably something along the lines of “Dude, Puritans be crazy!” – essentially adds up to the same observation.
And this is why I found The Witch to be such a delightful experience. Eggers pulls the majority of his plot twists and details from the actual diaries, letters, newspaper reports and court records of early New England settlements. Hence he legitimately introduces the film with the subtitle, “A New England Folktale.” In other regards as well, the movie is, at least broadly speaking (not being an antiques expert, I’m not sure of every detail), historically faithful. The daily lives of the unnamed Puritan family are clearly consumed with two things: staying alive, and praying. Moreover, the actors speak old English, a detail which I suppose some could find absurd, but I actually found quite convincing and refreshing – I’ve always wondered what such language would sound like in the mouths of normal people rather than Shakespearean actors, and it seems to me that The Witch likely got it about right. At the least, it sounds like a language the characters are actually used to speaking casually, rather than performing formally.
The most satisfying aspect of the film’s adherence to the Puritan world, however, is its representation of Calvinist theology. In the course of the film, we hear characters acknowledge that they deserve eternal torment, discuss how their love for one another is not relevant to the question of whether or not they are damned to hell, and speak earnestly about the ecstasy of God’s mercy. You know, typical dinner conversation. And that kind of immersion into a thought world so drastically different from our own is the type of experience that most historians, I would think, derive a certain thrill from. I certainly did, at least.
Yet it is this very faithfulness to Puritan life and belief that can also lead to some considering the film acutely problematic. To reproduce New England folk belief, after all, necessitates reproducing stories and tropes deeply connected to sexism and racism. (Although the former is far more present in the film than the latter, I think it’s fair enough to say it is not totally absent, seeing as how things turn out with one particular black goat.) If these are reproduced for a product that, at its most basic level, aims to entertain us, are such sexist concepts necessarily reinforced?
In the case of The Witch, some early responses suggest that it is not so simple. In fact, many critics find in the film’s story a powerful message of the empowerment of women and a critique of patriarchy. Add to this that the Satanic Temple has apparently endorsed the film, interpreting it as a call for women’s empowerment, and it is clear that it’s too easy to assume the film will reinforce sexism. Nonetheless, the film represents sexist traditions, from the ugly old hag on down to the dangers of young women’s sexuality.
What is missed in emphasizing this fact, however, is that in the context of twenty-first century modernity, an accurate portrayal of the psychological lives of Puritans does not necessarily recommend such a perspective to a viewing audience. Because quite frankly, all the characters seem pretty miserable, and this film certainly is not going to undo the absolutely engrained modern perspective that whether or not a belief system produces personal happiness is perhaps the most important way for assessing its value!
My conclusion about this particular film, however, does not settle the larger problem, or challenge, of assessing the impact of representation: how do you ensure, when depicting either historical events or world views that involved oppression, cruelty, or rapacity, that such accuracy does not end up reinforcing that which you represent? In the next post, Eran will consider this question also in the context of discussing The Witch, but also the recently released Hail, Cesar!
 I also personally appreciated this detail, as I derive perhaps not entirely kind amusement from the dynamic of New England communities, after founding themselves on being the most hard core of Christians, having to banish people and/or kill them when they decided to take that whole idea a bit too seriously and be even more hard core than them. Indeed, in a way it is this very dynamic that somehow gave us the likes of a Roger Williams out the mire of the likes of a Cotton Mather. So historical irony goes!