This is the second installment of the two part post about recent movies started by Robin Marie last week. This post features a few minor spoilers about The Witch and Hail, Ceasar!
I did not know what to expect from the movie The Witch, though I was a bit concerned—horror movies are not usually my thing. They mess with my head too much. Fortunately for me, very little of the movie abided by the well worn—albeit effective—formulas of the horror genre. In retrospect what best prepared me for the movie experience was my quite broad knowledge about the early modern European witch hunt. Indeed, watching the movie felt a little like reading a piece of early modern scholarship written during the 1980s, the heyday of the New Cultural History, when Foucaultian postmodernism was in great vogue among historians, particularly of early modern Europe. It was also the time when a rising interest in the history of gender converged with these new trends in cultural history to make witchcraft one of the more exhilarating subjects of historical inquiry.
When I first studied history the findings and approaches of the New Cultural History captured my imagination, as they still do. Not surprisingly then, so did The Witch. What I found most compelling in the approach of cultural historians back then, and to a large degree since, is the suspension, at least for a while, of the quest for truth. “How would the world look if we believed in witchcraft?” asked Robert Eggers, and the movie embodies his attempt to explore just that. Counter-intuitively, scholars as Natalie Davis, Lynn Hunt, and Robert Darnton urged us to believe our sources before we interrogate them. And indeed their phenomenal scholarship demonstrated that it could be far more revealing to suspend the search for truth than to keep it front and center.
The brand of post-modernism advocated by Foucault proved immensely liberating for historians. Movies like The Witch reveal why. Foucault induced historians to frame their questions differently, opening new horizons for historical scholarship. Asking how the truth operated rather than what the truth was seemed like such a delightful proposition for people infatuated with the past. If the past, as they say, ‘is a different country,’ would we not prefer to enjoy the trip through full immersion and belief, rather than determine how to evaluate it? To be sure, to some degree every good historical study did—and still does—that, but Foucault gave historians the full legitimacy to pursue such a perspective with a new zeal. The Witch is not only in some ways a much better assessment of the past than a movie that would have tried to show us what really occurred in a New England settlement, it is also a much more compelling thriller than most horror movies.
Curiously, the very first thought I had when I left the movie theater was that The Witch felt unexpectedly similar to a movie I had seen just a week earlier, Hail, Ceasar!, for in some ways they are mirror images. Both try to capture what to contemporary audiences would otherwise seem like ludicrous fantasies of a bygone era. The one uses the horror genre to examine how Puritans might have regarded the terror of the new world, leaving us to grimly make of it what we will. The other uses comedy to show us just how fatuous McCarthyist fantasies were when so many contemporaries seemed to suspect communist plots behind every Hollywood movie script. In both cases we garner interesting historical insights, that we might well have missed otherwise.
The question that does remain, however, is how to assess a movie, or for that matter a history book, that does not—at least formally—seek to make a value judgement. Both The Witch and Hail Ceasar!, not only do not try to hit us over the head with a moral conclusion, they do very little to provide us with one. The onus is on the audience to do that, each person for themselves. To be sure, there are certain structural and aesthetic attributes to every piece that lend themselves to one kind of interpretation or another. Yet, is that enough? Is not the object of every artistic or scholarly production to promote values of some sort?
I recall several heated conversations I had with friends about the movie The Wolf of Wall Street after it came out several years ago that captured this predicament. Sympathetic to Foucaultian post-modernism, I found the movie compelling. I felt that it applied its full artistic force to present us with a penetrating glimpse into how the capitalist American economy operates. It also explained quite well why so many over the centuries have fallen for its allures. Others found the movie abhorrent. They correctly suggested that the movie might in fact inspire certain types of people to celebrate capitalism and its “marvelous” excesses. I had to concede their point, at least to a certain degree. I could certainly imagine a scenario in which viewers reveled in the excesses the movie seemed at times to celebrate.
I tend to resolve this tension by arguing for the worth of a plurality of voices and expressions, in art and in history—though I do understand why such a response could sound unsatisfying. It is a bit a wishy washy, to be sure, but I would hate to lose either form of representation. I would certainly hate to advise people not to watch The Witch or Hail, Ceasar! To miss out on such delightful experiences—especially for historians—would be a shame.