May 102012

If you think about it: each decade of the 20th century yielded (motion-picture-wise) at least one Quintessential Image of the Archetypal Witch; and if you read these images, you can decipher (a bit) what the 20th century had going on, Witch-wise. For instance: I think you will agree that the early 20th century (the 1930s-50s), for all that they possessed few motion-picture Instances of Witches, presented Witches in a very Romantic Light. Then, in the 1960s, Witchcraft grew into a dark and troubling affair. However, since the 1990s, Witchcraft has (with one memorable exception) been seen as an Empowerment of Womanhood.

Obviously, the first notable instance of a “Witch” movie is one of the most beloved of Hollywood classics: MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz. Possessing two memorable portrayals of Witches- one Good, the other Bad- the film reads, I think, as an Initiation into the Craft of the Witch, undergone by a remarkably visionary child named Dorothy. All of the elements of the Shamanic Initiation are there: Dorothy is carried through the elemental force of a cyclone; to a strange, new world, populated with fantastical creatures; where she undergoes a mystical journey, fraught with peril; before she experiences the terrifying Death Ordeal in the Witch’s castle. Rewarded and lauded at the end, she understands abilities within her previously unknown: all of this is revealed to have been a dream at the end; a dream, or a Shamanic Vision?

Governing this unique experience is a kindly Good Witch- as much a Goddess as exists in Oz, who as memento of Dorothy’s adventure, Magickally places upon her feet a (Freudianly suggestive) pair of ruby-red slippers. (This is also one of the call-outs to the Shamanic Experience, as anything to do with feet is significant, in Shaman-Legend.) As these ruby slippers had previously belonged to the Witch of the East, they symbolically count as Initiation Objects into the Sisterhood of Witchcraft: demonstrated to Dorothy in both its Good and Wicked forms. In all ways, The Wizard of Oz is the quintessential American Movie-Faerey-Tale; its enduring power is demonstrated by the fact that we keep retelling it. It also shows, in an interesting way, how myth can develop and grow, mutating first into this form, and then into that.

There has been an off-shoot retelling of The Wizard of Oz (perhaps you have heard of it) called Wicked: first a runaway best-seller novel, and then a blockbuster Broadway show. It too tells the story of an Initiation into Witchcraft; only this time, considering the point-of-view of the Witch of the West, and taking the position that her inherent powers are exploited by unscrupulous individuals (such as the Wizard), earning her the raw deal of being unjustly called “Wicked.” Clearly, the soil of this 1930s Witch-Myth continues to grow in fertility as the decades wear on.

The 1940s found its Witch in femme fatale Veronica Lake’s 1942 romantic-comedy  I Married a Witch. A screen-siren of the time, Ms. Lake’s presentation as a beautiful and seductive Witch who falls in love with a Mortal plays up the idea of the Female as the Seductress-Enchantress, making courtship between a Woman and a Man as mysterious a thing as Witchcraft. In many ways, the heart of screw-ball comedy lies in the ways that Women and Men will be both drawn to one another, and mystified by one another at the same time. It’s a little like that “Women are from Venus, Men from Mars” thing, rendered in metaphor as “Women are [beautiful] Witches, Men are Mortals- and yet they will fall in Love.” So satisfying is this concept, it is borrowed as the basis for the 1960s television series Bewitched, one of the most beloved depictions of Witches in American pop-culture. I Married a Witch: an intriguing and rather romantic premise for a light-hearted ’40s classic Hollywood comedy.

The same romantic premise forms the basis for the ’50s preeminent Witch: Kim Novak in 1958′s Bell, Book, and Candle. Originally a Broadway play from 1950 starring English actress Lilli Palmer, and then a sturdy touring vehicle for actresses such as Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers, and Lana Turner, Bell, Book, and Candle equally follows a beautiful Witch (Ms. Novak is perhaps the most beautiful woman to play a Witch onscreen) as she pursues the Mortal man of her desire. It is interesting that Bell, Book, and Candle provides Ms. Novak’s Witch with a background community of Witches, envisioning a bohemian Greenwich Village setting for this secret, underground society. The movie (and original play) is the first time that metaphor can be read into a dramatic use of Witches: on the one hand, the Witches of BBC are clearly presented in terms of Beatnik culture, as well as the emerging counterculture; the Witches also can easily be read as metaphoric for the underground societies of Homosexuals (situated largely in Greenwich Village) at the time. In the curious sort of way, it almost appears as if BBC is laying the groundwork for the emerging Witch/ Wicca/ Pagan scene, portraying modern Witches living amongst Mortals, for however much the Mortals may be unaware (again, this dynamic is borrowed for Bewitched). One of my favorite moments is when Elsa Lanchester (an English character-actress whom I love, playing Kim Novak’s Witch-Aunt) describes watching the people around her in New York, and wondering to herself, “What would you do if I told you that I am a Witch?” A sublime scene for Pagans, as Pagans often find themselves in the same Secret Society position (Ms. Lanchester, by the way, is otherwise famous in motion pictures for playing the Bride of Frankenstein).

For all that American society was undergoing the Depression, World War II, and the start of the Cold War from the ’30s-’50s, it seems to have retained a certain Romantic sensibility, to judge from the three Witch-Movies representative of each decade. Ah, but the ’60s- that is another matter, reflected in the Witch-films of that period.

Feb 022012

Awhile back on the Juggler, Juggler Reader Bellatrix was expressing the same frustration that so many current Witches and Pagans feel, at the dearth of positive images of Witches and Pagans in Pop-Culture. (The frustration is similar to that experienced by Gays and Lesbians throughout the better part of the 20th century; the difference is that the maligned image of Witches and Pagans literally dates back to the Middle Ages, and is, I guess, kind of enshrined in certain Dominant Culture doctrines.) Anyway, Bellatrix’s comments set me to thinking, and I decided to feature the Good Witch Series, playing up specific Good Witches whose positive portrayals serve as inspirational models in the Zeitgeist.

The fascinating thing, since the 20th century, is the development of cinematic story-telling: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series all represent bold experiments in the developing field of movie Fable-Making. Arguably still the best example of movie-Faerey-Telling is MGM’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. Somewhere behind the moon, beyond the stars- somewhere over the rainbow, there is a wonderful Land called Oz: which is seemingly governed by a Gracious (and slightly Campy) Goddess-Like Lady, a Good Witch named Glinda who apparently glides serenely over the land in a pink bubble, landing and alighting whenever and wherever there is trouble or need.

As in Cinderella, she seems to be revealing herself as a Faerie-Godmother to her chosen Child Dorothy: whom she sends upon a Joseph Campbell-like Journey of Discovery down a Yellow Brick Road. The journey is dangerous, through a dark woods that gets darker before it gets brighter, and a Wicked Witch is harassing her steps. Finally she must face the Evil Hag in the Witch’s Castle of Doom- she must face her own mortality (“See this? That’s how long you have to live! And it isn’t very long!”) But she learns that she has the Power within herself, and through her decisive throwing of water upon the Wicked Crone, she learns that she can free herself from fear, and act in a way that is a benefit to others. These lessons learned, the Good Witch Glinda (who has apparently been guarding Dorothy’s journey all along) reappears in her signature pink bubble, to wave her Magickal Staff graciously, ending the anxiety and trauma that has gone before. Her Goddess-like status is signaled by the respectful obeisances of the people of Oz, and her Goodness is shown by the affectionate love the Munchkins show her.

Actress Billie Burke was an inspired choice for Glinda. Possessing a light, silvery speaking voice and an ethereal, slightly distracted manner, she seemed formed out of the air itself; the complete serenity of her presence suggests the Blissful Lady of Grace and Total Love, Kwan Yin. Her archetypal (and campy) appeal is such that- at every West Village Halloween Parade of which I know- some Drag Queen is drifting around costumed as her, serenely spreading happiness and joy. Surely one of the Goodest of Good Witches is Glinda the Good.


Apr 282011

All of a sudden, it seems there are as many “Wizard of Oz” adaptations as there are Super-Hero ones out there; thanks to Juggler reader Sophie Gale for letting us know that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber have just opened a stage-version of The Wizard of Oz  in London, at the Palladium. (Sophie- you know that you have the same last name as Dorothy, right?) If you go to their Web-site (above), you can see a brief clip of the show (which kind of looks an awful lot like the MGM musical performed in a theater). Some interesting things: the role of Dorothy was apparently cast with the winner of a British television competition; the Wicked Witch has been rethought more as a Cruella de Ville type than as a Margaret Hamilton type, and has been outfitted with one of the “additional” songs contributed by Mr. Webber and Mr. Rice. (This is the “Red Shoes Blues,” also available at their Web-site and a major hoot, especially as delivered by Hannah Waddingham, who I suspect is the show’s big scene-stealer: “She’s prissy and clueless, so I’ll leave her shoeless- I’ll show her how fiendishly mean I can be!”). 

And according to The Guardian review that Sophie provided, the Cowardly Lion is played as explicitly Gay. Since the Gay Counterculture has long ago picked up on the sub-text behind lines like, “It’s hard, believe me, Missy, when you’re born to be a Sissy, without the vim and voive [verve],” to say nothing of the fact that he spends the second half of the movie with a kind-of femmy bow tied in his permed hair- calling the Lion Gay outright just seems an acknowledgement of what “friends of Dorothy” have known all along. (“Friends of Dorothy” is a code that Gay people used to use to identify themselves- “Excuse me, are you a Friend of Dorothy?” [wink, wink]) I’m pretty sure that Vito Russo mentions the Cowardly Lion in his ground-breaking study of Queer presentation and image in cinema, The Celluloid Closet. Kudos to Webber and Rice for “going there.”

I’m sure someone else here at the Juggler mentioned this before, but Salma Hayek is developing Wicked as an eight-hour miniseries with ABC- only it’s not going to be a musical; it will be derived from the book (it will be an adaptation of the book), but it won’t have songs and dancing: it will be the Wicked where they Don’t sing.

Then there is The Witches of Oz, an independent fantasy-adventure, scheduled for broadcast as a television miniseries in summer, 2011; the grown-up Dorothy Gale (now a successful children’s writer) discovers that she has repressed her childhood memories of Oz, and according to the Trailer posted to YouTube (amidst much stirring music), must remember the Past, in order to save herself and humanity, as the Powers of Good and the Forces of Evil face off in the Adventure of a Lifetime (“she has the Power; she always had!”) Described as a television Event, in which Fears are faced and a Destiny found, it seems to involve the Witches of Oz coming into Our World (specifically, New York City), to engage in some cataclysmic Fight of Magick to the finish- which also sounds a little like 2007′s Enchanted and Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. 

However that plays out- The Wizard of Oz, whether the L. Frank Baum book or the MGM musical or Gregory Maguire’s off-shoot novel, plainly provides fertile soil for modern mythology and repeated story-telling.

May 242010

In adapting Baum’s book to the screen, the MGM script-writers made an apparently small change of detail- but one which demonstrates the power of the collective unconscious to spin mythology. In the book, Dorothy’s magic slippers are silver. In the movie, they are changed to ruby sequins.

Supposedly the decision was made out of a belief that the shiny red shoes would be more visually striking (notwithstanding, the determination to go with sequins was reached with reluctance, as sequins are notoriously difficult to light). However, the change added a perhaps inadvertant but nonetheless profound subtext to the story. For, if Dorothy’s shoes are as red as newly spilled blood- what does this say about the maiden who places them upon her feet?

Dorothy’s age is not clear. Judy Garland was sixteen when she made the movie, although MGM apparently wanted her to play younger (Louis B. Mayer went so far as to order the costume department to tape her chest, not wanting to deal with a Dorothy who had breasts). Part of Dorothy’s problem is that she is clearly on the cusp of adolescence; she is at that exceedingly awkward stage where children start to seek out an identity independent of the adults in their lives. It is the age where growing pains set in and the hormonal changes of puberty commence. It is also the age at which latent psychic powers, supernatural inclinations, and magickal abilities begin to manifest. Dorothy is roughly the same age as the  Salem Witch-girls and visionary Joan of Arc (also Sabrina the Teen-Aged Witch). She has begun the process of growing into a woman; her adventure in Oz represents an initiation into the mysteries of womanhood (symbolized by the fact that half-way through the movie, Dorothy loses her girlish pony-tails after a stop-off at the Emerald City Beauty Shop, letting her hair down into a more sensual and womanly style). As Dorothy grows into adulthood, she also begins to grow into her shamanic self- her witchy, sorceress self.

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