Tag Archives: criticism

Genre, Nostalgia, and The Love Witch

I don’t normally do film reviews/analysis on this blog, but a recent viewing of The Love Witch with its “aggressive strangeness,” as a friend described it, warrants a a closer look.

witchAnna Biller’s 2016 The Love Witch begins as a parody of late 1960s/early ’70s sci-fi/fantasy sexploitation B movies such as Barbarella (1968) and A Touch of Satan (1971). Biller’s film establishes a concrete cinematic nostalgia that it then goes to great lengths to critique.

Spoilers and such: The main character, Elaine, is a witch utilizing her witchiness to seduce men in her supposedly endless search for love. After having killed her husband, Elaine quickly finds a new partner (Wayne) and uses her excessive witchitudes to convince him to take her to his getaway cabin. There, she gives him a “potion,” which causes him to “feel love” too intensely and die. (Audiences can recognize that taking beverages from strangers is also a possible way to die). Elaine attributes Wayne’s death to men being unable to cope with their emotions, and moves on from there, as we all should when someone feels emotions to death.

When Elaine finds  Griff, “the right one,” the film has veered from its established genre, becoming at different points a Hallmark romcom and a buddy cop drama. Disappointed that he fails to feel love for her (and also happens to be the cop who finds that she is guilty of “loving” people to death), Elaine stabs Griff in the chest. The film ends with a disturbingly quiet fantasy of Elaine marrying Griff in a Renaissance setting, interrupting the campy tone and ending with a serious meditation on the consequence’s of the film’s own logic.

The Love Witch exploits viewers’ nostalgia for a unique cultural moment that existed only after the emergence of birth control and before the HIV/AIDS epidemic, an era that felt like it was going places and might have were it not for the sudden death of hope that came with Reagan and the moral majority.

Elaine’s treatment of men is cynical and essentialist, and the film’s male characters buy into it just as much as she does. Audiences are meant to see her views as a product of her frustration with social expectations for happiness and monogamy, and she turns to witchliness to prevent further disappointment. Witchcraft here functions as a cult-like ideology: Elaine seeks improvement in relationships and cedes her agency to something beyond her (a program/product/cult), but as a result of that program/product/cult, she only ends up killing people (which, to no surprise, ends up hurting her relationships). Witchcraft is a stand-in for any commodified, pre-packaged self-help ideology, such as Sedona’s vortexes, Scientology, or the books of Rob Bell (all of which, I’m sure, have resulted in someone’s death).

Marriage appears most colorfully in a scene at a Renaissance fair, pulling back the curtain on Elaine’s personal investment in the program/product/cult. Elaine, like many Americans, is drawn to witchcraft simply for the nostalgia of a pre-globalized Europe, one without the intrusion of Christianity but all the aesthetics of a Pagan religion without the human sacrifice and patriarchy. All the fun without the historicity. Tolkien made even whiter and somehow less sexy. Halloween ruined by Medieval and Renaissance Studies majors. The list goes on. The film critiques the audience for participating in nostalgia for a style it portrays as commodified, pre-packaged, and self-consuming.

The Love Witch dissects the way many Americans imagine the sexual revolution, which existed between two periods of extreme repression, the 1950s and 1980s, and captures the strangeness of that moment of hope while simultaneously undermining it just as violently as it was subverted historically.

The film’s generic experimentation acts as a mechanism exploiting viewers’ nostalgia. The Love Witch tricks audiences the way time and politics often do, by taking its viewers on a trip they never signed up for but feel unable to step out of, forcing them to walk away with questions and pretentious blog post ideas about witch hunts and the 1970s or something.


Running Into Foucault at the Supermarket

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So there you are at the supermarket deciding whether or not it’s a macaroni and cheese week or more of a spaghetti week, and you turn a corner and there he is, Michel Foucault, judging wine in the wine section. You stare for a moment; his basket is mostly bread and wine and a pair of binoculars, and then he sees you, and it’s too late. He’s going to ask you if you’ve read his books yet. There’s no escaping it. You smile, he smiles. You ask him about the wine. He’s polite enough when you tell him no, not yet, but it’s in your reading list, you promise. You apologize, so he’s probably not hurt. Right?

It doesn’t help that Jacques Derrida is backing up the cash register with all his cheese cakes. He asks you how it’s going, but reads more into your answer of “fine” than you thought he would. You smile and ask him how Bourdieu is, but Derrida just keeps going on and on about how Foucault ruined his dinner party, and he’s throwing another one this evening with a book signing and everything, and you’re welcome to come of course, and you say no, so he guesses correctly that the subtext of “no” is actually “I’m so sorry but I still haven’t gotten to your work, please forgive me for being the skunk-flavored latte that I am.” You buy your spaghetti in silence.

You drop by the bank on your way home. While waiting in line you get bored, so you get on Tinder, and then there he is, Foucault, looking all smug in his first picture. Casually, you read his bio, which is the most Foucault you’ve actually read. “French writer and critic up for whatever. Let’s be visible together.” Your only common interest is wine; you swipe left after a moment’s hesitation.

You make it home, put away the spaghetti, and start working on your laundry. At the laundromat, you see Foucault again, leaning over a table with a pile of dark clothes, some of them folded. He is on his phone, his thumbs padding on the screen furiously. He doesn’t see you, thank God. You dump your clothes into a machine fast, cram in the quarters, and realize you’re one short. You turn around; Foucault is gone, clothes and all.

You should have said hello; he might have spared you a quarter. You begin crawling on the floor to look for a quarter someone might have dropped. You try, perhaps desperately, to remember where you left Foucault’s book on your shelf, with your unread Freud or your unread Butler. Sometime you’ll get to it all, but you are still short by a quarter. You think, “You will always be short a quarter,” but can’t remember if that’s existentialism or postmodernism or something else altogether. Either way, you are now covered in dust and you still don’t have a quarter. Like always.



Making Sense of the Things We Love

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It’s early on a Saturday morning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and scholars wander around with free coffee in their hands to one of a dozen panels in one of many sessions in the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference. Topics range from The Grateful Dead to Motor Culture to Film and History. I attend one on Sci-Fi and Fantasy during this session.

The two papers presented are on Jim Henson’s fantasy films (such as Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie) and the television program Ancient Aliens. The second speaker states that he loves Ancient Aliens, and though he refrains from using the phrase “guilty pleasure,” it’s clear from his analysis that he agrees with none of the theories put forward on the program. Instead, he critiques the faulty logic and Euro-centric rhetoric while simultaneously praising the show for trying to subvert the idea that hard-fixed academia is the only source of knowledge. The speaker also points out that the show is outside his academic field. His paper is simply an attempt to make sense of something he loves, and that the whole conference is about people making sense of things they love.

I find that sentiment reassuring. It proves to me something I’d suspected, that pleasure and criticism are not mutually exclusive. Speakers stepped out of their fields of immediate interest to talk about their favorite movies, books, TV shows, music, and the pop culture they love, not to ridicule it but to analyze it.

Almost entirely absent from the conference is a kind of academic elitism that I’ve encountered more and more lately, a hierarchy placing scholars above fans. Obviously, scholars do not need to enjoy everything we analyze (I’m looking at you, James Fenimore Cooper), and maybe we do not need to analyze everything we enjoy (though for an academic, that is very hard to do). Nevertheless, there are many academics who believe that the ability to criticize makes them superior to others.

The conference proved fans and academics can inhabit the same space equally. There were very few moments when scholars looked down on anybody for enjoying pop culture. There was no status involved in the academia; it was communal, friendly, positive, constructive, and creative, qualities I’ve found myself missing in academia lately.

Being critical does not make me better than others. It may give me a more nuanced perspective, but more accurately, I think, it gives me a differently nuanced perspective. With few exceptions, nobody is better than anybody for anything; the rigid hierarchies I’ve encountered so often separating students from faculty, graduate from undergraduate, critic from fan, are unnecessary and unhealthy. I’m pleased to have found a space where fans and critics are on equal footing, where people can be both at the same time. I’m glad to find a place where the egotism that drives much of academia is suspended, and criticism and enjoyment work hand-in-hand.