Monday, November 9, 2015

Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers's "Realizing the Witch"

Richard Baxstrom is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Houses in Motion: The Experience of Place and the Problem of Belief in Urban Malaysia and the coeditor of the journal Visual Culture in Britain.

Todd Meyers is Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology at Wayne State University. As of January 2016, he will be Associate Professor of Anthropology, New York University––Shanghai. He is the author of The Clinic and Elsewhere: Addiction, Adolescents, and the Afterlife of Therapy and the coeditor of Fordham University Press’s Forms of Living series.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible, and reported the following:
Page 99 is a crucial but surprisingly tame moment in Realizing the Witch. We describe the trial depicted in Benjamin Christensen’s film Häxan (The Witch) of the Young Maiden, accused of consorting with Satan and being a witch. Her real “crime”––if one has been committed at all––is having become the Young Priest’s object of sexual desire. In this passage we discuss how the portly older priest presides over her trial, scrutinizing the evidence of her satanic pact, and in doing so exposes some of Christensen’s filmic assertions about the line between “belief” and “the unbelievable.” The Young Maiden’s ability to guide or to act as a proxy for the Devil’s unseen hand, an instrument to corrupt men, is truly unbelievable––but the priests, and even the Maiden herself, are fully invested in a concrete belief that such forces exist and can be wielded by someone or something. In the passage we also chide Christensen for his selective reading of the legal framework used by magistrates in the early modern period for weighing such an accusation––historical facts of which the filmmaker was very much aware. This is a tactic Christensen uses again and again in the film: he is masterful in refashioning his historical material to match his thesis about the power of forces unseen (felt, known, revealed)––forces as much to do with the psyche as something supernatural––, but in all this shaping and fashioning something gives way or is beyond his control. To be clear, Christensen is not engaged in some wild enterprise in Häxan, and he’s far from naïve about his subject. In fact much of the film is wholly faithful to his medieval, early modern, and 19th century source material. Like the magistrates, the labor of reporting and recording evidence of invisible (malevolent) forces is precisely the labor in which Christensen is engaged. This is what we find so fascinating about Häxan and what we try to demonstrate in the book––Christensen’s deep attention to the facticity of witch, brought forth through his obsessive accounting to create a living, animated tableau.

At one point in the book we say we are attempting to think alongside Christensen, and this is precisely what we do: we reconstruct his film through his carefully documented source materials as his thesis unfolds––and this, in part, is the innovation in the book. Christensen’s central claim is fairly straightforward: witchcraft in European history has a hidden relationship to the contemporary (contemporary for 1922) treatment of female “hysterics” and the mentally ill. He is caught up in showing how evidence of these forces (psyche, Satan, magic) is produced, something wholly on par with the concerns of others in the human sciences at that moment (in psychology, anthropology, etc.). In the book we take up debates regarding the relationship of film to scientific evidence, the evolving study of religion from historical and anthropological perspectives, and the complex relations between popular culture, artistic expression, and concepts in medicine and psychology––issues as unsettled today as they were 93 years ago. But Christensen is also caught by something else: the witch’s power. He brings her forth, and in his attempt to tame her “nonsense” breathes life into her (visually, affectively). Christensen never presented Häxan as a work of fiction, but rather as a “scholarly” effort to account for the witch’s power and her scope across time. The film resists our attempts to categorize it––terms like ‘proto-documentary’, ‘non-fiction’, or ‘reenactment’ all come up short. Realizing the Witch returns our attention to the singular importance of the film within the canons of classic cinema, while at the same time exposing the incredible and perilous journey embarked upon by the filmmaker.
Learn more about Realizing the Witch at the Fordham University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue