Monday, December 30, 2013

Women in War (1940)
Women in War (1940)
Directed by John Auer
Starring Wendy Barrie, Mae Clarke, and Elsie Janis
Released by Republic Pictures
Running time: 71 minutes
Availability: very rare
Grade: D

Women in War is emblematic of the na├»vely casual and overly romanticized outlook the movie-going public had in those months of 1939 and early 1940 that historians now refer to as the “phony war,” before Dunkirk, when the situation changed dramatically. During the very same week that this film was released to theatres, global newspaper headlines told the horrific story of the British Expeditionary Force’s chaotic evacuation from France, which forced the public to reformulate its attitude and its commitment to the total war effort. It’s unlikely that a film such as this, which employs a wartime milieu without the gravity it demanded, would have even been made had it been scheduled for production just a few months later. The spate of nursing pictures — even the overtly romantic ones — that would soon issue from the studios went out of their way to not only demonstrate the value of nurses, but also the incredible risk and toil required to be one.
The film does lip service to realities of war, as early on O’Neil tells her recruits: 
“I hope none of you have come here with the beautiful notion that war is noble and romantic. Some of you dewy-eyed creatures may be under the impression that it will be your function to soothe the fevered brows of handsome young men when on duty, and to philander with the convalescents when you’re off. Unfortunately, war isn’t like that.”

Yet that seems to be precisely the notion that all of the nurses have, and the film does nothing to dispel them. There are no wounded soldiers to tend to, no tragedies along the way, and no sour news from other fronts. The war seems terribly far away, if it’s even happening at all. All our nurses have time to do is chase fliers, and all they have to be concerned with are the most immature aspects of their schoolgirl romances. The film’s finale is its most damning sequence: When the nurses are ordered to drive desperately needed medical supplies to the front, Gail — our ‘woman scorned’ — childishly forsakes her duty in order to exact revenge on Pamela. She diverts their vehicle into an evacuated French village that is under heavy bombardment, hoping to get them both killed. When O’Neil realizes what has happened, she too drives her truck into the village — showing audiences that as far as these nurses are concerned, the needs of the wounded on the front lines finish a distant second to their own personal drama. And when the shells really start dropping, too many of the nurses lapse into hysterics.
In June 1940 the Battle of Britain was in the offing, and the terrifying nights of the Blitz would then follow. It was a time when English and Canadians — and soon Americans — of all ages and from all walks of life were asked to make extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of their nations and one another. Women in War is a shallow film that fails to measure up to the requirements of its time. Its women are shallow, silly, and incompetent rather than confident, devoted, and strong. When inspiration was needed, it stooped merely to entertain. 

The Dibbuk Box

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Possession: The Dibbuk Box - A Review

[The paranormal investigator will see you now]

So I finally got to see the new Jewish-flavored horror movie Possession, and my assessment is....meh. The centerpiece is really a domestic drama of a disintegrating family. The first two acts are dominated by this, and the box is, what, a symbol of the toxic emotions penetrating the family? Not that I object to deeper meanings, I rather like them, but I prefer more horror leavened with metaphor than melodrama spiced with horror metaphors.

And as for the Jewish part (which only really comes to the foreground in the third act), well, it feels like not so well-conceived window-dressing. For example:

  • Dybbuks are a form of pneumatic (spirit) possession, not, as the movie indicates, demonic possession. We have become rather casual about how we use words. Spirits are usually some manifestation of dead humans, rather than infernal entities. This is actually important, and it is what make the dybbuk tradition of Judaism so distinctive from your run-of-the-mill Exorcist/Rite/Constantine possession. Because Jewish adepts (there is no office of exorcist in Judaism, the writers got that right) are dealing with two souls, the possessed victim AND THE DEAD SOUL, their project is doubly therapeutic - to help both regain the right path. This involves expelling the spirit, but also getting him/her on with the journey into the afterlife. 
  • The "name" of the demon is a strange conflation of the dybbuk tradition with the much earlier greco-roman Jewish belief in named demons (ala The Testament of Solomon). 
  • In Jewish dybbuk traditions, dybbuks do not possess "innocent" or "pure" souls, but invade those whose lives have made them vulnerable to such infestations through sin and lax observance of the Jewish faith. 
  • The fearful shuffling of the elders is pretty silly. Dybbuks are not contagious. 
  • Other than the little news story that inspired this movie, the "dibbuk box" itself is not a part of the authentic dibbuk tradition. WHAT WE DO SEE is a couple of accounts of Jewish exorcism where the adept forces the spirit into a bottle (ala the djinn tradition). This is taken as a sign the exorcism was successful. What did they do after that? I've never seen a "spirit disposal" report, but I assume the now takanah (repaired) spirit is released to continue its gilgul (transmigration). 
  • Jewish rituals of expulsion are usually communal affairs - at least a minyan (quorum of ten) is present, and often the whole community that can fit in the house participates
So what did they get right?

  • Jewish "exorcists" are any menschlik person (yeh, Matisyahu, nice film debut) with the knowledge to perform the rituals - rabbis, local holy men, the educated.
  • The recitation of Ps. 90, the "Psalm of Affliction," along with Ps. 121, 16, and others, is the centerpiece of this Jewish ritual. 
  • Though the explanation doesn't make a lot of sense to me, Jewish occult beliefs do regard mirrors as potential doorways between the living and the dead (Read Chaim Vital's autobiography, for example).
  • Tallisim (prayer shawls), shofarot (rams horns) and other Jewish ritual objects are often integrated into the process. 
So what can I say, given this movie and the slightly older The Unborn, except perhaps Jews should simply be happy that we have "arrived" - Hollywood is finally as open to making crappy movies about Judaism as it is to making crappy movies about Catholicism and Protestantism. For something better, I suggest The Secret (Israeli), the golem episode of the X-Files, or even Keeping the Faith.

Oh, and you can read my book, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.