The Exorcist (1973) – Review by James Baldwin

The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should cer­tainly know more about evil than that; if they pre­tend otherwise, they are lying.
The Exorcist (1973)

by James Baldwin

I first saw The Exorcist, in Hollywood, with a black friend of mine, who had his own, somewhat complex reasons for insisting that I see it: just so, one of my brothers had one day walked me into the film, The Devils, which he had already seen, saying, cheerfully, as we walked out, Ain’t that some shit? I just wanted you to see how sick these people are! Both my friend and my brother had a point. I had already read The Devils; now, I forced myself to read The Exorcist—a difficult matter, since it is not written; then, I saw the film again, alone. I tried to be absolutely open to it, sus­pending judgment as totally as I could. For, after all, if I had once claimed to be “filled” with the Holy Ghost, and had once really believed, after all, that the Holy Ghost spoke through me, I could not, out of hand, arbitrarily sneer at the notion of de­monic possession. The fact that I had been an ado­lescent boy when I believed all this did not really get me off the hook: I can produce no documents proving that I am not what I was.

My friend and I had a drink together, after we had seen the film, and we discussed it at some length. He was most struck by the figure of the young priest: he found the key to this personage in a rather strange place, and his observation haunted me for weeks. Father Karras confesses, at one point, that he has lost his faith. “So, we must be careful,” David said to me, “lest we lose our faith—and become possessed.” He was no longer speaking of the film, nor was he speaking of the church.

I carried this somewhat chilling admonition away with me. When I saw the film again, I was most concerned with the audience. I wondered what they were seeing, and what it meant to them.

The film, or its ambience, reminded me of The Godfather, both being afflicted with the same pi­ous ambiguity. Ambiguity is not quite the word, for the film’s intention is not at all ambiguous; yet, hypocrisy is not quite the word, either, since it suggests a more deliberate and sophisticated level of cunning. The Exorcist is desperately compul­sive, and compulsive, precisely, in the terror of its unbelief. The vast quantities of tomato paste ex­pended in The Godfather are meant to suggest vast reservoirs of courage, devotion, and nobility, qualities with which the film is not in the least concerned—and which, apart from Brando’s per­formance, are never present in it. (And, at that, it is probably more accurate to speak of Brando’s presence, a pride, an agony, an irreducible dig­nity.) The Exorcist has absolutely nothing going for it, except Satan, who is certainly the star: I can say only that Satan was never like that when he crossed my path (for one thing, the evil one never so rudely underestimated me). His concerns were more various, and his methods more subtle. The Exorcist is not in the least concerned with damna­tion, an abysm far beyond the confines of its imagi­nation, but with property, with safety, tax shelters, stocks and bonds, rising and falling markets, the continued invulnerability of a certain class of peo­ple, and the continued sanctification of a certain history. If The Exorcist itself believed this history, it could scarcely be reduced to so abject a depen­dence on special effects.

In Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., a young movie actress is shooting a film. She is forthright, and liberated, as can be gathered from her liber­ated language. The film she is making is involved with a student uprising—in the book, she de­scribes it as “dumb!”: in the film, one of her lines suggests that the students work within the system. This line, however, is neatly balanced by another, which suggests that the political perceptions of this film-within-a-film may owe a great deal to Walt Disney.

Before this, we have encountered the aged priest, who will become the exorcist, digging in the ruins of northern Iraq. This opening sequence is probably the film’s most effective, ruthlessly ex­ploiting the uneasiness one cannot but feel when touched by the energy of distant gods, unknown. It sets up, with some precision, the spirit of the terror which informs the Christian-pagan argu­ment: it may be something of a pity that Ingmar Bergman could not have guided the film from there. However, Max von Sydow, the exorcist—rather like Marlon Brando, in The Godfather—having been exhibited, is now put on ice, and, if we wish to await his return, we have no choice but to see the end of the movie.

The horror of the demonic possession begins with what sound, to the heroine, like rats in the attic. Her daughter’s dresses are misplaced. Room temperatures change, alarmingly and inexplica­bly. Furniture is mysteriously moved about. Her daughter’s personality changes, and obscenities she has never used before become a part of her speech. (Though she overhears the mother using some of them: over the trans-Atlantic telephone, to her father, who is estranged from her mother.) The daughter also plays around with a ouija board, and has made a friend in the spirit world, called Captain Howdy. The mother worries over all these manifestations, both worldly and other­worldly, of the mysteries now being confronted by her growing daughter with all of the really dread­ful apathy of the American middle class, reassur­ing herself that nothing she has done, or left un­done, has irreparably damaged her child; who will certainly grow up, therefore, to be as healthy as her mother and to make as much money. But, eventually, at a very posh Georgetown party, of which her mother is the hostess, this daughter comes downstairs in her nightgown, and, while urinating on the floor, tells a member of the party that he is going to die. After this, her affliction, or possession, develops apace.

The plot now compels us to consider a Jesuit priest, young, healthy, athletic, intelligent, pre­sumably celibate, with a dying mother, and in trouble with his faith. His mother dies, alone, in a dingy flat in New York, where he has been com­pelled to leave her, and he is unable to forgive himself for this. There is the film director, a drunken, cursing agnostic, other priests, psychia­trists, doctors, a detective—well: all people we have met before, and there is very little to be said about them. One of the psychiatrists is nearly castrated by Regan, the daughter, who has abnor­mal strength while in the grip of Satan. Along with the mumbo-jumbo of levitating beds and dis­contented furniture and Wuthering Heights tempests, there is the moment when the daughter is compelled by Satan to masturbate with a cruci­fix, after which she demands that her mother lick her, after which she throws her mother across the room, after which the mother screams, after which she faints. It develops that the film director, dead in a mysterious accident, has actually been pushed: by Regan, through her bedroom window, to his death: again, while in the grip of Satan. All else having failed, the aged priest is called from his retreat to perform the exorcism: the young priest is his assistant. The strain of exorcising Satan proves too much for the aged priest, who has a heart attack, and dies. The young priest, still mad with guilt concerning the death of his mother, taunts Satan, daring him to stop picking on help­less little girls, and enter him. Satan does this with an eagerness which suggests that he, too, is weary of little girls and hurls the priest through the bed­room window, to his death, and, also, presumably, to eternal damnation; as to this last point, how­ever, I really cannot be clear.

The young priest is tormented by guilt, and es­pecially in reference to his mother, throughout the film: and Satan ruthlessly plays on this, some­times speaking (through Regan) in the mother’s voice, and sometimes incarnating her. And Satan also plays on the guilt of Regan’s mother—her guilt concerning her failed marriage, her star status, her ambition, her relation to her daughter, her essentially empty and hypocritical and totally unanchored life: in a word, her emancipation. This uneasy, and even terrified guilt is the subtext of The Exorcist, which cannot, however, exorcise it since it never confronts it.

But this confrontation would have been to con­front the devil. The film terrified me on two levels. The first, as I have tried to indicate, involved my deliberate attempt to leave myself open to it, and to the extent, indeed, of re-living my adolescent holy-roller terrors. It was very important for me not to pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life, very important not to pretend that it left no mark on me. It marked me forever. In some measure I encountered the abyss of my own soul, the labyrinth of my destiny: these could never be escaped, to challenge these im­ponderables being, precisely, the heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.

To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and, if I can respect this, both of us can live. Neither of us, truly, can live without the other: a statement which would not sound so banal if one were not endlessly com­pelled to repeat it, and, further, believe it, and act on that belief. My friend was quite right when he said, So, we must be careful—lest we lose our faith—and become possessed.

For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the land­lord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself. This devil has no need of any dogma—though he can use them all—nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention. He does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.

The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should cer­tainly know more about evil than that; if they pre­tend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, includ­ing white children—can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet. At the end of The Exorcist, the demon-racked little girl murderess kisses the Holy Father, and she remembers nothing: she is departing with her mother, who will, presumably, soon make another film. The grapes of wrath are stored in the cotton fields and migrant shacks and ghettoes of this nation, and in the schools and pris­ons, and in the eyes and hearts and perceptions of the wretched everywhere, and in the ruined earth of Vietnam, and in the orphans and the widows, and in the old men, seeing visions, and in the young men, dreaming dreams: these have already kissed the bloody cross and will not bow down before it again: and have forgotten nothing.

Source: James Baldwin, The devil finds work: An essay; 1990

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