ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

The Exorcist in Iraq
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Film often acts as a medium in the spiritualist sense of the word as well as the singular of media. Often by taking unresolved events from the collective unconscious' past and rearranging them for a "modern myth," a film manages to innocently foretell, symbolically, the future, that land where yesterday's unresolved conflicts once more appear in a new guise.

Witness for example the way STAR WARS managed to predict the rise of the Bush administration and its engagement in the middle east conflict (just switch 9/11 with the fake invasion of spice miners, or am I mixing my mythologies?), but even more frightening than ATTACK OF THE CLONES' Osama-esque decoy bad guy Christopher Lee is Pazuzu in THE EXORCIST. This brief essay will poke an evil eye into the commonality between the ancient evil of Iraq in THE EXORCIST vs. the evil Iraq of today.

This opening of Friedkin's film is full of telling detail that, aside from foreshadowing the later events that take place at Regan's home, does nothing to obviously advance the story. Almost entirely wordless, the opening section of THE EXORCIST is a series of images of the excavated desert Iraq: sinister, mysterious and poetic. Father Merrill (Max Von Sydow) wanders around his digs, pops a nitro pill along with his coffee at an outdoor diner, and finally stands in front of a statue of the demon Pazuzu. Modern western man gazing from an uncrossable distance at ancient Islam... sensing an enemy, sensing something that must be destroyed. But why? You dug it up, Merill! If you wont let sleeping dogs lie, is it their fault you get bit?

Then we are in Washington, D.C. suddenly and the demon Pazuzu returns from the abyss of the repressed through the daughter of a famous actress (Ellen Burstyn). Now, if we were at war in Iraq instead of Vietnam at the time of the film, it would certainly be read as a return of the repressed myth -- alienation of youth, corruption of adults, etc. But the film was made in 1972. How can it be a commentary on a war that would not happen for 30 years? Like ATTACK OF THE CLONES, the film stands at a seer's crystal crossroads between the Crusades and Bush's folly.

In the land of Jungian archetypal psychology there is no such thing as truly "random" coincidence, which is part of the reason tarot cards, numerology, the reading of tea leaves, and the I Ching have such durability, or why why gamblers are able to tell when they are "hot" or "cold" or why we sometimes will suddenly start to think of someone we haven't heard from in years, only to have them call a minute later. As was the style of the 1970's, there was no "dumbing it down" in THE EXORCIST. When Father Merrill is exorcising Regan (note the name, another foreshadowing of future political upheaval) he doesn't say to Karras, "This demon is named Pazuzu, and there is a sculpture of it in Iraq that we just found, and I think I unleashed the demon when we dug it up." Because those things are allowed to hang implied over the proceedings. But for the Zizek-read viewer there is the "aha" moment of seeing that the demon is really there to have this confrontation with Father Merrill, the "Purloined Letter" announcing his own death, his own voided stature as the last vestige of an old order of white male power, of a belief system that is being shaken down to its core, the official proclamation by chaos itself that the youthful anarchy of the moment has been subsumed by the ancient beliefs that predate Catholicism and other Old White Guy power structures.

What's most important to bear in mind here, is that these subtexts are only unintentional on the part of the writer and director, indeed they must NOT be intentional or they will have no resonance beyond their moment. By the same token, the Rosharch ink blots so often used by psychiatrists at the time would not be so valuable if they were actually supposed to be "something." (Imagine the doctor telling the patient "Wrong, that's not an angel, that's a tree, dumbass!") All the test would reveal is whether the artist knew how to draw.

So the question remains, "Why a tree?" and in the case of the Exorcist, "Why Iraq?" Of course there is no way that William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin could have known that Washington DC and Iraq would be, as we approach the historic end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, the site of the USA's modern crucifixion. As Americans who have not actually been to Iraq, we are forced to imagine it (if indeed we do at all) from images based on news blurbs and footage of elections, not on anything "artistic." In THE EXORCIST, Friedkin takes the time to brilliantly capture a deep, timeless, mysterious sense place in Iraq. He lingers over long shots of Merrill walking along white walls and through tunnels, as if the man is trapped in a dream (he walks slow, we are led to believe, because of his bad heart). The air is different there, it does not "exist" the same way we think the USA "exists."

Great art will always help us see through the illusions of time and space, to see them as constraints that demons and artists, subject and subjectified alike have the ability to transcend.

by Erich Kuersten

c. 2007 acidemic / photos c. their owners

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