dorkin’ out about movies: The Wicker Man

So I was at a friend’s party a little while ago, and spent most of the time getting heroically drunk off fancy beers and discussing various dork-ass topics (Tolkien, German thrash metal, Aleister Crowley) with a buddy who has similar dork-ass interests. Because that’s the kind of person I am. Socializing? Piss off, I’m talking about Kreator. ANYWAY: something we discussed for a while, with a heaping helping of scorn, was certain strains of modern neo-paganism. Both of us have educated ourselves a little bit about the history and religion of ancient Europe, and we know that Wicca and other such business have very little to do with what was actually practiced back then. Practices change with the times, to be sure, but there’s a difference between that and mashing a whole pile of different traditions into a thin, weak gruel served to hippies.

And that, we agreed, is one of the reasons why we both love Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.

(I’m about to reveal several important plot points, so don’t read if you care about that kind of thing.)

Hardy’s film (as far as I’m concerned, Neil Labute’s remake doesn’t exist) concerns the attempts of uptight, devoutly-Christian police sergeant Neil Howie to locate a missing girl in the rural Scottish island town of Summerisle, ruled by eccentric pagan laird Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee!). Howie discovers that the Lord has revived the old pagan religion to make his subjects happier and more productive (Summerisle is famous for its produce, particularly its apples…hi, heavy-handed symbolism!). Howie is disgusted by the naked frolicking and weird rituals he witnesses (and the way the beehive-haired schoolteacher cheerfully explains the phallic symbolism of the maypole to a class of cherubic young girls), and is more deeply disturbed when he comes across evidence that the missing child is being prepared for sacrifice to bring back the fertility of Summerisle’s orchards. Donning the outfit of the Fool, he sneaks into the ritual parade in an attempt to rescue her.

BUT OH SHIT!: It turns out the intended sacrifice is, in fact, Sergeant Howie (“A man who has come here as a virgin…a man who has come here as a fool…a man who has come here with the power of a king…”), and the report of the missing girl was a ruse to lure him to the island. He is wrestled into the titular Wicker Man, and burned alive as he pleads for mercy and the villagers happily sing “Summer Is Icumen In.” (You can view the ending here on the YouTube.) The film in general has some wacky tonal shifts and sometimes approaches high camp, but that ending still gives me the chills.

So, getting back to modern paganism: one of the reasons I have a hard time taking it seriously is the way it leaves out the nasty bits. “Goddess spirituality” is particularly guilty of this. I’ve seen ladies like Ishtar and Sekhmet revered as benevolent, peaceful mother figures. Um, what? Have you ever read the epic poem “Ishtar’s Descent Into The Underworld,” where she threatens to break open the gate to Ereshkigal’s realm and cause the dead to rise and devour the living if she doesn’t get her way? Have you read the story of Sekhmet’s origin, where she is created from the burning eye of Ra to wreak vengeance on humankind, and slaughters almost the entire human race before she is stopped? The European traditions that Wicca is loosely based around have their share of gore and violence as well: look at Norse mythology and its valorization of dying in battle. While it would obviously be impractical, not to mention unethical, for modern pagan revivalists to run around strangling people and dumping them in peat bogs, I’d like to see a little more acknowledgment of the dark history of those traditions. The modern pagans in The Wicker Man may dance and sing and be merry, but they don’t bat an eye at shedding some blood.

Oh, the singing. Did I mention the singing? There’s musical numbers. I am especially fond of this one and this one.

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~ by Smellen on March 13, 2010.

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