Saturday, July 12, 2014
When William Peter Blatty was a boy he enjoyed the benefits of a Jesuit education. At least one line from the liturgy seems to have haunted him concerning "Satan and the other evil spirits who roam through the world, seeking the ruin of souls."
In time Blatty spun this idea into an enormous best-seller—The Exorcist—from which he proceeded to write and produce the movie. Some critics have found it an exploitation of violence and gore, pandering to morbid tastes. But that hasn't stopped the crowds from streaming into the theaters and making the motion picture probably the most profitable of the year, and possibly of all time. At his home in Aspen, Colo., Blatty talked about his phenomenon with People correspondent Nellie Blagden.
Does the furor, the reported fainting and vomiting caused by the movie, bother you?
No. First, the film is designed to have a powerful emotional impact. A sermon that people sleep through is utterly useless. Second, the fainting is very, very rare and highly overdramatized. As I interpret the film on the moral level, it's doing its job when people react with the shakes.
So you believe you are serving a purpose with The Exorcist?
Some priests have remarked on renewed attendance at Mass and that the film has created some communicants among the young, who were terrified by the evil depicted in the film.
The movie is a sensation, but was the book more religious?
No, I don't think it was more theological than the movie. Of course, it's a visual thing. We are dealing with the chemistry of more than one sense at a time. The viewer is looking into and listening to the face of evil. Out of subconscious guilt he is saying, "Oh God, is that me?" He is catapulted into the arena of right and wrong without having to use any intellectual ability at all, and he's deeply shocked.
What about reports that two girls were institutionalized after seeing the film?
That's incredible! People are psychotic or neurotic when they walk in. If The Exorcist triggered a situation that permitted those children to cry for help and thus to get the professional attention that they needed, that could be beneficial.
Why did The Exorcist get an "R" rating rather than an "X" rating?
There is nothing in the film that would necessitate our getting anything but an "R" rating. The whole question of whether or not children should see it is moot. What children? Of what age? Of what psychological constitution? There are children who have seen it who love it, who dig it. It's a big roller-coaster ride; they're not throwing up or fainting. A Frankenstein movie is what it is. Ohhh wheeee! Is that scary!
But do you really think children should or can see The Exorcist without harm?
It's their parents who should make the decision as to whether they see it. Of course, I would consider it criminal if some children were permitted to see the movie. But I know 14 year olds who are a lot better equipped to see it than some middle-aged adults.
What about the priests who have been speaking out against the film?
I'm so glad you asked me that. First, there is Father Juan Cortes, who teaches psychology at Georgetown. He's a very dear, kind, well-meaning man whom I first met in the casting offices of The Exorcist. He wanted to be in the film. There is another man, Father Richard Woods, a Dominican from Loyola University in Chicago, who says a lot of contradictory things. He says that priests in the film are depicted as shaky in their faith. The exorcist of the title, Father Merrin, is shaky in his faith? What movie did Father Woods see? He also says that the two priests at the end become possessed themselves. Father Merrin, in fact, died of a heart attack. Again, I ask, did Father Woods see the same movie I saw?
Father Woods also said that as far as he knew no one was ever killed or possessed by the Devil. What about that?
That is absolutely fallacious. Did he ever hear of the devils of Loudun, where three of the exorcists themselves became possessed and died as a result of complications arising out of fits of rage and cardiac exhaustion? I mean that's history. That's one of the primary examples in this field. And that confirms my opinion that Father Woods is a man of spectacularly limited genius.
Father Woods says that in church literature the Devil does not possess; the possessing entity is a demon, a lower arm of angelic being.
Yes. But who said it was the Devil? Till you tell me where we, the film-makers and I the novelist, ever implied that it was Satan himself in there? Never. The little girl at one point says, "I am the Devil." Are we to believe everything a little girl says? Has either Woods never heard that the devil is the father of lies?
What has been the official reaction from the Catholic Church?
The Catholic News, which is the official journal of the Archdiocese of New York, gave the movie a rave review, written by a priest, calling the film deeply moving and spiritual. He also called it obscene. Cardinal Cooke saw the film, dug it, loved it. The Father General of the Jesuit order sent back word from Rome that he was delighted. The man who taught me English in high school, Father William Wood, who is now director of St. Francis Xavier High School in New York, a Jesuit, took me aside after the press preview and said, "I'm proud of you, boy."
Are the rumors true that you and the director, Billy Friedkin, are involved in a lawsuit?
That's highly exaggerated. It'd be remarkable, in two years' working together very closely on an artistic project, if two people did not have a disagreement. Well, finally after two years we had a disagreement. We argued for about a week. I thought Billy had barred me from the sound stage. I got upset over this absolutely mistaken and meaningless thing. Did you see the Golden Globe awards? We won. We thanked each other lavishly.
There is a rumor that the part of the girl during the possessed scenes was played by an older stand-in.
That is utterly fallacious. The source of that rumor is Linda Blair's stand-in. I think that it's disgraceful, her trying to diminish this little girl's performance. Yes, there is a spot where we used a stand-in. It is when the girl has her back to us. We used Eileen Dietz, and she is performing an action [the masturbation scene] that nobody wants a 12-year-old girl to even see. Eileen was, in effect, the lighting stand-in. Now she is running around trying to take credit for Linda Blair's spectacular performance. That's immoral, in my opinion.
Mercedes McCambridge is now credited as the voice of the demon. Why not from the beginning?
I don't know why Mercedes wasn't given credit. I haven't had any contact with her. Billy told me that she didn't want credit. Why would Billy lie to me?
There were many incidents that plagued the production. Do you think the set was possessed?
I have no rational basis for thinking so, but the occurrences were extraordinary—some tragic, like the death of Jack MacGowran, who plays the director, Burke Dennings. There was mysterious fire when a set burned down during a quiet dialogue scene. When we played the sound track back we found these very loud rapping sounds on it. We had not heard them during the actual filming. It is true that we had several blessings of the set and crew and cast, just as a nice little precaution, because whenever we got a blessing these incidents would cease.
Have you tried to make any contact with the boy from the 1949 Maryland exorcism on which you based your book?
No, I don't even know whether he remembers any of the event, because with children, whether it's real or a pseudo possession, there is usually complete posterior amnesia.
Was Shirley MacLaine the basis for your character Chris MacNeil?
Yes. And it has caused a lot of trouble, because certain people have assumed that Shirley MacLaine's daughter was possessed. In particular her schoolmates have come to this conclusion and have twitted the girl mercifully, I want to make it terribly clear that I based the character of Chris MacNeil on Shirley's personality, her attitudes and her worldly outlook. But she has never had a daughter or a son who is possessed, obsessed or anything.
How about the other characters?
My director was based on a real-life director who used to be a bit of a drunk. Father Karras's mother is almost entirely my mother. The odd thing is that Billy had a picture of his mother his office, and I had a picture of my mother. We put the two together: this was the actress in the film. Startling.
How did Linda Blair survive the parts played in the movie?
She is so well put together she never had a qualm. Where we were apprehensive and taut right after a take, she would giggle. Her only traumas were that she was always anxious to get back to Connecticut and horseback riding, and her pet mouse died. Once the makeup man insisted that she have a quarter of an inch of her bangs cut off. While in full demon makeup the girl gave every cool and rational argument possible for not doing it. Finally she dissolved in tears: "That means I'll have to wear my hair in a part for a month."
Would you explain the special effects in the movie -- turning heads, flying beds, etc.?
Oh, you don't want me to tell you that, it would spoil the magic. Billy Friedkin went to a magicians' convention in Madison Square Garden and saw this man levitate a woman eight feet off the ground. That's the man who assisted us.
Aren't audiences revolted when the girl's head rotates 180 degrees with that cracking sound?
The audience loves it. The president of Warner Brothers at first wanted the head to revolve 360 degrees the second time, but I persuaded everybody that a human head would fall off if that happened.
How do you feel about some of the most negative reviewers of your film?
I would like to introduce Pauline Kael of The New Yorker to Father Woods and Father Cortes. They hate the movie because they say it is doing the church no good. Pauline Kael hates the movie because she says it is "the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s. I would like to put these people in a room together.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times said the film was not made without intelligence or talent. He said this only further infuriated him—that we should have wasted the intelligence, talent, money and budget of a lavish production on what he called elegant claptrap.
Why are they so negative?
They belong to a very small, elitist set of reviewers who have been trapped so long in the squirrel cage of their egos that the world of reality outside their cage is a blur. They neither reap nor sow nor perform any useful social function. They are the malignant moles of the field.
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
|The Plum in the Golden Vase|
Judging from our subject this week, it would be understandable if you assumed we were running out of cocktails to share, but nothing could be further from the truth! The fact of the matter is that Minnie & I only recently discovered this particular drink after purchasing a water-damaged copy of Robert Vermeire's 1922 reference, Cocktails: How to Mix Them from the damaged book sidewalk bin in front of Left Bank Books in the West Village. The book was warped & the pages were rumpled & stuck together so they resembled corrugated aluminum more than paper, but after spending an hour separating them with a letter-opener, we had at our disposal hundreds of rudimentary, but long-lost, cocktail recipes. I won't lie, neither Minnie nor I were adept enough with the letter-opener to save all the pages, but we were able to decipher more than 85% of Vermeire's opus, though a great many of the pages contained brown water-damage whorls more fascinating than the recipes themselves.
We nearly had a spat over whether or not to include this in our blog, seeing as the cocktail's name inspired a simultaneous shrug & sneer from both of us, but after trying it & finding a few variations in the stack of cocktail books piled on the floor behind the bar, we decided to share it. There was some discussion of renaming it The Mephistopheles or The Sabbatic Goat, but the simplicity of the damn thing didn't seem to warrant the elevation in status a name-change would suggest.
|L'Art de Martell Cognac|
Before we begin, we should state that our cognac tastes are a bit idiosyncratic. For sipping before bed, we prefer the L'Art de Martell given to us in 1997 by a man in Hong Kong who referred to himself as "The Last Real Chinese Warlord" & to be sure, his demeanor did remind us of Boris Karloff's General Fang in West of Shanghai, though he was infinitely more refined in his tastes for clothing, food & alcohol. He graciously presented us with the L'Art de Martel (only 2,000 were produced) after giving us a tour of a secret museum filled with pornographic statues, paintings & decorative objects recovered after the Senshi earthquake of 1556. Much like the Gabinetto Segreto in Naples, which houses the most graphically erotic objects from the destroyed city of Pompeii, this museum operates on the sly. Once located in the labyrinthine bowels of Kowloon's infamous Walled City & then moved, piece by piece, to an even more unsavory alley-front in Hong Kong before the region was handed back to Mainland China in 1997, this storehouse of sacred transgressive objects requires a familiarity with rather unsavory characters in order to gain admittance.
This Warlord (really a heroin kingpin) was infinitely more cordial than we'd been led to expect. While acquaintances of ours had described him as an "oriental grotesque", we found his company delightful & his expertise regarding these altogether unwholesome museum objects truly awe-inspiring. On our final evening in Hong Kong, the Last Real Chinese Warlord presented us with this paradisiacal bottle of cognac & a centuries-old copy of the erotic classic, The Plum in the Golden Vase by "The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling", illustrated colorfully & anonymously with all manner of sexual gymnastics. We were saddened to hear from Chinese friends that the dismembered remains of our host were discovered several years later in an urn painted with interlocking daisy-chains of grinning sodomites.
|A brick embossment from the Chinese Museum of the Forbidden, Hong Kong|
Of course, this bottle of cognac is saved for very special occasions & has never been blended with other ingredients, no matter how enticing the recipe.
For mixing, Minnie & I prefer bottom-shelf brandy (a $10 bottle of Korbel will do), mainly because the rot-gut taste cuts ably through any sweet-stuffs the recipe requires us to add. And, of course, we've risked virtually nothing in our experimentation. Because we'd had a few cocktails while separating the pages of Vermeire's book, we decided, rather capriciously, to use the prized Martell cognac for the first of the Devil Cocktails.
I'll digress a bit now to discuss Minnie's infatuation with creme de menthe during the 1950s & early-1960s, specifically her infatuation with a New Orleans staple called the Grasshopper. While tasty enough, the drink is an aesthetic abomination, a sickly sweet, desert-flavored concoction that has the same relationship to beauty as the foliage-covered Gainsborough ladies hats of 1907. Still, if one has not developed a disciplined approach to the more serious alcoholic potables, The Grasshopper is a seductive trinket. Even watching a barman pour the ice-cold emerald liqueur, creme fraiche & Creme de cacao from the silver shaker beneath the dim amber lights of a 1960s cocktail lounge has -- I'll admit it -- a certain visual magnetism. In an age where shag carpet began to climb up the fronts of bars & even the walls of nightspots all over America, something as gaudy as The Grasshopper was sure to capture the imagination. And it captured Minnie's just long enough for me to be charmed by it, but not long enough for me to develop a distaste for her. Thankfully.
So I had a moment's trepidation when the book's recipe called for creme de menthe, an ingredient I've assiduously avoided during our pursuit of boozy delights. While some recipes we discovered asked for white creme de menthe for a proper Devil Cocktail, I decided Minnie could handle Vermeire's green. Plus, with white creme de menthe The Devil Cocktail is basically the same as a Stinger, so we agreed to chart a course for adventure.
The recipe asks for a quarter gill of cognac for each drink & just to get into the spirit of things, we excavated our copper gill jugs from the back of the liquor cupboard. We filled our shaker with ice & I added two ounces & a splash or two more of the precious Martell (we'd make more substantial portions once we'd switched to the cheap stuff). Minnie added a little less than two ounces of the green dessert topping, then covered & went into that marvelous Shake the Cocktail rumba dance she's been doing all our lives, the leprechaun grin & the slightly sinister twinkle in her eye as pronounced as the day we met.
While she was shaking the elixir, I was furiously pawing through our cocktail library for ways to make this drink somehow better than drinking the Martell without embellishment. Finally I found the answer in a guide from 1968 in which the dos & don'ts of key parties had been cleverly laced with cocktail recipes, each guaranteed to replenish the sapped libido. This version of the Devil ('s) Cocktail asked for a sprinkle of cayenne pepper over the top & NOW we were in business, as they say. My curiosity about the drink had finally been piqued. I'd recently made a powder & a paste from long purple cayenne peppers & since we were using the fine Martell cognac, why not turn this drink into an upscale "experience" by adding the most sought-after cayenne imaginable?
|The Long Purple Cayenne|
Minnie whirled out of her rumba & strained our frigid Devil into two Cosmopolitan glasses. I cautiously sprinkled the purple cayenne powder across the top of each, we toasted to Satan & His minions & took a sip. This first sip was a little off-putting, the heat & the sweetness fighting for our attentions. I took the initiative & took a gulp, swishing it once in my mouth to dull the contrast a little & the cocktail took on a shape, became an idea we could build upon. Despite having used the Martell for the inaugural drink, we downed those like shots & pulled a bottle of J. Bavet ("A brandy of character") from the cabinet. For this drink, we tripled the amount of cognac, used the same amount of creme de menthe & carefully dusted the insides of the Cosmo glasses with purple cayenne powder. Minnie rumba'd like a woman who'd just had a hearty shot of brandy & I did the honors, watching the slightly green-tinted amber pluck grains of cayenne from the sides of the glass & darken evocatively as the three contrasting ingredients intermingled.
The cocktail had earned its name. I gently stirred each drink just once with my index finger & we raised our glasses to the light, watching the little black specks of cayenne whip around in the burnt sienna liquid's nebulous emerald heart. We took big mouthfuls of The Devil instead of sipping & it was a minor triumph. So much so that we made four more shakers of them before curling up on the sofa with snifters of the Martell & leafing lazily through The Plum in the Golden Vase.
|Creme de menthe & suicide, 1951|