In Praise of Witchy Women 

Spirits in the material world

Wednesday, Jun 13 2001

The Mists of Avalon, a two-part TV adaptation of novelist Marion Zimmer Bradley‘s 1983 Wiccan-”herstorical“ retelling of the legend of Camelot, is not my usual flagon of mead, but it has been brewed much to my liking. Even the relative modesty of the budget works in the movie’s favor, since the human story -- enacted by an impressive-not-just-by-the-standards-of-television cast that includes Anjelica Huston, Joan Allen, Samantha Mathis and Julianna Margulies -- is not sacrificed to the outsize special effects and textually pointless pageantry that often attend film excursions into the lands of swords and sorcery, of bold knights and ladies fair and castles difficult to heat. No shape shifters, no dragons, no giants, no ethereal fairy sprites -- just some unshowy prognostication, spell casting and mist parting. Sideshow stuff. Merlin never even gets his wand out. Most of the digital-postproduction money has been spent environmentally, making computerized castles and virtual landscapes, and to swell the ranks of the armies that duke it out at the film‘s climax. And it doesn’t hurt that the pictures of actual people and places (in the Czech Republic) have been shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, whose credits include McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Deer Hunter and The Last Waltz.

The focus of the story is not King Arthur and his round-tabled crew, but Morgan le Fay (Margulies), here called Morgaine, a sinister and secondary character in most recountings, but this trip the heroine, or the heroine-victim-narrator; her mother, Igraine (Caroline Goodall, from Hook); and aunts Morgause (Joan Allen, wicked, evil, bad, but not without the odd eruption of sympathetic humanity) and Viviane, better known as the Lady of the Lake (Huston, who seems the obvious choice for any such role). More or less the pagan pope of Olde Britain, she makes her headquarters on Avalon, a mystical invisible island world in the vicinity of Glastonbury, where they hold the rock festivals now, and works in cahoots with Merlin (who has less to do here than usual, though he gets a nice speech when he dies) to keep the Goddess alive by any means necessary. Each of the women has a fine head of pre-Raphaelite curls and inborn witchiness to spare, which she uses or refuses in her own way.

The tug of war between the old religion (female, worldly, Druid) and the new (male, heavenly, Christian) for the soul of England drives the plot, but it‘s more asserted than felt; it’s beside the point, almost. What keeps the interest is old-fashioned court intrigue, spiced with a spell or two, but boiling down to political rivalries, sexual jealousy and some seriously fucked-up family business. There is much skulking and spying and subterfuge. Still, none of it is quite as Aaron Spelling as it sounds, and most of it has some established mytho-historical basis -- though getting Arthur (Edward Atterton), Lancelot (Michael Vartan) and Samantha Mathis‘ confused and uptight Guinnevere, or Gwenhwyfar as she is Celtically called, together in a three-way is a new twist on the old theme.

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Though She is supposed to keep the world in balance, keep it from devolving into chaos, the Goddess has apparently gone fishing; certainly none of Her acolytes gain much from their fealty, and Morgaine is especially misused in her name. But this just makes Morgaine the more classically tragical -- though as Margulies plays her, she’s energetically tragical, and basically strong, and doesn‘t seem like a simp for all that she accedes in her own fall. Like many literary figures past, and most of the characters in this film, she’s a creature born to duty -- to conflicting duties -- and therefore to suffering. This is an antique trope, yet appealing to the modern mind -- we like characters who go down fighting against hopeless odds (though we prefer them to win), even if we understand such behavior now to be pathological, insufficiently adaptive, and a waste of life and money. Still, Camelot would not be Camelot without its ruin, and it is as well-ruined here as a viewer could ever expect.

Of course it isn‘t perfect -- but expecting perfection from a TV movie is like standing at a bus stop hoping for a limousine to arrive. (It could happen, it could, it could.) Actions are here and there unaccountable, characters don’t age consistently or convincingly, and one must submit intermittently to the candle-shop keening of Loreena McKennitt on the soundtrack, a little bit of hippie talk on the side of Mother Earth, the odd solemn ceremony that might have come out of an old Star Trek, and far too many instances of meaningful slow motion. Still, it‘s overall a swift trip through a thick book, directed with a minimum of corn by Uli Edel (The Little Vampire, Last Exit to Brooklyn), and if it is not as spiritually resonant as the novel’s cult might like, it is rarely dull, is exciting in dirtier, less rarefied ways, and is consistently involving, even though we know from the start pretty much how things end. Not well.

Duty -- it‘s a drag. Even Jesus tried to toss that cup away. But they pulled him back in. The modern hero is uncomfortable with the job he is fated to do, by virtue of position or powers, sometimes superpowers -- which I suppose is what makes him heroic. I wrote he, but increasingly the hero is a heroine: We have left the age of the beefcake brute (Sly, Arnold, Segal), and are now on Crouching Tiger time, when a woman is as likely as a man to be a kicker of ass -- hello, Lara Croft -- and the ass-kicking man a bit more in touch with his inner Powerpuff. The moves these days are all balletic, which used to be another word for sissy. But we are getting past that. We have been primed for this in the comfort of our homes by five seasons of Buffy, joined last year by Dark Angel, starring Jessica Alba, which has been reckoned a hit. Catsuit feminism, let’s call it. Something about this just looks good right now. Any complaints?

And so we come to Witchblade, a new summer series from TNT, which first introduced the character -- from the comic of the same name -- in a TV movie last August. Yancy Butler (who chop-sockeyed opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target) stars as improbably foxy, not to say improbably young, New York police detective Sara Pezzini, the reluctant wearer of the Witchblade, a kind of mysterious sword-with-a-mind-of-its-own that spends most of its time disguised as a mild-mannered bracelet, and which has attached itself to strong women across history, including Joan of Arc. She has much in common with other edgy cops of fiction: a dead father (also on the force), a dead partner and a dead social life. David Chokachi, formerly of Baywatch, plays her new partner, while dead partner Will Yun Lee has become a ”spirit guide“ who keeps popping up to offer koans about ”confusion tolerance“ and the ”fine line between clarity and insanity.“ Creepy billionaire-with-a-dark-secret Kenneth Irons wants her blade and her bod, and frankly I wouldn‘t trust him as far as I could throw my television, and don’t think I haven‘t thought of that once or twice.

Though the frantic visuals, the techno soundtrack, and the unusually slow pace of the dialogue, which in the opening episode makes extensive use of William Blake (!), seem to suggest something is happening here, there is nothing much going on -- I speak, to be sure, on the evidence only of a TV movie and a pilot episode -- nothing even as deep or satirical or socially metaphorical as Buffy or Powerpuff. It’s the sort of show where a line like ”It‘s just a flesh wound“ is delivered without irony. That doesn’t mean it‘s not nice to look at or listen to. Its bible is The Matrix, from which it borrows as many visual effects as its budget will allow, and even includes in the pilot a bald-headed black man named Mobius, which I can only assume is some kind of homage. There’s nothing especially wrong with it, nothing too outlandishly stupid, and Butler is a good lead; she seems convincingly pained, existentially speaking, and ambivalent if not actually displeased about her election to superheroinedom, an attitude de rigueur for the modern comic book crime fighter. (Buffy tried it on this year.) She frowns a lot, her dark eyebrows habitually knit, and seems vaguely dyspeptic; at times I wanted to offer her a Tums. But her biceps are good, and her clothes are tight, and she can lick any man in the joint.

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