- Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible by Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers
Oliver Gaycken, Richard Baxstrom, Todd Meyers, witchcraft, science and magic, magic and cinema, early modern magic, early modern witchcraft, history of cinema
Realizing the Witch is an unusual, intriguing, and demanding book. It is made so in part by a heady interdisciplinary mix of, to use the authors' inventory, cinema studies, film theory, anthropology, intellectual history, and science studies (9). The authors see this array of approaches as necessary in order to engage with an unusual, intriguing, and demanding film. Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922) deserves, but has not—until the publication of this book—received a critical account equal to its ambitious peculiarity.
The authors' rich account of Häxan's fields of reference involves delving deeply into the medieval sources to which Christensen had recourse, as well as surveying contemporary scholarship on European witchcraft. Baxtrom and Meyers are a social and a medical anthropologist respectively, and many of their striking and original insights about Häxan are indebted to considering the film in relation to anthropology. For instance, they provide a keen analysis of the film's negotiation of evidence. As they write, Häxan "stands as one of the most powerful, unsettling expressions of the aspiration to produce evidence of forces unseen" (19). In this sense, the film is in a similar position as the witch-hunters themselves, and the authors posit a "conceptual link" between sixteenth-century theologians and the nineteenth-century human sciences (18). So Malinoswky's definition of anthropology as inhabiting another's point of view proves capable of providing evidence of otherwise invisible forms of experience. Likewise, in psychiatry, Charcot's investigations of hysteria share "procedural elements" with those of the witch-hunters (28). Instead of a narrative where modernity dispels superstition, then, Häxan participates in (and not always willingly) a story of modern science as continuous with older epistemic regimes, a haunted objectivity. [End Page 419]
The strong form of interdisciplinarity that Realizing advances is not without its perils, however, since multiple approaches multiply scholarly responsibilities. Here I should make clear that my own expertise is that of a cinema historian who has worked to integrate the history of science into my work, so I am familiar with both the intellectual dividends and debts that an investment in an interdisciplinary approach brings. One drawback to Realizing as seen from the perspective of cinema studies is its commitment to a strategy of close reading, which involves an almost shot-by-shot commentary on the film. The authors justify this decision by contending that it allows them "to think alongside Christensen" (9). In the best case, this form of analysis works for a DVD commentary track, but as a method for a monograph, it leads to extended passages of description that could have been eliminated with a different organizational scheme. Relatedly, a different structure could have amplified a particularly promising aspect of the book that this approach mutes, namely, the demonstration of how Häxan evinces what the authors claim is a Warburgian approach, a fascinating thesis that is more stated than proven.
There are other moments in Realizing where a more detailed account of film style could have nuanced the book's argument. The close-up of Christensen at the beginning of the film, for instance, constitutes a familiar gesture in silent-era film and is thus not as unusual as the authors suggest. Indeed, a discussion of this shot informed by similar sequences could have led to an exploration of how it frames what cinema scholars would term Christensen's enunciative agency. This position (filmmaker-as-Devil) puts Christensen in league with other modern tricksters such as Louis Feuillade's Fantȏmas, and taking note of this confederacy could have nuanced the authors' claims for Häxan's being "a singular film" (4).
Similarly, a better sense of the traditions of early nonfiction filmmaking likely would have tempered the estimation of the film's...