Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Joy of Demonic Discovery


Anyone who's seen The Exorcist has probably at one point or another looked up, or asked someone who knows, what Regan and Father Karras are saying to each other in the bedroom when she speaks Latin and French. I know I did. And when I did I found it not only interesting, but invaluable in assessing the character of Regan and/or Pazuzu, the demononic spirit that possesses her. Here's the dialogue:


Regan: Mirabile dictu, don’t you agree? Here she's saying that it's "miraculous to speak of" or "talk about" or "discuss," having an exorcism that is.

Karras is curious about her speaking Latin, asks if she does speak it and she says, "Ego te absolvo" which you could probably easily figure out on your own means "I absolve you" (duh) or more roughly, "I forgive you," that is, you're absolved of your sins.

Karras then asks, "Quod nomen mihi est?” or basically "tell me what my name is?"

Regan responds, "Bon Jour" which we all know means "Good Day" in French. Karras repeats his question in Latin and then Regan says, again in French, "La plume de ma tante,” which means, "The quill of my aunt." The quill there referring to the kind of pen dipped in an ink well.

When I looked up that phrase many moons ago, I discovered it is a common phrase in basic French textbooks. It is usually written as "la plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle" or "the quill of my aunt in on the desk of my uncle."

Okay, so what? Why do I consider this invaluable? Because early on in the movie there is an open question as to whether Regan is truly possessed by a demonic spirit or simply schizophrenic. And this adds to those early layers of ambiguity. The spirit possessing Regan claims to be the Devil and yet can only muster up "good day" and "the quill of my aunt" in conversation because that's all Regan has studied, or remembered, in French class. It gives the viewer early on two possibilities: Either she really is schizophrenic or this is some minor pissant demon. And Karras doesn't appear to be buying it for a second. His question is perfectly constructed. He's saying, "Okay smartass, if you speak Latin, you'll say 'Karras' in response to this question." But Regan doesn't. She says "Bon Jour" because chances are, she doesn't know what Karras just asked her. It's brilliant and reveals an amateur in Regan, facing a superior opponent in Karras. She's fooled everyone else, but not our man Karras. And this adds another level of ambiguity and doubt for Karras himself, now believing even less that she is truly possessed.

Unfortunately, for me (though I know it's not with many fans of the movie), once she's levitated and twisted her head around the argument is settled, it's Pazuzu. A part of me has always wished William Blatty and William Friedkin hadn't put in the levitation, the head turn or the backwards talking because it removes all ambiguity. Even Karras seeing his mother on the bed, feeling Pazuzu enter into him at the end and hearing the homeless man from the subway in Regan's bedroom could arguably all be Karras. He's under emotional duress and none of that would be out of the question. But the physical act of levitation removes all doubt.

I'm not saying I don't want there to be demonic possession, just that I sometimes wish Blatty and Friedkin had offered nothing solid in the way of evidence, right up to the closing credits. Because honestly, I don't care if she's actually possessed. Whether she is or not does not diminish any of the anguish of Karras, especially given that he believes by the end. His belief in her possession is what matters, not the viewers. But that's a minor "what if" quibble for this classic and emotionally painful tale. And the bedroom scene adds another layer to the Regan/Karras confrontation near the end, knowing where they started and how Karras initially had the upper hand.

And now I bid you adieu to ponder their relationship further while I seek out the quill of my aunt, which, if I am not mistaken, is on the desk of my uncle. Bon jour.

53 comments:

bill r. said...

I'm embarrassed to say this, being such a huge fan of this film and Blatty's novel, but I never checked on the translations of those lines. That's fascinating.

Still, as you're probably aware, the ambiguity you sort of wish was there was not at all part of Blatty's agenda. He's a firm believer in this stuff.

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

No I know and I have no problem with that. Some Exorcist fans get downright testy with me for saying that, like making her possession ambiguous is committing some kind of crime against humanity.

I just think it would add another level of complexity to an already complex study, that's all.

And the dialogue in that scene does go a long way to showing she's either not possessed or Pazuzu is unimpressive as a demon, which I would assume anyway. He not only possessed a little girl but made the possession obvious from the start thus drawing attention from those who would drive him out. You want power possess a world leader, not a 12 year old girl. Pazuzu, what a loser.

I suppose one could also argue that Pazuzu is playing dumb for Karras, which has merit too. That laugh Regan gives after saying the plume line could indicate she's just yanking his chain. So Pazuzu's a loser, but a smug one.

Legend of Hellhaus said...

Dick Shawn made a popular novelty record in 1963, "La Plume de Ma Tante". This is more likely Blatty's source for the French dialogue.

Also, regarding Friedkin, check this out.

Fox said...

"I'm not saying I don't want there to be demonic possession..."

But, as you pointed out, how much more fascinating would it have been had they left that open? Never thought about that before. Maybe it came from years of knowing about The Exorcist before actually seeing it, but I like the scenario you lay out of there being more ambiguity. I think I would have liked the film much more.

And maybe it's because I'm a lapsed Catholic, but I think Father Karras is such a wonderful character creation.

Fox said...

Thinking more on it... the ambiguity could have played on Regan's oncoming female puberty, and made it "horrific" in the way films like Carrie and Ginger Snaps have.

L'uccello dalle piume di arbogast said...

Regan is obviously possessed by a true demon because she knows Karras' mother sucks cocks in Hell - how else would she know that?

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

Peter, the song came from, I believe, the musical of the same name which was popular in the fifties. Either way, both the title of the musical and song were takes on the phrase being a nonsensical textbook sentence. So even if Blatty had heard it there the first time he would have still known the reference to basic textbook French.

And Rich is one of the dumbest men on the planet. I'm surprised Friedkin hadn't heard of him and his unintentionally hilarious schemes that somehow of which he is never aware are illegal and unconstitutional.

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

Fox, I think it would make for a more interesting story as well but I'm usually in the minority on that one. And I'm not joking when I say some people have gotten angry over it. The fact is, it doesn't change the story because, obviously, if it's an open question then she could still be actually possessed so what everyone gets upset about I don't know.

And years ago Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre about the puberty angle with The Exorcist, about how metaphorically it could be taken as a story of a parent who no longer understands her child. He also, as I recall, couldn't stand the book but loved the movie.

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

L'ucello - Karras' mother did that in real life. Isn't Hell being forced to do stuff you don't want to do? Ha, Pazuzu fails again.

But seriously, the levitation about as obvious as you can get.

Now back to the quality of demon that is Pazuzu. When Karras challenges him/her on that line about cock-sucking with the maiden name question once again Pazuzu comes up short and now pissed, vomits in his face.

When Karras asks McNeil if Regan knew about his mother it's meant to give the audience a moment of "oooh that's freaky, maybe she really is in hell" but Pazuzu has already established he is pathetic on the intellectual side of things and "Your mother's down here with us" would be no different than a snap ("Your mother's so fat..."). Pazuzu doesn't know if Karras' mother is dead or alive he's just assuming and taking a blind stab. Then his clearly superior opponent fires back the maiden name question and Pazuzu, King of the Dumbshit Demons, projectile vomits instead.

Fox said...

People seriously got upset at your suggestion of reading of The Exorcist? What did they say?

I mean, I'm not surprised... one time I told some friends that my reading of Brokeback Mountain was that Heath Ledger's character was "mostly straight", and that his affair with Jake G. was a unique burst of love & lust. I backed this up by saying that the poster has the tagline "LOVE IS A FORCE OF NATURE", but they had already gone ape shit crazy mad at me so it didn't matter.

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

Fox, there are plenty of fans who don't think the story works unless Karras is literally expelling evil from Regan. But as long as he believes it, then that's all that's necessary for his redemption and rediscovery of faith. But you get, "No man no! If she's not possessed then it's just another dumb drama where people discover themselves..."

Most of these conversations were in college so there's that. I don't think most thinking adults would have a problem understanding how the 'open question' angle could work.

And I find your interpretation of Brokeback Mountain to be completely valid. I don't entirely agree, thinking he was repressing his true sexuality until then, but I see no reason to go apeshit over it. If everyone agree on character motivations in literature, drama and film, the world would be a dull place indeed.

Fox said...

Jonathan-

That's the thing. I don't think either your interpretation or my interpretation of Brokeback Mountain were attempting to tear down either one, yet they were greeted as so. Quite the opposite! I think our interpretaitons complement both films.

I mean, I don't think Brokeback Mountain is that good of a film, but I find the idea of two people - regardless of gender or sexuality - falling in love with each other as two humans to be very sweet. I mean, you would think that would be treated as a positive reading!

Yet, some friends thought I was trying to take away Brokeback's breakthrough success as a mainstream gay film, which is just silly. But, hey... it would be a boring world if we all agreed.

bill r. said...

King did hate the book, but to my knowledge he's never given a good explanation why. I think it's a great book, as is its follow up, Legion. I like a lot of King's stuff, but the more opinions he offers, the more I think he might be a loon.

And no offense to Fox or anyone else who finds the "puberty" angle interesting, but boy, do I find that theory boring. Again, sorry, no offense, but I often see people taking that tack because they either A) don't like The Exorcist and want to psychoanalyze Friedkin and Blatty and prove to themselves that they are bad and creepy people; or B) they're made uncomfortable by the openly religious and pro-faith aspect of the story. King has driven his anti-religious feelings into the ground over the years (he really needs a new villain, and no, the military doesn't count, because he's been driving that into the ground for just as long), and I feel like, with The Exorcist, he had to find a different way to talk about it that ignored the most important aspect of the entire story.

Fox said...

Bill-

HOW DARE YOU QUESTION MY INTERPRETATION!!!! :0)

But no, I see what you're saying. Personally, I like the Catholic-ness of The Exorcist. I'm no longer Catholic, but I'm not anti-Catholic. In fact, I think The Exorcist draws out some of the spiritual beauty and power of faith and religion.

(I know you weren't saying I was anti- anything, I just wanted to bring that up as a point of clarification.)

Pat said...

Jonathan -

Great post. I'd never considered how the film might have been even more effective if the is-she-posssessed-or-just-crazy question had been left open to interpretation. I think "The Exorcist" is pretty good as-is, but with that heightened ambiguity, it could have been exceptional.

This post actually makes me a little nostalic. I first saw "The Exorcist" at 14, on its inital release in theaters. I still remember the well-worn paperback copy of the novel I toted around school with me (purple with a blurry photo of what looked like a screaming ghost-womn on the front). I was the only kid I knew who read the entire book - other kids kept borrowing it briefly just to read the 'gross' parts.

I didn't see it again till I think 2000, when it was re-released with some extra footage. Still scared the crap out of me. Heaing the opening notes of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" still still gives me the creeps.

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

Fox, stop being so anti-Catholic.

Bill, I don't discount the puberty angle as being a small part of an interpretation in a "it could be taken as this too" way but if taken to be the entire interpretation then it feels ridiculous to go to such extremes for such a mundane analogy. I can't remember if King was taking it as the whole interpretation or not. I haven't read Danse Macabre since the eighties.

Pat, I'm glad to have another voice in the "open question" camp. I'd like to see that angle taken but I don't ever want to see a remake made of this so I'll never know. I think it's an excellent film no matter how you look at it and get a little annoyed with people focusing on the gross out parts, like those who borrowed your book, when there is so much emotional terrain covered in the film. Far more than the gross out parts.

Fox said...

How 'bout we remake The Exorcist with:

Marilyn as Regan
Lapper as Max Von Sydow
Bill as Father Karras
Arbo As Ellen Burstyn
Pat as the voice of satan

I'll direct.

It will go straigh-to-YouTube!

Krauthammer said...

Wait, I thought that Steven King was a Catholic? Wasn't King angry at Kubrick's The Shining in part because he believed an atheist couldn't tell the tale?

I'm one who doesn't believe that ambiguity is always a good thing. But I actually do think that it would really help this film.

Pat said...

Jonathan- Keep in mind that the people borrowing my book were mostly 13-year-olds; they're not known for their ability to grasp the deep emotional truths lying beneath the horrorific "gross" stuff: ) And,frankly, neither could I at that age; even though I was diligent enough to finish the book. I also read a "making of" book by Blatty, which I believe included the screenplay. Don't have it anymore, wish I'd kept it.

And now I must go and practice my "voice of Satan" - BTW, wasn't Satan in the film voiced by Mercedes McCambridge, or am I just imagining that? Perhaps a jaunt over to IMDB is in order....

Fox said...

Pat-

Ha!... don't take my delegating satan voicing to you as some type of hidden message! I kinda just assigned things randomly.

However, I've heard Arbo does look a bit like Burstyn once you put a wig on him, so that casting choice was deliberate.

Pat said...

Fox - Hey, no offense taken - I think playing Satan would be a blast.

bill r. said...

Krauthammer - You can pick up just about any random Stephen King novel and find at least one character who is an evil Christian fundamentalist.

And he didn't like Kubrick's film because he didn't think Kubrick understood horror. To hear King describe what he would have done differently, he apparently wanted more jump scares.

Marilyn Regan said...

Regan! I'll do it! "I'm ready for my airsick bag, Mr. DeMille."

On to more intellectual things: If she's not possessed then it's just another dumb drama where people discover themselves..."

You know, I kind of think this is the point. When I read the book as a tween, I made my mother stay in the room with me. I was terrified. I wanted to be terrified in the movie, too, and even though some of the scares were kind of cheap, they were very effective.

I saw a German film a couple of years ago called Requiem that tells the story of The Exorcism of Emily Rose before the trial. If you want to see a character study with regard to possession, see that one. Here's my review: http://www.beachwoodreporter.com/people_places_things/soul_in_flames.php

Marilyn egan said...

Make that http://www.beachwoodreporter.com/
people_places_things/
soul_in_flames.php

Fox said...

I don't like Stephen King as a person. He seems really, really smug. But what's so funny about him critiquing the work of a Kubrick is that King's tastes in film are so bad!

The Tuscaloosa Strangler said...

Audiences hate ambiguity, even though in this case it would have been great. And people with agendas hate it as well ... thus the folks who are invested in it being a real exorcism get all pissed off when their pre-conceived notions of what's real and what's not are challenged. It's like you're challenging their faith, like somebody's saying that if this exorcism isn't real there is no God, or something. It's nuts.

bill r. said...

I don't believe in demonic possession, but I'm not one of the people who thinks ambiguity would be such a great addition to the film. There's plenty of it there, up to a certain point, but quite frankly, after that point, I think we'd be dealing with ambiguity for its own sake.

The Tuscaloosa Strangler said...

I personally like not to have everything nailed down, but not ambiguity for ambiguity's sake.

But there's a lot of ambiguity in life, is there not? I mean, in my experience, things are rarely black and white ...

Fox said...

I mean, in my experience, things are rarely black and white ...

What about zebras and Oreos?

BUSTED!

Sh! The Arbopus said...

Audiences hate ambiguity

They do and they don't.

bill r. said...

Or a fucking panda!? (to paraphrase David Mamet).

Sure, Rick, there's a lot of ambiguity in life. But The Exorcist is very specifically about demonic possession and faith, and I don't know what would be gained by hinting that it might be about only one of those. Jonathan's right that Karras's faith could still be restored if the story were told with more ambiguity, but that's one of the reasons why I think this would just be ambiguity for its own sake. If everything would play out the same, why pretend?

Fox said...

Remember when Karras used to have faith in Webster and Mam?

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

Thanks all for keeping the comment thread going and giving me lots to think about and read. I'm afraid I was whisked away to the emergency room earlier today and have just returned home. I'm going to rest now. I'm taking off work tomorrow and will be returning to the doctor on Tuesday for some follow-up work. I'm okay now but it was pretty scary for a while there. I'll just say thanks again to Pat, Krauthammer, Fox, Rick, Bill, Marilyn, Arbo, the Professor and Mary Ann for not only keeping it going but keeping it on the topic. Maybe I'm the problem with the jokes. I'll try to do better. Thanks again.

bill r. said...

Shit, Jonathan, are you okay? What happened?

Marilyn said...

Damn, Jonathan! Are you ok?

Rick Olson said...

Jonathan, I can only echo bill and marilyn ... are you ok? We're worried about you!

Pat said...

Jonathan -

I'm joining the others in hoping you're ok. Will be keeping a good thought for you.

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

Thanks Bill, Marilyn, Rick and Pat. I feel better now but not perfect. I'll spare you the details except to say it has to do with circulation and the need to take better care of myself. A guy who once excelled at track in school shouldn't be having problems like this so early on. I've got to do better.

Krauthammer said...

Oh man. I'm sorry dude.

Fox said...

I'm very sorry to hear about this Johnathan. Please take care of yourself.

Good thoughts go out from me to you, your health, and your family. Be well, friend.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jonathan: Wow. Hope that you won't just feel better soon but that you'll get better, too. Wishing you a speedy and lasting recovery. All the best.

bill r. said...

So, Jonathan, are you going to check in this morning and let us know how you're doing?

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

Fox, Jason, Bill - Thanks again. I'm resting, in a little pain but otherwise fine.

bill r. said...

Do you want some ice cream?

Burke Dennings Lapper said...

That's tempting but no thanks. I'll have a new post up shortly though, so check back in.

EVIL CLOWN said...

Dang this is good stuff.

I'm a simple Evil Clown. Someone speaks other languages and there are no subtitles and I think... okay, that's not for my little Evil Clown ears to hear. Like Bill said, it never occurred to me to check it out.

And it reveals something that I love. The fearlessness on the good side. Demons are scary and it's only natural to assume that when the good guy comes in, he too will be scared. But a battle of the wits where Karras brings down the hammer is rather baddass if I may say.

Well done

Dr. Pretorius Lapper said...

Evil Clown, you said it. I love that Karras doesn't bat an eyelash when hearing Latin or French come out of her mouth. He's cool and collected and immediately reveals her fakery. Kick ass!

Marilyn said...

Jonathan - It was an MI, wasn't it...

Dr. Pretorius Lapper said...

Marilyn, no it wasn't, thank goodness. It was a circulation problem in the left leg that caused excruciating pain for several hours (and may I say, frightening pain) and it came on unannounced after I had done about a mile walk on my lunch break. I've got some swelling but everything is getting better now. I go in on Tuesday for further check-up and we'll see what needs to be done then. For now, I just need to eat less red meat, which I consume like a ravenous tiger, and quitting smoking is a necessity at this point. I look healthy, but the red meat and tobacco betray that appearance. If I'd known how addictive these things were (I don't smoke much these days by the way, and in the way of cigars, not cigarrettes which I quit years ago) I'd have never started them in my teens. But being told something is addictive in your teens means nothing because you just know you can quit whenever you want. Ha! Boy we get involved in some dumb things when we're young.

Marilyn said...

Not a blood clot, I trust. Those are dangerous. I used to smoke but gave it up long ago. I recently gave up drinking, too. I'm not as young as I used to be.

Dr. Pretorius Lapper said...

Not a clot but until further checking I won't know how much placque has built up. Hopefully not much.

Campaspe said...

Jonathan, I am so sorry you have had a health scare!! I am sending you my best healing vibes. Take care of yourself. Maybe what you need is a nice women's picture festival rather than all this blood-pumping horror? I can recommend some more Kay Francis ...
and Carole Lombard month at TCM has some time to go, too.

I intensely dislike this film, despite its undoubted skill, influence and status as a classic. I'm with John Boorman, who turned down the script on the grounds that it basically amounts to torturing a child for a couple of hours. (And he should have stuck by that instead of directing the completely trashy sequel, but that's another story.) The fear and repulsion at female sexuality is so blatant that when I finished watching it for the first time I felt as I though I had been listening to a stream of highly personal verbal abuse. I also think it's dated badly, like a lot of horror films do over time as our horror threshold gets higher.

All right, so much for my Exorcist dislike. But I *loved* this post and your thoughts on the ambiguity built into the premise, built in that is until the head-swiveling etc. removes all doubt. The problem with completely adopting that approach would be that leaving her possession an open question makes the actions of the adults just that much worse. Still, you've opened my eyes to some skill and sublety on the part of Blatty that I had previously missed.

Dr. Scarabus Lapper said...

Campaspe, thanks for your healing vibes. So basically, this isn't a favorite of yours. I understand and know many people who dislike it for many the same reasons. Not many people like the open question alternative that I favor but I think it would make it more interesting.

And I definitely will be back with the non-horror classics full steam ahead once October ends, including a post on a great experience I had at the AFI theatre this month seeing The Crowd. Next week I have tickets for my wife and I to see Strangers on a Train there with Farley Granger in attendance for questions and answers afterwards. I'm very excited.