As usual, I encountered this promotion for Vin Diesel's latest on my drive to work, and once again I found a treasure trove of cultural information. It all lies in the title of the movie—The Last Witch Hunter— and the catchy come-on that movies always seem to use to get you into the theaters: "Live Forever. Hunt Forever." That's just about all we need.
Let's begin with the title. My first impression was one of surprise that in the era of Wicked and Wicca a movie would still be targeting witches as the objects of a manhunt (I use the word "manhunt" quite deliberately here), for with her traditional feminine identification, the witch would have seemed to be a figure that Hollywood no longer slated for demonization and destruction (I leave out of this analysis the connotation of "witch hunts" in the wake of the McCarthy era). So, to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, I decided that maybe it was using the word "witch" in a genderless manner, including warlocks (the traditional male witch) within its range of reference, and went online to research its plot.
It turns out that my first impression was correct, however. This is a movie about an age-old war against a very female witch (who, not so incidentally, is portrayed by actress Julie Engelbrecht, who, again not so incidentally, just happens to represent central casting's paradigmatic image of blonde feminine pulchritude), who has been plotting to destroy humanity for about eight hundred years. Never mind the fact that she has a male demon (the not so very subtly named "Belial") in her employ: what matters is that what we have here is a beautiful blonde woman cast in the hero's gun sights. And here is where cultural signifier number one lies.
Can you spell "male panic"? I can't help but associate a storyline of this type with Basic Instinct, whose beautiful blonde villain just happens to have a witch as her mentor. Nor can I help associating it with the recent Yik Yak threat at Fresno State University to "take a headshot at a hot blonde" in revenge (apparently) for favors not received, not to mention Elliott Rodgers's killing spree outside a UC Santa Barbara sorority last year, motivated by a similar resentment. In other words, it appears that Hollywood hasn't gotten the message yet: that demonizing attractive women isn't, let's say, doing anything to tamp down the flames of a violent misogyny that is not only a worldwide scourge but an especial problem on America's university campuses today.
So, a big "F" for gender sensitivity for The Last Witch Hunter, and the fact that the movie is doing quite well at the box office is a sign that such insensitivity still pays. Do we see a vicious circle here?
Now to cultural signifier number two, which (witch?) appears in the catchy come-on: "live forever." A plot check reveals that, indeed, the movie is all tied up with various kinds of dark immortality, and this, too, is meaningful when situated in a system of associations and differences.
To begin with, making immortality central to a storyline is nothing new in the movies (consider It's A Wonderful Life, complete with guardian angel). The 1990s was a particularly fertile era for benign immortals—from Michael, to What Dreams May Come, to TV's Touched By an Angel—but at the same time, another immortal, the vampire, was also rising to prominence then (remember Buffy?), and by the early 2000s vampires had pretty much driven the angels onto the lesser stage of Victoria's Secret, only to be (partially) displaced themselves by an even nastier variety of immortal: the walking dead (aka zombies).
The difference between the angelic immortal and the demonic one is the kind of difference that points to cultural significance. Angels tend to be in the ascendant when a society is feeling good about things; demons serve as metaphors for all kinds of social anxieties (it was no accident, for example, that the Cold War-tormented 1950s saw so many monster movies). So the fact that the immortal demon is getting most of the popular cultural play right now is meaningful. This turn to the dark side is especially evident in the way that George R.R. Martin has effectively turned J.R.R. Tolkien upside down, transforming the ultimately green and good Middle Earth into the grey and grim Westeros. A generation that once wrote "Frodo Lives!" on subway station walls has been succeeded by one whose imagination is casting dark shadows upon a bloody ground—a not very surprising reaction to a world overshadowed by the aftermath of the Great Recession and the 9/11 terror attacks.
But there is still more to the analysis, for there is also the full bore fascination with immortality as such to consider, the endless parade of movie characters who do not die, or, when they do, manage to come back to life—yeah, I know that Tolkien did this too with Gandalf, probably getting the idea from Conan Doyle, who once brought Sherlock Holmes, after a fall into an abyss, back to life, too—but it is getting excessive. This is a different kind of immortality from that of, say, What Dreams May Come, where the afterlife takes place in an afterworld which is wholly different from the one you lived in before you died. Somebody else is in charge in that afterworld, and the rules are different. In the current image of immortality, by contrast, you come back to life within this world, the ordinary one, and that may be a dangerous fantasy. Because I can't help but think again here of those campus killers who post up a grotesque kind of posthumous "survival" on the Internet before going out on what are often conceived as suicide missions. One has to wonder whether these killers really believe that they are going to die, or whether, deep down, they believe that they will somehow survive (or return) to enjoy their sudden "fame."
I don't know. But I do rather wish that popular culture wouldn't keep encouraging such fantasies. I don't see it doing any good.
Tags: cultural semiotics, The Last Witch Hunter, fantasy, campus shootings, misogyny, popular culture, current events