January 30, 2013

"On Bell Book and Candle: Imaginary Resolution and Witchy Excess" by Joanna Penn Cooper

By way of context:  My mother’s favorite TV show as an adolescent was "Bewitched," and she is given to expressing her disapproval of the images of green, warty broom-riders that appear around Halloween as representing “nothing but ignorance and prejudice against witches.”  (She has, as far as I know, never thought of joining a coven, though, and once commented that she “can’t get on board with the camp element” that would be involved.)  This is all just to say that I was exposed to the movie Bell Book and Candle at a young age, and that it should come as no surprise that it has become the go-to holiday movie for my mother and me.  

In the 1958 film, Kim Novak is Gillian Holroyd, a witch who owns a shop in the Village specializing in African and Oceanic masks.  Jimmy Stewart is the Jimmy Stewart-like guy who moves in upstairs and becomes the object of Gillian’s desire to flirt with “the normal.”  The movie appeals on many levels:  There is Ernie Kovacs as the rumpled author seeking the truth about the witches among us; Elsa Lanchester as Aunt Queenie, a character who stands somewhere at the intersection of daft and can’t-be-bothered-to-give-a-damn-about-convention; and Jack Lemmon as Gillian’s bongo-playing brother (even though the ever-charming Jack Lemmon could dial it down a notch here).  But mostly there is Kim Novak’s performance and the aura that surrounds it.  How can any self-respecting viewer watch Gillian lounging about in her ultra-modern shop and living space and not want to be her?  There are her form-fitting black pants and black turtleneck.  Her short tousled peroxided hair.  The way she hums to her cat, Pyewacket, when casting a spell.  And even the way she stands there barefoot, casually mixing a drink.  (What is charisma, anyway?)

In many ways, the film does anticipate the genre that came to be called the chick flick, which, I suppose owes a debt to plots of the nineteenth century and earlier, in which headstrong women are tamed by the right man, the right love.  We are told, after all, that once Gillian’s spell on Stewart’s character, Shep, turns into real love on her part, she loses her powers.  Pyewacket runs away.  She gains the ability to blush and to cry.  The plot, then, is what literary theorist Frederic Jameson might call an imaginary resolution to a real ideological contradiction.  Here the issue in need of resolution is the power of the single, talented (magical), business-owning woman to disrupt the comfortable certainties of the heterosexual economy.  If Gillian’s prime focus is not romantic love and domesticity, then she remains a threat.  She explains her philosophy to Shep when he first asks her to marry him, saying, “I’ve always lived for and by the special, not the ordinary.”  If she retains this “selfish” (for a woman) existence, where does she fit?  As she notes, “[Marriage] would mean giving up a whole way of thinking, behaving.  A whole existence.  I don’t think I could.”  But then she adds, “I wish I could.”  The film associates Gillian’s unconventionality not only with the occult, but with the non-Western (in a move that Toni Morrison has termed “Africanism”—exploring white Americans’ fears and desires through images of blackness); the culturally marginal, in the beatnik-like entertainment that Gillian’s cohort enjoys at the Zodiac club; and even the politically subversive.  When Gillian tries to reveal her secret identity to Shep, he interrupts her with, “Have you been engaged in un-American activities or something?”

Ultimately, the film contains the cultural excess that Gillian represents.  She is duly punished for claiming power over Shep through her spell when she falls in love, loses her powers, and is left by him when he finds out about her previous machinations.  When he returns to the Gillian’s shop a few months later, he finds a changed Gillian.  She walks out wearing not her signature attire—louche, angular black or red clothing with no shoes—but a soft white dress with a full skirt and large yellow sash, and matching yellow pumps.  Even the store has been transformed, signaling Gillian’s new feminine receptiveness.  The shop now trades in seashells arranged into decorative bouquets, and the largest lettering on the plate glass window is no longer her name, but the store’s new name, “Flowers of the Sea” (barf).  As Stewart and Novak embrace at the end, he murmurs, “Who’s to say what magic is?” (barf again).  And as in our childhood viewing of reruns of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, we can’t help thinking, “She’s containing all that power for him?”

But the reason this film retains its appeal for me is that, when I think of it, I don’t think of the imaginary resolution of the ending.  I think of the uncontainable excess that is Kim Novak barefoot in black, humming to Pyewacket with her modernist architectural Christmas tree in the background.  Despite the plot’s stripping of Gillian’s powers, the allure of the film resides in what it allows us to imagine about women and a stylish, slightly melancholy embrace of our witchy powers.

Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of the chapbook Mesmer (dancing girl press).  Her full-length poetry collection, How We Were Strangers, was a finalist for the Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books and the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press.  Joanna co-curates the Stain of Poetry reading series in Brooklyn, where she lives, and keeps a blog at joannapenncooper.blogspot.com.

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