Okay, you know me: I have the whole snarky thing down. I’ve never even seen Forrest Gump or Titanic. I can barely bring myself to watch a trailer for a film starring poor Katherine Heigl. I’d rather re-watch that 2-hour, grueling, and explicit film about illegal abortion in Romania — it was excellent — than submit myself to 30 minutes of the Julia Roberts feature, My Best Friend’s Wedding. So what’s the deal with my weakness for Practical Magic, which gets only a 20% approval rate on RottenTomatoes.com?

Confession: I’ve probably seen it 10 times.

I’ll grant you the obvious: this is not quality filmmaking or screenwriting. The list of goofs and continuity errors is long. The background music is annoyingly cheery and sentimental, even during scenes when it shouldn’t be. It claims to be set in a Salem, Massachusetts-type place but is obviously filmed using the dramatic coast and sunsets of the Pacific Northwest. The film keeps cycling back to themes of love and loss and longing, like any Katherine Heigl film. The resolution to the characters’ problems — an ancient curse on this family of witches — is completely inexplicable. I know. But it always gets past my radar, and I seem to keep coming back.

My latest viewing of it prompted me to wonder about guilty pleasure films.

Why should I feel so embarrassed and apologetic about liking this film? What is it about liking this unabashed chick flick that makes me feel sheepish to confess it? Why does liking this film make me wonder whether I might have some kind of tumor growing smack on my frontal lobe?

(Spoiler alert: at some point below I’m going to talk about That Great House. Also: if you’re eager to know my two favorite insights, get down to the last half of this post.)

Now, there are lots of reasons to like this film. First: the cast. Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as the kooky old witch-aunts who raise the orphaned sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gilly (Nicole Kidman). Oh, to have aunts like Channing and Wiest!

Moving on, the men-folk are all superbly gorgeous and desirable: Aidan Quinn, Goran Visnjic (slurp!) as the bad boy, and the total mensch Mark Feuerstein as Sally’s short-lived husband. Even Sally’s little daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip) manage to be believably appealing.

Also, no one should underestimate Sandra Bullock’s appeal. The critic David Thomson jokes that she’s been inducted into the Hall of Eternal Likeability. This induction occurred in 2009, Thomson quips, when Bullock won an Oscar for Best Actress (for The Blind Side) and a Golden Raspberry (aka “Razzie”) for Worst Actress (in All About Steve) — and she appeared to both ceremonies “with the same easygoing attitude that guesses she didn’t quite deserve either award but that knows her life has always been something of a gamble.”

I’ve always liked Bullock, and have a particular weakness for her skills in slight rom-coms (While You Were SleepingMiss Congeniality), again in spite of myself. How does someone possessed of such exceptional beauty seem to be someone I’d be friends with? How does she manage to seem convincingly the ugly duckling for even one second? How does she nevertheless seem to be at ease in her own skin?

Two things I always notice in Practical Magic: she goes bra-less in most of the scenes. And although she’s thin as a rail (of course), her body looks real — especially her big, strong legs. Who wouldn’t like a beautiful woman with healthy-looking thighs who skips the bra most of the time?

Okay, now that I say that out loud, I’m starting to see where some of my sheepishness comes from.

Just because I like all the actors is no guarantee I’ll like a film, however. Lots of good actors have appeared in terrible films. Remember my refusal to see Titanic despite the fact that it stars Kate Winslet, who’s in my Top 5 current favorite actors?

*****

In thinking about my perverse attachment to an ostensibly weak film led me to scour The Land of Blogs for insight, and here’s what I found: us ladies love that house. Love it.

This very fact makes me embarrassed … because I’ll admit I love that house too. Shouldn’t I feel like I’ve been manipulated?

Now, just because a girl confesses a propensity for nest-building and a weakness for a good kitchen should not make you presume she wants nothing but housework and a hubby who brings home the bacon. Virtually everyone I know has found themselves susceptible to the house porn shown to us on those real estate, cooking, and bedroom re-design shows on cable TV. And when I call this porn I fully admit to have had unholy desires for that one hunky handyman who seems to know his way around every power tool known to man. So yeah, I love this house — and I’m not the only one.
Entire websites appear to be dedicated to screen capture shots of the kitchen and/or attached greenhouse. I get it. Who wouldn’t want all that great tile, lots of cupboards, big central kitchen table, and that awesome stove?

There’s so much room here for those kinds of decorations you could never be bothered with because you’re a Busy And Important. Big wooden bowls of pears or round loaves of bread. Cunning little bottles of herbs and witches’ potions. Scattered potted plants that need to be kept alive somehow. This is not the kind of house I could manage (or clean) in real life.

But I think the reason why this kitchen/ greenhouse/ dining area has hit some kind of world-wide Lady G-Spot is because these rooms are the location for so much of the film’s drama. Just like in real life, except these settings are a lot more attractive than our cramped kitchens. Gilly and the little girls whip up a Go Away spell to put into the maple syrup; Gilly and Sally try to bring the terrifying Visnjic back to life (with a spray-can of whipped cream, I say as I shake my head woefully); Sally and the hunky Arizona investigator Aidan Quinn have a special moment in the sunroom/ greenhouse.

(Mental note: must procure sunroom/ greenhouse so I, too, can have special moments with Aidan Quinn.)

I’m joking, of course. Although some bloggers seem eager to transform their own homes into Practical Magic-style palaces, I say that sounds like too much work. In fact, this leads to my most important insight: no matter how appealing, that house doesn’t fill me with consumer desire — I like the idea of the house, and I like it for reasons other than the fact that it looks good. Another film might have used the same house and sunroom and still failed to capture people’s imaginations (i.e., mine).

*****

So here’s my big realization: this film gets me every time because it portrays such rich and important relationships among women, even when they’re flawed. The warmth of the house matters when Sally and Gilly lie under the covers together, healing one another’s wounds, or when they go to the kitchen to exorcise demons. Ultimately the reason I like the house is the fact that I am so impressed that the film takes for granted the intense connections amongst this group of women.

The house feels so warm and comfortable because that’s where the film portrays the most important plot points, bringing together the warmest of relations between the characters. It’s those moments in the film that get me every time. Scenes that convey the close communal and familial relations that encompass a kind of closeness that isn’t reducible to something as simplistic as “love.”

There’s a hard edge to some of this as well. Women who are very close to one another also piss each other off, or they say things that hit nerves even if they have no intention of hurting anyone. One of my favorite random scenes in the film, in which they all blend up some Midnight Margaritas and dance around the house (who hasn’t been there?) is immediately followed by a scary scene at the dinner table, when no matter how good their mood, none of them can keep from spewing bile at one another — and it takes a while for them to realize the ugliness of this weird moment.

Ah, the scene of female bonding and mutual support … and pissing each other off. Was there ever a time when I didn’t imagine growing old, living in a big house (or neighborhood) with my sister and a bunch of my best old-lady friends, all cooking and gardening and exercising together? I remember being stunned to learn that every single one of my friends has the same fantasy. It’s not that we don’t like men — some of us are partnered up with them, after all. It just seems so natural to have tight, mutually-constitutive relationships with women, especially as you grow older.

All the more eerie to find that this film explicitly imagines that scenario for its characters, too. “We’re gonna grow old together!” Gilly says to Sally when they’re teenagers, on the night when Gilly is about to run off with some guy, and the unglamorous Sally stands there in her awful bathrobe, stringy hair, and gigantic glasses. “It’s gonna be you and me, living in a big old house, these two old biddies with all these cats! I mean, I bet we even die on the same day!” Tell me, isn’t that your secret dream, too?

For Sally it is. “Do you swear?” she asks her sister.

In the end I think it is that female closeness that gets me about this film and which makes me slightly embarrassed to admit it — because I suspect that by using some kind of dark magic, the filmmakers cooked up a heady brew of fine men-folk, house porn, and scenes like Midnight Margaritas explicitly to fly under my critical radar and keep bringing me back. I fear my uncritical affection for this film because it feels manipulative to me, not a genuine dedication to women’s relationships and good houses above & beyond women’s relationship to men. I feel embarrassed that what I had long believed was an unrealistic and slightly embarrassing fantasy — that my friends and I would all grow old together — has been packaged into a very pretty filmic production for me to watch. Shouldn’t I feel all the more guilty about this pleasure?

*****

But there’s one other reading that works even better for me, and I lift this directly from the great documentary The Celluloid Closet. This insight goes something like this: I watch and appreciate Practical Magic not for what it is but for all that I read into it, all that speaks to me beyond the surface. I don’t see Midnight Margaritas as a throwaway scene or as instrumental for forcing Sally and Gilly to deal with their mistakes. I read into it a world of intense female closeness that I rarely get to see onscreen. What gives me pleasure in this film is what I imagine in between the lines of its essential mediocrity.

I remember so vividly Susie Bright, one of the commentators in The Celluloid Closet, describing how she spent her youth combing through old movies just to get to a single scene that seems a little bit queer. For LGBTQ persons who saw virtually no one who looked like them onscreen, “It’s amazing how, if you’re a gay audience and you’re accustomed to crumbs how you will watch an entire movie just to see a certain outfit that you think means that they’re a homosexual. The whole movie can be a dud, but you’re just sitting there waiting for Joan Crawford [in Johnny Guitar] to put on her black cowboy shirt again.”This is ultimately the reading that allows me to feel pleasure in watching this film without much guilt. It’s discouraging to realize that on some level, what I get from Practical Magic is what I don’t get very often onscreen: happy, complex, and intense relationships among women that aren’t just about appearing sexy and finding a man. I very seldom get to see onscreen relationships that look like the ones I enjoy with my friends and family. Sure, the movie concludes with a happy kiss between Sandra Bullock and Aidan Quinn — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I’m arguing that the whole package sparks a happy endorphin rush for far different reasons.

And finally, let’s also not forget that this movie is about a family of witches. Witch being such a stand-in for bitch, as well as conveying all manner of notions about women’s powers, both dark and light. This film probably flies under my radar in part because it’s about women who possess powers that they can choose to use (or not). The false cheeriness of the music and the generally lame spells might well downplay as much as possible any sense of real danger — and probably seek to undermine objections from crazed evangelicals who might see this film as the work of the devil. Nevertheless, I’d argue that the subject matter can’t help but speak about power.

I see it as metaphorical. This is about women’s power — and their power in numbers. I may be trying very hard here to stop feeling so guilty about my appreciation for this film, but this works for me:

  • terrific cast
  • eminently likeable lead
  • great range of attractive men-folk
  • fantastic house
  • rich portrayals of women’s relationships
  • the movie facilitates queer readings against and/or alongside its mainstream messages
  • it’s about women’s power, and their power in numbers

I welcome your thoughts, quibbles, and good-natured derision for my poor taste in film!

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Certainly one doesn’t need a particular organization of the planets to get into an existential mood, but it’s midsummer, and we here at Feminéma like to mark big seasonal events with some pondering. (Lord, what fools these mortals be!) And if there’s one thing film can help us do, it’s to ponder the big questions. My own star-gazing has been assisted this weekend with two big releases in my teeny home-away-from-home in Central Jersey: Mike Mills’ Beginners (you’ll remember how much I loved Thumbsucker, his first feature) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I’ll write about tomorrow if possible. Beginners may flirt with the twee — there are some incredibly cute montages of great dates between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent in which they rollerskate down a hotel’s hallways or hike in the Hollywood hills; but it’s no rom-com. It’s a serious, ultimately hopeful film with a perfect cast that keep you riveted in every scene.

The specific nexus of problems addressed by Oliver (McGregor) involves love, one’s parents, and death. In a series of vignettes ricocheting back and forth between Oliver’s present and his past, the film is oriented around Oliver’s reconsideration of his parents’ unhappy marriage, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer)’s announcement after his wife’s death that he’s gay, and Hal’s relationship with a lovely, gangly, and hopelessly transparent man named Andy (Goran Visnjic, whom I barely recognized in a floppy haircut and unflattering clothes). Most important, it treats Hal’s illness and death, during which Oliver cared for his father through some wholly realistic and intimate ups and downs. Don’t all of us wrestle with our parents’ relationships when we think about our own? That’s Oliver’s problem; his parents’ unhappiness haunts him such that he can’t keep a girlfriend.

Oliver works as a graphic artist, though he’s suffering some serious blocks following Hal’s death: it seems he cannot help but create a cartoon History of Sadness in panels rather than the cd-cover art he’s been assigned. (Ahem, Mr. Mills: please publish that History, as I found it delightfully perverse.) The art is a neat mirror onto his thoughts. He often says things to himself, which I appreciate: the act of list-making as a bulwark against interior chaos. When he says to himself, “Sex. Life. Healing. Nature. Magic,” he’s reprising something he hears from the beautiful Anna (Laurent), whom he meets-cute at a costume party: “People like us, half of them believe things will never work out. The other half believe in magic.” She says it in a way that reveals more than a little disdain for that latter group; she and Oliver are, decidedly, members of the former who — despite themselves — long, desperately, for magic.

Is it his nature or the specific circumstances of mourning his father that makes Oliver so skittish about relationships? At first it appears that he has simply rejected the kind of marriage his parents endured: not loveless but perpetually dissatisfied, a quality he perceived in them even as a child. (His childhood closeness to his eccentric mother [Mary Page Keller] is displayed beautifully; I wished there had been more.) But the more we plumb his depths, the more we see that he’s managed to repeat his parents’ relationship mistakes, even if he’s avoided a marriage that looks like their relationship on the surface.

In fact, Oliver seems to wonder whether Hal’s late-in-life embrace of his sexual orientation, as well as his eagerness to engage with gay rights movements and communities, indicates that he possessed a capacity for self-understanding that still evades Oliver. In teeny, tiny moments — when the two men bicker over whether “everyone” knows that a rainbow flag indicates gay rights, or whether Hal should tell his lover Andy about the cancer — we see that there are no clear answers to Oliver’s soul-searching and his attempts to understand his father.

Walking out of the theater, my partner nailed it best: as he put it, Beginners is a film that might have failed in someone else’s hands. But between Mills’ gentle and serious vision, a terrific editing job, and the perfect and subtle acting of every single member of the cast — and here let me beg the heavens: please let me go through my next existential crisis in bed with Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor — the film balances light and dark, whimsical and heartbreaking, and the interaction between repression and self-revelation. It’s elegantly done. Even the scenes with the needy little Jack Russell terrier, which could have plummeted into the depths of hopeless cuteness, always appealed to me as just delightful enough without a sugar rush.

I didn’t love it as much as I loved Thumbsucker, I think because I found the sets and locations distractingly posh. It’s almost Woody Allen-like — the extraordinarily well-appointed Los Angeles hillside homes, the great art on the walls, the way that Laurent’s hair is always so perfectly unbrushed. In contrast, I found the Oregon drabness of Thumbsucker and its subtle family resemblances between the actors Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci so exquisitely wrought, right down to their hopeful, needy unloveliness; I longed, in this film, for a bit more of that realism rather than a rarefied LA world.

But oh, what Mike Mills can do with great actors — and oh, his gift for getting them into his films! Beginners is compelling in every scene due to McGregor’s and Plummer’s acting, their handsomeness, their appreciation for their lovers. If this film answers its questions with “the eternal Yes” of love, as Mr. Emerson puts it in Room with a View (1985), it doesn’t do so cheaply, or easily. See it, and enjoy your midsummer questions about life and existence — till anon, when I think on the screen about Tree of Life.