Practical Magic

When Shakespeare decided to put a trio of witches into Macbeth he knew
that their very presence would suggest to his audience something fearful beyond
imagining. They were a kind of algebraic symbol for the unknown quantity of evil
which the play, in more realistic fashion, attempted to solve for. Nowadays, the
presence of witches in a movie is also a symbol — a symbol not of a fearful
but of a hopeful fantasy. Our paradigmatic witch is not the evil and ugly hag
but cute and pert Samantha Stevens who, with a twitch of her nose, controls all
that which real women tend to feel controlled by — in particular her doltish
husband who, nevertheless, remains a model of uxorious devotion.

Practical Magic, directed by Griffin Dunne, is yet another such
exercise in female wish-fulfilment and so attracts to the box-office a goodly
share of teenage girls with corrupted imaginations. Nicole Kidman and Sandra
Bullock play two sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens, who are supposed to be
descended from a Salem witch called Maria. Because Maria was unlucky in love,
she put a spell on herself to ward it off, but somehow it turned into a family
curse, and ever since her time, any man that one of the Owens women fell in love
with was doomed to an untimely death. Gillian and
Sally’s father had died thus, and
their mother had died not long after of a broken heart, so they were brought up
by two maiden and very witchy aunts called Aunt Frances (Stockard Channing) and
Aunt Jet (Dianne Wiest).

In growing up the two girls took divergent paths. Sally had shown an interest
in “the
craft” practised by her aunts, while
Gillian had exulted in the more conventional kind of feminine witchcraft with a
quantity of which she had been blessed. At an early age, Sally had cast a spell
to prevent herself from falling in love by making up the perfect man, who
doesn’t exist, as the only one she
would love; Gillian had run off with a guy and continued thereafter to run off
with several others. The Sally and her aunts
didn’t hear from her for some years.
Meanwhile, Sally had grown up, met a man, got married and had two kids. They
were a very happy family and she thought all the witch nonsense forgotten when
one day she heard the death watch beetle that is the harbinger of imminent death
for the Owens mate — and sure enough
Sally’s husband was flattened by a
truck the selfsame day.

Gillian then comes home to help Sally get over her
husband’s death. She, Gillian, is
currently involved with a Bulgarian calling himself Jimmy (Goran Visnjic) who is
from “near
Transylvania” and into
“this whole Dracula/cowboy
thing.” Gillian says that he
“speaks of our relationship in terms
of centuries” and says that
“sometimes we just stay up and worship
each other all night, like bats.”
Gillian insists that Jimmy is
“stronger than the
curse.” But after she gets Sally back
on her feet again, she calls home in an emergency. Jimmy has hit her and she
wants to get away. Sally comes to help her but no sooner finds her than both are
kidnaped by the deranged, drugged and violent Jimmy.

What are a couple of witch-gals to do? You can probably guess that, whatever
it is, it won’t be very pleasant for the very unpleasant Jimmy — although
his spirit possesses a tenacious hold on poor Gillian which it takes a magic
circle of hastily deputized neighborhood witches, instructed to bring their own
brooms — or, in one case, a dustbuster — to exorcize. As this operation
is being accomplished, there also appears, as in most feminine fantasies, the
perfect man (girlishly supposed hitherto not to exist) to comfort poor widowed
Sally. True, he is at first doubtful about the witch business, and he asks Sally
if it does not involve devil-worship. No, says Sally,
devil’s not in the
craft.” But then, she would say that,
wouldn’t she?

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts