Turn­ing 20: Prac­ti­cal Magic Shows the Stay­ing Power of Witches Shan­non We­ber

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - TRAVEL - by Shan­non We­ber

TWENTY YEARS AGO, Alice Hoff­man’s 1995 novel Prac­ti­cal Magic was adapted into a heart­felt film that—along with other pieces of ’90s pop cul­ture such as The Craft, Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer, Sab­rina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Gen­er­a­tion—kicked the re­nais­sance of em­pow­ered, fe­male-driven witch­craft into high gear. And Amer­ica has been en­chanted ever since, with in­ter­est in witch­craft con­tin­u­ing to surge in re­cent years. Gil­lian Owens (Ni­cole Kid­man) and Sally Owens (San­dra Bul­lock) are two very dif­fer­ent sis­ters from a long ma­ter­nal line of witches liv­ing off the Mas­sachusetts coast. Prac­ti­cal Magic ex­plores the power of fam­ily bonds and the mag­i­cal in­ge­nu­ity of girls and women. Through­out the film, these themes are threaded by a con­nec­tion to travel: trav­el­ing across lifes­pans to ex­pe­ri­ence both joy and heartache; trav­el­ing across gen­er­a­tions to chan­nel an­ces­tors and heal cen­turies-old wounds; and trav­el­ing be­tween the so­cial realms of out­cast and cen­ter of the com­mu­nity. Prac­ti­cal Magic be­gins in the past, re­veal­ing the per­se­cu­tion of Maria Owens (Caprice Benedetti), the first woman in the Owens fam­ily line to make her home in the then-pu­ri­tan Mas­sachusetts coastal com­mu­nity. The towns­peo­ple at­tempt to hang Maria “be­cause she had the gift...of magic.” Maria tri­umphs over death—us­ing magic to es­cape her ex­e­cu­tion—and she awaits the re­turn of her lover as she searches the sea, her preg­nant belly fore­shad­ow­ing her de­scen­dants to come. When her lover fails to re­turn for her, she casts a curse over all the men whom fu­ture Owens women might love, a het­eronor­ma­tive at­tempt at spar­ing her de­scen­dants from heart­break. This sets the stage for a long line of tragedy be­falling men in the fam­ily, so that women’s thoughts, feel­ings, lead­er­ship, and bonds are cen­tered through­out the story. With Maria’s curse, we’re also given in­sight into the work­ings of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma. Maria’s trauma from be­ing os­tra­cized in her com­mu­nity and los­ing her beloved is trans­ferred from one gen­er­a­tion of Owens women to the next, as each faces ru­ined re­la­tion­ships with men and ha­rass­ment from up­tight and hyp­o­crit­i­cal towns­folk. De­spite their fear of witch­craft, the lat­ter ap­pear at the Owens’s door

with fre­quency, des­per­ate for a love spell or other mag­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion into their life crises. Witches, it is clear, have stay­ing power, de­spite be­ing ma­ligned and hunted for cen­turies. Men in this film tend to be coded in gra­da­tions of dan­ger, rang­ing from the ab­sent lover who in­spires Maria’s curse; to Sally’s much-loved first hus­band Michael (Mark Feuer­stein), who meets an un­timely end at the hands of the curse; to Jimmy An­gelov (Go­ran Vis­njic), Gil­lian's abu­sive, al­co­holic one-time boyfriend who can’t take no for an an­swer and re­sponds to women who chal­lenge his author­ity with vi­o­lence. Find­ing a ten­able so­lu­tion to get­ting Jimmy out of Gil­lian’s life oc­cu­pies a large por­tion of Prac­ti­cal Magic. It’s im­por­tant to note that af­ter Jimmy’s un­dead spirit pos­sesses Gil­lian, it’s not Gary Hal­let (Ai­dan Quinn), the cop in­ves­ti­gat­ing Jimmy’s mur­der, who saves the day. Rather, it’s the Owens women’s magic, cru­cially strength­ened by the re­cruited power of the gos­sipy-turned-em­pa­thetic townswomen. In Prac­ti­cal Magic, women ex­press de­sire and love for men, but those men are at the mercy of their power. In one of the movie's fi­nal scenes, as Sally en­gages in a blood oath with Gil­lian and cries out, “My blood, your blood, our blood,” Aunt Jet (Dianne Wi­est) adds, “Maria’s blood!” A pow­er­ful white light pul­sates through the cir­cle of women as Sally, em­brac­ing Gil­lian, has flash­backs of their life to­gether, and as the rag­tag coven joins hands, the flash­back mon­tage in­cludes Maria’s face, unit­ing the past with the present as the power of women’s love and com­mu­nity brings Gil­lian back from the brink and heals the trauma that cre­ated, and arose from, Maria’s curse. Yes, Sally ends up with Gary in a het­eronor­ma­tive fairy-tale crescendo, but she also deep­ens her con­nec­tion to her witch­i­ness and fi­nally em­braces be­ing less than “nor­mal” af­ter run­ning from it her whole life. In turn, the town at last ac­cepts the fam­ily, cel­e­brat­ing their pub­lic Hal­loween “com­ing out” when the Owens women and girls deck them­selves out in black dresses and whim­si­cal pointy hats and jump off the roof of their ram­bling Vic­to­rian house, float­ing down with um­brel­las Mary Pop­pins–style and laugh­ing, to the cheers and de­light of those be­low. Prac­ti­cal Magic trav­els from 1998 to 2018 as a beloved cul­tural icon that with­stands the test of time and rein­vig­o­rates in­ter­est in witchy fem­i­nist spir­i­tu­al­ity, re­mind­ing us that there is, as Aunt Jet says, “a lit­tle witch in all of us.” At its core, the film reaf­firms that women and girls har­bor deep in­ner re­serves of power, and that we’re at our very strong­est when we come to­gether in sol­i­dar­ity, heal­ing, and love.

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