Incredible creativity | Sunday Observer
Tribute to iconic Exorcist director, William Friedkin:

Incredible creativity

13 August, 2023

When I was 15 or 16, my mother insisted that I watch The Exorcist. It didn’t seem unusual to me then, but it does now. The Exorcist is just about the most violent and audacious horror film to have come out of the counterculture era. My mother had seen it as a very young girl herself, accompanied by an elder cousin, in the 1970s. The film had been censored in the country, but it had still left a deep impression on her. The theological aspects had doubtless been lost on her: what had transfixed her, rather, was the mother-daughter relationship, the pain of seeing a girl of that age going through the torments of hell.

That it didn’t assail her senses or disrupt her upbringing was something of a miracle. But my mother was not an ordinary woman when it came to the cinema. On another occasion, she had lied about her age to watch Suddilage Kathawa, a film that had been out of bounds for schoolgirls. Yet The Exorcist existed a world or two apart from Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s sensuous reimagining of Simon Nawagattegama’s novel. William Friedkin’s masterpiece, it stands out even today as the greatest supernatural horror film ever made, and it went on to win several Oscar nominations, including – the first time for a horror flick – for Best Picture. In Sri Lanka I am told that it gained something of a following, though its violent depiction of a girl mutilating herself in agony would have ruffled plenty of feathers.

I remembered my mother when I learnt of William Friedkin’s passing last week. Friedkin died a year after Peter Bogdanovich, another American director who did much to revive the US cinema in the early 1970s. Though one can couple or square these two figures with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, they were very much of, from, and in a different league.

New chapter

Writing in Marg in 1947, the Sri Lankan art critic L. C. van Geyzel said that George Keyt “had no precursors, only ancestors from antiquity.” Friedkin and Bogdanovich, in that sense, were ancestors from antiquity, whose championing of the cinema helped revive an industry that had scattered here and there. Despite the exciting possibilities the counterculture had opened the US cinema to, Hollywood had lost its way. Bogdanovich and Friedkin did much to reclaim it. In doing so, they breathed new life to an entire industry.

Friedkin’s reputation preceded him, and he was no erratic genius, but he made demands on his cast and crew that did not always endear him to them. His estimation about some of the people he worked with was brash, sincere, often insulting. Remembering Gene Hackman an at an American Film Institute seminar, for instance, he said that he had been his last choice for The French Connection, adding that “he bored the shift out of me.” In The Exorcist he emerged as a more difficult director, going so far as to slap a supporting actor to get the kind of reaction he wanted for a scene. Coupled with the physical injuries that half the cast (and perhaps crew) sustained during production, it comes to no surprise that there were constant fights and encounters, some quite colourful, on and off the set.

Unlike Bogdanovich, Friedkin did not enter films as a critic or a cineaste. He joined WGN-TV Chicago after finishing high school and got around directing documentaries. Energetic to a fault, he got the chance to direct four feature films between 1967 and 1970, all epitomising the counterculture: Good Times (1967), The Birthday Party (1968), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), and The Boys in the Band (1970). He also got involved in several television shows, including the very last episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. These, together with his upbringing in Chicago, pushed him to horror and suspense. Reflecting on this stage in his life, he once observed that the films “that had the most effect on me were suspense films like The Wages of Fear, or Les Diaboliques by Henri-Georges Clouzot.” The Wages of Fear in fact provided the basis for his most underrated film, Sorcerer (1977).

Though the studio system had not completely died in that era, the 1960s and 1970s became something of a blessing for the director. All sorts of possibilities presented themselves for auteurs who wanted to reconfigure the contours of the medium, and the result was the subversion of almost every genre. Here Friedkin proved to be the opposite of the likes of Bogdanovich, whose goal was to revive the tropes of classical Hollywood by making them more relevant and more contemporary. Yet neither The French Connection nor The Exorcist were sui generis or lacked an ancestor from antiquity: the most famous and discussed sequence in The French Connection, the car chase, for instance, had already been preceded by Bullitt, while The Exorcist had been preceded by Rosemary’s Baby.

Page-turners for American cinema

Yet in their own special way, these films redefined how we saw American filmmaking, just as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, the definitive page-turners for American cinema, both released the same year Friedkin made his first few feature films, redefined it in their time. Friedkin could often be merciless onset, but he got what he wanted, even if he and his cast and crew had to go to great lengths. There are moments in The French Connection and The Exorcist that are so raw, that they stand out on their own.

Friedkin, however, could validly be accused of attempting shock effects at every turn, which is perhaps why The Exorcist seems better without them. The spider-walk, for instance, which shocked my mother and her generation, seems so ineffective today. This is largely because such sequences can easily be copied and recycled, as they have been in countless exorcism films today. In that sense, Friedkin’s style – if ever he had one – became easy to imitate in a way Coppola’s could not. And perhaps that was his tragedy, for his later works including the more recent ones, are good in their own way, yet they are criminally ignored.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected].