Friday, January 11, 2013

CinemArchetype 20 - The Three Sisters / Witches

from top: Dracula; O Brother Where Art Thou?; A Matter of Life and Death

Three sisters --- immovable power.. the magic number...the trinity. A solid bloc of womanhood where sisters can't help but become witches.

9 to 5

Why three? Two women can be turned on one another; four women get lost in chatter; but three, should they stand united, cannot fall. No man, nor army, can stand up to them. They might be killed by Nazis, but they can't be stood  up to. They represent a feminine solidarity - an unknowable, strange concentration of feminine power. Three allows both intimacy and group dynamics without being bound to the pitfalls of either. This facilitates a rare and magic alchemical union of three souls that can become more than the sum of their parts.

top: Heavenly Creatures, Meet Me in Saint Louis, Macbeth (2006)

There are groups of four sisters in the movies -- Meet Me in Saint Louis, Little Women, but they never quite rise to the thrize; they  mute each other out with over-talking and end up surrendering to one leader, i.e. Jo or Judy, rather than the perfect interaction of equal parts that is the number of three. With three there is constant support and competition. Each can take a part that leads to a calculated whole. Two and they get too conspiratorial and overly intimate, a kind of straight same sex pair bond that gets incestuous with no link left for the outside world. Four and it's practically a party. Three / is the magic number. There's always room for us to imagine stepping in and seducing one, but never shattering their connection.

 Truth be told, I am haunted by the image of the three sisters. When I was an infant my mom regularly visited a relative who later moved who had triplet girls around four years older than me. While the parents talked the three girls showered me with affection, I was still an infant and became like their doll. They are in only one or two pictures - it was Xmas because there was wrapping paper everywhere, and sparkly Christmas lights. Their affection ruined me. I adore women in batches of three to this day. And when Charlie's Angels came along, I was double-hooked. In college our band was inspired by three beautiful Connecticut hippie girls...  ten years later and three beautiful blonde women sat with me the rest of the night after my intervention and it was like some dream had become monkey's-paw true. Let me say up front that I adore them but not necessarily to sleep with, you understand, but to adore, and be adored by, and to adore in turn... until they get old and have three kids with some mere mortal.

1. The 3 Foxy Granddaughters in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Even fans of Spielberg's perhaps best film have some qualms about the framing narrative involving the elderly Ryan staggering possessed and gut-broken through Arlington, his wife, daughter and three hot granddaughters walking behind from a respectful distance, like they're following a drunken baby on his first brace of steps. We never get to linger our gaze but that girl in the center with the pink tight pants and lavender shirt naturally hooks our attention.

The power of the three daughters is employed the same way it is below, for Inglourious Basterds 
but on the opposite end. Ryan's own children (flanking the girls) seem surly and preoccupied but these three granddaughters--faces blank from easy comfort and suburban securit--seem to sense that their ease-of-living is the result of this strange man's sacrifice. Whatever's on his mind, it's affected their survival in ways they innately sense more than consciously know. One look at them and you know they've never been lost in the woods or fought against huns or starved in attics or hid, terrified, under floorboards. Their soft colors and serne health bespeaks Ryan's life as a success -- the 'wealth of feminin-American'  What they lack in sophistication they make up for in un-trampled surface sensuality.

2. The three darker-haired dairy farmer daughters in Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The daughters here are much darker in lighting and mood and represent the other end of the timeline, the cautionary 'before' to the Ryan's granddaughters' 'after.' Ingeniously, Quentin and Waltz make Hans Landa a cultured intellectual, a superficially charming and meticulous man, his greetings to the lovely daughters, kissing the hand of the prettiest and saddest--a redhead who looks down at him (he's shorter) with eyes lidded to hide her weary terror--belie that he represents the evil that has created the tension of both films, and here we see what life would be like for any nervous father with three beautiful young daughters in an occupied country run by genocidal thugs, no matter how cultured their ranking officer.

The lighting differences for each set of daughters tells the story (as is the fact of their appearance only in the very first sequence of the film). It's prologue, set in modern times, the Private Ryan lighting is awash in a bright but overcast grey twilight gleaming through a threadbare flag; the grandfather's mortality is something to mourn, but nothing to fear, compared to the hell he's already endured for our freedom. At the beginning (1941) of Basterds in the cow country of Nazi-occupied France (the very land Ryan and company wander through), the lighting inside the farmhouse is Godfather dark, the lack of trees or shadow outdoors and and the relative smallness of the house creates a feeling of fatalistic vulnerability. This little shack could get blown out of existence with the ordinance available just in one of those motorcycles. All the farmer has to combat them is an axe to chop wood --and if he did resist, those daughters would be in deep trouble France has already surrendered to the Nazis to avoid inordinate destruction of their beloved Paris, itself as exposed and unfortified as that farmhouse.

In both films their sororal trinity represents a bloc of feminine innocence any father or grandfather would lay down his life to protect, and, worse still, must sometimes lay down the life of others as well --eminently harder.

Top: Clash of the Titans (2010) / Macbeth (1948)
3. The three Witches - Macbeth (1948)
'Power of Three' has to do with Alchemy. The Egyptian god Thoth or the Greek Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Blessed or Thrice Great) are the progenitors of the Emerald Tablets describing the mysteries of Alchemy. The alchemy of three is demonstrated by its power of multiplicity. For example, in understanding the numbers - One gave rise to Two (1+1=2) and Two gave Rise to Three (2+1=3) and Three gave rise to all numbers (3+1=4, 3+2=5, 3+3=6, 3+4=7, 3+5=8 3+6=9). Thus in addition to being a number of good fortune, Three is also the number of multiplicity and alchemy among other things. Many believe the Triquetrais an ancient symbol of the female trinity, because it is composed of three interlaced yonic Vesica Pisces (a.k.a. PiscisSLatin for "Vessel of the Fish") and is the most basic and important construction in Sacred Geometry, which is the architecture of the universe. A Vesica is formed when the circumference of two identical circles each pass through the center of the other in effect creating a portal. 'The Triquetra' represents the 'Power of Three' or the threefold nature of existence i.e. body, mind and spirit; life, death and rebirth; past, present and future; beginning, middle and end; Sun, Moon and Earth; and the threefold co-creative process described as thought, word, and deed." (Crystalinks)

4. Irina Katya and Elena - The Derevko Sisters - Alias

There's numerous examples of the three sisters in television but may favorite are the three evil (or are they?) genius Russian sisters of Alias. One is Sidney Bristo's mother, a former KGB agent, the other two are even more insidious and deadly. The great thing about this early J.J. Abrams show is that his full attention seems to be on it--at least in the first four seasons--so the level of intelligence--the layering of allegiance and identity--astounds. If there's ever some secret we learn about them, it's because they want us to know it, and so therefore it's probably not true.

20. Thence come the maidens
mighty in wisdom,
Three from the dwelling
down 'neath the tree;
Urth is one named,
Verthandi the next,--
On the wood (runes) they scored,--
and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there,
and life allotted
To the sons of men,
and set their fates
-- Vafþrúðnismál

(My capsule reviews for all three seasons)
6.  Cries and Whispers

If you can stand its mounting panic attack quiet, Ingmar Bergman's ultimate depressant CRIES AND WHISPERS pays off with a tragic series of events that among other things would stand as a good argument for gay marriage. It's Sweden at the turn of the century during the endless nights of winter, and Nordic depression makes isolation in red rooms a matter of being so far past the realms of time and space that you feel caught like a fly in the manic-depressive ointment that's been the Swedish birthright since the Ice Age.

And we learn, presumably, the origin story of all subsequent auteurs' genital self-mutilation fascinations, i.e. ANTICHRIST, BLACK SWAN and THE PIANO TEACHER; and out of the weird symbiotic passing of traits between the two living sisters at the climax comes, if nothing else, Altman's 3 WOMEN. CRIES is one of Bergman's more unflinchingly bleak films but made with shocking confidence, and not a drop of music. It's so quiet we can hear people breathing from whole rooms away and each toll of a clock resounds through the red rooms like a John Donne mortal dis-encoiler.

7. The three old ladies in Love Me Tonight (1932)

Maurice Chevalier, nothing but a tailor, endears himself to the wins the instant approval of these three spinster aunts, who recognize him as the prince they've been conjuring into existence for their sex-starved princess niece, drawing him towards her via an alchemical spell they've undertaken to cure their princess of her 'fainting' condition, a knight riding to her dream rescue, "as he never did for us." Unlike the uncle's stuffing of the estate with elderly dead bridge players, short and comic royal suitors, and geriatric footmen, to keep his two randy charges--Charlie Ruggles and sexy Myrna Loy--prisoner in this vast cavernous place, while waiting for the princess to be rescued first, and man like the suitors in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, we want to find the princess a worthy husband too, so we can move in on sweet nymph Myrna. Meanwhile, the three ladies express their woes at being marginalized on the fringe of the biological molten dam of forward rolling generational magma, but they have a good time, keeping each other clucking and laughing, and working their old maid alchemy.

8-9 - The Three Mothers -- The Black Cat, Suspiria, Inferno, Mother of Tears
These ladies on the other hand brook no sass or umbrage. Fathomlessly old and evil, they feed off the psychic energy of youth, and leave breadcrumb clues to draw innocent blood to them, like gingerbread house flippers.

10. Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer - The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
But these ladies are too sexy to brook anything else.

 Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy in Hocus Pocus (1993)
And these, who knows? Too PG to be too sexy, yet at least one rocks per three:

Rose McGowan, Alysa Milano, Holly Marie Combs - Charmed

11. Josie and the Pussycats
Man, it's too bad this film bombed or whatever. It had a hilariously frank attitude towards product placement (the highlight are the McDonald's curtains) and Parker Posey scores big as the villain. I wanted to get something on here to represent grrl power in a 90s in a non-witch setting and as a segue to the next entrant: two pairs of three that represent the lows and glamorous fake lows of Hollywood.... the original cartoon was a favorite of my 70s incarnation. I especially liked the hot uber-bitch villainess with the skunk hair. And the theme song had a vein of funky soul in it... i.e. the 70s.

The Three Weird Sisters from 90s kid cartoon Gargoyles.
The ladies of Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!


 12.  The Manson sisters; Sharon Tate, Patty Duke and Barbara Parkins - The Valley of the Dolls (1967)

Maybe it's the height of bad taste to link these two sets of sisters together, since the Manson girls are responsible for the slaying of Valley star Sharon Tate in one of the grisliest high-profile crimes of the era. But given the subject matter of Valley of the Dolls it makes sense. We should remember that 'dolls' means Valium, the designer drug of choice for the pampered but hard-working LA elite. As that crushing song by Andre and Dory Previn sinks any last trace of hope, the girls rise and fall and die for love and limelight -- only one makes it out, by moving home (New England) for the winter, and getting respectable. Patty Duke falls off the wagon and ends up freaking out in a backstage alleyway that seems like the bottom of a deep tomb (echoing the kind of outdoor night interiority director Mark Robson must have picked up working for Val Lewton); and Sharon Tate ODs once she realizes she'll never be free of her grubbing manipulative, soul-crushing mom who doesn't care her daughter has to do Eurosleaze to pay her diseased husband's medical bills - she wants money! When the three 'sisters' stand together they are strong, but they don't stand together that often and even when they do we worry show business will chew them up and spit them out, use them for sex, dub it into French, and their gigolo boyfriends will piss away the royalties.

The Manson girls aren't officially movie stars, though they were represented in countless true crime adaptations, such as Helter Skelter, Savage Messiah, and even, in its way, I Eat Your Skin. That they continue to revere the manipulator who got them in jail for life speaks to the undying power one can have over others when one mixes mind control and really strong acid. United in a bizarre psychic link, it's if the three witches were dumb enough to hook up with Macbeth and became a Lady Macbeth witch trio combo acidhead murderer/ soothsayers. Just looking left at the stunning beauty of Sharon Tate, forever robbed from us by their lysergic hippie rage, makes me loathe and resent the Mansons for what they did, not only to this rare beauty but to the good name of hippy cults everywhere, basically validating all the older establishment's fears and doubts about the LSD generation. They are the ultimate expression of the negative "Three Witches" of Macbeth, turning the world topsy turvy, creating discord, only guided by a manipulative male into bloody, violent action, instead of the reverse....

Where will we / how will we / learn who we are now?

Sisters help us, the charm's unwound.


  1. I have three older sisters... and I have a LOT of issues. For all those fathers of daughters that keep knocking up your wife until you finally get a son - Celebrate your daughters and quit while you are ahead. He's not going to be the Alpha Male of this pecking order, growing up an alien in his own house, with a father who is as outnumbered as he is. See Punch Drunk Love.

  2. Good lord right? Thanks for your recent comment/s, Johnny. Sorry to hear about these three older sisters. I can only imagine, let alone seven. I only have one younger brother and now he's a hulking gun nut in Arizona and I know, sadly, my petty irritable tyranny when we were kids helped in some way to bring him to that state. I thought about incorporating the Punch Drunk coven into this post somehow, so I'm glad you brought them up. One day I want to go through their scenes and try to listen to each individual voice / thread one at a time, but I imagine it would drive me insane

  3. The two oldest sisters now live in small trailers on my Mother's property. It's kind of a Larry McMurtry meets the Beales of Grey Gardens, with at least 11 small dogs. I am digressing here, but i met a psychic once, and the very first thing he said was "You grew up in a house full of powerful women, all bigger than you, and you have never been able to assert yourself in relationships as a result of it. You didn't have a father figure, so you have spent your life hiring them, and then when you outgrow them, you fire them and move on." This was on a handshake, not after a therapy session! I love them, get along great with them, but it took a lot of work to get there. Anyway, I love the points you brought up about the Estrogynous Trinity!

  4. wow. great post. something i haven't even really thought about.

  5. Interesting how Americans always claim that your soldiers fought for your freedom in the Second World War. Unless you mean America's freedom to do whatever it wants, anytime and anywhere it wants (a victorious Germany would have checked your power to do this, somewhat,) your freedom was never under threat by National Socialist Germany. Not only were they not interested in America or even Western Europe, for that matter, but they did not have the means to be a threat to the USA.

    There's also no reason to believe that a victorious German "Reich" would not have eventually become more liberal after a couple of decades of brutal rule in Eastern Europe. One can refer to the ascendency of you Anglophone people as an example - the English went from brutal conquerors and tyrants over a few centuries to the liberal all-powerful protectors of this (your) free world. Always remember that for the American/Anglophone people to have had the kind of power and manipulation skills/control over world media etc. necessary to defeat Germany twice, was obtained after centuries of war and brutality and all the other vices that goes hand-in-hand with murderous imperial and territorial expansion. Yet, here you are now, spread out over entire continents, living it up. Thus the nations like Germany and Japan, whom were your enemies over the past century, were really just completely overtaken by the Anglophones, centuries ago, in the big race for world supremacy, and in them you were really just fighting earlier, more primitive versions of yourselves.

    As for those daughters - well, that's just one more tool a screenwriter/director can use to pass along unspoken messages, of course, but it can have the opposite effect as well - propaganda. The first thing that popped into my head when seeing those voluptuous hotties was: "Spielberg, have you no shame?" Yes, the perfect and godlike Americans with their superhumanly gorgeous daughters are here to make us praise God they won, for otherwise those hotties would not have existed.

    Another thing, calling Tarantino ingenious for his Hans Landa character is mindless butt-kissing. The main German antagonists are always presented as very clever and shrewd in all films. Hans Landa is therefore a stereotype. Convincing the farmer first that it's OK for a couple of Jews to be shot before asking him where they are hiding is not something only a genius writer can come up with. Oh yes - the start of the film is historically inaccurate: French Jews were not rounded up until the second half of 1942. Inglourious Basterds starts in early 1941, with a family that has already been in hiding for nine months (thus since 1940!)

    Also, not everyone who helped to run occupied France was a genocidal thug. This is the kind of ignorance that has people cheering at scenes like the indiscriminate scalping of the German troops in Inglourious Basterds. Some of those troops were easily just 16 years old, all of them were drafted and many of them would have been good people and "good" soldiers. Try to not make use of generalisations when you write. If I were to call Allied troops rapists, it would be unfair, as not all Allied troops raped German girls at the end of the war.

    Apart from the small issues I listed above, the article is very informative about a symbolic reference that I've never really taken notice of.

  6. Not sure that Anonymous (above) isn't harboring some deep seated grudge, but whatever...
    As to Saving Private Ryan, the cemetery in the movie is not Arlington - it is obviously the Normandy American Cemetery near Omaha Beach in France, the focus of the movie. And as for the 3 hot grand-daughters, one continued as an actress including doing a James Bond movie.
    But back to Anonymous' rant: That the US entered the war following Pearl Harbor was fortuitous for England and Europe - along with materiel and supplies, it is unlikely that without foreign help that the continental allies would have been victorious over the Axis. BUT, it is true that - unlike portrayed in many movies - that any soldier, or army, was fighting on behalf of the Jews. At the time, there was only minor attention paid to their plight with many countries refusing refugees. It was not until Germany was defeated and the death camps opened up that the true extent of the Holocaust was seen. Even then though, most of the Jewish peoples were sent to newly created Israel (a British territory of Palestine, displacing them and starting a whole new problem ever since).
    But if Anonymous is trying to portray the Nazis in a sympathetic light, forget it. They were pure evil. And the Americans were at the very least helpful, and probably at their best altruistic. I'm not American, but get tired of anti-American sentiment. If there are anecdotal examples of American atrocities throughout history, that is part of the dichotomy of their dynamic national character. After all, this is the nation that landed a man on the Moon at the height of the Vietnam War. AND helped defeat the antagonists in Two World Wars.

    1. Great comment. But Jewish people weren’t “sent” to their homeland Israel. The Jews all over the world returned to the land Israel. The biblical prophecy is clear that God would bring His people back to THEIR land. Which He did in the 40’s. The world making Israel an official country again is of no consequence to God. Some countries refuse to recognize Israel to this day. They have God to deal with. He said if you curse my people I will curse you.

  7. thanks for stepping up! Damn right Amerika Rules! I didn't delete that alt-R-anon rant as I found it, at the very least, enlightening as to the new crypto-fascist historical fiction revisionism. I appreciate you defending us and our potent mix of dog-like altruism and gung ho naivete. I will slyly change the name on the cemetery to Arlington. Shhhh.


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