Friday, February 02, 2007

Mind the Ogre

* El Laberinto del Fauno/Pan's Labyrinth: Guillermo del Toro's latest masterpiece is being ballyhooed in newspaper ads and TV spots as an out-and-out fantasy; my son Dan works at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, VT, and reports many disgruntled folks coming out after, having expected a Jim Henson-like Labyrinth opus and endured instead a crash-course in the Spanish Civil War.

Similar responses are detailed in some of this past week's comments posted on this very blog (personally, I've long practiced the "no expectations" rule when entering a theater or popping in a disc or tape; but hey, that's me, I'm weird). Indeed, the poster evokes Tim Burton's universe, with petite Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) standing beneath the arc of the labyrinth entrance and before the iconic, ancient split tree central to the film's ravishing imagery. No doubt the studio has done a stellar job selling the film, and I can understand the expectations raised by the easy-sell procession of key fairy-tale imagery that is indeed central to the film. That's the most sympathy I can mount for the disconnect between expectation and the film itself: it's not the first time, and won't be the last, a film has been arguably mismarketed. But hey, it's gotten Pan's Labyrinth into theaters, and lots of them. All's fair in love and marketing. Getting asses into seats is all that matters to Hollywood, and the justifiable critical praise and accurate-as-far-as-it-goes promotion of the film drawn from del Toro's inspired fantasy sequences is doing its job.

Perversely, I couldn't be happier. It's an eerily precise echo of the 2002-3 selling of this fucking war we're now mired in: the public bought the fantasy, and are now disenchanted with the reality. That's precisely the tenor and feeble substance of the arguments against Pan's Labyrinth I've heard and read, and it's a remarkable microcosm of the American psyche and war. We ache only for the fantasy of conflict, the illusory glory and victory (the most destructive fantasy of all in current US history: the irrational urge for a return to Victory Culture, an impossibility in the 21st Century), we resent the grim realities.

Make no mistake, Pan's Labyrinth explores all that, and more. Like (to cite just three examples), René Clément's Jeux interdits/Forbidden Games (1952), Victor Erice's gem El Espíritu de la colmena/The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Bryan Talbot's top-notch graphic novel The Tale of One Bad Rat, Pan's Labyrinth explores and articulates with stunning power the fundamental necessity & function of fantasy as tool for dealing with the harshest aspects of life (in the case of the two films I've cited, war; in the context of Talbot's graphic novel, the repercussions of sexual abuse). It's no coincidence, either, these works all deal with children uprooted, orphaned and/or exiled by dire circumstances beyond their control.

In his latest film, del Toro provides a complete case history of Ofelia's plight, presented with such economy and clarity that we experience its arc with our own adult perceptions intact, even as we vicariously experience Ofelia's child's-point-of-view quite directly (including her fantasy life, sequences which are beautifully conceived and realized). As in del Toro's previous Spanish Civil War-set meditation on war and its horrors, El Espinazo del diablo/The Devil's Backbone (2001; if you haven't seen it yet, do so, immediately!), the motivations of all the adult characters are lucidly delineated without once losing the narrative focus on the child protagonist(s). This, to my mind, is among del Toro's most precious gifts as a storyteller; shame on those adults who resent del Toro's insistence on a fuller grasp of the world.

[Why do we insist on being treated like children? I'm 51 years old; I see films as an adult, I don't resent films that treat me as an adult, despite the rigorous MPAA attempts to regulate all US cinema to the level of 17-year-olds exclusively.]

On del Toro's terms -- in the context of his work to date, and the film's own terms -- Pan's Labyrinth is a masterwork.

Ofelia's odyssey (and personal apocalypse: the film is framed, perfectly, by the darkest moment of Ofelia's young life) begins with the caravan to her new home interrupted by her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) needing to stop amid a bout of 'morning sickness' (or worse; she is in ill health throughout the tale). There, in the verdant depths of the Spanish forest, Ofelia demonstrates a leap of perception that attracts the unusual attention of a most unusual walking stick (a real insect, for any of you who may doubt: these amazing insects also live in VT). This creature follows Ofelia and the car caravan to the farmhouse serving as the current battle station of Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), the man Ofelia's mother has married; she has her reasons, including her maternal dread of her daughter and soon-to-be-born son being orphaned, fears which play perfectly to Vidal's craving for an heir (Vidal carries his father's watch, which becomes a key visual touchstone in the film). Ofelia harbors nothing but loathing for Vidal, and in del Toro's first privileged view to the viewer of events Ofelia will never know of, we see how dead-on Ofelia's reading of El Capitán truly is: his casual nighttime dispatch of two innocent peasants, all to make a point to his second-in-command to not bother El Capitán with trivialities, is among the most harrowing moments in recent cinema.

Those (including comments on this blog) complaining about the lack of onscreen monsters clearly miss the point: Vidal is the monster of this fairy tale. He is del Toro's ogre, not the child-eating Pale Man that Ofelia braves in her efforts to satisfy the Faun's assigned labors. Vidal is this tale's ogre, from the casual brutality of the nighttime encounter with the father-and-son rabbit hunters to the climactic sequence in Vidal's lair. Could their be anything more fairy-tale-like in its context, imagery and strange horror than El Capitán, lit by firelight in the darkness of his headquarters, ignoring the crib in which his newborn son -- the captive infant -- cries as Vidal stitches up his face? We've seen more hamfisted evocations and fusions of fairy tales and real-world horrors (e.g., Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, The People Under the Stairs, David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, etc.), but del Toro consistently rises to the challenge with the skill of a Cocteau, never more than here. Vidal is the most monstrous of ogres in Ofelia's world, and hence the universe of Pan's Labyrinth, right to the fateful final confrontation between stepfather and stepdaughter in the heart of the titular labyrinth. In his utterly unnecessary and callous final action directed at his stepdaughter, Vidal proves to indeed be a monster, among the most frightening ever brought to the screen -- because we not only know men like Vidal exist, but we are dependent upon them in our own reality.

Among the film's most profound asides is the fleeting dialogue between Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo) and Vidal at the moment of Vidal's decisive judgment of Ferreiro: the good doctor notes the fundamental difference between military men and the rest of mankind, and Vidal proves this truth with his immediate action. Men like Vidal question nothing, they only follow orders. This is the great, unspoken tragedy at the heart of the Spanish Civil War, the Iraq War, all wars. There's no denying the ferocity of Vidal's unswerving devotion to the cause of his superior, his 'Commander in Chief' General Franco, and this is as perversely admirable as in any soldier's devotion to duty, shading Vidal's characterization (as in all his films, all del Toro's characters are nuanced and dimensional, none more than his monsters). But are these the kind of men we want fighting in our names? Vidal isn't a two-dimensional ogre, but he is a sadistic patriarch and a brute, letting nothing stand between him and his duty (to Franco and his own illusions abouts his own father, hence the import of the shattered watch he carries) -- a 'good soldier,' indeed.

Among the many strengths of Pan's Labyrinth (as in The Devil's Backbone) is the resonant historical context: we know, in fact, men like Vidal indeed triumphed and held sway for decades during Franco's fascist rule, and thus the futility of the resistance embodied here by Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and the forest-dwelling guerillas led by her brother. But we also know Franco's iron-fisted hold over Spain ended with Franco's death, and the blossoming of Spanish culture after that liberation, vindicating the struggle of the resistance fighters. With his ongoing meditations on what is, to most Americans, a forgotten war, del Toro continues to question primal truths about humanity and war even as he questions our own national commitment to war and the pious hypocrisy of fighting illusory wars to "spread democracy" in the wake of our shameful legacy of abandoning citizens, countries, cultures (as we did Spain in the 1940s) to the reign of fascists -- when it serves our political imperatives.

That said, it is as an original cinematic work that Pan's Labyrinth is most invaluable. In an era of interminable sequels, adaptations and remakes, a true original like this is a rare jewel indeed. The cast -- especially young Ivana Baquero, whose portrayal of Ofelia is touching beyond words -- is pitch-perfect, with special kudos to Maribel Verdú, Álex Angulo and Doug Jones, who plays both the enigmatic Faun and the horrific Pale Man. But it is del Toro's inspired, flawless direction that makes this such an alluring and engaging experience. Consider, for instance, the elegant adoption of that most archaic of sound era movie devices, the 'wipe' -- del Toro stages environment-driven 'wipes' to carry the film along, as a wall or a tree transports us effortlessly in a deeper chamber of the farmhouse, or further along into the woods, propelling us headlong into the depths of the narrative and closer, ever closer to its dark heart. Consider the richness and texture of script and characterization, the way in which even background characters evoke lives beyond the parameters of the screen: lives truly lived. Consider, too, the ease with which del Toro incorporates touches and characters from his earlier works without spoiling the tapestry of this new work: Ofelia's walking stick familiar, the first fairy of the film, is kin to the mutant cockroaches of Mimic (this character also recalled the diminutive humunculus Ray Harryhausen animated for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad), and who should be the long-lost and yearned for father of Ofelia's dreams but Federico Luppi, the beloved grandfather of Cronos and lone sympathetic father figure of the orphans in The Devil's Backbone? These are mere grace notes, but ones devotees like myself can savor.

Finally, it's amazing this film was made at all, much less that it would receive the wide release in the US it's currently enjoying. Guillermo's canny business instincts and ability to play the Hollywood game without losing his own muse has resulted in a remarkable tag-team procession of films, alternating between boxoffice-friendly genre exercises that cater to the market while stretching del Toro's storytelling chops, and those more personal films del Toro makes for himself. Thus, his exquisite debut feature Cronos (1993) spawns his first Hollywood genre exercise Mimic (1997), a badly flawed film spiced with startling moments and compelling characters; for American viewers, The Devil's Backbone was released sandwiched between Blade (2002) and Hellboy (2004), the success of the latter and spinoffs from the former making Pan's Labyrinth a bankable enterprise.

It's a smart game this cinematic fantasist is playing, keeping his balance with uncanny skill every step of the way, and it's the most Henson-like aspect of Pan's Labyrinth (after all, it was Muppet money that bankrolled gambles like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and The Witches in Henson's lifetime). This is the game Clive Barker hoped to play with Hollywood, but couldn't manage; no slight to Clive, mind you, that del Toro has learned from the misfortunes and missteps of those who've gone before him. It's del Toro who has played such a critical backstage role in the fusion of the new Mexican cinema and Hollywood, quietly connecting-the-dots and nurturing the crossfertilization of his peers (like Alfonso Cuarón, whose Children of Men is a here-and-now companion to Pan's Labyrinth: in some theaters, you could see both films this week!) without the loss of muses that so plagues similar absorptions into the Hollywood mainstream -- as in the Hong Kong generation, to note an example in recent memory of all readers of this blog. Consider the gulf between the mishandling of John Woo, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung a decade ago with the quite remarkable facility with which filmmakers like del Toro and Cuarón have thus far handled their careers, and give del Toro and his peers their due.

If you pass up Pan's Labyrinth because of the naysayers, you're denying yourself something extraordinary. Despite the addiction of American audiences to films streamlined to never challenge and always slake (film as narcotic), art and cinema per se aren't meant to satisfy fantasies; fantasy, in and of itself, is a mirror of the world, a means of confrontation as well as escape (can any climax of any movie so perfectly embody that, as Pan's Labyrinth's final moments truly do?).

Pan's Labyrinth
explores that essential aspect of fantasy -- our need for it, its primal function, and thus its relation to religion and religious belief -- with unflinching devotion, skill and vision.

I can think of no higher calling, no greater accomplishment, in theaters at this time.
____________

Bum's Rush

Speaking of war fantasies, mismarketing, and delusional thinking, check this out:


February 1, 2007
Professor Ole Danbolt Mjos
Chairman,
Norwegian Nobel Institute
Henrik Ibsens Gate 51
NO-0255
Oslo, Norway

Dear Dr. Mjos:

Landmark Legal Foundation herewith submits the name of Rush Limbaugh as an unsolicited nomination for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

We are offering this nomination for Mr. Limbaugh's nearly two decades of tireless efforts to promote liberty, equality and opportunity for all mankind, regardless of race, creed, economic stratum or national origin. We fervently believe that these are the only real cornerstones of just and lasting peace throughout the world.

Rush Limbaugh is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host in the United States and one of the most popular broadcasters in the world. His daily radio show is heard on more than 600 radio stations in the United States and around the world. For 18 years he has used his show to become the foremost advocate for freedom and democracy in the world today. Everyday he gives voice to the values of democratic governance, individual opportunity and the just, equal application of the rule of law -- and it is fitting the Nobel Committee recognize the power of these ideals to build a truly peaceful world for future generations.

Thank you for your thoughtful and serious consideration of this nomination. Should you require additional information, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,



Mark R. Levin
President

[SOURCE: Landmark Legal Foundation]

It's for real: see
  • this link for evidence of how delusional the self-proclaimed "leading conservative public interest law firm in the United States" really is.
  • Given only Rush's sensitive approach to the detainee torture revelations, this is a shoe-in, eh?

    For 18 years, Rush has been gleefully spreading Lord Ha-Ha-like right-wing propaganda as "fact," including war-mongering, homophobia, hate speech, racism, misogyny, etc., all with his trademark patriarchal bombast. He was during an undisclosed stretch of that time under the malign influence of megadoses of pharmaceuticals (during which he railed against drug abuse and for invasive tactics involving women's medical records to curb abortion -- the latter, coincidentally, paralleled Rush's attornies attempts to bury/shelter Rush's own medical records regarding his pharmaceutical self-abuse and activities). He has been instrumental in the elevation of George W. Bush to the presidency, the initial rushes to (and popularization of) the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, a ceaseless fear fomenter for the nonsensical "War on Terror," and among the most audacious apologists for this Administration's trampling of Constitutional and civil rights (including his justifiably infamous dismissal of torture revelations as our finest simply "letting off some steam") of the past five years.

    If you condone
  • this kind of behavior as stellar examples of contemporary American diplomacy at work, by all means, vote for Rush.
  • He's helped make it all possible, and palatable, even desirable, to a portion of the American public.
    _____________

    Have a great weekend. We're having house guests, so I'll likely not be posting -- see you Monday!

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    5 Comments:

    Blogger SRBissette said...

    Review posted. Discuss.

    2/02/2007  
    Blogger Marky Mark said...

    Too long.
    I can't read all that.

    2/02/2007  
    Blogger SRBissette said...

    See revised review, just for you.

    2/02/2007  
    Blogger K. A. Laity said...

    I agree completely -- I mentioned (in far fewer words ;-) many of the same aspects of the film. I loved the walking stick (spindly insects rule!) and I think there's even a bit more to the watch as a symbol. After all, he was tinkering with it all the time, as if the legacy weren't enough, he had to "fix" it to be "right." And the best moment at the end


    BIG TIME SPOILER!


    After he made his stirring speech about what his son must know about the life and death of his father, I loved that they spit in his face and said "he will never know anything about you." The rebels' decision pretty much said that the line ends here and your myopic blindness with it.

    A moment of triumph unfortunately erased by history's march and Franco's fascism. Del Toro's interview on Fresh Air went into fantastic detail about the genesis of the faun and his desire to make this history better known (despite Terri Gross' idiotic obtuseness and clear bias against the fantastic).

    Of course I think of the film as realism througout, but then I've met interesting creatures in the woods, too...

    2/04/2007  
    Blogger SRBissette said...

    Well said, Katie! I held off quoting that great line (the rebels to the Captain) for spoiler reasons; and if you thought Terri Gross was ridiculous with Del Toro, nothing compares to her Jack Hill interview of a few years back. She'll never 'get' women-in-prison movies, and could barely keep her gorge in check.

    2/09/2007  

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