Monday, January 22, 2007

The Terrible Beauty of Monsters: Pan's Labyrinth

Without much premeditation, and without having read anything about the film, and because I received an email on Friday from a friend who urged me to see it, I pretty much stopped everything I was doing yesterday afternoon [Sunday] and drove to the Tivoli Theater in St. Louis to see the new film by Guillermo del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth. The movie, I must warn everyone, in addition to being breathtakingly beautiful and intensely compelling as a narrative, is also unremittingly violent and bleak, and it ends on a devestating note that is at once horrible and somehow spiritually redemptive [but only if you believe human sacrifice can be redemptive--I have my doubts, and it is this point, in particular, that I thought might be worth debating here in relation to the film].

I don't want to give too much away regarding the plot, but suffice to say that the main narrative is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and that it concerns a young girl, Ofelia, who is uprooted, with her pregnant mother, to a rural military outpost commanded by her new stepfather, Captain Vidal. Throughout the movie, Ofelia travels back and forth between the real world, which is dominated by the sadism of her stepfather and his soldiers, and the world underneath the labyrinth gardens adjacent to the abandoned mill in which Captain Vidal has made his headquarters. Ofelia is a child who loves magical fables, and the conceit of the sub-story of the film, which is really a self-generated narrative on Ofelia's part, is that Ofelia's body contains the soul of the former princess of the world underneath the labyrinth gardens and in order to return there [and to her real father], and to also return that world, now a kind of wasteland, to its former golden glory, there are certain tasks she must perform. Suffice to say that the movie purposefully contrasts the cruelty and horror and human "monsters" of the world above the gardens with the monsters and terrors of the world below--a world which, nevertheless, provides refuge for Ofelia from the sorrows of her life in the mill.

Although this movie encloses, as it were, a story both for and about children [for it also concerns Ofelia's unborn brother], no child under ten or so should see the movie, as it is too dark and the violence depicted is extremely disturbing. But everyone else should see this movie. It is a parable for our times, to be sure, and a highly moving yet discomfiting one at that. As to why he would purposefully bring together the magical world of childhood "fairy" fantasy with the stark reality of Spanish history under Franco, de Toro has said, "For me, facism is a representation of the ultimate horror and it is, in this sense, an ideal concept through which to tell a fairy tale aimed at adults. Because facism is first and foremost a perversion of innocence, and thus of childhood."

Because del Toro rigorously designed his underworld and its creatures on classical models, readers of this blog should be very interested in the film. They should also be interested to see it, I think, given this comment from del Toro about the magical world he created in his film: "I wanted all the creatures to have an air of menace. Fantasy is not an escape for Ofelia but a dark refuge. There is something vaguely embryonic about all the magic environments because I believe that fairy tales are ultimately about two things: facing the dragon or climbing back to our world inside."

I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Viewing it was an upsetting, yet transformative experience, and speaks to the power of art in our times.


Karl Steel said...

Thanks EJ. Planning on seeing it, but there's so much good out right now (of the major releases: I've checked off Curse of the Golden Flower and Children of Men, have yet to check off David Lynch's new film or Pan's Labyrinth), that I'm having trouble keeping up. I'll say more about this when I see it: Thursday maybe. In the meanwhile, you should see Children of Men. I'd love to see what you'd have to say about it.

Unknown said...

Not that i was asked, but: an interesting thing about Children of Men is that it's a movie centering around a pregnancy, but it still manages to be about a man.

I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing it, though.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Princess books for toddlers aside, when are fantasy worlds ever not menacing? The danger is as alluring as the more positive enjoyments in this genre.

I was thinking about this fact last night because Kid #1 is reading a fantasy book set in the time of Richard I. The young boy who is the narrative's hero stumbles upon a sleeping king deep in a cave, guarded by men waiting for the proper question to be addressed to them -- according to Kid #1, the slumbering figure is likely Arthur. So far so cheery. But what really got to my son is that this boy is grieving for the loss of his baby brother, and has a dream where three dead babies sit at the bottom of the stairs leading to heaven. They can't climb up because they are weighted down with buckets filled with their mothers' tears.

OK, long digression to say: sounds like a great film, Eileen. I will add it to my Netflix list (since I don't ever get to see films in cinemas anymore).

RaeRae said...

i found children of men an interesting contrast of the metaphorical monster and the monsters that the main characters face throughout the film in their every movement. it is a truely amazing film.

Hey Prof. Joy do you think we could make Pan's Labyrinth a class field trip... might be interesting.
Although if you think about it 'fairy tales' have always had a shade of darkness to them. At least the ones I grew up knowing, I'm not talking about the traditional little red riding hood ones, although the Brothers Grimm didn't write them as cheerily as we make them now, but more the Irish fairytales I would read... where you were warned to never step in a fairy ring or the fae would come and take you away forever... or the idea of changeling children.
I could see human sacrifice as being redeeming, if you look at the martyrdom in Late Antiquity it was a form of human sacrifice. Such as the case of Perpetua and Felicity. They were meant to be sacrifices for Geta the Emperor's son, in a town(Carthage) which had a traditon of human sacrifice (there have been tophets found filled with the bones of children). The idea that human sacrifice was meaningless unless it was difficult was prevalent throughout the tradition within Carthage as the sacrifice of the first born son was not uncommon (Joyce E. Salisbury's Perpetua's Passion and Alison Futrell's Blood in the Arena both provide excellent snapshots into this mindset). So while the modern mind finds it abhorent in many cases the idea of human sacrifice being justifiable and meaningful may actually not be that far off to our more basic instincts.

(Sorry couldn't think of the theory Freud put out about the concious mind streaming through time, you know it's on the tip of my tongue and I can't think of it, someone help)

amrhodes said...

Del Toro was on Fresh Air today, if anyone is interested.

Eileen Joy said...

Kat [I mean, raerae], welcome to In The Middle, and thanks for joining the dialogue! I *was* going to heavily plug "Pan's Labyrinth" in class tonight, and a field trip is always a fun idea, if difficult to coordinate. It's interesting that people are also mentioning "Children of Men" in this post, which is the other movie I really want to see right now. I plan to see it this coming Sunday, for sure.

Eileen Joy said...

Raerae--more here on your comments regarding fairy tales and sacrifice: yes, I think fairy tales definitely have something menacing in them all the time and only in their more Disney-fied versions does that menace get glossed over or outright repressed [so, in our Americanized version of "Cinderella" we don't know that, in some earlier versions, her father is always alive and present and usually trying to harm/rape Cinderella, nor do we have the bit where the ugly step-sisters, who are actually quite beautiful in other versions, cut off part of their feet so that they will fit in the slipper--the Prince guesses their false pretension when he sees blood seeping through the shoe--a horrific image].

As to sacrifice being redemptive, I'm well aware that, in our Western Christian tradition anyway, it is a kind of bedrock idea upon which many ethical systems are built, and therefore, sacrifice--even, human sacrifice--is seen as meaningful, and even beautiful, but I distrust this narrative, partly because it represents a negation of this world and of being itself. Wouldn't a better world be one in which particular human beings did not have to either *be* sacrificed or be willing to sacrifice themselves, in order to bring about what some see as a spiritually [and ethically] redemptive moment?

While I really loved and was moved by Ofelia's death [self-sacrifice, really] in "Pan's Labyrinth," I also saw it as a total waste of a beautiful life--in historical reality, she is just another victim of a senseless and cruel war; it is only because of the parallel fairy-narrative, which we must remember Ofelia "writes" and "narrates" herself, that her death can be considered heroic, but we can never forget--only in her own mind. She has to, in a sense, withdraw from the real world in order to survive its horrors, but she doesn't, in point of fact, survive--she is killed, and the golden throne room she imagines herself in at the end is only in her imagination. I know that Ofelia's sub-story narrative is designed to allow her a route of escape and to also provide for her an identity/"story" in which she can be considered heroic, but only because she chooses to die rather than give up her brother's life. It's the fact that this is the only choice she has that bothers me the most.

Karl Steel said...

Just saw the movie last night.

Re: Ofelia's 'sacrifice.' I think the key thing here is that she refuses to sacrifice. Her choice to die is only a choice of mortality, not of death itself (read this in the light of the opening parable of the rose petal and immortality). *SPOILER.* She lives in a battle between two systems, or at least within one system, fascism, that believes that sacrifice--both of others and yourself (i.e., the Captain's devotion to clearing the countryside to make a New Spain and his sacrifice of himself to the Loi/Nom du Pere). It's the latter system, but perhaps the Communist resistance too, to which she refuses to sacrifice herself, but to no end, because it's the struggle between these two systems that results in her murder.

The film's interest in time will also fascinate readers of this blog, I think. On the one hand, we have fairy time (readers of JJC will probably want to check ODM on the Green Children). The Labyrinth, which has "always been here," is "older than the house," a path that leads to a kingdom where Ofelia *SPOILER* will reign for centuries. Its time is its own. It can't be read, really, as an allegory of Fascism, at least not in a isomorphic way (in other words, it is not -- Spain 1944:Labyrinth :: Kansas: Oz). Instead, it touches on the "real world" for time to time, threatening to withdraw all the while even though it seems to run beneath it, with its own slower, even static time. On the other hand, we have fascist time, which is at once "historical" (Spain, 1944, as we're informed when the movie starts) and eschatologic (the desire to end history by making a New Spain). It is a time of repetition and sacrifice of self to memory and "tradition" (the Captain's sacrifice of himself to and obsession with his father's memory as incarnated, but inhumanely, in the pocket watch).

Another point. From a conversation I just had, right now, with ALK. It's pretty significant that del Toro sets it in 1944. "We think of 1944 as a time of worldwide victory for the forces of good, but it wasn't, in this case, because the fascists in Spain had already won" (ALK). At least, we think of 1944 as a tending towards the victory of good: this is the Hollywood/Video Game portrayal 1944 at any rate. The Communist guerrillas think so too: note how they gain hope from D-Day. However, as ALK argued, with me following, the time of WWII and its narrative is irrelevant to Spanish time (I just read this back to her, and she said, "well, that might be too broad and sweeping a statement": so whatever's wrong in here, let me claim it); there's a nightmare in this part of "Western Europe" that is its own time, one entirely outside narratives and times of hope.

It's extraordinary that the director of Hell Boy (the "hotel movie"--i.e., crap you watch in a hotel room after a conference because you're too tired to do anything else--par excellence) brought us this.

RE: Children of Men. L: good point. It's also about a man's total dependence upon female reproduction, his complete incomprehension (both in understanding and in his inability, speaking etymologically, to grasp or hold it together with himself) of it. Now, it strikes me that the queer critique of Children of Men is far more damning than the feminist critique. The film argues that without reproduction, we're all doomed. The lack of production, whether productive sex or productive activity, leads to ennui, violence, death. This focus on productive sex, and on regimes of productive activity more generally, would lead to a pretty, er, productive critique on the film's foundational values, if we subjected Children of Men to a queer reading. In this regard, Zizek's critique of the movie, since it refuses to question reproductive activity, is fundamentally wrong-headed or at least inadequate or insufficiently radical (e.g., "I think that the true infertility is the very lack of meaningful historical experience. It's a society of pure meaningless historical experience. Today ideology is no longer big causes such as socialism, equality, justice, democracy. The basic injunction is 'have a good time' or to put it in more spiritualist terms 'realize yourself.") At the least, Children of Men makes no room for "traditional" queer characters: there are no gay people in it.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--your [and ALK's] thoughts on "Pan's Labyrinth" are really "right on," especially regarding the "different time" of Franco's Spain. I still can't quite agree about Ofelia's death. Yes, she refuses to sacrifice her brother [which, I believe is meant to also be an indictment of the men above who are willing to sacrifice everything--family, fellow citizens, their own humanity--for ideological causes], but what I believe Ofelia is really engaging in with her decision is an *exchange* of sacrifices: she is willing to sacrifice herself so that her brother won't be sacrificed. The Christian overtones, in that respect, are fairly obvious. And by the way, I actually *liked* "Hellboy"! [Maybe I have no taste.]

Eileen Joy said...

I'm going to see "Children of Men" tonight, with your comments in mind, Karl, regarding its emphasis on re-productivity. Very interesting.

eve! said...

I saw "Pan's" last Sunday, too, and I have to confess that most of the way through the film I had a suspicious feeling about Pan himself. I never felt at ease when he was on the screen (and, can I say, I felt even less at ease when the hand/eye beast made his screen debut. Sheesh. I am not ashamed to admit that there was some hand/eye coordination on my end, specifically in the form of peering through barely-spread fingers while cowering between my friends...but I digress.) Pan's actions (esp. the hug he and Ofelia share. I was just waiting for something baaaad to go down) and speech always felt malicious and it wasnt until the end of the film that I finally heard my self utter "hmm..well what do you know? he WAS telling the truth." I'm new to the world of critical monster study, but think it's interesting that even in the most well-intentioned monster (he wanted to MAKE SURE she was the princess, after all) there exists an overwheming air of distrust from those on the outside. Now that I think back, though, Ofelia never (really?)doubted. Just the wide-eyed child in her? her love of fairy tales? her intrinsic mythical royal blood guiding her?

Oh, and Mercedes. Amazing Mercedes. What a necessary character. The theme of "woman as monstrosity" works here as Mercedes and Ofelia play integral roles in their own fate, manage consistently to be the strongest characters throughout the whole of the film, and skewer traditional gender roles (while managing simultaneously to use them to their advantage). I need to think more critically on this so I can more clearly articulate how much I dig those two women.

Anonymous said...

I saw Pan's Labyrinth this weekend, and although I also missed much of the violent scenes (I was cowering and hiding my face), I found the rest of it unmissable. I especially loved the dark and careful mirroring of the underworld to the fascist "reality."

The only point in which I would disagree with this review is that I don't think we're ultimately meant to believe that the underworld is just a figment of Ofelia's imagination. It certainly seems so at first, but there are several clues later on (like the mandragora and the chalk door she uses to escape at the end) which are inexplicable without the magic.

On the one hand, I say this because I obsessively read all the interviews I could find with Del Toro after I saw the movie, and while he left space for both interpretation, he's clear that he believes in the magic. On the other hand however... I think it's important for the redemptive quality of the film -- dark and demonic though it is -- that the other world exists.