Pan’s Labyrinth

I’ve been wanting to write about Pan’s Labyrinth, one of my favourite films, for some time, but whenever I sit down to watch it, I find myself wondering what there is to say. Aside from how much I love the way it mixes wonderfully dark fantasy with convincing real-world drama, the sheer artistry of the film is sort of overwhelming — not just the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, and the storytelling, but the way so many of the strands of the story echo and resonate, so every character, every event, every location, acquires a deeper significance from the way it counterpoints other parts of the film. The whole thing works like a perfect piece of clockwork (an apt metaphor for the clockwork-loving Guillermo del Toro) — wonderful to watch, but difficult to write about without simply gushing.

Then I realised I had to write about not what I like most about the film, but what troubles me most about it.

I saw Pan’s Labyrinth at the cinema, and bought it as soon as it came out on DVD. (And, yes, once again on Blu-ray.) When I sat down to watch the DVD for the first time, I was shocked all over again by the opening scene, in which the young Ofelia lies dying at the centre of the Faun’s labyrinth. I’d somehow managed to forget this most troubling fact, that the film’s heroine dies, even though it’s underlined by happening at both the start and the end of the film, so it really ought to be unforgettable. In her BFI Film Classics book on Pan’s Labyrinth, Mar Diestro-Dópido says of this moment:

‘The shocking impact of this scene lies precisely in the sudden absence of magic; we see Ofelia as she really is, vulnerable and defenceless, a thirteen-year-old child incapable of inflicting harm — and a stark reminder of the hundreds of thousands of children who fall victim to adult wrongdoing, particularly during war.’

Every time I watch Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia’s death seems so monstrously unfair. Having passed through three fairy-tale trials, facing genuinely disturbing horrors with real courage and an ultimate fidelity to her conscience — trials which, in most fairy tales, would have granted her the right to the happily-ever-after rewards of selfhood and adulthood — everything’s taken away from her. One way of reading the fantastic elements of the film is as the dying Ofelia’s hasty weaving of a story around the bare few mundane facts of her too-short life, to try to make them meaningful, to make them all point, in a final, desperate act of imagination, to, yes, her really being a princess after all, and this not being a horrible and pointless death but some sort of wonderful fulfilment. Yet, the vision of herself being received by her father, mother, and (somehow, because he’s still alive in the real world) her baby brother, in this magical underworld kingdom, occurs in the moments before she dies, not after, so perhaps this is nothing more than the dying dream of a young girl, one more victim of a brutal, fascistic reality, where death and suffering are handed out as freely as Franco’s daily rations of bread.

But even if it is just a dying girl’s fantasy, there’s another way to look at the story told by Pan’s Labyrinth. The film is about staying true to one’s conscience in the face of a fascist brutality that demands instant, unquestioning obedience at all times. And it’s a wonderfully disobedient act to rework such a harsh reality into your own private narrative, weaving the spaces between the facts with a fairy tale of your own devising.

How else can so helpless an individual as Ofelia triumph in such a brutal world, except through an act of imagination? It’s a world that does its best to deny stories. Captain Vidal — like fascism itself — denies everyone their ability to tell, or enjoy, any stories but those the ruling party tell, criticising Ofelia’s mother for letting her daughter read fairytales, and, in the banquet scene, for telling the story of how she and Vidal came to be married. But Captain Vidal is in the grip of his own story. His father supposedly smashed his pocket-watch the moment before his death, so his son would know how a truly brave man dies, and though Vidal is constantly looking at that cracked watch, and tending its clockwork alone in his office, he denies his father ever had a watch — a denial which only goes to show the power the story has over him. Fittingly, at the end, when he tries to control the story his own baby son will be told about him, his quietly resistant housekeeper Mercedes tells him his son will never even know his name. This, in such a harsh, unfantastic world, is how victories are won: through acts of imagination. History may be written by the victor, but fairy tales can be acts of rebellion.

Near the beginning of the film, Ofelia tells her as-yet-unborn brother the story of a flower that confers immortality, but which nobody goes near because its thorns are poisonous. Her own fairy-tale tasks are designed to test whether she, Ofelia, has been in the mortal world too long and lost touch with her immortal self, the Princess Moanna. But ‘immortality’ in Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t of the literal, Woody Allen kind (‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying’). It’s closer to the pagan idea of living so heroic a life your name will be remembered, and your story told, even after your death.

Dying alone at the centre of a ruined labyrinth, Ofelia confers on herself a very deserved immortality, by telling herself her own story, with herself as the heroine. Whether the fantasy elements of the film really happened or not (and only Ofelia’s escape from the locked attic using the Faun’s chalk-doorway method seems to imply they did), the story she tells herself is true — a true image of her conscience and inner life, that is — and it’s this, her being true to herself despite the threat of death, that confers on her the Pan’s Labyrinth version of ‘immortality’ in the end.

After all, she gets a film made about her.

(And a very good one, too.)

Prometheus

I will, usually, watch sequels & prequels to my favourite films, but never with any raised hopes. Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of my top three favourites (I can’t name a top one — the other two are Amelie and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), so of course I had to see Prometheus, Scott’s prequel-of-sorts to his breakthrough film. I don’t think it’s the sort of film to be ruined by discussing its plot — I heard one review beforehand and gleaned a good enough idea of what it was about to be in no way surprised — but this is a reaction to the film, not a review, so I’ll say it now: spoilers ahead.

My main feeling was Prometheus was pretty nihilistic. This may sound like an odd criticism for a horror film, but it was only after watching it that I realised how much Alien (and Aliens), being about survival in the face of terrible odds, are so life-affirming. They use their horror elements to increase the sense of the preciousness of life. Prometheus, though it does have many similar situations, doesn’t have the same feel at all. Perhaps because it’s more preoccupied with philosophical questions, its survival/action elements are tainted with a dour fatality, a feeling of “Yeah, but survive for what?” In a sense, the horror elements — one coming from the threat to individual survival, the other dealing with the ultimate source of human life — come from both sides at once, trapping the viewer in a pincer movement, and leaving no room for a sense of hope. I’ve come across criticisms of the film saying it doesn’t answer the philosophical questions it raises, but I don’t think that’s a weak point — the raising of philosophical questions (“Where do we come from? Where are we going?”) without answers is entirely valid, as it acknowledges very real areas of doubt. And doubt is okay. There’s a lot of it about. Besides, what possible answers could the film provide that would be in any way satisfying?

So, why does the film feel so nihilistic? It could be because a core trio of the main characters are so cold to each other (one, David, being a robot, another, Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, whose utter coldness at the beginning — she changes midway, with no real reason — prompted what I thought was the best line in the script, when Captain Janek asks her “Are you a robot?”). But the closest I can come to identifying it lies in the imagery of the film. Alien was famous for having a lot of H R Giger’s warped images centring on the idea of impregnation and gestation (the way the alien enters & gestates in its human prey, for instance, or the way the main action takes place in the confines of a spaceship addressed as “Mother”); while Aliens was much more about motherhood (Ripley’s adoption of the traumatised Newt, plus of course the vast alien mother she fights at the end). Prometheus‘s main image, though, is of abortion, both actually (Doctor Elizabeth Shaw’s rather tacked-on super-fast pregnancy, and its termination) and metaphorically (what the alien Engineers are planning to do to their creations). The film also brings in what could be called a paternal strand, with the selfish, unfeeling presence of trillionaire Peter Weyland, and his quest to meet his makers (expecting, for some reason, paternalistic Gods, but not, of course, getting them). And this brings up a sort of flipside to the abortion imagery, voiced by the android David, who at one point asks, “Doesn’t everyone want to kill their parents?” An idea the film seems to accept without argument. So, Prometheus seemed to be mostly about parents wanting to kill their children, and children wanting to kill their parents — actually, metaphorically, and theologically. The result is a picture of a totally bleak, uncaring, in fact actively hostile, universe, with none of the contrasting, messy, crew camaraderie of Alien, or Aliens‘ feel of an impromptu family developing in the face of danger. In Prometheus, human survival has no point, because humanity isn’t human enough.

After Alien, Aliens worked so well because it took the basic idea of the first film (the perfect killer alien let loose on a bunch of humans) and put it in a slightly different genre. Alien was survival horror, and was about the individual; Aliens was a military film, and was about the survival of the group, the protection and raising of children (and, on the flipside, a new generation of alien creatures). After Aliens, I thought there was only one way to make a third film, and that was to bring the creatures to Earth (and so be about the survival of the race). I was disappointed, then, when the third Alien film settled for a sort of half-and-half Alien/Aliens hybrid, which worked on neither score, while the fourth (made by one of my otherwise favourite directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who was totally wrong for the series) might have worked as a dark comedy, had he been allowed to go really OTT, but was never going to be anything more than a footnote in the series. Prometheus, though it abandons the Alien creature, and though it is about the survival of the race, doesn’t do anything sufficiently different from Alien or Aliens to be judged on its own merits. (Considering the difference in plots, the film has an awful lot of similar scenes and situations, some of which feel they’ve been inserted merely for similarity’s sake.)

Guillermo del Toro saying he can’t make Mountains of Madness because Prometheus covers too similar ground is a great pity; Mountains of Madness would at least take the threat to Earth, and would make it that much more immediate and visceral. It also wouldn’t have had the baggage of previous films to feel it had to conform to. Not that Prometheus is bad, just that it isn’t as good as Alien or Aliens.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the Three-Dimensional Labyrinth

Surely the “Dungeons” part of Dungeons & Dragons owes a substantial debt to the fevered mind of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who stands as a sort of dark fountainhead of one obscure aspect of fantasy art — the multi-levelled subterranean labyrinth.

Born in 1720, Piranesi wanted nothing more than to be an architect, but despite publishing several books on the theory of architecture and architectural renovation (a hot topic in crumbling late-Renaissance Rome), during his lifetime he only received one actual commission that was actually put into effect — and that was a renovation, not a new building. Piranesi made his living in various ways, one of which was producing etchings. His most popular was a series of views of Rome to sell to tourists, but he also indulged in a set of “architectural fantasies” published under the title Carceri D’Invenzione — or, the Invented Prisons.

What a febrile, tortured imagination Piranesi had! This, looking like the nightmare child of Gary Gygax and M C Escher, is one of his more labyrinthine efforts, a three-dimensional maze of stairways and walkways, complete with gibbet-like struts, barred windows and darkly suggestive ropes. The figures, if you can spot them, are dwarfed by their surroundings:

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I’ve been collecting examples of the Piranesian influence as I find it popping up, so here are a few. The first is from one of my favourite films (and novels), The Name of the Rose (1986). Not a prison this time, but a monastery library, though this fact hardly makes it any less oppressive (here, forbidden books are imprisoned):

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And this, from Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy film (2004) — del Toro’s obsession with clockwork replacing Piranesi’s spiked wheels and shadowy torture devices:

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Hayao Miyazaki provides this example, from the villain’s castle in Tales From Earthsea (2006), complete with Piranesian winch:

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The latest addition to my collection is this panel from Starblazer #190, “The Power of the Warlocks” (1987), drawn by Ian Kennedy (not credited in the comic, but artist info courtesy of the Starblazer Issue Guide). More oppressive religious architecture, this time with appropriate minotaur figures as pillars (and is the one on the lower left flipping the bird?):

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But my love of the dark, subterranean, multi-levelled maze began way before I came across Piranesi. It probably started around the time I came across this picture, in The Best of White Dwarf Articles III, drawn by (I think) Bob McWilliams (…or has it always been there, in dreams?):

wdaIII_35_bobmcwilliams

What would the world have been like had a Piranesi design actually been realised in stone? And what sort of demon patron would commission such a nightmare anyway? For the answer to that, see this story of mine, elsewhere on this site

Vampires, vampires everywhere…

Somehow I’ve ended up reading a couple of vampire novels recently, something I’d normally avoid like a plague of moaning, groaning, tapping-on-your-window-pane-at-night undead. Vampires, to me, are one of those genre tick-boxes that just don’t tick my box. Particularly when they get caught up in the tired old recombinations game, where you take a slightly tatty genre element and “re-imagine” or “re-invent” it by adding a lame twist. As in, “Yeah, man, it’s vampires, but it’s vampires on the moon…” Or steam-punk vampires, or vampires versus the CIA, or vampires in hoodies, or vampires with sat-navs. I used to get caught up in that sort of game with Doctor Who, thinking up all the monster-related adventures you could squeeze out of those pulpy titles: “We’ve had Destiny of the Daleks, so we’ve got to have Destiny of the Cybermen, and Destiny of the Sontarans, and Destiny of the Ice Warriors, and Destiny of the Wirrn…” But I was eight years old at the time.

Back to vampires. Twilight (I’ve only seen the film, not read the books) seemed to me more X-Men sequel than horror film — more about troubled, “gifted” teenagers whose gift just happens to be called vampirism. I could see how the film would work for teens, but it didn’t quite do it for me. The vampires just weren’t dangerous enough, and it was all a little bit too reassuring. (I never watched Buffy, but I suspect it owes far more to Buffy than Dracula.) Having said that, there are a few vampire novels I like — Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (covered on this blog some while back), Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (the first horror novel I ever read), Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and the first half of Stoker’s Dracula (the second half just devolves into rather dull action-adventure). Now I’m going to add one of the two I’ve just read to that list. (But don’t strain yourself trying to guess which one. I’m only going to let the right one in.)

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First up is The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I read it because of del Toro, who I admire as a spokesman for the fantastic, and because Pan’s Labyrinth is the only film for many an age I got excited about a full year before it came out (just from seeing the poster, and reading the title), and it more than lived up to my expectations. Del Toro has dealt with vampires before — sensitively in Cronos, sensationally in Blade II — and it was in the hope I’d get something more on the Cronos side that I read The Strain. But it was Blade II I got. I tried to tell myself the book was probably del Toro’s initial idea, which was then filled out by Hogan in standard “adapt me, Hollywood!” thriller style, complete with manly heroes with troubled marriages and technical descriptions of how to bag an infected corpse, but from the interviews that surrounded the book’s release, it seems the whole thing is as much del Toro’s fault as Hogan’s.

The Strain (whose title got me off on the wrong foot by reminding me a little too much of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song of the same name, which is about constipation) “updates” the vampire story by (a) taking it to America and (b) providing a scientific explanation of vampirism by having it be the result of a parasitic infection. But both (a) and (b) have been done before, and much better, in I am Legend (which does a lot more with its ideas, besides). The trouble with making vampirism just a plague is you end up with hordes of dumb, blood-hungry vampires roaming the streets, which means you’re really writing about zombies, not vampires. And zombies are, when it comes down to it, a lot less interesting than vampires. Why? Because they’re dumb, and all they do is roam the streets hungering for blood. They’re video game fodder. (I am Legend escapes this dead end because its appeal, for me, is more from it being a Last Man on Earth book, a disaster novel in the Day of the Triffids or War of the Worlds mold, and not what I’d think of as primarily a vampire book.)

What makes vampires interesting, for me, is that as well as being supernatural monsters, they’re human beings. The like us/not like us factor brings out the real power of a monster — monsters only begin to mean something when they’re part human, and it’s monsters with meaning I want. (The exception is when your monster is a pure killing machine, as in the shark from Jaws or the Scott/Giger Alien. It’s this category zombies fall into. (Zombies are dumb, they’ll fall into anything.) But if you’ve got a pure-killing-machine monster, the story has to work on the strength of its human characters. The Strain’s humans have about as much depth as the paper they’re printed on.)

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Let the Right One In, on the other hand, is brilliant. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m dying to.) There’s a brief (and not too successful) attempt in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel to give a scientific explanation for vampirism, but fortunately it’s far enough into the book that it doesn’t matter, and Lindqvist doesn’t try to push it to the point of explaining, for instance, why vampires can’t enter a house till they’re invited, which is (and should stay) a purely supernatural element. The result is that the book’s vampires are weird, dark, and genuinely supernatural — properly disquieting monsters, not merely scientific aberrations.

But what makes the book really work for me is that, as well as being genuine monsters, the vampires are also more human than any others I’ve read about. The basic premise of the book could be couched in those “another twist on the genre” terms I so abhor (“what if there was a vampire, but it was a child“), but simply because the author goes to the bother of creating real characters, and not just out of the victims but out of the vampire itself, the whole thing opens up all sorts of deep, dark possibilities. Right to the end, I had no idea where the book was headed. What was more, it meant the book wasn’t just about another twist on a genre, it was about what all good books should be about — what it means to be human. It’s about childhood, about the way people (normal, non-vampire people) treat each other, and the way they get treated by the world, about the difficulty of finding true friendship amidst all this bleakness, and the lengths people will go to hold onto such friendship should it be found. The presence of a vampire just heightens the drama that was already there — gives it that extra spark and spice, which is what good fantasy does best, raising a story about real human beings that little bit beyond where normal fiction can go.

I was glued to Let the Right One In, and it ended too quickly. The Strain, on the other hand — well, let’s just say I skipped bits.