The Shape of… What? Er…

I was disappointed to read that Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie, co-director of Delicatessen) was accusing Guillermo del Toro of plagiarism in his latest film, The Shape of Water. Partly, my disappointment is down to both directors having made favourite films of mine (Pan’s Labyrinth, Amelie, Delicatessen, and City of Lost Children all real favourites), and I’m always disappointed (though never too surprised) when creators I like criticise one another. But another reason is it seems somewhat ungenerous of Jeunet, considering how liberally he himself has borrowed from other films.

The main scene Jeunet singles out is where Sally Hawkins’s character and her neighbour (played by Richard Jenkins), sitting together on a sofa watching an old musical on TV, start tap-dancing along while sitting down. Jeunet said it was “cut and pasted from Delicatessen” (quote from The Telegraph) — no doubt meaning the scene where Dominique Pinon and Karin Viard, sitting on a bed and bouncing in order to locate a squeaky spring, fall into a sort of sitting-down dance. (You can see both at an article on The Playlist, which also reveals that the Jeunet quotes were Google Translated from the original French.)

Jeunet also says Shape of Water’s having scenes featuring “the painter, the apartment, the girl who is a bit naive” must be inspired by Amelie, which strikes me as almost deliberately vague. I wouldn’t call Hawkins’s character “naive” — certainly not as Amelie is — she’s also clearly a woman rather than a girl, and the relationship between the characters Jeunet mentions is quite different. (In Amelie, the painter is very much a mentor figure; in Shape of Water, the relationship is of equals.) It’s far too vague for an accusation of plagiarism. (Hitchcock’s Blackmail also features a scene with a painter, an apartment, and a girl who is a bit naive, though of course it turns out far differently.)

Perhaps it’s more interesting to look at the scene Jeunet doesn’t mention. At one point in The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’s character shuts herself in a bathroom with the love of her life (who happens to be an aquatic humanoid more comfortable breathing through his gills than his lungs), blocking the bottom of the door with towels and turning on all the taps so they can flood the bathroom and enjoy a little underwater love. It’s reminiscent of the scene at the end of Delicatessen where Dominique Pinon’s Louison and Marie-Laure Dougnac’s Julie lock themselves in a bathroom, stop up all the gaps, turn on all the taps, and flood the bathroom, in this case to aid their escape from the other residents of the building, who want to eat at least one of them. Perhaps the reason Jeunet doesn’t point out this similarity is that this scene also occurs in a 1975 Paul Newman film, The Drowning Pool, in which Newman and a woman are locked in a large bathroom, block the drains, turn on all the taps, and flood the place to escape. In all three films, the central couple are carried out in the flood when the blocked door is finally opened.

The Drowning Pool (1975) — they had a bigger bathroom

It’s just as easy to find borrowings — unconscious or not, accidental or not — in Jeunet’s films. The most obvious, to my eyes, is in Amelie. The scenes where Audrey Tautou’s character sneaks into the grocer’s apartment to play various sneaky little revenge-pranks on him are very similar to those in the 1994 film Chungking Express — not just in the idea of a young woman sneaking into a man’s apartment and playing little tricks, but down to some of the tricks themselves. In Chungking Express, Faye Wong’s character, among other things, swaps a pair of slippers and puts sleeping pills in a bottle of drink (if I remember right); in Amelie, Audrey Tautou’s character swaps a pair of slippers for those a size smaller and puts sugar in a bottle of some alcoholic drink.

Chungking Express — this is not her apartment

To make all these accusations of plagiarism more complicated still, in an Empire magazine feature (Le fantastique M. Jeunet by Olly Richards) from January 2010, Jeunet says of the flooded bathroom sequence in Delicatessen:

“It’s funny, because maybe six or seven years later I saw a short film with Laurel & Hardy and it’s the same idea. Same bathroom with two cops outside. I understood that probably [co-director] Marc Caro or me saw that when we were kids and then forgot it. Then it sat in the back of the mind.”

It’s an old idea that good artists copy, great artists steal, but I can’t help feeling there’s a danger of a huge loss of subtlety as soon as the accusation of plagiarism comes up. There are, most certainly, cases of outright plagiarism, but there will also be cases of unconscious influence, parallel development of similar ideas, drawing from the same sources, and so on. How to tell the difference? Surely, in these sorts of cases, you ought to be able to judge by an artist’s, or director’s, creative integrity, as evident from their existing body of work, something I think del Toro and Jeunet have both demonstrated.

I’m certainly not putting myself on a par with Jeunet or del Toro, but, as it’s the one area where I have some chance of knowing a deeper level of the story, I’ll bring in a couple of examples from my own writing. Some time ago, I decided I wanted to write a Lovecraftian story, and worked hard on coming up with a plot that, to me, summed up the essence of what Lovecraft’s fiction meant to me, in terms of the implications of its world and worldview. This was eventually published (“Zathotha”, in Cyäegha #4 in 2011). I was completely unaware, till I was re-reading it some time after it was published, that I’d in fact reproduced the plot of my favourite Clark Ashton Smith story, “The Double Shadow” — both feature characters carrying out a magical ritual they don’t understand, that leads to the ineluctable approach of an entity that absorbs its victims, and nothing can be done to stop it.

To give another example, I used the idea of a phantom staircase that appears only at certain times, in The Fantasy Reader. I came up with the idea while playing about with the sort of thing that happens in dreams — I have loads of dreams where I find myself in a small house or apartment that, despite its limited size, has endless rooms with doors that open onto other rooms with more doors, and so on, with even the occasional staircase leading to yet more rooms and doors. It was only well after I’d started working with the idea that I remembered it was also in David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. It’s a book I’ve read loads of times, and I even run a website about Lindsay, so, no court of law would ever accept that I hadn’t taken the idea from him, and I’d certainly be happy to say that I had, and it may be I did, unconsciously, but my feeling is I took it from the same place where he, perhaps, found it.

Both del Toro and Jeunet are, even by directorial standards, outright cinephiles, and both not only talk about their influences, but include tributes and references to much-loved films in their work. (The Shape of Water and Amelie both contain scenes set in cinemas.) I have a feeling Jeunet’s reaction may be more emotional than rational — perhaps he saw someone doing the sort of thing he considers his territory, and getting a lot of plaudits, and felt left out. I can certainly understand that. As I say, I like both directors, and would like to see both in the best light.

Anyway, The Shape of Water is a very nice film. I didn’t find it as intense as Pan’s Labyrinth, though it has a lot in common with that film. But it’s definitely the sort of film I’ll want to watch a few more times and really get to know — as I have, and will continue to do, with Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as Amelie, and Delicatessen.

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:

piranesi_xiv_2

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):

nameoftherose

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:

Hellboy

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

tales_from_earthsea

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?):

starblazer_190_p32

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