Friday, January 19, 2007

Lost in the labyrinth

Here's looking at you, kid!

After watching Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (actually The Labyrinth of the Faun), audiences across America may find themselves wondering, as I did last weekend, is this really the “best movie of the year”? Is it “not only one of the great fantasy pictures but one of the great end-of-childhood elegies”(Stephanie Zacharek, Salon)? Is it “a deeply felt Spanish-language history lesson, an adult fairy tale, and an outstanding work of art all at once”(Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)?

Well, no, no, and no. Pan’s Labyrinth, instead, is merely Guillermo del Toro’s latest attempt at nailing down the implicit themes of The Spirit of the Beehive (below), Víctor Erice’s haunting ode to the fantasies of a little girl in Franco-era Spain (the director actually tried this gambit once before - and perhaps more effectively - in The Devil’s Backbone). It’s easy to see why del Toro is attracted to the Erice classic: its structure (which limns in an oppressive society the sources of Gothic fantasy) should, it seems, give his horror-movie sensibility the cultural heft it otherwise lacks.

Listening to the subconscious in Spirit of the Beehive.

But where Spirit is all subtle suggestion, Pan is flat-out illustration. It does occasionally achieve some atmosphere – there’s a good, spooky scene in which the heroines listen to the night-time creaking of their house, and a creepy little vignette about a monster with eyes in his hands; but that’s about it. The rest of this phantasm plods along its double plot with a kind of sullen lack of resonance. One of its storylines is “real,” the other “fabulist,” but they’re joined seamlessly, in the manner of so much magic realism (I wonder at how many reviewers found this all-too-common trope so striking). The film opens with 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arriving at her new home: the camp of a Fascist captain (Sergio López), who’s just married (and impregnated) her mother. Mom’s health is clearly secondary to that of the baby, however – and it’s definitely a boy, the macho capitán insists. Meanwhile Republican rebels haunt the hills, and even have spies (Maribel Verdú, in the film’s best performance) within the family compound.

A predictable set of intrigues (and torture scenes) develops, but these horrors share screen time with a more fantastic set of adventures Ofelia stumbles on in the forest. Here an ancient stone labyrinth leads to the lair of a menacing faun (Doug Jones, left), who explains that Ofelia is actually a lost princess of the underworld, who, to return to her throne, must perform three tasks. . .

Only I’m getting bored already, just as I was in the theatre. Something about the baldness of the exposition, both narrative and moral, makes this dark flower wither on the vine. And while we’re occasionally roused by possible parallels between the intertwined tales (Is the baby a metaphor for political rebirth? Is the blind demon a symbol of Fascism?), mostly we’re left to ourselves to grope for possible connections. Meanwhile the villains turn out to be sadistic cartoons (surprise), Ofelia’s own moral development gets short shrift, and del Toro begins to linger (as always) on the peculiar implements of inflicting pain; so by the grim/uplifting double ending, we really couldn't care less about Ofelia or Franco, much less the great god Pan.

I have to add my response was typical of the (large) audience I saw the film with; at its close, there was a smattering of uncertain applause, but a larger, very palpable, collective shrug. How, then, to explain the wild critical response? Perhaps the key to the mystery lies in a dropped comment from A.O. Scott of the New York Times: “Mr. Del Toro is helping to make the boundary separating pop from art, always suspect, seem utterly obsolete.”

Hmmm – obliterating the boundary between pop and art; is that really a worthy goal (and if so, why)? Or is it merely the goal of certain critics desperate to flatter their readerships?

For Mr. Scott, perhaps unconsciously, touches on the underlying problem of Pan’s Labyrinth: like most of pop culture, it’s recycled; its fabulism is somehow already familiar. This pastiche of Spirit of the Beehive, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Night of the Hunter, Alice,and a dozen other sources seems to depend on the assumption that bringing psychological terrors to the screen more openly, and with higher levels of technical finish, will somehow increase their potency. Instead, that potency depends on inspiration and emotional connections, both between actor and actor as well as between actor and audience (see the Lord of the Rings films), fields in which Mr. del Toro does not excel. (There are excellent actors in Pan, but each seems cut off from all the rest.)

And let's talk, for a minute, about comic books (for Mr. del Toro, in the end, has a graphic, comic-book sensibility). If there’s one cult cliché that I am truly sick and tired of, it’s the idea that film is somehow a cousin (or even a son!) of the comics. It doesn’t seem to matter that none of the great films have been based on comic books, or indeed, that comics have inspired so few decent (much less classic) movies. Somehow, the fact that movies can be storyboarded (like, yes, comics), combined with the fact that many people remember comics fondly, has through a middlebrow alchemy been transliterated into the comforting falsehood that films are essentially moving comics.

There are a lot of reasons for the widespread fealty to this misconception, but surely a basic one is the baby boomer obsession with youth. In the salad days of my own obsession with The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four(left, an issue I actually bought that's probably worth a fortune now), I knew somehow that one day I’d grow out of comics - and whaddya know, I did. In fact (dare I say it?) I found in the realm of genuine art a depth and power that made comic books seem obsolete. But today, that assumption – in fact, that reality – is seen as somehow false; if I’d been true to myself, I would have resisted the siren calls of literature and drama and cinema, and clutched Doctor Doom ever closer to my chest. Or better still, I'd have made comic books with pretensions to art. I have a sneaky feeling this cultural current is what the critics are doing obeisance to; surely none of them (not even Stephanie Zacharek) really believe that Pan’s Labyrinth is up there with The Spirit of the Beehive, much less Forbidden Games. But the idea of a comic book movie masterpiece, a “graphic novel” with the depth of a real one, has become a kind of holy grail of our cultural assumptions – so when one doesn’t really come along, we have to invent one.

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