?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Panned Labyrinth - click opera
February 2010
 
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
 
 
 
 
 
 
Page 1 of 4
[1] [2] [3] [4]
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 10:07 am
Panned Labyrinth

Well, Click Opera is supposed to be in Retro mode, for the reasons explained here. But since June 19th in 2004 and 2005 has no entry, and since the 2006 entry is just me grouching about the totalitarianism of the World Cup, and since I have a bee in my bonnet today about a film I saw, I thought I'd slip back into active blogger mode.



Last night I went with Sunshine and Hisae to see Pan's Labyrinth. If you follow that link to Metacritic, you'll find that it was the most breathlessly enthusiastically reviewed film of 2006, scoring a rating of 98, "Universal Acclaim". "One of the finest fantasy pictures ever made," the film was, according to these critics, an "examination of children's inner lives" which "deepens our emotional understanding of fascism, and of rigid ideology's dire consequences".

It sounds as though that verdict needs to be rounded out, somewhere, by someone. Okay, I volunteer! I thought it was a terrible film, deeply impoverished both in imagination and in its moral vision, stale to the core, and brutal to boot. It actually saddens and infuriates me that this kind of thing is what passes for fantasy, humanity and imagination, and that no single critic, apparently, took the film to task for its great failings, which I'll number here, as I see them:

1. The film bore all the hallmarks of COG screenwriting. COG screenwriting is the opposite of personal vision, the opposite of imagination. It's screenwriting as taught by "experts" in screenwriting class, a kind of brutal, plot-advancing writing style based around a Centre of Goodness (COG) who wins the audience's sympathy (usually by pure genetic superiority -- ie a very good-looking actor is cast -- but also by a series of sufferings overcome throughout the narrative). It takes no prisoners -- and no risks. COG screenwriting is the filmic equivalent of modern managerial techniques. It's brutally efficient -- yes, it can and will make you laugh and make you cry -- but the difference between a film made by a COG director like Guillermo del Toro and an artist like Jodorowsky or Arrabal is like the difference between a house designed by a Project Manager and one designed by an architect. I will not let del Toro pass for an artist. I'm sorry, critics. He is a cinematic Project Manager.

2. The film's moral universe is one that was decided by the events of the 1930s -- the once-and-for-all template, apparently, for all clear moral distinctions. There's a Manichean division -- hammered home to us by means of graphic depictions of brutal violence -- between the good characters (Jews, resistants, children) and the bad ones (cartoon Spanish Nazis). Needless to say, in an age when the worst politics trades on exactly this sort of Manichean division, this is in itself a problem. The film teaches us to hate the baddies (its own violence-justifying "Axis of Evil") and long for their deaths, "richly deserved". In other words, the film brutalizes its audience (in a way that, for instance, the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki has resolutely refused to do, to his enormous credit) by making us long for certain human deaths. The film becomes, in its own way, totalitarian for this reason, although it doesn't seem to realize it. And nor do critics like Mark Kermode.

3. Critics insist on seeing important moral lessons in this film for today, lessons about totalitarianism. But they are surely only lessons about -- I don't know, North Korea? They are not the kind of lessons that would give us any sort of glimpse of our own system as totalitarian. That kind of thing only seems permissible in the moral universe of the art world. One image that sticks in my mind (and I've forgotten where I saw it now, but it's possibly from the Venice Biennale or Documenta) is an artist's video of Lebanese children playing football with a human skull in the rubble in front of a Beirut apartment building shelled by the Israeli army. Meanwhile, back in the film world, in terms of our moral universe, we're still stuck in an eternal 1930s. But of course to see today's world in terms of the 1930s is, itself, a political stance, a position you take on today's world. For instance, the partisans in Pan's Labyrinth keep their spirits up with news of victories by the Australians, Canadians, British and Americans, who represent a sort of cavalry, galloping to save them. Comforting indeed in today's world, when they're more likely to be an unprovoked invading force (as Spain realized when it pulled out of the "coalition of the willing"). The film is, though, at least capable of supplying reluctant material for a clumsy metaphor: we're free to read the partisans, out in the forest, as Hamas. Against the grain, and at our own risk, of course.

4. If the film's moral universe is rooted in the 1930s, its musical universe goes back to the 19th century. Pseudo-Romantic orchestral music saws away throughout, instructing us how to feel, and when. Do the same people who think only Nazis are baddies also think only orchestras are music?

5. Far from stimulating our imagination and encouraging fantasy -- as, say, Fellini's brilliant "Satyricon" does -- Pan's Labyrinth parades CG effects and the kind of prosthetics you'd expect to see in The Lion King in front of us. Imagination is all about what you don't show. It's about a children's bag lying on a roof in "Dark Water", not a stupid man in layers and layers of plastic who looks like he should be working at a theme park, and was no doubt designed by the same crack effects company as all the other prosthetic characters in all the other films, just like all the fire we ever see in movies is made by the same pyrotechnician, and will no doubt soon be an Avid plug-in you can just throw across a scene with a drop-down menu.

6. Wooden, wooden acting. The shifty, anal-aesthetic Nazi with cruel lips, narrowed eyes, and camp menace hanging over his every utterance. The frightened, compliant undercover partisans. The good, human Jewish doctor. The wonder-filled child. And so on. It's the opposite of human observation. These are characters as building blocks in COG-engineered forward movement. Pure brutal efficiency. Empathy Management.

7. Brutal violence. Just because it shows brutal violence mostly being carried out by characters it has designated "brutally violent" does not exempt the film itself from the charge of brutal violence. In no way can this be described as a "humane" film. It is part of a process of brutalization of its audience.

8. Complete absence of sensuality, the incidental, the non-programmatic. Appeal is made to our adrenal glands, but no sexual organs (del Toro has the nerve to talk about Pan, but read the antics of the original Greek Pan here then compare them to the sexless, boring Pan character in this movie). Shock and surprise and mawkish empathy dominate, but there's no moment in which a character senses the breeze blowing in from the woods, just for its own sake. No, everything is fire and death and danger and hatred and forward motion. No indirection allowed. Improbable chases, with a deus ex machina to save the COG and a fatal comeuppance for the COB.

9. This is a Mexican-US co-production. But its values are American -- it has the shiny blue lighting, the flashy special effects, and all the conventions, of a US blockbuster (and the director apparently turned down both Harry Potter and the Narnia film to make it). This, then, is "global" film-making as a kind of outsourced American filmmaking. We do not leave the technical nor the moral universe of the Americans. Nothing is imported, in the sense of a "foreign" worldview. The film has learned American ways, but American audiences will not learn anything they don't already know from it, either texturally or morally.

10. I could end with a question: What would the critics who think Pan's Labyrinth is a fantastically imaginative work of art make of Genet or Gombrowicz? In other words, would they recognize something truly imaginative if it ripped the corner of their mouths with a concealed knife? But I'd rather end with a Nietzsche quote Zizek brings up in his essay Give Iranian Nukes a Chance, because I think this should be written in the sky in jet trails, daily, above our heads:

"No government admits any more that it keeps an army to satisfy occasionally the desire for conquest. Rather, the army is supposed to serve for defense, and one invokes the morality that approves of self-defense. But this implies one's own morality and the neighbor's immorality; for the neighbor must be thought of as eager to attack and conquer if our state must think of means of self-defense. Moreover, the reasons we give for requiring an army imply that our neighbor, who denies the desire for conquest just as much as our own state, and who, for his part, also keeps an army only for reasons of self-defense, is a hypocrite and a cunning criminal who would like nothing better than to overpower a harmless and awkward victim without any fight. Thus all states are now ranged against each other: they presuppose their neighbor's bad disposition and their own good disposition. This presupposition, however, is inhumane, as bad as war and worse. At bottom, indeed, it is itself the challenge and the cause of wars, because as I have said, it attributes immorality to the neighbor and thus provokes a hostile disposition and act. We must abjure the doctrine of the army as a means of self-defense just as completely as the desire for conquests."

Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak

And I simply want to say that this doesn't just turn the tables on most modern politics, by tracing aggression to its source -- it's also a brilliant and devastating piece of film criticism.

95CommentReply

eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 08:29 am (UTC)

Spoilers below, but the film has been out for ages.

You forgot to mention how the film randomly throws together images and tropes from different fairy tales, thus mating a coming-of-age narrative with a fascism parable (problematic to begin with) and ending the coming of age story with an ascension into a timeless, perfect heaven. The concept of which is exactly what the fascism part of the story was supposed to be warning about - see mister cartoon daddy-issues commander and his broken clock. Such an obvious own goal... I think the director just threw together a bunch of images and ideas he resonated with in some dark, semilibidinous way and let the plot look after itself. What moral storyteller can have his heroine undergo her trials of adulthood and then reward her with death? Particularly Hans Christen Andersen-style goopily religious death?

Violence has its place, though. For a similarly brutal film with a hell of a lot more of value to teach, see Children of Men.


ReplyThread
unwoman
unwoman
unwoman
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 04:24 pm (UTC)

I agree with your comment, it definitely seems like a hodge-podge of fairy tales and it tried to do way to much. If it had kept to one, say coming-of-age, it would have been stronger. And I guess the loving critics would say the inconsistencies in the characters and the fantasy world merely show the true nature of children's fantasies. Hmph.

Though I didn't like Children of Men either.


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 08:40 am (UTC)

Did Hisae like the movie?


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 08:48 am (UTC)

"Of course not," says Hisae (from her bath). "Too much shooting, violence, big sound. It just kept me awake with the sound."


ReplyThread Parent Expand



stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 08:58 am (UTC)

But is it pretty?


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 09:04 am (UTC)

No! It was totally upstaged, for visual beauty, by the cinema we saw it in, a mysteriously-lit series of boiler rooms in the warehouses next to the Badeschiff. It was an adventure arriving there -- it was all dim blue and red light, and strange chambers you passed through -- an adventure going to the toilet, and an adventure leaving. In between, though, was this totalitarian ordeal, compounded by hard plastic chairs, numb limbs, and a sound system so cruelly cranked that I had to pop in ear plugs.


ReplyThread Parent
sm255
sm255
sm255
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 09:09 am (UTC)

I KNEW you wouldn't be able to give up the blog! should have placed a bet somewhere....


ReplyThread

(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 09:12 am (UTC)

Well, I haven't seen the film. But a few thoughts come to mind when reading your critique. First, when you want to, you're happy to invoke Romantic tropes as positives, ie this talk of who "passes for an artist" with a capital A, and who is merely following the blueprint; this emphasis on individual rather than collective vision. And then when you want to, you'll invoke the exactly same tropes as negatives. To the point where music can be dismissed purely because it harks back to 19thC Romanticism. (But surely it's not totally out of place for a fairytale-like movie to use retroRomantic music?).

Secondly, your cultural criticism is usually a howl against convention. I find this ultimately unconvincing. We need conventions. Without them to bounce off, art becomes a meaningless chaos. (As your mentor once put it, "The interesting place is not chaos, and it's not total coherence. It's somewhere on the cusp of those two.") The challenge, in genre art such as popular moviemaking, is to use conventions in interesting ways, find interesting spaces within them, rather than outside them. Obviously conventions can be used in formulaic, stultifying ways. But surely there have been plenty of great movies that in some way play on the Centre Of Goodness convention (as well as plenty of lousy ones)?

Thirdly, why rubbish a 1930s black-and-white plolitical perspective, only to introduce another perspective from the days of 19thC European chessboard politics, which is equally impossible to map onto our times?

But ultimately, I guess you just don't overly like narrative, which is problematic when thinking about movies (not film in general, but movies), which tend to be driven by narrative.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 09:22 am (UTC)

You make some good points -- yes, the idea of the artist is an irreducible value for me, but the idea of the orchestra isn't, whether or not we call either of those ideas "Romantic" -- but you're talking to someone who is writing a book right now. Who LOVES narrative! I have no problem with narrative driving something, but I do think it's a political thing. That if, for instance, incidentals overwhelm and finally swamp a thrusting narrative, that's what we should allow to happen, and recognize as the best thing that could have happened. I'd say that the most civilised storytellers are people like Cage and Duchamp and Sterne, who deliberately let this kind of swamping-by-life overwhelm narrative, which is finally pure Will, or, as I call it in the critique, Project Management.

My book will be a lot closer to Terunobu Fujimori than a Chinese skyscraper, obviously. It will not resist the incidental, nor the sensual, nor the everyday. But it won't be any less narrative for that. Cage and Duchamp are still great storytellers, even when they let a radio, randomly-tuned, or a sheet of glass broken in transit become part of their stories. Especially when they do that!


ReplyThread Parent Expand

(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand


(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand


amuchmoreexotic
amuchmoreexotic
Boxxy
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 09:18 am (UTC)

The film is, though, at least capable of supplying reluctant material for a clumsy metaphor: we're free to read the partisans, out in the forest, as Hamas. Against the grain, and at our own risk, of course.

In suggesting that the 30s resistance in Spain could somehow represent Hamas - even clumsily - aren't you just as guilty of living in a 1930s moral universe?


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 09:26 am (UTC)

Yes. And ultimately what I'd prefer to argue for is ambivalence -- the interconnectedness of the good and bad parts in us. I love Miyazaki's shape-shifting baddies-who-turn-into-goodies, for instance. That's moral vision far, far wiser than anything del Toro is capable of presenting.


ReplyThread Parent
obelia
obelia
Oliver Jellyfish Twist
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 09:54 am (UTC)

ruuurrrghhhhhhh....
i liked the movie! It reminded me of the fairy + folke tales I read as a kiddo.
I never read movie reviews. they wreck everything }: (


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 09:59 am (UTC)

I had such a lovely picture in my mind of what this movie was -- before I actually went to see it.

I never go to see movies, they wreck everything!


ReplyThread Parent Expand

mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 10:19 am (UTC)

Despite not having seen the film, I'm with Momus. If Mark Kermode likes it, it must be shit ;-)


ReplyThread
rodebrecht
Robert
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 10:37 am (UTC)

One image that sticks in my mind (and I've forgotten where I saw it now, but it's possibly from the Venice Biennale or Documenta) is an artist's video of Lebanese children playing football with a human skull in the rubble in front of a Beirut apartment building shelled by the Israeli army.

(Small exctract on Arte Biennale Blog)


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 12:08 pm (UTC)

Ah, I was wrong, it's not Beirut bombed by the Israelis, it's Belgrade bombed by NATO.


ReplyThread Parent Expand

electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 11:12 am (UTC)

"Complete absence of sensuality, the incidental, the non-programmatic. Appeal is made to our adrenal glands, but no sexual organs"

Ehm, yeah, it´s a horror film. I know that most horror films now appeal to a kind of pornographified version of violence, but to make that the norm is going a bit far.

I might also add that Pan has always been a menacing character, in Greek mythology as in Westernised versions of it, associated with rape and death. The pipes he plays themselves are made from the transformed body of a woman he tried to rape. In Western culture, this aspect of Pan´s character has been further developed, especially in Peter Pan, and made symbolic of patriarchical domination, death, and sexual violence, which comes through very well in Pan´s Labyrinth.

I found the Freudian themes and sexual violence a far more interesting more deeply political aspect of the film than the shallow politics that come with setting something in a fascistic regime. Because they ARE relevant to modern politics and society.


ReplyThread
electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 11:14 am (UTC)

PS: Stop talking about fascism as if it´s a thing of the past. It´s still alive and rising.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 12:11 pm (UTC)

I think I'm very much aware of that, Electricwitch!


ReplyThread Parent Expand




electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 11:18 am (UTC)

Actually, I´m rather horrified by how often in casual LJ conversation this icon comes in handy.


ReplyThread

imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 12:16 pm (UTC)

You and I might agree that ambiguity is the crux of all storytelling, but to become a professional film critic you seem to have to sign a statement to the effect that "the crux of all storytelling is bold, timeless themes of blood, death, pain, suffering, betrayal and revenge, played at 110dB in 5-channel Dolby sound, with an orchestra".

Sign here, please!


ReplyThread Parent



(Anonymous)
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 12:14 pm (UTC)
Critics & ..

The Departed - review by Andrew Tracy
http://www.cinema-scope.com/cs29/cur_tracy_departed.html

I like this part of the last line in paragraph 1:

"..the possessive discourse swirling about Scorsese is little more than a many-throated monologue, and one from which the filmmaker himself has been largely excluded."

We could say the same thing about Pan's Labyrinth.

As for the comment on it being a Mexico - US co-production, I refer to another review by Andrew Tracy. This time its about Babel

http://www.cinema-scope.com/cs28/cur_tracy_babel.html

The end of the review reads:
Babel’s globetrotting is nothing but the rankest, bloated provincialism, all the more unfortunate in that Iñárritu and Arriaga, artistically adrift on their sea of international co-production dollars, no longer have a province, or a universe, to hail from.


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 12:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Critics & ..

Interesting -- globalization as deterritorialization.

(And if I hadn't lost my nationality years ago I'd be spelling those words British-style, with esses instead of zees. I mean zeds.)


ReplyThread Parent
psychronic
grand trunk
Tue, Jun. 19th, 2007 12:28 pm (UTC)

Thank you imomus, now I have somewhere I can point all the people I know who loved this movie to. I kept trying to tell them to see Gilliam's Tideland instead but they wouldn't listen.

On the subject of movies, I saw Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century) last night at the Sydney Film Festival and had my socks knocked clean off. There is no COG here, just pure mesmeric vision. It's the kind of abstract narrative you would love and you might be interested to know (if you don't already) that the 'music' was made by Japanese born Thailand based sound artist Koichi Shimizu.


ReplyThread