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.