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Friday, August 24, 2007

Dan's Labyrinth, Part I

This week, some words on Film. Apologies: our philosopher friend David (pronounced Dah-BEED) has given us a DVD of Slavoj Žižek's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, a three-part essay for the BBC, and I'm afraid everything I say re: the silver screen is going to be warped by Žižek's manic, self-indulgent mutterings for the foreseeable future. (Please note that this gift does not imply that David in any way endorses the ideas expressed by Slavoj Žižek.) The Pervert's Guide is actually kind of delightful--S/Ž is a very funny guy, sometimes surprises with the effectiveness of his insights, plus the program itself is stylishly and wittily put together. So. Even though this has absolutely nothing to do with anything else I have to say about Pan's Labyrinth (another new DVD acquisition) I feel compelled to deal with the way Žižek's discussion of the fantasy life, the dreamworld, might play out in an analysis of this macabre fairy tale of the Spanish Civil War. My friend Josh complained that the main character's brutal "reality," which she periodically flees for a magical netherworld, is itself a bit too storybookish to make the contrast between her two lives dramatically and politically persuasive; the very real, very complex, and very recent (within living memory, at least) conflict fictionalized in the film has been reduced to a story about the Big Bad Wolf. On the DVD, the director describes this as his exact intention--the scenery in "real life" is devoid of color and detail, according to his explicit instructions, and he admits that the republican resistors hiding in his fictional woods bear less of a resemblance to historical rebels than to the woodsman who dissects aforementioned BBW to rescue Little Red. He does this to more successfully intermesh reality and fantasy, or so he says, so that the one can gradually contaminate the other over the course of the film; Josh wishes that fantasy and reality were much more dissonant, the way that the golly-gee Hollywood ingenue-meets-Nancy Drew daydream of Mulholland Drive runs headlong into agonizingly realistic erotic betrayal, or the way that the Dogme-esque melodrama of Dancer in the Dark periodically bursts into brightly colored song and dance. Well, this is obviously something of a personal-taste question. We can't ask every movie to be Dancer in the Dark or, god forbid, Mulholland Drive. (Let's pause to imagine a Rope with amnesiac Hollywood lesbians in place of the sociopathic preppie gays, or a Philadelphia Story in which WASP divorcée Björk is courted by Joel Grey and David Morse. Okay, never mind, both of those would be kind of awesome.) But I think I see where Josh is coming from on this. To a certain extent, filmmakers take on a moral responsibility when they fictionalize historical events. Using "Nazi" or "Fascist" as shorthand for comic-book style "evil" probably does somehow obscure the more subtle aspects of evil and fascism, and reducing the anti-fascists to knights in shining armor might even do the real anti-fascist heroes a certain disservice. Even so, I'm not sure I buy this argument. For one thing, I think it fails to take into account the strange and nuanced role that fantasy plays in Pan's Labyrinth. Žižek tracks the Lynchian narrative, in films like Mulholland and Lost Highway, as a trip from reality to dream and back again: when the world becomes unbearable in its particulars, the protagonist escapes into his or her dream-life--only to discover that this dream-life, when realized in all its own particulars, is even more unbearable. In Pan's Labyrinth, reality is already infected with this unbearable fantasy. Think of Don Quixote, maybe, that other Spanish tale about a fairy-story addict--we all distort, reimagine reality through the lens of fiction. Every child interprets real life according to the stories she's been told; every child imagines that her stepfather is a monster; Ofelia's stepdad, a Fascist war criminal, just happens to be one. And so her escape is not into a simplified fantasy, like the paranoid universe visited in a Lynch film, but an enriched one: She immediately intuits the Captain's evil; the Faun, on the other hand, is totally ambiguous, his motives unreadable until the last moments of the film. The first fairy she meets isn't quite like the ones she's read about in her books (even though, tellingly, it seems to have model itself after them)--it's hairless, green, eats raw meat, and speaks in an uncanny insect chatter that an edit in the first scene compares to the sinister ticking of the Captain's pocketwatch. While Ofelia is sheltered at home, mostly shielded from the horrific violence that surrounds her at the keep, her fantasy-world is filled with images of viscera, infanticide, and cannibalism, and the choices she faces there are strange, even arbitrary, and difficult. Hence her dream-life isn't about escape, for her--it's a release valve for her terror, ambivalence, and guilt, an ordeal to exorcise her world of the doubt and brutality which she senses all around her but cannot comprehend. Part II comin' soon.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is "friend Josh" writing in. I think Dan has for the most part accurately represented my opinions (and, in fact, ennobled them quite a lot by purging them of the constant undercurrent of personal invective with which they were actually delivered.)
One subtle correction--my sense of Mulholland Drive's greatness as a film is not really the same as my appreciation for Dancer in the Dark. Dancer in the Dark is Bjorkporn, pure and simple, and von Trier surely knew what he was doing. But one way in to understanding Mulholland Drive is to think of it as a porn film made by a director who felt he had no other alternative; that pornographic degradation was the only satisfactory solution to what presented itself to him as an *aesthetic* problem. There is a certain hermeneutic to MD--one has to be able to hold the entire film in one's mind, as a whole object, in order to see clearly that the last third of the film, the supposed "real" that answers the hunger of the "fantasy" (or even just "dream") of the first two-thirds, is in fact just as much a pure distillation of a certain essential Hollywood subgenre. That is to say, because the first part of the film is so obviously keyed to satisfy an audience's needs (the Hitchcockian need to expose and then control the uncanny in the fabric of the everyday), we are kept from noticing that our desires are just as much implicated in the supposedly "real" last third. The only moment that we can be sure that the characters are behaving free of the contraints of generic expectation, when they are truly Real, is at the Club Silencio, when they become audience members like us. Lynch's film asks questions of film-goers about the economy of pleasure inherent in Hollywood film-making. Though of course it is on some level a matter of taste that prefers this project to project of Pan's Labyrinth, which Dan is outlining here, I think you could make the case that MD is in fact a more politically responsible film, at least on the theatrical level, because it asks viewers to sustain questions about their own motives, desires, repressions, and collective actions, whereas del Toro's questions hand the audience a free pass with the word "Wonder" written on one side and "Horror" on the other.

Anonymous said...

PS- I meant "theoretical" where I typed "theatrical," but I'm not sure that parapraxis at all obscures the sense of my argument.

Anonymous said...

I should really get my own blog. But, I can't help but add an afterthought. I said in my original post that the only portal through to the Real in Mulholland Drive is at the Club Silencio, when the two women beocme spectators. I did not remark on the deepest irony of all (if indeed it is an irony and not a return of the repressed), which is that this is also the closest to a pure and fully conscious allegorical mode of representation that exists in recent cinema. The recourse to out-and-out allegory as a more trustworthy vehicle for "realism" than the various generic narrative modes might interest literary types more (or more especially) than the film-going public at large, and I'm not sure that the identification of allegory as a distinction mode of discourse would even make much sense to Lynch. But it seems like an important observation if only in the context of a discussion of El Laberinto del Fauno, because allegorical discourse is precisely and deliberately what is barred from del Toro's storytelling in this film. Dan finds that appealing, I find it disappointing. But in a way, del Toro's decision takes us back to Spenser's Bower of Bliss, in which the real as represented by (narrated) violence and the real as implicated by (written) allegory seem hopelessly incommensurable, leading to a kind of moral frustration that (in its articulation) is also a kind of heroism.