Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

There's an unstated snobbery in academic literary studies. No one ever comes right out and says it, but pop culture is low art. And low art ain't...sorry, isn' not literature. Literature is something higher, purer, of higher quality. It's the difference between poetry and that damn radio jingle you can't get out of your head.

But what do you do when the artist behind low art creates high art? Then what do you do? I like how Stephen King responded to being awarded an honorary doctorate and upbraided the scholars who gave it to them, because they waited until he was a ridiculously best selling author to examine his works (and others like his) in their studies. Guillermo Del Toro might have to do the same at the Academy Awards this year.

His grown up fairy tale, "Pan's Labyrinth" is a beautiful work of art that owes much to the work Del Toro has done previously (Blade II and Hellboy) but promises new and wonderful things in the future of this writer/director/producer.

There are already more laudatory statements about this film on the Internet, so I won't bother adding too many...besides, I have one of those pesky academic topics to study.

Earlier this year I posted a series of posts on classifying fairy tale film. If I had to write the paper again, I might have used Pan's Labyrinth instead of Legend as a case study. In that paper, I stated that there are five classificatory elements necessary to apply the label 'fairy tale film'. The first is gender and sexuality, which this film touches on in less overt ways than are traditionally ascribed to fairy tales - the shadow male is certainly explored in the character of Capitán Vidal, whose monstrosity exceeds any big bad wolf. His need for a son to carry on, his brokeness over an absent father and a life lived by the sword in pursuit of dying by it (the only honorable death according to Vidal) all explore the shadow masculine. Issues of what it meant to be a woman in Spain in the early 20th century are latent throughout the film, and the dangers of pregnancy also suffuse the film with a sexuality lying beneath the surface. Protagonist Ofelia asks her mother why she had to get married, and her mother replies that she will understand some day.

The second distinctive was good vs. evil; this film carries the realities of war but maintains some black and white distinctives - the Facists are evil, and the rebels are good. This is never ambiguous. The movie is even able to deal with Kenneth Kidd's call for children's books (or movies) which “actually reckon with the horrific world violence to which our nation handily contributes, and which challenge the masterplot of childhood innocence that has transformed our very understanding of citizenship”. While "Pan's Labyrinth" is no children's film, it is certainly a fairy tale that reckons with real world violence. Ofelia's final solution to violence in her world is one which critics of the myth of redemptive violence will appreciate. And the rebels rejection of passing along Vidal's values of dying as a soldier in battle being the highest honor further underscore this. While the film plays towards moral ambiguity throughout, one of the final scenes is replete with symbolism which does not so much negate as clarify the ambiguity, casting literal "light" on the greys and shadows that have acted as the backdrop throughout.

Interestingly, I concluded in my study that "There can be no anticipation of a better world if a darker world is not imagined, and in that imagining, defeated." There has been much said about the harsh violence and dark ambience of "Pan's Labyrinth", but the beauty of the film would have been diminished without the depths it sinks in showing horror as well. Del Toro certainly understands the concept of the sublime to be sure - the film both attracts and repels.

The third distinction states that the meritorious individual will win out in the end, no matter the obstacles. Without spoiling anything, I'll let everyone know that they do live happily ever after. And this is all due to Ofelia's refusal to back down from her principles and her commitment to her mother and unborn sibling.

The fourth element is all manner of weird phenomena. If you've seen the trailer, you know the film succeeds here in spades. And this isn't the pseudo magic of "The Prestige" where we are uncertain as to what sort of magic has been worked. This is fairy tale magic without apology or explanation. The film begins in the Perilous Realm and then moves to our 'real' world - but the ontologies blur throughout. Doorways to the realm of Faerie abound in Ofelia's world, and they need no logic save that of fairy tales, where chalk provides a way to make a door when none is available.

And finally, transformation must occur. This is, in my esteem, the essential element. Without it, there is no true fairy tale, only a phantasmagoria. Ofelia's transformations are multiple; I will do my best to not create a spoiler by saying that she moves from being the innocent, to the orphan, to caregiver...with one last transformation which I will leave unstated. You can make your own conclusions once you've seen the film.

And while you might have had to wade through a lot of blah blah to hear me say it, I do recommend it...HIGHLY. This film, as it was released in 2006, has my number one spot for that year. I've included an adjusted list below.

Gotthammer's Top 10 of 2006...
1. Pan's Labyrinth
2. V for Vendetta
3. Casino Royale
4. Miami Vice
5. The Prestige
6. Silent Hill
7. Superman Returns
8. Underworld: Evolution
9. Cars
10. Pirates of the Caribbean 2

But you know me...I have a few items from 2006 to still see (The Illusionist) and some to still review (Slither), so this list may yet change again...


  1. Great review Mike. I'm even more eager to see it now, and I'm pretty sure my brain will have lapsed on anything you might have given away.

    While you were watching Pan, I was watching The Illusionist, which I will highly recommend. I honestly have nothing bad to say about it. Knowing me, you'll know how incredible that is.

  2. Fabulous movie, I agree. Surprised me a few times. Creeped me out a few times. Really well done visuals. I can't say anything more about it other than to say--Watch it if you haven't seen it yet!

  3. Can't wait to watch it. It looks like the Academy liked it also.
    I watched The Illusionist. Thought it was OK. I love both Ed Norton and Paul Giamatti. I thought they really re-invented themselves with these roles. I was able to figure out too early what was going to happen, that was my only gripe. It is very visually pleasing, I like this era (same as The Prestige). I'll see what you think when you review it.