Movie-Hype00699 – PAN’S LABYRINTH
I was reading the Afterword to Neil Gaiman’s “The Kindly Ones” the other day, and came across this gem, referring to how Kindly Ones was longer than its predecessors:
“…in hardback at least, could undoubtedly be used to stun a burglar: which has always been my definition of real art.”
That made me think about how we define great art. One idea would be “that which inspires us to greatness of our own.” I like that. Two nights ago, after a wonderful celebratory meal for the Institute’s 7th birthday, my sister and I stopped at the dollar theatre to see what was playing. I was super tired and had a column to get out, but I’ve always found you regret the movies you didn’t take the time to see in the theatre more than you do the time spent. The marquee read PAN’S LABYRINTH, a film I’d wanted to see for three months, all the more so after it blew up and became THE early Oscar night story. A quick jaunt to CVS pharmacy for some Life Saver jelly beans and we were ready to roll.
When the movie was over I drove my sister home. She sat there, almost in a daze. I asked her feelings on the film, and she didn’t stop talking for the next hour and a half.
That is actually a good thing, because the film awakened within her a desire to say something, to get in the game and discuss great art. I offered to let her use my laptop and write some of these ideas down, as they were solid and deserved to be shared. I personally agree with much she had to say, but because I wanted to go about my review in a different way I would not get an opportunity to present some of these ideas. I am glad to give her a chance to do so in her own words, with my thoughts to follow.
Hyperion’s Sister Speaks:
Rarely do movies come along that surprise me. I do not pretend to be omniscient about them, just that I simply do not connect to movies powerfully. There are movies that I have fallen in love with, but they didn’t capture me; held as a prisoner of the art, contained within the sheer beauty and power of the film. Until now…
PAN’S LABYRINTH was an experience on so many levels. I learned while watching. Pan’s Labyrinth might be scary for a novice. It is a Spanish speaking film with subtitles, which sadly may keep some away. I am not wholly green now, yet not nearly as seasoned as I want to be in movies, so I admit I was apprehensive. Then the movie started and it all faded away. Was the movie so good that it made you forget the difficulties you might have from multitasking reading and watching? Yes, but that wasn’t my reason. It could be my obsession over the last few years with captions. I’m convinced Gilmore Girls started this. If I hadn’t been so keen to understand every little thing, whether I got the reference or not, then maybe I could watch TV without being so damn dependent on hearing every word. This being said, PAN’S LABYRINTH was hot fudge. It flowed so beautifully that I not only forgot it was another language I was hearing, but was utterly convinced that I understood what they were saying.
When I first heard of PAN’S LABYRINTH I thought it was just an exceptionally good kid’s movie, the kind of Disney and Pixar Creations that get a lot of buzz. Well, after seeing it I think only the coolest parents in the world would let their children see this. It was terrifying and it didn’t let up. If you are waiting for the wise words of a Jamaican crab or for a Candle to sing, you will still be sitting in the theater. Do we in America coddle our children? Well obviously. If this movie is regular children’s entertainment in other countries, we have a lot to answer for. We have become so sensitive that we cannot even let our children watch a fairy tale? As I watched this I was so glad Disney did not make it. Disney is fantastic for animation, songs, and the happily ever after, but could it have the audacity to tell kids that you aren’t always safe? That often you are on your own, and sometimes there aren’t second chances? If this really is intended for children then it begs the question, why are we afraid of them watching it?
Music. The music was intoxicating. I could have sat with my eyes closed and had an incredible time. But beware: PAN likes to taunt its viewers. Over the years, we the public, have come to rely on music for what, upon closer examination, seems to be a tremendous chunk of our viewing experience. At horror films we close our eyes and try to block out the gore, yet we hear that bone crunch, and the blood splatter, and that last gut-wrenching scream. A movie’s music holds a power over us. We trust it to let us know when to shrink back in our seats, when to hold our breath, and then when to finally breath again. Yet sometimes a movie will play tricks on your senses. Which do you believe more, your eyes or your ears? When someone is behind the character we expect that eerie quiet melody that will crescendo when the character turns around. If that isn’t there can we feel safe? Nothing bad could happen without the music that signals it, right? PAN doesn’t always follow the rules. Watching PAN will feel like a never-ending battle between your senses that only leaves you with a thirst for more.
No doubt about it this movie was a surprise. It petrified and enchanted me, but more than that it was like watching a painting. But make no mistake: PAN’S LABYRINTH does not fool around. The kid gloves come off for these two hours, as you are whisked away to where traditional meanings of light and shadow, happy and sad, even good and evil cannot be trusted.
PAN'S LABYRINTH may be the most mythologically complex film to hit America in years. There are at least three separate films going on all at once, with centuries or perhaps millennium-old archetypes reverberating out from the center in ripples, some of which the filmmakers certainly didn't intend and may not even be aware of. Great Art often taps into the shared Human Mythos without plan or artifice, for the stories that make us human not only bind all cultures, but cannot help but reveal themselves in the work of Great Artists.
On the top layer PAN'S LABYRINTH is a story set in 1944 post-Civil War Spain, with Franco's regime struggling to crush the resistance. A young girl named Ofelia travels with her very pregnant mother Carmen to the countryside to meet Carmen's new husband Captain Vidal. Carmen tells Ofelia she must call Vidal "Father," a term of intimacy Ofelia instinctively recoils from, a judgment quickly commended as we see that Vidal's inner demons have pushed his fascism to fanatical levels, a rage he takes out on the Republican rebels in the surrounding hills. Ofelia, a bright if dreamy girl of 11, would rather lose herself in fairy tales than face the harsh realities of her situation: the world is cruel and unrelenting, a place where fathers die and are replaced not by wise old Kings of magical realms but by hard-nosed men who grip power in a closed fist.
Throughout the entire film, PAN'S LABYRINTH never deviates into sentiment. Ofelia's Brave New World is often one of nightmare, a world many European children found themselves in as the shock waves of a half-century of war buckled the land over and over and over again. Though unique and specific, PAN may be representing all those children's experiences. A child's world should be safe and nurturing, built to give the child confidence that she can handle the realm she is about to enter; come what may. Ofelia does not have that luxury, and we take the journey with her, feeling her all-too-real hurts and pains.
So that's one story, and if that were all there were I would call PAN a good wartime story about the loss of innocence and recommend the film for anyone who could handle it. But as I said, there is so much more.
The prologue to PAN’S LABYRINTH tells us of Princess Moanna, daughter to the King of the Underworld. One day the princess became curious about the World Above and took the journey, only to have the sun blot out her memories of home. Moanna lived as a human and eventually died, but the King held hope in his heart that one day his daughter would return to him, if reincarnated in the spirit of another. Ofelia's new home borders a Labyrinth, entryway to the Underworld, and Ofelia is recognized by a fairy and then a faun, who gives Ofelia three tasks to perform to reveal her "true essence" as Moanna, so that she may return to the Kingdom.
Ofelia now finds herself straddling two worlds: the harsh one we spoke of, and a place of enchantment, wondrous to behold but perhaps no less dangerous. The question of whether this thread of the tale might be spurred by Ofelia's imagination in response to a world so abhorrent to her is not answered. In fact, it is not even addressed.
Sometimes reality is a matter of perception. When asked if Calvin's tiger Hobbes was real creator Bill Watterson answered that Calvin viewed Hobbes one way and everyone else saw the tiger another. There is a similar crossroads here of shared and private realities that gives PAN such a dramatic tension and vitality. When we are with Ofelia we see the world from her point of view, and the magical three trials are very real and very deadly. There are some among us who might ask whether these things are truly happening to her, but by its very silence the movie answers unequivocally "Yes."
With these two layers to the film (two and a half if you want to debate the reality of the Underworld Kingdom), I would wholeheartedly recommend PAN'S LABYRINTH to just about anyone. Though often incredibly scary--and you must understand that at times PAN plays like a horror film, where Dark Crystal meets Freddy Kruger--I would passionately exhort those not normally inclined to watch films with heart in throat to push themselves and try PAN'S LABYRINTH. Imagine the demented imagination of Tim Burton mixed with the crisp storytelling of J.K. Rowling. Who isn't up for that?
But there is a third layer here, one that lifts PAN'S LABYRINTH from the world of Film and sends it through the ether to the Jungian Pantheon of Story, that great Cosmic Library, the pool where all children--but only children--learn how to swim.
PAN'S LABYRINTH is a fairy tale, and this means so much more than you can possibly imagine.
Part 2 of this review is a Chronicle, which you can find by going here. But before I let you go,
Hyperion’s Rating Guide:
Suspension of Disbelief (0-10, with 0 realer than real and 10 a cartoon): 8 – At any level you want to call it—fairy tale, metaphor, actual events—PAN’S LABYRINTH is a kaleidoscope of events we generally consider not possible in today’s world. If you’re fretting over whether it could happen, you’re missing the point. On the other hand, the aftermath of WWII is absolutely real
Genre Grade: Whether you’d call PAN a fairy tale or WWII drama I’d still have to give it an absolute solid A.
Sex/Drugs/Rock & Roll? – There is a brutality to the violence here that would be hard for someone like my mother to take. While I think you work past it to see what’s really going on, you should be very aware that this is not a Kid’s film, at least in the traditional sense. At the very least you would want to screen it before letting anyone under driving age watch it.
Other – I can’t wait for the DVD, to (hopefully) pour over hours of extras, but since PAN is still in theatres I’ll say this: if there is any chance to watch PAN’S LABYRINTH in theatres, even a crappy dollar theatre, it is a moral imperative that you go. Drop everything you’ve ever loved and go watch it. Also, just so you don’t wonder, the “Pan” in the title doesn’t appear in the actual movie. The original title was “The Labyrinth of the Faun,” but since fawn in English means female deer, the producers worried not enough people would know what the movie was referring to and stay clear, so they changed it to the Greek god Pan. (Like more people are going to know about his cloven ass, but wha-tev.)
Pantheon Percentile (Percentage of films this is better than, with a 50 being an average movie): 98.5% Not only is PAN’S LABYRINTH a wholly unique rip-out-your-throat experience to watch, but I’m positive repeat viewings will only add to the magic. Add to that fact that the moviemakers generally used more simple special effects (like Jim Henson-esque animatronics), and the film should remain timeless for generations to come.