The Oscar hype and curiosity about a politically-engaged fantasy film drew me in to the excitement surrounding Pan's Labyrinth. We watched it on DVD this weekend, and I have to say, er, not so good. Not that it's not beautiful. Not that it's not wonderfully shot. It's entertaining, sure. There is nothing new here to learn. This is my problem. Not that films should be didactic--they shouldn't set out to teach--just that there should be some synthesis that they perform that opens up a tiny new bit of insight for the viewer.
I know next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War except that it happened and a bunch of French and American intellectuals attempted to led their overly pampered hands to the fight against Franco. I don't know much more about it now, either.
I have learned: fascism = bad. rebels in woods = good. torture = bad, but pornographically voyeuristically (supposedly) fun to watch (ick). people, particularly evil ones, are often sexist. children are our future. watching blood and guts slowly implode = cool (ick). violence is beautiful (ick).
It seems that filmmakers have realised that the audience is desensitised to violence. Instead of finding another way to articulate the horror of violence, power, and war, they simply make the violence more and more hyper-real. It's not realism. Realism is the fist fight where after the first punch the two people are groveling in pain on the floor, and half the punches don't land properly, and the two individuals aren't built like Mr. Universe. What we have in Pan's Labyrinth is hyper-realism: a fantasy world of pops and fizzles and hands cut open and amputations and sewing up one's face. Perhaps the message is that Franco's Spain is a fantasy world just as the world the child constructs in the film is also a fantasy world. Or that both are equally real.
If that's the message, which is fine, and I would be excited about, except that it's done incredibly poorly. Why are there no links between the underground fantasy world and the Franco world? I'm talking narrative links, metaphorical links, intertwined 'tasks'? The two spaces don't overlap narratively--it's the old two 'intertwined' narratives that don't ever quite speak to one another. (This seems to be a pattern in contemporary filmmaking. See David Denby's brilliant piece on this in the New Yorker.) So we have a (children's) fantasy film interspersed with a film about Fascism's badness, and neither really works.
I decry the lack of art in this film: I have seen this all before. In the other Labyrinth film, for example. (an unfair comparison, obviously, as any David Bowie film will of course beat any other non-David Bowie film. duh.) In the violence of the clips from 300. This isn't helping us to see how condoning torture is hurting our society. It isn't helping us to see how living in certain authoritarian regimes utterly changes the power dynamic and thus forces good people to do things they wouldn't otherwise do. It's not a study in politics or psychology or war. It's a pornographic exploration of violence and evil. We don't need that. I'd love to see this film again, except this time make the evil guy human and complicated. Show us why everyone follows him. Why does the mother marry him? Explore some of the class issues barely whispered in the film. Link the fantasy elements more clearly and directly (yet subtly) with the 'real' elements. Make the collapsing of the two explicit and do it for a reason. Don't show us the violence through special effects--make us feel it through the crackling of it in the dialogue.
And please don't smuggle in some half-baked God the Father glowy stuff at the end. Please.
Next: Real violence...Dogville!