19 March 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

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!

11 March 2007


I mentored a senior thesis when I was at Redlands--a time when I mentored a whole range of things completely unrelated to my research, and so this thesis was on the Futurists. I learned a lot about these speed-loving Modernists: pro-war, excitement, strength, and masculinity.

Upon my groggy return from the US this past week, I taught Gandhi's Hind Swaraj. He argues among other things, that railways are bad. Humanity should not be able to move that quickly between places. It destroys what binds us together. It destroys community and a link to one's past.

Obviously as an Australian-born naturalised US citizen of Scottish-Austrian descent now indefinitely residing in Wales (sut mae!), and with family and friends currently living in Ulaan Bataar, Brisbane, Beirut, Delhi, Portland ME and OR, New Jersey, Denver, LA, Taipei and etc., the whole transcontinental flight revolution was pretty cool. Facilitating these far-flung travels, worldliness and global network of family and friends is a good thing.

But having spent less than 10 hours in the air in order to travel from LAX to LHR, I have to say: it's too quick. How slow should it be? Not the 3-6 month era of slow cruises across the Atlantic or Pacific, sure. But a good 3 weeks. I think that's entirely fair and reasonable. This is how much time it should take for the universe to be, well, in tune with the body's movement in some small way. Now that I'm old and all, it's taking me a long time to recover from these little jaunts. But mostly I find it Wrong that I wander around reading Welsh roadsigns thinking: 16 hours ago I was driving to LAX on the 105 listening to Mexicana music. Wrong.

02 March 2007

(shhh...) Wagner was.....
A Cross Dresser!

The above-linked Guardian article is truly disappointing. It has to work really hard to build up the salacious lather it's striving for, over the 'discovery' of some letters in which Wagner went into baroque detail describing women's clothing. And for the big climax the article 'reveals' that Wagner ordered some custom-made dresses, about which he had very specific requests and concerns. He himself said these were for his wife, but she never noted their receipt in her diary....so....maybe they were for him!

A few comments on this nonsense:
  1. As to the detailed and flowery language: um, it's Wagner we're talking about. What the the hell would you expect?
  2. As to the fact that he might have worn dresses, or liked 'girly' things. I see no reason for historians not to write about this, but how is it news? (I know, the weather is news, so I guess anything can be.)
  3. Finally, there's the fact that the article consistently turns 'cross-dresser' into some sort of 'secret' identity. One Wagner might have tried to hide, but that we, today, can reveal. It's not an account of Wagner wearing women's clothing (because we aren't even certain that he did that); instead, it's a CSI-style investigation of his possible identity. Maybe he WAS a cross-dresser? Or perhaps he was a martian?! If they were giving this salacious account of his potentially being gay, then the homophobia of it all would jump right off the page. But if it's 'merely' 'gender deviation' then it's OK to make the whole thing out to be perverse and deviant. But the idea of gender-deviation as perverse or wrong is of a piece with homophobia: both are products of heteronormativity. In both cases we have this rigid effort to uphold gender binaries, and this is, in a way, made easier by the so-called acceptance of homosexuality not as a practice or a way of being in the world, but as a 'sexual orientation'.
But, to revert to a liberal language that I'm trying hard to avoid above (and that I'd never use in formal writing): who gives a shit if Wagner liked wearing dresses? Why is that so damned threatening, and therefore morbidly interesting, and therefore newsworthy? Why do we work so hard to separate masculinity from femininity?

It's too bad that Rebecca herself isn't nearly as girly as the heteronormative order would like her to be, because, nonetheless, I'm heading upstairs to raid her warddrobe and get myself dressed up!!!