Saturday, June 16, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men (Major Spoilers)

[I missed both of these films in the theaters, heard all the buzz around them, and just now got around to watching them. I can understand the excitement over both, but wanted to write about why they both bothered me.]

Children of Men is a science fiction film close to Soderbergh's underrated Solaris, in terms of keeping both the world realistic and believable, and focusing on characters, rather than philosophical ideas and special effects, a welcome relief. It is also exquisitely directed -- the single long take for the attack on the car in the woods is the showcase, and deservedly so. Pan's Labyrinth creates a unique tone, expertly moving between a weird fairy world and fascist Spain in 1944; the character design is a major point of praise, again deservedly so.

Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro and Children of Men director Alphonse Cuaron -- both Mexican -- have directed mainstream American sci-fi and fantasy films: del Toro did Hellboy and Cuaron was responsible for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Uzbekistan (Azkaban, whatever). Both Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth gain power from the same source -- they take traditionally escapist genres -- science fiction and fantasy -- and ground them in as real a world as can be thought up.

It is how both Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men link the real world to escapist genres that leads me to the conclusion that they are both overrated. Both films are rooted in a deeply pessimistic world view -- most people in both films are sell-outs, brutalizers, and ideologues. Importantly, after two hours of almost uninterrupted unpleasantness, both films have happy endings (in both an infant is ostensibly saved) that are undercut by all of the previous scenes. The boat arrives to save the first human born in 18 years -- but haven't we seen in the course of the film that most people are monsters? How much hope do we have that the people on the boat at the end of Children of Men will be better human beings than everyone we have left behind? Ofelia is reunited with her parents in a beatific fairy heaven where she is a princess at the end of Pan's Labyrinth -- but she has died horribly, possibly believing in some kind of delusion. The guerrilla's will raise her half brother -- but do we really think they are better people than the regime they have just toppled? As adults they are as cut off from the child's ability to perceive magic as surely as Ofelia's mother was (it is not just Nazis that cannot see magic). And of course Franco died peacefully in his sleep long after the film takes place -- this war is nowhere near over. The film does not address this point directly either, but fairy worlds, if you believe the fairy world is real (and I think that is best) are usually very bad for children -- as in Labyrinth with David Bowie, the girl is supposed to save her brother from the fairly creatures of the Labyrinth (as Ofelia does), but it is no place for a little girl to live. An old woman in the film -- and old women in these films always know what is really going on -- even says that fauns are not to be trusted; and the faun does not seem at all trustworthy. You could argue whether the end of either Pan's Labyrinth or Children of Men is supposed to be ironic but to me the endings feel very much like the end of Kafka: The Musical, a spoof in an episode of the television show Home Movies -- as Kafka is raised to heaven a booming voice declares, in a super-friendly but faux-stately voice "Hello Franz Kafka! My name is God! I think you are going to like it here!"

Both Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth have their story to tell -- the hero's journey to learn to love again, to care about a cause again, and to get a child to safety; the little girl who saves her brother and makes her way to her proper destiny as a fairy princess. But both Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth are disingenuous. As Slavoj Zizek points out in his commentary on the DVD, the hero's journey in Children of Men appears to be the point, and the world he travels in secondary, but it is the other way around: what Cuaron is really interested in is holding a glass up to nature, as it were, and showing us our own ugly face in the "background" -- the world -- of the film; the hero's journey is merely an excuse. This is why his story is so dully told -- the story structure of Children of Men has an obstacle-1-obstacle-2-obstacle-3-and-so-on structure; it could be much shorter, or much longer, which is not the right way to tell a story. Similarly it is the depiction of fascist Spain that is delToro's aim in Pan's Labyrinth -- the fantasy elements of Ofelia's story serve only to bring home the brutality of Spain under Franco more starkly than a fully realistic film could -- these monsters are not just killing children, they are killing the very spirit of imagination itself. This is why, if you have seen DVD box, or a commercial for the film, you have seen all the amazing character designs -- there are only two.

I was disappointed to discover in each film a pedestrian design, a subordination of the imagination and storytelling to a crummy point about a world that is ugly, and a people that are sad.

That monster with the eyes in his hands sure was cool though, and Children of Men had a hell of a tracking shot.

17 comments:

derikhefner said...

All I've got to say is, Children Of Men was horrendous. If you've read the novel by P.D. James, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't read it, you should. It's a beautifully written book, with some very profound ideas. Ideas that were all ignored by the movie. Cuaron was more interested in showing a machine gun-laden dystopian future than telling the story as the book would have it... which featured far fewer machine guns--- the political landscape in the book is much different, and much more relevant to our current real-life situation. I could go on all day, but the movie just isn't worth wasting my time over. Thankfully the book is still in existence, but alas many people will never give the book a chance after that steaming pile of a movie.

Timothy Callahan said...

Children of Men is great because of the technical filmmaking. The astonishing use single takes (or what appears to be single takes) and fluid camera movement around those takes, raises an interesting but flawed film to much greater heights. Because Geoff, you're right about the simplistic structure and nihilistic tone.

With Pan's Labyrinth, I got the sense that del Toro was pulling a Coleridge, adding a romanticized ending to what was, essentially, a vision of darkness and inhumanity. "He blessed them unawares"--really? I doubt it, STC.

Anonymous said...

maybe we've just come to live in a world where escapism and storytelling for their own sake have become obsolete. for the record, i liked children of men, but was underimpressed with it as an example of cuaron's work in total -- my husband hated it -- and i loved pan's labyrinth. i think it did have a lot to say about what we lose when we "grow up" and what lies we are willing to tell outselves to do it. but that's just me...

troy wilson said...

"Both Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth gain power from the same source -- they take traditionally escapist genres -- science fiction and fantasy -- and ground them in as real a world as can be thought up."

Kinda similar to what Watchmen did with the superhero genre, really. Like Pan's Labyrinth(can't comment on Children of Men - haven't seen it), Watchmen presents an unrelentingly bleak world. Like PL, Watchmen leaves aspects of the ending in the hands of the audience. And like PL, Watchmen's ending is a little wobbly. Actually, Watchmen's ending a lot a wobblier than PL's, but the comparison is there (sort of - I'm kinda stretching it, I know).

"Importantly, after two hours of almost uninterrupted unpleasantness, both films have happy endings

On the one hand, it could be argued that Ofelia and the audience have earned every flicker of light at the end of PL's dark tunnel. On the other hand, the very fact that the rest of PL is so grim makes a happy ending (particularly one as big as Ofelia becoming a princess in a magical kingdom) hard to really believe.

And yet, as you say, the bleak ending - the ending that marches in lockstep with the film's real world - is right there for anyone who wants it: a delusional little girl dies - period. As an audience, we can be as optimistic or as pessimistic as we want to be. Or can we? The two most viable options are a) too bleak to want to believe in or b) too optimistic to believe in.

In a way, it's harder to tread a middle ground. Not impossible, though. There is, of course, a glimmer of hope even in the "delusional girl" option, in that the real world baddies never did manage to kill her imagination, which she kept alive until her dying breath. And a glimmer of pessimism (maybe more than a glimmer) can be found in the "happily ever after" magical kingdom ending. As you mention, Geoff, it's certainly possible that the fairy tale world isn't perfect and isn't exactly where she should stay - even if it probably is a number of steps up from a war zone.

I like that the movie gives us leeway in terms of what we can believe, though certainly it pushes the "happily ever after in a pretty damn good magical kingdom" the hardest - maybe too hard.

I also like that Ofelia is the only person (that I can recall anyway - haven't seem the movie since January or February) who isn't willing to do absolutely anything to escape the hell her real world has become, human cost be damned; she isn't willing to kill an innocent. Despite the horrors around her, she still has the innocence and imagination to think outside the box and rise above the cycle of violence that surrounds her - and she's rewarded for that, either in her own mind or in reality (er, magical reality - you know what I mean).

"An old woman in the film -- and old women in these films always know what is really going on -- even says that fauns are not to be trusted"

Yeah, given the standard conventions, I'd usually take the old woman's word for it, but in this particular film I could also believe that she's just a superstitious or unimaginative old woman who doesn't know what she's talking about. Maybe she's right, or maybe she's only a baby's step ahead of the other adults in that she at least acknowledges the existence of the faun.

"and the faun does not seem at all trustworthy."

And I like that. I like that it is very much an alien creature, very hard to read, with its own code of conduct that may or may not entirely jibe with our own.

"But both Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth are disingenuous.(snip) Similarly it is the depiction of fascist Spain that is delToro's aim in Pan's Labyrinth -- the fantasy elements of Ofelia's story serve only to bring home the brutality of Spain under Franco more starkly than a fully realistic film could -- these monsters are not just killing children, they are killing the very spirit of imagination itself."

And this is the crux of it, really - the idea that the fantasy is just a prop to make the real world bad guys badder. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be saying something like, "If I wanted to watch a film about the horrors of Franco's Spain, I would've picked up a film about the horrors of Franco's Spain, rather than one with a faun and a monster with eyes in his hands." Which brings things around to the Watchmen comparison again. "If I wanted to see a bleak and hero-less world where we're on the brink of WWII, I'd turn on the news, not pick up a comic with colorfully costumed characters in it." And if that's even close to the point you're making, it's certainly hard to argue with. I will say, though, that I found Ofelia's journey from ordinary girl to princess - her various tasks, up to and including the one she refused to commit - to be quite engaging on a strictly fantasy level (though, obviously, it's pretty tough to separate the fantasy for the reality, given their symbiotic nature).

"This is why, if you have seen DVD box, or a commercial for the film, you have seen all the amazing character designs -- there are only two."

Okay, I admit the toad wasn't a fantastic, imaginative design. Sure, it was just a big toad. But, even so, I thought it was pitch-perfect. A good starting challenge. Not something totally alien to her, but something familiar magnified beyond all reasonable proportions. And not some cute little fairy tale frog with a crown on its head, but a fucking ugly-ass, slimy, disgusting toad in a massive tree. It just worked really well for me. And so did the little dough creature under the bed. It was creepy and bizarre, the kind of creepy and bizarre that I don't see nearly often enough in the prettified, bland, and pale things that call themselves fairy tales these days.

In a similar vein, I thought the casting was great. We were spared the pretty people this time around. And hey, nothing against pretty people (hell, some of my best friends are pretty people), but too many of 'em can take me out of the story sometimes. Ofilia's mom was a looker, but everyone else was pretty ordinary. Not ugly, just ordinary. Ofelia wasn't the usual Judy fucking Garland "cute-as-a-button" type. She wasn't unattractive, either. Ordinary. Refreshingly so.

And I loved Capitan Vidal. That type of arrogant villain usually bores me to tears, but somehow this character really engaged me. I just loved watching him. The actor really inhabited the role and brought a charisma to it that never wore thin for me. And, of course, the writing and directing sold him too.

Alright, one last comparison to Watchmen and I'll stop. Vidal's face getting cut reminded me of the Comedian's Vietnam scene. (By the way, you might think that I worship at the altar of Watchmen, given how many times I've brought it up in this post. Yes, I love Watchmen. I think it does what it does really well. It knocked my socks off when it first came out, and, to a lesser extent, still does. Having said that, nowadays my superhero tastes skew more toward, say, All-Star Superman-ish material than the less imaginative "what if superheroes were real" stuff. And yet here I am defending Pan's Labyrinth. Funny, that.

Calib@n said...

Have to agree with Troy Wilson's review. Pan's Labyrinth is a pessimistic film but it reflects a very pessimistic time in 20th century history. The wound that Mercedes inflicted on Vidal reminded me of the Comedian as well. A country in the form of a woman taking revenge by marking the face of the army that has despoiled it. And, of course, the Pale Man is cool. He's Norrin Radd.

Check out the Devil's Backbone by Del Toro as well.

Fence said...

Does Children of Men really have a happy ending? Sure the baby is about to be rescued, but as you say we have no idea if the people on the boat (what were they called again?) are to be trusted.

I think that you could view it as a tragic ending very easily. Our hero is dead. The child and its mother are left in a sort of limbo, we have no idea what is going to happen. It is up to the viewer to speculate as to their future. That's why I liked it.

Jason Powell said...

Geoff --

Just wanted to say, I haven't seen either film and never really had any desire to ... but any film review that quotes a line from Kafka: The Musical is automatically an awesome one.

Well done!

Dante Kleinberg said...

Not everyone in Children of Men was a bad person. The family in the refugee camp who helped them, for instance, or Michael Caine's character, or even Clive Owen's cousin to a certain extent.

Odd you would find happy endings in these movies. Children of Men was bleak as hell, and the friend I went to see Pan's Labyrinth with was muttering about it all day. "I can't believe he killed her. I can't believe it."

Geoff Klock said...

Dante -- no no no. I wrote "Importantly, after two hours of almost uninterrupted unpleasantness, both films have happy endings that are undercut by all of the previous scenes." I say at the end of that paragraph that the endings are ironic -- I found them both to be very unhappy endings, made more unhappy by the irony of "the boat is here" and "everyone is in heaven".

Dante Kleinberg said...

Geoff: Now I'm not sure. I believed at first you were being critical of the endings, but maybe you're not? I don't follow.

The ending of Children of Men was perfectly in tune with the theme of the movie. Children = Hope. This is best illustrated in the scene where everyone is so mesmerised by the child they stop fighting for a couple minutes. So in the end at the epitome of hopelessness, stranded in the middle of a foggy ocean in a tiny boat with a dead guy... HOPE arrives on the horizon! I love a good movie stays on message like that... even if I personally don't like kids...

I haven't put as much thought into Pan's Labyrinth but I found the ending (really the last 10-15 minutes) to be really neat and thought-provoking.

Geoff Klock said...

Dante: The "happy endings" are ironic. That does not make them good.

Dante Kleinberg said...

Geoff: I agree. My enjoyment of them makes them good. They fulfilled the requirements of a good ending, to be both inevitable and unexpected.

You know, I really do enjoy debating the merits of this or that piece of fiction, but at the end eventually you get to a place of aesthetic relativism. "What's good for you, might not be good for me, and vice-versa" and so on...

But hey, I appreciate this forum. :-)

troy wilson said...

"I was disappointed to discover in each film a pedestrian design, a subordination of the imagination and storytelling to a crummy point about a world that is ugly, and a people that are sad."

Geoff: I don't think Pan's Labyrinth suffered from poor storytelling or lack of imagination, though I realize that's not exactly what you're saying. I think it did what it did well. The question really is, was it worth doing? For me, yeah. For you, not so much.

Do you tend to steer clear of fictional worlds that are as unrelentingly bleak as the one in PL? The world that, say, Miller's Batman operates in is pretty bleak, but obviously a key difference is that Bats himself is having a blast - and ultimately winning.

How would you have ended Pan's Labyrinth? I gather from your comments that your main problem with PL is the overall approach, which, of course, is something that couldn't be remedied by a different ending anyway.

By the way, these aren't meant to be "Gotcha!" questions. I'm not going to pounce, and say "So you don't like bleak films? So you don't have an alternate ending up your sleeve? Well then, I rest my case." Not at all. I'm geniunely curious. Obviously, you don't have to remake an entire movie before you can legitimately criticize it, but I'd love to hear what a Geoff Klock version of PL might look like.

And on a totally unrelated note, Geoff, I'd like to think you for talking up Sports Night. I've been borrowing the DVD's from the library and loving the heck out of it.

I've also borrowed the first season of Arrested Development from a buddy and highly recommend it too. Funny stuff. (I think it's already been recommended by someone here - maybe even several someones. And they're absolutely right.)

Geoff Klock said...

Pan's Labyrinth did not suffer from poor storytelling. It did only have two creatures; I am not going to fault it for lack of imagination, but I would like to have seen a movie with creatures like that, but more like Spirited Away or something -- lots of creatures.

I do not steer away from fictional worlds that are bleak. I actually like bleak fictional worlds. What I could do with less of is movies that tell me MY world is bleak and unpleasant, as I have already figured that out.

I do not want, nor do I have, a different ending for Pan's Labyrinth. As for a whole different overall approach -- I would like to see a film with a more interesting relationship between the two worlds than allegory, in which the fairy world serves to highlight the real one. I would like to see a movie where the two worlds interact, where the faun comes face to face with the commander, I would like to see a film in which the fascist reliance on a mythical past comes face to face with an ACTUAL FUCKING MYTHICAL PAST. And I would like to see a film in which the fairy world was as ambiguous as it appeared to be.

Sports Night and Arrested Development -- some of the best TV yet, ever.

troy wilson said...

Cool. Thanks, Geoff. I doesn't necessarily want all the same things, but I see where you're coming from more clearly now.

Matt Brady said...

Good comments, everybody. These were two of my favorite films of last year, so it's good to discuss them with people. On Pan, I think I agree with Troy for the most part, and while I had not thought of the Watchmen comparison, it's pretty apt, at least in the way he describes it. I saw the movie as Ofelia's use of her imagination to escape a terrible, terrible situation. It's pretty bleak, but hopeful, in that people can find something positive even in the worst situations.

"I was disappointed to discover in each film a pedestrian design, a subordination of the imagination and storytelling to a crummy point about a world that is ugly, and a people that are sad."

I also disagree with this point, but it's one of those "to each his own" situations. I see both movies as being about finding hope in a world that is ugly. Not our current world (at least, not for me, but I don't live in Iraq), but a world that has sunk to its worst.

neilshyminsky said...

Geoff: I'm not sure that I see the ending of Children of Men as ironic. (Though Pan's Labyrinth, yes, sure.)

I wrote on my own blog that I saw the entire film as another iteration on the Arthur legend, and so the boat becomes, for me, an altogether necessary and sincere Avalon rising from the mists - we have reason to believe that these people are not quite as bad because, symbolically, they're something more than human. (I suppose, then, that I'm also taking issue with the suggestion that this film is 'realistic'. Perhaps hyper-real instead?)

And while most of the humans we met in England were monsters, it's not like the baby will be required to return and redeem them any time soon. Arthur has taken his sweet time in returning, too.