Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth, or On Wonderment-Fatigue

This might mean more if a cursory glance over movies I have seen recently didn't reveal such a mighty torrent of churl, so bountiful a stream of disappointment. So:

- I really, really liked Casino Royale, Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story, Hot Fuzz.

- I had an awful lot of time for Babel, The Prestige, The Queen, The Good Shepherd (which, given its two-day running time, was fortunate).

- Just to show that I don't only talk when I dislike something, The Last King Of Scotland was awful rubbish[1].

However, and believe me when I say it gives me no pleasure to hold this position: Pan's Labyrinth, the movie that is, it seems, impervious to dislike, really left me cold.

It's an unfair starting-point, but the fact is that the pic's hype didn't get it off on a good foot. All this malarkey about a hidden gem for discerning, Hollywood-scorning audiences just primes one for a redux of the near-unwatchable Night Watch; and as for the "fairy tale for grown-ups stuff", well, it just smacks of those facile "Mature" comic books boasting teen-angst storylines couched in superfluous menstruation references and people getting shot in the head[2].

Which are something Guillermo Del Toro loves. Being excited about this movie because it was from the director of Mimic and Blade 2 always seemed like an exercise in revisionism, trying to get het-up about these masterpieces of popcorn while forgetting that Del Toro's Hollywood output has been geared entirely toward testosterone-blinded UMD-viewing teenagers and usually meanders somewhere between bland and vomitous (as always, check perpetual 17-year-old Harry Knowles' thoughts on Blade 2 for what I guarantee is the most disturbing piece of criticism you will ever read).

And, yes, Pan's Labyrinth is instantly better than the above. It's even better than the comparatively able Hellboy, taking a leaf from Mike Mignola's book and ably working an original story into a pastiche of fairytale archetypes.

This is where things start to disappoint, though. The most apparent problem is that experiencing Pan's Labyrinth is about nothing so much as how wonderful Pan's Labyrinth is to experience. Whereas the experience of the fairytale archetype invariably involves a measure of wide-eyed childlike wonderment, the thrill of being transported into a world of alien spectacle and terror, this is sustained by such details being an integral part of the narrative.

Pan's Labyrinth will draw comparisons to Harry Potter - it must be better, it's subtitled - but as the age's foremost provider of wonderment, JK Rowling understands that stories about magic are only themselves magical if the story itself is too a work of art (or magic). Pan's Labyrinth, while visually noteworthy, has very little real magic to its story: The narrative proceeds gracelessly from point to point, often sacrificing character at the expense of an arbitrary sense of trope. What's intended to feel True in the deepest most metamythic sense just feels Obvious.

Less sorcerer than cheap parlor magician, Del Toro's tactic for dealing with this shallow frippery is to make his film Gorgeous with a capital G: to misdirect you from the fairly humdrum and utilitarian plot with visuals designed to thrill and amaze. But here, too, the visual showmanship on offer seems to say nothing so much as, "look what visual showmanship is on offer here!" It's not actually all that solid in and of itself (much of the effects work is markedly less convincing than any decent pre-CG fantasy from 15-20 years ago), and the grandeur and intricacy don't really inspire awe so much as communicate - via incessant yelling, all bluster and swooping cameras and grating orchestral lullabies - the notion that awe is the appropriate response to this sort of thing. Again, we're not watching a movie that takes us away, we're watching a movie that tells us we really ought to feel taken away right now. The confidence on show is admirable, but it feels hollow.

And to return to that "fairy tale for grown-ups" line, Pan's Labyrinth's deeper malaise is that it really doesn't succeed as a fairy tale for anyone. Fairy tales aren't about wonder: the wonder is a side-product of the actual business of the narrative. Fairy tales stay with us because they tap into the primal, carrying us through fantastic worlds while they go: Pan's Labyrinth wants to take short-cuts, to get the wonderment without any of the tricky business of placing it within an appropriately sublime story.

It doesn't even shock like a fairytale should. Sure, there's some unpleasant torture, and one plot revolves around the female reproductive system, and a lot of people sure do get shot in their heads, but there's nothing to approach Grimm or Struwwelpeter in terms of hauntingly horrifying imagery or concept. After the film has finished, there's little to take away one way or the other. It's the perfect DVD special edition: filled to the brim with details that scream to be paid attention to, designed to convince viewers they're enchanted in lieu of the actual ability to enchant, geared toward repeat viewing in that it's bereft of lasting depth once the credits roll.

Genuine wonderment is far from dead: it's just in short supply here.

[1] Fine, fine, capsule review: So you have a wonderful actor assaying one of the most fascinatingly notorious figures of the c20th, and the most insightful thing you can think to say about him is, "now THERE'S a guy whose wife you shouldn't bang!"?
[2] Obviously, Pan's Labyrinth features an excess of both.