Monday, July 8, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #7: Pan's Labyrinth

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable. 

Max's Grade: 96/A
Loren's Grade: A (he doesn't use the same idiotic 100-point scale I use)

Max O’Connell: Loren, shall I play the tune?

Loren Greenblatt: Please don't. Javier Navarette's score is like the E.T. score, I cry every time I hear the first few bars of it

MO: I think this is Del Toro's best film, by considerable margin.

LG: This is not a guy who’s pumped out a lot of weak films, but I’d have to agree. This feels like a culmination of many things. It’s very much a companion-piece to The Devil’s Backbone. He calls it the “sister” film to the earlier “brother” film. The both deal extensively with the Spanish Civil War, and with children trying to make sense of a violent world around them. The film plays with reality and fantasy, and how they mix in messy ways. In centers on Ofelia, played wonderfully by Ivana Baquero. Her father has died, and her mother is marrying a fascist army officer Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) who, I’m going to go out on a limb here, is evil.

MO: He’s very frightening. Lopez is known as a comedic actor, but I wouldn’t know it watching this. He’s the ultimate button-down monster.

LG: She marries him out of pragmatism- it’s 1944, so she needs to do something to support her daughter. But her daughter is upset by this, and the captain doesn’t care about her at all. She has to call him “father”, which hurts her. And she’s very much an outsider. Like Del Toro, she’s very bookish, very in her own head, and her mother doesn’t approve of her fascination with fairytales. The fascist army captain will not stand for her imagination, which leads to her retreating into a fantasy world, but that world is almost as dark as the one around her.

MO: There are two schools of thought as to whether or not the fantasy world is real. It could be her trying to process the horrible world around her, or it could be real.

LG: Del Toro believes it is real, though obviously that doesn’t settle the matter because art is something that happens with the viewer, not the creator. Either way, it works, and it works beautifully. I really like that when she sees bugs, she sees them as fairies in disguise. It’s a great childlike wonder at the real world, but it also ties into Del Toro’s own fascination with both bugs and fairies.

 MO: She meets a faun, who is not Pan, we’ll stress that right now. In America the film is called Pan’s Labyrinth, but everywhere else it’s called The Labyrinth of the Faun. Del Toro thinks Pan is too much of a sexual character for a film like this, where this faun is very much a part of nature. He’s of the trees, he looks like a tree…Del Toro’s mentality for creature design is absolutely amazing.

LG: The faun tells her that she’s a princess of a forgotten underground kingdom, but she needs to prove her purity with a series of tasks. It’s fairytale stuff, but it’s very old-school fairytale stuff before it became sanitized.

MO: And it’s very important that the purity thing is stressed, because the fairytale parallel to the fascist world is that both the real monsters and the fantastical monsters believe in eugenics. Vidal says they have to kill all the vermin, the communists, and the weaklings, and the faun claims that her essence has to be pure.

LG: Though ultimately it’s a test of her will and goodness in the fantasy realm rather than anything racial…unless we find out in Pan’s Labyrinth 2 that she’s just in another fascist regime.

MO: (depressed) I don’t want to think about that…

LG: The tasks are dark, violent, and frightening, just as dark as the captain’s attempts to stamp out the anti-fascist rebels living in the woods near his home. The captain is Del Toro’s ultimate distillation and criticism of macho culture. He’s a cold, cruel, violent man who wants everything on his schedule. He practically tells his new wife the hour that she is to give birth, and that it had better be a boy.

MO: He’s a very prideful man, and it must be emphasized. One of the characters in the film, his maid Mercedes (Maribel Verdu, excellent as the only person who understands Ofelia), helps the resistance against the fascists, but Vidal doesn't suspect her because she’s a woman. He doesn’t consider her a threat, which is part of his undoing. And when the doctor, also a resistance member, asks him how he knows his child will be a boy, his response is a very curt “Don’t fuck with me”.

LG: If there is a flaw in the film, it’s that he’s cartoonishly evil. Del Toro is usually pretty good at giving us some sympathetic villains but not here. The only thing missing is a scene where he drowns some puppies while singing “Everything's Coming Up Roses”.

MO: I think that was deleted for time’s sake.

LG: I don’t think this is a terrible thing, since it is an allegory against fascism and machismo, which go very well together, but the fascist macho villain in The Devil’s Backbone is more understandable even if he’s venal.

MO: I’m going to go against that a little bit. Lopez talked in an interview about the character’s father, who Vidal says died in Ethiopia during battle and smashed his watch on a rock so his son would know the exact time of his death, and that he died as a man. That has affected who he is. Lopez has stressed that this doesn’t justify any of his behavior, but that terrible ghost of his father has formed who he is. That’s why the eventual rebuke of him is so moving. We’ll get to that.

LG: Time and memory are huge themes here.

MO: He’s very much the clockwork, mechanical man of horror movie lore.

LG: Oh, absolutely, he’s a less literal monster cousin to Kroenen in Hellboy. Memory is a strong theme here. Ofelia is a princess who doesn’t remember she’s a princess. The captain is obsessed with being remembered as a strong man and fathering a male heir to carry on his legacy. That’s why it’s so important that (spoilers) when Mercedes kills him at the end, he tries to  tell her to inform his son the hour at which he died, and that he died as a man, but she cuts him off, saying “No. He won't even know your name”.

MO: Which is what’s so moving about it. His son will not be affected by the same horrible culture that shaped him.

LG: Yes, the son will escape, the chain will be broken! It was definitely an applause moment when I saw it in the theatre. Also on the memory front, there’s a point where Ofelia fails a test, and the faun threatens her with being forgotten forever when she eventually dies. And at the end of the film, when she’s rewarded, she’s rewarded with being remembered and immortal. This ties in with her fear of abandonment- she’s close to her mother, but her mother is trying in her own way to stamp out her bookishness. She’s been affected by this fascist government, and she’s pushing against her own humanity, which is going to make her less susceptible to the charms of her daughter’s imagination and cause a rift between them.  Fascism makes people pragmatic about survival. The other thing about fascism is that the captain is a clockwork man who’s very obedient- he’s a man who can obey just for the sake of obeying orders. And at the end of the film, Ofelia is presented with the exact same choice.

MO: Which comes from the faun. There’s a lot of ambivalence regarding that character. He’s very charming, but there’s something sinister about him.

LG: The faun demands that she do a terrible thing- namely, draw blood from her newborn brother- and do it without question. Draw the blood from an innocent for your own benefit, basically. And chooses to not answer blindly, that she can’t obey for the sake of it. That’s the moral punchline of the film. It’s a rebuke of fascism made fantastical.(end spoilers)

MO: We should state that as with many Del Toro films, this plays with Catholic imagery and ideas. Del Toro is very anti-authoritarianism, so there’s some things about organized religion, particularly Catholicism, that he pushes back against. It’s stressed that much of fascist Spain manipulates religion as a way to go back to tradition and order. When the fascists are passing out bread and food as rations, they call it “Our Daily Bread of Spain”, which is a quotation from the Our Father prayer. I think that’s a very Bunuel thing to do to use Catholic imagery as a rebuke against authority. There’s also a scene with a dinner at Vidal’s place, and notably there’s a priest there on Vidal’s side.

LG: And at the end of the film, when we see the fantasy kingdom, there’s a big cathedral window behind the throne. This is a film that pushes against authority in a way that makes me think it would have been considered a very subversive and controversial film had it been made in the 1950s. Now, politically, we’re in a very different place, but spirit of film still works amazingly.

MO: Interesting you should say that, though, regarding the politics, since most of my conservative friends really, really hate this movie. I don’t know what’s up with that. But regarding religion, Del Toro has referred to this as one of his many lapsed Catholic films, but his friend, fellow director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) considers this a very Catholic film, which makes sense. If you’ve seen the (often labored) Christ allegories in Inarritu’s work, you’d note that he’s very into martyrdom, and that’s here. Even if Del Toro is pushing against the order part of the religion, he’s still somewhat in tune with the spirituality of it. And I’ll go back to that Capra saying that Christianity is about second chances- we get second chances all throughout this film.

LG: Yeah, and when asked to explain the ending of the film, Del Toro offered up a Kierkegaard quote: “A tyrant’s reign ends with death, but a martyr’s reign starts with death”. That’s basically what happens here.

(lets just assume spoilers from here on out)

MO: If you believe in the fantasy ending,  she gets to live forever in the fantasy realm with her family forever. If you believe in the afterlife, she lives there. And there are traces of her left behind on earth. There’s a moving final shot of a flower blooming at the end. But she’s not the only martyr- the doctor refers to himself as a coward, since he’s trying to stay alive even as he fights for a lost cause. But by the end he redeems himself. He helps a man Vidal is torturing by putting him out of his misery, and Vidal kills him for it, but he’s remembered as a man who fought for good. Same with the rest of the rebels, all of whom are fighting for a lost cause.  It’s a moving parable about those who fight against authoritarian governments.

LG: Now Del Toro has always been enamored with fairytales, and his best films work somewhat as fairytales. We do get a lot of repeating task elements, but also in the reality segments, we get examples. She has to defeat monsters, retrieve keys from mystical places, but she’s also stuck in real life with the evil step-parent archetype.

MO: There’s also use of threes- three days for her to complete the tasks, three tasks to complete…

LG: And during the second task, she’s presented with three locks and guided by three fairies. We should talk a little bit about the tasks. The first task doesn’t seem so difficult, but it is horrifying and claustrophobic and gross. She has to climb into a tree and feed three stones to a monstrous frog to retrieve a key. She does it easily, but it’s creepy, and she ruins a nice dress and shoes that were important gifts to her. And as she goes further on in the tasks, the fantasy world and the real world around her get darker.

MO: It’s important to note how the first task ties into the real world- the fascists are preparing for a dinner, and it’s been stressed throughout the film how little food there is for everyone in the country. Vidal has killed a couple of peasants for no reason because they crossed him- they were hunting rabbits for a sick daughter, and he kills them with a  bottle of wine (food, plus more Catholic imagery). It’s very gruesome, but it’s also pointed in the way he’s able to take what little food they have and use it himself. These are tiny rabbits, and he basically demands that they still use them. And when it gets to the lavish dinner, where there’s a bunch of Bunuel-esque horrible rich people, the toad serves as a parallel for their gluttony. He’s a monstrous figure that’s killed a once beautiful tree.

LG: The frog has to be made to regurgitate what he’s eaten to free the tree- a pretty fantastic parallel for fascism’s effect on Spain.

MO: There are some people, even those who loved the film, who took it down a notch for saying how the fantasy sequences don’t always tie in neatly with the reality sequences, but that’s complete bull. It might be hard to spot the first time around, but it’s a very well-structured film.

LG: In between, her mother gets very sick and develops complications during the pregnancy, and she hears Vidal say that if it’s between the mother and kid, he wants his son to live. Ofelia overhears this and is terrified, and she has to wonder what’ll happen to her if her mother dies, because Vidal gives zero shits about her. She’ll end up in an orphanage or worse. She goes to the second task, and the important thing to remember here is that after she ruined her dress in the first task, she was forced to go to bed without supper, so she’s hungry. She has to go into a room where an ogre called the Pale Man lives.

MO: It’s a terrifying creature. This film is part fantasy, part horror, and here’s where the horror kicks in. This is one of the most frightening scenes I’ve seen in a film. It had me panicking in the theatre.

LG: Ofelia is told to take the key, open a lock, and get something (a knife), and to not touch the bounty of food on the table. Ofelia is eleven, and she’s hungry. So being a typical, hungry eleven year old, she makes the mistake of eating the Pale Man’s food.  How is he gonna know anyway? The Pale Man has no eyes in his face.

MO: His eyes are on the table, and for the holes in his face, he could maybe fit them if he really pushed them in, but that’s not what they’re for. They’re nostrils.

LG: And as soon as she touches the food, his hands jolt, and he puts his eyes into his hands and holds them up to see. It is an amazing creature.

MO: Doug Jones plays the creature, he’s a fantastic physical actor (and a fellow Ball State alum, woo!, where he started his costume-acting career as the mascot Charlie Cardinal), and he has a real gift for playing under heavy makeup and with unusual movement, which serves the creatures well. There’s also a nice subtle link between the Pale Man and the faun, as Jones plays both. This monster is maybe controlled by the faun- they’re perhaps of the same piece.

LG: There is a lot of questions about the faun. When Ofelia tells Mercedes about the faun, she says that “My mother always said to beware of fauns”, and there is a sense that the faun is a questionable figure. We don’t know how much he’s pulling the strings.

MO: It’s one of the seductive things about this fractured fairytale. Just like her mother is tempted with care by the fascists, Ofelia’s been tempted by care by the fantasy world, so long as she doesn’t question anything. She’s tempted with all of these things. And the table of food in the Pale Man’s lair looks like the most delicious feast ever. It’s a nice symbol for all of the riches that could come with fascism, horrible consequences be damned.

LG: It does very much mirror a real world dinner we see earlier. And I love that when she looks up, she sees these murals of the Pale Man cooking, eating, and tearing apart children like herself. And I love the way she gets into the room- through a magic piece of chalk straight out Looney Tunes short “Duck Amuck!,” honestly. It’s a wonderful, whimsical fantasy element in the midst of this dark world.

MO: Gilliam would approve, I think. And I read that the Pale Man was influenced by the paintings of Goya, which I can absolutely see.

LG: Del Toro is one of those guys who will tie his monster movie love into the fine arts. He cites Goya as an influence on his upcoming Godzilla-ish movie Pacific Rim, seriously. He is the poet laureate of monster movies. One of the things I noticed is that Del Toro plays around with her id his look. He's still working with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, but he tones down his split-tone lighting and uses more color filters. It’s no less distinctive, but it is a stylistic shift. And since he worked with Mike Mignola on Hellboy, it affected his style. Moments look like Mignola artwork, like the bright-yellow against black fascist symbols on the cars, which is period-accurate but photographed like Mignola work.

MO: And at the end, there’s a bit of split-tone lighting as the fascist camp burns, it’s orange against blue. And it’s beautiful carnage as the captain’s empire crumbles right around him.

LG: And I think that’s influenced by Mignola as well. It is nice to see this bit of a fusion between personalities. It shows that artists can evolve. And I’m glad that the film is less flashy with the split-tone lighting. This is his most character-based film, and it’s his most intimate. There’s enough flash in the fantasy sequences, so I’m glad he didn’t use the split-tone lighting for the most part. It wouldn’t have worked.

MO: Del Toro has always been good at set-pieces, but here’s where he really reaches his peak. Hitchcock would be proud. Even the more normal scenes have heightened tension. There are a few sequences of Vidal shaving that show the camera panning around the room, which reminds us of the clockwork man thing, and the edits bring us closer and closer to him in a very subtle, terrifying way.

LG: Yeah, Del Toro constantly has Vidal adjusting his watch in the film, and the office is actually designed like the inside of his watch. With the shaving scenes, it’s a bit of foreshadowing as he looks in the mirror and tries to cut his reflection’s face. It’ll come in later, but for now it’s just a wonderful, bizarre flourish. It’s like his bloodlust is so strong that he has to imagine hurting even himself.

MO: There are other moments like that. The reveal of the faun, for example, shows Ofelia going into the labyrinth, and we see this thing that looks like a tree…until it moves. It’s a bit of a nice jolt. Del Toro also knows how to use casting to his advantage in a suspense scene.

LG: Yeah, early in the film, we see one of the rebels has a stutter, and he ends up getting caught by Vidal later on. The guy has a weak chin, which makes him seem weaker (sorry, people with weak chins!).

MO: It gets some vulnerable stuff with him, and the way Del Toro drags out that scene is great. Vidal tells him he’ll let him go…if he can count to three without a stutter (more threes). And the moment seems like an eternity as he almost makes it to three, but of course it doesn’t work.

LG: Del Toro also really brings in his Cronenberg influence rather well.

MO: There are some gooey moments that are fun, like the frog…

LG: But mostly we’re getting stuff that’s going to make us want to look away, like Vidal smashing a guy’s face in with a bottle of wine, or the cut in Vidal’s face that looks like the classic Man Who Laughs character (later an inspiration for The Joker). And because he’s a macho man, he has to sew it up himself!

MO: And drink liquor to dull the pain, which if you’ve got a big cut on your face is a really bad idea, but it gives us another visceral moment of violence to react to. But Del Toro also knows how to refrain from violence. He knows not to actually show the bullet hitting Ofelia when Captain Vidal shoots her.

LG: Oh yeah, that would’ve been tasteless. We instead see her reaction, and as she brings her blood-covered hand up, we get enough.

MO: And the way Del Toro sets up the Pale Man scene is just masterful. We have a time limit for her being in his lair before the door closes and she’s stuck with him. It’s running out, and as she runs away from the monster, the chalk breaks, and Del Toro really waits till the last second before seeing her to safety. There’s an anecdote that Del Toro showed the film to Stephen King, who looked physically upset by the scene.

LG: When you’ve upset Stephen King with your horror movie, you’ve done your job right. I imagine that made Del Toro happy for weeks. He said it was like winning the Oscar…which he actually should have won.

MO: It’s Del Toro’s most acclaimed film, to understate it. It went to Cannes, where it got a 22-minute standing ovation…it should’ve won some things, but it didn’t. It is the highest-rated film on Metacritic that’s not a re-release, with a 98%, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but basically, people loved this thing. I know it was Ebert’s favorite film that year.

LG: It’s a little unusual. It was a bit of a hit in the United States. For a non-English-language R-rated fantasy film to make nearly $40 million in America is pretty impressive. It was part of the conversation everyone was having around Oscar-time.

MO: It was nominated for six Oscars (Original Screenplay, Foreign Film, Original Score, Cinematography, Makeup, and Art Direction), more than anything that year other than Dreamgirls and Babel, and it won the latter three awards. I’m still kind of amazed it lost score, not to mention Foreign Film and Original Screenplay. And…look, maybe it’s a lot to expect foreign films to get nominated for Best Picture and Director, since it doesn’t happen often. And I know the Oscars don’t actually matter that much. But come on. This deserved both. It was nice having The Departed win that year, but I’d gladly have taken Little Miss Sunshine or The Queen or Babel away for this and Children of Men.

LG: Seriously, three talented Mexican directors make movies that year, and they nominate the weakest of them. This is a spectacular film. I’m very easily giving this an A.

MO: No question. A.
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