Saturday, February 17, 2007

Contradicting the Contrarian

In happy concordance with the Contrarian Blog-a-thon on Jim Emmerson's Scanners, my new column for In Utah This Week is a response to the contrarian review of Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" by Sam Vicchrilli that ran in my publication two weeks ago.

Since I included the film on my top 10 list a month earlier, I felt obliged to defend it.

After writing about the clear disconnect between Sam's reading of the film and my own, I came across a fascinating interview with del Toro in Twitch in which the director discusses the two mindsets with which the film can be viewed:

"The movie is like a Rorschach test where, if you view it and you don't believe, you'll view the movie as, "Oh, it was all in her head." If you view it as a believer, you'll see clearly where I stand, which is it is real. My last image in the movie is an objective little white flower blooming in a dead tree with the bug watching it. So…

As an admitted believer, however, del Toro left a mountain of textual support to prove that the supernatural elements do exist, and merely a POV shot from the film's villain to suggest otherwise. Much of my column focuses on my qualm with Sam's belief that not only does no magic exists in the story, but that the film removes any such doubt.

There are more aspects of the review I didn't have room to address, starting with Sam's candid admission that he was hoping del Toro made a completely different film.

(Please note that both my column and the rest of this blog entry contain spoilers.)

"Part of my dissatisfaction with the film probably lies with an unfulfilled expectation. I wanted an R-rated “Labyrinth” — the 1986 Jim Henson/David Bowie movie. Instead, I got what felt like a retread. A particularly nasty retread."

Basically, Sam wanted a retread of a lousy '80s film and instead saw what he thinks is a retread of del Toro's "The Devil's Backbone," the first installment of a trilogy that mixes supernatural elements with the history of the Spanish Civil War. But while the ghost story in "The Devil's Backbone" is about the feeling of encroaching death as defeat nears, "Pan's Labyrinth" explores personal responsibility in the government that exists in the aftermath.

But what makes the retread particularly nasty? Sam describes a scene in which the film's fascist villain, the captain (Sergi López), kills a peasant father and son to highlight del Toro's "sadism." He argues that the scene—which shows the captain brutally murder a peasant father and son suspected of being rebels before discovering that their alibi holds up—only serves to showcase special effects. He cites Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible" as a film with a comparable moment that has more point to it. As I discuss in my column, the scene is less about the captain's malignancy than his lack of accountability, and it shares the exact same type of after-the-incident reveal for which "Irreversible" receives praise.

A flippant treatment of character motivation belies a disrespect for the entire plot setup:
"The story has Ofelia (a loaded name) and her pregnant mother moving to live with the Captain, presumably because they have nowhere else to go."

The reason that they're there is quite clear, both as a plot point and artistically. The captain insisted that his son be born in his presence, even though the trip would not be healthy for his wife. According to Ofelia's mother, the captain has been good to them. The mother's obedience mirrors the people's obedience of the fascist government. Later, she throws the root baby that is her life blood into the fireplace because the captain orders it. She believes she is doing the best thing for her family, but obeys with sadness in her heart, not because she knows she's killing herself, but because she sees her daughter's unhappiness. The mother embodies the masses who obey the fascist rule because they have convinced themselves that it is the best way to live their lives in comfort and safety.

But this is the sentence that really threw me off:
Ofelia does not enjoy her new surroundings, and retreats into a fantasy world as a way to cope."

As I say in my column, this isn't "The Chronicles of Narnia," where the characters run off to a dull Jesus parallel. The supernatural world is dark, full of disturbing moments and tough decisions. If Ofelia's world was all in her head, as Sam believes, she might have created something more pleasant.

Other matters criticized are based on aesthetic opinion, and I can merely disagree. In the scene in which Ofelia must kill a frog, set in very cramped quarters, Sam says that Ofelia's eyes are clearly not focused on the frog. I simply don't know where else her eyes could be focused, or how, based on the shot structure, Sam is so positive he knows where her eyes should be focused. But Ivana Baquero's performance effectively communicates the nervous contemplation of the scene.

He also complains about the film's day-for-night shots. While there are day-for-night shots in the film, most of them are in scenes set at dusk. There is a very clear sense of time, and when it's called for, the film is considerably darker than most night scenes. Different color schemes, of course, are used for different atmosphere, but I saw the "unnatural blue" Sam speaks of while driving home two days ago, just after the sun went down.

Critical disagreements are more common than my snide remarks about "Dreamgirls." This review is an extreme example because Sam's dislike for "Pan's Labyrinth" stems largely from his own preconceptions and interpretations of it. Sam told me that before my column, he didn't think that anyone had done a very good job of explaining what was so great about the film, and he couldn't find an explanation when watching for himself. If nothing else, the contrarian serves to push those in the majority to really express themselves, instead of standing around agreeing with one another.

1 comment:

Janean said...

It's refreshing to read something positive and intelligent about my Number 1 film of 2006. Thanks, Jeremy.