Friday, March 09, 2007

Treading the Labyrinth

"There was the other culture, a culture destroyed but still inside us alive. In this sense I knew not only with my intellect I knew with my senses and my body that the West was not the only civilisation."
--Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth Of Solitude.

I've just seen Pan's Labyrinth; I'm certainly not ahead of the game, it's been preceded by months of enthusiastic notices in the press, even in our provincial arse-rag of a local paper, even claiming a BAFTA for Best Foreign Film, (as if that should demand a separate Goddamn category - why can't they put it up for Best Film in total?) I'm very happy, in a whimsical, fairytale-drugged kind of way.

What struck me first was the sheer quality of visual imagination displayed, on a par with the best of Terry Gilliam's work (think the scene in Time Bandits in the cave where they confront the villain - yeah, that good.) The use of CGI was sparing and wonderfully constructed, a lovely contrast to the stupidity of Hollywood's digital over-saturation - the fairies and insects were the only real instances - and the extremely interesting animatronics; I can't remember precisely whether the Faun or the Hand-Eye Monster were CGI or animatronic, something which is to the film's credit.

As the film wound on, what interested me most was the perspective it took on fantasy. Most fantasy films follow the sanitised, Disnified vision of Western fantasy, in which the virtuous always triumph and no-one is ever killed or hurt properly on the side of 'Good'. But look back into the sources of Western fairytale - the folk tales of Eastern, Central and Northern Europe, later partially codified into Grimm's Fairytales (about which, note, Gilliam made a recent film) - and there are no happy endings: Little Red Riding Hood is never rescued from the wolf's stomach, the tales are coated in blood and filled with savagery. In the film, Ofelia/Princess Moanna must kill a giant toad (which vomits up its own innards) and sacrifice the blood of her infant stepbrother; she is guided by the Faun, who, despite being her "humble servant", is a sinister figure; she must outrun the Eye-Hand Monster, a child-killing creature of legend whose room houses a pile of tiny shoes next to a sumptuous feast table, and who bites the heads off of two of Ofelia's fairy guides. It makes you remember why children were scared of the figures of folk tales coming to get them in the night; it reminds me of night terrors revolving around snakes, werewolves, vampires and sundry other nocturnal creatures. But what I found more interesting was the way in which it locked into myth: the myths of primitive cultures are even more bloody than the fairytales of Europe - think of the killings of Ymir in Norse myth, of Oedipus, Agamemnon, Perseus and countless others in Greek myth, the blood sacrifice that brought the world light in Aztec myth, etc., etc.
The film is filled with echoes of myth, from the taking of the forbidden grapes (the Fall from Eden), to the journey into the Underworld, the appearance of the Faun, and the symbol of the labyrinth itself. These seem, as much as anything, to play, unintentionally, with the notion of 'collective unconscious', Joseph Campbell's archetypes of myth belying the 'real' world, a world that exists only arbitrarily, filled with mediocre cruelty and sordidness. The most evident terror of the 'real' world is that of the Fascist plague running through Spain, and the film brilliantly reveals the central realities of Fascism: total callousness towards human life ("We will kill them all", the Captain says of the Communist guerillas), a belief in hierarchy with the believers at the top, a sexual repression that oozes out in misogyny and the urge for domination, the belief in technology as the beneficiant of the ruling classes. In the world of Fascism possibilities close down and down. In contrast, in the world of myth anything is possible: reading books on shamanism and magick recently, I was intrigued, watching Pan's Labyrinth, by the elements of ritual involved - the creation of the door using the symbol of the door (like a big, extremely useful sigil), the final bloodletting in the labyrinth, the blood dripping into the labyrinth-shaped pool at the bottom (the labyrinth symbol itself has pentagram-drawn-on-the-floor-like properties) and the way in which they achieve things, evading the binding chains of logic or matter. This blood-and-magick-drenched myth, with fauns that "smell of earth", labyrinths "there even before the mill", is posited as the real, authentic, ancient culture against the 'fake' culture of Fascism: Fascist and nationalist rhetoric revolves around notions of 'resurrected culture' and 'blood and soil', but there is no connection between the Fasces on the military cars, the creak of leather and jackboot, and the men and women who have inhabited the woods around the new camp for generations. One is reminded that Spain, for all of its Catholic culture, something very important to Spanish Fascism, is an extremely old country, with a primitive culture that goes back far further and is still present, to some degree, in the cultures of Catalonia, Aragon and the Basque Country.

In the context of magick, it's also interesting to note how the concept of narrative and literature is treated: the Fascists despise it, Ofelia being censured for carrying books of fairytales; the Fascist Captain discarding a murdered man's Anarchist pamphlets like dirt; the Captain preferring to listen to sentimental songs on the gramophone. By contrast, knowledge, as transmitted by books, is held in high esteem by the mythological creatures who inhabit the film: Fascism is the ideology of ignorance and half-truth, something dispelled utterly by the magickal sigil-words and self-revealing truth of myth. It's no wonder that mystic sects like the early Gnostics chose to preserve, rather than their lives, their sacred texts, impenetrable to most but seemingly worth something - in turn linked to the love of children for the knowledge of books, an innocence carried by the primitive soil-culture of the woods-people but despised by the Fascists. The reality of freedom contained in magick - the ability to do anything - and in the marvels of fairytales (the children in fairytales are always fighting to be free of their parents) finds analogues in the dream of freedom pursued by the Communist guerillas, and the vanished Spanish Republic.

But what is important about myth is that, as with the Book of Crossroads in the film, it is the 'book that writes itself'. The concept that myth and symbology form a framework for humans to orient their understanding of the world is an old and semi-proven one: man seems to have an inherent need to generate narrative alongside phenomena. But where does this compulsion come from, what purpose does it serve? Some anthropologists claim it comes from the need to explain scary phenomena and to remove the fear; but given the amount of terror generated by myth - look at the Old Testament, at Aztec sacrificial practices, at Pan's Labyrinth for fuck's sake - it's not by any means sound. In Pan's Labyrinth, at least, there seems present something about which Artaud wrote in 'On The Chimeras': the myth-creatures find no exact analogues in Spanish culture or any other I know about, but instead, "beat... anew with a separate life that seems to precede Mythology and history, and not, as in Shakespeare or other poets, to issue from them." The labyrinth symbol, used so often in mythology as the symbol of obfuscation, of confusion and indirection, is reinvested with meaning, as both a literal labyrinth and a symbol of revelation and escape, its spawned symbols of the Faun and Faeries coming to life beneath the gaze of the camera.


Post a Comment

<< Home