Mike Tully loooves giving me shit to do. One day, when he least expects it, revenge will be mine. In the meantime, I hand in my second homework assignment.
Having mastered the historical horror film (The Devil’s Backbone) and restored the comic book movie to its darkest roots (Hellboy) it should come as no surprise that Guillermo del Toro’s devastatingly beautiful new film Pan’s Labyrinth, the Closing Night Film of this year’s New York Film Festival, is true to the Director’s principle concern in his previous films; The nightmarish experience of coming of age made manifest in the worst possible of social circumstances. Blending the magic realism of the fairytale with the historical epic in an utterly consistent and meaningful way, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark, angry film about the ways in which violence and war destroy social relations and how imagination and creativity can only go so far in liberating us from the harsh physical realities of the cruel world around us.
Director Guillermo del Toro
The story is a simple one; A young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Banquero) travels with her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to the mountains of rural Spain in order to join her mother’s new husband Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez, as one of the cinema’s greatest on-screen villains) and his infantry unit in Franco’s army. As World War II rages outside the Spanish borders, the internal struggle between Vidal’s fascist army and the Spanish revolutionaries fighting a guerilla insurgency in the Northern mountains is, historically, winding down; The Spanish Civil War has been over for years, but the anti-fascist struggle carries on with raids against the army and attempts to foment revolution amongst the people of Spain. Against this backdrop, Ofelia (if a name were ever a window into a character’s fate, this one is) uncovers an ancient pagan labyrinth on the grounds of the villa she and her family occupy and, fearlessly following the urging of a wood fairy with whom she has made contact, uncovers the world of The Faun (Doug Jones), a forest creature from an underworld kingdom who believes Ofelia to be the long lost Princess of the realm. The Faun gives Ofelia a book that magically outlines the tasks she must complete in order to be restored to her throne and escape the horrors of the world in which she lives.
As Ofelia begins to complete her magical duties (all of which ultimately climax in helping her pregnant mother’s difficult maternity), Captain Vidal and his soldiers have other duties to attend to as they engage in the type of cruelty that one imagines happens only in a place like Guantanamo Bay; the cold-blooded murder of suspected revolutionaries without trial (in the mode of Gaspar Nöe) and the brutal torture of prisoners of war. Not that home life is much better; Vidal’s continual debasements of Ofelia and Carmen as mere accessories to his desire to perpetuate himself through paternity keep things grim within the villa’s rustic walls. Ofelia’s only respite from Viadal’s dismissive abuse is her mother’s rare attention and the support of Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), Vidal’s chief house servant and a woman with her own secrets to keep. As the stories escalate and climax in perfect concert (the rebellion draws closer as Carmen’s pregnancy comes to term and Ofelia’s magical mission reaches its final stage), the stakes are perfectly understood and fraught with thrilling tension, but all the while, there is an overwhelming sense that things will not end well. And they don’t.
Transgression: Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) Confronts The Pale Man (Doug Jones) in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth
The ending, so dependent upon del Toro adequately establishing the stakes and desires of his characters in the film’s first two hours, ends up being a perfect payoff for the story’s main concern with the inescapable reality of war and violence. It is also among the film’s most mundane moments, which only enhances its power; In a film filled with masterful battle sequences (the sound design and cinematography combine with del Toro’s refusal to look away from war violence to create some of the most intense on-screen battles since the opening of Saving Private Ryan) and truly scary fantasy sequences (ripe with horrifying monsters and riveting visuals), the film’s final minutes instead showcase two quick acts of graphic violence that underscore the everyday nature of murder and terrible tragedy in the lives of these characters. Ultimately, what makes the film so effective is the way in which the narrative structure of both worlds, Ofelia’s fantasy land and Vidal’s murderous fiefdom, intertwine and overlap with one another; The rules of Ofelia’s game are primarily concerned with the inherent logic of her situation at Vidal’s villa, an escape not from his world but from her own feeling of powerlessness in it.
Balancing a truly frightening fairytale (all of the good ones are, are they not?) against the real-life tragedy of war, murder and torture is no easy task and I am astonished at how del Toro keeps the stakes in both stories on equal footing; We are as concerned about the details of Ofelia’s fantasy life as we are about the battles raging in and around the villa. This is why Pan’s Labyrinth is such a triumph, because del Toro knows how to tell his story and its refined, thematically consistent narrative creates a heartbreaking fantasy life that does not trump reality but rather provides a thrilling counterpoint which, in the end, may or may not provide solace for everything that is lost. Whether del Toro’s biggest risk, his ending, works for every viewer I cannot say, but I will say that I found it to be consistent with the vision of the world on display in Pan’s Labyrinth and for me, it remains the only possible ending for a film with so many current, real-world interests. This is a brave choice for a Closing Night Film, especially at a festival that last year ended with Michael Haneke’s Cache. There will be no head scratching at Alice Tully Hall this year, but I am not sure what impact the film will have on denizens of Lincoln Center when the final shot cuts to black. Del Toro’s film is a challenging, powerful work but its combination of fantasy and violence will not be everyone’s cup of tea. An inspired choice and I’m interested to see how it plays.
I would love to leave it there, but as I walked out of the Walter Reade at 10:15pm last Tuesday (at the end of a five film day), Michael Tully muttered a sentence which made perfect sense and had to be addressed; He wondered aloud how the film’s creation of a fantasy world, a lost kingdom whereby a girl must be restored to her rightful place by the completion of arcane, fantastic tasks, might measure up against a film that has driven me crazy since I saw it this summer; M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady In The Water. Like the idiot I often am, I accepted the assignment and now, at the risk of posting the longest post in my own personal history, I feel compelled to re-visit that colossal failure of a film in the context of del Toro’s success.
The cautionary history of the Hollywood prodigy begins and ends with a single name; Orson Welles. Signed by RKO pictures and given unprecedented freedom to make his first movie, all Welles did was create Citizen Kane (1941), widely considered to be the greatest movie of all time. Kane, however, was a box-office failure and despite winning an Oscar for the screenplay, RKO tightened the creative reins on Welles for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), his second film for the studio; When Welles turned in his rough cut (and left town to finish a documentary in South America), RKO seized control of the film and re-cut it, removing fifty minutes from the film by the time it was released. Welles began hopping from studio to studio (making The Stranger (1946), The Lady From Shanghai (1947) and Macbeth (1948) for various studios) and by the time the end of 1948 rolled around, a mere seven years after Kane, Welles had departed Hollywood to live in Europe. In an on-camera interview, Welles summed up his career this way:
“I have wasted the greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paint box, which is a movie. And I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It’s about two percent moviemaking and ninety-eight percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.”
I tell this sad, well-known tale not by way of comparison, but as a way of contextualizing my own disbelief at the career of Hollywood golden boy M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan (whose publicity machine prefers wholly unjustified comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock) must have been looking forward to a long, successful summer; his latest film, Lady In The Water, was one of Warner Brothers’ biggest releases of the summer (with an estimated $70 million marketing budget), and a book about the process of making the film, Michael Bamberger’s The Man Who Heard Voices, was released the day before Lady hit screens nationwide. I have never been much of a Shyamalan fan (I thought The Sixth Sense’s famous plot twist turned the film into a silly, manipulative puzzle. I did enjoy Unbreakable, if only for its exploration of racial attitudes and issues in the guise of a straightforward superhero context, and I never bothered with Signs or The Village), so I looked at this book/ movie combination as a chance to learn more about the filmmaker’s process, and maybe to find a entrée into his work and his storytelling style (which I find to be overwrought).
But then, before I could get my hands on the book and my butt into a movie seat to view Lady, reviews of the book began to make their way into the press and pre-release reviews of Lady found their way onto the internet and suddenly, there was trouble. Early word on the film was almost uniformly negative and reviews of the book used words like “unintentionally hilarious” (The NY Times) and “comic levels of bathos” (Variety). My curiosity was piqued by all of the negativity, but nothing I read could replicate the absolutely shit-your-pants hilarity that is reading The Man Who Heard Voices and subsequently watching The Lady In The Water. That said, if you are looking for insight into why Hollywood and the movies are generally so awful and how money, ego and hagiography can combine to destroy an artist’s credibility, this one-two sucker punch to the face is something that all serious movie-lovers simply must experience.
First, before watching the film, I suggest reading in the book. Bamberger’s The Man Who Heard Voices, for which he was given remarkable access to the development and creative process that Night (Bamberger uses the director’s adopted moniker, so let’s join him!) undertook to get Lady made, is a rare book in that it takes us to a place where most non-fiction books that are not autobiographies refuse to tread; the mind of its subject. That is to say, one of Bamberger’s more compelling techniques in the book is the literal representation of Night’s thoughts, presented as an italicized back and forth between the director’s ideas, neuroses, and incomprehension that anything in the world could be possibly more important than his self-regard. Unfortunately (or, if you’re interested in a good laugh, fortunately), Bamberger only gives us a glimpse into certain thoughts, specifically those that reflect Night’s disbelief that anyone else in the world could possibly have any opinion that doesn’t agree with his own.
The litany of personal gripes reaches its apotheosis early on in the person of (now former) Disney creative executive Nina Jacobson who, after having the gall to take her child to a birthday party on a Sunday afternoon instead of sitting at home and awaiting a copy of Night’s Lady script, further alienates Night by admitting that she doesn’t really ‘get’ the script, before offering him $60 million dollars to make it anyway. The nerve. Bamberger describes the scene this way:
“The lesson of Night’s own 34 years was so clear to him: If you’re a Bob Dylan, a Michael Jordan, a Walt Disney — if you’re M. Night Shyamalan — and you have faith and a vision and something original to say, money will come. But if you’re chasing money, the audience will see you for what you are. Night knew his ideas were no longer making an impact on Nina. He was losing her, losing the hold he once had on her. He blamed that on the culture of her corporation. Disney, he realized, in the blind final years of the Michael Eisner regime, had changed. It was now in the business of cloning. And now, a half-year after The Village had run its course, Nina was not home at the appointed time to receive Night’s new script.
Paula (Night’s assistant and personal script delivery service) waited in her car, stewing, wondering how this delay would affect her other appointments.
A few minutes later, JJ (Nina’s assistant) called again. ‘Nina’s on her way. She should be there in 10 to 15 minutes. She’s just coming back from a birthday party with her son.’
Birthday party? Nobody said anything about a birthday party.”
For this crime, Jacobson’s name is repeated so often and with such derision in the book, I have decided to join Night and rename my own unnamable existential self-doubt ‘Nina’. Of course, when Alan Horn (Chairman and COO at Warner Brothers) strokes Night by praising The Village, Bamberger portrays Night’s jump to Warners as a principled move to a studio that understands him. Surprisingly, he never connects the fact that Warners offered Night $20 million dollars plus for the script, directing, and playing a supporting role in the film (more on this later) which, as Bamberger portrays it, is far more money than Disney were offering. No, Night, it isn’t the money, it’s that you want to people to get your ‘vision’. Disney is a big corporation, unlike… Warner Brothers?
After seeing Lady, it is clear that Bamberger’s book is best understood as Night’s own personal ‘slam book’; a chain of perceived personal slights by creative executives, his editor, his camera operator, his producer, and any one else who dares to utter a word of caution to a man so blinded by his own ‘vision,’ he was unable to see the great disaster staring him in the face; his deeply flawed and often ridiculously nonsensical film, Lady In The Water. I can only say that my original thinking may have been a severe underestimation; Lady In The Water is, perhaps, the worst movie I have ever seen.
I have seen plenty of bad movies in my time and for me, the dividing line between the bad film and the awesomely terrible fiasco is the ambition and intent of the filmmaker. Sure, a movie like Plan 9 From Outer Space, long regarded as one of the worst movies ever made, is not a good movie. However, it is clear when watching that film that there is a recognition among the participants that they are involved in kitsch, in making a recognizably bad movie for its own sake. For me, the offense committed in a film like Plan 9 is far less egregious than the hubristic rubbish that M. Night Shyamalan tries to pass off as a legitimate thriller. To merely describe the plot of Lady In The Water is to engage the film on its own terms of ridiculousness, so let’s get to it, shall we?
The story follows Cleveland Heep (an excellent, game Paul Giamatti), the landlord and caretaker of a residential apartment building on the outskirts of Philadelphia who has been fielding complaints about late night activity in the communal swimming pool. Upon investigating the unauthorized night swimming, Heep discovers a beautiful naked girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the pool but, this being M. Night Shyamalan country, we soon discover that she is no ordinary girl. Instead, she identifies herself as Story, a ‘Narf’ from the ‘Blue World.’ It turns out, and it turns out very slowly (since Shyamalan has decided to tell the story through a series of purely informational chance meetings between Heep and a young Korean resident of the building named Young Soon [Cindy Cheung]), that Narfs are sea-nymphs; water creatures who help humanity and are constantly hunted by ‘Scrunts’, wolves made of grass who live in the thick brush surrounding the apartment building. And so, the film becomes a two-hour journey to get Story the Narf back into the pool (which is five feet away from the door of Heep’s apartment) and away from the Scrunts. As the film unspools, the only activity that takes place is pure exposition, as the strange and nonsensical rules of the Blue World are literally dictated by the characters. Heep and Story begin searching for The Symbolist (who can it be?), The Guide (who is The Guide?) and The Healer (gasp!) and these individuals must be manipulated to uncover the amazing, patented M. Night Shyamalan plot twist; Story does not need to walk five feet to the swimming pool, no! Instead, twistbangsurprise, she must only go four and a half feet so that an eagle called ‘The Eatton’ can swoop down and carry her away, thus having some undetermined impact of the fate of humanity. Of course, in order to safely stand next to the pool without the Scrunts attacking, The Tartutic must descend from the trees and fight the Scrunts, thus preserving Story’s ascent in the safety of the The Eatton’s talons.
Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) Awaits The Eatton’s Talons Of Liberation In M. Night…Oh, Never Mind…
If only I were bullshitting. This is, in fact, the actual story of the film. If this piece of utter gibberish seems to be beyond the pale of terrible storytelling, I can only suggest you withhold from seeing how it is executed as a movie. In the ultimate gesture of disregard for the conventions of quality filmmaking, Shyamalan has not only failed in writing a decent script, thus validating Disney executive Nina Jacobson’s decision to not make the film, but with almost every decision available to a filmmaker, Shyamalan has failed. The worst offense he makes is in casting himself as the misunderstood writer Vick Ran, a man working on a book called The Cookbook that Story divines will one day inspire a young man to become President of The United States and thus reform the injustices of the world. It is bad enough to have this self-righteous concept of the power of ideas to transform the world, but to cast one’s self as the writer of such a book is tantamount to onanism. In one sequence, as Vick talks to Story (who spends a great deal of time under the flowing water of a shower head), Vick’s sister walks in the bathroom and then walks out. In this trivial, pointless moment, Shyamalan inserts a five second shot of his own face, tracking his sister’s meaningless departure with narrowed eyes and a smile. Narcissism, thy name is Night.
As I said before, I take less offense from bad films that lack pretension and serve a lesser purpose than I do from egomaniacal drivel that pretends to greatness and fails horribly, but I should qualify that statement by saying that I rate failure to achieve greatness when greatness was possible more highly than either. What disgusts me about Lady In The Water is not only the film’s failure, but the impossibility of greatness shrouded in the extreme self-regard of a filmmaker who has become so blinded by his own misguided ‘vision’ that he refuses to see what everyone around him understands clearly; There is no movie in this story. What began as an improvised bedtime story for his daughters inspired Shyamalan to throw away a long-standing business relationship with the company that gave him the chance to become successful (Disney), to berate his collaborators for offering their doubts about the sustainability of the project, and to allow a book to be written about the process that I am sure he must have seen as a celebration of his own genius. Instead, if ever a cautionary tale should be told about the blinding power of commercial success in Hollywood, one should immediately reach for The Man Who Heard Voices and a copy of Lady In The Water as the eminent example of the destructive power of success.
It is also at this intersection of hubris and overrated storytelling ability that Lady In The Water separates itself from a film like Pan’s Labyrinth; Whereas the films share a similar interest in the intersections of fairy tale and real life, only one of the two has the vision to tell a story where that intersection is molded into art. What del Toro knows that Night seemed to have missed is that fairy tales must be an extension of the real world and as such, a servant to the logic of real-world concerns (while carefully subverting the rules with logical magic). Where del Toro sees an overlap between his lost princess and the insular world of the villa, Night sees slapdash, nonsensical disconnect. Night doesn’t understand that fairy tales and bedtime stories don’t graft giant, under-imagined universal themes into their structures without first bowing to reality.
I began my discussion of Lady In The Water by reminding myself of Orson Welles and how his own box-office failure lead him to spend the majority of his career scrambling to finance his projects. Citizen Kane, perhaps the greatest American film of all time, was the flop that stalled things before they really took off; A masterpiece not recognized until it was too late to salvage Welles’ career. Looking at the career of M. Night Shyamalan, one sees almost a mirror image of Welles, inverted and distorted; A boy wonder makes a huge hit and subsequently is given free reign to make whatever films he so desires, and he slowly descends into the isolated egomania that destroys his career. I know I recently defended Sofia Coppola by decrying the temptation to graft personal interpretations onto the films of directors with public lives, but the difference here is the depth of access Bamberger’s book gives us to each and every step in the creative process which allows us, when seeing the final product, to know and understand how and why almost every decision Night has made in Lady is a failure. Maybe he should have listened to Welles’ words of warning:
“The word genius was whispered into my ear, the first thing I ever heard, while I was still mewling in my crib. So it never occurred to me that I wasn’t until middle age… I do not suppose I shall be remembered for anything. But I don’t think about my work in those terms. It is just as vulgar to work for the sake of posterity as to work for the sake of money.”
Amen and Goodnight, Night.