Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

A few days ago I went to see Pan's Labyrinth. It has garnered near universal praise, and even claims of permanence from critics not usually given to hyperbole. I saw it and could see the reasons for the praise while being unimpressed and largely unmoved. It is a beautifully executed film, clearly the work of a single creator with a very particular vision, but one without much moral seriousness.

It is the story of a young, imaginative girl named Ofelia, travelling with her mother to a military camp in the woods. This is towards the end of the Spanish civil war. Her father is dead, and her mother is remarrying one of Franco's officers, who is devoted to wiping out the last of the Communist resistance. It is also established early that he is a sadist, eager to inflict pain for its own sake. The movie alternates between Ofelia's elaborate fantasies and increasingly brutal scenes of violence and torture.

Pan's Labyrinth clearly wants to be a parable that explores the nature of evil: both where it might come from and how to prevent it from corrupting you. But it never attempts to grapple with either of these questions. Instead it presents, repeatedly and as if they were revelatory, two answers: Don't obey blindly and don't hurt innocent people. I wholeheartedly agree, but I think the 20th century has shown that it is both just this simple and much more complicated. A movie that presents only the simplicity is grappling with a straw man.

I've been reading Primo Levi's memoirs recently, and they are such honest attempts to understand the nature of evil (and occasionally, forthrightly declare incomprehension) that this movie seems a little cheap in comparison. One of the reasons that Levi's books give off such a feeling of radiant decency is that he refuses to turn any person into a symbol. No one is allowed to represent goodness or innocence or corruption; there are only Henri and Jean and Cesare. They may represent characteristics that are widespread, but he always insists on dealing with them as individuals. I quickly got the sense that Del Toro had no such feeling for Ofelia. Early in the movie, Ofelia's mother asks her to tell her brother (in utero) a story to calm him down, and she tells one about a flower that grows at the top of mountain of thorns and provides immortality.

Something was wrong with this story. I remember feeling a line grate - I think it was about how all men fear death. The language was false; it was not a story that a child would tell. It existed to reinforce Del Toro's ideas, but it also meant that Ofelia was no longer convincing as a human being - she was now a symbol instead of a real little girl. And she remains a symbol throughout the movie - of innocence, of humanity, of spirited and decent disobedience: but one can only feel so much concern for the fate of symbols, unless they are of unusually deep resonance.

And are they? The most striking parts of the movie are its scenes of fantasy. They involve a faun that Ofelia meets who tells that her that she is the long lost daughter of the king of the underworld, but that she must perform three tasks to prove that she has not been too long among the mortals and lost her original nature. These sequences are the main reason for the praise this movie has received. Each of them, upon closer reflection, connects back to the Franco narrative. The first parable involves a huge frog that lives inside a tree, eating its food and slowly sapping the tree of its strength. In much the same way, the Fascists are eating sumptuous feasts while handing out miniscule bread rations to the peasants.

The rapacity and blind brutality of the regime is represented in a later sequence by a monster with eyes on its grasping hands. There are diagrams of it eating children. It consists only of appetite. Once roused, it is intent on consuming anything it can grasp; it has no real drive beyond its hunger.

Both of these are striking and indelible sequences. But this does not necessarily indicate that they are, in a deeper sense, meaningful. I think in many movies of this fantastical variety indelibility is somehow seen as an end in itself, as a sign that the director's imagination has succeeded. But it is not particularly difficult, with the resources available to a modern filmmaker, to create an indelible image. Imagine a giraffe with three heads. A man whose hair consists of thousands of moving antennae, with eyes on the end, like snails. I would be initially impressed if I saw those creatures alive and on film and then, if they did not have a real connection to the rest of the story, bored - as I was in Big Fish, and plenty of other movies that people call magical and then never want to see again.

In Pan's Labyrinth, the connections do exist, but they quickly exhaust their implications because none of them actually help to elucidate the phenomenon that they refer to. The frog in the tree may be a striking image, but it does not tell me anything that was not already obvious about a bunch of people having a feast while handing out bread rations. I remember thinking, when teachers pointed out connection after connection in Mann or Joyce, that the fact that these connections exist is not necessarily evidence of depth. Such breadcrumbs are relatively easy to scatter. I never understood why I should be impressed solely because a man's name is an allusion to Dante, and the apple that he eats as a snack connects to two other apples placed strategically around the book, leading to obvious connections to the Fall, as well as the golden apples and the Garden of the Hesperides, and look, aren't those the letters E V E hidden right there in his name, etc. etc.

This method of artistic creation strikes me as something like building a cathedral out of wicker. There are no blocks any more, just tiny tendrils connecting everything to everything else. And this mesh is, perhaps, stable, but give it a little push - by pointing out, for example, that millions of thematic connections exist between these people but no human ones - and the wind will take it away.

Pan's Labyrinth is not this sort of film, but it shares this artistic philosophy and duplicates some of its flaws. I felt again the lack of humanity that comes from an excessive love of symbols and connections. There is no such thing as tragedy in a world like this. It is both indelible and completely impermanent.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney

I walked through a museum a few years ago and noticing that a lot of the older paintings were, as far as I could tell, pretty bad. Even taking changes in styles and conventions into account, I got the definite impression that these were painters of minor skill. And I wondered whether a painting that managed to survive for enough years would eventually end up in a museum, even with nothing else to recommend it. I figured that it probably would, and that there was nothing much wrong with this. Museums don't attempt to present only mankind’s highest achievements; they have a responsibility to catalogue as well as celebrate. And a mediocre painting is probably much more indicative of the style of an era than a brilliant one.

Literature, as far as I can tell, recognizes no similar obligations. A so-so novel from 1759 gathers no additional luster because of its age, except maybe for a social historian. Which is why, frankly, I am extraordinarily puzzled by the survival and continued acclaim accorded to Beowulf. Children everywhere are forced to read it — many more, I suspect, than the Iliad or the Odyssey. I see the Heaney translation on bookshelves everywhere. I picked it up recently, and other than a phrase here and there (usually a striking description of something) I found nothing that seemed to me like real poetry.

It was also impossible to enjoy as an adventure story. I could never get a handle on what anything looked like and, rather often, couldn't figure out what was actually going on. Has anyone read the fight scenes? Grendel’s size kept varying in my mind from roughly the size of a large man to thirty feet tall. I had an enormously hard time figuring out the choreography: when arms were ripped off, how blows were dealt. It was frustrating in the same way as the incompetently edited fight scenes in most Hollywood action movies. Everything is described but nothing seems to make sense together. You don’t encounter confusion like this in Homer. Every once in a while you wonder why something is being said at all, and it’s clear that there are conventions that you might not understand, but it is always clear what happens — on the battlefield, in conversation; everything is fully and concretely imaged.

In Beowulf, I felt like I was dealing with the infancy of storytelling, in a civilization that had only the barest interest in human nature. I wondered continually why I was reading it at all. Then I would flip to the back of the book and read the effusive praise about Heaney’s translation, with various notables saying that he had made it work, at last, as an English-language poem.

Now, I don’t know old English, so let me just judge what I’m capable of understanding. Here is a quote:
The bloody swathe that Swedes and Geats cut through each other was everywhere.
Does this seem like nit-picking? A swathe cannot be everywhere. It is a wide belt-like line (as in one cut by scythe, the dictionary tells me) -- a swathe that is everywhere is no longer a swathe. Is this line in the original? I feel like it must be; it has the same imprecision and nebulousness as the fight scenes. These are people that do not know how to tell a story yet, and if Heaney occasionally stumbles I would say that it is largely because Beowulf is not worth lavishing much care on.

There was a single passage, lasting a few pages, that was almost up to the standard of the Homeric epics -- it was, unsurprisingly, about power, and how once people achieve it they tend to get lazy and overconfident, and let it slip away. Managing power appears to be one of the few things this society was interested in, besides drinking mead and chopping each other up, and they thankfully got a few lines of lasting verse out of it.

How this book sold so well is an immense puzzle to me. Who would ever want to re-read it? If you wish to bother with it, I recommend getting it from the library once, filling in this gap in your historical knowledge, and leaving it at that.