Tuesday, April 10, 2007

How a Religious Outlook Makes You a Crabby Moviegoer

When discussing one of the many things that went wrong in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, director Terry Gilliam explains one of the problems in religious terms – one of his assistant directors had a “Catholic” management style, while Gilliam had a more “Protestant” management style. Where Gilliam liked the give and take of ideas, of people challenging authority, and everyone working together out of a common goal, the assistant director liked blind obedience, no back talk, and everyone working together towards a singular vision that happened to be his.

Needless to say conflict arose. Can you imagine the situation – the boss asks you for your ten best ideas and his assistant humiliates you for sharing them?

I have a friend who blogs about his occasional struggles with atheism. He is an atheist/agnostic, but feels occasional pangs of guilt that he attributes to his Catholic upbringing. In one of our email exchanges, I talked about how, being raised Protestant (and Texan) makes me very reluctant to submit to any received authority (like the type commonly associated with Catholicism) without at least a little bit of questioning/testing of the boundaries, and if I were raised in an environment of, “don’t question, just obey” I, too, might routinely struggle with the whole idea of God. (When I say Catholicism, I really mean acting superstitiously or only from knowledge from authority. Superstition is not limited to one set of beliefs.)

I also pointed out that my “Protestant” attitude aligns nicely with a rich Judaic tradition of arguing with anything that will stand still long enough. I pointed out several examples in the Old Testament where God tells a prophet or a leader to do His Will and the person responds with an, “Aw, come on. Get real.” And sometimes, this person even wrestles with God.

Then I related this attitude to my inclination to challenge my waiter every time he tells me, “Careful, hot plate.”

“Oh, I’ll be the one who decides how hot it is.”

This rambling preamble is to establish why I absolutely loathed one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2006 – Pan’s Labyrinth.

As I get older, I think the movies are getting better on the surface but much worse in the subtext. Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie that is the most recent example of this trend. While on one level, I can describe the acting as excellent, the cinematography gorgeous, and the special effects magical, I can also describe the themes presented as fundamentally offensive.

The story involves the whimsical adventures of a girl during the Spanish Civil War. She moves to the countryside with her one-dimensionally evil military step father and her equally one-dimensional suffering, yet beautiful mother. While there, she meets magical creatures and goes on magical quests. The idea is that if she succeeds on her quests, she will be rewarded by being taken to a magical kingdom far away from her war-torn world. Naturally, the film encourages us to want that girl to get out of there as fast as possible.

One of the biggest crises we have in a heavily mediated world is deciding to what degree we choose to ignore reality. It is painfully easy to create a media bubble for yourself and ignore the reality in the world. So to put out a film that expresses both the hopelessness in working to make the world better and couple it with an idea of salvation through escapism is dangerous.

Seriously, can you imagine the director of Pan’s Labyrinth as a Presidential Advisor? “Believe in fairies with all your heart, Mr. President. Believe in them and make them real, Mr. President. Don’t ever let go of your dream. Fight for it at all costs, even if people have to die. Wait and see. Magic will happen because you are magic. You have to believe.”

So that bothered me. The classic hero’s quest ends with a return. The hero, with a newfound knowledge, works to make the world a better place. In this film, however, the heroine’s quest ends without a return. Instead, we are supposed to celebrate the fact that the heroine has escaped from the world. She goes to a magic land of gold and fairies and hairy, big-cheeked fauns.

I totally reject that thesis. We shouldn’t celebrate escapism or preach it as a solution for anything.

Another thing I found morally reprehensible was the way that all the quests given to the girl were all based on blind obedience to absurd, fairy tale rules. (Here is where my Atheist/Agnostic/Former Catholic friend and I agreed to disagree, because this part struck me as the “Catholic” thinking behind the film.) All of the girl’s quests run along the lines of “Feed these three stones to the frog in the hole beneath the tree. Just do it, because it is important for you to do it.” For me, that attitude does not seem too far off from, “Eat this cracker, kneel, and cross yourself. Just do it because it is important.” The kid doesn’t even think of uttering my favorite word when I was that age, “Why?”

I am all for ritual, but I don’t do blind adherence to ritual. If you give me a set of instructions without a rich, symbolic subtext that makes sense, I just won’t “get it” and will argue. And even if I do “get it” I may still argue and grouse about it because I’m ornery that way.

The fact that all that is expected from this kid is obedience bothers me. My Atheist/Agnostic/Former Catholic friend is quick to point out that this is not Catholic because all of the symbols (the magic tree, the mandrake root, the faun in the labyrinth) are not Catholic at all - they’re pagan. Which makes me think of all the differences between Monopoly and Star Wars Monopoly – the pieces may be different, but the rules behind it all are very similar.

The final hot button the movie pushed had to do with the wartime morality presented. The director is known for doing comic book movies – stories that don’t really dwell in subtlety or moral gray areas. I think they are very entertaining… until he decides to depict war situations. This is one of the most egregious sins of the film – simultaneously presenting a “war is hell and should be avoided” scenario while adopting the “good guys can do no wrong and bad guys should be wiped off the planet” attitude that starts wars. The story is so unsubtle that the villain of the film goes through a facial disfigurement worthy of a Dick Tracy nemesis. This ridiculous exaggeration is presented with all sincerity and earnestness – as if the audience is not smart enough to think for themselves and realize this person is bad because he tortures prisoners and is mean to his wife - he must be disfigured as well.

Two scenes that exemplify this black-and-white attitude are the two battle aftermath scenes. When the Spanish soldiers win and verify that the dead are indeed dead, we are treated to image after image of close-up faces getting shot. When the rag tag communist rebels win a battle and get to shoot the evil, nasty faceless (haha) soldiers in the face, the camera drifts away, focusing on less vicious matters. It is as if the director laments that such good, pure, salt-of-the-earth people have to stoop so low as to do the same things the evil, torturing soldiers do.

Eventually the story culminates with a noble lynch mob chasing down the disfigured villain – imagine the Hunchback of Notre Dame but without the irony or insight. The crowd hates the ugly, deformed creature, and they are perfectly in the right for wanting to kill the evil evilness of it.

As if that ham-fisted image wasn’t offensive enough to intelligent viewers, we are treated to a cheap cultural stereotype to wring that last bit of moisture out of our ducts – the movie ends with a beautiful Spanish woman throwing her body on a corpse, wailing away over the lost, lost soul. Catholic symbolism, indeed.

But seriously, when you hear (non-Michael Medved) people review movies, do you ever hear, “I really disagree with the filmmaker’s worldview. I find the messages of the film offensive and morally reprehensible.”

No! You hear things like, “The actors were good,” or “You call that a British accent?” or “The gun-for-a-leg thing is just stupid.”

Because people don’t want to hear about message or debates on worldviews – they only want to know if the movie is good or not. And to talk about the filmmaker’s project or the message of the film is moving into the realm of “religion and politics.” It just isn’t nice conversation and should best be avoided. So instead we focus on things we can agree on – special effects and accents.

Which brings me back to Terry Gilliam, whose latest film seems to consist of little more than special effects and accents. Tideland is really a mess. I was unsettled before the movie even began, because the DVD starts out with a creepy little introduction by the man himself. Terry Gilliam stares out of the screen at you and tells you that you might not like the film, but for him it was a life-changing experience where he discovered that he really wants to be a little girl. Then he locks his eyes to yours and begins to chant, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” The screen fades to black, but I honestly think he kept thanking the audience for a good two hours after filming stopped. I would have not been surprised to find that that after the film ends, we fade in to see Terry Gilliam still going, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

This film is not what I would call good, but it didn’t offend me the way Pan’s Labyrinth did. Both films have preteen female protagonists in horrible situations. Both involve jumping back and forth between reality and fantasy. But in Tideland, the girl’s fantasy life helps her cope with reality, not to escape from it. Part of Gilliam’s project is to show how someone can be in truly horrific situations and still maintain a sense of purity and innocence. So what he does is put the little girl through increasingly horrific situations and then show how she remains pure throughout.

In one way, the whole movie is like a magic show where the magician keeps coming up with newer and more inventive traps for his lovely assistant to escape from. And then he starts taking suggestions from the audience, “Should I put her in sexual peril? Clap your hands if you want me to put her in sexual peril!”

But he is not telling you how the world works as much as he is presenting a situation, showing how a specific character deals with the situation, and then expecting you to discuss it. He has his take on the situation, and lets you know his take, but leaves enough room for discussion about the movie afterwards. There is a respect for the audience that is missing in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Here’s a good example of what I mean about Tideland – anyone who has seen Lost in La Mancha knows that Terry Gilliam’s number one defense mechanism is laughter. When anything goes wrong, he begins to giggle in a way that suggest both Woody Woodpecker and that odd Great Uncle your family doesn’t want to play with.

In Tideland the girl reacts to situations of total distress with squeals and giggles. Now, you can agree with the director and say that she retains a sense of purity in the face of corruption, or you can take the point of view that she has lost a little bit more of her not-so-great hold on sanity.

But there is room for discussion. There is room for argument and an exchange of ideas. It is like someone nailed a set of 95 theses on the door of the church, and asked for comments.

And that is what I like about it.


alex said...

But what about Del Toro's conceit that all of Pan's is about how freedom comes with disobedience of a fascist mindset? I would think that fits in perfectly with your Protestant. There was a lot of talk on the boards about how she purposefully disobeyed the faun in one of her tasks, and in her final act.

M. Robert Turnage said...

Point taken, but I still felt manipulated by the film. Freedom may come from disobeying authority, but the film stacks the desk dramatically, commanding you what to feel all the way through. And if you disobey the director (by suggesting that the flashback that takes up the entire film is all a fever dream), you get slapped down by being told there is only one interpretation - the Director's. (I wish I had the interview in front of me where he went off, but that one made me scrunch up my nose.)

And you are right about her disobedience, but this was a "trick command" given to her. I don't know if this is so much a Catholic thing or representative more of the members of my social circle who just happen to be Catholic, but I have been in a lot of situations where I am told one thing, expected to do another, and when I confront the person who did this, the response is, "I was just testing you."

So that was how I saw that last command - the Faun gave out a false order with a, "I was just testing you" excuse. I don't think of her as purposely disobeying the faun as much as I saw it walking away from a bad friendship/relationship. It was more along the lines, "I'm sick of your crap. I've had nothing but pain and misery since you came into my life and I don't care how great your magical kingdom is anymore." I totally related, because I felt this about a certain Contemporary Lit class I took once.

Anyway, I only saw the movie recently and missed out on all the debate on the boards when it first came out.