Thursday, June 28, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

I recently watched "Pan's Labyrinth" by Guillermo del Toro, who is a magical realist in the vein of Fuentes and Márquez. I'm glad that I watched this evil movie, because it taught me something.

But first, you should stop reading right now if you mean to watch it. I'm going to give the story away.

I have always felt a visceral anger when a story ends as if the events were just a dream or some variant thereof such as drug trips, a book that someone was reading, or near-death experiences. The reader agrees to accept this fictional "reality", he invests his emotions in it, then the writer says, "Just kidding. None of this actually happened." Now the reader is expected to feel foolish, maybe blush a bit, and wonder if anyone noticed that he was reading a silly fantasy. Not me. I feel anger.

Pan's Labyrinth does not end with such obvious chicanery as waking up from a dream, but it does commit the same sin. And yes, I mean sin. I feel that strongly about it.

Keep in mind that I don't believe in magic, so why should I care whether the events in some fantastic story actually happened or not? Shouldn't I be comforted in my world view when I'm reminded that those silly fairies and fauns are just make-believe (or at least probably make-believe)?

No, and absolutely no!

Consider the kind of narrative trickery found in Pan's Labyrinth:

Right up to the story's end, the innocent Ofelia appeared to have a fighting chance of gaining the upper hand over malevolence. In fact, success was promised to her, so long as she took certain actions. Even at the very end, despite the appearance of Ofelia's death, the viewer suspects that the girl's moral purity will permit her to somehow gain magical power—as promised!—and become triumphant. However, the filmmaker doesn't see the world that way. It's not merely that he needed to apologize for the silliness of the fantasy; in fact, he used the fantasy to emphasize, or heighten, a point that he wished to make about the nature of the world as he sees it. To that end, he made the innocent girl's triumph a trick of the mind.

This is worse than a story about hopeless innocence; this is a story about hopeful innocence, about a hero being promised a reason to battle for success, then having that very reason to hope—not merely the likelihood of success, mind you, but even the meaning of hope itself—snatched away by "reality".

The best we can hope for in this terrible life, Guillermo tells us, is to never wake up from our daydream to discover how bad it really is here before we die. Benevolence reigns only over the childish, make-believe mind; malevolence, everywhere else.

Ironically, this is what the word realism in the term magical realism means. Had the young girl been permitted to actually be a real princess—I mean really be—then benevolence would have won the day—and it never does, at least not according to a postmodern mind.

In the author's own words:
Fantasy is not an escape for Ofelia but it is a dark refuge.

Rot in hell, Guillermo del Toro.


paul said...

After watching the film, I can see your points. I am mixed about the ending. I am not certain how I should feel.

Could the ending be considered trickery? I don't believe so. The ending fits; leaving us unsettled. We all want to feel that at the end of all our trials and tribulations, our hopes are realized; they become reality.

This is not reality. All stories do not have fairy tale endings.

Perhaps what Del Torro was trying to convey was that we all have our beliefs. These beliefs are powerful because they give us hope, keeping us going. And although these beliefs may be untrue or childish that is not their purpose.

And in the end, through it all, what matters most is that you lived your life according to your beliefs. Your reward is your own destiny.

That is a hard truth to contemplate.

Toiler said...

"All stories do not have fairy tale endings."

They do if you believe in fairy tales, which Guillermo does. He's a Christian. He believes that the "believer's" soul sprouts wings and flies away of its own accord once the useless body takes a bullet through the forehead.

This is, of course, primacy of consciousness. Guillermo holds that the body may rot and burn in "this life", but in some sort of fairy-tale world of his imagination (what the less creative types would call an "afterlife"), the soul will fly away to dwell forever with the fairy people. What a blessed escape from suffering -- but only after you're dead, of course.

Yes, Ophelia does eventually get to be with the fairy people, but importantly NOT IN THIS LIFE! She's dead.

The true believer in fantasy -- meaning, the Christian -- is stuck between a rock and a hard place. His highly idealized vision of a utopian afterlife leaves him at odds with this world, to put it gently. He can't escape the fact that this life is at best doleful, occasionally painful, and sometimes even wretched and putrid compared to what his imagination conjures up for the future. This physical life, then, separates the true believer in fantasy from bliss — which means the end of striving — and leaves him all the while bound up in a body that's tainted with the knowledge of good and evil, which means: the sin of choice.

You write: "These beliefs are powerful because they give us hope, keeping us going. And although these beliefs may be untrue or childish that is not their purpose."

This is sad. I not only don't agree with this idea in principle, but I don't live by it nor ever wish to. I'm quite content living in the bite between cause and effect, between choice and consequence. I do not wait for some kind of "end" to "trials and tribulations", as you put it, betraying your own disillusionment with this life, but rather, I treat circumstances, whether difficult or otherwise, as opportunities to tip the scales in my life toward wellness and prosperity, within the context of my available choices, of course. And because as Aristotle observed, A is A, my success in this realm -- again, within the context of chance and circumstance -- has always been and will always be directly proportional to my commitment to honesty, integrity, and reason -- in short, to reality.

Happiness is contextual; it refers to the state of mind that comes from a man making the most of his life. It is not utopian; it is realistic. In that sense, speaking only metaphorically, fairy-tale endings are indeed possible in this life -- but they are never guaranteed.