26 novembre 2006

Another Counter-Canon

Counter-Canon : another viewing recommendation list

From the reaction of Zach Campbell at Elusive Lucidity to the articles in Film Comment by Paul Schrader on the construction of a highbrow canon, I'm tempted to propose my own "counter-canon" (as coined by Zach), even though my knowledge of film history isn't wide and deep enough to allow me to do so. But I guess it's always possible to find criminally under-represented (alternative) gems when we talk about canonical masterpieces. I don't think a canon can be representative with 60 titles out of thousands of great films out there, much less for a counter-canon meant to open new leads into non-trumpetted territories, so I pushed the limit to 111 (arbitrarily) to give some room. I don't have the viewing history to make a top1000 like Rosenbaum yet. I'm not sure they are really original, but I hope there will be at least a couple of new gems new to you, that you will adore discovering. Only prime material that floored me and revealed inspired ways to form cinema. Although I tried to leave out the familiar films critically acclaimed in every academic Canon. So the complete oeuvre of Bergman, Ozu, Kurosawa, Bresson, Maya Deren, and the Soviet Montage will not make the final cut, only because most advanced cinephiles already know them.
An anti-canon, an alternative breech into offbeat cinema territories, the favorite milestones from my subjective journey through cinephilia :

Counter-Canon Gems anti establishment
(111 recommendations ranked chronologicaly) :

  • Jean-Daniel Pollet essay-films (France) = Méditerranée (1963); Le Horla (1966); Tu imagines Robinson (1967); L'Ordre (1973); Pour Mémoire (la forge) (1978); Dieu sait quoi (1994); Ceux d'en face (2001)
  • Spring of Prague (Czech New Wave) complete oeuvre : (Fruits of Paradise; Peter and Pavla; The Party and the Guests; Loves of a Blonde; Daisies; Ucho; Long Live the Republic; Marketa Lazarová; Intimate Lighting; The Cremator; Closely Watched Trains; Nobody Will Laugh; Hop Side Story; Transport From Paradise; Higher Principle; Romeo, Julie a Tma...)
  • Leaves from Satan's Book (1921/Carl T. Dreyer/Denmark)
  • The Phantom Carriage / Körkarlen (1921/Victor Sjöström/Sweden)
  • La Roue (1923/Abel Gance/France)
  • Secrets of a Soul (1926/Georg Wilhelm Pabst/Germany)
  • Finis terrae (1929/Jean Epstein/France)
  • The Salt of Svanetia (1930/Mikhail Kalatozov/Russia)
  • The Glass Eye / L'Oeil de verre (1930/Lili Brik/Russia)
  • Bezhin Meadow / Bezhin lug (1937/Eisenstein/Russia)
  • Ye ban ge sheng / Song at Midnight (1937/Weibang Ma-Xu/China)
  • L'Espoir (1945/Malraux/Peskine/Spain)
  • Ryoju / The Hunting Rifle (1961/Heinosuke Gosho/Japan)
  • Le Feu Follet (1963/Louis Malle/France)
  • Pasazerka (1963/Munk/Poland)
  • Un roi sans divertissement (1963/François Leterrier/France)
  • Film (1965/Alan Schneider/Samuel Beckett/USA) Short
  • Cul-de-sac (1966/Roman Polanski/Poland)
  • Faraon / Pharaoh (1966/Jerzy Kawalerowicz/Poland)
  • Irezumi / Tattoo (1966/Masumura Yasuzo/Japon)
  • Ningen Johatsu / A Man Vanishes (1967/Imamura Shohei/Japon) DOC
  • Faces (1968/John Cassavetes/USA)
  • Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968/Alain Resnais/France)
  • Coming Apart (1969/Milton Moses Ginsberg/USA)
  • Invasión (1969/Hugo Santiago/Argentina)
  • Korol Lir / King Lear (1969/Kozintsev/Russia)
  • Days and Nights in the Forest (1970/Satyajit Ray/India)
  • The Ceremony (1971/Oshima Nagisa/Japan)
  • Le Moindre Geste (1971/Fernand Deligny/France)
  • Viva La Muerte (1971/Fernando Arrabal/Tunisia)
  • Wanda (1971/Barbara Loden/USA)
  • Le Journal d'un suicidé (1972/Stanislav Stanojevic/France)
  • Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (1972/Maurice Pialat/France)
  • El Castillo de la pureza / Castle of Purity (1973/Arturo Ripstein/Mexico)
  • The Holy Mountain (1973/Alejandro Jodorowski/Mexico)
  • The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973/Wojciech Has/Poland)
  • Edvard Munch (1974/Peter Watkins/UK)
  • India Song (1975/Marguerite Duras/France)
  • Impressions de la Haute Mongolie (1976/Dalí/Montes-Baquer/Germany) DOC
  • Le plein de super (1976/Alain Cavalier/France)
  • Twenty Days Without War (1976/Aleksei German/Russia)
  • Dossier 51 (1978/Deville/FR)
  • In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978/Guy Debord/France) DOC
  • Shoah (1985/Claude Lanzmann/France) DOC
  • Le Déclin de l'empire américain (1986/Denys Arcand/Canada)
  • Mauvais Sang / Bad Blood (1986/Leos Carax/France)
  • L'homme qui plantait des arbres (1987/Back/Canada) Short Anim
  • Lonely Human Voice (1987/Alexandr Sokurov/Russia)
  • Out of Rosenheim / Baghdad Café (1987/Percy Adlon/Germany)
  • Akira (1988/Katsuhiro Ôtomo/Japan) Anim
  • The Eye above the well (1988/Johan van der Keuken/Netherlands) DOC
  • Elephant (1989/Alan Clarke/UK) Short
  • C'est arrivé près de chez vous / Man Bites Dog (1992/Belvaux/Belgium)
  • De Noorderlingen / The Northerners (1992/van Warmerdam/Netherlands)
  • Sátántangó (1994/Bela Tarr/Hungary)
  • [Safe] (1995/Todd Haynes/USA)
  • Das Schloß / The Castle (1997/Michael Haneke/Austria)
  • Généalogies d'un Crime (1997/Raoul Ruiz/France)
  • Lost Highway (1997/David Lynch/USA)
  • Pokój saren / Roes' Room (1997/Lech Majewski/Poland)
  • Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998/Martin Arnold/Austria) Short
  • The Flowers of Shanghai (1998/Hou Hsiao-hsien/Taiwan)
  • Idioterne (1998/Von Trier/Denmark)
  • Paris, mon petit corps est bien las de ce monde (1998/Pressant/France)
  • Juha (1999/Aki Kaurismaki/Finland)
  • Father and Daughter (2000/Michael Dudok de Wit/UK) Short Anim
  • The Heart of the World (2000/Guy Maddin/Canada) Short
  • In Absentia (2000/Quay Brothers/UK) Short Anim
  • Songs from Second Floor (2000/Andersson/Denmark)
  • Sous le Sable (2000/François Ozon/France)
  • Altyn Kyrghol / My Brother Silk Road (2001/Marat Sarulu/Kyrgyzstan)
  • Copy Shop (2001/Virgil Widrich/Austria) Short
  • The Cinemascope Trilogy : L'arrivée / Outer Space / Dream work (1998-2002/Peter Tscherkassky/Austria) Shorts
  • Cremaster Cycle (1995-2002/Matthew Barney/USA)
  • De l 'autre côté / From the Other Side (2002/Akerman/France) DOC
  • Decasia (2002/Bill Morrison/USA) DOC
  • Dolls (2002/Kitano Takeshi/Japan)
  • Hukkle! (2002/György Pálfi/Hungary)
  • Japon (2002/Carlos Reygadas/Mexico)
  • L'Homme Sans l'Occident (2002/Raymond Depardon/France)
  • Los Muertos (2003/Lisandro Alonso/Argentina)
  • The Brown Bunny (2003/Vincent Gallo/USA)
  • Reconstruction (2003/Christoffer Boe/Denmark)
  • Struggle (2003/Ruth Madder/Austria)
  • Tiexi Qu : West of Tracks (2003/Wang Bing/China) DOC
  • Vozvrashcheniye / The Return (2003/Andrei Zvyagintsev/Russia)
  • 2046 (2004/Wong Kar-wai/HK)
  • La Blessure (2004/Nicolas Klotz/Belgium)
  • Our Daily Bread (2005/Nikolaus Geyrhalter/Germany) DOC
  • The Wayward Cloud (2005/Tsai Ming-liang/Taiwan)

EDIT : adding 7 films by Jean-Daniel Pollet I had forgotten, and taking out 7 films that were too "classic".

21 novembre 2006

Critical Fallacy 5 : Complacency

To put it plainly, "complacency" is the contrary of "being critical". It's the censorship of the Political Correctness mentality.
Some critics claim to write only on movies they liked to communicate an honest enthusiasm rather than a bitter resentment. Although favorable reviews always sound complacent to detractors. Except a chosen few masterpieces, every movie could/should/must be engaged both on its strong and weak aspects, to create a balanced, credible critical assessment.
Because of the lack of cinema culture and the domination of marketing brainwashing, critics fill a gap that isn't their job, which is to nurse, champion and promote the underexposed or panned movies... But critics aren't supposed to do P.R., that would be a conflict of interest (another installment of this series). Even back in the time of Bazin (40-50ies in France), instead of fully dedicating their time and writings to criticize and evaluate movies, critics had to advocate certain neglected auteurs, notify their screenings, drag the audience in, say a lot of good things about the film and overstate an hyperbolic enthusiasm... Where is the critical thinking when there is too much praise? The point isn't to pick a challenger and feel gratified if it scores a big B.O.
Klaus Eder : "That we write about this film and not another one, is dictated by the strategy of the distributors. They decide if and when to release a film, and we react and become a part of their strategy, whether we wish to or not. Specialist magazines fortunately have a bit more freedom and distance from the marketing system." Undercurrent #1
Criticism should, in theory, be disconnected from the commercial distribution and success of a film. Ok, maybe newspapers worry about the appeal to readership productivity of reviews, but the press doesn't define the ethics of criticism. Although they may decide whether a critic gets exposition, the compromise with aesthetic standards defines the critic's personality and complacency.
News journalists have the same duty to truth, whether it is pleasant to hear or not, but unlike critics they could/should remain neutral. The word "criticism" often implies "negative comment", because a critical judgment precisely denotes the flaws and weaknesses in a film, or else there is nothing to say but congratulations. There is a fine line between "respectful" and "complacent"... which will always be argued from a subjective standpoint. It's not easy to voice out a critical mind if it's going to hurt someone's pride or feelings, although some people enjoy just that, and think the most vociferous they are the most feared their "authority" will be (those controversial slanders aren't sound arguments).
The other side of this coin reminds us that "art is difficult and criticism is easy". Even the worst film, collective achievement of many artists and technicians, requires more work than the best movie review! So, due respect for the hardworking, yes, but partisanship, pontification, apologia, flattery, connivance, conformism, political correctness... no.
The spectrum of the film critic press shows variable tolerance to complacency, from specialized revues (filmcraft only) to glamour info-tainment (star system promotion), and some aim to be balanced or neutral, others just make their living of press-junket bribery, cover photo deals, indulgent interviews, advertisement/sponsors, mass-appeal to the point of being integer part of the marketing machine.
Promotional interviews (is there any other kind? these guys only meet the press when they have something to sell)
Certain films do deserve a humble, admirative, unconditional praise... sometimes the critic is useless in front of cinema genius. But looking at the reviews it's like there is at least one masterpiece each week! movies that are quickly forgotten after the award season.

19 novembre 2006

Exclusive Online Search

Screenville's Cinema-specific web search engine (see sidebar too)

Thanks to Robert Davis at Errata who pointed to this new feature at Google co-op, I've created my own selection of URLs (170 sites exclusively with film criticism material so far [EDIT June 2008: 262]) to look up cinema-specific topics on Google, which helps to browse the internet archive of film bloggers and online publications with only relevant results.
The problem with Google, is that the search engine is based on "word spotting" instead of "topic related filtering". Google returns all pages where the words required are found, but it doesn't mean the acception of the word matches your query, or that the words are in the same sentence or in the same article. Sometimes funny word strings lead to your page, because the text in the Google cache is scanned indifferently when several posts are showing on the front page. That's one of the reasons why I took out the post content from my index page on this blog, so that the text of each post is archived on its own specific page. And it also keep my post and the comments on the same page. I guess the words used in the links of the sidebar also alter the scanning of the blog frontpage by search engines.
So now Google adds some intelligence in their search results by asking users to qualify the pages, and restrict searches on a predefined thematic list, exclusive, or weighted among an all web search. Although there is no RSS feed on Google co-op, to keep track live on a feed aggregator of your favorite recurrent query... which is very useful.
I couldn't embed the search button within this post, so the results are hosted over at Google.

Let me know if the search results prove to be more fruitful and pertinent than usual. I will tweak the settings, add/remove URLs, as I figure how to improve the relevance and richness of cinema queries.

Try :

17 novembre 2006

Pan's Tests

Continuation from page 1 and 2. Pan's Labyrinth (2006/Del Toro)

Pan's magic book. Ofelia can only read it when she's alone (i.e. without adults/unbelievers around) because its pages are blank and a magic ink forms letters and drawings. The book is empty because Ofelia creates her own fantasy. After reading over and over her old books, she's now prepared to write her own story. The insect mistaken for a fairy, is named as such by Ofelia herself (she initiated this fantasy by projecting her imagination onto a detail of the real world, the fantasy world doesn't come to her, she spells out the magic identity of a common insect).

Pan orders 3 symbolic tasks to the young cursed princess who lost immortality. A crescent on her shoulder proves the unbelievable prophecy. Fable of regressive initiation, from an abominable reality to the retreat of an idyllic fantasy, from orphan to recomposed family, from unbearable life to dreamlike death. War killed the child, her innocence, her world. A painful and sudden transition to adulthood.

Pan's 3 tasks (dreamwork analysis) :

1) First Test
A giant toad lives under the roots of the biggest tree in the forest, and made it die out. Ofelia shall toss 3 magic stones into its mouth and retrieve a golden key from its guts.

This is a test of fear domination (dark hole with bugs, disgusting monster), and transgression of parental authority (runaway, dirty fancy clothes, late to dinner). Ofelia spells it out under the tree : "you don't scare me, I'm the princess". She also says "Look at you, you're so fat, aren't you ashamed to live under there and eat bugs?". I wonder if the 3 magic balls are the pills given by the doctor to her mother, and through fantasy she allows herself to blame her mother (for her deformed pregnant belly). The key is usually a male sexual symbol, if found inside the toad's belly, maybe it's an allegory for the fecondation of her mother by Vidal, which she disagrees and secretly wishes the abortion (the toad expels out its guts and deflates). She also says at the beginning of the film that the baby is the reason her mother is sick, so all this (Vidal and the baby) takes her mother away from her. She craves to return when she was the only center of attention, before the new baby, before her father died (ideal situation she finds again in death, in the final scene).
Only that she wears the fancy dress her mother wanted Ofelia to wear for the official dinner with her step-father. She wears a "princess gown", but doesn't want to make her stepfather happy so she's drawn to disobey : her dress is all dirty (to hurt her mother) and she's late (to hurt Vidal who is maniac with punctuality). The test is a success for her fantasy mission (she earns credit), but it's disastrous in the real world (punished).
This first task is her first attempt to help cure her mother by taking out the baby (out of anger).

Interlude (1)

Ofelia cannot go on with her next task because her mother is sick. When she opens the magic book, red ink forms a bloody uterus (like a Roshach inkblot test), and fills the page with red. Like a divination, Ofelia foresees the next scene when Carmen loses blood. Maybe this traumatic experience has to do with the first menstruation of a girl (blood, entering womanhood, fecundity, association with mother's pregnancy, pain).
Pan, impatient, comes to remind her duty. Then offers a mandrake (foetus symbol) that will cure Carmen if placed under her bed, bathed in milk and fed with 2 drops of blood every day (echo of the 2 drops of drug prescribed by the doctor in real world). This vegetal foetus evokes the doppleganger substitutions in Ferrara's Body Snatcher (1993).

2) Second Test

Magic chalk that opens passages to another dimension (symbol of her desire to get out of this world). Hourglass (time symbol referring to Vidal's obsession). One of three safe (wooden, iron, silver, or something like that) to open with the golden key (reminds of the choice for the right Grail, which is not the shiniest), and find the dagger for the final sacrifice (mirrors Mercedes' knife that will stab Vidal). Feast table temptation (interdiction to eat anything, echo of her punishment after first task).
Pale Man : Ogre threat to enforce the interdiction through terror ("what lives there is not human" says Pan). 2 fairies die to save Ofelia because she fell into temptation.
Pale Man is a peculiar monster, scary looking but slow and handicapped (no ears, eyes in his palms). Del Toro explains the orbits in his hands are christlike stigmata, but the symbolism is more complicated. It's disturbingly analogous to the aspect of a phallus (floppy bare skin, bold head, it's called "Pale Man"). The association to treat temptation (grape) from a pervert, the illustrations on the wall of the Pale Man chasing children, devouring them... suggests discreetly a sexual/incestuous molestation in symbolic form (maybe Vidal, although this subplot is very shy). Next to the stoic monster lays a pile of children shoes, remnant of his past victims (a shocking sight recalling the imagery of extermination camps).
Ofelia eats grape from the forbidden table (original sin of the fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Bible = loss of innocence, shame of nudity, sexual guilt of mortals), thus fails her task, but surprisingly manages to escape the monster by opening another door after the hourglass exhausted (which is a contradiction of the rules imposed upfront by Pan, apparently threats and orders aren't as incorruptible as in traditional fairytales... re-interpretation and last minute changes are always welcome).

Interlude (2)

Ofelia hands over the dagger, but confesses eating the grape, Pan is furious and abandons her, she will never be immortal. Although the mandrake dried up, Carmen feels better, the doctor can't explain this remission. Vidal finds out, and Carmen throws the root in the fire "Magic doesn't exist!" she says, and she suddenly falls very ill again. Vidal had just killed the doctor so Carmen won't be saved... only the baby survives. Ofelia, orphan, is definitely separated from her past, and her mother who compromised with the evil side, now her surrogate mother, Mercedes takes over, and she can fully embrace the rebel side (denial of order, passage to clandestinity).

3) The sacrifice

The final task is to bring the baby to the altar where Pan will shed his blood to re-open the gates of Ofelia's kingdom and grant her immortality. Test of faith (in Pan) v. reason (of her heart). But she refuses, and like Vidal had to choose between saving Carmen or his son, Ofelia offers her life in exchange to save the baby (saved twice from death by the mimetic sacrifice of both Carmen and Ofelia).
Del Toro makes a special twist of the Bible's archetypical sacrifice. Abraham surrenders his reasoning to pure blind faith when God asked him to kill his only son Isaac. The philosophy of this act is not the horror of murdering one's own child, but the absolute trust in a superior Good that man cannot foresee and shall not question. In fact God stops the sword to spare Isaac's life once Abraham has proven his faith to comply without arguing. But Del Toro turns this reference upside down, and questions the faith in a superior messenger and the application of solemn promise (dispute of unjust orders). A 12 yold girl doubts the command from the god Pan, who purposely tricked her to follow a deviant order. The film makes a case for the sovereignty of the individual's choice, and even suggests God can be fallible.

14 novembre 2006

Pan's fantasy

Continuation from first page : Pan's Labyrinth (2006/Del Toro)

Guillermo del Toro composes an odd mixture of neo-fairytale... The film is introduced by Ofelia's classic books of medieval fairytale, with traditional drawings (like Grimm or Andersen). But the encounter of a concrete fantasy in the real world is most unusual in the traditional fairytales. Although we can find many elements borrowed from various sources which original meanings are slightly altered.
Maya : "Pan, who self-effacingly refers to himself as a faun, when in truth he is a lord of the earth with a ram's crown, scented with leaf-molded earth, chthonic to his bark-encrusted core." The Evening Class
  • Pan is a god from the Greek mythology (not the fantasy of fairytales), the god of Nature, and looks like a satyr, with goat legs and horns. The head of the bed of Ofelia's mother features the head of Pan, half hidden by pillows and we only see the spiraling horns emerging.
  • Fauns however are demi-god from the roman mythology, looking like humans with horse ears and a tail.
  • There is a reference to Echo, the Greek nymph, when Ofelia visits the pit in the middle of the labyrinth for the first time with the fairy, she calls "Echo" to play with the acoustic. Echo was killed by Pan because her voice could make every man fall in love.
  • The fairy first appears under the form of a praying mantis (without front hooks) coming out of a carved stone looking more Aztec than Celtic this time.
  • Other reference for creature design : Arthur Rackham
  • The labyrinth is gothic from the XIIth century (Chartres cathedral) and is in fact a symbolic procession rather than a maze, because there is only one possible way. This 11 rings labyrinth (Christian) is a more elaborate version of the 7 rings labyrinth (Celtic).
  • At the center of the labyrinth, steps go down into the pit, where a smaller labyrinth is carved in the ground and at the center stands a Celtic-type megalith. This stone is sculpted with a head of Pan, and a curious addition of a Christian figure, the virgin Mary with a baby Jesus in her arms, which Pan identifies as Ofelia (messiah prophecy in the film), princess of this magic kingdom, but refuses to talk about the baby (we assume the baby was the sacrifice Pan expected to re-open the gates before the full moon). This bit is quite confusing in Del Toro's fabricated mythology.

Like in fairytales, Ofelia becomes the hero of an initiating adventure, Pan reveals to her she's the princess of a secret underworld, and she must pass 3 tests before the full moon to save her kingdom from destruction, and become immortal again in the land of magic creatures.

Here we have the desire of delirious escapism children look for in fairytales, they are keen to imagine they have been adopted and are in fact of a noble descent, with superior powers. The infantile megalomania of being the center of the world, and being the last resort to save the world. The parallel with the war makes this regular passion for fairytales all the more relevant to Ofelia, who lost her father, and whose mother married a cold-blooded torturer of the fascist army. I think she misses her father and summons an ambiguous father figure in the person of Pan. To her mother she says Pan is very old and smells earth, which could mean he's been exhumed from the grave. The underworld is the world of the dead, where she meets her dead parents in the end. Of course the final scene shows Pan at the court of the underworld kingdom, with Ofelia's father on his throne, so they are two separate characters. But Pan could be the fatherly friend linking her to her father. On the other hand, the film installs a mimetic parallel between captain Vidal (real world) and Pan (fantasy world).

Filiation trauma

Vidal is tied to an inescapable fate inherited through the heroic death of his father. The pocket-watch of his father (that reminds me of a subplot in Pulp Fiction) literally makes every second of his life a preparation for a brave death. He is obsessed with punctuality, which is a derivation of this paternal legacy, and a control-freak who imposes his meticulousity onto everyone around him. His only goal is to perpetuate this overwhelming ascendant onto his newborn son, to transmit the pocket-watch and the anxiety by fulfilling his destiny and die like his father. This perspective overrules his love for his wife (and her life), his responsibility for his step-girl (and her life), and even his loyalty to Franco, as his final words will be to negotiate the transmission of this filial bound with the rebels. However the rebels deny him this last will, and promise instead that the baby will never know about his father. And the film ends there on the creation of a new orphan.

Coincidently, Vidal is orphan like Ofelia. Their parallel struggle to live up to the ideal of a gone father makes their love-hate confrontation more interesting. This tension could be caused by the mysterious link between Vidal and her father's death (murder?), Ofelia being a living image of his late rival. And Ofelia obviously refuses to see anyone replace her beloved father.

Although I would expect the symbolism of Ofelia's fantasy to reflect this quest of a missing father, but nothing in the legend really refers to a father figure, and her late father appears in the last scene without any symbolic/dramatic build up...

Pan is the only father figure available to Ofelia to unload her father affliction and repair a dysfunctional family balance. Yet his persona is obscure and untrustworthy. Mercedes warns her against fauns, and her mother flat out denies the existence of fantasy creatures, establishing the critical dilemma to choose between fantasy (immortality, fun, adventure, friends, childhood) and reality (adults, mother, step-father, fear, war, death).

In spite of the scary look, Ofelia feels strangely attracted to Pan (a satyr known to seduce and trick mortals). After all, he promises her immortality and a magic kingdom. Although in Del Toro's world Pan is good, his devious side reveals to have been a test to check how much Ofelia was ready to follow her heart even if it contradicted recommendations made by dear friends of hers. With the minimized role of her mother (even her death is overlooked), Ofelia's journey is mostly independent, in solitude, and the only authority regulating her life comes from Vidal and Pan.

More on Pan's Tests next...

12 novembre 2006

Pan's Labyrinth (2006/del Toro)

El Laberinto del Fauno / Pan's Labyrinth (2006/Guillermo del Toro/Spain) ++

Opening Sequence : Slow travelling forward (swirling?) on a girl laying on the ground with blood leaking from her nose, her head half tilted toward us. Heavy breathing.
This is a glimpse of the last shot of the film, playing backward (the blood appears to creeps back into her nose, which is more a digital special effect than a backward footage I think).

Spain 1944, fascist army of Franco still struggles to put out the underground guerilla of the republican fighters hidden in the mountains. Interesting historical context reminded by David D'Arcy at GreenCine :
"Bear in mind that this story is set against the background of a war that was won by Spanish fascists, killing millions of civilians and forcing many more into exile, all with the support of Hitler and Mussolini."
and acquarello at Strictly Film School :
"Set in 1944, the year that the annals of history have officially annotated as the year that the Republicans were defeated, thus marking the end of the civil war, reality proves less than neatly conclusive as the insurgency rages on (and would continue for nearly two decades), the resistance fighters fortifying their strongholds in the mountains with the covert aid of sympathetic villagers."

Guillermo del Toro rehashes the same concerns developped in El Espinazo del diablo / The Devil's backbone (2001), that mixed supernatural and the horror of war in a world of orphans confronted to unjust discipline (in 1939 at the end of the civil war), written after Pan's Labyrinth (which took 10 years for greenlight).
It's interesting to note the absence of a religious reference/character in Pan's Labyrinth, despite the arguable role of Church in supporting Franco. As acquarello quotes, Guillermo del Toro said the hand-eyed Pale Man was inspired by the stigmatas from christianity, so this would be the clerical figure disguised under a cryptic allegory (which is also inspired by Goya's Saturn Devouring one of his Children).

Ofelia, a 12 yold girl who lost her father during the war, is drawn with her mother, Carmen, outside of the city by a severe step-father, Vidal (captain in Franco's army), who is the father of the baby Carmen is about to deliver. Although the mother is only a secondary character, her illness doesn't give her much speaking parts, she doesn't make the end of the film either, and Mercedes, the servant, becomes a surrogate mother, trusted, affectionate advisor. Her father is dead, so he's out of the picture (or is he?), and the step-father is dominant, even if the father-daughter relationship is very limited and filled with mutual hate. And the rebels are also distant secondary characters. Thus the main characters (Vidal, Pan, Mercedes, Ofelia), forming the nucleus family model (dad-mom-girl) are strangers each playing a role that isn't theirs. The dad role being shared between captain Vidal and Pan (who I suspect is the dream reincarnation of her dead father).
The war trauma and political turmoil in Spain is translated in this allegory of a dysfunctional family. Ofelia, on the fence between a fairytale books populated childhood (metaphor of peace and innocence) and the conflicts of adolescence with parents (metaphor of the violence of war, of resistance and breaking up with an authoriarian regime). The film is a symbolic lesson on the moral consequences, in life and death, of a blind submission to orders or a reasonned defiance to constraints based on terror.
A principle illustrated many times in the story, both in the real world and in the fantasy world, with almost each main characters, and slightly different results according to the purity of their mind. Ofelia disobeys her mother to accomplish her first test, ignores Pan to stay with her mother, contradicts the fairies suggestion to pick the right safe, disobeys Pan to eat the grape, defies the captain to kidnap the baby, and finally turns back on Pan to give the baby back to the captain. The doctor disobeys the captain to end the suffering of the tortured prisonner and thus risks his own life. Mercedes disobeys the captain to help the resistance despite the threat of torture and death.
The test of rebellion is always risky and balances the higher moral ground of a heroic sacrifice of one's life v. a submissive/coward life condoning the evil happening around. The heart of success in a resistance against the almighty despotic machine is self-sacrifice in the hope to save a better life for future generations.
[EDIT] Bringing up past history today in Spain, after the 3-11-2004 terror attack in Madrid, could be a reminder of the legitimacy of resistance and the blindness of a standing army following narrowminded orders... The reference to Gulf War 2 is not too far fetched. And the point of view chosen by Del Toro to observe this war from the (evil) side of the official army, matches the position of Spain in Irak, in the Bush cohalition, against the local guerilla fighting against the oppressor.

The Western genre influence on the direction of war sequences is made obvious by the cavalry, the smoke clouds raising from the forest, the way Vidal checks the rebels' abandonned campfire to tell how many they are, and the attack of the locomotive. Like in a Western, the point of view of the renegades (republican resistance) remains invisible, they always come out of nowhere and their whereabouts is a mystery, while the film follow the regular army (fascists) in their footsteps. Only the men in uniforms are evil and the homeless rebels are the freedom fighters. A reversal of cinematic values. Since Ofelia's mother married a fascist captain, our protagonist lives among the evil forces, and gives the film an original perspective on this war to denounces the cruelty of fascists from within their ranks.
Unlike André Malraux' L'Espoir (1945) about an earlier battle (circa 1937) of the same war filmed entirely from the perspective of the resistance, hidden in the mountains and organising commando operations against an impersonal army. Malraux's direction is incomparably more poetical and cinematic of course.
I don't understand Guillermo del Toro's experiment with the faux-transition to link 2 (cutaway) scenes in a seamless lateral travelling... it doesn't quite work and shows off virtuosity rather than bring a meaningful reading to the visual language.

The systematical mirroring of real-world adult activity and the re-enactment in the child's fantasy crypted by unconscious dreamwork might seem a little heavyhanded, but ultimately proves to carry a coherent symbolism (except for a few compromise to silly melodramatic cues).
Guillermo del Toro does a better job than Gilliam's desastrous Brothers Grimm (2004) to adapt the fairytale mythology and explore its function in children's personality construction, and its re-interpretation of a reality too overwhelming to comprehend. Here the special FX are seamless (except for the line of sight of the young actress) and original prostethics are very inventive.
Although this tale is too gruesome for kids and too naive for grown ups, which makes a weird combination that hurts both targeted audiences. The compromises to mix 2 incompatible genres ultimately result in an average movie without spirit. For instance, the labyrinth (borrowed to the Chartres cathedral) is too literal, too concrete. It wasn't necessary to prove its existence by the words of Mercedes, or to film the girl with adults there. The power of imagination to generate a wonderland out of nothing, in the girl's dream or pretend game with imaginary friends, leaves the doubt for the audience. It's a mistake to overstate its reality, since the film diegesis already show us it's there, while the image in a film carries a fruitful plurality of interpretations (past memory, dream, wishful thinking, fiction, illustration, metaphor). The Brazil inspired ending also commits a fatal error, by draging the captain, then the rebels, into the labyrinth, and showing the captain's viewpoint of Ofelia talking to an invisible Pan. Is it that only naive children can see magic creatures or is it that she's insane? This shot is too literal and breaks the suspension of disbelief like if the filmmaker estranged his protagonist 2 minutes before the end.
Ofelia slowly sinks into her fantasy world as she quits the world of livings to the tune of a lullaby, like in Gilliam's Brazil (1984), where it suited the schizophreniac demise of the adult protagonist (european cut), and fails completely the fantasy belief of childhood in Pan's Labyrinth. If there is a way to film the meeting of adult's and children's perception it was the wrong choice there. Gilliam's latest film, Tideland (2005), also strives to confront childhood fantasy and adult reality, and end up with this odd cross-genre with a gruesome puerile triffle...
The film also borrows from the imagery of Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland, exemplified by the pretty dress she wears in the forest, the descent in the pit, and her talking to imaginary friends.
The melo ending contradicts the active rhythm of the film. When Mercedes sees Ofelia shot on the ground, you'd think she would call for help, carry her in the house, try to save her life... but as if she instantly figures it's too late, she starts to sing a lullaby like if it was the only thing to do. Melodramatic cinema always has convenient ways to deal with the most effective dramatic situations, if not the most realistic. Sometimes they want us to care for the urgency, then we feel empathy for the protagonist's survival, but if it's a glorious ending, the urgency is immediately discarded to make us focus on the courage in death and the prospect of a shiny after-life.
There is a time to root for life and a time to enjoy death. This trick is also used with the stuttering guy's torture to illustrate how death is preferable to survival in certain cases (although he was a disposable secondary character anyway). The death of the main protagonist, an innocent child, was a bolder narrative move. But I still think it was filmed wrongly, even if her death is suggested in the very opening sequence of the film.

The archetypes aren't as manichaean as they seem. The ambiguity in each character makes the fable more interesting even if it was meant for suspense purpose.
Conversly the dramatic structure and the psychological situations aren't always one-sided. For instance the nazi-like captain is shown like an attentionate husband and father (forcing Carmen to use a wheelchair against her will for her health, and brave in defeat when he hands over his baby to the rebels when they execute him). Also the rebels are shown shooting dead at point blank the wounded soldiers, like the fascists did, no mercy, no prisonners. The magic creatures are also faillible (the fairies pick the wrong safe, the wicked Pan lies, changes his mind or plays deception game) which contrasts with the usual clearcut good/evil sides in fairytales where everyone's power is defined upfront and doesn't disappoint.

I wasn't impressed by the sound effects... there is a rich work (excesssive most of the time though) to create original sounds for the fantasy world, but contrary to the creative integration of visual special effects, sounds are triggered on cue to announce a character everytime they move whether they should make noise or not. I thought it was far too systematic, and lacked the moderation of an harmonious atmospherical soundtrack.

But what actually interested me most was the magic and the fantasy, structured by the symbolic (psychoanalitical dreamwork) tests Pan orders to Ofelia (which I will examine in the next posts : Pan's Fantasy & Pan's Tests)
(s) ++ (w) ++ (m) ++ (i) +++ (c) ++

10 novembre 2006

Consensual criteria for a good critic

Notes from La Critique de cinéma by René Prédal, 2004.
What defines film criticism is to talk about films and ponder over the nature of cinema. The existence of criticism implies the artistic characteristics of cinema : dissociation of the artistic value from the movie budget, ambitions and commercial success. The critic is meant to ignore the public reception and speculate on the film's meaning in art history (its value in duration and immanence).
4 main criteria :
  1. Love of Cinema : passion + curiosity (for discoveries and novelties). Watching a lot of movies.
  2. Culture : expert of cinema history (1000 or 2000 essential films to know to be able to relativize the creativity/skill of new movies against past production) + deep general culture (arts and real world, which is the source of cinema inspiration)
  3. Cinema technique knowledge
  4. Writing Quality : style, communicative enthousiasm, readable, clarity, pedagogy.
And also :
  • 5) Sensibility : emotion. To develop affectivity even for disliked movies.
  • 6) Stance without prejudice : Judgement rooted in critical theory trends without rigid ideology.
  • 7) Objectivity : no influence by the majority of opinions, nor by personal mood/instinct.
  • 8) Sense of hierarchy (values) : Being able to make pertinent comparisons. Freedom and independance of thinking, against the editorial line, other critics and social fads)
This is the theory, but unfortunately... "the reviews we read in newspapers don't talk about cinema, they only account for the topic, the situations and characters." F. Gévaudan (Cinéma 83, #300, déc. 1983)
-- The development of video with easy access to repeat viewing should help critics to develop a deeper analysis, but it only serves to scholars. Weekly reviewers write a critique after one viewing (or 2 at best).
-- National traditions : study of acting performance is almost never considered in France, while gesture analysis, eyes, voice intonations are largely developped in the USA.
-- Mentality imposed by the timeframe :
  • Political interpretation was the exclusive entry point during the cold war and witch hunt.
  • Then spiritualist and moral analysis, or taste, offer multiple readings (mise-en-scene, topic, genre, ambition) because everyone realized cinema cannot change the world. Informational criticism seeks the key-significance, raison d'être of the film, its humane value. (R. Guyonnet, Le métier de critique, Esprit, #6, juin 1960)
  • Feyredoun Hoveyda suggests the aesthetic value of film is the only viewpoint possible, opposed to the key-significance. "I like extreme opinions. Since each can only defend his/her own truth, it's vain to stay in the middle ground, because a film is only the combination of a limited number of elements skillfuly organized. Thus what is the point to balance good v. bad scenes, or form v. content? This comes down to decomposing the artwork and doesn't grasp its globality because the whole is different from the sum of its parts. The thought of a filmmaker is revealed through its mise-en-scene (Politique des Auteurs)" (Les tâches du soleil, Cahiers du Cinéma, #110, aug. 1960)