Sunday, July 13, 2008

In Honor of "Hellboy II", An Old Review I Did

Pan’s Labyrinth
Fairies, an evil step-father, a faun
Guns, explosions, Fascists vs. the resistance, torture
Forbidden fruit, eternal life, blood atonement, sacrifice
So you have a fairy tale, a war movie and a Christian parable, all to be found in Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish language film -- elements that will certainly attract and repel viewers in equal numbers.
Lovers of fantasy may be lost when they learn of the graphic scenes of shootings, stabbings and battlefield surgery in Pan’s Labyrinth (or El Laberinto del Faurn). Enthusiasts of World War II might not be pleased to learn that the central character of the film is a little girl, given three tasks to prove that she is the princess of an underground kingdom. And I read critics who were not pleased that with the film’s Christian imagery.
The film is an adult fairy tale, and the criticism that fairy tales are for children is addressed within the film itself. Ofelia, the heroine of the story, is told by her mother and stepfather that she is too old for fairy tales. And yet she finds within her fantasies wisdom to live in a difficult and dangerous world. The moral clarity found in such tales is occasionally scoffed at by some grown-ups as simplistic. They argue the world never has any clear heroes or villains, black or white, only shades of grey. They would also argue that only the material world exists and it is foolish to believe in anything outside of what we can perceive through our senses.
I would argue that the stark contrasts between good and evil found in fairy tales can at times be found in the real world. In the Old Testament battles, God was on the good side in many of the battles between Israel and evil foes. During our Civil War, ultimately the side defending slavery was in the wrong. And in World War II, one side definitely could be defined as right and the other as wrong.
And those who believe that there is nothing beyond ourselves and what we can see and hear, touch and taste and smell, they have bought into a lie much darker and devoid of truth than any story Disney ever animated.
We are given a grim picture of what it was like to live under the repressive regime of Franco’s Spain during World War II. The government kept the people dependant on itself for foods and goods. One scene shows soldiers dispersing bread to citizens, and as they do they announce that the daily bread comes through the beneficence of the government. God’s providence is given no place in such a dictatorship.
The very worst of the government is personified through Ofelia’s stepfather, Capitan Vidal, a sadist shown torturing captives and casually killing the innocent. Those who would say such violence has no place in fairy tales just don’t know how grim the Brothers Grimm could be.
I found the most interesting aspect of the film was introduction of the theme of blood atonement. To avoid spoilers, I can’t tell too much about how this theme is used in the film, but it is there, with great Biblical resonance.
Hebrews 9: 22 says, “Without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins.” This essential Biblical doctrine at times seems like an outdated piece of myth and legend. But by placing this theme in the midst of a war, a time when the shedding of blood is a daily transaction, we are reminded of its truth.
We tend to think of sin as a petty offense that should be cleared up as one would pay for a parking ticket. The film reminds us that when dealing with issues such as life and death, war and sin, is not child’s play, but we do need childlike faith.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Spoiling in a Good Way

I want to warn you now that this article is full of spoilers.
What? Some of you are unclear on the term “spoilers”? You haven’t been reading your internet movie reviews. At a variety of movie sites you can read reviews of movies that are seen before the films are released. Sometimes you can read reviews of scripts before a film is even produced. Often the reviewers will warn *minor spoilers* or *major spoilers*, depending on whether they plan on giving away minor plot details or every twist and turn in the story.
Some people like spoilers, some don’t.
I prefer not to know what’s going to happen in the movies I watch and the books I read; I want to be surprised. On the other hand, my wife Mindy often reads the ends of novels before deciding if she wants to go on reading. She does this with mysteries. This is a mystery to me.
Some people like spoilers, some don’t.
*Major Spoilers*! I plan on giving away the whole plot of a certain film, and not only that, but some major spoilers about life itself.
So if you were planning on rushing out to rent F.W. Murau’s silent German Expressionist classic The Last Laugh, and you don’t want to know how it ends, quit reading now!
Emil Jannings plays the doorman (or porter) of an elite German hotel. He is proud of his job and especially proud of his gaudy uniform. When he returns from work to his dilapidated tenement, his neighbors treat him with deference and respect because of his big lapels and shiny buttons.
But the doorman is getting on in years, and when the manager of the hotel sees him take a long break after struggling with heavy luggage, the manager demotes him to restroom attendant.
The new job does not have the status of doorman and does not have a uniform.
So the former doorman decides to steal a uniform so he can still wear it when he’s back in his neighborhood. But when a neighbor spies him at work in the restroom, he becomes the laughing stock of the neighborhood.
The man breaks down in tears when he returns the uniform to the hotel security guard. And then the film makers show one of the most amazing title cards in silent films.
I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the card says something like this: “In real life, the porter would have little to look forward to, except his own death. However, the writer took pity upon the man and added this unexpected epilogue.”
The film then shows guests in the hotel laughing as they read a newspaper article. The article tells about a millionaire who died in the arms of a hotel restroom attendant. The millionaire’s last will and testament specified that his entire fortune would go to the person who held him as he died.
The final minutes of the film show the former doorman of the hotel enjoying the hotel’s luxuries, along with his friend the security guard. The film ends with the new millionaire tipping all of the bell staff before riding off in a convertible.
The title card that changes the doorman’s fortune is a classic “Deus ex machine” device (or ‘God from the machine’). This is a phrase that originated in Greek drama, when the writer would paint his characters into such a difficult situation that the only solution was an arbitrary plot intervention by one of the many Greek gods.
It is usually quite an annoying device in a play, book or film.
If an ordinary Western story concludes with a UFO blasting the bad guy with lasers in the climatic gun fight or a parent’s objection to the love match in a Victorian romance resolved by having Dr. Phil enter in and give counsel, the audience is understandably upset.
But somehow, this device works in The Last Laugh, because the film makers are so transparent about its use. A (slightly) more recent use of blatant “Deus ex machine” is found in Wayne’s World. The film appears to be ending with our hero Wayne losing the girl and the villain triumphant. But Wayne speaks to the camera and suggests a different ending. They first try the Scooby Doo ending (“I would have succeeded, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids”) and then finish with the mega-happy ending.
I think the “God from the machine” device works because there is an acknowledgement of a creator outside of the fictional world. Of course, we get ourselves into impossible situations. Particularly, we’ve got the problem of sin (Romans 6:23 – “The wages of sin is death”), and we need help to get us out of our predicament.
Fortunately, help did come from out of our world, when Jesus came to save us (John 1:14 – “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling with us.”)
I don’t mind that “Deus ex machine” at all. And when I said before that I don’t like spoilers -- well, Jesus perhaps gave away the biggest spoiler of all when He said in John 14:3, “I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
I don’t mind that spoiler at all.

The Last Laugh (1924) (original German title, Der Letzte Mann) directed by F.W. Murau, written by Carl Mayer, starring Emil Jannings. No objectionable content.

Wayne’s World (1992) directed by Penelope Spheeris, written and starring Mike Myers. Some offensive language and humor, and a gratuitous sex scene clearly marked with subtitles as “GRATUITOUS SEX SCENE”