Page Two: In This World

The all-consuming genius of Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth'

Page Two
A couple of years back, I was reading a piece on Bob Dylan that subscribed to the notion that he was overrated – that his voice sucked and his brilliance hit a cement wall after the first half-dozen albums. Just a few paragraphs into it, I stopped reading. I'm almost always more interested in reading cultural criticism when it takes a different point of view from my own, especially the more it is radically different. Reading criticism with which I agree is usually boring unless it is by a writer who matches content/thoughts/opinions to writing, creating something interesting independent of the film (Marjorie Baumgarten, Marc Savlov, and the rest of the Chronicle reviewers; Elvis Mitchell; Pauline Kael). The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, for example, is such a gifted stylist that his reviews are always entertaining to read – but they also almost never have anything interesting to say. Certain reviews whose overall positive or negative rating coincides with mine can be so inane and ill-conceived as to be somewhat entertaining.

Having your perceptions challenged clarifies and sharpens one's thinking. Most of the tenets and strategies I use in writing criticism came from spending endless amounts of time obsessing on critical pieces, often just cataloging rebuttals.

At that moment, however, I realized it was a complete waste of my time to read negative takes on Dylan (not that this means I devour positive ones). Without question – and here, just stating the obvious sounds more condescending than I mean it to be – everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. The very best critical writers are almost always worth reading because of the quality of their ideas, regardless of their specific opinions. But I shared nothing in common with those who dismissed Dylan, and spending any amount of time daydreaming any defense of him would be ridiculous and masturbatory for me. This is in no way meant to suggest that writers offering their negative takes on Dylan shouldn't do so (clearly, there is nothing inherently wrong or illegitimate about such a position), nor is it to argue that they have nothing to say. This is personal; I just can't imagine, and have never encountered, such a take that was illuminating or challenging in any way. Even the almost invariably entertaining Roy Blount Jr. wasn't so in his piece on why Dylan bugs him in a recent issue of the Oxford American.

Still, it is rare I take such a blanket position. All this is by way of saying that, after just my first viewing of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth – a stunning masterpiece – I decided that reading and considering negative reviews or strong criticism would be, for me, a waste of time. The film is so completely unique and startlingly fresh that I just can't conceive of any objections to the film having anything terribly interesting to say. And, honestly, I don't want to taint the powerful and pure experience of watching this film by reading niggling criticisms that invariably I obsess on countering, with all the panache with which one might worry an aching tooth.

Fortunately, this position is a rather easy one to take, as of the 85 reviews on critical aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, so far only one is negative; the only other negative comment I've seen is from a Chronicle letter-writer. Going off on either of those would be tantamount to setting up to tackle extremely flimsy straw men, unfairly exaggerating their prevalence.

Almost anyone who has spent time with del Toro can't help but love him. Knowing any number of gifted filmmakers, I long ago got over confusing my assessment of a film with my affections for its creators. Still, with del Toro's films in particular, I've always felt a certain affinity that has to do with such deep-down feelings that they may well be more biological than learned. In unique and powerful ways, the recurrent images, concerns, themes, and interests of his works – age and youth, life and death, young children and old men, fascism and freedom, love and desire, dark and light, the known and the unknown, the subterranean and the transcendent – resonate with me.

Cronos, Hellboy, and The Devil's Backbone all were consuming to me, in both understandable and unique ways. I love Blade 2, though it is somewhat restricted by the Blade trilogy's conventions. Now, never would I claim that Mimic is anything but a failed, terribly flawed film. At best, it is maybe two-thirds great, with one third being as scarred and disfigured as the Phantom of the Opera's burnt face. Still, it is a special favorite, though not for easily described critical, ideological, or aesthetic reasons. It is just of me.

Saying Pan's Labyrinth is del Toro at his best is more limit than compliment, the frame of biography restricting instead of truly celebrating this film that is so completely itself and nothing else. Set in the past, produced in the present, speaking to the future, Pan's Labyrinth is anchored by the very real look, touch, taste, and people – the concrete reality – of our world as we know it; yet it's haunted by a fantastic shadow world out of del Toro's creative genius: an explicitly crafted mosaic of indefinable fragments of shared fears, feelings, and dreams.

Del Toro's narrative voice almost never resorts to the obvious cadences and tones of most Hollywood movies. It rejects the very specific, traditional vocabularies of horror, romance, historical, superhero, war, supernatural, and/or fantastic films. The powerful cinematic textures and unique ambitions of his films locate them not just between reality and fantasy but also firmly in both and just as firmly in neither, until his works are both multi- and extra-dimensional. At his best, del Toro manages to get the viewer so intensely vibrating between all these layers that the screen's dimensions do not confine the films. Denying any separation between the real and the imagined, dripping sweat and oozing fear, they are of our very breath, taste, sight, and memory.

When Harry Knowles screened Pan's Labyrinth at Fantastic Fest last year, I e-mailed del Toro:

"Dear Guillermo,

"The only bad part of last night was that you weren't there at the Pan screening. You could have watched Harry sit there with his mouth open almost unmoving for several minutes while I spun around in my seat like a broken wind up toy, my arms aimlessly jerking as I kept starting sentences and not finishing them, 'What a ... Oh my God ... that was ... What a great ... What a ... del Toro ... Did you ... film ... del Toro,' and so on. I just really wanted to hug you. To see you and thank you. For some reason to hit you – not violently, but in the kind of jocks-slapping-each-other-on-the-butts camaraderie – a feeling I don't remember ever having had before.

"Tim McCanlies and I were talking on the way out and I said, 'This film makes me so mad at Hollywood – they spend tens and tens of millions on sequels, homogenize everything, and would never fund a film like this one.'

"This is the film you were born to make, and it finds you at the absolute peak of your creative, cinematic powers, so we are all in awe, wondering what will be next.

"Walking into the Chronicle, I was thinking about how, as this film settles inside me it keeps expanding, filling my head and haunting me more and more. Some films kick you down at a screening but you can't remember them a few days later. Pan is like an expanding spider web.

"Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations!"

Usually I regard comments about Hollywood like the one I made to McCanlies as cheaply pathetic, and I'll make no excuses for it here. I do have to note that I had just fallen in love with a film magnificent and startling, a movie so in this world while not being of it at all – lifted out of the known and familiar to one of those places where only the best movies allow entrance, far from self or setting.

I was without words – not speechless, but willfully silent – as I watched myself very far away, moving so slowly, as though through water, leaving the theatre. I did not want to shatter or mar the exquisite feeling of the film in any way.

On some occasions, I have been lucky enough to have the flavors of a particularly outstanding meal so intensely branded on my taste buds that the next day it is as if I'm still eating it, rather than just recalling the memory. I wanted the film implanted in just such a way, only permanently. I wanted it to glaze my eyeballs, stick in my ears, catch under skin, stain fingertips until it even replaced memory, so I had no memory left except for it. I wanted the film draping me as though it were fog, to be over, around, and in me, smothering and caressing. I wanted it as though it were my very breath itself, until it was such a part of me that the next day, after first seeing it, I could still and forever after watch it.

Next Issue: More on del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth, and the Spanish Civil War. end story

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Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo de Toro, film criticism, critics, music criticism, Bob Dylan

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