Monday, August 22, 2011
Further Than You Think
I haven’t traveled anywhere this summer—getting a job just as it began pretty much put the kibosh on that. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I’m very happy to be employed but I am sorry that I didn’t manage to get out of town for a few days, maybe go visit my sister and her family. Her two girls are growing up fast, something which I’m sure comes as a surprise to absolutely no one who has kids and I really would like to see them again, whenever that will be. One morning not too long ago I was talking with the older one on the phone one morning as I was driving into work and for no particular reason I began telling her about the various sights as I headed into the valley so I mentioned Universal Studios which she had definitely heard of because of the theme park, of course followed several minutes later by Warner Brothers and then the Disney lot. I had to explain that this wasn’t actually Disneyland I was passing but when I told her this was where things like MARY POPPINS were filmed she was impressed anyway saying, “That sounds like the best drive to work ever.” She’s probably right too and I loved hearing her say that. It makes me hope that I’ll get the chance to introduce her to a few films as she gets older. What would I show her? What’s appropriate? What would she even like? I guess I’m the wrong person to ask.
One that occurred to me, since it probably occurs to anyone trying to think of the right movie to show to girls, was Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH which for all I know she’s probably seen anyway. The film seems to be known to enough people by now—no, scratch that, it seems to be LOVED by people now—that you’d think it was a big hit when it opened 25 years ago on June 27, 1986 but it actually came in 8th place for the weekend with total box office stopping dead at $12.7 million, considerably less than what Henson’s THE DARK CRYSTAL had made several years before. A pretty strong cult has developed around it but who knows when or how—there was a limited theatrical release a few years back for the 20th Anniversary, Diablo Cody selected it as when she was programming a festival at the New Beverly, a pretty great joke referencing it on an episode of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS and the film has even inspired an actual masquerade ball called Labyrinth of Jareth—the next one is being held in L.A. in July 2012! And yet for something that feels such a part of the decade in all our Generation X memories it’s actually one of those fantasy films that doesn’t feel rooted in the 80s much at all, even with all those David Bowie songs. There’s a vibe which keeps it somehow out of time which seems perfect considering how the film’s opening shot presents things in a way that doesn’t make it apparent right away when the film is set. The film maybe seems even more special now than it ever did and makes clear just how much Jim Henson really is desperately missed, over twenty years after his death. It’s not without some drawbacks but within a story that is in part about what the nature of such stories really are and what they can mean is something that makes it extremely rewarding on repeat viewings. In comparison, the recent film version of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE—a book that was very obviously a key inspiration for LABYRINTH and Maurice Sendak even receives an onscreen acknowledgement—was something that seemed to have its heart in the right place but lacked a decent narrative to go with its effects and earnest tone. That film came out less than two years ago and I remember next to nothing about it while though LABYRINTH may not have made the strongest impression on me whenever I first saw it on video, years later there were snatches from it that still lingered in my head as if I’d been watching it every day. These things are harder than they look, I suppose. But I do wonder who the ideal audience for LABYRINTH is in 2011 and beats me if it’s something my nieces would even respond to—is it a film for a roomful of girls at a slumber party or is it for a roomful of people who watched it while growing up and are sitting around at 3AM getting stoned? I mean that in the most benign way, of course and the movie seems to invite this kind of audience with its story of a girl stranded between stories that belong to kids and aspects of growing up which can never be avoided. The tone is somewhat unique in how it combines these pieces but then there’s also…well, what the hell are we supposed to say about those pants that Bowie’s wearing? You probably know what I’m talking about. Since any fondness I have isn’t connected to specific memories and I do my best to run away from these kinds of movies from the 80s this must mean that there’s something special about LABYRINTH, a film aimed at children but I still kind of like watching now.
Teenage Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) lives a life where she buries herself in her fantasy world but she still sometimes has to deal with her baby brother Toby as well as her father and stepmother. After arriving home late to babysit for him yet again she speaks aloud a plea she presumably remembers from her book “The Labyrinth” for the goblins to take Toby away. Little does she suspect that the goblins are actually listening and when they do just that the Goblin King named Jareth (David Bowie) appears to tell her he has only done what she asked. When she pleads for Toby’s return, the Goblin King tells Sarah that if she can make her way through his Labyrinth to his castle in 13 hours he will return Toby to her. If not, Toby will become one of the goblins, belonging to the Goblin King…forever. Sarah soon sets off into the labyrinth in search of the right direction, but confronted with numerous tests and tricks at every turn she quickly realizes that this will not be as easy as she first thought.
It’s funny, I had the idea to write about LABYRINTH since I realized I had the disc lying around, now I’m sitting here trying to figure out why I even own this DVD. It’s not really an issue of nostalgia since I didn’t see it in the theater—I was actually in camp at the time, so you can’t pin the poor grosses on me. Even if I’d gotten the chance maybe I wouldn’t have gone anyway since at that time I was sort of at the age where I’d moved beyond the work of Jim Henson (trust me, as a little kid I was absolutely nuts for the Muppets) and I was still several years away from gaining a new appreciation of it all. I suppose like many people of my generation I desperately wish I could have told him what he meant to me. Anyway, it’s a difficult film to discuss because like any dream the film somewhat defies an attempt to break down its story construction (screenplay by Terry Jones, story by Henson and Dennis Lee) on a rational basis. It’s a case of a film where once you get past the ingenuity of the Henson Studio’s work, it makes sense to focus on the subtext over other things because, well, the film’s story is pretty much all subtext, all the drama basically taking place in this one girls head as she faces the conflict of her past and present, the conflict of her obsession with the fantasy world prefers to remain in—a melding of the various books she buries herself in and other items seen as the camera pans across her room early on—with the responsibilities of the real world that are going to come into play whether she likes it or not. Everything that’s going to happen is laid out, from the very first lines of dialogue through the various book seen in Sarah’s bedroom as well as a few ornaments and only paying so much attention to rules or logic the film ultimately becomes its own thing, sort of a cross between a Bowie concept video album—I just flashed on the Julien Temple short JAZZIN’ FOR BLUE JEAN that he starred in a few years before this—and a creative exploration by Jim Henson (as well as others involved including screenwriter Jones and Executive Producer George Lucas) using his expertise in the world of puppetry to examine some of his own feelings about the power of myth and how he reconciles them to the real world. The playful tone all the way through lets it stand out, discarding the more anarchic elements of the Muppets in favor of a tone that serves this film and its non-Muppet creatures much better than THE DARK CRYSTAL which in spite of its ambitions I kind of remember as being an overly serious slog (I haven’t seen it in years, so who knows). In comparison, LABYRINTH always feels curious and hopeful about what’s coming next, as if the representation of a child who is always asking the right questions, looking for the best solution.
And it’s about a girl, stranded between pre-teen years and the full-on teenage life she doesn’t seem to have much interest in, willingly isolating from everyone around her and probably also focused on memories of her late mother, an actress whose photos adorn her bedroom—some have pointed out that the man in them might be Bowie which adds to the mystique. Sarah’s experience makes her determined to figure things out on her own, as if realizing that things aren’t fair, that you sometimes do need someone around you to help get you through the labyrinth that is life until the point where ultimately it’s all up to you to take a leap of faith, regardless of the consequences. Jennifer Connelly, then in that Leone-Argento muse period, is absolutely perfect casting for this, beautiful yet still somehow relatable—a dream girl who you wish wouldn’t ignore you because hopefully you’d actually have things to talk about. As an actress she’s totally ideal—immature yet still curious, young yet possessing a gravity beyond her years and as an actress I found myself continually aware of a certain technical expertise, how well she was playing what during much of this shoot must have seemed totally illogical. With the exception of the final confrontation there really isn’t a big show stopper in all this which is maybe a little too episodic by a certain point, but beats stay with me through their imagination and ingenuity--the hands that grab her as Sarah falls down a hole, the choice between the two doors, the path across the Bog of Eternal Stench which does exactly what you think it will to anyone who falls in (Hey! That’s cute Jennifer Connelly you’re messing with! Don’t be mean!). As well as the various musical interludes both from Bowie’s Jareth and the marionette-styled Fire Gang each of which begin so slyly that it’s as if the movie has decided to be a musical without actually saying so. David Bowie singing with goblins really is pretty awesome and I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten “Magic Dance” or the end credits version of “Underground” out of my head and I don’t mind one bit. There’s also how Jareth tries to distract Sarah as she moves through the labyrinth in ways that represent the paths her life could take if she doesn’t take some form of responsibility for her brother, and also for herself, possibly culminating in the reveries of the masquerade ball where Sarah, dressed as the sort of princess she probably dreams of being, encounters Jareth and faces the possibility of getting lost in these fantasies, not yet knowing how to reconcile them with responsibility.
Paired up with Sarah for much of her journey is the dwarf Hoggle (performed by Shari Weiser with the voice of Brian Henson), maybe someone with less self esteem than any creature ever seen in a fantasy film, always conflicted in his allegiance and clearly having no idea how to handle this girl who’s actually being nice, as if he can’t imagine why someone would want to be friends with him. I can’t help it, I just feel sorry for the guy—hell, I probably identify with him more than I want to admit—and his dilemma plays as more affecting every time I see the film. Much as I may like the beast Ludo and the gallant Sir Didymus, as well as a few of the other characters who turn up to aid Sarah, they don’t really stick in the memory as much as the film would probably like (to say they don’t measure up to the friends Dorothy Gale makes in Oz is probably the most unfair comparison of all time) and I don’t even know if someone who says that the gentleness of LABYRINTH might be a little too benign is necessarily wrong—you can almost feel Henson pulling back from some Monty Python-styled anarchy that Terry Jones might conceivably have tried to work into the construction of certain scenes. The film is also episodic to the point that I never feel like I need to see the whole thing in one sitting and as much its said how there’s a ticking clock for Sarah there never seems to be all that much jeopardy which could be kind of the point anyway—as much as she worries about how scared Toby might be when he’s with the goblins he’s having much more fun than he was with her. Even the tone isn’t entirely consistent considering the overly manic nature of the final battle which probably could have been cut down by half. But her final confrontation with Jareth in his castle among the M.C. Escher-styled steps going every which way is effective enough on its own, given the extra layer of Bowie singing “Within You” serving as a reminder of where all these myths and fantasies Sarah has to learn how to confront are really coming from.
Up against Connelly, who is probably better than anyone else then or now would be, is David Bowie who is basically David Bowie, often playing his mild bemusement as willingly testing Sarah more than any sort of evil which he really isn’t and he’s maybe a presence more than anything else, with the various songs he sings, that wig and, well, those pants with a considerable bulge that’s more than noticeable (I really want to know, did anybody say something while watching dailies?) playing as more memorable than much of his performance. But maybe that’s the way it should be since he’s not really supposed to be a form of evil Sarah needs to vanquish--her final choice is set up in the film’s first moments as something she not only needs to remember but also fully understand the meaning of (“You have no power over me…”). The way the crucial moment plays out may be a little too abrupt and unsatisfying but it’s not a dealbreaker considering how charming much of the film really is. The final moment also sort of discards any bittersweet feelings in favor of a more conventional happy ending but it’s all a fantasy anyway and I always love how that closing version of “Underground” kicks in so I really don’t mind it. LABYRINTH could never be made today, at least not the way it is. Not only is it too gentle in tone with a decided lack of crassness it seems completely defiant in not trying to explain itself. It’s essentially a dream film but that doesn’t disregard what happens in it. What she goes through makes the character of Sarah into the person she’s eventually going to become.
Directing his final film before his tragic death in 1990, Henson’s style may be a little too casual and yet he constantly seems willing to allow his audience to discover certain things within his frame beginning with that opening shot which doesn’t reveal where we are right away on their own. The intelligence inherent in what he’s at least trying to get across makes it such a shame that we never got to find out what else Henson would have had to offer the world in films or otherwise. I can see how some might look at the film as maybe a little too ‘nice’ because of that style and maybe leaves part of what the film is supposed to mean somewhat hanging. Does Sarah want to be her mother? Does she want to get out of this small town? Who is Jareth really supposed to represent to her? Will she eventually grow up and start going out with much older men who resemble him? Sadly, we will never know the answer to these questions, but I have a feeling she grows into someone resembling certain girls I’ve known, ones I never really had a chance with. Maybe I get more out of this movie than I ever realized before now. Whether my nieces would as well, I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll find out. Maybe I’ll be left to enjoy LABYRINTH on my own. For now, “Magic Dance” just started up again so I think I’ll sing along. Like those goblins, sometimes I can’t help myself.