Friday, December 10, 2010

Distant Relatives: The Spirit of the Beehive and Pan's Labyrinth

Robert here, with my new series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.

√Črase una vez...

There was a young girl in the civil war-torn Spainish country, very alone in the world, her mother hung up with a new lover, all she had was the flights of often frightening fantasy brought on by amazing tales.  It is surprising the similarities between Victor Erice's 1973 Spirit of the Beehive and Guillermo Del Toro's 2006 Pan's Labyrinth.  Both have young raven-haired girls as protagonists.  Both take place in the same decade in the same country and ask how their protagonists can comprehend and cope with the danger and unrest of their very similar situations.  And in that, they are not surprising.  Artists have been musing at the inner lives of children in trouble since, well, forever.

Playing at death
Culturally we romanticize the lives of children.  We think back on a time devoid of responsibilities and filled with play and forget that the darkness we've come to accept as adults was still there and far more confusing to us, conflicting with the lessons our young selves are taught about a world made of order, not chaos. Because of this, childrens' lives are actually filled with more fear than adults.  But we selectively forget to include this in our nostalgia.  For both Beehive's Ana and Labyrinth's Ofelia, the fear presents itself in the form of civil war and rebellion, encounters with soldiers, good or bad, death an every day possibility.

Dangerous Fantasy

Neither Erice nor Del Toro are interested in happy, fluffy fairy tales.  Neither young girl escapes into a world of joy.  Ana's search for the Frankenstein monster, who she knows to be a child killer, and Ofelia's quest to prove her royalty by accomplishing a series of dangerous tasks, including encountering a child killing monster too, demonstrate how the dark imaginations of children can reflect their dark emotions and provide them with a route to comprehend their worlds in a way where they have some control over the outcome (whether that be doing something as bold as saving an infant or simple as bringing a coat to a soldier.)

Tales about the intersection of fantasy and reality are commonly interpreted as metaphors about the effect of cinema on our lives.  In the case of Ana, who is obsessing over a classic film, the connection is direct, no metaphor needed.  For Ofelia, her escapes serve as fine examples of the scary, visceral and otherworldly realities that fine horror and fantasy films (something about which Guillermo Del Toro knows a bit) can transport us too.  In both cases, they transport us far from our normal lives while providing a new emotional understanding of them.

But is it real?

As is sure to become a frequent theme in this series, the primary noticeable difference between our two films is one of degrees of intensity.  The Spirit of the Beehive is the more subtle one this time, with Ana encountering just one strange creature, but Ofelia an entire world.  Furthermore the violence in Spirit of the Beehive is always off camera where Pan's Labyrinth is rife with cringe worthy moments.  Does that mean that modern audiences demand more blood or at least less nuance?  Not necessarily, or at least not in this case.  With extreme violence more common in films these days than in the early 70's, Del Toro is using a tool at his disposal and finding a new breaking point for our discomfort.  Pan's Labyrinth may not be as violent as some modern horror films, but the contrast between the bloodshed and evil of the real world and the innocence and strangeness of Ofelia's world is effective.  Victor Erice takes the opposite approach, utilizing what we don't see and playing up to what we fear we may see to induce in us a response.  When the Frankenstein monster finally arrives, the moment is that much more grand because we're finally allowed into Ana's imagination.

More than just fantasy
One other difference between the films is Del Toro's insistence that the events of Pan's Labyrinth aren't fantasy at all but are, instead actually happening.  While it's possible that Erice means for us to really believe that Ana meets Frankenstein, it's most likely just her perception (though it is fun to read the film as if it's actually happening).  Yet it doesn't matter whether it's actually happening or not in the cases of Ana or Ofelia.  The reality of these films' worlds are defined by their heroes' perceptions, and we know that what we're seeing is true to that.  Considering the undercurrent symbolism of the effect of cinema, we know that we have ourselves to define what we're seeing, whether it's real or not, it's still happening to us.  And these things were indeed happening to Ana and Ofelia, two dark children in the darkest of times.


Andrew R. said...

Del Toro's favorite movie is Spirit of the Beehive. It's what inspired him in the making of Pan.

Pan's Labyrinth, on a side note, is a film that blew me away on first viewing. It's my #2 movie of 2006.

Ruth said...

Pan's Labyrinth is one of favourite movies - period! Mesmerised. I love this blog, it gives me so many films to go check out!

Ryan said...
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Anonymous said...

Hah true! Interesting post : -) DelToro has propably seen Beehive loads of times though.

Robert said...

Andrew- thanks for the insight. I hadn't heard that but obviously it makes sense. So I guess this week it should be called "Direct Relatives."

Volvagia said...

Yeah, they mentioned that on Beehive's Empire List entry. Love both of them. Beehive is hypnotic, while Pan's is more creepy.

Muhabbet.Tr said...

It's a very intresting post. It's one of my Favourite Movies.