I'm only really familiar with the big-budget, low-brainwave subset of Guillermo Del Toro's work, like Hellboy and Blade, so I was pretty shocked by the beautiful, challenging ideas presented in Pan's Labyrinth, his praise-winning film currently in the theaters. I was expecting a dark fairy-tale, something like The Dark Crystal or The Neverending Story... hells no. Pan's Labyrinth is a visceral political horror movie with a fairy tale theme. It hit an alarming minor note in me, vibrating between beautiful and nauseating, partly because I don't watch many horror movies.
And for the same reason, I'm prompted to ask: why do we watch things like this? In particular, the mutilation themes, the torture, the facial trauma... is it truly the product of a desensitized, obsessive society? Is this what it takes to entertain us?
I'm not willing to go that far, or sound that much like an old academic curmudgeon. As much as it gives a shock to our systems and keeps us engaged, movie violence isn't just a plea for attention... in the hands of the best directors, it's also part of the statement. This doesn't justify depravity, hatred, or misbehavior, but it puts the whole arrangement - the artistic vision and the entertainment value - into perspective, bringing meaning to the pure spectacle.
Take, foremost, the work of David Cronenberg, another horror director. The gruesome scenes in Pan's Labyrinth (especially the torture and the facial mutilation) reminded me of the visuals in Cronenberg's work, and as a director whose work has come under criticism (in every sense of the word), Cronenberg serves as a meaningful point of departure for a discussion of meaning. For a head start on this blog entry, read Cronenberg's Wikipedia entry.
The Wikipeople call Cronenberg's work "body horror," which makes a lot of sense. Across a whole variety of genres, his films show sudden, jarring scenes of bodily mutilation and the sickening effects of the violence he portrays. This stuff is NOT to make people excited... it's to bring a sense of immediate, visceral reality to the violence that's rendered nonthreatening in so much of cinema. In most action movies, gunfights end with an extra lying on the ground with a red spot on his/her shirt. In A History of Violence, the gunfights end in shattered faces and trauma-induced seizures. It's not just target practice.
As the criticism suggests, Cronenberg is dealing with real themes here, in particular the themes of penetration, invasion, and the psychological issues of physical integrity. His visuals remind us that physical violence is painful and disturbing, and that we don't want to get caught on either end of a gun (whether to have our heads blown up, or to become part of the weapons we wield). Is this desensitizing, or is it, in a sense, resensitizing in a society where the violence of physical trauma is packaged for general consumption?
Pan's Labyrinth is dealing with a cross-section of the same themes - the psychological implications of torture, violence, birth, and escapism - and if we look at Cronenberg as a director who shows the reality of horror, then del Toro is a director who has shown us the horror of reality. In Pan's Labyrinth, there's a Cronenbergian depiction of violence, but it's placed in contrast with a strange, physically indeterminate fantasy world where Ofelia goes to fulfill her personal destiny.
It's striking, in fact, that a majority of the violence in Pan's Labyrinth takes place in the real world, rather than in the fairy-tale world where the faun dominates. The notable exception is the Pale Man, who Guillermo says represents the violence of faceless institutions like the church. But where the alternate dimension includes faeries, bugs, giant reversible frogs, and a shuffling mythological creature, the "real" world is chock-full of torture, obstetric complications, and execution by shooting (at least four) and stabbing (one, very viciously, and one unsuccessfully).
Why do we watch this shit? And why, in general, is death and brutality such an important part of the fairy-tale mindset?
If we're to take del Toro's own ideas at face value, and perhaps extend them a little further, then we start to see: it's to show that there's a world of real, intense, and unbearable violence (as per Cronenberg), and that in this world, innocence may be impossible, but it's the only virtue worth preserving.
For some more interesting information on Guillermo del Toro, check out this explanation of his themes, and this review of Pan's Labyrinth by Christianity Today.