Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Hero's Journey: What's really going on in the Labyrinth (part 2)

So, supernatural entities have been invoked and provoked, and our heroine is off on a dream quest to restore her baby brother to his rightful home.

And, speaking in generalities, Labyrinth is a dream quest in the fine old style. Inhabitants must be befriended, puzzles solved, fears overcome. What's more - as so many have pointed out - Sarah's journey takes place through an echo of her childhood room, through the country of her unconscious mind. The baby's cry becomes a call to her, and she journeys towards it and – the makers of the film would have us believe – responsibility.

But the implications of what is happening here are much more subtle, more interesting that that. We are not simply dealing with a dream landscape, we are dealing with the territory of childhood turned against its rightful ruler. A dark force is in Sarah's imagination, controlling it, manipulating her through it, and at every turn, Sarah forces it back, with courage, with kindness, with ingenuity.
This should really be a picture of the party at the end.

Still, so far, so Hero's Journey. It brings her right to the centre of the Labyrinth, where she faces her shadow and speaks those immortal words, “You have no power over me.” The malevolent force is banished, and she can return, as she does, to the real world. 

But to leave it there would be to forget the magical puppet party where the heroes and villains get together to throw confetti and be friendly. I'd always been bothered by that, felt it was a cop out. Felt that she somehow got both worlds, that she turned down magic, but still got to play with it. Then I thought about it properly, thought about what it means: she's safe getting down with the Fire Gang, Ludo can party with his ex-tormenters. What it means is that this isn't hostile country any more, that she isn't dealing with enemies. What that means is that Sarah's imagination is hers to control. That she is the queen of all this, like she always should have been. She's in charge now - not that rat who calls himself Jareth.

Come on, that's a brilliant prize. And she deserves it.

Still, if this were all it were, then the makers of the film would be right. A coming of age story, a powerful one, a beautiful one, but nothing particularly special. A girl grows up and overcomes the dark side of her imagination. Yes, she takes control, and by implication, learns to be less selfish, accepts her role as a surrogate mother. But I said this story was special, and two things make it so: the first is Bowie's performance as Jareth (more of that later), the second is a sequence that occurs just before the final confrontation.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Forget about the baby: What's really going on in the Labyrinth.

Reading G.K Chesterton's frankly biazarre introduction of The Man who Was Thursday, I came to the realisation that I'm not much of one for slavish deference to an authorial purpose in any story-form.

It's all very well for Chesterton to insist that his work is not an allegory when the text states, with all the subtlety of a bill-hook to the throat, that it is. Likewise, Mr Lewis can declaim to the heavens that his work is purely allegorical and nothing else, but... well, we'll let the text bear its own witness to that1. A text is an artefact which is mediated by many viewpoints. Of course the author's conscious intention, their decision of where to focus, what to show, guides the narrative and the reader along its path, but...

None of us exist in a vacuum. Culture, tradition, unconscious thoughts, will shape a story as much as a writer's intention. And when a narrative artefact – like a folk-song, like a screenplay - is passed through many, many hands which shape, change affect before it even reaches its audience, then, oh, then, we can get something really special.

So, a little while back, the brilliant i09 published a link to a rather ingenuous piece of back-engineering  which tried to lay to rest the sheer WTF the viewer is left with after watching that absolutely superb film, Labyrinth.

Now, before we go any further I should probably come clean about my credentials as one of those women. You know the ones, the kind who owe their sexual awakening to staring rapt at David Bowie prancing about in eye-liner, a fright wig and eyewateringly tight tights. So when I talk about Labyrinth, I have a tendency to.... um....
Er... sorry.

Where was I?


Anyway, that article is followed in the comments by a bunch of (weighs word choices) sticklers who insist that we already knew what Labyrinth was about, that any good geek would, at some point, would have plugged into google 'wait – what the hell. What was actually happening there?' and come up with a nice neat little explanation2.

If you want that explanation, here you go: Labyrinth is a partial adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There. It's about how Sarah has to get over her resentment of her little step-brother and start treating him properly. The breakdown of the film plot is:
  1. Sarah's actress mother abandons her to live a life of romance with a beautiful actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Mr Bowie.
  2. Devastated by this abandonment, she retreats into a fantasy world, idolising her absent mother, romanticising her affair. In the meantime, she gets involved with drama at school, being cast in a play called 'The Labyrinth' where a beautiful princess has to rescue her step-brother from the realm of the Goblin King. While doing this, she develops a crush on her drama teacher who also has a striking likeness to a particular famous musician actor with the most amazing eyes....
  3.  .... sorry. You lost me again.
  4. The Goblin King – who actually exists and is in love with Sarah – wants this child for some specific reason that is VITALLY IMPORTANT TO THE PLOT, goddammit!3
  5. Sarah is rehearsing the play in the park and having trouble remembering the last line.
  6. Dragged away from rehearsals AGAIN, Sarah fights with her stepmother, is left to babysit. Discovering one of her toys has been nicked and the baby will not stop crying, she imitates the play and summons the Goblin King to take her brother away..
  7. Enter David Bowie in a big cloak and much glitter. Terms of a mystical contest are struck.
  8. Sarah navigates the Labyrinth, befriends the Goblins and, despite dangers, trickery and discouragement, ***spoilers*** rescues the baby using the lines from the play that she had trouble remembering. Before she does so the Goblin King confesses his love and offers her an eternity of magic.
  9. Who would not want this child?
    She arrives back home, gives the baby the toy he stole earlier, packs away her Princess music box and takes down the press clippings of her mother from around the mirror. This, it is clear, is all behind her now.
  10. However, Sarah is not quite ready to leave behind all the 'good' bits of her imagination. All the goodies and baddies from the Labyrinth, minus the Goblin King, have a big party in Sarah's room.
  11. Baby Toby is safe.... however, the Goblin King will return to seize this baby that he wants SO MUCH.

Now, this makes a lovely, neat little morality tale. It's all about, oh, growing up, taking responsibility and not bargaining away your younger siblings to morally dubious supernatural entities just because they've been borrowing your teddy bears. As an explanation, however, it falls short, mostly because almost none of it's in the fucking film in the first place. It's all very well for Chesterton to exclaim, “I called it The Man who was Thursday: A NIGHTMARE! It's not supposed to be taken as anything more than that!” because, well, credit where it's due, that is actually the bloody title, but to try and control the interpretation of a film based upon stuff that isn't actually in the film? Oh, go and read some Barthes.

What makes this worse is that Labyrinth, against the film maker's best intentions, against their stated desire to tell a certain story in a certain way, Labyrinth, I tell you, persisted in being one of those white-hot, cultural-narrative, finger-on-the-pulse, don't-step-too-close-or-it-will-burn-you, vital bloody stories of which we do not have enough. Labyrinth is a story about a young woman discovering her sexuality but – again, again, oh be still my beating heart – from the inside. We see it through the young woman's flesh, the young woman's eyes. We feel the male gaze, the judging, older female gaze which tells us what we should be - “Go back to your room and play with your toys,” “You should be having dates at your age”, and we feel it scald our as-yet-untouched-skin.

And, of course, again, it is white, cis, middle class, heteronormative femininity. It isn't for everyone, it isn't inclusive, but damn it, when even the most privileged of women have to make do a scant handful of stories that show us as we actually are, they they too precious, too fucking scarce not to be celebrated. So, let's get this clear Labyrinth is a woman's story, and as one woman to anyone who's listening: Toby is the King of all McGuffins.