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.

Think about what I'm offering you: your dreams.

An assumption which I would like to shoot down right now is that Sarah treats her baby brother badly. Sarah is fifteen years old and, once again, she is stuck at home with a kid (“We'll be back around midnight”). Okay, perhaps it's hyperbole when she says, “You go out every weekend” but her stepmother doesn't deny that she isn't even asked any longer because, “you'd tell us if you had a date.” 

Now, this dismissal of complaint is backed up by an implication that she is failing in her femininity: “I'd like it if you had a date. You should be having dates at your age.” But what is Sarah doing instead of getting groped on the backseat of a bus, or trading hickeys in a cinema? She is in a park, dressed as a questing Princess, acting out the story from a book.

Basically, me at 13.
Remove the 'fact' that she's rehearsing for the school play (not in the film) and I fucking love this girl. I think of myself at thirteen, practising parries and thursts with my broadsword against foes that didn't exist because what sort of teenage girl wants to be a swordfighter? I remember me at fourteen, brushing my hair in front of a mirror and whispering Beatrice's best put-downs, or else Titania's high-dudgeon and wishing I was facing down the man I loved with all my heart but to whom I would not surrender...

Damn it, she's not just still immersed in make-believe, she's immersed in kick-arse make believe.

Cannot promise I haven't done this.
So, she's dragged away from that, and she's told it's unimportant. Then, she is thrown into sole care of a screaming baby. At this point, anyone who thinks Sarah's actions are a beyond the pale4 has clearly never been in charge of a baby who won't stop screaming when they seriously want to be thinking about something else. If you weren't already aware of the fact: motherhood = hard fucking work and Toby isn't even her kid. So, she loses her temper, yes. She is, perhaps, a little mean. All things considered, though, her actions are entirely reasonable.

Still, however harmless her intentions, enter David Bowie.

And this is where it gets interesting. Read More

1Perhaps another day.
2Which, rather amusingly, has vanished under that much more entertaining explanation in the Google listings. Muahahah.
3 No. I have no idea. Very convenient it's specifically Sarah's little brother he wants, though, isn't it?
4Especially as a) it is not her child and b) she doesn't think anything is going to happen....

1 comment:

  1. I think I was already older and more jaded when I first watched Labyrinth, so I didn't really appreciate much of it. Also, David Bowie in tight pants doesn't really do it for me. But this was educational nonetheless.