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.

Up until this point, as mentioned, Sarah's quest has been very much standard heroic fare. Monsters have been overcome, problems solved, allies won. But then Hoggle, whose loyalty she is supposed to have won, betrays her. She eats a poisoned peach and is whisked away into a dream within her dream.
Suddenly not a kid any more.

Now, it is possible to read the ball scene as wish fulfilment, as that moment that 'every' little girl desires when she is Cinderella at the ball, wooed by her charming Prince. After this temptation comes a vision of normality: you can hide here, you can pretend you never left, just don't open the door... But in both cases, Sarah resists the lures to make her forget, avoids slipping into the comforting dream and stays, steadfast and resolute on her quest.

The adult female gaze
But that's not how I see this. Up to this point, everything Sarah has seen has been defined by children's puzzles, children's wisdom: it isn't fair, don't judge on appearances, look before you leap, one of us always tells the truth.... The villains are bullying, squabbling goblins – grotesques, gluttons, leaping puppets who try to pull your head off.The heroes prize honesty, honour, friendship. The currency is cheap, plastic charms.

But betrayal of this kind is not part of the 'script'. In the set up of a fairy-tale, those you meet are either treacherous or benevolent, Mystical helpers, animal companions should be counted upon to help, to guide. Once 'won' by Sarah's friendship Hoggle should throw the peach away. Instead, he is too complex, too adult a
That is a very interesting nose you're stroking there.
character, and - with his betrayal - Sarah is thrown beyond the bounds of the hero's journey. Here, the antagonists are transformed, become lush, sensuous women, lecherous, priapic men. The sense of the grotesque is still here, but it is no longer childish caricature.Yes, they wear goblin masks, but the croaking, burping puppets are replaced with knowing glances, sexual jokes.

What's happening here? What's happened to Sarah, tomboyish and intrepid? How is she alone, without her talismans, her comforts, her certainties? If this is every girl's dream, why is our heroine afraid?

I think we all know what's about to poke out of that box.
This scene, this feverish, beautiful scene captures a moment every dreamy, half-reluctant tomboy must have hit on one, gorgeous, terrible night early in adolescence. That night when all those problematic dreams and thoughts and whispers of romance, when all those fairy-tales and innocent games coalesced into the evening when someone told you that you needed to scrub up for something, and you traded your jeans for some sort of frock and suddenly... bam. There you were, not a kid any more, not part of the brigade who got to hide under the tables with a book. There you were, a young woman who had to hear, for the first time, jovially threatening sexual innuendo, who had to watch herself measured, feel herself watched. This is not just the male gaze, it is the adult gaze, men and women viewing you in terms of a sexual potential which you yourself do not yet fully understand.

That is clearly a filthy joke
And, because this time, it isn't quite real, because this is a dream.... he is here, the one that the lights dim around, the one that is the focus of every damned conversation you've had in the last twelve months, the one who frightens you so goddamned much because this is his world, because he understands the jokes, because he swanks through this room as though all those adoring glances, those lecherous remarks make him stronger, brighter still.

Yes, here he is, your dream-prince, and you know at once that he can see it, too, that sudden promise, that not-a-little-girl-any-more... Suddenly your skin is on fire because he is standing before you, a bejwelled floozy hanging on each arm, his eyes measuring you, his hand reaching out to take you into this adult world. Because, yes, he is knowing and beautiful and he wants you as much as you want him. Yes, so he takes your hand  and you...

Freak the fuck out and throw a chair through a wall because you aren't ready to deal with that yet.

What is going wage for a bejewelled floozy, anyway?
Frightened, overcome, back, back, back you plunge, landing, thump, into your childhood room. And here are all the things you held so dear, the things you clung to when all that adulthood got too much – look, your teddy bears and your copy of The Silver Chair, your cutsie-pie slippers and your craft kits, because “You never wanted to throw that out, did you now, hmmm?”

But what is this stuff, when it comes down to it? How does this have the power to kill the sour taste of that first brush with your own sexuality. You are too old for this now, so what do you shout? “Junk. It's all junk.”

And you take the plunge, back in the realm of childhood fantasy, and suddenly, it's easy. Suddenly you aren't worrying about logic puzzles or bogs of eternal stench. The things you've gained on your journey, the real things... they stand by you. When it comes to it, it's amazingly easy to take a fictional citadel by storm.
So you get to face your shadow, at long, long last...

But Jareth isn't only a shadow, is he?

Read More

(The first part of this article can be found here)

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