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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

This week at SFC: Pan's Labyrinth

Thursday March 22nd - 8:15 pm come early to see an interview with the director

PAN'S LABYRINTH (Guillermo del Toro/Mexico/2006/112')

Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece is an extraordinary collision of exotic fantasy and down-to-earth reality that seamlessly blends themes of personal and political import. Set in war-torn 1944, the narrative finds young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) escaping the brutal realities of Franco's Spain by venturing into a labyrinthine underworld of fauns and fairies. Here she is hailed as a lost princess who must accomplish a series of increasingly surreal tasks to prove her true identity. Encounters with giant toads and terrifyingly beautiful monsters ensue, most memorably in the skeletal shape of the flesh-eating 'pale man' who wears eyeballs in his palms like scary staring stigmata. Meanwhile, above ground, the anti-fascist resistance continues to do battle with Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), Ofelia's sadistic stepfather in whose dark shadow she now dwells.
Part war film, part fairytale fable, del Toro's Bafta- and Oscar-winning gem gets better with each viewing. While owing a clear debt to Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, the film's primary visual influences come from artists as diverse as Goya and Rackham. 'Prestigious musicians are afraid of melody,' observes del Toro astutely, 'just as painters are afraid of being figurative.'

A dark fairy tale ... Pan's Labyrinth by Mark Kermode (This is an edited version of an article from the December issue of Sight and Sound)

'Pain should not be sought - but it should never be avoided'

For sheer imaginative brio, Pan's Labyrinth is one of the films of the year. But the dark fable was a labour of love for director Guillermo del Toro, who says that violence in his native Mexico is key to his extraordinary vision

For those with a weakness for the beautiful monsters of modern cinema, Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro has earned a deserved reputation as the finest living exponent of fabulist film. Gregarious and personable, with an almost photographic recall of faces, he has charmed both the hardcore horror fans, who gave him a hero's welcome at London's Frightfest in August, and now the upmarket critical cognoscenti, who snapped to attention following his Palme d'Or nomination for his new film Pan's Labyrinth at Cannes in May.
Set against the backdrop of fascist Spain in 1944, Pan's Labyrinth is a dark fairy tale that distils his distinctive mix of fact and fantasy, poetry and politics, pain and pleasure. It's an epic, poetic vision in which the grim realities of war are matched and mirrored by a descent into an underworld populated by fearsomely beautiful monsters - a transformative, life-affirming nightmare which is, for my money, the very best film of the year.
Since the early 1990s, del Toro has divided his film-making between personal European projects (the modern vampiric chiller Cronos in 1993; the ghostly Spanish Civil War fable The Devil's Backbone in 2001) and big-budget Hollywood hits (ongoing comic-book franchises Blade II in 2002, and Hellboy in 2004). Those familiar with the guilty ghosts of The Devil's Backbone will recognise key motifs in his new fable, about a young girl's exploration of a labyrinthine underworld in Franco-era Spain.
The young heroine of Pan's Labyrinth is Ofelia, whose widowed mother, Carmen, has recently married Vidal, a vicious captain in Spain's Civil Guard, involved in policing anti-fascist Maquis resistance in the mountainous wooded northern region. Vidal's housekeeper, Mercedes, befriends Ofelia, protecting her from her stepfather's wrath while maintaining secretive connections with the Maquis. Meanwhile, Ofelia meets an alarmingly devious faun who suggests that she may be the lost princess of a beautiful and terrifying netherworld. While Mercedes attempts to help the Maquis in their struggles, Ofelia embarks on a quest that will test her true nature.
This quest involves a journey through a labyrinth, a word with which the Civil War has become intrinsically linked (think of key historical accounts such as Gerald Brenan's The Spanish Labyrinth) and which served as the 'perfect metaphor' for del Toro's endeavours.
'A maze is a place where you get lost,' he explains. 'But a labyrinth is essentially a place of transit, an ethical, moral transit to one inevitable centre. You think of the transit of Spanish society from the 1940s to the incredible explosion of the post-Franco period. The 1980s in Spain were like the 1960s in the rest of the world! In the movie, Ofelia is a "princess who forgot who she was and where she came from", who progresses through the labyrinth to emerge as a promise that gives children the chance never to know the name of their father - the fascist. It's a parable, just as The Devil's Backbone was a parable of the Spanish Civil War.
'I was also trying to uncover a common thread between the "real world" and the "imaginary world"through one of the seminal concerns of fairy tales: choice. It's something that has intrigued me since Cronos, through Hellboy and now to Pan's Labyrinth: the way your choices define you. And I thought it would be great to counterpoint an institutional lack of choice, which is fascism, with the chance to choose, which the girl takes in this movie.'
Del Toro's faun is just one of the film's menagerie of fantastical creatures and monsters, drawn from sources that range from Goya's paintings to Clive Barker's Books of Blood. Amazingly for a film that features around 300 effects shots and boasts complex creature designs, Pan's Labyrinth was completed for a mere £10m, a feat del Toro attributes to the lessons learnt on Blade II and Hellboy ('I love to play with the big toys... and to learn from them'). As always, the director sketched each character in the notebooks that are his constant companions, extraordinary documents of his mind at work and his obsessive attention to detail. Here we find the original drawings for the 'vegetable baby' which Ofelia places beneath her mother's bed, nurtured with milk and magic, and the terrifying 'pale man' whose ire she arouses by stealing from his table.
'I wanted to represent political power within the creatures,' del Toro says. 'And that particular character somehow came to represent the church and the devouring of children. The original design was just an old man who seemed to have lost a lot of weight and was covered in loose skin. Then I removed the face, so it became part of the personality of the institution. But then, what to do about the eyes? So I decided to place stigmata on the hands and shove the eyes into the stigmata. Having done that, I thought it would be great to make the fingers like peacock feathers that fluff and open. That's how that figure evolved.
'The faun proved more difficult. The idea was to make him very masculine, not aggressively so, just sinuous. I remember talking to Doug Jones [who plays both the faun and the pale man] when he first started working on the role and saying, "More Mick Jagger, less David Bowie!" I wanted the faun to have a rock star quality. Everything about the faun and his personality needed to be masculine because you had to pit the female energy of the girl against something monolithic.'
In essence, del Toro is a divided soul, a realist attuned to the strange vibrations of the supernatural, a lapsed Catholic ('not quite the same thing as an atheist') with an interest in sacrifice and redemption who turned down the chance to direct The Chronicles of Narnia because he 'wasn't interested in the lion resurrecting'. Crucially, like the artistic refugees from Franco's Spain who first inspired him, the writer-director considers himself an exile from his home country, Mexico, not least because of the 1997 kidnapping of his father, at the height of a vogue for such ransomed abductions. He was released after 72 days.
'I was 33,' el Toro recalls. 'The perfect age to be crucified! I had lived my life believing two things - that pain should not be sought, but, by the same token, it should never be avoided, because there is a lesson in facing adversity. Having gone through that experience, I can attest, in a non-masochistic way, that pain is a great teacher. I don't relish it, but I learn from it. I always say, even as an ex-Catholic, that God sends the letter, but not the dictionary. You need to forge your own dictionary.'
This willingness to confront pain and to forge his own cinematic dictionary has informed the blend of innocence and brutality that is a trademark of del Toro's phantasmagorical cinema. From the crushing addiction of Cronos, whose ageing anti-hero is reduced to licking blood from the tiled floor of a public lavatory, to the redemptive fantasy of Hellboy, whose titular demon takes an industrial grinder to the horns on his head in a bid to take control of his destiny, del Toro has returned compulsively to these twinned themes. Now in Pan's Labyrinth, which he wrote, directed and produced, he has created a Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema, a masterpiece made entirely on his own terms.
Del Toro is working within the same tradition of cinematic horror that spawned A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven's seminal reinvention of the 'classic dark fairytale', in which Freddy Krueger emerged as an 1980s incarnation of the Big Bad Wolf. 'I think that really is one of the best fairytales of any decade, because Craven understands the roots of those myths,' says del Toro. Pan's Labyrinth is being promoted in America with a classic horror tagline: 'Innocence has a power that evil cannot imagine'.
That power is also self-generating. 'Pan's Labyrinth is a movie about a girl who gives birth to herself into the world she believes in,' del Toro continues. 'At that moment, it doesn't matter if her body lives or dies. And this is something I have experienced. I remember the worst experience of my life, even above the kidnapping of my father, was shooting Mimic [del Toro's first Hollywood feature, in 1997, which was severely compromised by producer interference]. Because what was happening to me and the movie was far more illogical than kidnapping, which is brutal, but at least there are rules. Now when I look at Mimic, what I see is the pain of a deeply flawed creature that could have been so beautiful.'
Pain and beauty, brutality and innocence - once again, del Toro's conversation finds a way back to the central duality of death and rebirth. 'Those things are one and the same,' he says. 'It would be a cliche to say that, because I am a Mexican, I see death in a certain way. But I have seen more than my share of corpses, certainly more than the average First World guy. I worked for months next to a morgue that I had to go through to get to work. I've seen people being shot; I've had guns put to my head; I've seen people burnt alive, stabbed, decapitated ... because Mexico is still a very violent place. So I do think that some of that element in my films comes from a Mexican sensibility.'
Like the heroine of Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro's career now seems to be at a point of rebirth and regeneration. 'Hopefully, this movie will allow me to start a new path,' he says. 'The way I see my craft, and the way I see the stories I tell, has completely changed as a result of this movie. Shooting Pan's Labyrinth was very painful, but it also became a war about me not compromising.
'I gave back my entire salary in order to get the film made the way I wanted it. I probably should have abandoned it the moment the funding fell through the first time, but I stuck with it for almost two-and-a-half years and refused to back down. It's the first time in the six movies I've directed where I've said: I'm doing this one my way, no matter what.
'Financiers ran out on me and everyone involved in my career was saying it was the biggest mistake I could make. But I'm very happy with the result. And for me, nothing will be the same again.'

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

This week at SFC: Wassup Rockers and End of the Century

Our screenings are free and all are welcome.

Thursday March 8th

WASSUP ROCKERS (Larry Clark/2006/USA/99’) 8:15 pm

+ End of the Century - The Story of the Ramones (2005/Jim Fields&Michael Gramaglia/USA/) 7:30 pm

From the controversial director of Kids, Bully and Ken Park comes a new film about the collision of skateboarding, sex, violence, racism and punk rock on the streets of South Central LA.
Wassup Rockers is a blend of gritty documentary realism and stylish urban drama from acclaimed film-maker Larry Clark. The film follows a pack of teenage Latino misfits who run into trouble when they leave the comfort zone of their tough neighbourhood and roll into unfamiliar territory.
As with his earlier efforts, Clark recruited genuine South Central teens for this portrait of the raw energy of skate culture.

You could think of Larry Clark's "Wassup Rockers" as "Ferris Velasquez's Day Off." In Los Angeles, a group of Latino friends, all about 14, spend a very long day traveling from their homes in South Central to Beverly Hills and back home again, and although they are light-hearted and looking for fun, they don't have Ferris Bueller's good luck. The movie evokes the sense of time unfolding thoughtlessly for kids who have no idea what could happen next.
Clark usually makes movies about teenagers and has a rapport with them that's privileged or creepy, depending on your point of view. His first film was the powerful "Kids" (1995), which launched the acting careers of four first-timers: Rosario Dawson, Chloe Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick and Justin Pierce, and the writer-director Harmony Korine. "Bully" (2001) saw how a group dynamic works to drive teenagers toward a murder none of them would have done alone. "Ken Park" (2002) was bold in its frankness about teenage sexuality; a success at Telluride, it was never released commercially in the United States, not because of its content but because, Clark says, a producer never cleared the music rights.
Now comes "Wassup Rockers," containing one and probably two deaths, a lot of tension between Latinos and African Americans, and run-ins with cops and home owners. Perhaps because we hardly meet the first boy who dies and the second is shot offscreen, the movie is not as fraught as it could have been, and indeed is Clark's least harrowing work.
The heroes are mostly of Salvadoran descent, although they are routinely mistaken for Mexican Americans. They come from a poor district; one kid's mother is apparently a lap dancer. But Clark's characters do not carry guns, steal, use drugs or smoke (anything). At 14 years old, you're thinking, let's hope not -- but Clark's subject is often how children get into sex, drugs and violence when they are way too young. These kids don't set out looking for trouble, although it finds them.
The movie opens with a monologue by Jonathan (Jonathan Velasquez), who tells us about his friends; he separates each statement with the phrase "and then ..." He's the one the others look up to, and we meet Kico (Francisco Pedrasa); Spermball (Milton Velasquez), who keeps asking everyone to call him Milton, not Spermball; Porky (Usvaldo Panameno), and two girls, Iris (Iris Zelaya), Jonathan's girlfriend, and Rosalia (Ashley Maldonado), who wants to be everybody's girlfriend.
They have a band, which plays very loudly, and they hang around and tell stories on one another (one kid tried to commit suicide, not very seriously, by drowning himself in the sink). Kico "borrows" a car, and they head in the direction of Beverly Hills High School, but are stopped by cops on bikes. Since they have no license or ID, they abandon the car, but they've made it to Beverly Hills, and now they practice skateboard jumping on the steps of the high school. Having seen countless skateboarding scenes in the movies, I appreciated Clark's realism: They fall or crash, again and again and again, trying to get a trick right.
They meet two rich 90210 girls, Jade (Laura Cellner) and Nikki (Jessica Steinbaum), one of whom gives them her address: "Come over any time." They do. Clark has a good feel for how there is no particular tension between these young teens of different race and class. They're curious and talk openly about their differences. But when the Latinos have to leave suddenly, they begin a tour of upper-class backyards in the hills above Sunset; in one, there's a party going on, and the host is a gay man who tells Jonathan, "You'd be a good model." In another, there's a gun owner who shoots one of them and arranges with the cops to "keep it quiet."
With police looking for them, they're taken in by a rich and drunken woman, whose maid looks out for them while the drunk gives one a bath and is obviously interested in what could happen next, once he's cleaned up.
The long journey home is by bus, rapid transit and foot, and they are tired and scared. The fate of their friend who was shot is left unclear, although he was obviously hit and perhaps killed. The home streets of South Central are not welcoming to them because the black kids are not friendly. But in the world of a Larry Clark film, they've gotten off relatively easy. Despite its horrors, this is his most easygoing movie, in large part because the young actors are at ease, like one another and live with delight.
Clark was an honored photographer before getting into movies in his early 50s. The only subject he feels any passion for is, obviously, the private lives of teenagers. Does that make him a pervert? Look at it this way. Hollywood has a cottage industry in Dead Teenager Movies, all devising formulas in which the young characters die in sudden and colorful ways. Clark listens to them and takes them seriously. His films may be the only truthful ones about some aspects of American adolescence, however we might wish that were not so. "Wassup Rockers," for better and worse, is about lives that might actually be lived.

End of the Century - The Story of the Ramones (2005/Jim Fields&Michael Gramaglia/USA/150’)
In 1974, the New York City music scene was shocked into consciousness by the violently new and raw sound of a band of misfits from Queens, called The Ramones. Playing in a seedy Bowery bar to a small group of fellow struggling musicians, the band struck a chord of disharmony that rocked the foundation of the mid-'70s music scene. This quartet of unlikely rock stars traveled across the country and around the world connecting with the disenfranchised everywhere, while sparking a movement that would resonate with two generations of outcasts across the globe. Although the band never reached the top of the Billboard charts, it managed to endure by maintaining a rigorous touring schedule for 22 years.