Sunday, August 13, 2017

Into the Labyrinth...

I've watched Labyrinth, the Jim Henson film starring David Bowie as the immortal Jareth the Goblin King, exactly three times, and each time I've gotten something a little different from it. And yes, it's one of *those* films that are on my list of "movies that stuck with me".

Pictures: IMDB
I first watched the film when it released here in South Africa on the big screen, which would have been about six months to a year after its foreign release (thank you, apartheid-era government for the sanctions that meant we were perpetually behind everything happening elsewhere in the world). It would have been around 1987 (Labyrinth having released in 1986 in the US and elsewhere). Which meant I was nine or thereabouts, that deliciously awkward age when you're not a little kiddo anymore but you're not quite a preteen yet, and you're only just figuring out that you don't quite fit in anywhere.

I identified with Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), and Jareth scared the ever-loving crap out of me. For various reasons—that I'll go into. At the time, the SFX and puppetry was the top of its game for the film industry. Directors had to work around the limitations of technology, which in my mind led to some brilliant solutions (despite crappy blue screens). And there was an artistry to the film, and attention to detail with the sets that you rarely see with fantasy films these day (okay, maybe LotR et al). But there would be no convincing fire-breathing dragons, if you get my drift... A lot is suggested, left up to the imagination, or requires you to suspend disbelief when looking at a puppet and *not* thinking about the person behind (or inside) it making it come alive. Sets look like they've been set up on stage, and somehow the lack of realism didn't bother me as much back then as it kinda does now. (Horribly spoilt by CGI, I know.) Yet the artistry is undeniable, even if there is glitter EVERYWHERE.

Fast forward ten years... And I watched the film again, this time at the height of my gothness, with my then gothboy. And Labyrinth just fell flat. Okay, the what-the-fuckery of the musical interludes had dated horribly, and truth be told, the film would have been much stronger if some scenes had simply been cut (like those red, head-tossing, badly blue-screened puppets in the swamp). And I mean those tight pants. That left nothing to the imagination. And the bits that jiggled. Just as mesmerising and cringe-worthy as the first time I watched the film. What. The. Fuck. David Bowie.

When I was 19, I lost the ability to love the film. For me back then it was a steaming pile of what-the-fuckery. Also, I admit freely that I took myself waaay too seriously. After all, I had an image to uphold and MY GOD the 80s hairstyles, music... Too much.

I watched the film now, at the not-so-tender age of 39. Okay, I see what just happened. But I smiled, I laughed, and indulged.

Labyrinth has been on my mind a lot. A while back I read this article, which kinda stuck with me. Why is it that despite its glorious what-the-fuckery, this film has remained one that I can say with all honesty is part of my childhood? A film that I will often mention as being important, along with dreadful yet fabulous creations like Highlander, The Crow, Ladyhawke, and The Neverending Story, that I will reminisce about often. What does this film say about me and my particular world view? Is it that the context of the film is also important?

I admit that I'm busy writing a fic that's a crossover with another fandom I love, so I have particular reasons for revisiting Labyrinth. I even bought the 30-year anniversary novelisation of the film. (It's an okay read so far – not brilliant but fair.) I really feel like I need to wrap my head around the core themes and lore, because they're important (to me) on a meta level, if I'm going to cut to the quick of all my pondering.

The first thing that struck me with the rewatch was the awkward nature of the May/December relationship between 15-year-old Sarah and the ageless yet not-quite-young Jareth, who gives me the impression of ancient power that's stagnant, decaying even compared to the flush of Sarah's youth and her possible limitless potential. The sexual tension between the two is implied, never realised (this is kinda a children's film after all). Even at age nine I was aware of this dynamic between the two, especially the taboo nature of the possibility of the thing that is implied. That in itself was frightening. And somehow something to be anticipated too in my own future. This was especially clear later when Sarah finds herself immersed in a masked ball, garbed in a rather bridal white gown and she has her dance with Jareth. Near the end, though she has had help from her friends to reach the castle, she is clear that facing Jareth is something she needs to do on her own.

We need to admit that yes, teens are on the cusp of adulthood, so they will be confronting that change from childhood to adulthood. There is something altogether predatory about Jareth, yet at the same time Sarah *does* offer us a realisation of her own incipient feminine power. There is a shift in power happening here.

Yet there's another subtext to the film that, when viewed in the light of current norms, is decidedly *uncomfortable* – let's talk about that peach. My first thought was of the Wicked Queen offering Snow White that poison apple. In a similar fashion, the peach Jareth offers Sarah renders her insensible; she is diverted from her mission to rescue her baby brother Toby (even though it is her fault he was taken in the first place) and is horribly distracted by that decadent masked ball where she has her dance with Jareth. Cinderella much? A peach can symbolise many things, but some of the more common ones in Western mythology would be purity, innocence and yes, virginity. Later, when Sarah examines the peach after she's bitten into it, she finds that its heart is rotten and filled with worms. Yet a peach is also a symbol of the heart, and thereby desire. Jareth distracts Sarah by offering her what she *thinks* she desires. When she breaks from the spell of the masked ball, she's in a rubble heap where the inhabitants try to weigh her down with her past—the items she thinks may be important to her.

The common theme in the labyrinth is that nothing should be taken for granted; nothing is what it seems (think the Cleaners in the tunnels, that are all scary blades from the front but are revealed to be a mechanism powered by goblins from behind, or the fearsome gate guardian at the Goblin City which is just a giant mech powered by a little goblin in a cockpit that is easily overthrown once his identity is uncovered). The beauty Jareth offers hides a rotten core, and partaking of what he gives sickens one, draws you from your path. It's a wee bit like popping roofies into your date's drink too... Though I think this last was *possibly* not Jim Henson's intention, and it makes more sense that he's referencing the Snow White story.

But I'll echo here what was said over on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog when they have a pull quote from the film's dialogue:

"Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for *you*! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?…I ask for so little. Just fear me. Love me. Do as I ask, and I shall be your slave."

Jareth grants desires, and it's typical of faerie lore: Beware of what you ask. There is an interchange of power happening when Jareth takes on the aspects of Sarah's fears and desires, and the dance between the two (yes, I think the image of a masked ball was entirely intentional) is a subtle interplay of their coming together as polar opposites. Jareth is Sarah's animus. That's if we're going to get all Jungian. He exists because of her and for her in order to facilitate her own individuation. Okay. Enough big words.

I often feel that the animus is a useful way to explain our perennial fascination with the bad boy in literature, film and games. The anti-hero, villain, bad-boy protagonist all represent the wilder parts of ourselves that we wish to redeem, to assimilate into ourselves. They exist on the outskirts and are not afraid to push boundaries, to do the things that we fear, and for that we both love and loathe for they challenge our status quo. Fear and fascination often go hand in hand.

Picture: Pixabay
Our relationship with fear is important. It keeps us from being too comfortable. Jareth offers Sarah a glimpse into a world where her wildest fantasy—that there is some Goblin King who will shake the foundations of her world and grant her deepest desires exists. And, like many stories where wishes are granted, we don't always think these desires through. We don't always consider the outcomes of our wishes.

Toby is a responsibility that is laid on Sarah. She resents her brother, but she clearly loves the little interloper. Which older sibling hasn't felt that a younger brother or sister hasn't diminished the love and resources a parent lavishes on their offspring? She has to face the truth that she needs to become independent, which isn't an easy transition to make.

Another thought...

It's no accident either that Jareth transforms into an owl, a bird often associated with ill omen. Yet sometimes also with with wisdom, of a being that can see at night. It is both harbinger of doom and guardian in the deepest night. And in that, I think it's a perfect choice for our Goblin King. I'm also reminded of Rothbart, the evil sorcerer in the ballet Swan Lake, who transforms into an owl. It's also no surprise that when Sarah eventually comes into her own, Jareth is the one rendered powerless, and returns to his bird form. (You have no power over me.)

Sarah often cries out about how things are not fair, and as an older viewer, I can look at her situation and understand her confusion. She's not quite a child anymore, yet she is increasingly saddled with grown-up responsibilities, which she resents. Part of her journey through Jareth's labyrinth is accepting that burden (she insists on facing Jareth on her own, and rightly so). She is a lovely protagonist, in that we see her change, grow into herself. This change is perfectly represented by her attitude when she returns after defeating Jareth. Not only does she give Toby the bear Lancelot, a toy that she cherished so much and was the McGuffin that sparked her initial, ill-considered wish to have the Goblin King take that child away from her, but she packs away the artefacts of her past that were holding her back (the pictures of her absent mother, the music box, toys). She is ready to be the young woman she has grown into.

And yet, when she glances at her reflection in the mirror, and sees the friends she has made along the way (Ludo, Hoggle, Sir Didymus). She can see them in the mirror (illusion) but when she turns to look into her bedroom, they are not there. They are saying goodbye (yet another allusion to the end of childhood). In many stories, this would be it, the end of that make-believe, magical world of childhood and the sincerity of the friendships that are formed then. But instead of making the final cut, Sarah does not let go of that sense of wonder. She will grow up, but unlike many adults, she holds onto the magic of her youth. And that, my friends, is a lesson we can all learn.

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