Film Club / Progressively More Sophisticated Imaginative Responses to Personal and Political Trauma

Pan's LabyrinthPan’s Labyrinth
Directed by Guillermo del Toro

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Brain Teeth

I’ve only seen Pan’s Labyrinth once and I didn’t think it was very good. I’m struggling to remember the plot – something about a little girl and a General and there’s Pan at the bottom of some spiral staircases or something. Oh and of course the creature with eyes in his hands. Yes. Very good.

My overriding image of the whole thing was that it was like a Terry Gillham film if you took away all of the joy, creativity, imagination and mischief. Maybe that’s a little harsh but then I think about Guillermo del Toro and wonder if maybe it’s not harsh enough? I mean – have you seen this guy’s filmography?

Cronos (1993) Mimic (1997) The Devil’s Backbone (2001) Blade II (2002) Hellboy (2004) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) Pacific Rim (2013) Crimson Peak (2015) The Shape of Water (2017)

Ok. So I haven’t seen Mimic, Crimson Peak or The Shape of Water but the rest I’m pretty sure I have seen seen altho then again maybe not – because I can’t really remember a single thing about them. Cronos has a scene in a bathroom or something? And the gold beetle vampire machine that does…. something? The Devil’s Backbone had the unexploded bomb which looked kinda cool and I think someone had sex with an older woman or something? Blade II had Wesley Snipes. The Hellboy films had something with punching and smoking cigars? And Pacific Rim had Idris Elba giving an Independence Day style speech that felt like it was nowhere near cool / cheesy / stirring enough… I think it ended with the line “we are cancelling the apocalypse?” which yeah is just lame (sorry Idris). I mean: how the hell do you make giant robots battling giant monster boring? Well – Guillermo found a way.

Like: at the risk of getting too personal: what the hell is the point of his films anyway? Is there an overall point of view that he’s exploring that ties all his stuff together? Spielberg has his father issues. Scorsese has troubled masculinity. Tarantino has the magic of movies and the magic of feet. And del Toro has what? A loose fascination with monsters? Altho it’s not really monsters in terms of what the represent (secret buried fears in the dark heart of mankind etc) but more just – oh yeah – monsters look kinda cool?

In fact to try to say something nice – I basically think del Toro just had the misfortune of ending up in the wrong place. His product design is always very on point and he does know how to create a memorable looking monster costume but erm… that’s about it. It seems like he doesn’t really know how to craft a scene, create a moment or tell a story. It’s like all his films are demo reels to show what kinda special effects he can do and what his pictures look like when someone is wearing them and apart from that then yeah well – what’s the point? It’s like all his films are kinda like late Tim Burton: but hell Tim Burton had a pretty good run once upon a time you know? Guillermo del Toro’s high watermark is Pan’s Labyrinth. And like I said – I can’t even remember what it’s about.

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Ten years ago I decided that this would be my film of the decade (because I was a person that had to have a film of the decade), and this is what I wrote then:

Pan’s Labyrinth sets up two parallel avenues of interpretation, the secular and the fantastic, and keeps them open throughout the film. In using this structure, the film explores the link between a frightened girl’s imagined fairy tales, and the origin of religion. Del Toro’s lapsed Catholicism is all over Ofelia’s return to her father’s golden kingdom. The paternal God, the maternal Mary, the sacrificed child. And below, the goat-legged tempter (though the faun is more of a Old Testament Satan — not a malevolent devil, but a good-natured trickster). The film shows how these bedtime stories, myths, fables, grow out of a real historical setting. It celebrates the transformative power of our imagination.

But it does more than that. Ofelia performs her secret missions in a Spain torn apart by civil war. The two sides are drawn with a fitting childlike fairy-tale simplicity — the ruling, oppressive, bloodthirsty fascists, and the downtrodden, selfless, brave socialists. Anti-authoritarianism is the film’s most obvious and powerful theme. Even religious authority is suspect — the village priest shares Captain Vidal’s table. In mirroring Ofelia’s trials with the struggles of the resistance, Del Toro is stressing that all authority is a work of imagination. It is a lie that comforts us, but is ultimately a pretext for oppression. Our imaginings are seductive and dangerous. They can imprison people. Pan’s Labyrinth draws up a manifesto for a new anti-authoritarian imaginative project, where everyone is free to build a religion of their own.

Having watched the film again I think all of that stands up, although now I’m now less inclined to keep these two avenues of interpretation in equal balance, and that makes it a darker film than the one I watched when I was a teenager. Because Ofelia is also trapped by her own imaginative universe, and while its morality hinges on resistance rather than conformity, ultimately it dooms her to an early death and a sacrifice that is only meaningful to her. And now I wonder whether that’s worth it.

For Del Toro the monsters are real (he’s always on team monster), and the Captain’s inability to see them is just another facet of his villainy. He has Saruman’s mind of metal and wheels, and Del Toro always frames him in the mill with a giant cog in the background to underline that fact. But does Ofelia actually rescue her brother from his clutches, or does she actually put him in danger? Her fantasies may provide escape and purpose but they may also endanger those around her, not only herself. And if the heavenly kingdom she sees seconds before her death is merely a comforting illusion, how much value does it really have, if those illusions led to her death in the first place?

Perhaps the portals that she opens to other worlds are her true legacy. Her purpose isn’t just salvation, eternal life and the recreation of a loving family, but the example of self-sacrifice and resistance to unaccountable authority which is her story and that of the film. Del Toro is encouraging us to meet our own monsters and shape our own religious and imaginative lives, rather than buy into the existing myths we find around us. Ofelia’s achievement isn’t found within the film but in the challenge her example sets to her audience. Del Toro may not have fully understood the ramifications of his work (and everything else he has made seems to support that conclusion), but it is to his infinite credit that he leaves these interpretations open so that we have our own personal conversation with the film.

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Watching Pan’s Labyrinth I thought to myself that if the world was a fair place then it would won a whole truckload of Oscars: Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Everything.

This is not because I believe that the Oscars are good or a mark of quality. Far from it. As far as I understand cinema as being something that is alive and beautiful and a source of joy, excitement and intelligence and making sense of this crazy miraculous thing called “Life” – well yeah The Oscars is the opposite of that. In fact let me go further: I think Art of all strips is about helping you to understand that the world is a vast and strange and complex place where easy answers are far away and everything is wrapped up in shades of grey. I mean – yeah sure you can watch Citizen Kane and be like: “oh right it was his sled” but if you take the time you can find almost infinite layers of nuance and subtlety. Was Kane a bad guy? Shit. I don’t know. He just kinda seems like a human being to me. And you know that’s a big part of what makes it such a good film.

You kinda typical serious mainstream movie for adults (as best exemplified by The Oscars – which is why I mention them) isn’t about nuance and subtlety tho. Instead they’re kinda kids films for adults: where the moral message is spelled out in canyon and the bad guys all dressed in black and walking around followed by the sounds of The Imperial March (I jest – but not by much).

I mean yeah self-sacrifice and resistance to unaccountable authority is obviously a good thing. But it’s pretty close to just saying “Bad things are bad” you know? And I really don’t need to watch a whole movie if that’s all it’s got to say.

Capitán Vidal: You could have obeyed me!

Doctor: But Captain, to obey – just like that – for obedience’s sake… without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.


Is it just a coincidence that The Doctor looks so much like Toby Ziegler? Or is that just me?

If questioning is such a virtue then Pan’s Labyrinth is surely on the side of the angels please throughout the whole movie I was constantly questioning why I was even watching it and what kind of culture we must be living in where stuff like this is held up as the high water mark. I mean personally I think that questioning is actually pretty important stuff (this is why doing Philosophy turns people left-wing ha) but the cognitive dissonance is a bit much from a film which is so completely incurious about – well – everything. Normally you’d expect a movie that was half fantasy and half real (sorry I mean – the “two parallel avenues of interpretation”) to take more care to delineate between the two but del Toro seemed to have decided to cover the real world in various shades of blue and then just leave it at that. I’ve honestly seen cartoons that have demonstrated more sophistication and humanity than anything this film manages to pull off. Capitán Vidal would have been better placed as the bad guy in a Disney movie. (Starts to sing: “My face!” Candles join in: “His face! His face! His face!”)

Re: The Captain’s inability to see the monsters is “just another facet of his villainy.” But I think that’s a stretch too far. I mean Ofelia’s poor doomed mother is also pretty anti-magic. I think it’s just a grown-up thing?

Some more questioning: erm I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that films are supposed to have… drama? Why is it then that the whole film is so completely and utterly dramatically inert? Like the emotional climax is Pan asking Ofelia to stick a knife in his baby brother. This is 100% yawn worthy. I mean yes maybe it’s possible that I’m just hanging out with the wrong people – but I don’t know anyone that would want to stick a knife in their (just born) baby brother. That’s pretty much the basic basis of morality right there. I’m struggling to think of a better example but honestly nothing really comes to mind. Asking a character to do something that no one would ever possibly do and then making a big deal out of the fact that they did the right thing seems completely strange to me (and I definitely wouldn’t call it a “sacrifice” when all she really does is erm – get shot in the back?). Aren’t most stories about making the hard choices? It would be like if the end of Sophie’s Choice was Sophie having to either decide to keep both her children or let them both die. I don’t know if you need to be told this – but that would be a pretty boring movie.


And lord don’t get me started on her eating the grapes. That’s basically the point where I completely checked out of the movie. If you’re going to have a character do a stupid thing then you could at least spend a bit more effort in establishing the reasons why? As opposed to: oh yeah right. She has to do the thing now so the other thing can happen.

I watched the film last weekend and already all trace of it has pretty much evaporated from my mind. I’m guessing this is because all of it is so rote and dull and lacking in anything: but maybe I should be thankful? I mean: last night I watched Body Snatchers (1993) for some sort of dumb and stupid reason which is a hell of a crappy film. But at least it had Forest Whitaker doing some top notch acting and a climatic scene where a 8 year old gets thrown out of a helicopter and screams on the way down. What do you remember from Pan’s Labyrinth apart from the dude with the eyes in his hands?

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I was gonna do a whole bit about fascism but that will have to wait because I wanna talk about how this film sells its self as Artificial Eye meets Lovecraft and Hieronymus Bosch. I am not the only person crying out for fantasy filmmakers who actually are fantastical; who imagine whole new worlds and bring them to life; who give stories to monsters. I don’t even know what the Tannhauser Gate is but for some reason I want to see some C-Beams twinkling near that bad boy.

I remember going to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and thinking “right so the whole point of Alice in Wonderland is that it’s a crazy unpredictable world where nothing makes sense, and if anyone can deliver that to the cinema screen it’s Tim Burton.” But of course it was not to be and all we got was Disney’s Alice in Wonderland by Tim Burton, a film that was weird for all the wrong reasons, like there actually being a Jabberwock Alice fights with an actual sword? Well how original.

Similarly with Doctor Strange, the opening sequence hints at the possibilities of multidimensional superhero leave magic, the dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! but then the plot basically retreads Iron Man, and except for a couple of sequences it feels like every other Marvel movie (although the cape was cool).

And this is the thing: Both those films are weirder and more crazy than Pan’s Labyrinth! A film that has somehow gained the reputation of creating an impossible dreamworld because it’s juxtaposed against a really dry film about a Spanish village during the war. Actually it’s not fair to call it dry because the characters are all well rounded and the bad guy is a real dickhead, like even the other Nazis think he’s a bit of a prick, but besides his prickishness there is not much story going on and so you feel it’s filler between the fantasy stuff, which is sadly under-explored.

I wondered if this tentativeness might because at that time this idea was still quite bold, but even if you take just the selection of films we’ve looked at in the film club -The King of Comedy, Fight Club, Total Recall, and arguably the Shining – while magic realism (or whatever it is) might be a new spin, going mad to escape a tedious reality is pretty hackneyed as a theme.


Consistently Del Toro’s downfall, from Hellboy to Shape of Water, is not the production design but his “let’s get it over and done with” approach to storytelling which only exists to serve the lavish production design. Once the action slows down the energy and inventiveness drain away pretty quickly as one note characters do exactly what’s expected of them. The biggest miss is the simple plot point that the main character is in league with the devil. This is the sort of thing a film could revel in (OK so Devil’s Advocate did this and was weird, but what about Drop Dead Fred or the Cat in the Hat?) OK, a better example is a setup in series 2 of Babylon’s (yes I know I know, and your Spaced quotes mean nothing to me) where it’s merely suggested that one of the other characters is being accompanied by evil immortal beings who advise him, and even the suggestion of this this sets off a ramifications for the rest of the show. Just the idea that someone is an emissary of the gods, or may unwittingly open the gates of hell is the sort of twist that should have been the jackpot for Pan’s Labyrinth, instead it’s just a weird McGuffin, hastily added much like the niche 90s references in this article.

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Will risk repeating myself in restating the argument that the film’s message is more than just anti-authoritarianism (as per Joel) or madness as an escape from a tedious reality (as per Jonanthan), and therefore it’s unfair to describe it as crayon-inscribed (as per Joel) or hackneyed (as per Jonathan). The film’s thesis is that fairy tales, religions, and perhaps political philosophies as well are all progressively more sophisticated imaginative responses to personal and political trauma, and that people have the agency to bend these pre-existing stories to their own uses. Anti-authoritarianism is just a normative inflection on that more fundamental observation – the film taking the side of those characters who resist rather than those who conform (although as I mentioned before to not always straightforward results). Perhaps all that might feel tired if you were reading Angela Carter in the 1970s, but a message of such specificity is arguably difficult to find in the rest of cinema, and it’s what makes this a unique film.

Thankfully only Joel is incorrect to describe the Captain’s character as cartoonish. In fact Del Toro cannot resist adding little asides in the film that add intriguing facets to his villainy. There’s the awkward exchange at the dinner table where he weaponises his wife’s lower class origins to silence her – reflecting a prim bourgeois obsession with keeping up appearances as well as an adherance to strict class divides which may be a hallmark of fascism. An actual gentleman wouldn’t be this rude – and perhaps the Captain’s background isn’t particularly refined, and his fundamental embarrasment about that is what spurs his social climbing.

More intriguing is The Captain’s secretive emulation of his father, and the building up of a myth around him about the glorious hour of his death. A desire for the approval of a father figure is something that The Captain shares with Ofelia. But for the latter this is experienced as a lack, and her actual rolemodels are women – her mother’s resigned collaboration and Mercedes’s revolutionary intrigues. On the other hand, The Captain’s father’s example is always imanent, and the pressure that creates is revealed in another little aside where the Captain is shaving and slits his own throat in the mirror. That action can be read in any number of ways, one of which is that his self-loathing is grounded in the impossibility of living up to his father’s (and his own) legend. The Captain’s tragedy is that he doesn’t have the imaginative freedom to rebel against the story that has been told about his life (his masculinity, his class, his job, his politics…) His father is an Old Testament God that hands out impossible commandments, with psychologically shattering results. Ofelia’s God allows his children the free will to stray from the path and eat the forbidden fruit, and forgives their trespasses so long as they are willing to put others before themselves.

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Brain Teeth

I’m grateful to Ilia for taking the time to so eloquently explain the thesis of Pan’s Labyrinth but I’m sad to report that it doesn’t really make the slightest difference to my assessment of the movie being about as appetizing as a bread sandwich made with lots of shitty bread.

I’ve pretty much manage to scrub every single trace of The Dark Knight Rises from each individual one of my brain cells but I seem to be recall (in much the same way that’s happening with Joker at the moment actually) lots of talk about what the moral message of the movie was – was Bane a defense of Capitalism or was really a secret member of Occupy? What did it mean when Catwoman whispered in Bruce Wayne’s ear that there was a storm coming? Was Batman breaking his back a metaphor for the weight of expectations? What was the film’s attitude to the police? Why did they have that bit in the stock exchange? Was the Scarecrow cameo a reference to Dickens? etc etc and so on and so on.

The obvious problem with all of this speculation is that it really doesn’t really matter in the slightest because as everyone knows The Dark Knight Rises is such a goddamn holy mess that trying to watch it from beginning to end is slightly less enjoyable than just smacking yourself in the head with a brick. Which is to say: there is a minimal distance that a film needs to clear in terms of being entertaining and pleasurable to watch before you start to concern yourself with questions of “what does it all mean?” Like: if we imagine a film as being like a person – you can only really start to begin to be interested and curious about someone’s ideas if they pass the through the hoops of being a nice normal person that knows how to behave in polite company. And it I meet someone that’s wearing a tie without wearing a shirt, has chicken bones in their hair and is going to the toilet while they’re still wearing their trousers then I’m not really going to be bothered to sit around and listen to their views about – say – sophisticated imaginative responses to personal and political trauma… If they’re not smart enough to construct a story that has stakes, tension and drama then they do not pass Go and they do not collect £200 and I don’t care enough to pay attention. Because well – isn’t that what a film is all about first-and-foremost? A construction that’s been designed in order to make us care and pay attention? Not being able to make a movie that does those things is like making a car that doesn’t know how to drive or making a plane that won’t go into the sky.


I do think it’s interesting hearing Ilia’s take on things tho. And of course it’s very reminiscent of our conversation over Jennifer’s Body (that I wished I had joined in more with) but yeah it seems like there is a major difference in how we’re seeing these things. Like I don’t disagree that you can see these higher meanings in the film if you want to – but I don’t think that these films have passed their basic qualifications (as if it were) to be able to earn their proper place at the table.

I mean oh my god – that whole thing with the grapes. It’s just – silly.

And maybe we’re talking different language here. I don’t quite understand how in reply to my complaint about the Captain being too much of a bad guy caricature for a mid 90s Disney movie – the response is to go: ah yes – but here’s another eviiiiiiiil thing he does (??). I don’t think anyone is that evil all the time. I mean – if nothing else it sounds way too exhausting. Who has the energy you know?

Would it really have been too much to show him petting a dog or something? I dunno.

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It’s easy to see why film makers use fascists as the default stand-in for bad guys. While WW1 was politically messy, there is definitely a working majority for the view that the Axis Powers, and the Nazis in particular, were the baddies in WW2. They were afterall racist murderers bent on world domination and had to be stopped by [checks notes] the British Empire, the USA, and Russia. It’s very fortunate for narrative expediency that none of these countries had any history of racism, murder or genocide.

22 countries

But while murdering communists and specific races is a definitely a preoccupation of fascists, it feels like Del Toro could have had a stronger message. He’s an artist, famous for his unique style and lack of compromise who has struggled (to some extent) in the face of the Hollywood homogeneity machine. Pan’s Labyrinth could have been about how a little girl with a vivid imagination will always be on the wrong side of the social gardeners who want everyone in the right place, who want neatness and conformity and obedience. This wouldn’t even be that groundbreaking a plot line: One of the most loathed film fascists is Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest for example, but in a way which is more subtle than just shooting people out of hand. Yes she is clearly evil, but she is theoretically a good person, “helping” people with mental health issues. Her problem is not just out and out revolutionaries but the slightest deviant behaviour, as she cheerfully crushes the spirits of her charges, in the name of being normal. In some ways a more terrifying fascism is that which rather than hating different people, seems then as animals to be trained. [nathan fillion quote]

But perhaps subtlety is over-rated or too dominant and sometimes you just need to set things up. The film is afterall unashamedly melodramatic and it’s trying really hard to move you on an emotional journey. It’s hard to know whether this would have paid off because for better or worse magic being involved in the film means the stakes are automatically lowered. Sure there’s a poignant moment where the girl joins her mum and dad in heaven but it would have been also rewarding if she had returned as a nazi murdering ghost, or if the guy with the eyes in his hands has appeared at the last minute to drag the bad guy to hell. It’s not just that the audience don’t feel the threat, but that Del Toro doesn’t seem that worried himself, and so the film fails to express or inspire the righteous outrage one would be expected to feel at the cold hearted murder of an innocent child.

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I read a review of Fahrenheit 451 which said Truffaut failed to capture the horror of a world without books because you could the impression he didn’t really care about them in the same way he would if it had been a world without film. Because Del Toro isn’t really that worried about fascism other than as an avatar for bad people, you just don’t feel it compared to say the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds and so the world gets set to rights, the balance is less rewarding. Stephen Spielberg expressed regret for using Nazi’s in Indiana Jones but at least he got to fry their faces off. Del Toro’s payback is something about a ticking watch, and so I was just left feeling like I was supposed to care rather than actually caring, which is my summary of the whole movie really.

The Gap between Panels
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Will have to go through these bad takes one by one.

First of all Joel’s suggestion that I haven’t dispelled the notion that the Captain is a caricature because I list a bunch of other bad things he’s done. To which I’d argue that there are other ways of adding depth to a character than mixing in a bit of white to the black and getting a satisfying shade of grey, not least because filing character traits into two columns marked good and bad is in itself quite a simplistic approach to character development. I mean you could point to certain aspects of the Captain’s character which would prima facie be seen as positive traits – he’s courageous, intelligent, tidy, has excellent attention to detail… An alternative strategy is to illuminate some of the things that might have shaped his villainy, because ultimately what makes a rounded character isn’t that they appreciate music as well as torturing people, but a sense of the forces that have shaped them into who they are. To use the awful phrase of political journalists: the Captain has a hinterland. You can find it if you want to look for it.

Next this bizarre claim from Jonathan:

it feels like Del Toro could have had a stronger message … Pan’s Labyrinth could have been about how a little girl with a vivid imagination will always be on the wrong side of the social gardeners who want everyone in the right place, who want neatness and conformity and obedience.

All of that stuff is in Pan’s Labyrinth. Even the idea that people are animals to be trained can be encompassed within the film’s portrayal of fascism, where following orders is seen as an end in itself. What I’ve been trying to show is that the weight of the film’s message isn’t placed on its anti-authoritarianism, but on all that magic business which Jonahthan feels lowers the film’s stakes.

And this finally is the hardest thing to argue against. Because to say that “Del Toro doesn’t seem that worried himself” about the death of Ofelia seems crazy to me, but that’s because I take the dual interpretations of the film more seriously than perhaps even Del Toro does. It’s truer to say that Jonathan is less worried – which to his credit he admits at the end. To Joel’s point that the film lacks “stakes, tension and drama”, the ultimate comeback is that I’m not lying to you when I say that for me the film has all of these things. I guess the interesting thing to do here is unpick the personal preferences that underly these contrasting reactions, rather than elevate them into absolutes.

And here Jonathan’s example of Inglorious Basterds is illuminating – because in contrast to Jonathan I did not “feel it” in the opening scene of that film. I didn’t care then and I didn’t care at the end when Hitler’s face melted with bullets in a very Raiders of the Lost Ark way. Perhaps that’s because I was suspicious of Tarantino’s attempt to elevate the wish-fulfillment in his film to some kind of grand statement about how Hollywood and art and stories can get its own back at the evils of the 20th century. I thought that was a stupid suggestion that camouflages the b-movie glee of having faces melt off bad guys into something palatable to a quote unquote discerning audience. But perhaps I didn’t even feel the glee of it, maybe because for me Basterds is a shonkily put together film that lacks the “stakes, tension and drama” that Joel elevates to being the primary purpose of cinema.

It’s telling that I find that point to be arguable. Some films may be effective without tension and drama (why else do I sit through Antonioni?) so perhaps for me the threshold for these things is lower, and Pan’s Labyrinth clears it comfortably. I mean, on the rewatch I thought it was striking how tight and quick the film is paced given it has to cover Ofelia’s three magical trials alongside the battle of wills between The Captain and Mercedes, which is pretty much the polar opposite reaction to Joel’s. Perhaps the magic stuff gets in the way for some people, but for me the drama isn’t who wins the physical war between the good communists and the bad fascists, but the spiritual war between imagination and authority.

I’ll presume to suggest that that’s what Del Toro is actually worried about. The conflict in the film is about stories, and who gets to tell them. The Captain wants his story to live on after his death, and the victory comes when we are told that he does not get his wish. His watch is rendered meaningless, instead the film is about Ofelia’s story, her struggle with the monster in the Labyrinth, and the rebellious example she sets that opens portals into our world.

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Brain Teeth

I am a pain to be around in social situations it’s true. Especially when it comes to movies.

There have been so many times that people have rolled their eyes and quietly sighed when after watching something I’ve been all like: “What did you think about it?” “Did you like it?” “Which was your favourite bit?” and then always that: “Why?” As I’ve been told many times: sometimes people just want to watch something and they don’t want to be thinking about all of the reasons you know? And sometimes you reach the cut off point which goes something like: “Well you know – sometimes people just like different things and that’s all there is to it.”

The thing with that kinda line of thought is that it’s never really enough for me. I always want to go further. And deeper. And sink my teeth into the root of things.

The issue with that of course if that maybe there’s a point where language runs out and it’s not actually possible to talk about these things because we don’t have the words? I agree completely with Ilia that Jonathan’s example of Inglorious Basterds is illuminating – although not because of what Jonathan says but because of what Ilia says about it. Namely this thing of him “not feeling it.” I mean I read that and I was kinda… stunned? That scene is like upper echelons of cinema for me just in terms of what a film can do and how it can make you feel. Like I’m very far from being a Tarantino fanboy (dare I say that Pulp Fiction is a little… boring?) but everything about that scene from the swooping crane shot at the start (there is a swooping crane shot at the start right?) to Hans introduction, to the way that Denis Ménochet handles things, to that crazy pipe and the way that the tension just goes up and up and up and up and then just explodes is basically just everything that I want films to be. And yeah you can analysis afterwards and see how it speaks to notions of power or guilt or whatever – but it’s just a cool thing. In fact – even more than that: it’s an experience that makes you feel things. How much does the farmer know? How much does the Jew Hunter know? Will the farmer manage to get away? Or will Christoph Waltz eat him whole with that big cartoon-fox style grin?


And well yeah just to be completely obvious (you know this already) there is absolutely nothing in Pan’s Labyrinth that comes close to that kind of excitement and tension and sheer pulse-pounding thrills. You know – stakes, tension and drama. All that good stuff.

But is there a way to get deeper with this stuff. I mean I’m very aware that all I’m really doing with all this stuff is saying: The. Opening Scene. Of. Inglorious Basterds. Is. Good. AND HOW DARE ANYONE SAY ANYTHING OTHER THAT? I’m curious tho if Ilia can say when he doesn’t like it. Or wait even better: why he doesn’t feel it.

And you know: going further – I think the secret lie of film criticism is that critics will watch a film with their special critical film critics hats on and then use their special skills and all of the books and reviews they’ve read to spit out a considered and informed critical opinion that everyone else can read in order to understand the world and the world of films better. But for me that’s all kinda the wrong way round. Like: when I watch a film – the feelings always come first (how could they not?). I watch the film and it kinda hits in a certain way (The opening scene of Inglorious Basterds hits me square in the chest and every scene in Pan’s Labyrinth is basically a miss) and then after that – it’s like being a detective at a crime scene looking at my responses quickly going cool and trying to work out exactly what happened. I mean watching the scene with the grapes and the man-with-his-eyes-in-his-hands-guy I was like: well this is shit and boring and then the struggle afterwards is to try and work out well – the reasons why.


Because well yeah obviously Ilia is a smart, intelligent and considered guy (whoops maybe now I’m being too schmaltzy ha) so it’s not a failure of thought that’s taking us to different places and although I admit that it would be extremely wonderful if I could type some stuff here and then Ilia sends a response that says “Oh. Of course. Now I see how wrong I was. Pan’s Labyrinth is indeed a shitty film. And I hereby renounce it forever and shall cast Del Toro and all his works into the Pit of Bad Movies. Screw that guy” or whatever: but it’s not going to happen.

But then still I wonder what it is that anyone sees in this movie. Ha. I mean yeah yeah yeah I get that you can write a treatise about it and talk about the power of imagination or whatever: but that doesn’t seem like nearly enough. Or in other words: if you’re not watching a film for the stakes, tension and drama and all that good stuff then what are you watching it for? I mean: all the clever stuff that is being claimed on behalf of the movie – like: why not read an article instead? It would save time – no?


Also: I wonder how much of a difference in our responses comes from the films we’ve seen before. Like: in terms of thinking of counterfactuals – I wish I could recut the movie and construct a version that was way more exciting and cool and interesting (re: the whole “Perhaps the magic stuff gets in the way for some people.” I mean no. If anything the opposite is true. Pan’s Labyrinth if anything is a film that is solely in the need for much more magic): and then yeah see how people react to that? If Pan’s Labyrinth did have more stakes, tension and drama – would that make it a better film? Or is it not really a relevant factor? I mean: everytime I see Pan’s Labyrinth it just makes me think of Terry Gilliam with all of the wit and charm and imagination sucked out and replaced with cardboard cutouts. And yeah I wonder how much love people would have for Pan’s Labyrinth if like me they had been weaned on Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Because well yeah – that’s where the real magic is.

The Gap between Panels
Barbican Comic Forum
Twitter / The Hot-Doll Pages

Gracelessly I’ll point out that Joel’s initial email asked what the point of Del Toro’s films are anyway, and I’ve sent three replies gesturing at the wealth of meaning that can be excavated from Pan’s Labyrinth, which Joel has at least acknowledged, and I guess I should bank my winnings. Moving the critique on to just being about a lack of tension feels like a rearguard action. And given that it’s impossible to change your initial response to a film, digging into that position inevitably makes further debate fruitless. And that cuts both ways – wanting to change my initial response after I’ve said that for me the film is dramatic enough is litigating the impossible.

Because isn’t the only way to re-evaluate an initial response is to discover (or be shown) qualities in the film you may have overlooked, or conversely to realise that the meanings you’ve found are actually rather shallow? That’s the field to engage on (and I’ve actually given ground there). In fairness, that’s a tough ask. There are very few films I’ve watched that I’ve disliked on an initial viewing and then re-evaluated. But when that has occurred, it’s hasn’t been because the plot of the film somehow morphed into something more thrilling, but because I’ve noticed new things in the film that have given it new dimensions. To dismiss even the possibility of that process (why not read an article etc) feels like you’re locking yourself out of one of the main pleasures of (re-)watching films, which is finding new depths to plumb.

I’ll confess I find more value in that than in just going along for a ride on a well-constructed, thrilling story. Tellingly, two obsessions that I’m currently revisiting – Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun – have both spawned cottage industries of semi-professional academic analysis, largely outside the traditional institutions where this kind of study is found. Both works certainly have instances of shoddy craftsmanship, but for me the fact that they can sustain that amount of scrutiny is wonderful. They become artefacts through which to think about the world. Dismissing all that activity as a “secret lie” seems churlish to me.

It’s worth throwing the question back the way it came. If films are simply machines for stimulating thrills, why not just go on a rollercoaster? And actually Joel kicking off by asking what the point of Del Toro’s films are anyway suggests that drama isn’t the only thing of value that he looks for in cinema. Feelings may come first but they are not absolute. The truth is that both drama and meaning are valuable, and if you’re unable to enjoy the former it may still be possible to appreciate the latter.

OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum

You know i was waiting to finally, FINALLY watch Pans Labyrinth to write here. But I suppose 20 tipsy minutes of it whilst battling burnt popcorn before remembering I have a flight in the morning doesnt quite count. But then I liked this chat so much and decided to say fuck it and wade in as an ignorant dinosaur jamming out something on my phone. Seriously the stuff you guys have written here is really great and is making me mull the nature of films and storytelling.

*Citizen Kane clap gif*

Del Toro is not a man who goes out and devises original plots. The stories he tells are stories we know. Hellboy is an innately familiar heroic arc. Pacific Rim is another Monster movie. Crimson Peak is his “give me gothic ip plz” film.

Familiar plots are not bad – familiar storytelling is. And there is a chasm the size of the greatest film in the world between those two things.

Some of the best films ive seen this year are familiar stories. Stories where I know what is going to happen and for the most part how – but the way its being said, the skill of the storytelling as opposed to the story telling itself are what win the day. Beats is a coming of age story that has an obvious plot – but its honest, authentic, funny and heartfelt dialogue and character work makes it so fucking moving. Or The Souvenier – which yeah is a story of a posh young wannabe director who is too naieve to realise shes fallen for a heroin addict. Every beat of that journey feels like it could have come out of the grange hill writers room. But it doesnt – because its told with such visual beauty and with such tender performances that you get sucked into it – and feel every iota of it, familiarity be damned.

So on Del Toro – yeah his stories are familiar as balls. But the worlds are so beautifully, indelibly his. Hellboy 2 – we talk about the monster market scene because we get to see him immerse us in every facet of his imagination at once. Pans Labyrinthe – everyone seems to talk about the look and the tone. Shape of Water – the romance with the creature (admittedly i think this is a vastly overrated “decent fun” film)

He’s familiar, he’s pastiche – so what. His worlds, his aesthetic, his tone – their all so unique and heartfelt that I don’t care. Its just so cool and fun and surprising to behold.

Brazil, without its look and humour – would be a boring lecture of a 1984 rip off. Del Toro plays with ideas and tone and aesthetic in such a unique and often successful way – his storytelling – makes you love his work.

Thats why people still rock up to see Shakespeare – yeah they know the beats, but they want to see interesting new actors and directors tell it in weird new ways.

And yes – I would watch the fuck out of a Del Toro Shakespeare rehash.

I still cant speak to Pans Labyrinthe – but I can bat for Del Toro and why people love the stories he tells and why that shouldnt be dismissed. Maybe the ideas and plot of this film are as bland as some have argued – but theres no way you can say hes told them in a boring familiar way. Ive spent ten years intrigued by the creature with tattoos on the inside of its palms to believe that its boring.

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

At the risk of sounding like a complete and total pedant… “He’s familiar, he’s pastiche – so what. His worlds, his aesthetic, his tone – their all so unique and heartfelt that I don’t care. Its just so cool and fun and surprising to behold.” – I would say that there is a dissonance between saying that Del Toro is on the one hand “familiar” and on the other hand “surprising.” And well yeah: if there ever was a surprising moment in any of his movies that I’ve seen – then I guess I must have missed it?

But hey: confession: I’m really loving this conversation. And for what it’s worth I’m finding Ilia’s replies to be the the platonic ideal of graceful. It feels like we’re sitting across from each other and he’s cutting his steak with the proper knife while my responses are like eating a messy hamburger with my hands – with all sorts of juices dripping down my arms… (yum).

Admittingly tho – I do have a tendency to sometimes shortchange myself in the points I’m trying to make so let me try and make myself a little more clear with this whole “film as rollercoaster” idea.

Mostly I blame myself in kinda propagating this whole idea that movies should spin you up down and around in all sorts of various ways – with a never-ending pushing fowards and onwards and well yeah – if you look back at the films we’ve done for the Film Club it is pretty obvious that I definitely have a taste for that kinda movie making (hello Cloverfield, hello Speed Racer, hello Alien) altho it’s obviously not the whole ballgame I wasn’t much of a fan of Mad Max: Fury Road and that’s basically the number one rollercoaster movie of the 21st Century so far. So it’s obvious that there’s more to what I’m looking for than just rollercoasterness…


Like: part of the reason why Fury Road kinda leaves me cold is the faux feminism that it won so many platitudes for – so yeah obviously the higher meaning stuff is important. But more than that – I think it’s the actual story stuff and how after the rush of the first two thirds of the movie that final stretch just doesn’t do it for me (for all sorts of reasons).

What I’m just to show here is that how I’ve been trained to watch and understand films (and other media) is basically with an eye and a heart always towards the story. And yeah I mean ok – you can translate that as the idea that “films are simply machines for stimulating thrills” but I don’t think that captures the whole thing. There’s more than one way to tell a story after all – and thrills are nowhere near the entirety of what a good film can make you feel.

In terms of conceding points – I mean: I don’t disagree with the stuff that Ilia has said in terms of the deeper meaning of Pan’s Labyrinth and how you can read it as deep mediation on… all the things he’s said (sorry like I’ve already said – but it’s hard to care about something that doesn’t actually do the proper work of making you care). But I wonder if the reserve is true: like in terms of the drama and the story – can we agree that Pan’s Labyrinth (and Del Toro in general) just – isn’t very good at that sort of thing? I mean yeah you can care about Ofelia because she’s the main character in the film and she’s a kid and you know stuff is bad for her – but apart from that: she’s not really much of an interesting character you know? The Mum is basically just “sick mum” and Evil Nazi guy is “Evil Nazi guy” and The Doctor is “Toby Ziegler” and there’s like the Good Housekeeper with a Heart of Gold and her Nobel Good-Looking Resistance Brother and something something something? (Sorry I did rewatch the movie a few weeks ago but it’s already disappearing from my head like it was written in magic ink or something…).

I mean: as a pitch for a movie – young girl discovers magic world during Spanish Civil War is a very tasty one – but can we all agree that the movie never really does anything interesting with it? In fact in terms of the Labyrinth itself I actually find it completely fitting that when we do get inside during the so-called “climax” of the movie Del Toro basically creates a magical shortcut so Ofelia can run in a straight line. That’s basically the whole movie right there – straight lines and shortcuts and very little in the way of real complexity.


I watched Pan’s Labyrinth for the first time last night – given what I’d read above, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, or what exactly had managed to create such a divisive response. I really enjoyed it. I loved how real they made the fantasy world look, and I love a bit of magical realism. Responses to some of the above…

It’s not a great fantasy film/the fantasy bits could be more fantasy

You’ve got a point. The plot of the fantasy story is pretty standard (kill a monster, resist temptation, don’t hurt the innocent), and its interesting she doesn’t change as a result, as much as remain an unmovable rebel (I kinda liked this). They still worked for me though. I agree a full length film done like that wouldn’t work. It’s an interesting choice to keep this bit super simple…

The other story is really boring

I found it exciting and tense but I agree though that it wouldn’t work as a full length film as is, and the two elements only really work together in parallel. Which is interesting.

It’s not that interested in fascism but fascism as a avatar of evil/metaphor

Yes. My knowledge of 1940s Spain is not good enough to argue if they real world bits were accurately observed – from some light googling, the role of the Church vs the state was reasonably accurate in its complicity and via fantasy symbolism as was it showing an occupation but I could be wrong.

I think it pretty comfortably argued that fascism finds a home for psychopaths, and psychopaths have horrible homes but yes, its not that interested in exploring fascism itself.

I tend to agree with you though that using real-life horrors, concepts, ideologies, misunderstood potent things as metaphors is tricky ground, and generally better films deal with the literal meaning as well as the symbolic.

I need to watch Inglorious Basterds.

It hasn’t got any stakes/very low stakes because of magic

I don’t completely understand how magic lowers the stakes? I liked how violence felt real and frightening in this world, and the magic was a way to escape that without minimising the effects of that violence. And you know she’s dead from the start but I still felt tension, fear and excitement for her. I was scared for her when her dress was muddy. Maybe chalk (boom-boom) that up to people are different.

It lacks moral complexity/does the Captain have to be so villainous?

The Captain loves his son, as much as he is capable of loving someone, although I doubt being his child will be a happy or safe childhood. He’s human, he wants to be remembered, he has forced himself to not fear death. He enjoys hurting people and is monstrously cruel. His father was a macho soldier, who rather than telling his children he loved them, smashed his watch as he died. He is therefore quite successful in a fascist regime. Seems plausible?

I think the film is aware of the moral complexity critiques and owns them in the text – the mother repeatedly states her daughters black and white morality (and judgements) doesn’t work in adulthood, and the film is aware this is how a child sees things but doesn’t automatically assume that’s correct or incorrect. Which I think makes sense in a film about moral disobedience and in the context of moral ambiguity and complicity with fascism?

People’s different choices in the situation are pretty much the point – the Captain tortures and draws out shooting people in the head as opposed to his deputy who kills more mercifully. The women who have to live with the soldiers do so under a constant threat of death vs the guerillas in the mountains. The doctor vs the priest. Accepting the ration cards at a bounteous feast.

I think its interesting as well that the focus of rebellion among adults are the Doctor and Mercedes rather than the guerillas. The guerillas definitely a bit romanticised, although everytime Mercedes goes to see them, it’s mirrored by Ofelia going to fantasyland.

All of these feel like very deliberate choices to me that make sense in the story I think del Toro wants to tell, although I think I get what you mean by being frustrated in what he’s interested in? I think that if you extended this into a longer story (say a TV show) – the characters would have to become more complex. They work for me for the time they’re there though.

I didn’t feel anything

This was not my experience. I felt frightened for her the whole time. The film seemed to me to have a keen sense of tension buildup and release, both across its duration and within scenes. I’m really interested you didn’t feel anything.

This has been a fascinating conversation – I think there’s something really interesting in wanting the film to be something different, and why. The more I think it over, the more I can see the creative choices del Toro made, and for me it makes a coherent whole that works. I’m fascinated why it doesn’t for others though.

This post was created by our Film Club email list.If you’d like to join the conversation send an email marked “Film Club” to here.

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