3/21/09

Labyrinth (1986)

This isn't a full review--more like observations on a very subversive film, and how the girls reacted to seeing it for the first time.

I probably saw it at age 11, because we didn't go to the theater but we had HBO. And I remember seeing it repeatedly. Eleven years old is an interesting age for a girl. I love this pic from "The Simpsons" where Lisa is reading Non-Threatening Boys magazine. (The Coreys prove how long the show has been on!)

But it's true: pre-pubescent girls tend to dig guys who are a little androgynous, a little pretty faced. They're not so scary as grown men, especially when the most prominent examples of full-fledged masculinity in their daily lives are authority figures such as fathers and teachers. Evolutionarily speaking, it's probably a defense mechanism against under-developed girls desiring what they should avoid, namely adult dudes with active sperm.

So yeah, I liked The Kid best out of the cast of "The Young Riders," when Jimmy or Sam Cain are more grown-up choices, as I've discussed previously. The Kid was built like a man but a little hesitant and still very boyish--nothing too intense. Rockers like Bon Jovi, back in the day, probably helped many a girl bridge that gap too. He had the moves and the aggression of a man, but he also wore make-up and had hair bigger than gals in Texas. Every boy band contains a diverse line-up aimed at casting a wider net for fans, resulting in intense junior high NYOTB fights about who we preferred. (For me, it was Donnie. At least I got that one right.) Robert Pattinson and the whole Twilight phenom is serving the same purpose for this generation. One day, the girls who love him will look back on their crushes, scratch their heads, and wonder what the hell they'd been smoking--even though part of them still enjoys that remembered fondness.

No wonder, then, that David Bowie in Labyrinth confused me in the pants.


He was 38 when he filmed this movie, compared to Jennifer Connelly's tender-yet-stacked 15 years. A man in every sense, particularly in the region of his tight-fitting breeches, he commands his scenes with a wicked intensity. Although the silly goblins and frankly cringe-worthy tunes tend to blunt his potency, it's the androgyny of his lace, hair, and make-up that keep him from being a truly frightening masculine figure. He's intriguing, intoxicating, and intense in a way that no 11-yo could articulate, but he's not a complete turn off like, ew, could be my dad.

But wasn't that always his appeal? From Ziggy to the Thin White Duke to the rest of his incarnations, Bowie lingers between overtly masculine (his performances, his posturing) and accessibly feminine (his make-up, his soft-spoken voice). I'm going to hazard a guess that many a pre-pubescent girl in Britain is experiencing the same thing with David Tennant's portrayal of The Doctor.

That's where Labyrinth is rather subversive. Ostensibly, it's about a girl coming to terms with growing up, responsibility, and making sure the fantasies of youth are kept in perspective. On a deeper level, it's also about Sarah accepting the loss of her mother, although the nature of their separation is never discussed. Sarah keeps a collection of newspaper clippings about her actress mother, suggesting that she either died or left to seek movie fame. The crux either way is abandonment grief. Many of the themes played out with her imaginary friends in the labyrinth have to do with loyalty, friendship, sticking together, overcoming obstacles through trust, and accepting the inherent unfairness of life.

But even deeper than that is the narrative of a girl's cautious approach to womanhood. Her retreat to childhood fantasies suggests a fear of the real--men, sex, and the responsibilities that come with intensely grown up trials. She's also competing with her step-mother for the attention of her father, which means she's in need of male companionship, possibly a substitute for Daddy. Even Jennifer Connelly's figure, which is very womanly yet camouflaged in all but the ballgown by loose-fitting clothes, contrasts with her dew-eyed expressions and breathy voice. (I'm including a pic of 20-yo Connelly for Keven.) She's right on the edge of becoming aware of herself as a woman.

Consider the Goblin King's final attempt to coerce/seduce Sarah:
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 of me. Isn't that generous? I ask so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.
It's a psychological field day! He's the voice of her dreams, that if she refuses responsibility and continues to live in a dream world, she could be happy--as it controls her behavior, her interactions with her family, and her dead-end future. But it could also be an articulation of sexual desire and her idealized imaginings of what that means. She, perhaps, wants an androgynous rock star goblin boyfriend who will do any and all things for her, but she understands, intuitively, that to give herself over to such a person would mean the end of her childhood.

Sarah rejects the Goblin King and accepts responsibility for her little brother, but her rejection is also a means of re-ordering her expectations and returning to the realm of a teenager, unwilling to become a woman just yet. Her previous refusal to stay trapped with him at the masked ball--the only time they touch, the only time she's dressed as a complete-with-cleavage woman--affirms this.


In the end, Sarah returns to the real world, accepts her brother with the symbolic teddy bear hand over, and still finds an outlet for her imagination by dancing in her room with the various muppet friends she's made. She puts away several items: the doll in the ballgown from her fantasy dance, the book of Labyrinth, and pictures of her mother. She's ready to end some childhood fixations, while still relying on others to see her through to full adult readiness. Interestingly, although the owl version of the Goblin King flies away, she leaves his figurine on her dresser. That decision--sexuality--is still up in the air.

Deep! Loved it.

I got a kick out of all the subtext, while the girls were alternately thrilled and scared by the whole ordeal. We've been trying to slowly ease them into live action movies such as The Princess Bride, so I tried this one tonight. Ilsa got a little upset toward the end, probably because she was getting tired. Overall they enjoyed it and found all the "disguise the subversive stuff" pratfalls and puppetry very entertaining. I'll have to see how they react to it in four or five years, but by then, they'll have their own David Bowie figure to cause pre-teen confusion.

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