Fairies and Fantasy: The Wizard of Oz part 3

At the end of Act II of The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard sends Dorothy out to get the broom of the Wicked Witch. Dorothy immediately grasps the import of this command: the Wizard’s not in need of a broom, he’s ordering her to kill the Witch.

Why? Has the Witch been troubling the Emerald City? I don’t see how — the Emerald Citizens are all jolly, healthy and well cared-for — not a winged monkey in sight. Does he send her to kill the Witch because she’s kind of "brought the Witch to their doorstep?" Maybe — maybe he thinks that the "SURRENDER DOROTHY" that the witch writes in the sky over the Emerald City is directed towards himself. "Uh-oh, the Witch wants this little girl, I’d better give her what she want, maybe then she’ll go away." Is the Wizard the Neville Chamberlain of Oz, and Dorothy Czechoslovakia?

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Fairies and Fantasy:The Wizard of Oz part 2

swan_tower , who is smarter than me, and quite bit better educated, writes —

"You should be aware that most folklorists consider Bettelheim’s work to be a load of bunk. He’s terrifyingly reductionist, and wilfully made up psychological anecdotes to support his theories. And that’s before you take a step back to all the critiques of Freudian psychology in general. I wouldn’t recommend using him for the starting point of any analysis of a fantasy story.
I thank Ms Tower for informing me of Dr. Bettelheim’s reputation among folklorists — as I mentioned the other day, I read The Uses of Enchantment primarily because David Mamet recommended I do so, and while Mamet may not be a very good folklorist, he’s taught me many useful things about constructing narratives. (On the other hand, he has also taken up conservative politics. So there’s that.) I take seriously Ms Tower’s caution against Freudian analysis of stories, and if I actually understood what constitutes Freudian psychology I would endeavor to avoid doing that. I don’t pretend that this is "the" meaning of The Wizard of Oz, but I believe it is one possible meaning. The point being, this movie has lasted for generations for some reason, and continues to enchant and move audiences despite its dated appearances. There is, for instance, a convincing argument to be made about Wizard being a simple metaphor about a child’s development of wisdom in the negotiation of a confusing society. My goal here is to reduce the narrative (which I guess makes me reductionist, although I hope not terrifyingly so) to its smallest possible core, which leads me to a story that is solely about Dorothy and her fears and desires. And, since the adventure is, literally, "all in her head," her head seems like a good place to start.


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Fairies and Fantasy: The Wizard of Oz part 1

The Wizard of Oz is the kind of movie that has been so totally absorbed by our culture, seen so many times by everyone from such a young age, that it’s easy to forget that it is, in the end, a movie, created by a team of artisans like any other movie, its basic ingredients — script, cast, costuming, scoring, editing, etc — no more magical or superior than the ingredients of tens of thousands of other movies. And yet, The Wizard of Oz endures like few other movies do, still holds audiences breathless in its narrative grip, despite the changing fashions of filmmaking, despite its stylized overacting, despite its gonzo, surreal production design. Even other tellings of The Wizard of Oz fail to enchant the way this movie does; why is this so?

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Fairies and Fantasy: Eragon

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I watched Eragon with Sam (7) and Kit (5) tonight, and, now that I know that there are untold legion of fantasy-movie fans within my readership, I have a question:

Why wasn’t this movie a bigger hit?

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Fairies and Fantasy: The Dark Crystal

First of all, let me just say that this is a much better movie than Jim Henson’s later feature-length puppet-show Labyrinth. It has a better script, a more organically-constructed world and a total lack of David Bowie in stretchpants. This does not, however, mean that it is without flaws.free stats

First, let me make sure I’ve got the story straight:

There is this planet with three suns. This planet was ruled by the Urskeks, who had this crystal, which apparently was crucial in keeping the planet in harmony. A thousand years ago, the Urskeks broke the crystal, which split them into two distinct beings, the peaceful Mystics and the vulture-like Skeksis. A prophecy foretold that a Gelfling, which is another creature who lives on this planet, will one day restore the crystal. The Skeksis didn’t want this to happen, so they undertook a reign of terror that all but wiped out the Gelfling. Now it’s a thousand years later, and the three suns in the planet’s area are about to align. If the crystal is fixed by that time, harmony will be restored to the world; if not, well, that part isn’t so clear, but I think it means that the Skeksis live forever or take over the world or capture the stars or something.

Okay. First off, a note on explanatory introductions. You know the kind, where the movie hasn’t started yet and a deep-voiced narrator intones: “In the mystic land of Urgh, a terrible darkness has overtaken the land as the evil emperor Zugg has imprisioned the good princess Thrak in the dark dungeon of Brell, which was located in the castle Aggghhh on the mystical island of Duhhhrrr” and so on. Note to screenwriters: don’t do this. Please. Why not? Because we haven’t met Zugg or Thrak and we don’t know why anyone is doing anything so we don’t care about any of that. No one has ever in the history of movies listened to the narration at the beginning of a fantasy. It does the opposite of informing the audience; it gives them a headache. The worst example of this I’ve ever seen is at the beginning of David Lynch’s Dune, where the first lines of the movie are a narrator intoning something about how there are four different planets in this story and they all have different political goals and are peopled by different kinds of creatures. I was there for the opening weekend of Dune in 1984, and when that stuff came on the screen my heart sank and I got sweaty palms: I felt like there was going to be a test at the end of the titles. The movie trailed off from there. I remember Sting in metal underpants and Kenneth McMillan drooling on some poor actress’s face, and then taking a plug out of some teenage guy’s chest and drinking his blood. And I think Kyle McLachlan was in it and his eyes glowed. Oh yeah, and there was a giant floating slug with a big brain and a vulva for a face, who for some reason was really important to the story.

Um, where was I?

The Dark Crystal starts with one of these impenetrable paragraphs of narration, describing the planet and the titular crystal and the vulture guys who worship it, intoned whilst we look at a picture of what looks like a coral Christmas tree on the Planet of Primitive Special Effects. Then, once that’s out of the way, before we’ve learned anything about the coral Christmas tree or why the vulture-guys worship it, we shift our attention to another place where some wrinkly dude makes a sand-painting, and we get another introductory paragraph about another bunch of characters we haven’t met yet. Then, unbelievably, we shift to a third location, where an elfy-looking guy plays a flute on a stream bank, and we hear another paragraph of introduction describing another bunch of characters we havent’ met yet. And with all this narration, we haven’t yet got one lick of storytelling yet, only a bunch of descriptive passages that have almost nothing to do with the images we’re seeing.

And then, after all that, the narrative that then unfolds, it turns out, is really quite simple and would have greatly benefitted from no introduction at all, much less three. If a movie has introductory narration it means that someone, either the screenwriter or the director, didn’t do their job right, forgot to tell the story in a series of images, and so in editing they had to scrounge around and find some shots of various objects that they could show to give us something to look at, whether they’re connected to the narrative or not, while the narrator tells us about stuff we haven’t seen, characters we haven’t met and political alliances we couldn’t care less about.

Moving forward:

In the village of the Mystics, Head Mystic tells Jen, The Last Gelfling, that it’s his destiny to find the missing shard of the crystal. He doesn’t tell him what he needs to do with it, just tells him he has to go to such-and-such place and get it from so-and-so. Then he dies. As he dies, we cut to the Crystal Castle (it turns out that’s the coral Christmas tree), where the vulture-guy emperor is also dying. A struggle for the dead emperor’s scepter ensues, during which one of the competitors, Skeksil, is shamed and banished. The new vulture-guy emperor sends his army of giant crab-guys out to find Jen before he gets to the shard.

So far, so good. A little pokey, but still hanging together.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Jen, confused and, frankly, a little miffed, heads out of town and makes it, without too much trouble, to the place he needs to get to. He gets the shard he needs from a crazy lady who runs an observatory, and she warns him that he must use it to “heal” the dark crystal or else the world will end. Because of, you know, the prophecy.

Now, I know there are always prophecies in these movies. Hell, The Matrix has a prophecy and it works just fine. But I find prophecies lazy. Who made this prophecy? When? Why? What happened to that person? But, all right, there was a prophecy and the prophecy says that only a Gelfling can fix the crystal. Why only a Gelfling? Who knows? It’s a prophecy.

Question: Head Mystic is dying, the Great Conjunction (the once-every-1000-years alignment of the three suns) is nigh, and so Head Mystic tells Jen of his destiny and dies. Here’s my question. If the Great Conjunction happens every 1000 years, doesn’t that give Head Mystic quite a bit of lead time to prepare Jen for his quest? He could have told Jen about his destiny a year earlier, he could have told him when he was a mere boy. No, he waits until the ticking clock is about to go off and he doesn’t even tell Jen everything he needs to know before he keels over and dies. Which, now that I think of it, if he had 1000 years of lead time, why didn’t Head Mystic just go get the goddamn shard himself? Jen wouldn’t have to go out of his way at all.

But, you know, you give a Mystic a 1000-year lead time and he’ll always leave everything to the last minute. So Jen sets off on his quest and, you know what? The rest of the Mystics do too! We don’t know where the Mystics are going, but every now and then we cut back to them slowly, slowly traversing the desert. Turns out, the Mystics are heading to the Crystal Castle! And they get there just in time to participate in the climax of the movie! Jen just can’t get rid of these guys!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jen lights out for the territories, he gets the shard, he’s one step ahead of the giant crab guys, and he meets Kira, who’s a girl Gelflling, and her dog Fizzgig. They fall in love — hardly surprising, since they are the last two Gelflings left on the planet. What is surprising is that Jen, once he’s hooked up with Kira, and about half-way through the running time, literally stumbles across an ancient Gelfling temple, which tells him everything he needs to know about his destiny. And your humble correspondent hangs his head in shame.

Really? Stumbles across an ancient Gelfling temple? No other character could have given him his instructions? Noother character could have directed him to the ancient Gelfling temple? Kira couldn’t have said “You know, the elders of this village tell me of a ruin not far from here, they said I should go there if a male Gelfling with a crystal shard came by,” and then taken him there? There couldn’t have been an ancient scroll secreted in a locket given to Kira when she was an infant? Stumbled across the ancient Gelfling temple?

Anyway, so Jen and Kira get to the Crystal Castle, and right on time (end of Act II), Kira gets kidnapped and tortured and needs to be rescued. This is sigh-worthy enough on its own, but it actually makes the villains weaker. The villains, we are told, out of the blue, some time in Act II, in addition to wanting to keep the dark crystal broken, also seek to prolong their lives. To do this, they round up the local populace and drain their “life essence” out of their bodies with a piece of equipment they keep downstairs. Once your life essence is sucked out by this machine, you become a slave of the vulture-guys.

Why is this a bad thing? For the same reason Scaramanga is a bad villain in The Man with the Golden Gun: it gives them too many motivations. A good movie villain has one goal and one goal only. A villain might have a secondary motive, but it must be related to and dependent upon the primary motive. That is, a villain might try to kill the protagonist as a part of their drive to world conquest, but they must not kill the protagonist and also plot to steal the world’s largest diamond and also have a heat ray. When you give the villain more than one motive, it dilutes their power. Think about it, we talk about a scary villain as being single-minded. The Terminator, Hannibal Lecter, Dracula. What would we think of the Terminator if, in addition to wanting to kill Sarah Connor, it also planned to take over the computer-chip market?

So the first half of Act III of The Dark Crystal involves getting Kira out of her essence-draining trap and getting Jen to where he needs to be to heal the crystal. Much import is placed on how Jen needs to fix the crystal before the suns align, but we’re never really told what happens if he doesn’t. Do all the Mystics then die? What happens then? We’ve seen that when a Mystic dies, a vulture-guy also dies — obviously the vulture-guys don’t want the Mystics to all die. One of the vulture-guys mentions how the crystal will give them all eternal life, but if your eternal life fix was just a few minutes away, why would you bother draining the essence out of a Gelfling who happened by?

Anyway (spoiler alert), there are some complications on the way, but Jen gets the crystal fixed just as the Mystics walk in the door, and the crystal turns from purple to clear, and the Mystics and the vulture guys merge into one race of really-tall translucent alien dudes. So now I’m really confused — is this what the vulture guys were trying to avoid, turning back into these tall alien dudes? Because the tall alien dudes look ten times more immortal than the vulture guys. I mean, I really don’t get it, what was so great about being vulture guys that they wanted to stay that way?

As in Labyrinth, there is some fine puppet design, although in general I find the Labyrinth puppets to be more alive than their Dark Crystal counterparts. A rubber puppet, dying, in closeup, fails to generate much sympathy for me.

Fairies and Fantasy: Labyrinth

For a new project I’ve taken on, it devolves upon me to watch movies dealing wih dwarfs and goblins, fairies and ogres, wizards and witches, spells and enchantments. To begin this journey into wonderment, I chose to begin with Labyrinth, Jim Henson’s 1986 fantasy project starring a young Jennifer Connelly as The Maiden and a not-so-young David Bowie as the Goblin King. I have not seen the movie since its release 22 years ago.hitcounter

Ho. Lee. Crap.

First of all, I love David Bowie. Love love love David Bowie. I even loved David Bowie in 1986, after Let’s Dance and Tonight made him officially irrelevant (or, as my friend

puts it, “once you’re on the cover of Time, your career is officially over”). I own both Tin Machine albums, plus the ultra-rare live Tin Machine album Oy Vey, Baby. So I think my cred as a David Bowie fan is pretty high. And the casting of David Bowie as the Goblin King sounds perfect. Bowie is at his best when playing enigmatic, otherworldly creatures — space aliens, Andy Warhol, Nicolai Tesla.

But Oh. My. Freakin’. God.

I could look past the Tina Turner wig and the overwrought kabuki eyeshadow. I could sort of look past the Mad-Max-goes-gay-Nazi wardrobe. I could even, if pressed, look past the fact that the writer (Terry Jones!) hasn’t given the Goblin King anything in particular to do. But I find I cannot look past the aspect of David Bowie’s performance in Labyrinth that should have been the strongest: the songs.

I spent far too muchof the running time of Labyrinth wondering what the hell happened. Bowie has a rich understanding of song forms, why didn’t he write anything remotely appropriate to the narrative of the movie he was appearing in? It honestly sounds as though the Henson people approached him to star in their movie and then, as an afterthought, said “oh, and will you come up with a few songs?” and Bowie, the ink not yet dry on the contract, looked up and blinked and said “uh, yeah, sure, why not?” and then, as the shoot date loomed, hastily scraped together some scraps of unfinished jams from the Tonight album and gussied them up in the studio.

In a great musical, the songs advance the plot. In a middling musical, the songs entertain. In Labyrinth, the songs neither advance the plot nor entertain. They are, in fact, obstacles to overcome. Labyrinth repeatedly says “We’ve got some more movie coming up folks, but in the meantime we’ve got to get this woefully misbegotten song out of the way.” Harold Arlen this is not.

The lack of a plot doesn’t help matters (how can a song advance a plot if there is no plot to advance?). Labyrinth is about a maiden, Sarah, whose step-brother is kidnapped by the Goblin King. What does the Goblin King want? Good question. The Goblin King, for some reason, wants Sarah’s infant step-brother. But wait — the Goblin King, immediately after snatching Sarah’s step-brother, sets her a challenge — 13 hours to negotiate his fiendish labyrinth and rescue the boy. So, wait, does he want the kid or not? If he wanted the kid, why would he give Sarah the opportunity to get him? Why would he cut her any kind of deal at all? She has nothing on him, she has no leverage. If he wants her infant step-brother, he would just take him and be done with it. And, as he is the Goblin King, “fair play” cannot be the answer. No, obviously the Goblin King wants Sarah to negotiate the Labyrinth for some other reason. What might that reason be?

Sarah, the viewer will note, is a spoiled brat, a snotty princess with a room full of tchotchkes who considers an evening of babysitting to be the Spanish Inquistion (hey, don’t look at me, I’m not the one who brought Terry Jones into this). Maybe the Goblin King wants to force the rash Maiden into growing up a little, maybe he wants to teach her a lesson. Well okay, but then he’s not a very good bad guy, is he? The Wicked Witch of the West doesn’t want to “teach Dorothy a lesson,” she wants to kill the little bitch — the “teaching a lesson” part of the story falls to Glinda, who gives Dorothy the ruby slippers to protect the maiden on her journey to self-actualization.

So the Goblin King doesn’t want Sarah’s brother, and he doesn’t want to kill her, and “to teach her a lesson” makes absolutely no sense. Why is he doing this then? The reasoning the Goblin King gives at the end of the movie was that the Labyrinth is meant to be a kind of seduction of Sarah — he put her through the test of the labyrinth in order to break her down, erase her ego, and then make her suseptible to his gobliny predations.

This makes a certain amount of sense, and it is perfectly satisfying in fantasy-movie terms. The Maiden’s job in a fantasy scenario is often to be seduced by the corruptions of adulthood before regaining her senses. But here the notion is utterly undeveloped. If the Goblin King’s intent is to seduce Sarah, why doesn’t he do anything to achieve that end? Indeed, the Goblin King, once he’s set Sarah on her course, barely stops to think about her again. Once he gives her his challenge, you know what the Goblin King does? He goes back to his lair with his goblin puppet buddies and waits. He lounges on his Goblin King throne, he plays with the infant step-brother, he sings excruciating 80s pop to him, he shows off his grey tights with their penis-enhancing cut (David Bowie’s Penis should really have its own credit in this movie — there’s a shot where he thrusts it, in close-up, into the face of a dwarf, that literally snapped my head back in revulsion). When he learns that Sarah is successfully negotiating the labyrinth, the Goblin King is startled and enraged, and then goes and throws a monkey-wrench in her path, but otherwise he pretty much just sits around, stares out of windows and sings his clattering, tuneless crap. The Goblin King, apparently, has nothing to do, and yet he can’t be bothered to actually participate in the narrative he has set into motion; when he does act, it’s with petulance and impatience. Some villain! It’s as though we’ve caught the Goblin King on a bad day; what he’d really like is to be in another movie, but this one will have to make do for the time being. It’s as though the Wicked Witch of the West, once her sister is killed, were to threaten Dorothy’s life and then go back to her castle and sit around bored for a while. Yeah, yeah, ruby slippers, okay, um, how about flying monkeys?

Imagine the worst Bond villain in the series. Imagine Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. Imagine Scaramanga, with his third nipple and his midget sidekick and his stupid fucking plan to somehow corner the energy market and, oh yes, develop a death ray, and, you know, as long as we’re at it, kill James Bond. Scaramanga is one of the worst villains in the history of motion pictures, but his story arc is the goddamn Dark Knight compared to the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

As I’ve said, the plotting of Labyrinth is, essentially, nonexistent. The movie has a setup and a finale, and then “a bunch of stuff” in the middle. I can hear the story meetings quite well — a group of talented designers and puppeteers — no, but really quite talented — sitting around a table saying “Oh! And you know what would be great?!” without any sense of plot, theme or character. Hey, you know what would be great? A dance number where the puppets’ heads come off! Hey, you know what would be great? A big drill contraption! Hey, you know what would be great? A big orange beast thing! etc. And let it be said that the design, apart from the horror of Bowie’s costumes, is quite excellent indeed. The optical effects have not aged well, but the practical effects are all charming and wonderful, the talking doorknobs and the snakes that turn into feather boas and the walls that seem to be there but aren’t. There is real imagination making its way through Labyrinth, but almost no sense of structure. Or, to put it another way, it has a Gilliamesque approach to design, and a Gilliamesque approach to structure as well.

Sarah meets a handful of characters. There is Hoggle the Dwarf, Ludo the Beast or Ogre or Something, and Didymus the Creature Who Both My Wife And I Thought Was a Fox But Turned Out To Be a Yorkie. The purpose of these characters is, or should be anyway, to reflect some aspect of Sarah’s problem. And I guess in some vague way they do. Hoggle kind of but not really teaches her something about friendship, Ludo teaches her the value of kindness to strangers, and Didymus teaches her about chivalry. Then, none of these lessons turn out to have any value whatsoever in Sarah’s goal of “retrieving the baby.”

And let’s look at that goal again. Sarah is 16 or so and, in spite of the fact that she looks exactly like a teenage Jennifer Connelly, we are told that she has never had a date. And, as far as the narrative is concerned, she doesn’t seem to want any dates. Is she “saving herself”, somehow, for the Goblin King? If she is she doesn’t demonstrate that desire — she just pouts and whines and refuses to take care of the baby. When the baby is taken away however, she instantly regrets her actions and feels compelled to rescue it. So Sarah goes, in one plot point, from “maiden” to “mother” without having the pleasure and/or terror of any of the steps in between — no courtship, no romance, no wedding, no initiation. You’ve never had a date? Boom! Too late, you’re a mother now — deal with it!

And so the movie actually ends with Sarah, having (spoiler alert) rescued the baby and abjured the Goblin King, going to her room and putting away all her dolls and games and fairy tales and tchotckes. In Labyrinth, you’re either a child or an adult, there is no in between.

As always, I invite my faithful readers to submit their favorites of the genre under discussion.  What should a screenwriter well-versed in the Fantasy genre see?