Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Film Festival: 'Labyrinth'


A few minutes after Westley and I had settled in to watch Labyrinth yesterday, he turned to me and said, "I think it's all a dream."

"You think so, buddy?"


When you're four, "it's all a dream" definitely makes the scary stuff in a movie less scary and more watchable. When you're four-plus-twenty-five, "it's all a dream" makes the whole story much more interesting.

For the most part, Labyrinth is all a dream; the story Sarah tells her baby half-brother, Toby, while babysitting him is the foundation for the fantasy that follows. The King of the Goblins has fallen in love with this young girl, who is "practically a slave" in the lives of her father and stepmother, so he gives her "powers." Most significantly, she has the power to send the baby away to the Goblin City. When the baby disappears and the Goblin King arrives in a cloud of glitter, Sarah makes a quick, seamless transition from narrator to heroine.

Yes, it's all in her head. But that's what makes it so fascinating.

Even as a child, I thought it was interesting that Jareth, the Goblin King, doesn't look like any of the goblins who hang out with him in his castle. He looks human, or perhaps Faeire. Why? As far as what he is, perhaps it would be most accurate to say he is a Fantasy. A fifteen-year-old girl's Fantasy, to be specific.

While Jareth is definitely male, as his skin-tight and perhaps needlessly sheer tights attest, he's more androgynous than masculine. His glam-rock hair and heavy eye-makeup suggest that the audience is to read him as David Bowie—not simply as a character performed by David Bowie. The Goblin King is literally a rock star. But he doesn't have as much power as his idol-status and he would lead us to believe. Jareth is very domineering with the male characters, sometimes even bordering on abusive (particularly in the way he relates to Hoggle), but with Sarah, he's practically passive. In fact, the Goblin King has very little agency at all ("You have no power over me!"), since everything he does is supposedly motivated by his attraction to Sarah.

And what a strange attraction it is! When he's not literally throwing symbols of fertility and sexuality at Sarah (a snake, a crystal ball, a peach), or threatening her with "certain death" through impalement (the "Cleaners," barrier of blades at the gates to the Goblin City), he shows a lot of genuine, almost paternal concern for her. It's almost as though the Labyrinth is a trial Jareth is subjecting Sarah to, as a parent might, "for her own good." (The Goblin King as father figure also appears throughout the film in his interaction with the baby, Toby. Jareth happily rocks and bounces the baby, sings to him, and seems to genuinely enjoy holding him.) The Goblin King has the "bad boy" allure with none of the actual bad boy qualities. He's all hat and no cattle.

So back in the world of "this is all in Sarah's head," we have a young teenager creating an anemic bad boy who is in love with her. Why? Doesn't that seem a little (Electra) complex and problematic? While the Goblin King certainly is the film's villain, he's not the kind of villain who exists to create conflict and then be destroyed so that the heroine can win the day. He exists to enable Sarah's exploration of her burgeoning sexual power. With Jareth, Sarah tests how it feels to be attractive to someone else, but ultimately refuse that person's advances. Saying, "OK, Goblin King, I'll come live with you in your castle!" would be totally easy, and probably a lot of fun, except that she doesn't seem to want that kind of fun (yet). The thrill for her is the idea of this Fantasy male figure finding her sexy. (Among the other toys in Sarah's room that foreshadow the film's characters, there is a Goblin King doll standing on her vanity table. I didn't spot until yesterday thanks to years of having to watch Labyrinth in pan-'n'-scan. The doll is facing her, "watching" her as she makes herself up in the mirror, creating a proto-male-gaze moment. She's experimenting with the idea of being looked at.) It's clear that Sarah doesn't want a relationship with Jareth.

So how does such a heroine dispose of such a "villain"? In their final confrontation, Sarah doesn't kill him or even banish him from the Labyrinth. She just breaks his heart. (I know. Poor, sad Goblin King.) He lays it on the line, basically tells her he'll do anything to be with her, and she says, "You have no power over me," which is really her saying, "I'm just not that into you." His face falls into a frown, and that's the last we see of the Goblin King. It's a strange and arguably unsatisfying end to a bizarre relationship.

And we haven't even talked about the baby.

I can't be the only person who noticed that this whole coming-of-age story revolves around finding, and specifically moving towards, a baby. That's pretty literal, wouldn't you say? However, I think that while the baby may inspire a pretty great musical number, he's a bit of a MacGuffin. Labyrinth isn't about Sarah's relationship with her half-brother the way, say, Outside Over There is about its heroine's struggle to accept the role of big sister. Labyrinth deals entirely with Sarah's relationship to her own feelings (and fantasies) about adulthood. The baby—like the crystals, the fruit, and the Goblin King himself—is just another symbol.



Amber @ Backwards Life said...

Now I need to go watch it again. This is one of my favorite movies and I never ever broke it down into symbols. I just love Bowie and "the power of the babe" :-)

Lea said...

I would watch this movie all of the time when I was younger. It is still one of my favorite movies! We always laughed so hard when the Goblin King threw Toby in the air and you can clearly see he is fake! haha!

Mama Smith said...

Fascinating- this has always been one of my favorite childhood movies (along with The Dark Chrystal, Legend, and the Last Unicorn... a little fantasy anyone?). A couple of years ago it was playing at the local art movie house and I dragged James who looked pretty much like he was being tortured throughout but let me tell you nothing beat those skin tight pants on the big screen! It was almost shockingly blatant. Good times :)