Wednesday, April 13, 2016

I finally saw: Labyrinth

The other day I was discussing other people's nostalgia. Here is another good example of that.

Labyrinth has not heretofore had any role in my 1980s nostalgia, because before yesterday, I hadn't seen it. But it seems to get referenced with some regularity, and by the time David Bowie died and it got a lot of mentions in connection with that, I had fully acknowledged it as a blind spot in my personal viewing. So seeing it available from the library made it not only a must-borrow, but a must-actually-watch-before-it's-due-back.

The thing that surprised me most about Labyrinth is how good it still looks. Perhaps that shouldn't have been a surprise, as puppetry does not date the way special effects date -- or rather, it always looks a bit old-fashioned, but charmingly so. As I was fresh off my first rewatch of Beauty and the Beast in 25 years, and was taken aback by how little that still seemed like cutting edge animation, I expected more of the same from Labyrinth. But it has the type of crispness and natural physical reality that people always cite when praising practical effects. Labyrinth is like Exhibit A for what we've lost with the onset of digital technology.

I was actually kind of amazed at what Jim Henson et al did with their practical effects, some of which actually looked sort of digital. I think in particular of one example where the lead (Jennifer Connelly) is interfacing with a pair of ornate door knockers, which take the shape of faces. Henson seamlessly blends the puppetry of their moving countenances with the rest of the door, so everything has the same steel gray appearance, yet part of the door is actually alive. When I say it looked digital, I mean the good of what digital can offer. If made with actual digital effects -- as the whole of Labyrinth surely would have been made today -- it wouldn't have had an ounce of the charm.

There were also a couple characters that seem so beloved that I can scarcely believe they never escaped the confines of this movie to become general cultural touchstones. Like, shouldn't I have known about this guy sometime before yesterday?

That's Ludo, a large creature who's kind of like a combination of a gorilla, a bear, a yak and a bison. Not only does he look cool and is he a sweetheart, but he also has the ability to move rocks with the power of his mind and neanderthal howl. How could Ludo have eluded me all these years? It's sad, really. He deserved to be better known.

I think why Ludo wasn't better known was that there's something inescapably strange about Labyrinth, something that would always keep it from entirely being embraced by the mainstream. It might be a bit dark -- both lighting and subject matter. It might be a bit garish. It might be more Return to Oz than Wizard of Oz (though I understand Return to Oz has its staunch defenders). But man, I loved it. It was delightfully screwy and truly visionary.

As essentially the only two humans in the movie, Connelly and Bowie both impressed me. Connelly is quite assured for a 15-year-old, though she was also good in Once Upon a Time in America two years earlier. Her reactions all seemed smartly calibrated and in the proper scale for what was happening to her -- bewildered and frustrated, but accepting the reality of her situation as perhaps only a daydreaming teen would be capable of doing. And Bowie is perfectly sprightly, clearly an adversary of Sarah's but also seeming like he's trying to lead her to the goal of trying to understand and appreciate the circumstances of her life. It's like he's putting her through a gauntlet toward greater maturity. I also enjoyed the perhaps unexplained melancholy of his character, particularly during their climactic meeting in the M.C. Escher staircases (Escher's estate actually received acknowledgement in the closing credits). There's a music video quality to his scenes, but not only because he's singing songs and he's a rock star. It's more that he's expressing inexpressible emotions in his songs, some of which seem to have little to do with his tete-a-tete with Sarah and more to do with some kind unquenchable sadness inside him.

So this movie is weird in all the right ways, and I really look forward to seeing it again.

The only part I didn't like was when Henson inexplicably chose to leave the lovingly realized reality of this maze and all its strange and wonderful denizens and present some of the action against a green screen. The green screen technology is not nearly up to snuff on its own, nor in sync with the practical reality of the rest of the sets, so it really stands out. That whole scene with those bouncing pink creatures with the removable heads, which look kind of like Animal from the Muppets crossed with a pink flamingo, should probably have been excised. The song isn't great, and the green screens are really distracting. Oddly though, other scenes involving camera tricks look completely believable, specifically when Jareth (Bowie) climbs the Escher stairs at the end. There's one particular trick where his body whips around a curve from upside down to right side up that should have been impossible to film realistically, yet it looks great. So no idea why it looks so bad in that one scene with the pink muppet flamingos.

Labyrinth was also nice to watch in the wake of Bowie's death, as it renewed the accompanying senses of sentimentality and loss. Not in a depressing way, though -- just in a way that reminded me how many facets this man had to appreciate. I borrowed his Ziggy Stardust album from the library after returning Labyrinth yesterday, just to keep the vibe going.

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