Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Horse fear

I usually rewatch movies because I love them, or think I loved them and am trying to remember, or might have mistakenly loved them when they weren't really lovable, and desperately need to know whether to stop recommending them to people.

But sometimes I also rewatch movies because I thought they were awful, and I want to get in touch with what made them so bad.

The funny thing about rewatching The NeverEnding Story on Monday night -- yet another rewatch of an 80s fantasy classic, something I've been doing so much lately I might almost devote a series to it -- is that I thought it was worse than bad when I first saw it. When I first saw it, I thought it was lame.

After a second watch, I still think it's a bit lame, but I can't believe I also didn't remember how disturbing it was. How disturbing it still is.

This piece does a perfect job encapsulating what's so disturbing about it, but if you don't want to follow the link, I'll summarize it for you: The NeverEnding Story is about depression and the fear that death is eternal nothingness. How's that to lay on the head of the 12-year-old me that was probably watching it on cable in 1985 or 1986?

Except that's not what I remember about this movie. I don't remember it bothering me in the slightest. I don't remember it exposing me to ideas I was not mature enough to handle. I just remember it being boring and terminally square. "Lame," to use another word.

Maybe I only saw parts of it, though I imagine a general interest in this type of movie would have incentivized me to sit through the whole thing. However, I don't think I saw it in the theater, so cable certainly could have created the conditions where I saw only those aforementioned parts.

But I quite clearly remember feeling surprised and perturbed by the way the movie was not delivering on any of its promises nor achieving the type of narrative arc I expected it to achieve. I feel like I even remember turning to a similarly underwhelmed friend and exclaiming my outrage. It was one of my earliest experiences of seeing a movie that was clearly targeted to me, yet feeling no connection with it whatsoever.

But today I just want to talk about the horse.

This is the part that should have disturbed me. Instead, I didn't even remember it at all.

So near the beginning of the adventure undertaken by Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), the main character in the book stolen by bullied modern kid Bastian (Barret Oliver), Atreyu and his horse are setting off across a murky swamp. It's part of a quest to save a dying princess and the land that she presides over (Fantasia, apparently no relation to the Disney movie).

Suddenly, the horse sinks and dies.

There's no expectation that this will happen. In fact, as far as I'm aware, there was nothing in the dialogue to explain that part of this swamp works like quicksand, and that if you get stuck in it, not only will you sink, but you will lose the will to fight against the sinking.

That's the thing that's so disturbing about the death of Artax, the horse. He just sits there and sinks, like a horse in the headlights.

With this expression on his face:

In part because of filming logistics, and in part (I assume) because of cruelty to animals considerations, we don't actually see the horse sinking. But each time the camera returns to him, the poor bloody animal is a bit further down in the muck, an expression on his face very similar to that expression worn by the horse who gets accidentally shot in Animal House.

The suddenness is the first thing about this that's disquieting. Everything is really going along fine -- they're in a bit of a depressing landscape, sure, but they are alone, not being tracked by any baddies, and are in pursuit of a righteous mission. Then without any warning, the horse finds himself in a circumstance from which he cannot extricate himself. One minute he's prancing along, undaunted by the muck and the mud. The next, he's face to face with his own demise.

I suppose this is the movie's way of saying that tragedy is like that in real life. One minute you've got a horse doing your bidding and seeming pretty satisfied with its role in the world. The next minute, that horse's head has entirely sunk under the water in some random pond, never to be seen again.

The next thing that's disquieting is that horse's expression. That's some genuine horse fear. It's not acting. It's a horse saying "Holy fucking shit, what the hell is going on here?" Now obviously, that horse was not harmed in the making of this movie. But you have to wonder if some psychological harm wasn't inflicted on it, and whether that kind of thing shouldn't be made light of. That horse is probably not going to want to cross a pond anytime soon, that's for sure.

But the most disquieting thing is the idea that the horse is utterly resigned to his own fate. The fact that he does not struggle against impending doom could have just been a sign of a poorly trained animal or a poorly directed scene, but it's not. Atreyu tells the horse "You have to try, you have to care." This horse dies because the nothingness of oblivion was preferable to the world in which he found himself.

That's some heavy shit.

Go and read that piece I linked to above. There's some serious mind-fuck material in The NeverEnding Story.

Yet curiously, this does not make me feel much more strongly about the movie. It's still full of questionable decisions. It still has pacing issues. It's still far more episodic than it should be, a stillborn version of a hero's journey. Sure, the fact that Atreyu's adversary is like the personification of existential ennui, in a giant storm of nothingness, is a trippy idea. But it isn't really executed in a way that's very trippy.

But I'm wondering if I did always have this feeling about The NeverEnding Story, but I didn't know how to process what I was feeling. Because I didn't know what it was up to, or how it was up to it, I just thought it was "lame." Maybe it just fried my noodle a little bit, so my reaction was just to laugh at it and turn it off. It could have entered my nightmares and disturbed me, if I'd understood it a little better. Instead, I just tucked it away in a near-forgotten corner of my mind, so I had to watch it again in 2017 to try to remember why I even had a negative impression of it.

So I don't like this movie a whole lot, but I would recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it, just for how weird it ultimately is. A lot of it is not "good weird" -- say, like Return to Oz -- but either "good weird" or "bad weird" is preferable to the total lack of weirdness we find in children's entertainment today.


Hannah K said...

I'm also a little surprised you didn't remember that scene. It mildly traumatized most of the people I knew who'd grown up with it. I care absolutely nothing about movie animals so it's not like I had any emotional connection to the horse, but it still sticks in my mind as one of the most unsettling things I've seen in a film, and maybe THE most unsettling thing I've seen in a kid's film.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks for the comment Hannah! I think the answer is that I probably did not see the whole thing, though that's fairly close to the beginning, so if I started at the start and watched any significant part of it, I should have seen that part. And if I started later or started at the beginning and quit watching before then, then I have no idea how, even at that young age, I could have considered myself to have legitimately seen the movie or been qualified to pass judgment on it.