Monday, February 2, 2009

The Eros of Labyrinth

Welcome to the second installment in my series on things that are unexpectedly sexy. The first installment explored The Eros of Jeeves. This one looks at a children's movie that isn't a children's movie. Enjoy!

Labyrinth is a Jim Henson movie featuring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly and a host of scruffy Muppets. David Bowie plays Jareth the Goblin King, ruler of the eponymous labyrinth. Jareth has a thing for a whiny teenage girl named Sarah. Much like the schoolboy who expresses his feelings for his crush by yanking her braid, Jareth steals Sarah's baby brother Toby (on her request, it should be said, though she regrets it instantly). Sarah must find her way through Jareth's labyrinth and brave its Jareth-created terrors so that she can rescue Toby and get him back home before her parents return from their party and discover him missing.

Labyrinth has never been a darling of the critics. Yes, it has its flaws, but it's got a lot going for it as well. It's got a great soundtrack courtesy of Mr. Goblin King himself, it's got some brilliantly creative scenes, it's got lots of amusingly ugly goblin Muppets, and it's got Bowie, looking scrumptious in eye makeup and big eighties hair.

The flaws include the movie's opener, which features dialogue and acting so unpersuasive it makes your teeth hurt; a bunch of irritating hairy creatures who sing the movie's one lousy song and pull off their own heads; a wholly unnecessary fencing chihuahua; and "The Bog of Eternal Stench". It's all worth sitting through, to get to the good bits.

What I think hurts the movie overall is its lack of focus. Its makers, it appears, were unsure of what, exactly, this flick was supposed to be about, so they shoehorned in extra themes like the importance of family and friendship (yeah, we really need more movies about that, don't we?) and made Sarah excessively bratty right at the beginning so she could mature as the movie progressed. Utterly beside the point. If only Jim Henson, Terry Jones (who wrote the script) et al had realised what the movie was really about: a girl's erotic coming of age.

Well, it's not surprising. Our culture has always had difficulty with the idea of girls having their own sexuality. We've no problem with the sexuality of boys; look at American Pie. But girls? God forbid. Girls may struggle with the sexual interest of boys but are not supposed to have any of their own. So perhaps the moviemakers could not bring themselves to admit, even to themselves, what sort of movie they were really making.

And yet there is at least one occasion when it becomes perfectly blatant. Sarah solves a well-known logic puzzle involving two guards and two doors, only to find herself falling down a hole full of hands that grab at her. At first, she is understandably perturbed, but the hands explain that they are "helping hands" and are holding on to her to prevent her from plummeting to her death. She then accepts their grappling.

Excuse me? A teenage girl falls down a dark tube, somewhat reminiscent of a vagina, and gets felt up by a bunch of hands, and we're supposed to believe that this is just another innocent kid's movie? No no no.

This scene is one of my favorites, not only because it's naughty but because the hands speak by clustering together in several different configurations to form faces. It's brilliant. Labyrinth is worth seeing for this bit of artistry alone.

Vagina-like tunnels abound. Sarah falls down them, slides out of them and walks through them. In one scene, we even get a scary penis. Sarah and her goblin guide Hoggle are walking down a tunnel when Jareth shows up and asks her how she likes his labyrinth. "It's a piece of cake," says Sarah, and is punished for her hubris. Jareth vanishes and a dangerous-looking cylindrical metal apparatus comes chugging towards them, filling the tunnel completely. According to Hoggle, the device is for cleaning the tunnel, but that doesn't explain the blades swirling around on the front (or glans, as I like to think of it). Sarah and Hoggle escape into a nook, and as the mechanism sweeps by, we see that it's operated by a couple of goblins working pedals, one goblin per pedal. The cleaner seems dangerous at first but becomes funny once you get a closer look at it. It is a symbolic disarming of the penis.

Speaking of penises, something I'm always happy to do, a certain web page brought to my attention just how much Jareth's, or rather Bowie's, package is on display in this feature. I didn't notice, at least not consciously, but far be it for me to object to an attractive man in form-fitting pants.

Near the end of the movie, as Sarah draws closer to Toby, Jareth meets her on a collection of impossible stairways out of the Escher woodcut "Relativity". This scene rivals the helping hands scene for clever effects. Sarah and Jareth chase each other up and down the stairs and finally come face to face for the movie's most smouldering exchange. Jareth tells Sarah he's been generous to her, and she reacts with scepticism, but he points out that everything he's done, he's done for her, starting with taking Toby away. "Just let me rule you," he says, "and you can have whatever you want. Fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave."

In other words, the labyrinth and its seeming dangers, the Goblin King's show of menace and tyranny, were all a sort of sadomasochistic seduction. Jareth was never any threat to her. He never wanted to be anything but her top. Everything he did was to give her the erotic thrill of fear.

Sarah's next statement seems on the surface to be a non-sequitor, but it is in fact an admission that she understands, and agrees: "You have no power over me." Indeed, Jareth, like any top, can maintain the illusion of power only as long as Sarah chooses to participate in his sadomasochistic game. As soon as she speaks these magic words, the spell is broken and she is back in her room, and Toby is back in his playpen. Her parents haven't even come home yet.

It's the perfect setup for a girl like Sarah. She can spend some time with an attractive male and mess around a little but put the brakes on as soon as she feels things have gone far enough. All the while, her parents remain completely unaware of what's going on. What teenager doesn't want that? Every girl should have a Goblin King.

In the next installment of this series, I will get even more controversial and argue that a children's picture book can have content that is erotic--to children. Yikes! So keep an eye out for that, or flee, depending on how openminded you are.


Heather said...

Huh...How... Freudian. I loved that movie...and just thought that Bowie was the reason. The hand tunnel is brilliant! Wonder if there are erotic undertones to Henson's other piece of genius _The Dark Crystal_ Homo eroticism with the Skekses?

Vivian said...

Bowie's a good reason, sure. You know what I'd like to see? The Man Who Fell to Earth. Can't find it anywhere, may have to order it off the web if all else fails.

I didn't catch any erotic undertones in Dark Crystal. What I remember best about that movie is the vital-essence-sucking machine. I think that one's a good metaphor for a lot of dysfunctional relationships.

Madame Hell said...

The Man Who Fell To Earth can be found on as a download. The picture quality is excellent.

I believe this is the link, but if not, it's still on there just under a different link

Best thing about the movie? [ignoring the brilliant acting from Bowie and the amazing visual atmosphere, etc.] Well. Here is an exchange between myself and a friend of mine on msn:

Q: Is there any nudity in TMWFTE?
A: A far better question to ask would be, "Are there any CLOTHES in TMWFTE?"

Vivian said...

Great, thanks for the info! I will definitely look into that.

Vivian said...

I eventually did watch The Man Who Fell to Earth. Not as a download; we couldn't get that to work. Bought it. Hated it. It was so boring. Mostly it seemed like a missed opportunity. It was supposed to show an alien getting corrupted by earthling ways, but we never see a point where he isn't already corrupt. The whole thing seemed to have no purpose other than making pretty pictures of questionable activities. You would think decadence would be entertaining. You would be wrong. Almost 2 1/2 hours of solid tedium.

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