On Friday, I went to rottentomatoes.com to check out the reviews for several films we were thinking about seeing. They all had high scores, meaning most reviewers loved them. But in every case, if you scrolled down far enough, there would be one or two writers who rated them “superficial pap” or something like it.
Browsing the Web site, scanning one rave after another, I felt myself dismissing the nay-sayers. Images formed in my mind of bitter little people who can’t allow themselves to get with the program. I saw pinched creatures whose identity is all about saying no to whatever others are embracing.
Then we went to see Pan’s Labyrinth, the mega-award–winning and lavishly praised film by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. The film is a fully realized and well-executed work of cinematic art, without a doubt. But I hated it. (The film doesn’t hold much surprise, as it begins with the ending and works its way back, but if you don’t want to know the story, skip the next 3 paragraphs.)
Ofelia, a young girl who loves fairy tales, travels with her pregnant and ailing mother in Spain after the Civil War, journeying to live with her stepfather, Captain Vidal, a Francoist general. He and his troops are holed up at an old mill in the mountains, attempting to carry out their assignment of eliminating the remaining Republican rebels hiding nearby.
As Ofelia endures the terrible tensions of her new situation, she discovers magical figures (insect-fairies, a faun, assorted monsters) who lead her into an alternate reality, one in which she is an exiled princess who must perform certain ordeals to regain her family and throne. She faces them bravely, despite occasional missteps.
But the situation at the mill is stacked against Ofelia. After the general kills the attending physician, a Republican sympathizer, Ofelia’s mother dies in childbirth, and the girl herself is murdered when she attempts to save her newborn brother from the Captain. The film ends with a huge crowd of partisans surrounding and defeating the Captain, adopting his infant son as their own. They are sad at their losses, including Ofelia, who by loving the Captain’s housekeeper (Mercedes, a rebel spy) has aligned herself with them. As Ofelia dies in the flesh, though, she is reborn into the full-color kingdom of her magical world, ascending to her place on the high and mighty throne as Princess Moanna.
Why did I hate Pan’s Labyrinth? First, for its love of what it purports to reject. Through scenes of domination and torture over members of the household and partisans alike, we are directed to see that Captain Vidal is a bully and sadist of the first order. Unfortunately, the film makes us even worse: it is filled with scenes of nearly pornographic violence, in which the camera offers us the torturer’s eye-view of torn and bleeding flesh, over and over again. The redness of human blood is unquestionably its main motif; the camera caresses wounds as if they were babies’ cheeks.
And second, I hated it for its political dishonesty. At the end, the rebels stand tall and proud and their numbers stretch beyond the frame. It’s like one of those scenes from socialist realism, where despite all they have endured, we see The People will never be defeated. Yet the film takes place in the mid-1940s, and the fascist General Francisco Franco (whom Captain Vidal resembles) is already in power—and will remain so until his death in 1975.
The strongly didactic theme has to do with individual choice in the face of inhuman orders: several characters come to the point of refusing to do the Captain’s bidding, and Ofelia herself (or rather her alter-ego, Princess Moanna) succeeds to her magical throne by refusing just such an order from the faun of the title. But what does the film have to say on this subject? Retain your humanity, insist on your right to reject evil orders, do what you believe is right…and you will die horribly for your pains. Yes, that’s correct, with one exception, every character exhibiting nobility or honor is dispatched immediately after asserting this right of refusal. I came out feeling depressed, thinking the underlying theme was really this: abandon hope, Franco will be in charge for another 30 years.
But let’s be clear: I’m practically the only one who thinks so.
You can imagine it set me to revising my opinion of the nay-sayers on rottentomatoes.com. But it also set me to thinking about the nature of consensus, whether aesthetic or political.
When the Iraq War started four years ago, we nay-sayers represented about the same proportion of the electorate as the minority that typically breaks from a positive consensus on a much-praised film like Pan’s Labyrinth. When I look back at my early blog essays (I started my Web site in the spring of 2004), I read entry after entry in which I denounced the war, pointed out the mendacity and self-dealing of the Bush administration, lamented the spinelessness of the Democrats, and so on. When George W. Bush was elected in 2004, I offered consoling words. This is from November 3, the day after the election:
I don’t minimize the damage Bush can do in four years, nor take lightly the danger of the Democratic Party foolishly succumbing to pressure to move further right. But neither prospect alters the reality that we internal exiles are the canaries in the national coal mine, the harbingers. We have crossed the narrow bridge from home to the wide world, and we understand that new conditions call for new responses. We are the leading wedge of a shift I am absolutely certain will come. Our challenge is not to be afraid, not to allow fear to undermine the depth of what we know. If we honor the depth of our understanding, our span will grow.
Today, most people want out of Iraq and the investigations and prosecutions of Bushies are too numerous to count. I’m not immune to saying “I told you so,” nor do I want to evoke opposition to the war in defense of my minority opinion about a film. I just want to say that both things are teaching me the same lesson: that opinion is a sluggish animal. First one cell shifts from red to blue, then the next and the next until, after a long, slow process of osmosis, everything has a distinct bluish cast, at least for a time. You can’t know at the beginning whether the change will be in your favor or not.
Surely the best thing is to hold to one’s truth, even when others are casting you as a spoiler, in small things as in large. Oh, and one more thing: I’m going to read those contrarian reviews with more respect from now on.