Simeon Smith. He is talented, funny, a musician, artist and writer. He is a faithful friend and sometime collaborator. Simeon and I sat and watched Pan's Labyrinth together last week, with a view to his writing a guest post for me. This is what he sent to me.
My father is a liar. No, not just in the “What?! Father Christmas isn’t real?!” kind of way. That’s way too conventional for my family. Besides, I was never allowed to believe in Father Christmas as a kid, as Jesus is the real hero of Christmas1. My father for years was an academic fraud, and it turned out that the “Rev Dr” was in no way qualified to provide the child therapy he had been offering for years.
Yup. All kinds of eugh.
One of the many results of this is that I no longer have any reason to believe any of the stories I was told growing up. I was told that my paternal grandfather was a card-carrying member of the communist party, that he smuggled spies across borders during the Spanish Civil War, that he was once trapped in Burgos during a winter so bitter that a donkey left outside froze solid while still stood up, and that food shortages meant they ate it (eating being a strong Smith tradition).
I’ve no idea if this is true or not, but growing up listening to these stories, I learnt that war is grim, and the Spanish Civil War was no exception.
Except, for many it wasn’t fiction. For many, the grimness was a reality; fascism and similar ideologies did win. Just ask anyone in Franco’s Spain, where the film I’m supposed to be reviewing is set. Or Mussolini’s Italy. Or Salazar’s Portugal. Or Pinochet’s Chile. Or Perón’s Argentina (the first time). Or Perón’s Argentina (the second time)2.
I suppose I should talk about the movie.
Captain Vidal is the perfect depiction of the grimness of fascist, post-war Spain. This isn’t the faceless fascism of a swastika on a red flag. This isn’t a character defined by his uniform. This is the up-close, self-interested fascism of something so close to you that your mother has been impregnated with its child. So close that you can smell remnants of shaving foam on his chiselled chin as he bludgeons your innocent son’s face until it’s unrecognisable. So close.
And this grimness is who we, through the eyes of Ofelia, are told to call “Papa”. None of us escape the crushing weight of where we come from – humanity has a lovely, ugly history. No wonder we’re a society in a deep identity crisis. No wonder we want to believe the fairy tales.
Truth be told, I don’t have any area of knowledge deep enough to provide obscure references on the same level as Howard, so I won’t even try. But the parallels with Ofelia’s story fiction are many.
The narrative dissonance between where we’ve come from and who we tell ourselves we are keeps cropping up. And I don’t just mean a Jekyll and Hyde / Tyler Durden / Harvey Dent kind of identity crisis. The self-doubt of the lost heir penetrates our culture.
Hell, even Christianity is basically Cinderella with more stabby crucifixion and less choppy toe-amputation.
As a pretty existentialist society we tell ourselves and we tell our kids, that we can be whoever we want to be. We tell ourselves we have the right to that throne, to that job, to that success, to that identity. Yet almost without exception we find this prospect, this freedom, so terrifying that we have to tell ourselves stories that feel true in order to accept our own choices.
So do we believe our own narrative? Do we truly accept our chosen identities? In life, as in Pan's Labyrinth, we contradict ourselves constantly. As we fight our way to the centre of labyrinth with all we hold dear clutched in our arms and the Devil himself on our heels, the two worlds of our stories and our histories collide. As we stand, looking up at the Faun, Vidal rushes in behind us. For a split second we see the labyrinth through Vidal’s cold objectivity. The Faun is gone. We just imagined him. Our self-created identity is stripped.
Seconds later, dying in a pool of our own, real, unimaginative blood the fantasy is revived. We find Ofelia the princess in her father’s throne-room.
I suppose we’re meant to question which world is the true world. Is Del Toro feeding us The Life of Pi, or The Matrix?
The more interesting question for me, though, is this: What horrible reality is my own narrative attempting to escape?
1I was also not allowed to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, as Jesus is the Master of the Universe. Don’t worry, I believe in him now. Father Christmas that is, not He-Man; there are obviously all kinds of gender issues there. (back)
2Okay, okay, not all of these regimes were strictly fascist, but classifying dictators is a dull hobby. (back)