Friday 19 May 2017

I Blame Society #4: The Dark Crystal (1982)

I was only ever taken to see two films by my mum as a kid, both at the Drake Cinema's Summer Club, where every Wednesday morning in the school hols they'd show recent films and charge 50p for kids. And one time it was Return of the Jedi, which for me as a kid of seven was the Undisputed! Highlight! of My Summer, Possibly My Life to Date. But while I don't rate Star Wars all that highly these days, the other film was The Dark Crystal and that had a lasting effect.
The most distressing thing I'd ever seen.
And it's weird, I don't really have clear memories of seeing Return of the Jedi, but I remember with crystal clarity sitting bolt upright before that big screen, the biggest I ever saw, my hands gripping the sides of the seat, coarse theatrical upholstery rough against the palms of my hands, fixed on the scene of the Skeksis Scientist forcing a Podling trapped in cruel restraints to stare into the reflected light of the Dark Crystal. The little creature's dark, liquid eyes turned into glassy marbles, her face became sunken, deathly. And most distressing of all, the Podling's soul, the vital essence, as the gloating scientist explained, was distilled into a clear liquid, drip, drip, drip, which was then given to the Emperor to drink.

I can't possibly think of anything that I might have seen in a film in my life up to then that could have been more distressing. I was shaking as I left the cinema. It traumatised me. I of course wanted to see it again, caught rare TV showings whenever I could. When the VHS came out (and I was in my teens by then) I bought a copy; it was one of the first DVDs I owned; when I finally got a Blu Ray player I bought the Blu Ray. Although I don't tend to have much time for film merchandise, I own a copy of the (exquisite) art book Brian Froud produced to tie in with the film.

I even read it.
The wasteland.
The Dark Crystal was directed, of course, by the late and much-missed Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets. It is set on an entirely imaginary world, and it is (I think) unique in being a live-action film without a single human. Every character is a puppet, a breathtaking practical effect in and of itself, and every puppet represents an imaginary alien being. Every location has been built to represent an alien world with exquisite care; you see the food chain in action, animals being eaten, nursing their young, going about their business. The world looks lived in, and everything has a history and an ecology.1

Jen is apparently (so he thinks) the last of the elfin Gelflings. He lives with eldest of the Mystics, a community of wise but apathetic beings, one of two dwindling races who arose a thousand years ago when the Dark Crystal cracked, the other being the cruel, wasteful Skeksis, who maintain power by magic and force.
I will see you in another life.
The eldest of the Mystics is dying; before he dies, he sends Jen on a quest to heal the Dark Crystal before the three suns enter a conjunction – that is, two of the suns eclipse the third – and create the astrological conditions that would ensure that the decay caused by the Skeksis rule would endure forever.

The Skeksis, meanwhile, enter a period of crisis as, simultaneously, their Emperor dies, gracelessly, spitting hate.

(Later on, the link will become more explicit, as the Scientist falls into the pillar of fire and air that levitates the Dark Crystal, and it vaporises him, and far away one of the Mystics blinks out of existence, and the other Mystics shrug and move on.)

A power struggle ensues, settled by a custom that involves hitting a stone with a big sword to see who chips the most off. The winner, the General, becomes the Emperor, while the Chamberlain, his opponent, is stripped naked and banished.
Trial by Stone.
Jen, on his journey, meets a sage named Aughra, a grotesque, irascible but fundamentally decent individual who gives Jen the missing piece of the Dark Crystal and confesses she doesn't know what to do with it; and then he meets Kira, a female Gelfling, who was brought up by the tiny, sweet natured Podlings and who also thought she was the last. The two Gelflings, evading the Skeksis' magical creatures and the machinations of the Chamberlain (who is angling for a return to grace), achieve the palace and Jen heals the Crystal by joining it with its missing shard as the light of the three suns hits it.

The slaves are freed, the wounded are healed, and the Skeksis and the Mystics, who are all present at the moment, cease to exist; each is revealed to be only one half of a gestalt entity. These creatures leave the planet, and allow the surviving Gelflings and Podlings to live in peace. The final shot of the landscape shows verdant fields and shining waters where there was blasted desert.
It's readily apparent that a degree of thought has gone into The Dark Crystal above and beyond most other fantasy movies. Most films are designed, heavily so, but if you were to compare, say, a heavily concept designed alien world such as the one in Avatar with the world of The Dark Crystal, you can see a degree of depth that Avatar just doesn't have. The makers of the film have thought very hard about how an alien world with three suns might work. Triangular and spiral devices predominate, even in the shapes of natural creatures and plants, and even animals such as the Landstriders and the Nebry get brief scenes that suggest a place in the food chain, a habitat, even the sorts of things these creatures eat. Little details like a creature that helps Jen out of a swamp appearing roasted on a platter at the Skeksis' feast, the planets and moons in Aughra's orrery, the little creatures at the meal that run across the table so the Skeksis have to catch them on a fork and eat them alive.
Of course not. You're a boy.
There's one moment where Jen and Kira escape the Garthim, the monstrous soldiers of the Skeksis, by jumping off a cliff; Kira reveals she has wings. Jen observes he doesn't have wings, and Kira says, "Of course not, you're a boy," and that's literally all the explanation you receive or require: it's not overexplained. It just is, an offhand reference to a wider context that we barely see. And we should, because it's a culture that's lost, which survives in the ruins of what was once a grand civilisation, in prophetic fragments engraved on walls that only one of the Gelflings can even read. And once, Gelfling women had wings and that meant something to their society, the fact shaped it. But there's only Jen and Kira left.
Podling music.
When the Skeksis agree to settle their arguments with a Trial by Stone, the little slaves bring in a knackered old thing that clearly bears the marks of hundreds of battles of this sort, implying more eloquently than any verbal explanation that the Skeksis have sorted out their differences by whacking this stone for a very long time. No one bothers to explain the rules. The film shows you all you need to know. And this is where The Dark Crystal excels: it shows you a world that is all the more real because it doesn't feel the need to justify itself to you or explain itself. The moment it explains itself it ceases to be real, because in the act of verbal explanation a fictional world reveals itself as a fiction. By just getting on with being a world, The Dark Crystal's world develops a life.
Words that stay.
And that includes its spirituality. In designing the film, Henson and Froud and their team actually reached towards figuring out what a system of astrology with three suns would look like, and what a religion based on this would behave like, and we don't see that much, but there's a scene where the Mystics lay out the old master's belongings on the ground and send it on to the spirit world (by making it disappear) and it doesn't actually matter if his stuff is actually following him to the afterlife or not, they believe it does, and it's the ritual that matters.
Aughra: Who sent you?
Jen: My master. Wisest of the Mystics.
Aughra: Where is he? Around here?
Jen: He's dead.
Aughra: Could be anywhere, then.
The master might have died, but there's an assumption that the afterlife coexists with the characters. You don't have to make it up! Rich, associative dialogue shows you a world bigger than the narrative.

The show-don't-tell ethos is taken seriously enough by the film to even prevent it from moralising. This of course doesn't mean you can't draw out a moral. I mean, this is what I do, right.
A dream of peace.
The Mystics exist in a dream; the dying master regrets not having told Jen about the prophecy that a Gelfling will heal the rift in both the crystal and the world's spirit. It's evident that in their apathy and seclusion, their slow deliberate movements and their stoic acceptance, they are, for all their kindness, not part of the solution. And more, the split between the Skeksis and the Mystics isn't a straight good-evil divide. The Skeksis are evil because they consume. They consume without regard for consequences. They're essentially capitalists taking capitalism to its furthest logical extent. And the furthest logical extent of capitalism is the apocalypse.
The shabby nobility of the postapocalypse.
The Skeksis take slaves. And in The Dark Crystal, slavery is shown for what it is, a thing that steals a person's soul, except here it's literal, and the way that the Emperor drinks it from a flask was always the most terrible part of this: all he gets is a temporary cosmetic improvement. It's a waste, but then everything the Skeksis do is: they discard things without regard, they use extravagant means to achieve their ends. People are only resources to them. They are what capitalists look like to anticapitalists (and if you're reading this with the assumption that capitalism is basically OK, at the very least take away that this is what they think of you).

The Skeksis' responses to crisis are panicky, extreme; they exterminated the Gelflings, a civilisation coded in the little that remains as nonviolent (and consider: only the Skeksis have weapons) because the Skeksis were afraid that their – unsustainable – system would be brought to collapse. And it collapsed anyway. The Skeksis' shabby finery, their inability even to source a new stone to whack, betrays them as the sort of people who, in a choice between not ruling a paradise or ruling a wasteland, will take the wasteland. They are a postapocalyptic nobility.
And it was a slow apocalypse, although it begun with a decisive event; but evidently the Skeksis, born when the UrSkeks passed the point of no return, found themselves in a still pretty OK world, and made it theirs, and trashed it.

The Mystics might be conservationist, but they don't change things. Presumably they are powerful enough to cancel out the Skeksis but they don't. They don't have the agency to fix things, only to protect one (and why only one?) person who can do something, and be present when it's fixed. And here's the thing: anticapitalist efforts from inside the system are so often ineffective because one of the most powerful things about capitalism is its ability to act decisively and initiate change. Meanwhile, in the real world people keep saying things like, "let's go on a march" and that achieves nothing, because it's reactive and if you're going to change something you need an agency that isn't part of an established system.
Crikey, that was all a bit Marxist. But it's not hard to read The Dark Crystal this way, any more than it is to read Excalibur as a hymn to patriarchal militarism. The Dark Crystal is stealth Marxism. It is. It's as left wing as a movie starring puppet aliens can be.

Returning to the point: the Mystics don't fix anything; the world was their mess anyway, and while they're themselves healed at the end, the best solution the Mystics have is to protect and inform someone who can do something, and then, when they're healed, to leave, because they're still fallible and representatives of an agency that cannot continue to be present in a working world, or at least this one. Maybe they'll work out where they went wrong and on their next planet make a better go of it, but the world of the Bright Crystal doesn't need them. And although the mending of the crystal heals those who are broken – re-ensouling the Podling slaves, reviving the wounded Kira – it doesn't bring back the dead. The Gelflings are still, it seems, doomed as a species.
According to the book, the UrSkeks weren't native anyway, which makes them colonists, imperialists. They swept in from outside, made the Bright Crystal do stuff, broke it and then one half of them doubled down on their control and the other half went to a valley and lived in harmony with nature, unmolested by the Skeksis, who they knew wouldn't bother them because they're the same people (or if you want to rephrase that in Horrible Internet Speak, they could choose not to take political action because they had sufficient privilege – and God, I hate the way online discourse has debased that word, robbed it of its force). That is, they were mostly all right, a bit sad because of the situation, but essentially doing very little, and in fact leaving it to the very last minute to tell anyone who could do anything about it what needed to be done. They're so inactive that in the film they don't even get to assert their names.

I have no doubt that the coming Netflix prequel series will stick to the film bible as reproduced in the companion book more closely than perhaps any bible deserves, and that all the Skeksis and Mystics will have their names, so they'll call the Scientist SkekTek and the Alchemist UrZah, and so on; it'll be interesting to see how bleak they can make a presumably all-ages series given that the characters with the agency, the Gelflings, are all canonically (so far) going to die. Will the Mystics have more agency? I am very keen to see. I suspect however that in order to make a drama that works in the serial form, they're going to have to make changes that render my reading invalid. I'm at peace with that.
I showed my kids The Dark Crystal, because what's the point of parenthood if you can't pass on childhood traumas, and their reaction was mostly positive, particularly my younger son, the Golden-Haired Youth, who has the capacity to love things fervently.2 Despite being nearly 35 years old, and being made in a period when the Creature Shop hadn't yet quite cracked how to get a puppet to walk convincingly, despite the puppets with the weakest design and the least expression being the protagonists, The Dark Crystal has a degree of craft and thought rare in cinema; it is one of the very few films that has a real sense of poetry to it (and Joseph O'Connor's voice over at the beginning deserves mention for its structure and cadence alone). It expresses a whole world. The Dark Crystal is in my opinion the finest fantasy film ever made.

1In fact, as the art book, The World of the Dark Crystal, makes apparent, one similarity that The Dark Crystal has with Star Wars is that nearly every character in the film has a name and a biography, most of which is unseen in the film. Unlike Star Wars, these biographies are evidently not for toyetic purposes (i.e. not mainly to sell action figures or populate tie-in novels), instead creating a context from which the actors in the film worked, so that each of the Skeksis and the Mystics became an individual creature with its own apparent independent life.
For example.
The art book also shows how the Skeksis and Mystics (or urRu as the book calls them), superficially very different, are designed using the same geometrical forms as their basis, giving them a sort of subliminal aesthetic link that you don't immediately see but nonetheless subconsciously accept, so that the final revelation, which is hinted at throughout the film anyway, comes as no surprise whatsoever, since it was in plain sight all along. (back)

2Going to have to watch that closely, though. That's a power that can also be used for evil. (back)