Guillermo del Toro at MIA
Published on Monday, March 13, 2017 By Max Sparber
Film director Guillermo del Toro has an exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts just now titled At Home with Monsters. It's the second stop for this show, which originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, although, really, it originated with a Los Angeles house del Toro owns that he calls Bleak House, after the book by Dickens.
Del Toro is a consummate collector. "If you give a Mexican three objects, he will make a shrine," he told a crowd at MIA on opening day, and he prides himself on reflecting the shrine-like ulrabaroque sensibilities of Mexican artists. Del Toro has collected since he was a boy, mostly work related to the supernatural and especially related to the supernatural in film, and his collection has grown so large that it has its own house. Bleak House.
I attended the exhibit on opening day, listened to a talk del Toro gave, got him to sign a book, and then, just by a stroke of luck, found myself part of a private tour of the exhibit led by del Toro. He was uncommonly generous, spending an hour and a half, almost two hours explaining his collection. There were original designs for Disney films, original cartoons by Richard Corben and Gahan Wilson, uncannily realistic sculptures of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, and original costumes and props from del Toro's films. He had stories about all of them, and could minutely detail the process by which the art was made, and offer biographies of the artist.
Del Toro is, himself, a filmmaker of indulgent detail. Superficially, many of his film seem to be pop confections, enjoyable but slight cartoon glosses on established horror tropes. (I am referring to films like the Hellboy movies and "Pacific Rim" here; his "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labyrinth" are undisputed masterpieces.)
But even those film are crammed with significant details, and, on each viewing, the films grow deeper as his talent for visual storytelling comes to the fore. Characters who appear for only a moment grow in significance when we notice these details, like the Russians in "Pacific Rim" who pilot a giant robot, and who are literally welded into its stomach; they have no possibility of escape, so every battle is to the death. They are onscreen for perhaps two or three minutes, but have become fan favorites due to the amount of information it is possible to glean in that time.
Del Toro is a pop filmmaker, and yet he is one that his fans feel a private relationship with, thanks to these details. It is as though his films are full of secrets, available for those who care enough to dig, and eventually you find a secret intended specifically for you.
Examples: Disabled audiences noticed that the two scientists in "Pacific Rim" have disabilities, and how, despite their rancorous relationship, they demanded respect for the other's disability; The class conscious noticed that Idris Elba played his role with his native, working-class Hackney accent; Feminist audiences noticed that Rinko Kikuchi's character was secretly the star of the film, and Japanese audience noticed that her most significant moment was presented in untranslated Japanese.
So here's the secret that is speaking to me just now, and it isn't such a big secret, but it seems especially meaningful to me just now, and it's the reason why I feel this discussion belongs on a Jewish blog. Del Toro is one of the few filmmakers working today who shares a certain sensibility with the horror films of the 30s and 40s, and that sensibility is as follows:
Fascism is a terrible thing and it must be resisted.
I'll start with the old movies. Horror developed as a genre at the exact moment fascism rose in Europe, and often seemed to reflect on the fact, detailed in the book "From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film" by Siegfried Kracauer.
It was there in hints in the early films, including "Dracula," which used the same sorts of motifs of blood-sucking vermin that the Nazis favored, but made the villain European royalty, rather than Jews. There was "The Invisible Man," in which a lunatic plotted to rule the world through a campaign of terror. As more of these films were made, they became a shore upon which dozens, and eventually hundreds, or European filmmakers washed up, seeking refuge from European fascism.
As this happened, the themes became more visible and obvious, including "The Wolf Man," in which a poisonous savagery spreads through Europe (marked by a star on the body); and "The Black Cat," in which Bela Legosi arrives to take a terrible revenge on a war criminal, played by Boris Karloff.
Del Toro has unambiguously addressed fascism, setting two of his films, "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labyrinth," during the Spanish Civil War. "Hellboy" is set in the shadow of the Holocaust, with the occultist German Thule Society (a predecessor to the Nazi Party) rising up to bring about genocide. Even "Blade 2" based itself around a disastrous eugenic experiment designed to breed a master race.
Del Toro speaks often about fascism, and how, in his films, the monsters are rarely the villains, but, instead, it is humans who are often the most monstrous. "What interests me about fascism is that it is a black hole of free will," he has said. "It is a system which isn’t necessarily unique, but it absolves brutality, it absolves the lack of morals and it absolves people of their own decisions. When they tell you ‘you can kill these people because they are Jews, reds or homosexuals, or whatever!’ In this world you can permit a brutal action on the base of collective advice; that is what scares me."
He understands the appeal of fascism: "One of the dangers of fascism and one of the dangers of true evil in our world—which I believe exists—is that it's very attractive. That it is incredibly attractive in a way that most people negate. Most people make their villains ugly and nasty and I think, no, fascism has a whole concept of design, and a whole concept of uniforms and set design that made it attractive to the weak-willed"
He is open about the fact that he uses horror as a metaphor for addressing fascism, saying "What I really set out to do with 'Pan’s Labyrinth' was to make an anti-fascist fairytale — which I think is very pertinent to our times right now! I really like exploring big, political events through metaphors, and I think horror is a very political genre."
And what interests me about del Toro's film is not merely that their look into fascism, but also the way they prioritize resistance to fascism. The woods in "Pan's Labyrinth" is filled with guerillas, taking up arms against Spanish fascists, while a quieter revolution goes on inside the house of one of the fascist leaders. In it, his housekeeper is secretly a revolutionary, while his daughter slips into a metaphoric realm in which she is constantly confronted by appealing demands to do evil.
This feels like a time when we need movies that recognize fascism as a breeding ground for monsters, and celebrate resistance to it, even if that resistance is imprecise, or metaphoric, or suicidal. Because del Toro's films also show us what the world looks like after fascism: A wasted place of mass death and abandoned weapons that still might become deadly at any moment.
This world. Our world.
It has real monsters in it, and someone really does need to stand up to them.
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