viernes, 9 de marzo de 2018

The future of the future - Alan Moore and the challenge of reimagining culture

Alan Moore has described the current trend of superhero films as a "tsunami" that is "not doing our culture any good at all", "power fantasies" that "refuse to take responsibility" for the current and future world. He also uses the, now very trendy, word "infantilization". When an old man tells other people to "grow up", when they are cranky about someone having fun with comics, superheroes, science fiction and toys, of course it sound like he's just missed to go with the times himself. Eco has labeled this tendency to refuse anything new as "apocalyptic" and Debray has identified is as a form of gatekeeping the cannon, practiced since the very moment when Socrates refuses to use the new medium of writing.

Moore, however, does not fit the profile of the apocalyptic. He is rather fond of counterculture and is known first and foremost for his own work on superhero comics. His critique of the genre therefore cannot be based on its inherent characteristics, or on the clichés used by the dominant culture of ignorance that labels itself as "mature". "Infantilization" is a wrong label, as most trendy labels tend to be. Although I am no expert myself, I believe that the problem is real, but relies somewhere different.

Decades before, Moore described an intricate politic-economic strategy through his character Veidt "the smartest man on earth". Veidt's brand of cosmetics is designed specifically to appeal in the times of hopelessness, to be desirable in the shadow of the atom bomb. And by no coincidence, it is called "Nostalgia". The longing for an idealized past is intense when the future becomes impossible to comprehend.

Disney and Netflix have built a much wider cultural industry on the capitalization of nostalgia. They control every second blockbuster and construct it as a piece of rehash, not only out of laziness, but because it knows that the imagining something new would cost a comodified audience more effort than ever. Thus, established communities try to reaffirm the identities they have built so far instead of considering new possibilities, even closing on any too creative variations on the fanboy canon. The problem, therefore, relies in the exact opposite end of infantility: Even youths are not open to experiment new things, but bound by the cult of what they literally call canon. Nostalgia is not an infantile, but a senile culture.

Where do I stand, then, immersed in the trends of uchronia and retrofuturism. These ideas sure do reduce the concept of future to a matter of the past and remove themselves from actually imagining a progression into further possibilities. Future is a trope, not a work in progress. I justify this by calling it postmodern, by claiming that alternative forms of time need to be explored and, in particular, by calling for a revision of how History has been told by the powers that be. These are all as true as they are questionable.

A sidenote on the chart attached: I consider its divisions quite silly, trying to build an entire genre on the slightest innovation, a distinct aesthetics out of each single decade. What all these "different" forms have in common, however, is quite telling. They are linked to specific dates of the past and determined by something that already happened. Is this what "punk" means nowadays, is all that is left of rebellion the adherence to a fixed memory?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me why all futures imagined nowadays are grim. Of course, this was a hard question for me to even grasp, since everything about me is always grim. It was clear that she didn't mean the fancy and ironic retro-futures either. Back in the days, during the cold war even, it was still popular to believe in utopia. In the recent years, however, every hope has faded away. Moore relates it to the internet, which has left society startled and in a dynamic of repetition. One might as well blame the cynicism of a broken capitalist system which cannot think outside itself, or the failure of the communist revolution - they have failed us both. Capitalism, in its situation, tells us we'll have to keep going with the same dysfunctions, degrading bit by bit but never reaching a limit; the left would have us believe a change is still possible, a change that breaks the system and, maybe this time, will take us to a promised land, or at least not be a total mess. Maybe what we need to realize is that we cannot keep promising ourselves the same thing, that the choice is not between an old, nostalgic future and no future, that we need to update and reimagine what we truly want.

martes, 24 de octubre de 2017

Rückblick in die Trinkhalle

Es sind viele Sachen, die mir entgehen, anständig zu teilen. Dann googlet man sich und findet Stücke seiner selbst an den unerwartetsten Orten verstreut. Seit dem Tag der Trinkhallen ist es auch schon mehr als ein Jahr her. Da haben war die kleine Bude bei mir um die Ecke leider zu, und wir kamen mit dem Richtungsding und Dichtungsring in einem größeren, schon zweckentfremdeten Laden zusammen, um schräge Texte zu lesen.

domingo, 23 de octubre de 2016

Some kind of Japanese Watchmen? A personal note on Concrete Revolutio - Choujin Gensou

To begin to imagine the impact of Watchmen on a die-hard superhero comics fan like me, visualize a train-wreck taking place in twelve monthly installments. I may not have recognized Watchmen as a deconstruction of the hero, but certainly I realized (with a combination of horror and fascination known to rubberneckers everywhere) that there my precious heroes were being shattered before my very eyes, taken apart from the inside-out, in the pages of the medium that had always loved and cared for them, and in a style that demonstrated an obvious mastery of the medium that it now set out to implode.

Thomson, Iain: "Deconstructing the Hero". In: . Superheroes and Philosophy. Open Court, Chicago 2008, P. 102.

As for me, I never experienced superheroes as part of my childhood. When I was around 7 years old, everybody was crazy about "Batman Returns", but my parents wouldn't take me to watch it because it was too dark for a kid. In a way, they were right. I must have been about 11 or so when the animated series of Batman and Spider-Man were on TV. They were fun for the time being. I remember the strange feeling of actually identifying with the villains most of the time. It wasn't much of an impact on me, still. Actually, the moment superheroes started becoming truly relevant was when in my teens I finally made my way to "Batman Returns", "The Killing Joke" and, of course, Watchmen. To me, Superheroes became relevant only the moment they started to implode and self destruct.

What was my childhood made of then, I wonder? In the anime Concrete Revolutio I recognize a part of it: Pizza cats, masked riders, monsters who grow huge from a lightning bolt. If my fascination for tokusatsu and super sentai quickly became ironic, I can't deny the strength it originally had. One might even blame Peruvian television for that, assuming that it therefore affected my entire generation.

In Concrete Revolutio I find those same heroes confronted with the political problems of the times that gave them birth, as well as to their essential contradictions. This is, in a way, the same implosion Moore produced for the American superhero. I must clarify that I strongly disagree with Thomson in calling it a "deconstruction", a word that is receiving more abuse every day. Instead I would go with Terrence Wandtke in calling it revisionism, which refers to the critique of history and its possibilities.

While not at the level of Moore's stunning perfection, the plot of Concrete Revolutio is still tightly woven. It even posits some of the same questions: How can anybody claim a moral compass after the holocaust? What should heroes do in the face of a corrupted system? And even: Who watches the watchmen? This last question is curiously reversed in the anime. For the masked vigilantes of American comics the problem was that society needed to control their power, just as it should control the State itself. For heroes of anime and tokusatsu, who for a long time have been fighting unmasked, the question interprets differently: it translates into the Department for Superhuman Protection. It's somewhat like witness protection: those who put themselves on the line to protect others are targeted by local and international politics. However, here too a paradox is born, for the state can never protect without controlling and even castrating.

This brings me to consider the fact that Watchmen revised history marginally while actually commenting mainly on its own time. Of course, reading it nowadays creates a different perspective on it, reflected clearly by the cinematic adaptation which heavily draws on signs to historicise its tale. It looks as if the problem with superheroes was a problem of the cold war. Comic publishers nowadays even struggle to overcome that crisis and claim the dark age is over, while current news keep proving that a divided globe on the edge of total war is ever present.

Concrete Revolutio voluntarily gives in to that historization, giving the 60s a "happy ending" which completely leaves the historical frame. All contradictions, the impossibility of heroes, was a problem of the past, and nowadays we should be able to overcome those problems and live the dream. A cruel lie if we remember the nation was until recently still a single-party system, haunted by conservative ideologies and delving ever deeper into moral bankruptcy. (You may consider social retreat and population decrease, among many others, as expressions of this.)

What Concrete Revolutio lacks in contemporary criticism, it makes up in its acid views of official history. Crude episodes like the Vietnam War, the student protests and the Hiroshima bomb are subject to uncompromising commentary. Both the "imperial" propaganda agency, represented in the ending sequence in front of the Japanese flag, and the official Protection Department turn out to be corrupt organizations the heroes have to destroy. Of course, the lie is that they managed to do it, somewhere in the past. What the series actually does is taking a common course to avoid censorship: to fashion its critique to its actual time in a past and fantastic setting.

On the other hand, the historical setting allows for a particular  aesthetic of nostalgia. Unlike Watchmen, Concrete Revolutio does embrace the cartoonish, the absurd, yes the very irony that has always been part of tokusatsu, kaiju and its derivates. We have shape-shifting friendly ghosts, bulgy-eyed Muskehounds, magical girls giving every inanimate object a happy face; alongside detailed giant robots, historical war machines, and even actual recognizable landmarks.

This merged, flowing aesthetic is facilitated by the medium of animation. It means, of course, a medial change from the "real-life" action and plastic monsters of many of the works it comments on, thus creating a distance which once more weakens the implosion. Still, the clash of the several visual hypotexts is made possible by the drawn image in a way hardly imaginable in actual video.

Of course, anime "came of age" in its own way long ago, shifting the focus to tortured anti-heroes of all sorts and thoroughly forgetting about tokusatsu along the way. Nowadays, one can find many continuous levels between serious seinen and childish shonen anime, but it has no continuity with more "superheroic" forms of action TV which subsist in a completely separate sphere. The backward gaze brings these instances back together while demanding a historical reflection on them.

domingo, 16 de octubre de 2016

Roleplaying the Spiel

This weekend the Europe's largest game fair, the Spiel, took place in my neighborhood. Since it has proven impossible to fully describe events that cover several days, I will focus on the Roleplaying Games I met on the fair this time. Of course, there are many others I didn't get to know enough about even to mention them, but here's a report on the bits I learned.

Meikyu Kingdom: I had one more chance to try what calls itself a "cynical pop dungeon fantasy" with an experienced GM. The setting is a world consisting in its entirety of a massive dungeon and full of every random eclectic cliché of fantasy you can imagine, only even a little weirder because Japan. Characters are rolled together to produce absurd, but somehow consistent combinations. This time I was a butler called "Champion of the Messe" who had a constant itch for fighting. The system is confirmed for hilarious, random story driving and fun adventuring. In a long run, the party should also get to "make" the kingdom, dealing with its politics and securing its stability. Strangely enough, there is still no official translation, while fans work intensely on theirs. Ulisses Spiele has declared interest in developing a German version sometime. Let's hope it keeps coming.

Shinobigami: A new release from the same "Adventure Planning Service". While the ninja theme clearly calls for a somewhat darker setting, the game does not lack over-the-top anime bombasticism. Ninja clans conspire to resurrect ancient yokai and settle old blood feuds in the shadows. Nowadays they appear as armies, families or even high schools (of course!). What's most interesting, however, is that the system supports fights among player characters. I should certainly try this out some time. The official version is pre-releasing on kickstarter, it seems some fans have been making progress as well.

#urbanheroes: I only came to hear a brief introduction to the setting, but it sounded quite interesting. In a tradition that follows the broken heroes of Watchmen and Civil War, the game imagines superpowers in a contemporary environment, entangled with actual politics and global events. "Heroes" in this context are media personalities financed by obscure interests, so that it's pretty hard to do the "right thing". The system is quite detailed and very customizable, but I'd have to give a test run to know if it isn't overly complicated simulationism. The feature that sounds truly amazing is the fact that the game has spawned an on-line social network used internationally for roleplaying the virtual level of its world, thus creating a macrocosm that truly connects all individual campaigns. As it seems, if you want to play something approaching contemporary superheroes, this is the place to be.

Time Stories: One of the nominees for "best advanced game" this year was actually an RPG. As time travelers, your consciousness is sent from the future into the body of a person from a crucial moment in time. The system works with fully illustrated cards that deliver events and flavor texts, plus a board which visualizes all game mechanics. This makes the game visually involving and quite self-explicative, besides allowing to play without a GM. The downside is, the box only contains one adventure, and you'll have to buy extra cards to play again.

Oh, and there's also a Love Live RPG where you play teenage idols. I don't really wanna know...

jueves, 12 de mayo de 2016

62. Oberhausen Kurzfimtage: The virtual space of animation

As every year, the Oberhausen Film Festival delivers more than anyone could possibly chew or swallow. The Latin American theme screening delivered excellent insight beyond the clichés the region often loses the perspective of itself. I also missed out on the retrospective on grand Chinese animator Sun Xun. Still, I will for now focus on the animation films in the international competition.

One of the big winners of the year was Hayoun Kwon's "489 years". The film uses 3d animation to reconstruct the real testimony of a soldier on the border between South and North Korea. Of course, this reminds both of popular 1st person shooting games and of the "serious games" used for reconstruction of traumatic military situations, widely known through the work of Haroun Farocki. The director is conscious of these connections and sees it as placing her work between reality and fiction. The visions can, after all, only be true to memory and not to fact, and are mostly the imagination of an unaccessible place. Furthermore, the journey also allows itself some surreal escapes, as it dives beneath the floor or hovers above the sky. The voice of the interviewed person and its editing combine with this into stimulating storytelling.
Kwon also places her work between medial boundaries, as she in fact has developed a VR version in which the public can look around themselves freely to explore this virtual space of memory. Even so, with the shooting game as a constant reference, not a single shot is fired in the film. It is merely the tension, the sense of awe and wonder, that grows to dominate the entire situation. The film approaches the sense of the sacred as monstrous, overwhelming and fascinating: precisely because of the fear it represents, the area has also become a natural paradise. The atrocity of the untouchable space appears as necessary to the sustainment of a tense cease fire. The freedom of the animals that inhabit it is only possible at the expense of constant danger. Finally, the fear the narrator has faced also proves a toll for the intense memories he cherishes.

A very different transmedia project was Okaku Noriko's "The Interpreter". In a residence in English Derbyshire the artist combined contemporary pictures of the locations with historical etchings from magazines and penny dreadfulls. Thus, she also opens a fantastic space, a reconstruction of reality in between times. The collage takes two shapes: it manifests both as film and as cards. The cards, and many of the motifs within the images, are inspired by the major arcana of tarot, although they take these forms freely to keep an open dialogue with the location and, most importantly, the viewer. The interpreter is not only central in Okaku's title but, as tarot practitioners know, also the goal in the use of cards: it is in connecting the dissimilar images and their riddles that one may achieve a meditation leading to self knowledge. In that sense, the game of tarot is a collage at a different level, one that reconfigures itself with every spread to challenge the consciousness of the interpreter anew. On the other hand, the animated film is a liquid visualization of what is commonly known as "the fool's journey". It shows the flow between and among the cards, emphasizing that there is nothing set and nothing isolated in them.

The Interpreter from Animate Projects on Vimeo.

Ohtakara Hitomi's "Omokagetayuta" was not transmedial, but mixed media in the more traditional sense. Combining techniques already has a stable position in painting, but is harder to come by in animation. Combining video, drawings, photography and stop motion requires, after all, a multitalented hand. The theme of the film, the attempt to reconstruct the memory of a long lost person, reflects in its polyphonic images, which must also be pieced together through imagination. This becomes more intense through some abstract but relatable symbols, like the sticky blot that wanders unnoticed through the house.

Another Japanese animator who was unfortunately not present but delivered a remarkable work was Okawara Ryo. His piece had the strange title 「テ゛ィス゛イス゛マイハウス」, which actually is just "This is my house" in katakana. It is precisely the problems of dysfunctional homes and families, but also its connection to even more widespread social problems, which the film addresses. The iconic pictures and strong colors contrast with the slowness and silentness of the characters. The ever present image of the burning house stands for the visible manifestations of discrimination and misdirection. In the characters of the film, however, it only brings out the indifference or cynicism that are painfully familiar to modern society. One ought to wonder if the black humor of the film is not itself, too, caught in the cynicism it represents. Be it as it may, at least it screams out the silent voices of burning problems which are more present then one likes to admit.

The last participant Japanese animator was Ogawa Iku, who adapted one of the most bizarre tales of the Grimms into stop motion animation. The base material is "Die Wunderliche Gästerei" which, as the director mentioned, was removed from later editions of the Collection for being inappropriate for children. "I think you're a little confused" plays decidedly with black humor, grotesque shapes and a somber yet hilarious atmosphere. The oddness of the nonsense tale allows for intriguing images like a scared sausage being squashed between a happy and a sad face.

One of my personal favorites was Renata Gąsiorowska's "Cipka". In a context of ever recurring misogynist conservatism, this short sets a clear radical voice for freedom and self appreciation. One might label the representation of masturbation as feminist pornography, but on the other hand the cartoonish style frees it from any conventional sexualized perspective. It is rather humor and creativity that stand in the central point, finding new forms to describe the female experience, forms that also go beyond most boundaries of what could be said and shown before. Also for men and anyone else, the film is a liberating impulse to rethink our bodies.

Another group that made itself noticed with their highly intellectual works and opinions were the heirs of Croatian avant-garde. They delivered a couple of pieces that they described as anti-animation: the images were created in programs for architecture design and had therefore no movement of their own, but consisted in the camera exploring the spaces.
Tomislav Ŝoban's "Kraj" leads from total darkness into total whiteness. In between, there are paradox images of contrasts. From the resources of architecture, Ŝoban choses one which is not such: trees. These, however, appear alternately inside and outside structures. If infinite space is circular, can something be the center and the border at the same time? As anything "post-" Ŝoban also conceives of his anti-animation as a borderline that is still part of animation. His precise mathematic contradiction reminds of a borgian meditation.
Darko Fritz draws from the same source for his work "Novi Juẑni Zagreb", which however also has a strong documentary component. Fritz represents the expansion of the city that was conceived by the Yugoslavian government as a communist utopia in the 60s. Utopia in this case has no relation to beauty, but to novelty and, especially, to that which is disconnected from all antecedents, alienating in its purity. The film superposes with great precision videos of scale models, real footage and computer models of the same locations, showing the fast and radical transformation of the area. The brutalist concrete blocks grow out of completely empty lands with a gigantic, arbitrary and dehumanizing power. Fritz's own work as he describes it is not prone to human sensitivity either: what we see is edited by mathematical algorithms which determine that the length of each image be relative to the others and form a particular progression.
This dreamed city of the future resounds strongly with another short shown right next to it: "Entretempos" by Yuri Firmeza and Federico Benevides takes on institutional animations that serve as propaganda for the constructions for the olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. The film estranges the images distorting them and focusing on their arbitrary, absurd details. The building machines dance frenziedly to the rhythm of slave songs that remind the bloody history of the ground they are building upon. Finally, the camera brings us to the fabled "family of the future". They live just next to the great stadium, but instead of looking out of the window, they watch TV. They are spectators, like us. But they are also disturbingly white and are all eating endlessly from huge bowls of popcorn with a spasmodic, compulsive drive. It's not as scary to think that this is the future that most governments try to sell as, than it is to watch ourselves buying into it. A very different question that also arises is: is this still animation? Or is it rather re-animation of images that reveal themselves as undead, the exorcism of the ghosts of the future, anti-animation?

domingo, 17 de abril de 2016

Becoming Pagan

I just translated a tale of wolves and humans, of men and women, of nature and spirituality. In it, characters all too often "find themselves" on the road. Driven by instinct, one starts doing things before knowing it. Some claim it's the subconscious or the social performance. I don't think anyone else can know what it is, it's just stuff that happens.

I happen now to find myself as a pagan, celebrating solstice and Walpurgis, trying to keep my body in touch with a cycle that should never end. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that in Europe I am at last in touch with a cycle that actually makes time visible, in which nature interacts with time. You don't get much seasons in a city which is damp and cloudy all year, but in which it never rains. On the other hand, you do. I did write something about that:

La calurosa navidad debería en verdad ser una gran celebración, una bacanal que glorifique el término del ciclo junto con la aparición de las mangas y faldas cortas, las blusas blancas que transparentan los sostenes de las colegialas y los helados que succionan mientras suben en grupo a los microbuses. Me invade la sensación de un estado de erotismo universal, de que, quizá, cualquier persona que me encuentre en las calles podría venir a revolcarse entre mis sábanas sin la ropa que tanto sobra en esta estación. Definitivamente una celebración de la vida que vale un par de feriados y la renovación de varias tradiciones.
Probablemente, la valoración de lo bajo que describe Bajtin también tiene que ver con el flujo de fluidos y secreciones, sean digestivas, transpirantes o libidinosas. En cualquier caso, todo movimiento de fluidos es una disolución de los límites del cuerpo, una negación de la unidad y completitud del ser humano, que así también se afirma parte del mundo y su flujo, solo una breve articulación en el ciclo del agua que entra y sale de nosotros, que tantos rostros hemos tenido.
G.Y. Lima, Dec. 2010

A cycle of seasons that drive me, there it was, only waiting for me to accept it. However, it's probably easier to accept it if it is written in the traditions, instead of alienated by Christmas and Jesus and Whatnot. In Lima, matching the traditions to the seasons is still a task and a process, and the subtle but contrary flow of the seasons clearly deauthorizes the colonial imposition of catholicism, and thus of tradition and cycles in general.

In Europe, Walpurgis lies close at hand. It has symbols and narratives which ride on the strength of nature and not against it. In the end, however, isn't it a subject who rides those symbols?

I accepted the cycle, too, to work with my body, to put it into a longer process I call Ishtar and to achieve pleasure and enlightenment through it. Bodies are still a part of nature, and even mine, in its exceptions, responds to it. Of course, each body responds to nature differently - but they all do, somehow, respond. Of course, the yearly cycle is only a greater unit of the lunar cycle and the daily cycle, but also, most importantly, a small reflection of the life cycle. I have put my body on a telic road to achieve transcendence and have lain it on the yearly cycle to wish for its endurance. But very soon its life cycle will have crossed its peak and the body will follow its natural road of decay. It is a time of the year, it is a time of the life, that's the time it is.

Is it though? Of course, that's relative to the material conditions of my body, and it will never exist outside of them. It is also a subjective interpretation, but it is always matter that we interpret. Aristotle's matter and shape. Working with the body means working with what there is and with how others see it. Working with the body means to be conscious of other people's interpretations in order to defy them. Working with the body means to transcend my own perception of myself and thus enhance my spirit.

But the spirit is still beyond the body and does not bend to it. The spirit does not bend to time or to any master. The spirit works in many other directions and is, again, the only one who can give the body any meaning at all. Thus, above the cycling bodily level must remain a linear spiritual level. Above the waters, be them muddy, clear or troubled, the lotus always grows unsullied.

Have greater means, transcendent means. Look ahead. Write ahead. (Do I now find myself as a Buddhist?)

lunes, 14 de septiembre de 2015

Tale of Tales or the subversive potential of fairie

I believe Tale of Tales recovers the subversive potential of fairy tale. The synopsis for the movie in Germany presented it as "Fantasyfilm". It may be useful to know that the German word for fantasy is actually spelled "Fantasie", whereas the English word has come to be used by Germans what the rest of the world tries to make sense of as "high fantasy" or "swords and sorcery", thus covering the wide range from Conan to Harry Potter. But should this cover fairy tales as well? Opinions may differ. Although professor Tolkien would argue that all folk narratives, from Beowulf to Briar Rose, have a particular though anonymous author, some poet, behind them, I prefer to believe in collective creation (as posed by, for example, Levi-Strauss) that shapes a tale bit by bit like the ocean shapes a round stone.

Of course, such unconscious processes can't be considered to be fantastic. I'd rather follow Stephan Frings, who claims that fantasy as such is only visible as a reaction against an established, rational frame, thus starting with romanticism, which spawns its own form: the Kunstmärchen. A fairytale as such, therefore, is not fantastic. A film about fairy tales, on the other hand, might have to be.

Frings points out that the probably greatest visible difference between fairy tale and the fantasy story, is that fantasy tends to create a secondary world and enrich it with detail, history and diversity. Fairytale, on the other hand, works in big chunks, all of them rather imprecise. In the land "far far away" there is only "the castle" and "the wood", none of them have names, and nobody wonders whether there could be more than one wood. The same thing applies to characters who, in the best of cases, have generic names but no individual traits or development.

When transporting tales into visuals, Garrone cannot be generic or unspecific. Characters have faces, and these even tend to express emotions and consciousness. Instead of trying to evade the evident, the director choses the richness in detail, the colorful and diverse which outsports the imagination of anyone hearing an oral tale and rather underscores the awe and wonder that the plot of those tales achieves with so much less. It would still be unfair to group these images with those produced by Peter Jackson or Guillermo del Toro. The bizarre and grotesque is ever present in both extreme and subtle ways, in the unusual bodytypes, in the proximity of the animal and the human, which flow into each other. Garrone is no doubt still within line of Italian cinema with Fellini and Pasolini.

I have not come across much analysis on the role of animals in the fairy tale, but I believe to observe that the general absence of speaking animals from high fantasy is one more thing that sets it apart from fairy tales, achieving a more evident seriousness, but losing a dimension of meaning which Garrone ably exploits. Actually, animals don't talk in Tale of Tales either, but they transform, as the witch that subtly takes the shape of the black hog. The sea monster is, in a magical way, mate to two human women, who give birth to two almost human boys. Are these boys human? Are they animals? They swim without breathing like their animal father and act driven by instinct (as every fairytale hero somehow does). They are often seen in proximity of animals, Elias is close to his horse, but Jonas appears among dead animals when death follows on his heels within the pantry. Even the giant flea is metonymically replaced by the ogre, who becomes the outgrowth of the monster the moment he touches its dead skin. For a common fantasy film, the ogre looks quite human. For a human, he looks quite bestial. His primitive lifestyle also suggests animality. All this reminds us but the fact, forgotten by rationalism, that humans are but another animal, mostly undistinguished from other species.

Garrone's film thus approaches the forgotten, lower region of consciousness, that have kept expressing through the impersonal, collective tale. Levi-Strauss concludes that fairy tales have a common structure with myths, but cannot be a transformation of these since they coexist simultaneously within every society. The actual difference between the two is the circumstance in which they are told. Fairy tales are not told in temples and sacred books. They are by and about the dispossessed, the women and children, the orphans and handicapped. True fairy tales look up to kings and princesses from the view of those who suffer their consequences. They are low mythology not because they are less important, but because they come from below: subverting, denouncing, revealing.

This has too long been forgotten, especially in film. If one is to blame a particular person, it's obviously Walt Disney, but trends don't happen if the whole of society doesn't participate, and Disney's heirs have certainly complicated the matter even more. Even now, as Disney Studios and other fairy tale films are desperately trying to be "modern" more than thirty years overdue, they do it by further disrupting the structure of the oral folklore, producing disasters like Maleficent, among many others. Not only do these films try ridiculously hard and kill the magic and wisdom in the process, they also fail to tackle the themes they attempt to criticize, representing woman as someone whose best possible role is that of a martyr.

Garrone, on the other hand, returns to the gruesome tales that can't be told to children, but are a crucial part of the lore. Like all evil queens, the queen does away with the patriarch, but is still an even more radical expression of patriarchal law. She cannot value her own happiness but only sees her own realization in motherhood. The sisters that betray each other for following a womanizer end up destroyed. Of course it is unfair that the man will not suffer any form of punishment - but has the punishment of Don Giovanni not been staged again and again in so many cultures? This is not poetic justice, but a cautionary tale. Finally, it is the irresponsibility of one more patriarch, one more king, that lets a flea grow enough to become a monster, that lets all matters get out of hand, and is quite indifferent when this means he has to sacrifice his daughter. In the end, it is the responsibility of the lowly to right the wrong of the high and mighty. However, before coming to action, they need to believe in themselves, and this may not happen until the moment when they find themselves in the face of death.

The happy ending is not whole and sound. It is dredged in the memory of those who didn't make it and full of open questions. It is reopening the play to a tradition that was never about giving a single moral, but about uttering the many impersonal voices of rebellion.


Antonsen, Jan Erik. Poetik des Unmöglichen. Paderborn, Mentis, 2007.
Frings, Stephan. Alte Götter, neue Welten; Religion und Magie in der deutschsprachigen Fantasy-Literatur. Wetzlar, Phantastische Bibliothek, 2010.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. "Le structure et la forme" in Antropologie Structurale. Paris, Plon, 1985.
Lüthi, Max. Es war einmal. Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008.
Tolkien, James Ronald Reuel. The Monsters and the Critics. London, Allen & Unwin, 1983.