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Spirituality Through Narrative: Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Take 2

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Spirituality Through Narrative: Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Take 2

While a number of critics are positioning Hellboy II: The Golden Army in relation to director Guillermo del Toro’s forthcoming venture into Middle-earth, the film sits more comfortably as a companion piece to the director’s last film, Pan’s Labyrinth. The 2006 Oscar-winner was not just formally beautiful, but resonated with deeply realized themes of spirituality and the necessity of storytelling. Structurally and aesthetically, del Toro rendered two worlds—fascist Spain and a magical fairy world—that couldn’t thrive, grow, or exist without the other. He carefully denied the viewer the pleasure of escaping into myth or narrative, while also establishing a disjointed “reality,” with persistent intrusions of the fantastic. This was precisely his purpose: to illustrate that these two worlds are mutually constitutive and inseparable from one another.

By contrast, Hellboy II more outwardly revels in its fantasy. It serves up a delicious menu of goblins, trolls, armies, and angels of death, all brought to life with unparalleled vision. But even though del Toro is steadfastly focused on populating his world (which he established in Hellboy II’s 2004 predecessor) with as many odd creatures as his mind can dream up, evident also in the film’s swirling compositions of color and movement is the same commitment to narrative that ran through Pan’s Labyrinth. You may not be overwhelmed by the thinly drawn Shakespearean character dynamics or the predictably action-heavy denouement, but this movie is about the moments in between—the simple, seamless unfolding of narrative energy.

The film begins similarly to Pan’s Labyrinth, with Professor Broom (John Hurt) reading to young Hellboy about a long ago world (visualized in silhouettes and weightless figures) filled with elves, trolls, and monsters whose tense relationship with humans tees up both the backstory and the conflict for the film. The fairy tale creatures and humans settled their differences with a truce that would ensure that humans remain in cities, while elves and other like creatures dwell in the forests. But humans would eventually falter on their end of the deal, compelling Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) to return from exile to seize control of the Golden Army. Cut to present-day New York where Nuada and his ill-tempered brute of a minion, Mr. Wink, begin their crusade to reclaim the King’s crown and wage war on humankind.

These opening sequences have a sense of mystery and fear about them that, unfortunately, isn’t sustained throughout the film. Here we are granted a glimpse into del Toro’s twisted imagination. His first batch of goodies: Tooth fairies. “It’s kind of cute, actually,” one of the expendable BPRD agents [that’s Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, in case you’re wondering] notes before being devoured alive by a swarm of these creatures. But this is just overture to the symphony of weird slimy beasts Hellboy II will introduce. These visions are interspersed throughout the expository first hour of the film, in which del Toro finely balances character, story set-up, and weird distractions. At Headquarters, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), now living together, bicker constantly, while “fishstick” Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) tries to mediate. Meanwhile, Agent Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) is still trying to keep Hellboy out of public sight, despite the big red guy’s craving for attention and, more importantly, acceptance from the people he protects. These scenes are mostly light, sometimes funny, and almost completely dependent on one having seen the first film, which is somewhat refreshing, actually. Del Toro intercuts these (re)introductions with Prince Nuada’s conquest to bring the human world to an end, fiercely cutting down anyone standing in his way. The contrast will undoubtedly not work for some, but these scenes economically establish different tones, tensions, and characters that will eventually collide.

Although the film depicts surprisingly few humans, del Toro frames humans as a central element in the conflict between Hellboy and Prince Nuada, with one bent on the destruction of humanity and the other on saving it. (Guess which.) This is all standard comic book stuff, for sure, but the film occasionally, even subtly hints at the disturbing truth that humanity not only cannot be saved, but doesn’t want to be saved. Despite his desire, Hellboy feels little connection to those who he protects; he does not swing through crowded streets and pose in front of the American flag like Spiderman, or hold up falling buildings with a smile on his face like Superman. He does put his life on the line for the occasional kitten, though. And the acceptance he craves from the people he works to protect is short-lived, until he discovers that he is not so different from the villains he routinely wards off from destroying the world.

These themes coalesce midway through the film’s second act, beginning with a giant plant rampaging through the streets of Brooklyn and ending with an unexpectedly hard affective punch. “It’s the last of its kind,” Nuada tells Hellboy as the plant dies before him, a tragically beautiful interlude wherein, for the first time in his life, Hellboy becomes aware of the implications of his choices and his responsibility. He learns, much to his surprise, that there are sides to himself that he was previously unaware of, the kinds of ambiguous shadings that del Toro explored in Pan’s Labyrinth. As the plant shrivels up and sprouts constellations of flowers and white petals, Hellboy realizes that his place among nature and humanity is more complicated than he knows. This scene is the emotional core of the movie and del Toro handles it with a delicate lyricism that is rarely seen in studio cinema. A.O. Scott observed that it has an aura similar to that of a Hayao Miyazaki film, which I take to mean that it locates the sublime in the most intangible, yet profoundly simple images.

The film comes down somewhat after this sequence, never recapturing the same sense of magic. Ultimately, the personal conflicts of the latter half of Hellboy II don’t exude the same energy, nor do they possess the same rhythm that assisted in establishing the film’s more abstract ideas and direct sensations. One could say that Hellboy II misses out on its opportunity to mold Luke Goss’ character into a villain for the ages, especially after the strong opening. Nevertheless, the performances are all excellent, and del Toro still has a few icky creatures up his sleeve near the end—most notably an opportunistic little goblin dragging a wheelbarrow behind him and a creepy angel of death whose many eyes gaze upon Hellboy and Liz from its wings. While the plotline of Liz’s hesitancy to tell Hellboy that he is to be a father resonates effectively enough, the sense of focus begins to wane on Nuada’s plotline. It doesn’t help that there are a variety of other subplots that must come together, including another love thread; this one involving Abe. The sense of urgency is also not present in the latter half, and what little of it that there is feels artificial.

While these aspects might seem to detract from the film, Hellboy II’s aesthetic wonders put me in too joyous a state to be all that dissatisfied. The film’s highlights aren’t limited to the incredible creature design, but extend to its every frame and movement. Del Toro has a unique ability to create a sense of space, both in the larger notion of the film’s “world,” and in its many locales. He manages the economy of each shot, conveying necessary story and character details while also creating a sense of place and atmosphere, and he does this in the most subtle of ways. He assembles such a vivid palette of colors, smoke, and structures, which is most evident in the early troll market sequence. Here del Toro exhibits his penchant for dreaming up fantastic characters, but he also shows off his utter mastery with the camera. Moving up and down the crowded streets, through the smoke and shadow, all the while immersed in an orgy of color, his camera (aided by the stunning cinematography by Guillermo Navarro) makes sense of it all economically and whimsically. It’s an absurdist’s dream that brings together the imaginative capacity of Terry Gilliam and the formal precision of Alfred Hitchcock.

The troll market sequence doesn’t necessarily represent Hellboy II’s narrative stretch or thematic depth (or lack thereof), but it does define the film, as well as the skill and passion of its creator. In Guillermo del Toro’s worldview, storytelling is not about structure, cohesion, or resolution, but about the experience of being in a world, a place, a mind, and feeling it from the inside out. It’s essentially about sensation and encountering magic in the everyday world, where such things are often thought to have no place. Del Toro believes that storytelling is worth fighting for simply because it is the defining element of humanity. We may draw distinctions between reality and fantasy, but del Toro wants to shatter that divide and revel in the pure experience and immediacy of narrative.

The elements of his narrative in Hellboy II may not be real, or even deep for that matter, but del Toro allows them to fill the screen and the imagination, reminding that the fantasy can become real as much as the real can become fantasy. They bleed into each other and inform one another. It is in this connection that del Toro’s envisioning of spirituality resides. His sensibilities toward the spiritual come through not in the narrative itself, but in his conviction in storytelling and locating the sublime in the strange. Stories are almost always born out of the same elements, but the ways in which those elements are given life are infinite. In short, Guillermo del Toro’s movies represent an exploration of the possibilities of narrative and the imagination, where visions both dark and hopeful will flourish, simply, by the telling of a tale.

Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art.

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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