Monday, July 14, 2008

Spirituality through narrative: Hellboy II—The Golden Army

With some seven feature films under his belt, Guillermo del Toro's filmmaking resume is beginning to take shape. Whether you mostly love his films (like I do) or are kept at a distance by his strange preoccupations and sometimes sluggish storytelling, del Toro's growing body of work is among the more noteworthy achievements in contemporary studio filmmaking. Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which opened over the weekend, is his latest. It's a worthy sequel, an exceptional comic book movie, and a wonderfully strange funhouse of weird creatures and formal beauty.

Critical responses to the film have been mostly positive, but now that the critics have accepted, even embraced Guillermo del Toro, I have noticed more varied approaches to his films. Hopefully it's the beginning of a dialogue that will only become more interesting and multi-dimensional. For a lively discussion already underway about Guillermo del Toro and his work, check out the comments section Jonathan Pachecho's House review from Friday.

Below are excerpts from my review of the film, which is now up over at The House Next Door:

"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."


"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."

For the full review, click here.

Whether or not you have seen the film and have thoughts on it, the career trajectory of Guillermo Del Toro, or anything else, comment away!


Gelati's Scoop said...

Ted, I enjoy reading your blogs,I check your site dailey, and for the most part I share your viewpoints on much of what you write.But on Hellboy I have to totally disagree.The main character ,Hellboy himself, was second or third banana in this movie.The market scene to me was reminiscent of the Star Wars bar scene,the use of the goggles to find the freaks,MIB, the Golden Army sequence screamed of the Iron Giant. I was not awed by the director's choice of freaks and use of eyeballs. I was paying to see Hellboy himself doing his thing. He did some of that and much less. The action was sporatic and to me disappointing.Product placement gratutius. I am also getting tired of Hollywood's decisions to constantly out their heroes. The hero does not say, "Here I am"; "Love me." The "real" heroes try to protect their anonymity and hide in it when they can, sometimes aching to tell everyone they are who they are. If the best this director can do is come up with freaks and weird places he needs a new game. I am hoping that for the third installment, Hellboy is numero uno and he comes to kick some booty. That is what I am plunking the $10 plus to see.

Ted Pigeon said...

Mike: Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure I follow your argument, though. It seems like you're talking about different sets of concerns than I have made the subject of my piece.

I don't think "Hollywood" is making any grand decisions about its superheroes. There seems to be a tendency this summer for superheroes to "out themselves," but to suggest that it's some scheme of Hollywood's -- which is more of an idea than a nucleus of individuals setting some kind of agenda -- is somewhat reductive.

The intriguing aspect about Hellboy is that he isn't your typical superhero. He's a wise-cracking, cigar-smoking man-child. It only makes sense to me that he craves attention from the people who he's kept such a secret from not by his own choice but by the bureaucracy that funds him. We shouldn't assume that all superheroes should act the same.

On another matter though, superheroes in contemporary film take on a different significance (especially in a post 9/11 society) than they may have 10, 20, or 30 years ago. It's not easy for our "heroes" to maintain anonymity when so much of the celebrity life is watched, followed, and obsessed over in this current media age.

As for your larger argument about the movie -- Not enough this, too much of this -- this doesn't constitute a critical stance. It's more a statement of opinion. These dialogues shouldn't be a matter or agreeing or disagreeing, but engaging ideas. The thoughts you present are certainly interesting, if not fully developed. I would only implore you to consider an argument (not necessarily mine) outside the walls of opinion.

Shubhajit said...

That was a nice read Ted.

I have to say i agree with your views on del Toro. The first thing that i like about his movies is the visual impact that he manages to achieve on his viewers. He truly and completely believes in the diktat that cinema is a visual art first and an intellectual exercise later. Of course that doesn't mean his movie do not merit the involvement of one's brains so to say. Pan's Labyrinth was a terrific effort as much for its stunning visual presence as was it for its deep-set humanity despite all its onscreen violence. In fact the three Mexican New Wave directors - Toro, Inarritu & Cuaron are literally competing each other to make enthralling movies. Very rarely do we get to experience three wonderful filmmakers (or for that matter artistes) of same nationality working in such amazing tandem.

Unfortunately i haven't yet watched the latest Hellboy movie. Hoping to catch it soon.