To this day I regret not taking Philosophy at A Level. So imagine my nerdish delight when uni presented me with the opportunity to philosophise a film. Too awesome! Sadly, I had no say in the choice of film(s) otherwise I’d happily discuss why ‘The Dude’ demonstrates an aspirational lifestyle choice. Anyhoo, here be the films in question, dealing with love, robots and Sweden’s answer to the Grim Reaper…
“A.I. (Artificial Intelligence)” Dir. Steven Spielberg (2001)
While A.I. explores the potential relationship between humans and machines or ‘Mechas’, it primarily deals with notion of love and whether the love of a machine could ever surpass that of our own for flesh and blood ‘companions’. The film raises this idea through the mother’s relationship with her robot child, David (Haley Joel Osment); who is designed to simulate feelings of love for the owner. Initially, the mother’s reasons for ‘purchasing’ David is due to her real son Martin’s critical illness. This raises the moral issue of grief and whether it is best to ‘fill’ the temporary gap or not. In this case the mother feels that, in her sons absence, she must to bide her time with the love of a machine; desperately seeking anything that she can project a feeling of ‘love’ towards, whilst feeling loved in return. This snowballs further into the concept that love needn’t even be real in order to fill an emotional ‘gap’ within us, in perhaps the same way that a non-verbal companion such as a pet can provide an alternative comfort to human company. Spielberg cleverly represents this analogy in the form of ‘Teddy’, Martin’s cynical old toy and companion to David throughout the film. Despite the ability to speak Teddy is designed, much like any other toy to provide a certain amount of entertainment for children before eventually being discarded once this phase in a child’s life ends. Interestingly, David is treated in much the same way when Martin returns home, spelling the end of the mother’s ‘grievance’ and the beginning of David’s longing and confusion. These emotions can be expected from a human child when faced with rejection but the mother is reassured that David, a ‘Mecha’, cannot feel hurt by it (“Inside he’s like all the rest, but outside he looks so real”). The fact that love can be so easily exploited like this for the mother’s own selfish sense of personal happiness leaves the audience with an elusive and degenerative moral dilemma: Can there be a difference between loving what a person does and loving the person?
On the face of it, these two eventualities are immersed. Whatever a person chooses to ‘do’ in life is essentially a reflection of their individual character and therefore their personality; ergo, the qualities that make a person so lovable are fundamentally an extension of their ‘true selves’.
Aristotle first wrestled with this notion by separating the person from the ephemeral ‘qualities’ attributed to them, in his famous work Nicomachean Ethics (1566). This argued that in the case of friendship, we care for each other only or primarily for either one’s incidental qualities that make them ‘useful’ or ‘pleasurable’. This would lean towards the suggestion that our adulation for one another is based on a love of individual traits, and therefore a love of the actual person. However, the issue of personality alone is too flat a concept to verify an individual’s love for someone whether this is in one’s friendship or a maternal form of ‘love’. Consequently, Aristotle continued: “In loving their friend they love what is good for themselves” (NE 1158). This is true of any relationship because we essentially seek personal happiness from the goodness found within others; that is to say, we tend to love certain personalities that will ‘bring the best out in us’ as individuals. Consequently, such love is altruistic because we inherently love qualities that are considered ‘good’ for own sense of well-being. Instantly, a regression is built into the dilemma of differentiating a love of the person from their nature; e.g. depending on whether one’s partner or companion is an introvert or an extrovert, smart or dim, they will either utilize these skills to their full potential when faced with certain opportunities or not and so you ARE loving the person for their individual make-up under the treatment of that situation. In spite of everything, what is a person without personality? If you love elements of their personality and what they do, then you love them. There is little distinction. The only true and unbiased case of ‘loving the person’ in spite of that person’s traits is paternal love in the sense that biology selects the aforementioned ‘qualities’ and it is a test of one’s compassion to find them lovable. In confronting its audience with the previous dilemma, A.I. inadvertently poses a second question and one that can ultimately be viewed as an analogy for parenthood. That is – If we make a machine that loves us, do we have an obligation to love it back?
If we invent emotional machines or ‘mechas’ as the film predicts, we cannot therefore be expected to invent a love for it as this would contradict the purpose of designing one. Feeling a ‘love’ of any kind towards an inanimate object may be confused with the pride and sense of accomplishment associated with a long-haul ‘project’. Unlike the desire for children, the concept of a ‘machine’ can only truly exist in our minds; and it is perhaps in our meticulous planning and preparation of it that we come to feel ‘attached’ to it. This is unmatched with human love, as the psychological connection between mother and unborn child is so great that women claim to ‘know’ the unborn infant for nine months before coming face to face with the ‘flesh and blood’ human. Aside from the physical intimacy felt with an unborn child i.e. the shared heartbeats and cravings, a large part of this connection is down to genetics and the fact that the child is a by-product of one’s own makeup. With a machine, you have created traits that are to your liking long before physically knowing or being aware of the finished product. The process of rearing a child into the world, if not to guide them morally is to perfect these ‘qualities’ and mannerisms that the children will live by in later life. While the passion and long-haul commitment put into designing a machine may inevitably generate feelings of pride and great affection for the ‘object’, you are ultimately in charge of its functional ‘behaviour’. This immediate ‘ownership’ of its mechanism is almost comparable to that of a love towards pets in the sense that we have made a conscious decision to ‘buy’ their companionship for the rest of our lives, despite being absent for the first few months of its own life. Regardless of its genetic material, we rear pets and train them in an environment similar to our own but conclusively, with a machine, an ‘object’ is still all you have as it is first conjured up in the mind. We feel an instant love towards our children due to genetic similarities – the difference is, whether a baby is strictly planned or not, the love is still there. A machine is not a part of our DNA, but merely our thought process. In essence, if a machine has been created in order to feel human emotion, they should be treated as such but a true feeling of ‘love’ may never be achieved and neither should we, as the creator, feel obliged to do so.
“The Seventh Seal” Dir. Ingmar Bergman (1957)
The cult film about a knight returning to a plague-ridden landscape after ten years explores a multitude of themes including death, the afterlife and the significance of faith in fearful times. But perhaps the theme it concerns itself with most is the notion of death which appears as a literal figure several times in the film. The greatest metaphor for death itself arrives in the form of the film’s iconic chess scene in which the lead character Antonius is met by Death upon returning to a land plagued with disease. Because Antonius has returned to be reunited with his wife, he challenges Death to a chess match on the terms that if he is able to resist the plague, Antonius will live and if he wins, Death shall spare him. Their ‘game’ is played continuously throughout the film and unknown to the various characters met along the way, they too are all playing Death’s game including a priest who eventually falls victim to the plague after attempting rape and an actor who ironically ‘cheats’ death to save his life. What makes the chess game between Death and Antonius so sinister is that Antonius is often quite amused by it, treating his own mortality as a joke by trying to ‘delay’ the game or tricking Death into a false move. Interestingly, the rules of the game very much reflect the foolishness and ‘false moves’ made in our own lives and this is mirrored in a particular scene in which Death disguises himself as a priest. In the midst of confessing his doubt in God, Antonius mistakenly reveals his trick strategy which he intends to cheat Death with. Once Death has revealed his identity to Antonius, their game becomes ever more intense and Antonio tries everything in his power to prolong it. Since we all play chess with death, and since we all must suffer through that same hopeless joke, the only meaning attributed to the metaphorical ‘game’ is how long it will last and how well we will play it.
In moments of respite from the game, Antonius is seen conforming to this ideal; befriending several actors and travellers in the village with talk of life’s ‘brief moments of happiness’. In one moving scene Antonius is enjoying the hospitality of villagers Mia and Jof who provide him with a bountiful picnic of wild strawberries and milk ‘filled to the brim’. All the while, Death is onlooker to this scene, crudely waiting in the distance. Perhaps in accepting (or possibly defying) Death’s presence, Antonio begins to speak enthusiastically of life in expressing a new-found respect for it after appearing so cynical. This sense of joy is brought about by an almost perverted gratitude Antonius has for Death in allowing life to be so finite and therefore, all the more precious. For example, when they are eating wild strawberries and milk, the villagers think upon the day as a ‘treasured and happy occasion’ – a thing that perhaps the characters wouldn’t acknowledge in a life without Death. Such ‘brief’ and ‘happy’ moments would scarcely have meaning in living through an eternity and this perhaps assures Antonius that his death may be for the best. However when he finally prays to God to spare him from Death in the last few minutes of the film, he prays, not out of fear of dying but the physical pain associated with death. This moment relates back to his first encounter with Death at the beginning of the film, in which he boldly discloses: “My flesh is afraid but I am not”. Essentially the film tries to say that life would be starved of all significance in the absence of death and while drinking from the bowl of milk, Antonius relishes in the precious moments of our brief existence– “I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk”.
Death’s ubiquitous presence throughout the film not only contrasts with the beauty to be had in life and the brief but satisfactory time we are given with which to appreciate it fully, but it sinisterly seems to reinforce the horrors, at the same time, of eternity. Essentially death is everlasting but if the same were true of life, it would likely be an existence devoid of interest and meaning. On the subject of eternity, the British philosopher Bernard Williams argued that death not only gives life great significance, but it also allows us a certain amount of freedom as human beings i.e. the fact that “we are capable ourselves of death”. We can agree that death is a great necessity to life and that without it, every emotion we feel and every goal we set ourselves would immediately be stripped of its purpose. Depending on one’s perception of ‘eternal life’, it can have far greater meaning than the present existence in Christianity for example; which, depending on your ‘behaviour’ in this life, can either provide one with eternal bliss or hellish torment and relentless agony. From an atheistic point of view, I fail to see the difference between the two ‘eternities’, as they both involve a life without escape. And thus, no life at all.
In certain circumstances, death is something to be embraced in life; in the happiest case this can be in celebration of a long and fulfilled existence and in the worst case, an act of ‘justified’ suicide in the guilt of taking another life. To experience an eternity is to subject one’s self to torture and consequently, death is needed to differentiate a life enjoyed from a life ‘endured’. Though our perceptions of death undeniably change with age, we are each able to draw the line of ‘acceptability’ when it comes to the different uses of death such as a means to end suffering. In some cases, philosophers even go by the view that our intrinsic fear and ‘negative feelings’ associated with death is not something that is necessarily shared. In his 1993 book ‘The Metaphysics of Death’, John M. Fischer argues that death is only “experienced as bad by the person” in other words, a person suffering from a terminal and very painful disease will rationally regard his or her own death as a ‘good’ thing. This perception only changes however when the death of a “normal” person is concerned i.e. a healthy child or the death of a pre-mature person due to a less than healthy ‘lifestyle’ of smoking or alcohol abuse etc. If the latter person suffers from an addiction, they still fear the prospect of death but in being helpless to prevent it, they are essentially ‘preparing’ themselves. This can almost be categorised as ‘cheating’ death much like the characters in The Seventh Seal, in the sense that those with an addiction are constantly pushing their own mortalities to the limit until the desired ‘fix’ is acquired. Evidently, people carry very different perceptions of ‘living life to its fullest’ and regardless of how we eventually succumb to death’s cruel ‘chess game’, the importance lies in what we do to prolong playing it. “To play it well, to live, is to love and not to hate the body and the mortal” as the priest urges in Bergman’s film. However we choose to play death’s ‘game’, the only way of really winning the game is to accept its inevitability. Some philosophers have gone as far as arguing that a man fearless in the face of death makes for a rational human-being. It is conceivable that an intelligent person, a thinker, has more balance and control than those who fear it because their wisdom is a meditation upon life. Principally, to have a fairly deep knowledge of death is to become acclimatized to the notion of it. And as the philosopher Michel de Montaigne once movingly observed: ‘To philosophise is to learn how to die’.
Last month whilst flicking casually through Empire magazine as I do routinely before reading the film bible of excellence, I came across the sad news that my second favourite director had stepped down as one half of what promised to be the most exciting writer/director partnership of the decade: as Director of J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’. Three guesses as to my other favourite director? The combined vision of Peter Jackson and the man responsible for Pan’s Labyrinth was too awesome to contemplate and now sadly, too good to be true.
A better time than any then to post an article I wrote in appreciation of Del Toro’s work. Again, I wrote this at uni as part of a research project exploring the making and fruition of the film that finally got Del Toro noticed: the ground-breaking fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth. I hope you find it informative and mildly amusing (although, you can probably thank Del Toro’s soundbites for the latter).
Pan’s Labyrinth has been branded ‘The Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema’. As writer, producer and director of his fantasy tour de force, is Guillermo Del Toro Mexico’s answer to Orson Welles?
The name Del Toro roughly translates as ‘Son of a Bull’. Fitting perhaps for a director unafraid to grab the proverbial by the horns if needs be. Since his debut with Cronos in 1993, his passion for detail and control over a production plays as much a part of the process as his love affair with monsters “I’m like a dictator, I say: ‘These are the colours. These are the textures. These are the shapes’. On the other hand, I have never used a light meter and nor do I want to. I leave all that to my DP!” laughs Del Toro. The long-suffering Cinematographer in question is Guillermo Navarro, Del Toro’s long-term friend and collaborator since his ambitious first outing with Cronos, the tale of a girl and her grandfather, an antique dealer who comes upon a golden scarab. The device grants eternal life unto its owner but simultaneously, fills them with a vampire lust for blood. Set in contemporary Spain, Cronos is Del Toro’s only modern vampire movie to date. Uncharacteristic perhaps for a man obsessed with the Spanish civil war, a theme he explored both in Pan and his next, rather personal outing after Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone. “I’m always doing this stupid experiment. [The Devil’s Backbone] is a microcosm of the Spanish civil war through a gothic romance with a ghost. But I guess it’s not as far-fetched as doing an anti-fascist fairytale!” This anti-fascist fairytale had been brewing in Del Toro’s mind long before Cronos was even released, but he abandoned the project in 2001 to direct Blade II, his only commercial success alongside the comic book franchise, Hellboy.
Pan’s Labyrinth finally brought Del Toro back to home territory: a truly personal film without the creative restrictions imposed on him in 1997, by a demanding Hollywood studio during the making of Mimic. Del Toro regarded the experience as more traumatic than the kidnapping of his father in the same year. “What was happening to the movie [Mimic] was far more illogical than kidnapping, which is brutal, but at least there are rules. When I look at Mimic, I see the pain of a deeply flawed creature that could have been so beautiful.” To ensure his personal creatures continued to flourish, Del Toro returned to Mexico in 1998 to form his own production company, ‘The Tequila Gang’, co-owned by two of Del Toro’s friends and fellow directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (the men responsible for Babel, Y tu mamá también and 21 Grams) This arrangement allowed Del Toro to work in complete creative freedom with Pan’s Labyrinth and the mathematic attention to detail shines through. To ensure the film reflected his vision, Del Toro even sacrificed his own salary to fund the film’s production and took on the extraordinary responsibility of director, writer and producer of Pan.
“It’s like the difference between Hustler and a gynaecology manual. There is a different approach, even though the graphics are similar” ~ Del Toro (on compromising the violence in Pan)
Making his dream film didn’t come without its drawbacks, however. Most of the main actors (including Doug Jones who plays Pan, the faun of the film’s title), faced severe salary cuts. Jones, however, was simply happy that Guillermo was finally making a film his way “I love that man (Del Toro) and the beautiful art that happens when he creates a sculpture all his own. We did what was needed to make this movie happen and I’m incredibly proud of it”. Making films ‘Del Toro’s way’ has always kept him five miles outside the mainstream fare, generating cult status and a loyal following of horror fans but never reaching the maximum audience it could. Thankfully, to the delight of critics and true fantasy fans the world over, Del Toro keeps his indie card pressed firmly against his chest. At an early screening of Pan’s Labyrinth, someone even suggested he could reach a bigger audience of kids if he toned down the violence. Del Toro replied with a typically polite but very immediate no. “The suggestion was well meant but that is totally self-defeating, isn’t it? It’s like the difference between Hustler and a gynaecology manual. There is a different approach, even though the graphics are similar.”
More visually arresting even than the fantasy creatures in Ofelia (Ivana Baquero)’s escapist world or the effects is the blunt violence throughout the film and Del Toro’s admirable grapple with brutally honest storytelling. At the onset of sexual maturity, the young heroine Ofelia is forced to undergo tasks beyond her emotional comprehension, all occurring within the ruthless backdrop of 1944 fascist Spain. Del Toro’s desire to direct a fairytale in its original, truthful intent stems from a love of religious parables as a child “I was moved by stories that taught you something and I think that parables and ideas were, in the oldest ways, transmitted through tales about demons and angels.” The demons that feature so prominently in The Devil’s Backbone and its sister movie, Pan’s Labyrinth serve an important purpose in Del Toro’s movies. They hold up a mirror to humanity in the context of war and suggest that the only real monsters are human. And that the only thing we have to be afraid of is people, not creatures or ghosts. While this may have provided Guillermo with the social commentary and narrative structure for Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro’s relationship with monsters have their origins in personal experience. The inspiration for the film came from Del Toro’s own childhood fears and visions, notably of a faun-like creature he imagined appeared from behind his bedroom closet whenever the young Del Toro slept at his grandmother’s house. “When the church would strike midnight in the village, a faun would come out from behind the armoire in my grandmother’s house. I would see the hand first and then the goat’s face and his leg. And I screamed. Go figure, man!” The faun consequently became the basis for Pan, the eponymous faun played by Doug Jones.
Insofar as translating these visions into a fully realised film, Pan’s Labyrinth took shape in Del Toro’s imagination as long ago as 1993 in the form of sketches. In typically meticulous fashion, Del Toro researched into monsters and the logic behind them long before he had a hard script to work with, recording his ideas and childhood visions in his various notebooks, a ‘security blanket’ he keeps with him at all times throughout the production process. Del Toro began using these notebooks in 1992 during the making of Cronos and studied ‘The Science of fairy tales’ by Edwin Sidney Hartland, an 18th century index of fairytale folklore and their meaning. Del Toro looked to it again while shaping Pan, “This guy (Hartland) just did a really studious and thorough systematisation of mythology from throughout the world, not just fairy tales but also oral traditions and the heroic narrative. Without an agenda or a desire to prove that these fairy tales had ‘heroes’. There was a point to them and a moral and that is what fascinates me”. It wasn’t until early 2001 that Del Toro began working on a premise for Pan and if his initial draft is anything to go by, Pan’s Labyrinth could have resulted in a very different film, “Originally the idea was that it was a married couple and the wife was pregnant. She fell in love with the faun in the labyrinth. The faun said to her, ‘If you give me your child and you trust me with killing your child, you will find him and I, both, on the other side, and the labyrinth will flourish again,’ and she made that leap of faith. It was a shocking tale and it started changing”.
During post-production on Hellboy in 2004, Del Toro’s ever-evolving story arrived at the real thing over a chicken dinner at fellow director Alfonso Cuarón’s house, “At that dinner table, I had made the decision. I believe it happened over the course of a couple of days.” Cuarón himself can verify that fact, stating in 2007 that the emotions and mood of the film matched Guillermo’s pitch more accurately than the script. This is in part because Del Toro is a visual story-teller, a gift admired and envied by fellow director and friend Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Every single shot of his film [Pan’s Labyrinth] is like the mechanism of a clock. Everything works. It is like watching a beautiful, complex dance”. Del Toro has described his visual style as ‘eye protein’ rather than eye candy, believing the themes and motifs within his films (the tree in Pan, the scarab beetle in Cronos etc) each have nutritional value. This trademark attention to detail has, at long-last established Del Toro as one of the most sought-after international writer-directors, making him a household name in world cinema. One of many producers working on Pan, Frida Torresblanco, reveals that the extraordinary faith Del Toro has in his vision is what attracted and continues to attract her into working with him, “The minute Guillermo transfers that imagination to paper, everything makes sense; there is nothing arbitrary in the movie or script. And it’s a script that makes you cry, you feel all the emotions there, and the rhythm is incredible”.
Four years on, Del Toro is proud of the film that has opened so many doors for him but remembers his adult fairytale as a creative uphill-struggle, “Sketching a film can sometimes be more fun than actually making one, particularly with all the economic problems you have to deal with”. Del Toro sacrificed everything at a director’s disposal to ensure Pan would get made. “Maybe one day I’ll have my own gallery, paint full-time and express my ideas that way”. Indeed, if you could take one screen capture from Del Toro’s labour of love and hang it on a wall, it wouldn’t look out of place. Pan’s Labyrinth is nothing short of a masterpiece.