Friday, January 15, 2016

I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!: Labyrinth

(Photo source: FictionMachine)

"I Can't Believe I've Never Seen It Till Now!" is a new series of posts that will appear sporadically here on the AFOS blog rather than weekly. In each post, I will reveal that I never watched a certain popular movie until very recently, and that's largely because I'm Filipino, we're always late to the party and that's how we do.

Luther is turning into yet another TV show that has no reason to go on after the departure of its breakout star, and I'm not talking Idris Elba. The star I'm referring to is Ruth Wilson, who's currently busy with Showtime's The Affair. But I can see why Elba is eager to go on playing DCI John Luther for as long as possible and why he enjoys playing him way more than any other role, like the role so many of his fans want him to aggressively pursue, James Bond. And who could blame him? As Luther, Elba gets to live out fantasies he must have always had about outwitting or intimidating all the ugly-looking white psychos who either make life difficult and unpleasant for people of color in the U.K. (and in any other country marred by racism) or scare Chris Rock out of sharing an elevator with them.

At times, Luther interestingly feels like a non-comedic version of Rock's post-Columbine stand-up routine in which he takes away power from the racist Trenchcoat Mafia in the only way he knows how: by making mincemeat of them and their whininess comedically. But as a procedural, Luther is nothing really extraordinary, and the psychos Luther tangles with tend to be boring and one-dimensional--except for gorgeous but sociopathic astrophysicist Alice Morgan, an antagonist-turned-ally beautifully played by Wilson. Without Alice to play off of, Luther as a character feels a little less alive. All the character has going for him are the badass way he stuffs his hands into his pockets, Elba's charisma and occasional sense of humor in the role and my favorite trait of Luther's. It's the one trait of Luther's that has kept me interested in Elba's show, even though I dislike shows built around serial killers: an immense love for the late David Bowie, whose music helps Luther to think.

Luther's favorite hero isn't Sherlock or Shaft. It's Bowie, and it's hard to dislike a detective character who worships Bowie and applies his songwriting process to criminal profiling. Without Alice, the show doesn't really have a reason to go on living. But I'm not worried about the show right now. I'm more worried about DCI Luther. How's he dealing with Bowie's passing? Without Bowie around to record another album and give him motivation to outwit serial killers, Luther's probably now an even more broken man than he already is.

In the underwhelming, Wilson-less Luther two-parter that premiered last month on BBC, the only enjoyable moment briefly revisits Luther's admiration of the Thin White Duke and his ability to quote the deepest of Bowie deep cuts. In this case, "We Are the Dead," a track from 1974's Diamond Dogs, gets Luther to realize that a cannibalistic serial killer is suffering from Cotard's syndrome, a mental disorder in which the patient thinks he's dead. DS Emma Lane (Game of Thrones alum Rose Leslie), a younger detective who partners up with Luther to track down this madman, who killed DCI Theo Bloom (Darren Boyd), her partner, with a bomb, quotes a line from Star Wars to Luther--she and Bloom were Star Wars fans--but Luther's tastes in sci-fi lean more towards Bowie concept albums like Diamond Dogs. That's probably the only kind of sci-fi Luther's into, so the Star Wars reference sails past him. Sensing that Star Wars isn't helping a still-grieving Lane to stay focused on her work, Luther attempts to get her to stay focused by introducing to her his favorite method of staying focused. He asks Lane, "Do you know any David Bowie?" She replies, "Um, yeah, I liked him in that film, the one in the maze, with the baby and the puppets," and Luther's wordless response is a funny little look that says, "Are you bloody kidding me?"

The film Lane's referring to is, of course, the Jim Henson-directed, George Lucas-produced Labyrinth. She outs herself as having come from the generation of little girls who grew up watching on telly a teenage Jennifer Connelly rescue her kidnapped baby brother from Bowie's Tina Turner wig-wearing, codpiece-clad Goblin King, and that film was their first taste of Bowie. Meanwhile, I'm from the generation that was first exposed to Bowie via MTV, which was dominated by Bowie's outlandish and suave presence for most of the '80s. But MTV would only play either the Lodger/Scary Monsters years (the funereal, gloomy-looking video for "Ashes to Ashes" used to creep out my five-year-old self, who was allowed to watch anything that wasn't R-rated movies, and that anything included funereal, gloomy-looking Bowie videos), the chart-topping Nile Rodgers era or the "Blue Jean"/Labyrinth/Glass Spider stuff. So I was totally unaware of the sounds of pre-1979 Bowie--a lot of his pre-'79 material (like the 1973 tune "Drive-In Saturday," which I was originally going to name the AFOS weekend block "Hall H" after) is on some other level of excellence--and I had to discover those sounds somewhere else, and that place was the local new wave station, which, in my teen years, was Live 105. In the late '80s and early '90s, that station was especially fond of "Suffragette City," "Golden Years" and "Young Americans," so those three became among my favorite Bowie tunes (my all-time favorite Bowie tune, by the way, is a tune I discovered much later, when I started downloading singles off iTunes: his Giorgio Moroder-produced Cat People theme, which is currently in rotation on AFOS, until my station goes off the air for good on January 31).

KITS also ended up being the station where I first learned Bowie passed away. I was flipping from station to station (no pun intended) on my portable FM radio while making myself a late dinner, and I stumbled into a double shot of "Rebel Rebel" and "Ziggy Stardust," two Bowie tunes I hadn't heard in ages. I couldn't help singing along to both tunes while cooking and was like, "Wow, Live 105's listenable again."

Then the Live 105 DJ explained that he was playing nothing but Bowie tracks for an hour, after being shocked to receive about an hour ago the news of the death of this legendary musician (and sometime actor) he admired because Bowie made it okay for him to be different. I too was stunned to learn about his death because Blackstar, the Kendrick Lamar-influenced album that's, sadly, now his final album, had been released only two days before on Bowie's 69th birthday, and also because Bowie was a seemingly immortal alien from the planet Rocksalot. I thought he was going to live forever.

(Photo source: cosmicbreadcrum)

Thanks to cancer, Bowie wasn't able to live as long as Jareth the Goblin King, whom I've always assumed is hundreds of years old. I also always assumed that Labyrinth was inessential, watered-down Bowie, both music-wise and acting-wise, which was why I never watched the film until shortly before Netflix streaming removed it from its library in December (watching Labyrinth for the first time after marathoning Netflix's Jessica Jones resulted in Jones and Labyrinth turning into a fascinating double-header about women who triumph over sexual predators who are basically spoiled man-children, and that's exactly how Bowie approached Jareth, as "a big kid"). I'm glad to admit I was so wrong about Labyrinth.

Actually, Bowie's original songs in Labyrinth are nothing special when compared to his best work (by the way, I've always been more of a fan of individual Bowie songs rather than his albums--the only Bowie album I've listened to from start to finish is 1997's Earthling), although Labyrinth fans are fond of quoting "Magic Dance," the type of spirited musical number (choreographed, by the way, by a pre-Star Trek Gates McFadden!) that makes Labyrinth feel like some lost Muppet Show episode Bowie guest-starred in after the likes of Alice Cooper and Debbie Harry got to hobnob with Kermit and the crew. But I always liked the quasi-gospel vibe of "Underground" (it reunited Bowie with Luther Vandross, who, before he became an R&B star, sang in the background during "Young Americans" and worked on the vocal arrangements for the 1975 album of the same name). I even remember first seeing the "Underground" video on MTV and wondering if the animators who did the cel animation for "Underground" were the same ones who worked on Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" video. "Underground" was my only taste of Labyrinth before I finally watched the movie on Netflix.

In Labyrinth, Bowie looks like a male love interest from a shoujo anime. With his big hair, the Seinfeld puffy shirt, the tight-fitting pants and the calf-high boots, you keep expecting the Goblin King to jump up in mid-air with anime speed lines behind him. Outlaw Vern interestingly likens the form the shape-shifting, mischief-making sorcerer has taken to that of an '80s teen girl's fantasy boyfriend (but unlike Riley's conception of an imaginary, boy band-style boyfriend in Inside Out, he's not from Canada), and he's a reflection of "the sort of non-sexual sexual attraction that young girls often have for the effeminate rock stars and teen idols the culture churns out for them." He's clearly also a reflection of the Connelly character's tastes in the theater, which is where Sarah Williams' off-screen mother, whom Sarah's father divorced and whom Sarah favors out of her three parents, works as an actor.

Freeze-frame the film's early scenes in Sarah's room, and you can make out a photo of her mom with one of her leading men, who's also played by Bowie in the photo. The Labyrinth novelization paints an elaborate backstory about the Williams parents that's left out of the film: Sarah's mom ran off with the stage actor in the photo when her marriage fell apart. So that means the Goblin King modeled his looks after Mom's cool boyfriend, which gives this kids' film a slightly icky vibe, in addition to the Goblin King's attempts to seduce this underage girl into giving up the baby brother she so cruelly wished to be taken away by Jareth's goblins before she regretted doing so, with the aid of both a hallucination-inducing peach and a Bowie slow jam called "As the World Falls Down."

Labyrinth is hardly the banal kids' film I was expecting. It's full of always welcome Pythonian humor like the obstacle known as the Bog of Eternal Stench (Python member Terry Jones had a hand in the writing, but very little of his writing remains in the screenplay, which received a final polish from the legendary Elaine May), and it's, as Tasha Robinson wrote in the A.V. Club in 2007, "a surprisingly frank exploration of the war between Connelly's sexuality and her innocent childhood daydreams," but it's not quite as frank as another Jim Henson Creature Shop project that became a cult classic like Labyrinth, Farscape, where the freaky alien sex that was only implied in Bowie's glam rock-era tunes was sometimes in your face.

The ickiness of the Goblin King is a fascinating bit of writing, as is Sarah's role in placing baby Toby in great danger. Her initial selfishness and her attempts to redeem herself make Labyrinth more than just a standard good-vs.-evil story, just like how the fact that the hero was responsible for all the bloodshed in Attack the Block helped make that John Boyega movie such a compelling little sci-fi flick.

(Photo source: FictionMachine)

I don't think you could market Labyrinth as a kids' film today. Despite the presence of kid-friendly Henson creatures like the gentle giant Ludo, the undercurrent of sexuality in both the perfectly cast Bowie's weird performance and Sarah's overnight maturation from selfish and myopic kid to empathetic and empowered adult would be too off-putting for marketing people who want to please only parents' groups, so Labyrinth would likely get the Nightmare Before Christmas treatment.

When Disney didn't want a repeat of the controversy Nightmare Before Christmas writer/producer Tim Burton found himself in when parents' groups complained about Burton's kinky and gory Batman Returns being marketed to kids, the studio changed The Nightmare Before Christmas from a Disney release to a Touchstone release and marketed it mainly to Burton's teenage and college-age fans. The change in strategy paid off, and The Nightmare Before Christmas became the box-office hit that Labyrinth wasn't.

Maybe marketing Labyrinth to Bowie fans instead of families would have made it perform better at the box office, but I feel like the masses simply weren't ready for Labyrinth in 1986, just like how they weren't ready for another 1986 fantasy movie that also became a cult classic, John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. The wuxia elements Carpenter attempted to introduce to America in Big Trouble in Little China, elements that I remember seeing my older brother dismiss as cheesy when my family rented the Carpenter flick on VHS, were the norm as action filmmaking over in Hong Kong at the time. The Henson film's oddball, Farscape-style mix of human sexuality and kid-friendly Henson Creature Shop creations was, like Big Trouble in Little China, ahead of its time (you wish you could go back in time to 1986 and reassure Henson, who was depressed over Labyrinth's box-office failure and negative reviews, that his directorial effort will eventually win over everyone, whether it's cosplayers or Bowie's gay fans, two groups that will likely attend this weekend's Labyrinth Sing and Quote-Along tribute to Bowie over at Alamo Drafthouse San Francisco). Labyrinth is basically Big Trouble in Little China for female theater geeks.

In The Smartest Man in the World episode 218, "Labyrinths," Greg Proops joked that Bowie had such limited range as a serious actor during his years of attempting to become a matinee idol that he was always playing David Bowie no matter where the film took place, whether it was a Japanese POW camp (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) or the crucifixion of Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ). But the Bowieness of Bowie found the perfect fantastical backdrop to play off of in the inventively visualized Labyrinth. It's easy to see why Rose Leslie liked Bowie in the one in the maze, with the baby and the puppets. Even when his dance moves are on the dorky side during the "Magic Dance" number, you can't take your eyes off him.

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