What I learned from the Labyrinth

Labyrinth-poster2Labyrinth, the musical fantasy epic from Jim Henson and Brian Froud, has long been one of my favorite movies.  I loved it the first time I saw it in 1986, and I love it now.  A few months ago, Fathom Events brought Labyrinth back to movie theaters for a few days.  While I was enjoying a new viewing on the big screen, I started thinking about the life lessons encoded in Henson’s Bowie-filled masterpiece.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, here’s the basic premise for the start of the movie-  Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is a teenage girl who clings to the fantasy life and toys of her childhood.  As the film opens, she is late to babysit her brother Toby, and she’s a whiny brat about it.  She complains about having to babysit to her Stepmother and father, “It’s not fair!”  Once they go out, she is frustrated by Toby’s constant crying, and she super dramatically wishes for the Goblin King to take the baby away from her.   Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) appears, and takes the baby as she requested.

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I need a portable fan for dramatic entrances.

When she says that she wants him back, he gives her thirteen hours to get through the Labyrinth to the castle beyond the Goblin City.    This is where the story really kicks in- and the lessons.

Pretty isn’t always good, and monstrous isn’t always bad.

When Sarah first meets Hoggle outside the Labyrinth, he’s cheerfully killing faeries with a pump-spray filled with of some sort of pesticide. She picks one up, thinking it’s a poor abused thing, and it promptly bites her.  Later, she first encounters Ludo suspended upside-down and being tormented by goblins with biting-sticks. Ludo looks and sounds like a ferocious beast at first, but it’s an illusion.  Once he’s right side up, his fierce expression turns out to be sweet and friendly.

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The idea that pretty things can be dangerous and that helpful or good-natured things might be hiding behind ferocity is repeated throughout the Labyrinth, and that leads us to…

Take nothing for granted.

Early in the film, Sarah is following an outer track of the maze but she struggles to find an entrance to the Labyrinth.  When she slumps against the wall in frustration, she meets an adorable worm who invites her in for a cup of tea, and to meet the missus.

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How does he tie that tiny scarf?  He’s a worm, he’s got no hands!

Sarah is too preoccupied with getting through the maze to stop, and she says as much to the worm.  He tells her not to take anything for granted, and points her to a place that looks like solid wall.   She realizes after a moment that it’s an illusion, and that there are openings all over, and rushes off.

Don’t be in such a rush that you miss the important things.

The worm isn’t done with the lessons there, either.  At the end of their exchange, the worm tells her not to go in the first direction she chose.   She doesn’t question it, thanks him, and races off in the other direction.  Once she’s out of earshot, the worm says, “If she’d have kept on goin’ down that way she’d have gone straight to that castle.”

If she hadn’t been in such a rush, she would have gotten to the castle much faster. and the movie would have been considerably shorter.

Life isn’t always fair.

Throughout the movie, Jareth sends obstacles to keep Sarah from reaching the castle to reclaim her brother.  When he speeds up the clock and changes the conditions of her challenge, she impetuously complains that  it isn’t fair.  Jareth’s dry retort is one of my favorite lines in any movie: “You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”

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Goblin King Sass!

It’s important to have perspective about the problems in your life-  fairness rarely enters into it.  Whining about how things haven’t been fair to you will accomplish nothing at all.

You can get used to any bullshit if you spend too much time around it.

When our intrepid heroes reach the Bog of Eternal Stench, they meet Sir Didymus, the stalwart defender of… a tiny rickety bridge across the bog.  While we never find out why Sir Didymus has pledged himself to defend this bridge, we do realize that he must have been in the Bog for quite some time.  Everyone else in the group is recoiling with disgust at the stench, but Sir Didymus doesn’t notice at all.  Think of it as the olfactory equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome.

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This is also true in real life- if you have a terrible job or a bad relationship or a friendship that is withering on the vine, it’s easy to get used to it.  Inertia is sometimes difficult to break through and we often let a less-than-ideal situation go on for far longer than we should because it’s what we’re used to.

Sometimes you just need a new quest to get out of the Bog.

Your stuff is just stuff.

During the requisite drugged-peach hallucinatory trip segment of the movie,  Sarah finds herself in a junkyard with no memory of what she was doing.  She encounters a Junk Lady with all of her possessions on her back.  There’s a moment where Sarah returns to what she thinks is her room, surrounded by all the things she loves – her old games and books and toys and stuffed animals.

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The Junk Lady starts to hand her the things she loves, and begins stacking them up on her back-  after a moment, Sarah starts to have an improbable stack of her things resting above her shoulders, just like the Junk Lady.   She realizes after a few minutes that her things are all just junk- the belongings aren’t that important, and she quickly resumes her quest to reach Toby before the clock runs out.

This is a recurring theme in many of my favorite movies- the things you own often wind up owning you.  They can pull you down, and weigh heavily on you.  And at the end of the journey, it’s really all just junk-  the important thing is the people you meet along the way.

Love can be a subtle control.

In one of the most subtly nasty moments in the entire film, Jareth says a thing which summarizes the tricky control of many a psychologically abusive relationship.  Gaslighting, in a nutshell:   “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”

In a way, this is the same lesson as most of the others-  you can get used to any situation, no matter how bad.  The things you love can control you.  Pretty things are often bad for you.

The way out is to remember your own strength, as Sarah did when she stopped playing  Jareth’s Goblin games at the end of the movie:  “You have no power over me.”

What lessons did you learn from Labyrinth?

Movie Ratings In Germany

Last week, I went to see the remake of RoboCop.   The movie itself wasn’t bad, as remakes go, and I think it was a pretty fun flick.  That’s not what this post is about.

After the movie, I had a discussion with a bunch of people about the movie, and one of them asked about the rating-  apparently some of my friends hold the viewpoint that RoboCop with a PG-13 rating instead of 1987’s R rating just isn’t acceptable.  Never mind that the things you can do with a PG-13 in 2014 would make an R from 1987 toss its cookies.  That’s not what this post is about either.

The exact question posed was, “Was the rating over there the same as here?”  This, I immediately realized, would be an excellent topic for a blog post.

In the US, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has been giving films those familiar ratings since 1968: G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.   In Germany, there’s a similar organization, the Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft, or FSK.  The FSK classifies films under the following categories for both movie theaters and television broadcast:

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  • Ohne Altersbeschränkung (FSK 0): This means no age restriction.  This is pretty much the same as a G rating in the US.
  • Freigegeben ab 6 Jahren (FSK 6): No children younger than 6 years admitted.   This is similar to the PG rating in the US.
  • Freigegeben ab 12 Jahren (FSK 12): Children 12 or older admitted, and children between 6 and 11 only when accompanied by parent or a legal guardian.   Films in this category can generally be broadcast on TV all day. This is similar to our PG-13 rating.
  • Freigegeben ab 16 Jahren (FSK 16): Children 16 or older admitted, and nobody under this age is admitted.  This rating can be broadcast on TV only after 10 PM unless approved by special permit or re-edited to secure an FSK12 rating.  This is similar to our R rating.
  • Keine Jugendfreigabe (FSK 18): “No youth admitted”, only adults.  This is the local equivalent of the NC-17 rating in the US.   Movies with this rating can be broadcast on TV after 11 PM. However, nudity isn’t all that unusual on broadcast television here, especially later at night.

All the above ratings also contain the phrase “gemäß §14 JuSchG” (in accordance with §14 of the Youth Protection Law), which means that they are legally binding.  This differs wildly from the MPAA’s ratings, which are merely recommendations and are not actually legally binding.

Oh, and RoboCop has an FSK12 rating here, in case you were curious.

If you were a movie, what would your rating be?

Halloween In Germany

Halloween isn’t really a traditional German celebration, but it has become more popular in recent years, especially with children.  Most people seem to think this is partially from seeing it depicted in American television and movies, and I suspect that’s a big factor.  Here, costumes are more commonly seen around Fasching.

German youngsters only go trick-or-treating (“Süßes oder Saures!”) in certain areas.  Yesterday, I saw only three children running around with pillowcases, and that might not have been for candy-  they might have just been running around with pillowcases.

I did find that there are a few traditions that are similar to Halloween’s origins in Europe, without being exactly Halloween.

  • In the regions of Bavaria and Austria in Southern Germany, Catholics celebrate the entire period between October 30 and November 8 as Seleenwoche or All Souls’ Week.
  • November 1st is Allerheiligen, or All Saints’ Day. Catholics attend church services in honor of the saints, the martyrs and those who have died for the Catholic faith. People may also visit their family’s graves to beautify them with wreaths and small lanterns. Sometimes a mass is said at the gravesite and the grave sprinkled with holy water.
  • In some areas, November 2 is observed as All Souls’ Day. Catholics attend a special Requiem masses, where they remember those who may be close to them that have died. Prayers for the dead are said and votive candles are lit to honor their memory.
  • In Austria, there’s an entire pumpkin (Kürbis) festival in late October, Kürbisfest.
  • Jack O’Lantern decorations have become more common in Austria and Germany in late October.

Meanwhile, those of us who grew up with Halloween look for places to observe the holiday, and most of those places turn out to be bars and pubs.

Last night, I visited two in particular.  Murphy’s Law, the better of Regensburg’s two Irish pubs, was having a Halloween event.  The Piratenhöhle (Pirate’s Cave) was having a Zombie Halloween party.

In both locations, I saw lots of vampires, zombies, and pirates.  There were a few people dressed as Warcraft characters, one amazing Peter Jackson styled Orc, and more people with random fake bloodstains than I can shake a stick at.

My costume was not as well known as I expected-  roughly 90% of the Germans I ran into had no idea what I was dressed as.  Amusingly enough, only Americans and Canadians call him Waldo.  In the rest of the world, he’s Walter or Wally.  I also learned last night that I can walk around the Altstadt in powder blue pants, and nobody will bat an eye.  Oh, Germany, you make me laugh.

A few people I passed exclaimed “Hab dich gefunden!” (Found you!) as I walked past, so that was gratifying.  And kind of hilarious.

The Same Procedure As Every Year, James.

I am often amazed at the ways in which common pop culture differs between countries.  Before my arrival here, I had never heard of Winnetou.  I also learned recently of  “Dinner For One”, sometimes known in German as “Der 90. Geburtstag.”

The piece was written for the theatre in the 1920s, and was recorded by a German television station in a single take in 1963 with British comedians Freddie Frinton and May Warden in the starring roles.  The piece was recorded in English, with a short German introduction.

Here’s where it gets weird.

Since 1972, “Dinner For One” has been a regular part of the broadcast schedule of German, Danish, and Swedish television stations around Christmas and New Year’s Eve.  Some stations play it repeatedly, the same way that American stations play A Christmas Story over and over each year.    “Dinner For One” is well known in other countries as well, and has become a regular part of the pop culture of Europe.    The program’s catchphrase, “Same procedure as every year, James,” has become the in-joke of an entire nation.  It has even made it onto t-shirts, as seen to the right.

The skit has been repeated on air so often that it actually won the Guinness World Record for most repeated television program.

Except in North America, where it has never been aired.

We’ve never heard of it.

I aim to change that.  Here’s an English language recording of “Dinner For One.”  It’s not the full 18 minute original version, but you’ll get the idea.

Winnetou, Apache Knight

A while back, Jenny and I saw Winnetou on the train.

Jenny was fascinated and amused by this live-action version of Winnetou.

I, on the other hand, had no idea what she was talking about.

J: That man looks like Winnetou
S: Like who?
J: Winnetou
S: Spell it?
J: WINNETOU
S: Spell it again?
J: W I N N E T O U!!!!
S: Never heard of him.

Winnetou is a fictional Native American hero who is well known in Germany.  He was created by Karl May, one of the bestselling German authors of all time.  Winnetou is the fictional chief of the Mescalero tribe of the Apache.    There have been books and children’s stories, all written between 1875 and 1910.  There was a series of eleven films between 1962 and 1968, filmed in what is now Croatia.  There are even two television miniseries, from 1980 and 1998 respectively.

I bought an English translation of the first novel and read it on my Kindle.  I am utterly fascinated by a Native American hero created by a German author.  I am even more fascinated by the fact that Karl May never actually visited the places he wrote about until late in his life, long after he wrote these stories of the old West.  The Winnetou stories are immensely popular here.

In subsequent conversations about Winnetou, I have come to realize that while most Americans have never heard of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, most Germans have never heard of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

That seems fair, I guess.