Steampunk Education, part 2

Continuing my prep for Steamcon, It’s time for round two in the furthering my steampunk education. I’m still blogging on the Indamixx – going to try recording an Antithesis episode later today to really put it through its paces — once I figure out how to get NFS working on it, that is.

As for the steampunky goodness. Today, I’m watching The Brother’s Grimm .

I’m typing as I go along, but not posting until I’m done with the film. Overall, it’s a strange blend of the very good, the irritating, and the really dumb. Let’s start with the good:

The concept is very, very clever. The eponymous Brothers Grimm, hard pressed for cash, parlay their knowledge of Bavarian folklore into a career as ghostbusting con artists. This works pretty well until the Napoleonic army decides to co-opt their skills to eliminate superstition in a difficult-to-conquer village.

In the course of their adventures, where they encounter real enchantment, the story skillfully weaves together the grimmest of Grimm with very well-timed references to the rest of the mythological and medieval worlds. It’s not just Rapunzel here, it’s The Lady of Shallot . It’s the wicked queen from Snow White . It’s Jack in the Beanstalk and Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretal. It’s chalk full of echoes of the Countess Elizabeth Bathory. It’s Alice in Wonderland . There are shamanic rituals underlying it all – from licking the toad to participate in the wisdom of the forest spirits (originated because of the hallucinogenic excretions on the skins of some frogs), to the Corn King rituals, to the Sacred Kingship, to the Pied Piper. This movie is neck-deep in multiple layers of melded mythologies that marry magnificently, while still preserving the original notions that underlay them. The author of this screenplay didn’t just lift the surface of the old stories, he plumbed the guts of them, too.

In a lot of ways it’s a perfect monomythologist’s fable, beautifully rendered, and lots of fun. It *almost* gets to be a faerie tale in its own rite, but it falls short of other recent masterpieces like Pan’s Labrynth, in part because it doesn’t take the integrity of its own universe seriously.

Gilliam, naturally, makes amazing, glorious use of the grotesque – and like the old faerie stories, he takes the grotesque realities of the everyday and gives them the odd prod and twist here and there to bring out the inherent horror implicit in a world where life depends upon death to continue. Although Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro do give Gilliam a run for his money, I don’t think anybody does this better at the moment – certainly not Tim Burton, who currently is the only other serious contender for the directorial title of "Master of the Fantasy Macabre." Where Burton’s works are slick, well packaged angsty goth bullshit, Gilliam (and his latter-day acolytes Jackson and Del Toro) knows how to get at the heart of terror and darkness. He actually understands why the Romantics (like Shelley, Byron, and Poe) put terror on the same level as rapture in their reckoning of the sublime.

The bad:

As is probably to be expected with Gilliam, the film has its rather irritating and none-too-subtle subtext. His glory days of the Trilogy of Man (Time Bandits , Brazil, Baron Münchhausen ), and The Fisher King , seem forgotten here. He’s carried forward his reflexive anti-modernism, his concerns about the mechanized world draining people of humanity until they have to enter the land of magic in order to find their love of life once again. It’s an old trope, and one of the most effective ones out there. If you want to read up on some of its history, check out The Golden Bough on "The Sacred Kingship" (come to think about it, there’s a good Wikipedia article on the subject too). But where once his films were complicated, this one is pretty simplistic. The bad guys are the ones with machines, the fools are all skeptical thinkers, scientifically minded – and he lays it on pretty damn thick, to the point where just about any scene the skeptical general shows up, he’s torturing some poor sod with Rube Goldberg versions of kitchen appliances.

It’s not the attitude I object to – although I’m definitely a modernist, I enjoy quite a lot of art that turns on romanticism or critiquing modernity. It’s more that I know Gilliam to be capable of so much better. I’m thinking particularly of the battle at the end of Time Bandits here, where when the bandits bring war machines from all ages against Satan and then can’t make them work against him. When one complains "I can’t control them!" Satan replies "Of course not, you stupid man, I control them." The blend of camp humor and relentless critique of every sort of authority (parental, governmental, divine, infernal, military, social, intellectual) make that obvious, throwaway joke truly chilling.

Throughout The Brothers Grimm I found myself wishing for that old Gilliam, the one who really was a punk in the classical sense, pushing back against all prescriptions that oppress the soul of man rather than one who uses tropes he helped create in order to pick on obvious, boring kinds of authority and orthodoxy. In short, there’s nothing truly challenging in this film – it’s all attitude and no substance. More "steam" than "punk."

In the end, we have in The Brothers Grimm a simplistic, even dishonest, casting of the conflict between modernism and primitivism, and it fails to satisfy the itches it scratches.

The stupid:

There are a lot of little false steps here and there. For example, I know Steampunk works by melding modern sensibilities, but a 19th century German – even one from the city – would not vomit at the sight of a rabbit being skinned (though I have to give kudos to Gilliam for using a real rabbit). They wouldn’t panic at the sight of beetles. There’s a lot in this movie that they might plausibly have found offputting – but I’m sorry, those ain’t among them. Over and over again, the movie is put off-pace by little sour notes like these.

Overall impression:

Though the "punk" part of steampunk here is more juvenile than a lot of Gilliam’s previous work, the style is beautiful (as his work always is) and the story is engaging. The acting is wonderful – good enough to cover the deficiencies in the script and make for a fun evening. In many ways, this film is what Sleepy Hollow should have been – clever, engaging, full of fun culture references and with a proper understanding of its source mythology, rather than a thinly veiled Freudian/neopagan evangelism tract with nothing below its sexy surface. It also helps that the source material – the myths collected by The Brothers Grimm – honestly were pagan folklore from a superstitious world, rather than a satire making fun of superstition (as the original The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was). It’s the author in me – I hate remakes that plunder, rape, and pervert the original story to make a preachy point exactly contrary to the story they’re attempting to "present." Burton is worse at this than Disney. Gilliam has the decency to respect his source material, and the result is watchable fun with beatiful moments, but not his best work.

Next up on the Stempunk menu: The Japanese Anime film Steamboy

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