Thursday, October 10, 2013


“Hell Boy” is not a movie I would normally watch.  Somehow by accident I saw a trailer and it stuck in my head so -- since it streams on Netflix, at least the first of the two movies does, I watched it last night.  No doubt many people watch it for the special effects which are extraordinary.  They are not as scary as “Pan’s Labyrinth” though many of the elements are similar: Nazi’s, monsters, darkness, hidden underground structures.  In “Hell Boy” they are slightly more conventional.  It’s GREAT tentacle horror with a lot of "Alien" references and a definite sexual vibe.  And it’s funny.

In much of my deep mind -- since my first years were WWII -- the nightmare imagery is Nazi and combat shooting.  As kids we worked off a lot of it crawling around in the neighborhood shrubbery pretending to kill each other, but we never imagined the ingenious and overwhelming machinery of modern technology.  Don’t look at this linked clip of a Banksy graffiti with sound unless you’re pretty tough.  It combines the crude assault of horse cavalry with the sound of technological, rule-governed, irresistible air assault.  That's the now.

Because of activists and the Internet, we are now aware that this happens daily in parts of the world that we dominate.  We do it.   In my childhood I thought children were only killed by mistake.  Even then, I thought I might be killed.  Part of getting past that as I grew up was accepting that everyone will die.  It was harder to get past the idea that I was different from everyone else, which is partly what Hellboy is about, though the plot is meant to convince us that his difference is only rubbersuit deep.  I AM different from everyone else.  Aren't you?  And aren't we different from our enemies?

I was grateful for Abe Sapien, the underwater man who echoes Mister Spock.  Arguably, the most terrifying thing about the Nazis was their relentless rationality and their belief that this was the core of their superiority.  Their moral emptiness was justified by claiming compassion to be subjective, merely emotional, which meant they didn’t have to think about why a depraved little man with a funny mustache and a bad attitude would think he was superior.  And we do not miss the fact that our own leaders are no better: war-mongers, puppets of money, inhuman.  Abe Sapien has wisdom.  And he knows his limits.

The girl, if you could see her back, would have a dragon tattoo on it.  She is a Scandinavian berzerker, the warrior who bursts into flame and is therefore irresistible in violence.  Fine if they don’t try it at home.  All these supernatural characters are accompanied by two humans who try to be truly human:  the scientist/father who is not afraid to befriend hell, and the youngster who is ambivalently recruited to grow into his shoes.

Beyond the genre of superhero comics, which also had roots in WWII, this line of plotting goes back to mythic times when extraordinary people, heroes, were needed.  But it is also uniquely modern in that we have been taught that exceptional people are either better or worse then everyone else, not equal.  They either have high obligations -- cure cancer, go to the moon, write the all-time greatest American novel -- or they are so dangerous that they must be destroyed lest they attack all the rest of us.  People who can’t answer their own narcissistic expectations of themselves will find this role and become shooters.  If you can’t be the president, you can be the president’s assassin.  If that’s too hard, shoot primary school kids.

Hellboy is not much like Superman who is a cleancut kinda guy.  Hellboy and his cigar are more like some tough cop, the kind of man that our culture (including the military) used to depend upon -- General Patton, for instance.  In lieu of growing stubble, he shaves his horn stubs, both proof of maleness.  He’s not really like the classical Lucifer, who is lascivious and defiant, sly and psychological.  He’s just red and has a tail.  The Christian references that creep in are mostly old-fashioned archeological machinery: strange doors and inscriptions.  It’s the same rather old-fashioned Berkeley suburban stuff.  Hellboy is a marshmallow inside, looking for a girl to toast him.  (But his lips won’t pucker for a kiss.)

Sci-fi has always explored the social consequences for people who are different from the society in which they dwell.  One of the more subtle versions decades ago was a series of short stories about alien children surviving a spaceship crash.  They were exactly like humans except for being able to levitate and read minds.  The humans who rescued them were good conscientious people who tried to take care of them, but learned to hide them because ordinary humans became alarmed by their gifts and punished them.  The exception was a school teacher who finally figured it out and supported the children as they grew.  The dynamics of this story are enacted in schoolrooms all over the planet every day.

The point of storytelling is in part to illustrate patterns that are so common we can’t see them.  Can a fish think about water?   Probably not until the fish is thrown out of the water and gasping.  Can Abe Sapiens think about water?  All the time.  That’s what makes him wise.  We can follow his example.  In fact, this is the work of religion on its best days (not necessarily Sunday), art, and humanities education of every kind.  

So can suburban boys who grew up vanilla-and-entitled ever envision something like a Hellboy movie without the help of someone who has seen the horror?  I would argue that Spielberg and Lucas are forever crippled by their suburban origins.  It is Guillermo del Toro who has the vision and Dreamworks that is thrillingly curious about how it all works. 

Consider these quotes from del Toro:

Del Toro’s father, automotive entrepreneur Federico del Toro, was kidnapped . . . Although Federico was eventually released safely, there was intense economic pressure from his captors. . .  The event prompted del Toro, his parents and his siblings to move abroad. . . He said this about the kidnapping of his father: "Every day, every week, something happens that reminds me that I am in involuntary exile [from my country]."

"Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don't wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment."  

"I hate structure. I'm completely anti-structural in terms of believing in institutions. I hate them. I hate any institutionalized social, religious, or economic holding."

But Dreamworks IS an institution;  Hollywood IS an institution.  It is money that holds them together as institutions so that del Toro movies are possible.  This essential contradiction -- the gears of the locks on the bank vaults -- is what we recognize with horror.  We try to take the hand of Abe Sapiens, but there is glass in between.  Destroying that glass would mean making either his or our life impossible.

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