Friday, March 31, 2017

Guillermo del Toro -- Living with Monsters

About five capacious galleries at the Minnesota Institute of Art have been converted into a kind of circus side-show qua film studio back-lot for an exhibition entitled Living With Monsters.  The show, on display until mid-May 2017, consists of macabre art objects, movie props, prosthetics, and story-boards, together with life-size wax figures and horror fanzine memorabilia -- all of these artifacts are displayed in a setting that is supposed to approximate "Bleak House", the Mexican film director's mansion in Los Angeles and site of his horror movie collection.  I have called these objects "artifacts" and, by and large, this is a fair characterization -- with some limited exceptions, the things exhibited, although skillfully made and interesting in their own right, aren't exactly art -- they are something else:  either souvenirs of horror movies that del Toro admires or intellectual property instrumental in making films of this kind.  There is something of the stench of commercial opportunism about the show and the exhibit is, certainly, a vehicle for promoting del Toro's films, highlights appearing in each gallery on large screens.  I'm not exactly convinced that del Toro is a great film-maker -- in fact, I am on record denouncing his masterpiece, the lugubrious and politically tendentious Pan's Labyrinth, as greatly over-rated.  (Pan's Labyrinth shrinks into insignificance next to the Victor Erice's great and solitary masterpiece on this subject, The Soul of the Hive.)  Guillermo del Toro is the auteur behind Chronos (killer immortal bloodsucking alchemists), Mimic (killer cockroaches in the NYC subway), Pan's Labyrinth (a pretentious allegory that embodies Franco's murderous regime in various monsters), The Strain (killer vampires), Pacific Rim (Godzilla and other giant killer reptiles), the Hell-Boy films (killer horned demons)  Crimson Peak (killer ghosts in a killer Victorian mansion), as well as various and sundry other films, all within the horror genre.  The sorrow of del Toro's life is that the truly great horror films (Frankenstein, Nosferatu, Dracula and The Wolf Man) have already been made and re-made and much of his energy, it seems, has been devoted to pitching remakes of monster movies that already exist  -- The Strain and Pacific Rim, in particular, labored under the defect that they were both imitations of something previously produced in a more perfect form.)

My guess is that del Toro's display of this Wunderkammer at "Bleak House" -- that is in situ -- might qualify as an example of eccentric or "outsider art" in its ensemble effect. We ordinarily think of "outsider" environmental art as comprised of humble materials used in an obsessive display:  that is, walls made from coke bottles set in concrete or facades decorated with hub-caps and colorful broken glass, decaying baby dolls impaled in trees, tinfoil streamers hanging from shrubbery, etc.  By contrast, del Toro's souvenirs seem to have been commissioned -- many of the most spectacular artifacts are life-sized wax figures -- presumably at enormous cost.  The visitor to "Bleak House" and this show can behold the climactic encounter between Frankenstein's monster and his Bride in a beautifully mounted tableaux with Ernest Thesiger as the mad Dr. Pretorius sucking on a cigarette as he observes the action.  Del Toro seems to have ordered dozens of busts of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe in addition to life-size waxworks of both men.  (Is Lovecraft really the literary equivalent of Poe?  Notwithstanding Joyce Carol Oates' admiration for the former, I am skeptical on this issue.  However, del Toro seems to regard the two as masters entitled to equal celebrity.)  In his "Bleak House," Poe sits on a throne-like chair, idly paging through a volume of poems, whilst rain beats perpetually against wet and streaming windows behind him, lightning now and then, flashing to illumine them -- this is del Toro's so-called "Rain Room".  Del Toro has also commissioned life-size waxworks of Schlitzie, the pin-head from Tod Browning's Freaks, as well as her compatriot from that movie, KooKoo the bird girl -- he also has a dapper midget from The Wizard of Oz on display.  In an era of political correctness, these images are border-line offensive as are the pictures of various freaks and human anomalies in the show, some of them also commissioned by the film maker (or instance, Rembrandt-styled paintings of hirsute women or microcephalics.) (Again, a grouchy critic might argue that if del Toro wanted truly alarming images of this kind, he would buy some of Diane Arbus' more unsettling photographs and display some Joel-Peter Witkin's pictures.) There are a lot of grotesque images of crucifixion and other torture by Polish and Czech surrealists and, perhaps, the representative work in the show is a big, murky image of a screaming figure impaled on a cross, a big canvas that del Toro collected because it was apparently featured in an episode of the old TV horror show Night Gallery.  Interspersed among the video monitors showing monsters on rampage, the various mock-ups and story-boards from films, and the wax-works are works from the MIA's own collection -- a Duerer fantasia of a woman snatched by a sea-monster, Barthel Beham's tiny but disturbing image of a woman suckling a dead baby next to a skull (a work that seems to rhyme with some of del Toro's Victorian mortuary photography, including a photograph of two sisters fondling the corpse of the third sister), a cheesy art nouveau triptych of lovers in misty mountains flanked by bats (a painting that has always been a riddle to me), and two of the Institute's masterpieces:  Francis Bacon's screaming pope and Balthus' "The Music Lesson."  In general, the comparison between these works of critically sanctioned "high art" and del Toro's third-rate surrealists and movie-monster kitsch doesn't run to the benefit of the more conventional art -- for instance, I think Bacon's painting is subtly diminished by the circumstances of its display:  perhaps, it wasn't as a good a painting as I have previously thought.  On the other hand, Balthus' eerie, strangely composed and serene "Music Lesson" becomes more meaningful in the context of this show.  I have never noticed that "The Music Lesson" can be seen as a kind of metamorphosis -- the girl in ecstasy, possibly masturbating on the couch seems to be melting into the furniture and the little girl creeping across the floor with her haunches suggestively raised mimics the shape of the piano at the edge of the picture:  it's as if the "music lesson" is devised to implement the transformation of the girls into pieces of furniture, perhaps, little pianos or other musical instruments. 

The show is creepy enough and, certainly, filled with all sorts of graphic violence.  On the TV monitors, we see people disemboweled, ensanguinated, corpses being autopsied, huge monsters menacing tiny children.  No one has ever used the adjectives "waxy" or "waxen" in a positive sense and so the waxworks dominating the show are particularly eerie and discomfiting.  But what's wrong with the show can by summarized, in an important respect, by what I heard a dozent telling a crowd of bewildered retirees -- pointing to an elaborate black dress featured in Crimson Peak, the guide told them that it took seamstresses in the studios 7000 (or maybe 70,000) hours to complete this costume.  The result is a heap of dark cloth on a mannequin in a corner.  The labor seemed to me to be grossly disproportionate to the outcome.  In the next room, the Dozent announced that he had never heard of H. P. Lovecraft.  "Have any of you ever heard of Lovecraft?"  No one had.  The Dozent said:  "I've never heard of him either so I can't tell you much about him or his writing."  My guess is that none of the nice pensioners obediently following the guide through this maze of torture, deformity, and mutilation had seen (or would ever intend to see) any of del Toro's movies.  So, as with the dress, one's natural inclination is to ask "What's the point?" 

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