Saturday, 17 September 2016

Masterpieces of Cinema (1): "It's All Made Up" - Simon and Rochelle Discuss Coraline (Dir: Henry Selick, 2009)

The first in an occasional series looking at a radically subjective list of our favourite movies, presented to you in no discernible order whatsoever
ST: Two things struck me when I was rewatching Coraline recently (it felt like a perfect accompaniment to the massive storm we had a few days back, to provide some context as to why): (1), I cannot think of any means by which it could possibly be improved, unless there was some way to shoehorn some more They Might Be Giants songs onto the soundtrack; and (2), for an ostensibly family-centric animation, it does an incredible job of instilling terror.  It’s fairly obvious that Selick’s going to be a dab hand at this from the opening credits alone, which represent – to my eyes, anyway – a pretty overt nod to the opening credits to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, wherein the audience gets a chance to see Freddy Krueger putting the finishing touches to his modified gardening glove / potential death trap.  Do you see this too, or am I reading far too much into it?

RS: No, I think you’re right. It’s unusual to see that type of malignant stage-setting in the first frames of a kids’ film, but then Coraline doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to visceral unpleasantness.  One aspect of it that I’ve always loved is the idea of crafting your evil plan, that the Other Mother actually sews the mini-Coraline doll herself. It’s partly the foreshadowing of the later grimness about replacing your eyes with buttons (just no), but it’s also echoing some pretty old traditions of folk horror to do with replicas and the constructing of evil objects.  Admittedly, the mini-Coraline doll is far more appealing than a skanky old witch’s apple, but it plays a similar role in somehow inveigling threat into what should be a safe and homely environment.

ST: Although of course we know that the ‘safe and homely environment’ of children’s stories – whether in print or on screen – is never really safe or homely, particularly in relation to the fantastical tradition that Selick’s working within.  Fairy tales pretty uniformly involve children going out into the world and encountering the monstrous, the unknowable, the uncanny, and Coraline’s no different: it is, in fact, almost a distillation of those fairy-tale and fantastical traditions.  The film’s packed to the gunnels with references – Wes Craven’s masterpiece aside – to the classics of children’s storytelling, Alice In Wonderland proving the most visibly insistent narrative reference point (Coraline discovers the world where her Other Mother lives through a tiny door that leads to a rabbit-hole like portal; whilst the mangy, and possibly magical, moggy who aids her in her struggles has a habit of appearing and disappearing at unexpected moments in homage to Carrol’s grinning Cheshire Cat).

Coraline is then, at some level, about the unconscious, about the ‘other world’ that’s hidden alongside this, and which gets unleashed through the usual channel of a child’s unfocused, and wonderfully over-active imagination.  Hence the coexistence within the film’s world of wonder and terror: they’re ultimately the product of the same source, and any writer or artist who really knows a child’s imagination – as both Selick and Neil Gaiman, whose novella of the same name provided the source for Coraline, undoubtedly do – understands this instinctively.  I’d like to draw your attention to this article, wherein Mark Kermode reminisces about how the scariest thing Ramsey Campbell, the horror writer, had ever seen was “an illustration from an old Rupert The Bear annual in which our furry friend is pursued by a tree walking upon spindly roots”, which should really come as no surprise.  Childhood terrors stay with us, and have deeper resonances, than anything – even the very worst things (disease, aging, frailty, loss) – that adulthood has to offer.  (Kermode also quotes Stephen King on the relationship between fantasy and horror, in that both “[make] you, for a little while, a child again”, which makes a hell of a lot of sense to me: when either genre’s working to its greatest strengths, the audience or readership is utterly helpless and involved in the narrative, transported, half willingly, half not, straight back to the communal fireplace, or tucked up, ‘safe’ in bed, as your parents read you selections from those perennial blood-soaked favourites from Perrault or Grimm.)      

RS:  I know what you mean, there is something unpredictable about what you find frightening when you’re a small child.  I remember being absolutely terrified of a picture of a school teacher owl wearing a mortarboard in one of my Tufty Rabbit books, although I resolved this fear by eating the page in question.  A slightly left-field approach, but it worked – I have never since been afraid of owls or mortarboards.  With Coraline, though, it feels as though that sense of threat is apparent mainly due to the depth of audience immersion that the film manages to achieve.  What has always struck me most about it is the sensory detail of the Coraline world.  It helps that this is some of the most beautifully intricate stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen, so every element on the screen (with the odd exception of fog) has an inescapable physicality that helps the adult viewer engage with what is essentially a fairytale.  Oddly, the little documentaries on the DVD about how the puppets were made only add to that sense of immersion rather than detracting from it, because then you know that Coraline’s clothes are all tiny hand-sewn garments, and that someone actually knitted her minute stripy orange gloves.  The details you would feel with your fingertips are just as clearly evoked as those you would see, and with that heightened sense of the fabric of this world comes a more intense reaction to the peril experienced by the protagonist.  It’s a film that can completely immerse you because, at some level, you can tell that this is a world you could reach out and touch, rather than one that is constructed on a purely digital level.

ST: Yes, and I concur with the seeming paradox that knowing more about the construction of the film somehow adds to our sense of enjoyment and immersion, which has never been the case with, to my mind at least, behind the scenes looks at CGI.  Tactility’s important; craft is important: it’s possible, in fact, that the mystery resides in the craft.  (This might mean that the closer cinema adheres to the physical world, even if the physical world in question resides entirely in the imagination, the better it is.  Discuss.)  It’s telling that Coraline is a film that almost signals its own processes from the outset: the opening scene shows us the Other Mother building a Coraline poppet using exactly the methods we see revealed to us in the making-of documentary; whilst when the limitations of the fantasy world are revealed to us later in the narrative (the Other Mother has specifically only made enough of her world to trick children into staying), we’re thrown back into the world of cinema projection: this is a kingdom of illusion, projected onto a limitless white space, an abyssal screen, the borders of which are not limitless, but stop where the maker wants them to stop.  But none of this metatextual play destroys the joy of the film; rather, it enhances it.  This may be a peculiarity of my own, but behind the scenes glimpses of films involving puppets – whether animatronic or stop motion – is one of the great pleasures of film-geekery.  A case in point: I would suggest people check out the making-of documentary for Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, as the level of labour – and craft, naturally – that went into that movie is / are astonishing.  Certainly, it explains visual effects that I had never been able to get my head around before, but it manages to explain them in a way that only makes them more astonishing.  If I ever get into a discussion with some post-Romantic spiritualist blowhard who thinks that an increase in knowledge comes at the expense of wonderment, I’d point them in the direction of that making-of as my first piece of evidence to the contrary.  But as I said, it might be my own eccentric reading methods projecting themselves (ha!) onto the medium of film: the Oulipian in me is always as interested in process as in product, and I like nothing better than reading author’s biographies and finding out the minute technical details of their craft: how much they were writing per day, who they were reading, what dictionaries they favoured, etc., etc.  I know the common wisdom is that that’s the least interesting element in a writer’s life – at least for the general public – but I’d be happy reading biographies that were composed only of those technical details, to be honest with you. 

RS:  Nothing about that surprises me.  But I think that this obsession with the technical processes of creative craft isn’t uncommon; there is something bewitching about watching someone build an object that you yourself couldn’t make.  Thus:
With Coraline it seems to be more than simply that love of craftsmanship though, and I think you might be on to something with the whole physicality of a film’s world/level of audience immersion idea.  Is it that films such as this one make us relive that childish pleasure of building one thing from another thing (the cardboard box that becomes a den or a car or a rocket, with the judicious application of scissors and felt-tip pens)?  Or is it more about the creation of imaginary spaces within reality, where different rules and identities apply?  Coraline is playing around with those ideas, and the fact that Coraline herself isn’t some tiny tot but (I’m guessing from her attitude) a young teenager means that there is another discussion about the role of imagination in childhood and in adulthood.  At what point does this world of illusion stop being a harmless game and start being something more threatening?  The film seems to be drawing a line between an infantile expectation that things will be as you wish them to be, and a much more generous and outward looking use of the imagination. The fact that the other, adult inhabitants of the Pink Palace Apartments are so creatively eccentric is presented positively, since Mr Bobinski and the Misses Spink and Forcible actively help Coraline in her quest to defeat the Other Mother.  However, Coraline’s parents are a much more pragmatic and sensible foil to all the fantastical playfulness, so which version of adulthood is Coraline expected to embrace?

ST: I’d say the film presents some kind of amalgam of play and pragmatism as the ideal goal.  Equilibrium’s the key.  Yes, the more eccentric inhabitants of the apartments are narratively vital to Coraline’s quest, but they’re also in many ways deluded themselves: Mr B’s dancing mice only really have any valency in the alternative world; whilst Spink and Forcible are living in nostalgic fantasy constructions of their own, menagerie-shelves of stuffed dogs and all.  Equally, Coraline’s parents are trapped within in their own work, and although there’s a negative aspect to their absorption, anyone who’s ever turned their hand to writing will sympathise with the manner in which the outer world tends to drop away when you’re properly in the zone.  However pragmatic and mundane their motivations, though, this voluntary self-removal from immediate surroundings still represents a kind of fantasy world, at one remove from the real that’s evoked with such immersive tactility throughout.  The garden scene that closes the movie seems to be, then, the equilibrium between the mundane and the fantastic that the narrative’s been moving towards.  It’s practical work, requiring knowledge and patience and effort, but the result is beautiful and, moreover, wonderfully gratuitous, quite at odds with the garden created by the Other Mother, the only function of which was to more effectively ensnare Coraline.  Which all suggests that this is the real narrative resolution at some level, this rapprochement between the mundane and the other, this marriage of patient, rational craft and boundless, anarchic imagination: this art.  This is one of the reasons that Coraline as a fantasy film feels so much more radical than, say, the Harry Potter series, as it’s positing the idea that the mundane (what Charles Tomlinson derided in his critique of the Movement as “the suburban mental ratio”) is not something to be escaped or rejected outright by the protagonist; but rather something to be acknowledged and accommodated, along with the life of fantasy that runs parallel to or just beneath it.

RS: OK, that’s fair enough.  Perhaps it is craft itself that allows for that balance between imagination and reality, since there is that acknowledgment of the time taken to create something from scratch.  I love the idea of the garden being a representation of this, but with Mr. Bobinski surreptitiously planting beetroots amongst the tulip bulbs, but there isn’t the sense of resolution that you might expect from a film aimed at children.  Even in the final scene with the garden, it’s clear that there are competing ideas about what the garden should be and how it should function (ie., flowers or vegetables), acknowledging that there are different interpretations of craft and creativity in terms of its practical and/or aesthetic purpose.  Not that this is a bad thing, far from it; it’s rather heartening to see that there’s no standardized view of what childhood or adulthood should be.  There’s a wholehearted acceptance of difference, rather than an insistence on some homogenized realm of normality.  And if wholesome, constructive play involves hunting for giant slugs, then I’m definitely on board.

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