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Welcoming del Toro’s Monsters

An artist’s mind is a treasure trove. One wonders why certain ideas or images alight there, hibernate, gestate and grow. Visiting Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters makes the visitor entertain these thoughts. The exhibit sounded interesting ,with more than 500 photos, movie props, art objects, costumes, sculptures and books and because my elder daughter is an affectionado, I decided we would go . Years ago, I had found del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, magical, frightening, even beautiful, yet I had not responded to his Hellboy.

But having the opportunity to visit segments of his reconstructed house at the AGO provided an experience that went far beyond the films and explored the sources from which the filmmaker’s genius arises. This traveling exhibit that resembles an immersion into the red recesses of his brain certainly enhances the process of penetrating sources of creativity. Divided into sections entitled Victoriana, Magic, Alchemy, Outsiders, Death and Afterlife, for example, lures the viewer into a unique consciousness, inklings from where artistic inspiration has sprung.

My favourite of the dark crimson settings was the Rain Room, the perpetual sound of rain hitting the windows deepening the feeling of mystery and provoking the opening line,” It was a dark and scary night…” in which ( the Halloween I attended)a group of students huddled at the feet of their teacher and extended the feeling of being huddled in a cosy environment where outside the weather rages, secure from Heathcliffe beating on the windows, and we are held safe and dry by the fireplace. To deepen the eeriness of contributing sensations actual playing of moody sonatas on a real grand piano in another room underscored the spooky experience.

Here is a plethora of works from etchings by Goya, drawings by Ensor and paintings by Tissot as well as bronze sculptures, masks and maquettes and movie props from del Toro’s oeuvre, many beyond life size. As we enter, the amphibian man who sat before a bounteous feast in Pan’s Labyrinth , skin hanging like drapery from his limbs and eyeballs in his searching elongated palms, greets us. It is creepy. Later, Pan’s fawn stands tall and del Toro’s narrative explains how the creature has aged backwards in the movie, a combination of menacing and friendly, but I’m focused on the roots at his feet and the cloven hood that recall Narnia’s centaur.

 A Frankenstein sculpture sits besides his bride, another distorted! Frankenstein head hangs overhead. It is suspended long as if squeezed between the jaws of an anvil and , another more recognizable icon has welcomed us into this environment for the misunderstood and feared by society. In a corner are the Tod Brown’s Freaks from his 1932 film beside photographs of circus performers such as the bearded lady and snake charmer, most smiling. Del Toro speaks to society’s perception of outsiders and misfits, but identifies their audiences as the ones with ugliness within who would judge and alienate these “ freaks” from society. Del Toro’s so- called  monsters  have lost their ability to terrify or frighten here. Instead they now fascinate as they project the extent, compassion and insights of the inner workings of the filmmaker’s mind. They are as friendly as my grandson’s oh-oh  bear. As a child, an outsider himself, del Toro, comprehended the visceral loneliness, the plight of those who do not belong. He writes he hopes “ [to] find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal”. In spite of the overload of the oddities and unusual here, one feels a kind of kinship and comfort, relaxing before the works of this horror- fantasy auteur who has shared his diverse collection of inspiration.: what he identifies as beautiful. All is normalized in this place, only the trappings of rain and moody music creating a backdrop of suspicion.

On the cell phone guide and with numerous signs, the exhibit describes the artist’s fascination with this transformation of insects and bugs,Disney’s dark side, the impact of Victorian times, especially the lacy darkness of the Gothic, the never far away impact of his grandmother’s repressive Catholicism and his Mexican ancestry that proclaims that we live with death and it is not the end. Although signs are informative, the viewer is reading rather than looking and like me, no doubt, missing the impact of some of the visual by the necessary detraction of the written word. This is always a balance for the curator, providing important information to unravel the art works while not allowing the interpretation to overtake what is being displayed. However, everywhere we look, from curiosity cabinets to shelves and walls , there are objects to contemplate and intrigue. Long knobbly legged insects find a parallel in a costume worn by a sculpture, whose sleeves suggest butterfly wings and the possibility of changing form. I’m thinking of Opelia in Pan’s Labyrinth and the fairies that emerge from her initial encounter with bits of wood that resemble flying grasshoppers.
And how Pinocchio ‘s nose grows into a twig : indicative perhaps of the possibility of an idea overtaking  essence of matter and transforming into something completely different. Even a glimmer of fear will cause a body to shake like a bowl full jello on a plate or a beam of light transform into a thesis on evolution.

My favourite , that Rain Room, room is filled with del Toro’s  well read and colourfully bound books, an unending resource that reaches from ceiling to floor,  all he has stored and read,  leaning side by side: from H.P.Lovecraft to Ruskin and HGWells to Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe to Bald Mountain and the Nibelungen. Other walls display drawings by Arthur Rackham, Edward Gorey, Moebius, Robert Crumb, and del Toro’s own, and more : fodder for the curious mind. As well, all the versions, images and publications one might imagine of Frankenstein are displayed here , and still another wall is covered completely with comic books. The exhibit indeed proclaims the strength of these as the seeds for the artist’s imagination, for they are indispensable to del Toro’s artistic growth of o relapping visions.  

And still much of the exhibit is a tribute to childhood with memorabilia that fascinates and terrifies. Del Toro explains how formative the first six years of a child’s life are. At Disney, Bambi loses a mother, the dark foreboding castles appropriated from Europe by Disney, the dragons and scary uninvited hag who casts her spell on Sleeping Beauty are memories locked in intractable images in every child’s head. And I recall Bruno Bettelheim on Fairytales reminding us we need both the dark and the light, horrifying gremlins to reflect the darkness of our souls along with shining princesses and their magic wands of goodness and forgiveness.

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I think of the recent threat to close art schools in Toronto and the lack of understanding of the power of art on children and adolescents- and adults in technology, filmmaking, art- making, And for our developing students  at school how art invites a bridge from sad, alienated lives to acceptance of selves and delight in the creative. Eliot Eisner wrote ceaselessly on this transformation. On Friday this week too in The Globe, Russell Smith’s article ,A Picture is worth 1,000 meaningless words, dismisses artspeak as research.Think of our public spaces without art, what art communicates and how it can lighten the mind and spirit, how art teaches problem solving, how art excites the brain and the hands, how art connects with ourselves and others. But this is my old saw.
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Even the strange and wonder- ful art of Guillermo del Toro, that may initially repulse some, has the power to fascinate, to tell a story of the misunderstood other, to withstand oppression. Watch Pan’s Labyrinth and you will  understand what I mean.

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Immigration, news papers and poetry 

On Meet the Press last week, Chuck Todd asked Reince Preibus why the specific naming of the Jews and antisemitism had been omitted by Trump on the day of Holocaust Remembrance in Washington. No apologies or expression of regret was given except for Trump’s spokesperson to murmur, how terrible it all was and to acknowledge there are Jewish people in Trump’s own family( his son- in- law Jared Kushner and Trump’s daughter who is a convert to Judaism). In deed, Ivanka issued a photo of herself and husband that evening as they preened for their night out in dazzling clothes. She might have underpinned it with “ Let them ( the refugees) eat cake”. People believe that it is no mistake that the ban of Muslims from countries identified as dangerous such as Yemen, Syria,Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Somalia on the same day as the holocaust statement was not just a coincidence- for, Steve Bannon, chief strategist for Trump, supports the alt right which lauds white supremacy and of course, antisemitism along with it. But not just Jews and Muslims are in his purview, he also repeatedly excoriates the Press to keep quiet.

I always find it ironic that one who insists on his own voice being heard has no problem silencing all the other voices: Might makes Right, and as Trump, so incredibly demonstrated during his debates, keep repeating your words louder and more often until you drum out and silence your opponents. Bannon, a former navy man, also worked at Goldman Sacks as a banker and profited from royalties from Seinfeld. So cry me a river of how both Trump, and Bannon can empathize with the forgotten in America! From their monied positions , they define themselves as outcasts. But perhaps, they are correct, if the criteria for being an outsider means social misfit whose elevated status means ignoring real and basic needs. With the arrogance of the rich, and hard done by attitude , Trump and Bannon only listen to the their own misguided selfish, egotistical voices bouncing in their heads. And terribly, ironically, their voter base was mainly composed of the actual poor- whose resentment of their societal condition put into power the very bankers and billionaires responsible for their condition.

Without the Press to question, probe and investigate, people are pawns in the game of dictatorship, mindblown by the alternative facts and lies, the “ beliefs” that the master puppeteers hold. What America has enshrined is freedom of speech, encouraging public discourse, debate, collaboration and an impetus towards building on the diverse ideas of the public. At least, that was the slogan emblazoned  in their propaganda. The Press is the watchdog, the canary in the coal mine that tweets the warnings of looming disaster.

Yet too often these days, the Press sensationalizes, exaggerates and employs hyperbole to dramatize and entertain, alert to raising ratings. However, without the attention of the Press , Trump might not have been successful in his bid for presidency. Perhaps he is too well aware of their power and would prefer them silenced now just as in countries where dictatorship has overrun freedom of speech- and worse. Seen as the critics rather than heralding an era of the next doom, the Press has rebelled, written and challenged those who would prefer to lock them up and cut out  their tongues.

The lacuna in the holocaust statement reminded me of Harold Troper and Irving Abella’s book, None is Too Many, that described the refusal to allow Jews into Canada during World War II, and the shame of it. Trump’s barring refugees is likewise horrifying. I recall stories that my mother told of Poland before the war, and those who were not allowed to leave – and perished. And who does not remember the SS St. Louis in June 1939, its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, refused entry to the port of Miami, circling and circling aimlessly until it was forced to return to Europe .Again shamefully. The United States has had a poor track record offering asylum.(Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/us-government-turned-away-thousands-jewish-refugees-fearing-they-were-nazi-spies)

In the Globe again, Pulitzer Prize winner on U.S. Politics, David Shribman remarks on the chaos sown by Trump.Alluding to seven short days, Shribman compares the beauty of creation with the quick demise of society by juxtaposing the two bible- thumping Trump with the miracle of the world. And even the Pope has denounced Trump on immigration, but obviously Trump only respects his own gold- plated views and deems himself above all who would criticize, bestowing upon himself the right to decide who shall live and who shall die as a god on high- above all religious clerics and moral philosophers and common sense. Shribman highlights the symbolism of the statue of liberty, and the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the welcoming statue to New York,

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”

 

I think too of Walt Whitman celebrating diversity in Leaves of Grass and his tribute to Lincoln in Captain, my Captain.  

Russell Smith in Thursday’s Globe and Mail also aligns artists’ works protesting the evils of mankind with Trump’s America, admitting art exerts little impact, except to rally the spirit and underline through gesture and design protests. Yet Picasso’s Guernica that dramatized the atrocity of Nazi bombing of innocent civilians in 1937 on the Basque town in Spain stands as a monument to all human suffering, underlying the brutality of the place, the time, the perpetrators: a forever record. But as Russell Smith set out, art can do little to change minds. I fear that at the end of this destructive time, when the henchmen are called on to account for the ruination of society, they will demure,” I was just following g orders.”

 I imagine too Sally Yates’ refusal to sign Trump’s order will also stand as a rebuttal, a forever statement to the gross abrogation of rights. And when the world surveys its lists of who stood up to Hitler as Schindler did, Guernica and Yates and the Women’s March and even the mayor of Provence, Rhode Island will be carved into the minds and hearts of people who will scorn a regime that deprived rights and safe passage to those in most need. 

And once more, On Meet the Press, a participant held up the IPhone declaring the son of an Arab immigrant , Steve Jobs, created it. A Syrian filmmaker of an Oscar nominated film, The Salesman based on Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman will be included in the ban of Muslims from Syria and will not be able to attend. Scholarship students to Yale and Harvard from many of these identified countries are now nomads, unable to return to their classes. And think of the families stopped midtransit after two years of vetting, now turned away. At least the” sanctuary” cities at this point are not willing to comply by providing names for deportation.In seven short days, the world has come loose, and those famous lines from WB Yeats in 1919, come to mind,

 Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

 Trump’s ability to tell lies and promulgate fear are his special talents. This is fear mongering, echoing FDR’s “ All we have to fear is fear itself” in his inaugural address. By saying this, FDR was telling the American people that their fear was making things worse. He went on to say, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror … paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

 

That is not to say, that terrorists such are not pursuing terrible outrageous crimes against innocents , and destabilizing the world. One remark from 60 Minutes has stayed with me, a comment made by a pastor in Georgia : Who is more likely to turn to terrorism, someone welcomed by a country or spurned by it?

And Marie Henein( yes defender of Jian Gomeshi) likewise reminds us in The Globe on Wednesday, of George Orwell’s take on political thinking in 1945, when he wrote “… the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome …people seem capable of schizophrenic beliefs regarding plain facts, of evading serious facts with debating society repartee or swallowing baseless rumors and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified…”

She adds that few people are actually hurt or killed in terrorism attacks ( well, 9/11), but many many more by guns. Yet there is no move “ to make America safer” by passing more stringent gun laws or even preventing them from being sold.

The last bastion of hope exists with those who have power to overturn or stop the avalanche of Trump’s tide. Maybe thinking Republicans will join with Democrats , protestors, women, refugees, those truly forgotten souls to prevent the tragedy that awaits. My husband, the lawyer, always optimistic continues to tell me that the justice system is embedded with safeguards that will not allow rights and freedoms to be trampled.

 I hope so.

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