The Devil's Backbone

Format: DVD

Release date: 12 March 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Title: Guillermo del Toro’s Collection

Includes: Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

310 mins

Praised to death by critics and fans alike Pan’s Labyrinth has become the If You’re Feeling Sinister of the movie world. Both of these may be great works, but the febrile twee hysteria that has greeted them is enough to put anybody off. At least in the case of Belle and Sebastian, that album is truly their most accomplished. Not so in the case of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

Over the last fourteen years the Mexican writer/director has alternated Hollywood money-spinners such as Blade II and Hellboy with more personal works – Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and last year’s Pan’s Labyrinth. With these three films del Toro has created a world of poetic horror that has revitalised conventional genres – the vampire myth in Cronos, the ghost story in The Devil’s Backbone, the fairy tale in Pan’s Labyrinth. What makes the films so compelling is not simply their inventiveness, but the fact that, just like Asian film-makers Ji-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters) and Oxide and Danny Pang (The Eye), del Toro is not interested in cheap thrills or mindless gore but in the creaky doors that a horror tale can open onto the darkest corners of human life.

While Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth each take on different figures of the horror canon, there is a striking unity in the worlds they create. All three are Gothic-tinged fairy tales, with a child’s painful initiation to death at their core. In Cronos Aurora silently witnesses her undead grand-father’s decay. In The Devil’s Backbone Carlos has to face his fear of a young boy’s ghost. And in Pan’s Labyrinth Ofelia has to perform a series of magic tasks to be re-united with her father, the king of the underworld. All three films unfold in the nebulous zone between life and death. All three convey the acute sense of loss felt not just by the living but also by the dead, by the orphan but also by the vengeful ghost, by all those who find themselves brutally thrown on either side of the impassable divide. ‘What is a ghost?’ someone asks in The Devil’s Backbone. ‘A tragedy condemned to repeat itself again and again.’ It is that tragedy that del Toro’s films narrate, again and again.

In all three films del Toro creates an in-between world that straddles fantasy and reality. Cronos’ vampire story irrupts into the daily life of an ordinary Mexican family, The Devil’s Backbone‘s ghost story is set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War while Pan’s Labyrinth returns to that historical period, alternating between the Franquist/Republican conflict and the Faun’s fairy tale world. Poised between magic and rationality, del Toro’s world has an exquisite ambiguity, brilliantly illustrated in a scene from The Devil’s Backbone. Its young hero Carlos, looking for reassurance after a night of frightful ghostly manifestations, enters the office of the orphanage’s doctor, the kindly Dr Casares. Lined with shelves filled with jars of deformed foetuses, this is not exactly the most comforting of places. Nor is Dr Casares’ response reassuring, as he warns Carlos against superstition. Pointing at the gruesome jars, he gently pokes fun at the locals who buy the liquid in which the foetuses are kept in the belief that it will cure everything. ‘If you believe in ghosts, you must drink some of this’, he tells Carlos. Understandably spooked, Carlos runs away. Once alone, Dr. Casares drinks the liquid from the jar he’s holding. Humorously deflating scientific certainties, del Toro depicts a rational world that is just as dark and disturbing as Carlos’ nightly encounters with the supernatural, the preserved foetuses belonging to the same unsettling realm as the ghost.

Each time the realistic background chosen by del Toro features a political confrontation – Mexico’s fraught relationship with the United States in Cronos and the Spanish Civil War in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Yet, del Toro has clearly very little interest in politics. While much has been made of Cronos as an allegory for the United States’ vampiric relationship to Mexico, the plot itself doesn’t really support this. And in the two Civil War films the fantasy world, being only loosely connected to its historical setting, offers no insights into the conflict. But Del Toro’s choice of setting is far from gratuitous: these dramatically charged situations set the stage for the urgent life and death choices that face the characters. Beyond that, what draws del Toro to these conflicts is that they are moments when reality in all its darkest excesses comes closest to nightmare: the monsters of fascism are as unlikely, as sinister, and as real as the terrifying creatures of childhood imagination.

This idea is also at the heart of Víctor Erice’s masterful Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and it is impossible not to think of this film in relation to del Toro’s work. Set in 1940 rural Spain, it subtly evokes the dreamy world of a child faced with death and the unseen horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Confined by censorship, it uses the occasion of a screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein in the village to elliptically explore the anxiety and trauma caused by the war. Acknowledged by del Toro as an influence, it is a film whose quiet suggestiveness and nuanced poetry touch places that del Toro’s baroque opulence can never reach. This is not to detract from del Toro’s achievements for he has built a magnificent world. But the comparison with The Spirit of the Beehive reveals his weaknesses, which are most visible in Pan’s Labyrinth. In that film, unfettered by financial constraints, del Toro’s exuberant enthusiasm is allowed to run free, recreating his visions in their most literal, florid details. As a result, there are so many fanciful creatures, fabulous caves and extravagant monsters that there is no room left for the audience’s own reverie.

This is why Pan’s Labyrinth, the most lavishly produced of del Toro’s personal films, is also the least affecting of the three, both emotionally and intellectually. And if it is the one that has been hailed as a masterpiece, it may be because there is some confusion in the world of movie fandom as to what imagination truly is. Magicking up a multitude of bizarre creatures through high-tech special effects or impressive make-up tricks is definitely not what it’s about. And for proof you only need to look at the dismal Lord of the Rings trilogy: it has many weird creatures, all of them rubbish, and the flaccid, pointless world it creates has as much chance of making you dream as a tax return form. I certainly do not mean to place Pan’s Labyrinth on the same appalling level of worthlessness as the J.R. Tolkien/Peter Jackson franchise for del Toro has more magic in his chubby little finger than both of them put together plus the preposterous trilogy piled up on top. But when it comes to imagination, less is definitely more, hence the superiority of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone over Pan’s overwrought Labyrinth.

Virginie Sélavy

Interview with the Brothers Quay

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 June 2006

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: The Brothers Quay

Cast Amira Casar, Gottfried John, Assumpta Serna

UK 2004

95 mins

In the middle of grey, urban Borough the American-born identical twins and animators extraordinaire have transformed an industrial unit into an enchanted fairytale world, a delightful jumble of trinkets and quaint objects where antique clocks chime the hour and classical music plays softly in the background. This is where Timothy and Stephen Quay have been creating their astonishing animation work for over twenty years, including their darkly inventive short Street of Crocodiles (1986) and their feature debut Institute Benjamenta (1995). In 2005 they released their second feature, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. A surreal fantasy bathed in rich golden hues, it tells of a mad inventor who kidnaps an opera singer and takes her to his island to recreate her last performance. In preparation for the concert, he hires piano tuner Felisberto to ‘tune’ his fanciful, monstrous automata.

In an interview conducted in 2005 the Brothers talked to Virginie Sélavy about dream states, Cameroonian ants, Argentine literature and the frustrations that come from being under pressure to make a more accessible film. Their uncanny habit of talking both at once and finishing each other’s sentences made it impossible to disentangle their respective contributions, which is why they are presented here as one voice.

Virginie Sélavy:The Piano Tuner is only your second feature. Why did it take you ten years to make another one after Institute Benjamenta?

Brothers Quay: It took that long to get it off the ground. We went straight from Benjamenta to writing the script for this. We got development money right away from Channel 4 and within a year it was written but they just rejected it outright. They said it wasn’t accessible.

But they’d seen Institute Benjamenta

Yeah, well, they weren’t that crazy about that either… Benjamenta was started under somebody else and when David Aukin [Head of Film at Channel 4] arrived on the scene and was handed the film he didn’t like it at all. But then Terry Gilliam came on board six or seven years later as executive producer and immediately the French and the Germans put money down.

What’s your relationship with Gilliam?

We’ve known him for eighteen years. He’d seen some of our theatre work and he came to meet us and since then we’ve always been in contact. We did some preliminary designs for some of the monster creatures in Brothers Grimm – but of course they got chucked in the bin… We worked on some of his commercials. He’s on your side by his instincts. He just gets bigger money than us! (laughs)

Why do you think he’s seen as more accessible than you?

Well, he goes out and battles Hollywood, like for Brazil when he took out full-page ads and things like that. We wouldn’t do that. We’d just write a little note in The Guardian – or a postcard! (laughs) You have to be philosophical about it. So-called traditional narrative isn’t a huge obsession with us.

Yes, I can see that…

Although we both feel that The Piano Tuner is a compromise of some sort because the brief was to be more narrative and more accessible when the Film Council came on board. And I think it suffers because the script wasn’t written that way. They tried to get the film into a position where it could be shown in forty cinemas. And of course we knew perfectly well that it was impossible. But the sad thing was that the French and the Germans were on board first and they had approved the script as had the Japanese; and the Film Council came on board because the French, the Germans and the Japanese were already there and then decided to tweak the script. We had a lot of interference from everybody. Everybody had their own idea what the film should be.

So it hasn’t been an entirely positive experience.

No, not at all. It’s been a very unhappy experience. Not like Benjamenta, which might be a bit long, OK, but we made the film that we wanted to make. With this one there was a lot of pressure and it’s not something we’re used to handling. Nobody expects anything from animation so they leave you alone – if you want to get down on your hands and knees and move the camera, go ahead, who cares? (laughs)

Although there is no traditional narrative in Benjamenta, I felt that the story went from one place to another. I thought there was less of a sense of direction in Piano Tuner.

Oh, really? Other people have said that Piano Tuner is more narrative. It’s interesting you should say that because with Piano Tuner we were feeling that we were trying to hit certain narrative points which everybody felt were there in the script and therefore should be maintained. But with Benjamenta we didn’t have that, we were sort of cruising very quietly below the surface, like a submarine emitting its bleeps as it moves along. We were very true to Robert Walser [on whose novel the film was based] in that sense. It was sort of a quiet, zero land and we liked that. It allowed so much to be smuggled into the film. But we couldn’t smuggle anything into Piano Tuner because in the end it just got cut.

The subtitle of Benjamenta is ‘This Dream That People Call Human Life’. Could it be applied to Piano Tuner too?

Yes, because in a sense the starting point for this was… do you know the Museum of Jurassic Technology out in Los Angeles? It’s this quirky little museum run by a guy called David Wilson. When you enter and you see all the exhibits you have this eerie feeling that not everything is as it should be. There’s a fine line between is it fiction or is it genuine documentary evidence that he is producing. And one of these things was the Cameroonian stink ant that inhales spores [which infect its brain and cause its behaviour to change] and we used that in the film as an allegory of madness. That anecdote was really the starting point of the film. And we also used the idea of that famous Magritte painting Empire of Light, where in the sky it’s daylight and if you pan down it’s dark. We were interested in that sort of simultaneous in-between world. I think we might have aimed too high for what we wanted and didn’t pull it off, but these were the sort of things that we were using as framing devices for the story. That and South American literature, magic realism, which also adds confusion to everyone’s vision within the film.

Was The Invention of Morel an influence?

Yeah, it was very important. We couldn’t get the rights for it. We actually wrote to Adolfo Bioy Casares and he said, ‘sure, you can have it’, and then he wrote back a day later and he said, ‘I forgot, I gave it to somebody else’. (laughs) We found out that this guy, some Argentinean in Paris who’s had it for thirteen years, never got it off the ground but keeps renewing the rights. So Alan [Passes, co-writer of Piano Tuner]and the two of us said, well, let’s just work around the themes a little bit. So all you really have is the island, the tide, elements like that.

I thought you also kept the idea of people being replaced by their images and living this kind of eternal but illusory, disembodied life.

Yes, exactly. Perpetuum mobile almost, because at the very end the character in The Invention of Morel asks that if anybody should invent a machine capable of reuniting their images, they help him enter into Faustine’s consciousness, which is a little bit what the Felisberto character is attempting at the end of Piano Tuner. He claims to have succeeded – he says, ‘we’re together, buried among the rocks’. In his imagination at least he’s done it. The Invention of Morel was actually a homage to Louise Brooks – Faustine really is Louise Brooks. Bioy Casares was fascinated by her.

And there’s also the character of the mad inventor.

Yes, I think he features less in The Invention of Morel, he’s more like a shadow figure.

Why is the film called The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes?

It was the idea of a character who could hear at the most incremental level. Our whole idea of the Felisberto character was that he should be a kind of medium and earthquakes seem to follow him. At one point Dr Droz says something like: ‘do they follow you on a leash, like a dog?’ Droz wants to have a theatrical earthquake on stage as the showpiece of his opera and Felisberto sabotages it by pulling off a real earthquake. It probably doesn’t quite come off, it’s too abstract, we would have needed much more time at the end.

How did you create the visuals for the film?

We made designs for everything. The whole thing was built. The forest was there, the rocks, the bench, but there was no sea, that was just a blue screen. Actually there was water, but it was more like a giant puddle… (laughs) It was all built up to about one floor and then our model work was grafted and the sky dropped in. We built the whole landscape out of Portuguese cork.

Cork? Why cork?

It makes the best rocks. It’s what’s used for reptiles in museums. All the pet places buy cork for the animals, which is why when we tried to order a few slabs of cork we were told ‘minimum order is 100 kilos!’ (laughs) This giant sled came and we used it all. In fact we had to use another one. We wanted a sort of volcanic island and it gave that beautiful texture.

How do you work together?

We both build the sets, so one’s building the left wall and the other’s building the right wall for instance. You make a list and you say OK, we’ve got to build this, this, this, this, you start on this and I’ll start on that. And you’re always cross-fertilizing so it grows very organically. We don’t bring in other people to help, we don’t have a team of six people doing the mountains. We use one sidekick who helps gear up things technically sometimes but he’s really just a drinking partner… (laughs)

Do you ever disagree?

Oh yes, of course!

How do you sort it out?

Well, you have a firm argument. But also if we’re shooting something, we shoot it both ways, we shoot his version and my version and you decide on the editing table – you’re always much clearer at that stage. You just try things out. But we’re bound to have differences.

And how do you work with your writer, Alan Passes?

The three of us have always worked out the story together. For Benjamenta we’d meet every single day for three or four hours and hammer it out. But sometimes he feels he’s not part of this because the producers never consider the writer as being on board, he’s just invisible to them. Alan is a novelist, he has a novelist’s vision, a broader vision. We have an instinct for the sort of visual world that we want and the way the dialogue should be shaped. So he’ll contribute dialogue but he’ll also listen to our sense of dialogue. It’s a genuine rapport.

But also, I know that some people have said that in Piano Tuner it is as though the characters are speaking in code. Well, for us it’s important that people speak in code and that nobody speaks directly, like, ‘so, would you like a cup of tea?’ and someone responds ‘yes, I’d like a cup of tea’, ‘well, what kind do you want?’ That’s irrelevant to us. When Assumpta goes around Felisberto in the forest and says, ‘shut your eyes’, imagination is at work, and she’s challenged by it as is he. That’s why he says at one point: ‘I like living in somebody else’s imagination’. Things like that are important for us. But if you aim too hard at the state of the dream you can fall flat on your face because you have nowhere else to go. If you start in a more humdrum way, like Buñuel would, and then suddenly the dream erupts violently, it really stands out and it’s powerful. I think we may have misjudged on this one. We did try to aim fairly high right away to get into a nebulous dream state but people might just tire that there’s never a let-up, you never really come down and say, ‘come on, when is someone going to say something normal?’ (laughs) But we’re just fascinated by this kind of dialogue. In Tod Browning’s Freaks there is that amazing sequence when Randian, the guy with no arms and legs, is talking to someone, and you see him take out a box of matches and his tongue takes out a match, closes the box, does that little rotation, then strikes the match. The whole time they’ve had a dialogue and you don’t listen to any of it because you’re so compelled by what you’re seeing… (laughs)

Was Freaks an influence on the film?

No, not really, but it’s just fascinating that the visuals are so compelling. They could just be talking about the most banal things, which is what the guy is basically doing. But in our case we didn’t want to do that… because we didn’t have a character with no arms and legs… (laughs)

But there is an element of the grotesque in your film too, you have the automata, which are those bizarre part-human, part-machine constructions.

The idea with the automata was that there would be a contamination, that they really did infect people’s lives, that there would be a genuine contamination of elements. We wanted more automata but they said, ‘we’re paying all these actors, why don’t you use some of the actors?’ We were told, no excess of animation or automata, just keep the story moving along…

How you would describe your film to someone who has no idea about what you do?

Somebody wrote to us saying they thought it best that you should just wake up as it’s playing and then you fall back to sleep again and then wake up again and you just sort of drift in and out and in that way you would attain a better sense of consciousness about the film… So far it’s been misnamed as Gothic, no way is it Gothic, Gothic is better represented by Tim Burton. For us, a Baroque sensibility, or a mannerist sensibility in the best sense, is something we feel much closer to. The Baroque deals with the cryptic and the infinite and that speaks to us much more.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy


The Schla-la-las

Photo © Daniel Cooper

The Schla-la-las are five sassy London girls with fabulous matching outfits and boisterous punk-pop tunes harking back to classic sixties girl groups but with fuzzier guitars and shouty vocals. They’ve just released a new single 1234 – you can see their brilliant stop motion Lego video here!


1- Time of the Gypsies (1988)
This is a tragi-comic coming-of-age tale, told in a magic realism style. I love films that make me laugh and cry. Perhan, a Gypsy teenager with telekinetic powers, leaves his Serbian village in search of his sister, who got abducted by a gang to work as a beggar in Milan. Sucked in by the promises of power and riches, he ends up rising through the ranks of the gang itself, but being a good guy at heart, things come to a tragic end.

2- This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This spoof rockumentary has to be one of the funniest films ever, and if you’re in a band, you are bound to have experienced the odd Tap moment. We follow a slightly past-its-prime British rock band during their tour in the States, trying to promote their new album – not very successfully. There are battles-of-the-frontmen, a Yoko type character, and generally lots of very well-observed moments of rock’n’roll vanity. And if you get the DVD, the second disc with everything that hasn’t made it into the cut is just as hilarious.


3- Ghostbusters (1984)
Okay, I could pretend to be all pretentious and/or arty here, but hand-on-heart my favourite film of all time is Ghostbusters. I saw it at the Chester Odeon with my Grandma and little sister when it first came out and absolutely loved it, have done ever since. Music from the film Ghostbusters and Wham’s Make It Big where the first albums I ever bought in fact. Altogether now ‘Bustin’ makes me feel good!’

4- Great Expectations (1947)
I’ve never really gone in for lists of favourite films (although I’m mad for a music top 5), but I recently saw David Lean’s Great Expectations for the second time, and it was absolutely amazing. I first saw it during a summer holiday from school. Six glorious weeks to do with whatsoever you please, so my sister and I spent them sitting around the house watching daytime TV. Great Expectations came on one afternoon and captivated both of us. I’d never really given it much thought again, until I opened Time Out the other week, saw a still from the film and recognised it immediately. I invited my friend Ben to go with me. I didn’t reveal too much about it as I wasn’t too sure how he felt about black and white films, especially those made in 1947, but he gets discounted tickets at the NFT so it was a chance I was willing to take. And he loved it. Of course he did, it’s amazing. Funny, and thrilling, and touching in equal measure. Go see, go see. You won’t regret it, I promise.


5- Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
Gabrielle: ‘Actually, depravity can be terribly boring if you don’t smoke or drink.’ Paris When It Sizzles is like seeing Audrey Hepburn in a Quentin Tarantino film (without the bloody bits). There’s an amazing use of timeline, classic comedy and of course glamorous outfits for Audrey. It’s purely pleasant.

6- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Ulysses Everett McGill: ‘What’d the devil give you for your soul, Tommy?’
Tommy Johnson: ‘Well, he taught me to play this here guitar real good.’
Delmar O’Donnell: ‘Oh son, for that you sold your everlasting soul?’
Tommy Johnson: ‘Well, I wasn’t usin’ it.’
O Brother Where Art Thou is an age-old story (based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey) told in that gritty, darkly humorous Coen Brothers style, the acting is superb and George Clooney… *swoon*. The soundtrack is the cherry on top of this fabulous film.


7- The Red Shoes (1948)
Red Shoes is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen. Jack Cardiff is my favourite cinematographer and Technicolor is grand.

8- Heathers (1989)
Heathers is an amazing script displaying a true understanding of contemporary use and development of language. Not to mention it started my first poster-on-the-wall crush of Christian Slater!


9- Tommy (1975)
I love rock-opera and films based on albums (see Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band for another amazing example of preposterous workings of songs into a storyline! Starring The Bee Gees, Steve Martin and Frankie Howard!). Tommy was written as an opera but it’s no less bonkers. So many fantasy and dream sequences it’s impossible to know what’s real and what isn’t but some amazing set pieces including Ann-Margaret in a jumpsuit rolling in baked beans, Eric Clapton as the priest of money, Oliver Reed revelling in a scary Butlins style holiday camp, Paul Nicholas as twisted Cousin Kevin, Keith Moon as perverted Uncle Ernie and of course Tina Turner as a freaked-out junkie locking dead, dumb and blind Tommy into a needle-pricked sarcophagus!

10- Privilege (1967)
A late 1960s film starring Paul Jones (Manfred Mann’s vocalist) as Stephen Shorter, a pop star of astronomical fame. The numb-to-it-all doesn’t-know-what-he-wants Stephen Shorter is babied and guarded by a posse of wagon-jumping yes-men trying to satisfy his every whim to keep the money-machine turning (‘Stephen wants hot chocolate! Let’s ALL have hot chocolate! After Stephen turns down an alcoholic drink at a garden party). Teenagers are seen as money and music purely as a commodity. Stephen is manipulated by politicians and businessmen who see him as a way of promoting their cause. Eventually the church get involved and Stephen Shorter is re-invented as a Christian rock band with Mersey-beat versions of Onward Christian Soldiers sung by Stephen and his shaven-headed band behind a giant burning cross. A satirical, sometimes bleak but very compelling film. (P.S. – this film is nigh on impossible to get hold of in a good quality – I had a copy but leant all my videos to a friend three years ago and haven’t seen them since! Argh!)