Jill and I spent over two hours on the phone on Saturday discussing Labyrinth. We noticed the following:
1. There’s a lot of water in the film. Jill pointed out that Sarah runs across a bridge over a stream when she is first seen in the park. Then she gets all wet as the rainstorm chases her home. Water appears again in the Bog of Eternal Stench [and another bridge as well]. Jill even argued that the ballroom bubble is made out of water, but I think that’s pushing it. We didn’t reach any conclusions about the significance of water, but Jill definitely thinks that the bridge in the park prefigures the bridge over the Bog of Stench, in another example of the real world affecting Sarah’s dream world. See below the cut for a laundry list of interesting themes and Jill’s and my speculation thereon.
2. Jareth’s character contains many gratuitous details. Compare him to another antagonist from another 1980s fantasy film, Darkness [played by the inimitable Tim Curry] in Legend. Darkness is like the essence of an antagonist: he dislikes the good hero, Jack; he wants to corrupt the good heroine, Lily; he revels in cruelty, surrounds himself with ugliness [including those blobby goblins] and just generally behaves like a personification of evil.
Jareth, on the other hand, acts as an antagonist, but, on top of that, he also sings, dances, changes clothes and juggles crystal balls. As you can see if you look at Darkness, singing, dancing, changing clothes and juggling are not essential to an antagonist’s character. Jareth could fill his antagonistic function perfectly well without these traits. That’s why we call them gratuitous.
But Jareth has these gratuitous details anyway. Jill and I agreed that Jareth’s gratuitous activities really reduce his power as antagonist. We don’t see a singing, dancing, clothes-changing, juggling Goblin King as the personification of evil. We see him more as a person with hobbies; since he is understandable, we find him much more sympathetic than evil without gratuitous traits.
3. There are so many genitalia references in the movie that it’s not even funny. Jill and I counted quite a few: Hoggle pissing in the beginning, any shot containing Jareth in tight pants, the whizzing goblin fountain in the Goblin City. I addressed this a bit in an essay about Sarah and her mom, but Jill thinks I should do a whole essay on it.
4. Tied into that essay about topic 3 would be phallic symbols. They never end: Jareth’s balls, Jareth’s riding crop [he keeps POKING people with it], the Cleaners [ = phallic power, ref. “You sure got his attention!”], Humungous’ axe [“Drop the axe!”], etc. The Labyrinth’s a frightening place.
We came to no conclusion about the phallic symbols, but, now that I think about it, the Labyrinth is implicitly gendered as masculine [that might explain the preponderance of male characters in there]. Ref. when Hoggle says, “I’m just worried about you, is all. Nice young girl, terrible dark oubliette.” He contrasts Sarah, representative of femininity and innocence, with the oubliette, representative of scary, threatening masculinity. The oubliette/Cleaners/Labyrinth/masculine power is out to kill the “nice young girl”/Sarah/feminine agency. Her quest really does contain “dangers untold.” Why is masculine power so menacing in the film? Why can’t Sarah acknowledge it as her own? [Jareth says she has power: “Everything you wanted, I have done.” Basically he says that she’s the management and he’s the labor. As the manager of her dream world, she has great power, but refuses to own it, preferring instead to isolate it in the person of Jareth. Why??? What’s so threatening about her imaginative agency?]
5. Oh yeah, and there’s a persistent theme of doors and windows in the movie. Sarah’s dad always talks from behind the door [“Practically broke down the door!”]; Jareth comes in through a door-sized window; Sarah has to ask “the right question” before she gets into the Labyrinth [“You gets in…there”]; the worm tells her that the Labyrinth “is full of openings; it’s just you ain’t seein’ them”; Sarah meets Alph and Ralph; Hoggle literally puts up a broom closet door to get them out of the oubliette; there’s the scene with the knockers; Jareth’s balls function as windows into other parts of the Labyrinth; there’s the whole scene with Humungous at the gate; Jareth watches the goblin battle from the window, blah blah blah.
Doors and windows obviously signify transition from one level to another, which happens a lot when you’re solving the mystery of the Labyrinth. Doors are for protection [Sarah’s dad feels nervous around Sarah; Jareth doesn’t want anyone in the Goblin City] and secrets [“Search me — we’re just the knockers”]. Windows are for spying [Jareth’s balls as windows] and vulnerability [owl attack through Sarah’s window!!]. Yup, there’s definitely an essay here.
6. Hoggle is the least helpful “helper character” ever. Jill and I obviously dislike him. He’s always whining and operating on his own selfish motives, which are all about self-preservation. We are not convinced that he undergoes any development throughout the film, despite moments of guilt displayed after handing over the peach [“Damn you, Jareth, and damn me too!”] and in the junk yard [“I’ve lost my only friend; that’s what I’ve done”]. Pretty poor excuse for a loyal compatriot archetype. Sarah sums it up best when she says, “You may not be much of a friend, but you’re the only one I’ve got.” He’s just singularly unappealing.
And why the hell is he attracted to Sarah anyway? He seems to know her [when they meet outside the Labyrinth: “Oh, it’s you”], but doesn’t appear motivated to help her until Jareth commissions him to mislead her. Then he has an attack of conscience. He’s following her and helping her out to assuage his huge amount of guilt?