Peak Retro: Ready Player One

Posted in Books, Culture with tags , , , , , on June 19, 2012 by vprime

Ready Player One takes place in a future universe in which a digital reality has supplanted the boring old analogue version. This world, the OASIS, was partly created by a man called James Halliday. The creation of this wildly popular online environment has made Halliday immensely rich. Too bad he’s dead, and he’s decided to award his estate to whomever can solve the series of puzzles he’s embedded in the OASIS. As a result, the popular culture of the year 2044 is dominated by nerdly obsessions from the 1980s as people dedicate themselves to examining Halliday’s every minute interest for clues. Wade Watts is the hero, a poor kid and an orphan to boot. His devotion to being a true follower of Halliday and encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture trivia pays off for this underdog. What happens is not of great interest to me, since if you can’t already tell, Watts beats the game and wins the spoils. What is more interesting to me are some of the unexamined implications in this book.

First is the notion that searching for Halliday’s fortune (a subculture known in the book by the inelegant portmanteau gunter, a fusion of egg and hunter) eclipses present popular culture in such a way as to render it nonexistent. Everywhere in the OASIS, people live in 80s movies, listen to 80s music, memorize old Dungeons and Dragons modules because Halliday was known to have once played them. There’s little in the book about the world outside of the OASIS. What we do see are trailer parks in which the units have been welded into stacks, vague mentions of an energy crisis that leave certain areas with sporadic electricity, dormitories-cum-prisons in which corporate debtors are forced to work off their debts. The outside world is of little consequence to Watts, in part, because the economy of the OASIS has eclipsed that of the meatspace. Having money in the OASIS seems to be more important. There are some things that reflect the meatspace world. Transportation from one place to another takes credits that can be earned in the OASIS or bought with currency. But for the most part, power in the real doesn’t necessarily translate into power in the OASIS. Meanwhile, in the OASIS, teens run around wearing clothes from well-known 80s films, arguing about Ladyhawke, playing low-res arcade games, hanging out in replicas of Halliday’s childhood home and otherwise behaving more of less like teen versions of the book’s 30-something target audience.

This is the purpose of the book, as far as I can tell. It’s about combining 80s geek signifiers to press that nostalgia button for the reader. It posits a world in which a major geek fantasy has come true; the fantasy that pop-culture trivia will suddenly become the only relevant currency in the world. Then those who can recite every word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will be kings. The cultural references seem placed throughout the book to trigger a reaction of “I recognize that, therefore I like it” from the reader, which is becoming a serious malaise in the 21st century. This isn’t Eliot making a statement with bits of Arthurian legend, it’s Watts driving a virtual hybrid of the cars from Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Why? Not sure entirely. I kept expecting the references to have some purpose in revealing either Watts’ character or Halliday’s but I gave up on that about a third of the way through.

There seems to be no new culture, rather a pastiche of dead-ends from the 20th century. We’re not far from this ourselves; endlessly recycling films, music and fashion from 20-30 years ago. Patton Oswalt named this phenomenon “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” And in the book, Watts praises the ready availability of every cultural artifact in the OASIS. Oswalt wrote that “Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?” This is the world of Ready Player One, and the bleakest element of the book. Forget the 20 people living in one trailer, the absolute death of innovation and art signals the entropic state of American culture. Watts is a kid who is good at 80s arcade games. That’s his talent. He doesn’t produce or conceive of anything. I was initially surprised that Halliday’s will didn’t award his fortune to someone who was capable of innovating, as it appeared that what made Halliday special was this ability to create, but as I read I came to see Halliday as a disturbed person and potential megalomaniac.

There is very little to Halliday’s meatspace life. He’s drawn with the merest outlines of technocratic hero, meant to be a cipher figure into which the reader can project his or her geek sympathies. We know he was a nerdy kid. He worked with Ogden Morrow to create the OASIS. He apparently developed a young adult crush on a woman (I cannot remember her name. If you know it, drop me a line & I’ll put it in.) who was more interested in Morrow. As a result of Morrow’s marriage to this woman, Halliday became a recluse and spent the rest of his life in the OASIS.

Here I’d like to say that I hate “unrequited love” as a method of character building. It can work, but in this case it seems to exist in order for the reader to empathize with Halliday. It also hints at this nice-guy worldview in which it’s made into such a tragedy that the lover’s affections are unrecognized, yet it completely voids the woman’s agency to choose who she’d rather be with. I also hate “one-true-love” ideology and think it’s an excuse for obsessives to rationalize their issues. Halliday completely gives up on the real world after this one disappointment. This seems like an outsized response and exactly the sort of drama a teen would indulge in. His retreat from life seems like the symptom of an emotionally immature person. Bah. I am a heartless lady, because I always think “She picked someone else. Get over it.”

Anyway, Halliday continues to live after his death in the form of his avatar, a Dungeons and Dragons wizard called Anorak. The quest structure of the story involves its own troubled love plot between Watts and an avatar named Art3mis, who are both competing to complete the game. What’s troubling about the nature of the game is that it centers on deep knowledge of Halliday’s teen obsessions. These cultural products are framed as sources of comfort in Halliday’s youth. So, in seeking to make the game reflective of his lonely youth, Halliday is not so much reaching out to another similarly introverted outcast, but is ensuring that the winner will be someone who has studied him intensively. In other words, instead of looking for someone who created his own rich inner world out of cultural scraps, Halliday is ensuring he recreates himself by geek osmosis. He doesn’t want the heir to his fortune to be any another geek, he wants to create another geek as close to his own personality as possible, and since this is a world in which all culture is made out of retro, the method he chooses to replicate himself is pop-cultural pastiche. Halliday has made the OASIS a place where thousands of people live out his memories. There are planets devoted to replicating his childhood home over and over. In contrast, there’s much less veneration of the still-living Morrow, perhaps because he hasn’t waved a multi-billion dollar carrot in people’s faces to make them memorize all his favorite movies.

Halliday’s influence has shaped pop culture into his own personal scrapbook, which leads me into the next problem. All the people in the book are devoted to Halliday’s memory because there is a large cash prize attached. So what happens when the prize is won? The story really doesn’t linger on this point, but it appears that solving the game would essentially deprive thousands of purpose and destroy the world for gunters. Without the prize, why would anyone continue to participate? By proving his devotion to all things Halliday, Watts has eclipsed him and in essence destroyed his memory. Perhaps the future of Ready Player One is about a kid reliving Watts reliving Halliday playing Atari. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a Rubik’s Cube stamping on a human face—forever.

At the end of the story, Anorak appears to give Watts the prize along with a few words of wisdom. Part of which include an admonition not to become a recluse and spend all his time in the OASIS. Cough. If Watts wasn’t already 80% of the way there, would he have won the prize? Seems pretty weak to impart a life lesson that’s essentially “Go play outside.” Watts ends up sitting in a garden with the real Art3mis, having won her love despite out-competing her in the game. The end undercuts everything that has come before and makes an attempt to reassert the importance of the real world. I read this as a sigh of authorial defeat. What remains when the hero has essentially attained virtual godhood? Taking a walk outside. It strikes a false note because the real world has been so completely marginalized by the OASIS that it’s difficult to believe it matters at all. We’re returned to the values of our world, even though they have no place in the world of the story.

I’d love to have juxtaposed my thoughts about this book with another book; Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

I Was a Vampire Roleplayer

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 23, 2012 by vprime

If you, like me, grew up in the 90s, then, you may have been lucky enough to experience the wonderland of strange lipstick colors, DIY hair dye jobs, techno music and vampire role playing games. If you were not so fortunate, come now and hear the un-shocking truth about vampire roleplaying. Let me tell you of a time before Twilight and MMORPGs when the games were on paper and vampires were sexy but never sparkly. The game of choice was Vampire: the Masquerade. V:tM could be played as either a tabletop dice game like Dungeons and Dragons or a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game. Produced by a Georgia-based gaming company White Wolf, V:tM had several subtitle-happy companion games such as Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, Wraith: the Oblivion, etcetera. All these games shared a universe known as the World of Darkness, which was described in several of the source manuals as a “Gothic-Punk” world. The universe created by White Wolf was compellingly peppered with mythological references, obscure vocabulary and interesting alternate histories. In short, it was like crack to the sort of nerdbrain that thrived on Joy Division, etymological dictionaries and Bulfinch’s mythology.

One of the things that made V:tM more interesting than a typical hack-and-slash role playing game was the focus on building characters. As a vampire player, your character had two archetypal personalities, your public persona and a private, concealed personality. Rather being defined by a character class (what you character does) and alignment (good or evil) you could decide to be a Benefactor/Predator or a Scientist/Martyr. Your character belonged to a Clan which dictated what sorts of vampire powers you’d have. Clan affiliation also dictated your weaknesses. For example, the Toreador Clan were your basic Anne-Rice-style fancy lad vampires, making lots of art and devoted to beauty. One of their powers was the ability to emotionally manipulate people around them—think stage presence—but their weakness was that they could fall into a paralyzing fascination in the presence of beautiful artworks or people. Your vampire powers operated on a system of finite willpower points. I think this system would be a wonderful one to implement in real life. As in “I’d love to have the salad instead of fries, but I’m all out of willpower points today, so . . .” Willpower points were regained by sleeping, feeding or other actions dictated by your personality type. In the live game, the powers operated inelegantly. For example, if your powers made you invisible, you’d cross your arms over your upper chest—hands touching shoulders—and everyone would have to pretend they didn’t see you creeping around. Even worse were the intangible powers, which would lead to dialogue like this:

“I just used my powers to make you do my bidding.”

“Oh, okay. What do you want me to do?”

“Go over there and ask that girl if she’s got a boyfriend.”

“Sigh.”

Since most of the people I played with were in high school, our characters’ concerns fell often into one of the following categories:

  1. Being sexy and mysterious.
  2. Shoving it to The Man.
  3. Killing each other. Preferably with explosives.

These goals took some doing to act out in a suburban park or in one of our back yards. It was hard to be sexy and mysterious when your mom drops you off for the game. Even harder than that was convincing all the people loafing around on your back porch that they’ve just been in a hellish explosion. LARPing with your school chums also led to plenty of awkward moments when trying to decide if the person talking to you was the kid from math class or Destructo, the Undead Viking. Generally, you’d just ask if they were in character, but by the time people started feeling comfortable slipping out of character, the game would devolve into a night of hanging out in a parking lot.  

The live-action game usually ran like a chaotic play about a deranged city council. A major premise of the game was that vampires engaged in a conspiracy to control humanity and conceal their existence from same. An easy plot was to call a meeting about some outlier whose sloppy feeding habits were threatening to reveal the existence of vampires. It’s hardly surprising that the game attracted a lot of Drama Club members highly devoted to acting out their awesome vampire characters. At live action games, the players tended to dress the part—lots of black leather jackets and thrift-store black lace dresses—and to put on British-ish accents or Enunciate. Dramatically. And crisply. The system required a folded up sheet of characteristics and powers you had. This was kept on your person and consulted when an interaction required you to engage in verbal conflict with another player. In the case that your attributes or powers were matched to your opponents, you could decide the matter with a round of rock-paper-scissors overseen by the rule-enforcing Storyteller. (I guess that by then, people had figured out that Dungeonmaster had other connotations.) Imagine, if you will, the tense confrontation between a rebellious young punk and the be-suited stiff representing the repressive social order. The harsh words and open contempt. The powerful deciding throw of rock versus scissors.  

The post-Columbine hysteria about the sinister practice of Vampire LARPing led to a brief spike in the game’s popularity before an almost total loss of media interest in the game. For those of us who played, the fear was totally misplaced. We weren’t keying ourselves up to be psychopaths. We were just escaping into a world where we could be glamorous and powerful. Monday morning would shuffle us back into the system, but Saturday nights we could rule the world.

Etsy Finds: Non-Lame Skulls Edition

Posted in Clothes, Culture, Decor, Etsy, Fashion, Jewelry with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2012 by vprime

As difficult as it may be to believe, skulls were once considered reminders of death and emblems against vanity and not just cutesy motifs for an Avril Lavigne-branded sweater. The image of the skull in art traditionally reminds the viewer of inevitable and impending mortality. These Memento Mori tell us, the viewers, that death comes for all. Seems like an incompatible thought to emblazon on disposable consumer goods, though to me, the trend of cute, quaint skulls smacks of our collective attempts to defang mortality. The cute skull is intended to say less to the viewer than it reveals about the wearer. It tells others that you consider yourself edgy or wish to appear mildly threatening without diverging too far from the mainstream of consumer values. Yes, I am including Ed Hardy here, as the rhinestone skull may be the worst offender when it comes to trivializing and kitschifying death. I’m also willing to acknowledge that kitsch is part of the humorous flip-side to Goth’s funereal overtones—“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was recorded as a joke, after all—and the cute is often a necessary chaser to the morbid. However, I tend not to lean toward this aesthetic of cute skulls, candy witches and swirls of pink in my blacks. By the same token, I’m not about to go all Mortiis and armour myself in the darkest darkety dark of serious darkness. I prefer to walk a line that takes me near the abyss without setting up camp at the bottom. I’ve been thinking of this look as Classical Morbid. It’s part Trad Goth, part Corporate Goth. All that being said, the skull is still a compelling image that is a staple of Gothic fashion.  I’ve found some examples on Etsy that retain something of the heft of the Memento Mori.

Yes, I know what I just said about rhinestone skulls, but this jacket from Urbanhardware transcends the usual rhinestone skull in its wonderfully shaded and detailed execution. The closer the skull to the complexity of the anatomical image, the more visually interesting it becomes. The jacket’s use of velvet and lace are also an elegant touch. I love this sort of “Death is a Dandy” fashion.

Subtlety is key with the understated Goth look I’ve been pursuing lately. I have a tiny silver skull necklace very similar to this one by Etco. A tiny pendant like this can give a surprising flash of your morbid sensibilities without announcing itself too overtly.  Mine is on a fine silver ball-chain. I like wearing it with a quartz pendulum or a tiny silver wax-seal medallion.

This basic white stoneware skull made by Leigh Leigh Pottery would look great on top of a stack of leather-bound books. It’s a higher quality material that won’t remind you of styrofoam Halloween decorations. A basic ceramic figure such as this one also strikes me as less kitschy than a skull candleholder.

There’s no doubt, etchings are classy; just ask dead hottie, Albrecht Durer. This print, available from Tiger House Art, framed in an ornate black baroque frame, would make a great elegant Goth touch to any room. I have this print in my writing/sewing room.

I hope this has demonstrated a few ways to reclaim the skull from irrelevance, etcetera.

Things I Have Been Doing Instead of Writing

Posted in Uncategorized on March 7, 2012 by vprime

Yes, I am still here. Like many a Scorpio (or so I gather) I go through these periods of hibernation, isolation and torpor. These fallow periods are necessary to my continued survival. I’ve often envied the vampires in the Anne Rice books (the good ones–you know what I mean) who could sleep out a few dull decades.

So, what have I done?
Slept. A lot.
Listened to hours of Coast to Coast.
Journaled.
Prioritized daydreams and nightmares.
Watched a lot of Futurama.

I intend to return either this week or next with a substantial post.

Farewell from the land of wind and ghosts.

Book Review: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on January 5, 2012 by vprime

There’s a fine line between simplicity and shallowness that fables and fairy tales must negotiate. These are stories, after all, that don’t rely upon the assumption of psychological realism when creating characters. Rather, the fable relies upon types rather than people, which is to say, obviously artificial figures that don’t entirely reflect our reality. The talking animal, the evil witch, the valiant hero: these are essentially paper cut-outs representing parts of ourselves. Part of what draws me to fairy tales is their unapologetic use of fantastical events and figures. There isn’t a tedious explanation of why the big bad wolf can talk to red riding hood, he just does, and the story gets on with itself. That being said, stripping a tale down to its figures can be dangerous if the simplicity exists only because the author can’t be arsed to come up with a good reason why Red should pause to have a conversation with the wolf. I’ve found that the current trend for this type of fairy-tale style writing often cloaks a lack of substance. I bought Stories for Nighttime and Some for Day largely because the cover art of a UFO and tentacle looked intriguing, and the blurbs on the back praising the collection as “a mesmerizing landscape of nightmares, daydreams, fables and parables.” Expecting something like the short stories of Kelly Link, I bought the book.

I should have known better than to trust a blurb.

The first sign of trouble was a table of contents listing over 190 stories in a book of under 200 pages. And before you say “flash fiction” let me state my pet theory that 90% of what is sold as “flash fiction” are story outlines or bits of scene hacked out of context. (Aside: yes, I’ve been guilty of this too. Get off my back–all of you–with that werewolf story!) So, knowing I was about to get the equivalent of a Ramones album (30 songs! All less than 2 minutes long!) I began reading. One could argue that these stories present us with amoral fables—stories in an instructional mode that leave off the moralistic conclusions. Only, I had such difficulty getting over the “who cares” factor that I could not appreciate these as exercises in style. One example, “The Octopus,” presents us with an octopus that has moved into the city and collects spoons. Already, my whimsy meter is overloading. The octopus is named Harley and his two octopus nephews are coming to the city to visit. They visit and the octopus takes them around the city, albeit reluctantly, since, as he explains, he has other things to do. Also there is something about how an octopus who moves out of the sea can live forever, but it has no relevance to anything else in the story. The octopus takes his nephews back to the beach and sends them home. Then he decides to return home himself. That is, we don’t see him deciding, we aren’t even really privy to any thoughts that might indicate the octopus is deciding to return to the sea. Nothing has happened while his nephews have been visiting him that stirs this desire. He pictures his octopus family and goes back into the sea. Ho-hum. So, why is it an octopus? It could just as easily been a story about a guy who moved out of the country. Is there something about an octopus’s point of view that this story needs to have? Give me a reason, any reason, why the protagonist is an octopus and not a shark,  I suspect the octopus was chosen just because it is a zeitgeisty emblem of “weird” and “unique” (check this and you’ll see what I mean) and made the story seem like it had some hidden meaning. The octopus, living forever and collecting spoons are just quirks thrown in to give some semblance of meaning to an utterly dull story. They have no organic reason to be there. For example, this issue of living forever might have naturally occurred to the octopus as it contemplated returning to the sea, maybe? Nope. And the entire book is written in a plodding, stripped-down style that grates the longer one has to endure it. There’s no description or attempted character development to save this Kindergarten Kafka. The other stories are similarly ineffective. In “The End of It All” a man builds a spaceship to search for the wife aliens abducted. He devotes his life to exploring the universe in search of her. On his last day alive he cries out that it was worth all his trouble just to have known the wife and the aliens return her. Pretty ironic, huh? In another story a hunter collects talking heads that convince a boy to behead the hunter. Whatta tweest! Trust me, it sounds more interesting than it is. After a handful of these stories the Twilight-Zone-y twists and 3rd grade writing style get old. I read all the stories, but getting bored less than 50 pages in makes me wish I hadn’t.

If you’re truly interested in the use of fairy-tale tropes in fiction, read Kelly Link or St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell.

Music For a Monday: Switchblade Symphony

Posted in Culture, Music with tags , , , , on December 19, 2011 by vprime

Now that the world is (finally) safe for 90s nostalgia, I find myself dipping back into the bands I listened to then. Switchblade Symphony seems to embody a certain 90s alt-girl (or should I say grrl) aesthetic that lodged itself in the nexus of all that was cool. There were two girls (and some guys, but, whatever) with dreaded hair making spooky music whilst dressed in tattered thrift-store rejects. They looked vaguely like early Courtney Love only with lots more piercings and they had a comic book that was something like this:

I owned this comic, but now I cannot recall what it was about. An abusive dad or something? It was very of the time when girls wanted to tell the patriarchy to fuck off by wearing shredded wedding gowns. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there, the point is that SS took a goth twist to the riot-grrl look, but lyrically, they were less invested in politics than in potentially spooky things happening to children. One of their albums was titled after the children’s book Bread and Jam for Frances, a reference that really never made sense to me considering how menacing some of their songs could be. By menacing, I don’t mean aggressive and threatening, but frightening or unsettling like “Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark.” Here is an example, a song which uses nursery rhyme and the sounds of a toy-like piano to create dark atmospheric effects:

The ‘Goth’ label stuck to them in part because that’s how their label Cleopatra promoted them. I always thought they were one of those unclassifiable sorts of bands like Rasputina or Medieval Baebes. Their first album, “Serpentine Gallery” had plenty of Goth club crowd pleasers, like these:

Switchblade Symphony moved away from these synth-goth sounds later, experimenting with scratching, different vocal techniques and less club-friendly songs.

Switchblade Symphony split in late 1999, which seems perfectly appropriate somehow, since I have such heavy 90s associations for this band. Tina Root is now performing under the name Tre Lux. Her website has samples of several covers she’s done, including the fully awesome but sadly overlooked Information Society jam “Pure Energy.”

The “Labyrinth” of Desire

Posted in Culture, Movies, Music with tags , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2011 by vprime

Labyrinth is a strange film, combining adolescent fantasy with grotesque puppets; starring one of the only pop stars to attain legendary status in his own lifetime. The plot poses several unanswered questions, like what happened to Sarah’s mother and why goblins would be interested in stealing a baby and turning him into a goblin. I recall being mesmerized by this film as a child, finding the magical world of the labyrinth utterly convincing even down to the moss blooming with human eyeballs. There was something about Bowie as Jareth that was not repellently scary as Gene Wilder was in “Willy Wonka” but certainly wasn’t welcoming and cuddly. Many see this story as one of a child coming to age and learning to put aside the selfishness and fantasies of childhood, but I think that’s not what the film conveys at all. In fact, I think this film is showing us a young woman’s attempts to escape from the stifling constraints of domesticity.

The domestic environment in Labyrinth is every bit as stifling and terrifying as the most forbidding of the goblin landscapes. As in the fairy tales that Sarah consumes, her mother has been replaced by a stepmother. Sarah’s mother is never acknowledged in the film except as images in Sarah’s bedroom. She’s a silent icon, a form without substance. As she exists mainly in photos and newspaper clippings praising her acting roles, she belongs to the glamorous and immortal world of the image—as does David Bowie. The importance of images, appearances and surfaces in this film can’t be emphasized enough. The very word ‘glamour’ originally meant a spell or enchantment, especially one that produced an illusion or transformation in appearance, and was used to denote a specific form of deception practiced by fairies. Michael Jackson was rumored to have been considered for the role of Jareth. Thankfully, this did not come to pass. While Jackson was certainly familiar with illusion and altered appearances, he would not have been able to channel the threatening edge that Bowie displays here. Jackson, for all his performative acumen, was at heart too sentimental and childlike to make a convincing villain.

In Sarah’s initial tale, before the goblins take Toby away, she says that the Goblin King has fallen in love with her. So had he? Why does he come when she summons the goblins to take the baby? I believe that the movie conceals Sarah’s frustration and entrapment. From the opening scenes, we know that Sarah often has to care for her brother. In the absence of a social life, she constructs fantasy worlds in her free time, becoming the sort of heroine she could never be in reality. The reality of her life is a screaming baby, a father who barely has two words for her, a stepmother who subtly undermines her (“A girl should have dates at your age.”). In her fantasies, she’s admired and strong. Jareth, upon initially offering her the crystal ball, says that such an item is not “for a girl who watches a screaming baby.”  This suggests that Jareth find this domestic life to be beneath Sarah. As a reflection of her fantasies, Jareth is affirming Sarah’s belief that domesticity diminishes her.

Bowie’s presence infuses the film with queer desire that makes for an unsettling dynamic between Jareth and the barely teenaged Sarah. Much of this sexual subtext is surely due to Bowie’s own mystique as an androgynous, polysexual pop icon. The film makers must surely have known what they were doing when they costumed Jareth in leggings that left very little to the imagination, a frilly blouse, dominatrix gloves, heeled boots and a crop. Bowie’s Jareth is an alien creature. Even without the Spock eyebrows and Stevie Nicks hair, Jareth has a coldness wedded to seductiveness that conceals his motivations. Does he really want to keep Sarah’s brother, or is this a way to lure her into his world? As a goblin, Jareth is not quite a man. I use the term queer above because, while there is sexual tension in some of the scenes between Jareth and Sarah, it’s unclear whether that desire could be described in the terms of a heterosexual romance. In part, Sarah wants to be Jareth—with his power to bend others to her will. The presence of the baby throws a Freudian wrench into the works, as it clearly represents the potential consequences of Sarah’s sexual desires. Yet Jareth’s interest in the baby also suggests that like many an androgynous male pop icon before him, Jareth is a “safe” recipient for Sarah’s lust. He can’t make a baby of his own, so he won’t impregnate Sarah, giving her access to sexual desire without fear of consequence. Throughout the movie, Sarah has to shake herself from Jareth’s enchantments to recall her mission to save Toby. The masquerade ball scene is my favorite example. In this clip, Sarah is obviously captivated by the opulent world Jareth has created for her. In other reviews I’d read in researching this post, Jareth was painted as a bit of a Humbert Humbert for his interest in Sarah. I think this scene clearly shows that Jareth is exactly the sort of object of desire Sarah would conjure from her imagination.

As Jareth and Sarah reach their final confrontation, their exchanges take on a more overt dimension of desire. The M.C. Escher-influenced scene shows us Sarah lost in a physics-defying world that Jareth navigates with ease. The lyrics to the song here “Your eyes can be so cruel, just as I can be so cruel,” foreshadow the language of domination and submission that comprises Jareth and Sarah’s final exchange. Sarah has had to fight not just the illusion of the labyrinth, but her own urges to surrender to this world of surfaces to get to this point. She’s had to consciously reassert her filial duty to get to this confrontation. As Jareth sings, “I can’t live within you,” we see Sarah’s panic at being confronted by a side of herself that is cruel, sterile, asexual, domineering and looks great in a leather vest. In re-watching this, I was struck by how genuinely despairing Jareth looks at times as Sarah comes closer to her goal.

The final scene banishes the baby to the sidelines yet again. In an oft-repeated line, Jareth tells Sarah “Just fear me, love me, do as Isay, and I will be your slave.” This line, while certainly appealing, makes it unclear just what sort of power exchange Sarah would be consenting to. While it sounds unhealthily obsessive, it does accurately describe the sensation of being in lust.

Sarah completes her repudiation of her fantasy world in the line “you have no power over me.” Note, though, that Jareth does not disappear, he simply transforms and lurks outside Sarah’s window as the film ends. Jareth is still there, and, one can imagine, still the center of Sarah’s psychosexual world. Despite herself, Sarah has allowed herself to be reintegrated into the domestic sphere, however, her fantasy life is still very much present and still asserting itself, as the fantastical creatures of the Labyrinth rejoin her in her bedroom.  So while she will maintain the façade of the “girl who cares for a crying baby,” her inner life is safely concealed. It seems less like Sarah gives up her fantasy life than that she learns the necessity of concealing it.