a piece by Eric Hehr


JARETH: You remind me of the babe.

GOBLIN: What babe?

JARETH: The babe with the power.

GOBLIN: What power?

JARETH: The power of voodoo.

GOBLIN: Who do?

JARETH: You do.

GOBLIN: Do what?

JARETH: Remind me of the babe.

 



     I don’t remember the first time I saw Labyrinth, but I was young. Very young. Young enough to not fully comprehend the fantastical plot, which revolves around a teenage girl’s journey through a hypnagogic maze to rescue her baby brother after he is kidnapped by goblins, per her wish. Young enough to not understand that the head-popping “Firey” creatures were puppets from Jim Henson’s famed Creature Shop, not real beasts that could (and would) steal me out of bed in the middle of the night. Young enough to not know the difference between fantasy and reality, fact from fiction.

     Like many born in the late eighties, I wore out my VHS copy of Labyrinth till every scene was overlapped with jittery tracking lines. As young kids often are, I was relentless with my screenings. I would watch it over and over and over again - and then watch it again. While other kids had Barney, Big Bird, or Mr. Rogers to captivate their imagination, I had Jareth The Goblin King. And at the time, that’s who he was to me - Jareth The Goblin King, ruler of Goblin City and architect of the Labyrinth. I had no context for the man behind the tight grey leggings and androgynous blonde wig; no idea that Jareth was actually a rockstar named David Bowie.

      Fast forward about twenty-five years. It’s the morning of January 10th, 2016. I’m in Chicago, in the midst of pre- production rehearsals for a record I’m producing. While in transit from the South Loop to a rehearsal studio in Humboldt Park, I scan through radio stations while the lead singer of the band drives:



     “Legendary musician and performer, David Bowie, has died...”


     “...we’re just getting news now that English singer, songwriter, and actor David Bowie has died at his Lafayette 
street home in New York City...”

     “...while the cause of death has not been announced yet, what is known is that the man who fell to earth is back amongst the stars...


     The sound coming from the FM dial is disorientating. The words don’t make sense, like listening to a foreign 
language.

     I stop at a Dunkin Donuts to grab a coffee. A mounted television above the counter plays the WGN morning news: a top of the hour segment devoted to a career-spanning montage of Bowie album covers while an anchor announces his death at the age of sixty-nine.

     I get back into the car and put on “Station to Station,” the ten minute long title-track from Bowie’s 1976 record. I don’t know what else to do. As the song plays, I try to make sense of what’s happening. David Bowie is dead? No. No. No, that can’t be true. Death would imply that Bowie was a mere mortal like the rest of us, not the mythological demigod he seemingly existed as. I’m suddenly struck with a strange feeling of anger that I can’t quite place - anger directed at Bowie for being human, for doing something as trivial as dying.

     By the time “Station to Station” reaches it’s midpoint apex (“If it’s not the side-effects of cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love...”), my anger transforms to sadness. I begin to cry. I put on my sunglasses and turn my head towards the passenger side window so the driver can’t see my face. I’m embarrassed. Heartbroken.



     Fast forward four years. I still haven’t fully come to grips with the fact that Bowie is gone. His death hit me hard. I felt like I lost a life-long friend, which seems silly considering I never met the man. The alien. Whatever he was. But I did grow up with him. That young kid who was glued to his Zenith tubed television watching Labyrinth would discover his dad’s vinyl copy of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, eventually putting two and two together. Once he was old enough to get a library card, he would check out every Bowie CD his public library had available, ripping them to blank discs so he could listen to them on his Sony Discman. Later, he would make his high school band play “Rock ’n Roll Suicide” in every VFW hall and church basement in the western suburbs of Chicago, failing to read the quarter-capacity crowds of apathetic scene kids, more interested in hearing Fall Out Boy than Bowie deep-cuts. In college, he’d enter into a whirlwind of ill-fated relationships based off the pretense that his significant other also listened to Bowie, the “end-of-The-Graduate” moment happening after exhausting every discussion that could possibly be had about Bowie’s music, films, performances, outfits, and folklore.



     Like Jareth in the Labyrinth, Bowie was a fantasy figure in the maze of pop culture - otherworldly sonically and aesthetically, always a few steps ahead of the cultural zeitgeist that he governed over. While the characters he played (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke) were always punctuated by a sensational exclamation point, Bowie himself remained a question mark. There was an enigmatic mystery to him, especially towards the end of his life. At the time of his death, nobody knew he was working on a new record (the hauntingly cryptic, post-humous Blackstar) or was slowly dying from liver cancer. He comfortably disappeared into the shadow of his own legend, which permeated into mythic proportions with each passing year that he kept out of the spotlight. Perhaps this is why I still struggle with Bowie’s death - I can’t help but feel that he was planning something during all of those quiet years. Something Kaufman-esque. Maybe he’s still out there, patiently waiting for the right moment to pull down the curtain and kick over the mic stand, announcing his triumphant return with a cheshire cat grin: “Hello, darlings. Did you miss me?” But on a subconscious level, I think my struggle with his death goes back to my first encounter with Bowie. It goes back to Labyrinth.



    At the end of Labyrinth, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) and Jareth (David Bowie) face off in a dreamlike room that defies the laws of gravity, modeled after M.C Esher’s lithograph print, Relativity. Sarah struggles to navigate the dizzying room and retrieve her baby brother, Toby. Meanwhile, Jareth weaves in and out of hallways, upside down and downside up across a tangent of staircases. He sings the climatic “Within You,” the contour of his voice taking on a seductive, menacing quality on top of shifting time signatures and an octave-spanning bass synth (“Within You” contains one of my all-time favorite Bowie lyrics: “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you/I move the stars for no one,” which sub-textually indicates that he has the power to move the stars, but chooses not to. In a few words, it sums up everything I love about Bowie’s powerful mystique). At the end of the song, Jareth offers Sarah her dreams in exchange for Toby. Sarah recites lines from the fairytale she was reading at the beginning of the film, which loosely echos her own journey up until this point. But she can’t remember the last line. Jareth pleads with her: “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I shall be your slave.” Finally, Sarah remembers the last line, looking Jareth in the eye: “You have no power over me.” In glitchy slow motion, Jareth throws the crystal ball into the air. It hangs suspended, floating down to Sarah’s hand and popping like a bubble on her palm. Jareth, defeated by Sarah, transforms into an owl and flies away (the owl in Labyrinth marks the first attempt at a photo-realistic CGI animal character in a feature film).



     Upon returning home, Sarah discovers Toby safe and sound in his crib. As Sarah’s parents return home from their night out, she’s revisited by the friends she made on her surreal journey through the Goblin City - a beast named Ludo, a troll named Hoggle, and an anthropomorphic fox named Sir Didymus. Gazing at her reflection in her vanity mirror, Sarah realizes she’s not a kid anymore - she’s growing up. Like Dorothy returning to Kansas at the end of Wizard of Oz, Sarah leaves the childish fantasy of the Goblin City behind in favor of her adult responsibilities as a baby sitter. Although her acceptance of the reality of adulthood leave little room for the dreams of youth, Labyrinth concludes by suggesting that everyone needs a little adventure in their life - no matter how old you may be. The final shot of the film is all the creatures from the Labyrinth throwing a party in Sarah’s room. As the camera dollies out from her bedroom window, we see Jareth in owl form, perched on a tree branch, watching the celebration from afar. He flies away into the night sky. The credits roll. The End.

     Labyrinth is part of a canon of unusually dark, existential, and bleak PG-rated films geared towards children that were released throughout the eighties and early nineties: the bittersweet emotional undercurrent of 1984’s The Never-ending Story, the drab, muted color palette and themes of death and loss in 1988’s The Land Before Time, the heart wrenching tale of an unlovable, murdered dog in 1989’s All Good Dogs Go To Heaven, Nicolas Roeg’s esoteric and nightmare-inducing adaption of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and Tim Burton’s bizarre, season-bending stop-motion animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. There has never been a stranger period of kids films before or after. Perhaps Labyrinth’s complex themes are simply a sign of the times in filmmaking. A time when G and PG rated commercial properties dealt with “coming of age” issues such as sexuality and mortality through the vessel of odd, left of center narratives; exploring moral and ethical grey areas in the kind of genre that is most commonly black and white.

     When Labyrinth was released in 1986, it was a box office disappointment, grossing $12.9 million against a budget of $25 million. It was also met with a luke-warm critical response. Both Roger Ebert and his partner in criticism, Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune, panned Labyrinth in a one-star review: “The pathetic story in Labyrinth is a young girl's search for her infant brother abducted by goblins working for an evil spirit played by, of all people, David Bowie. It has been said many times before in this space that the sight of a baby in peril is one of sleaziest gimmicks a film can employ to gain our attention, but Henson does it...what an enormous waste of talent and money.”



     One of the main criticisms is the film’s message: what is Labyrinth trying to say? Some have said that at different points in the film, Jareth represents different things. The creatures that he rules over are all drawn from Sarah’s fantasies, so is Jareth himself a teenage girls fantasy? And if so, what does that say about the Labyrinth as a whole? Does it represent Sarah’s terror of descending into the adult world? Her terror of entering into a serious relationship with a man (or in this case, a singing and dancing king who steals babies)? When Sarah rejects Jareth, what is she ultimately rejecting? The themes of sacrifice and growth are present throughout Labyrinth, but the thematic message of these themes are often inconsistent.

     Upon further investigation, it’s easy to assume all this mixed-messaging is the result of “too-many-cooks-in-the- kitchen” regarding Labyrinth’s convoluted screenplay process. Between 1983 and 1985, the script was rewritten over twenty-five times, changing hands between writers like Laura Phillips, George Lucas, and Elaine May. The shooting script wasn’t completed until days before production began. At times, you can feel the peanut gallery of writers trying to lead the narrative in different directions, all playing tug of war with the characters and the plot. In one of the final drafts of the script, the ending sequence in Sarah’s room takes place in the reflection of her bedroom window (not her vanity mirror) and her friends from the Goblin City fade away after saying their goodbyes, leaving Sarah alone. During production, this scene - like many scenes - was altered and rewritten in favor of a more positive resolution, despite what it might contradict about the film’s central message.

     Despite what Labyrinth’s ambiguous third act is trying to say about the growing pains of childhood, it leaves the future of the main antagonist open-ended. Although Jareth does not achieve his goal of keeping Toby and seducing Sarah, he’s allowed to fly-away relatively unscathed. He doesn’t die. He isn’t hurt or injured. Apart from his physical shape-shifting, his character doesn’t undergo transformation. For all we know, Jareth flies to the next house over where another teenage girl is wishing her annoying brother away.

     From my youthful eyes, Jareth seemed eternal and invincible. He was able to change forms and continue onward. Throughout his career, Bowie did the same: always evolving creatively, always altering his physical appearance, always moving forward along the cutting edge of art and culture. The juxtaposition between Jareth and Bowie never really fully formed in my mind.



     As I spent January 10th, 2016 going through the motions of that pre-production session, a part of me - the childish part that still believes in adventure and fantasy and the great unknown, the youthful part that still believes in dreams despite the crushing anxiety of adulthood - couldn’t help but think that Bowie didn’t die, but took off into the night, chasing the moonlight. The serious moonlight.

     Shortly after his death, I attended a David Bowie themed party at a record store in Hollywood, CA. People dressed up as different eras of Bowie. DJ’s came by to spin his records. Labyrinth were projected onto the walls. All the musicians and actors inside the record store said they started playing music or got involved with theater because of Bowie. All the smokers outside the record store said they started smoking because of Bowie. All the girls waiting in line for the bathroom talked about how Bowie - specifically Jareth - was responsible for their sexual awakening. Everyone was crying. His impact is immeasurable.

     I sometimes say it’s no surprise that the world has gotten consistently worse since Bowie died. It’s half joke, half truth. All these years later, I still can’t believe that he’s gone forever. But then I reminded myself of one of the keynote lyrics from Labyrinth’s soundtrack: “It’s only forever/It’s not long at all.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        - Eric Hehr, Jan. 2020

a piece by Eric Hehr


JARETH: You remind me of the babe.

GOBLIN: What babe?

JARETH: The babe with the power.

GOBLIN: What power?

JARETH: The power of voodoo.

GOBLIN: Who do?

JARETH: You do.

GOBLIN: Do what?

JARETH: Remind me of the babe.

 



     I don’t remember the first time I saw Labyrinth, but I was young. Very young. Young enough to not fully comprehend the fantastical plot, which revolves around a teenage girl’s journey through a hypnagogic maze to rescue her baby brother after he is kidnapped by goblins, per her wish. Young enough to not understand that the head-popping “Firey” creatures were puppets from Jim Henson’s famed Creature Shop, not real beasts that could (and would) steal me out of bed in the middle of the night. Young enough to not know the difference between fantasy and reality, fact from fiction.

     Like many born in the late eighties, I wore out my VHS copy of Labyrinth till every scene was overlapped with jittery tracking lines. As young kids often are, I was relentless with my screenings. I would watch it over and over and over again - and then watch it again. While other kids had Barney, Big Bird, or Mr. Rogers to captivate their imagination, I had Jareth The Goblin King. And at the time, that’s who he was to me - Jareth The Goblin King, ruler of Goblin City and architect of the Labyrinth. I had no context for the man behind the tight grey leggings and androgynous blonde wig; no idea that Jareth was actually a rockstar named David Bowie.

      Fast forward about twenty-five years. It’s the morning of January 10th, 2016. I’m in Chicago, in the midst of pre- production rehearsals for a record I’m producing. While in transit from the South Loop to a rehearsal studio in Humboldt Park, I scan through radio stations while the lead singer of the band drives:



     “Legendary musician and performer, David Bowie, has died...”


     “...we’re just getting news now that English singer, songwriter, and actor David Bowie has died at his Lafayette 
street home in New York City...”

     “...while the cause of death has not been announced yet, what is known is that the man who fell to earth is back amongst the stars...


     The sound coming from the FM dial is disorientating. The words don’t make sense, like listening to a foreign 
language.

     I stop at a Dunkin Donuts to grab a coffee. A mounted television above the counter plays the WGN morning news: a top of the hour segment devoted to a career-spanning montage of Bowie album covers while an anchor announces his death at the age of sixty-nine.

     I get back into the car and put on “Station to Station,” the ten minute long title-track from Bowie’s 1976 record. I don’t know what else to do. As the song plays, I try to make sense of what’s happening. David Bowie is dead? No. No. No, that can’t be true. Death would imply that Bowie was a mere mortal like the rest of us, not the mythological demigod he seemingly existed as. I’m suddenly struck with a strange feeling of anger that I can’t quite place - anger directed at Bowie for being human, for doing something as trivial as dying.

     By the time “Station to Station” reaches it’s midpoint apex (“If it’s not the side-effects of cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love...”), my anger transforms to sadness. I begin to cry. I put on my sunglasses and turn my head towards the passenger side window so the driver can’t see my face. I’m embarrassed. Heartbroken.



     Fast forward four years. I still haven’t fully come to grips with the fact that Bowie is gone. His death hit me hard. I felt like I lost a life-long friend, which seems silly considering I never met the man. The alien. Whatever he was. But I did grow up with him. That young kid who was glued to his Zenith tubed television watching Labyrinth would discover his dad’s vinyl copy of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, eventually putting two and two together. Once he was old enough to get a library card, he would check out every Bowie CD his public library had available, ripping them to blank discs so he could listen to them on his Sony Discman. Later, he would make his high school band play “Rock ’n Roll Suicide” in every VFW hall and church basement in the western suburbs of Chicago, failing to read the quarter-capacity crowds of apathetic scene kids, more interested in hearing Fall Out Boy than Bowie deep-cuts. In college, he’d enter into a whirlwind of ill-fated relationships based off the pretense that his significant other also listened to Bowie, the “end-of-The-Graduate” moment happening after exhausting every discussion that could possibly be had about Bowie’s music, films, performances, outfits, and folklore.



     Like Jareth in the Labyrinth, Bowie was a fantasy figure in the maze of pop culture - otherworldly sonically and aesthetically, always a few steps ahead of the cultural zeitgeist that he governed over. While the characters he played (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke) were always punctuated by a sensational exclamation point, Bowie himself remained a question mark. There was an enigmatic mystery to him, especially towards the end of his life. At the time of his death, nobody knew he was working on a new record (the hauntingly cryptic, post-humous Blackstar) or was slowly dying from liver cancer. He comfortably disappeared into the shadow of his own legend, which permeated into mythic proportions with each passing year that he kept out of the spotlight. Perhaps this is why I still struggle with Bowie’s death - I can’t help but feel that he was planning something during all of those quiet years. Something Kaufman-esque. Maybe he’s still out there, patiently waiting for the right moment to pull down the curtain and kick over the mic stand, announcing his triumphant return with a cheshire cat grin: “Hello, darlings. Did you miss me?” But on a subconscious level, I think my struggle with his death goes back to my first encounter with Bowie. It goes back to Labyrinth.



    At the end of Labyrinth, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) and Jareth (David Bowie) face off in a dreamlike room that defies the laws of gravity, modeled after M.C Esher’s lithograph print, Relativity. Sarah struggles to navigate the dizzying room and retrieve her baby brother, Toby. Meanwhile, Jareth weaves in and out of hallways, upside down and downside up across a tangent of staircases. He sings the climatic “Within You,” the contour of his voice taking on a seductive, menacing quality on top of shifting time signatures and an octave-spanning bass synth (“Within You” contains one of my all-time favorite Bowie lyrics: “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you/I move the stars for no one,” which sub-textually indicates that he has the power to move the stars, but chooses not to. In a few words, it sums up everything I love about Bowie’s powerful mystique). At the end of the song, Jareth offers Sarah her dreams in exchange for Toby. Sarah recites lines from the fairytale she was reading at the beginning of the film, which loosely echos her own journey up until this point. But she can’t remember the last line. Jareth pleads with her: “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I shall be your slave.” Finally, Sarah remembers the last line, looking Jareth in the eye: “You have no power over me.” In glitchy slow motion, Jareth throws the crystal ball into the air. It hangs suspended, floating down to Sarah’s hand and popping like a bubble on her palm. Jareth, defeated by Sarah, transforms into an owl and flies away (the owl in Labyrinth marks the first attempt at a photo-realistic CGI animal character in a feature film).



     Upon returning home, Sarah discovers Toby safe and sound in his crib. As Sarah’s parents return home from their night out, she’s revisited by the friends she made on her surreal journey through the Goblin City - a beast named Ludo, a troll named Hoggle, and an anthropomorphic fox named Sir Didymus. Gazing at her reflection in her vanity mirror, Sarah realizes she’s not a kid anymore - she’s growing up. Like Dorothy returning to Kansas at the end of Wizard of Oz, Sarah leaves the childish fantasy of the Goblin City behind in favor of her adult responsibilities as a baby sitter. Although her acceptance of the reality of adulthood leave little room for the dreams of youth, Labyrinth concludes by suggesting that everyone needs a little adventure in their life - no matter how old you may be. The final shot of the film is all the creatures from the Labyrinth throwing a party in Sarah’s room. As the camera dollies out from her bedroom window, we see Jareth in owl form, perched on a tree branch, watching the celebration from afar. He flies away into the night sky. The credits roll. The End.

     Labyrinth is part of a canon of unusually dark, existential, and bleak PG-rated films geared towards children that were released throughout the eighties and early nineties: the bittersweet emotional undercurrent of 1984’s The Never-ending Story, the drab, muted color palette and themes of death and loss in 1988’s The Land Before Time, the heart wrenching tale of an unlovable, murdered dog in 1989’s All Good Dogs Go To Heaven, Nicolas Roeg’s esoteric and nightmare-inducing adaption of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and Tim Burton’s bizarre, season-bending stop-motion animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. There has never been a stranger period of kids films before or after. Perhaps Labyrinth’s complex themes are simply a sign of the times in filmmaking. A time when G and PG rated commercial properties dealt with “coming of age” issues such as sexuality and mortality through the vessel of odd, left of center narratives; exploring moral and ethical grey areas in the kind of genre that is most commonly black and white.

     When Labyrinth was released in 1986, it was a box office disappointment, grossing $12.9 million against a budget of $25 million. It was also met with a luke-warm critical response. Both Roger Ebert and his partner in criticism, Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune, panned Labyrinth in a one-star review: “The pathetic story in Labyrinth is a young girl's search for her infant brother abducted by goblins working for an evil spirit played by, of all people, David Bowie. It has been said many times before in this space that the sight of a baby in peril is one of sleaziest gimmicks a film can employ to gain our attention, but Henson does it...what an enormous waste of talent and money.”



     One of the main criticisms is the film’s message: what is Labyrinth trying to say? Some have said that at different points in the film, Jareth represents different things. The creatures that he rules over are all drawn from Sarah’s fantasies, so is Jareth himself a teenage girls fantasy? And if so, what does that say about the Labyrinth as a whole? Does it represent Sarah’s terror of descending into the adult world? Her terror of entering into a serious relationship with a man (or in this case, a singing and dancing king who steals babies)? When Sarah rejects Jareth, what is she ultimately rejecting? The themes of sacrifice and growth are present throughout Labyrinth, but the thematic message of these themes are often inconsistent.

     Upon further investigation, it’s easy to assume all this mixed-messaging is the result of “too-many-cooks-in-the- kitchen” regarding Labyrinth’s convoluted screenplay process. Between 1983 and 1985, the script was rewritten over twenty-five times, changing hands between writers like Laura Phillips, George Lucas, and Elaine May. The shooting script wasn’t completed until days before production began. At times, you can feel the peanut gallery of writers trying to lead the narrative in different directions, all playing tug of war with the characters and the plot. In one of the final drafts of the script, the ending sequence in Sarah’s room takes place in the reflection of her bedroom window (not her vanity mirror) and her friends from the Goblin City fade away after saying their goodbyes, leaving Sarah alone. During production, this scene - like many scenes - was altered and rewritten in favor of a more positive resolution, despite what it might contradict about the film’s central message.

     Despite what Labyrinth’s ambiguous third act is trying to say about the growing pains of childhood, it leaves the future of the main antagonist open-ended. Although Jareth does not achieve his goal of keeping Toby and seducing Sarah, he’s allowed to fly-away relatively unscathed. He doesn’t die. He isn’t hurt or injured. Apart from his physical shape-shifting, his character doesn’t undergo transformation. For all we know, Jareth flies to the next house over where another teenage girl is wishing her annoying brother away.

     From my youthful eyes, Jareth seemed eternal and invincible. He was able to change forms and continue onward. Throughout his career, Bowie did the same: always evolving creatively, always altering his physical appearance, always moving forward along the cutting edge of art and culture. The juxtaposition between Jareth and Bowie never really fully formed in my mind.



     As I spent January 10th, 2016 going through the motions of that pre-production session, a part of me - the childish part that still believes in adventure and fantasy and the great unknown, the youthful part that still believes in dreams despite the crushing anxiety of adulthood - couldn’t help but think that Bowie didn’t die, but took off into the night, chasing the moonlight. The serious moonlight.

     Shortly after his death, I attended a David Bowie themed party at a record store in Hollywood, CA. People dressed up as different eras of Bowie. DJ’s came by to spin his records. Labyrinth were projected onto the walls. All the musicians and actors inside the record store said they started playing music or got involved with theater because of Bowie. All the smokers outside the record store said they started smoking because of Bowie. All the girls waiting in line for the bathroom talked about how Bowie - specifically Jareth - was responsible for their sexual awakening. Everyone was crying. His impact is immeasurable.

     I sometimes say it’s no surprise that the world has gotten consistently worse since Bowie died. It’s half joke, half truth. All these years later, I still can’t believe that he’s gone forever. But then I reminded myself of one of the keynote lyrics from Labyrinth’s soundtrack: “It’s only forever/It’s not long at all.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        - Eric Hehr, Jan. 2020