Chapter 18: You're Born In The Gutter, You End Up In The Port.

Movies like Strange Days, Johnny Mnemonic and Blade Runner borrowed as much from traditional, established Cyberpunk imagery as they generated on their own, from mirrorshades to skyscrapers, from slick, grey-suited Sararimen to the "strong female, weak male" pairing (if you don't think Blade Runner has this, watch the scene where Deckard gets his ass kicked a few more times). There's absolutely nothing wrong with building upon material that's come before, especially when it's as interesting to look at as Cyberpunk. But every now and again, there comes a time to shake up the status quo and do something so bizarre that it makes you rethink what you thought you knew about the boundaries of science fiction.

1995's La Cite des Enfants Perdus is one of those films. More commonly known by its American title, The City of Lost Children, the film was directed by the team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (who also directed 1991's delightfully sickening Delicatessen, a movie about cannibalism in a post-nuclear city). If the film's dark, disturbing imagery looks familiar, it may be because the filmography was done by the brilliant Darius Khonji, whose work can also be seen in 1995's Se7en and 1997's Alien: Resurrection, which he worked on with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Top off that dream team with a score by Mr. Angelo Badalamenti (who, of course, also scored Lost Highway and Twin Peaks), and you've truly got a masterpiece waiting to happen.

As with Strange Days, our film begins during the holiday season, with a young boy watching from his crib as Santa Claus climbs down the chimney, snow gently falling outside the window. Gently, gingerly, Santa Claus creeps over to the boy's crib, holding up a small wind-up toy. But before the child can react to this apparently joyful scene, another Santa Claus climbs down the chimney. And another. And another. In moments, the bedroom is filled with Santa Clauses, dozens of them. The surreal, spooky scene makes the child cry and try to escape, but as we soon discover, there is no escape.

The child, it turns out, is having a bad dream, and that bad dream is shared by (and is the result of) a man named Krank. Krank is what the Western world would call a "Mad Scientist," although as we eventually discover, Krank himself is the creation of another scientist, so he's half Dr. Frankenstein, half Monster himself. Krank's fatal flaw is that he cannot dream, and so he's taken to kidnapping small children from a nearby port city (hence the name of the movie), strapping them to his evil machine on his oil platform castle, and trying to inspire pleasant dreams in them so he can share in the joy. Unfortunately, Krank has not quite figured out that his presence, and that of his cronies (consisting of a half-dozen bumbling clones, a midget lady and a disembodied brain) are the cause of the children's nightmares.

The Santa Claus imagery is carried throughout the film, and it all makes much more sense if you're familiar with the true origins of Santa Claus, which go way back to Norse mythology. Back then, Odin (alternately Odihnn, Wodan) was the god of (among other things) wisdom, magic and occult knowledge, and this tall, elderly, white-bearded God oft travelled into other worlds with his two ravens named Muninn (Memory) and Huginn (Thought) and his white 8-legged horse Sleipnir. Odin had only one eye; the other was removed willingly in exchange for wisdom and insight, allowing him to see inward worlds with his lost "eye." Over the years, Odin gradually transformed himself into the Dutch Sinterklaas, a tall, elderly, white-bearded man who rode on a white horse and was accompanied by Black Jacks, who gathered secret information about young children throughout the year. If a child was good, Sinterklaas delivered that child a present. If the child was bad, the Black Jacks might abduct the child and take him away to the realm of Sinterklaas, never to return.

It's pretty easy to see how we get from there to the modern Santa Claus, his elves and his 8 reindeer, but it's even more easy to understand what's going on in The City of Lost Children. Krank is trying to be Odin, to peer into the realm of dreams by having his minions abduct children so he can mime at being Santa Claus. But he consistently fails at this; unlike Odin, he has not sacrificed an eye, and so he cannot dream. And because he cannot dream, he cannot even be Sinterklaas; he is relegated to being just another Black Jack, scaring children into tears. In a later glimpse into his life, we learn that this, too, separates Krank from the children; he has a hard time crying, and can only shed a single tear when faced with the story of his own creation, of how an inventor made a midget wife, stupid cloned children and a disembodied brain before creating Krank, his masterpiece, who ages prematurely because he cannot dream.

The men who are abducting the children for Krank, not so coincidentally, have sacrificed an eye to achieve a higher degree of enlightenment. They are the aptly named "Cyclopes" (plural of Cyclops), each of whom has had an eye removed from their head and replaced, Borg-like, with a cybernetic lens which gives them enhanced night vision (as well as other enhancements which give them enhanced hearing). Skulking about in their black rubber trench coats, they are obviously a cross between Holland's Black Jacks and the Norse Odin, wandering the realm of dreams in search of their prey.

One night, several Cyclopes visit the home of a mentally-challenged circus strongman named "One" (as in "The One," such as Neo was in The Matrix). One is played by Ron Perlman, the only English-speaking actor in the cast; best known for his part as the Beast in the TV series Beauty and the Beast, he's also the narrator for the Fallout video game series, was in Alien: Resurrection and will appear in the forthcoming Blade 2. But I digress; to get back to the point, the Cyclopes are there to abduct One's adopted brother Denree, a 5-year old who's oblivious to everything about the world except eating and belching. One hears them coming, and attempts to hide with Denree in a closet, but the two are discovered, and despite a desperate struggle, Denree is taken and One is left to chase after them, impotently.

One's pursuit leads him to the waterfront, where he ducks into a shack to avoid being seen by the Cyclopes and inadvertently comes across a group of young pickpockets led by a 9-year old lolita named Miette (which translates simply as "sweet little thing"), played marvelously by relative unknown Judith Vittet. After a close call, One realizes that these children (and specifically, their leader Miette) might be able to help him locate Denree; he follows them on their rounds, trying to convince her to help.

Before the children will help him, One is conned into helping them and their evil "landladies," a pair of twin sisters collectively called "The Octopus" because they move and act as one (although they are not Siamese twins, as some have said). The children's next job is to steal a heavy safe, but obviously none of them can lift it; in comes One at just that moment, lifting the safe with ease and unwittingly volunteering himself for the job. Miette picks the lock in an ingenious fashion, using a mouse, a magnet and a at to retrieve the key from the other side of the door. The stealth is all for naught, however, because shortly after pilfering the safe, One is distracted by a Cyclops truck. Thinking that he may have discovered the whereabouts of his brother, he drops the safe and pursues the truck. The safe promptly falls off the pier into the water, and Miette promptly gives chase to the only man who can possibly get it back -- One.

The pairing of a stronger, older male and a younger, weaker female has been discussed elsewhere at some length, but it's done simply and wonderfully here and is worth mentioning even if it is quite obvious. Even early on, we see One set up as a strong male adult with the mind of a child, and his obvious "mate" is Miette, the weak female child with the mind of an adult. The important thing here is that they need each other to accomplish their individual tasks. Without Miette, One will never find his brother Denree, and without One, Miette will never be able to retrieve the safe from the port. For Miette, this is a matter of life and death; if she fails in her task, The Octopus will certainly kill her. One's motivations are entirely selfless; he desires nothing more than safety for Denree (and, eventually, Miette).

Back on the oil rig, Krank is having the clones tell him about their dreams, his only source of enjoyment since he has no imagination of his own. It quickly becomes clear that the clones aren't being entirely honest with Krank, merely making up strange dreamlike images in random order to keep him occupied. While they have him thus distracted, Irvin the disembodied brain conspires with one of the clones, convincing him that he is the "original" from which the other clones were formed. Bolstered by this, the clone is convinced to strap himself into the dream machine, normally reserved only for Krank. The machine can't tolerate the presence of the clone, and blows a fuse, which the brain orders the clone to throw into the ocean. Only the brain knows what's really going on; the blown fuse contains a dream message in the form of a green fog, and it is nothing less than a message-in-a-bottle, intended to seek out the Inventor who created them all, in the hopes that he will return and put this nightmare world to an end.

Meanwhile, Miette and One have snuck into the temple of the Cyclops cult, One disguised as a Cyclops with a long coat and the cybernetic eye he ripped off of earlier in the film. In the midst of the temple, the leader of the Cyclops is chanting before an immense fire, speaking about the wisdom of having an eye poked out so that one might see more clearly. Dozens, hundreds of Cyclopes dressed in identical black trench coats surround him, listening intently, watching as a string of 5-year-old children are led into the room and sold to the midget lady and one of the clones. One, seeing that Denree is among the children, swoops down to attempt a rescue, Miette unwillingly coming along. The battle is futile and quite short; the pair are outnumbered and overpowered, and quickly tied up and set on the edge of the pier. Their fate: seagulls will eat dead fish in baskets, and as the baskets lighten in weight, One and Miette will be plunged into the water to drown. The pair discuss their fate in a scene that makes clear that One is truly the child of the pair:

                    Miette. One... die?

                    You're born in the gutter,
                    you end up in the port.

                    Miette too little.

                    Not that little.

However, the Octopus has discovered that One and Miette are going to be "fed to the fishes," and she sees the value in them and concocts a rescue attempt along with another member of One's circus troupe, Marcello the flea trainer. His cybernetic fleas have poison-tipped stingers on their mouths, and when he plays the hurdy-gurdy, the fleas jump onto their targets (in this case, one of the Cyclopes), sting him, and flee. The target, now poisoned, comes under the spell of the music, and attacks his friends, ripping off their eyepieces and, in Strange Days-esque fashion, plugging his own video feed into theirs so they can see him strangling them.

While the Cyclopes are preoccupied, Marcello steers his rowboat underneath the plank One is on, catching him just as he falls and saving him from a watery grave. Miette, however, is not so fortunate, and she falls into the water. One, for all his strength, is still tied up, and cannot do anything to save her.

Back on the oil rig, Krank is awaiting his new shipment of fresh young minds, discussing his quandary with the brain (who, we learn, still gets migraine headaches despite a lack of a body). The brain lays it on the line; Krank only gets nightmares from the children because he is a nightmare to them. This is made all the more clear when Krank once again attempts to appeal to the children, this time dressing up as Santa Claus in the real world and singing Christmas carols to the children in their cribs. It all goes horribly wrong, the music off-key and scary, the children all screaming and crying at his ghoulish visage.

Which is what we'd expect would become of Miette's own face after a few days under the port, but luckily for her (and the rest of the film), she's rescued at the last second by a diver. Discovering that Miette is alive, he explains how he lives underwater (the realm of the ocean bottom symbolic of the unconscious world of dreams that everyone is trying to access, a veritable "belly of the whale" from which our hero or heroine needs to escape). When he removes his helmet, it's clear that he's one of Krank's clones, albeit one with a beard (i.e., like Santa Claus, or Odin). Indeed, like Odin in the legends, he sifts through the realms of memory and thought, collecting the history that people throw over the side--including, it turns out, the safe that One mistakenly dumped overboard earlier in the day. Miette quickly pockets the contents of the safe, declaring: "I stole them. I'm taking back what's mine."

The Diver also has another tidbit of information to give to Miette; he knows where the children are being taken, and lets her know that the Tattoo Parlor man has a map of the minefield surrounding the oil rig on his head. Thus armed, Miette emerges from the water and seeks out One, who (as her friends tell her) is drinking with chicks at the local bar. Indeed, Marcello has taken One there to ply him with alcohol and get him seduced by a woman in a red dress, but his plan has failed, as One is too grieved over the loss of Miette and Denree to be interested. Everyone, of course, is shocked when Miette strolls into the bar and berates One for his appearance (acting much like the girlfriend), but none is more surprised than Marcello, who feels ashamed that he was a part of any plan that would result in Miette's being harmed or killed. He turns sides, helping her and her crew to sneak One away from the clutches of The Octopus.

After the rescue, Miette makes her big decision, turning away from her gang and declaring her allegiance to One, and her intent to help him in his quest. It's clear now that One is "her guy;" One may be big, but he's not a grown up, and she may be small but she's certainly not a child. Much like Leon and Mathilda in Leon, they share a bed together, but unlike Leon, One seems to welcome this, perhaps not understanding that although he's basically adopting Miette as a younger sister, she's treating him like a lover of sorts. As One explains how he used to be a whaler (until he heard the whales singing, and refused to harpoon them afterwards), the two of them bed down for the night on the docks, One embracing her, blowing hot air on her neck to warm her up in the chill night air. It's kinda incestuously pedophiliacish in a creepy sort of way, but only a bit, because it's also rather sweet and innocent as well.

But innocence is about to be lost, rapidly; the fuse that the brain had thrown off the oil rig earlier in the day has found its way to the port at last, and in sinking has been discovered by the Diver. He sets it on a shelf and falls asleep, but during the night he accidentally knocks it down, breaking it open and releasing the green mist inside. As it turns out, the mist is, indeed, a message in a bottle, in the form of a series of nightmarish images which make their way into the minds of nearby sleepers. The Diver, Miette and numerous nearby children all share in the dream of the oil rig and those trapped therein. The Diver immediately springs into action, remembering suddenly that HE is the creator of Krank, the midget, the brain and the clones, and that Krank attacked him and threw him overboard, causing him to forget. He sets off for the oil rig the hard way--walking along the bottom of the ocean. The Messiah may have walked on water, but the Creator walks below it.

About the same time as Miette is dreaming, Denree is being taken on board the oil rig, demonstrating to Krank by eating Krank's dinner that unlike the other children, he is not afraid, only hungry. And in the other evil camp, The Octopus is infuriated that Marcello has failed her, and she steals his fleas and sends one other henchmen in to kill him. Unfortunately for her, she's made too many enemies, and Marcello's life is spared. For the moment, though, it doesn't appear it will make any difference, for The Octopus, operating under the theory of "Don't trust anyone to do your work for you" sets her new plan into action.

One, giving foot massages and piggy back rides to Miette, and tattooing "Miette Forever" on his arm, is oblivious to the danger, content in the fact that they now have the map that will lead them to Denree. But as they board the boat to set off, The Octopus springs into action, sending her captive fleas to bite One. She laughs mercilessly as she cranks the hurdy-gurdy, forcing One to slap Miette in the face, then strangle her. Miette, also helpless in One's iron grasp, can do little but shed a single tear. This tear proves to be the thing that saves her, as, in a bizarre Rube Goldberg-like way, it triggers a sequence of events that ultimately leads to a power outage, forcing the lighthouse to blink out, which in turn causes a large ship to sail into the pier that One, Miette and The Octopus are standing on. The music is interrupted, One snaps out of his spell, and he and Miette are plunged into the water below.

In the meantime, Fleakins (the flea that bit One) hitches a ride home to Marcello, where through some flea telepathy he manages to discover what's going on. As The Octopus is pouring gasoline onto One and Miette to burn them alive, Marcello shows up and has his flea bite The Octopus. As he cranks his hudry-gurdy faster and faster, the two sides of the same person come apart and begin to attack one another (evil literally destroying itself). Just in time, Miette and One climb out of the water as The Octopus falls in, and Marcello throws a lit cigarette in after her. The end.

Well, not quite; as with many stories with deep-rooted mythological undertones, this is only the first monster to be defeated, and now Miette and One must set sail for the oil rig and Krank (consider Beowulf, where he kills Grendel but then must face Grendel's mother, or Star Wars, where they escape the Death Star but must then go back to destroy it). In this case, of course, the actual destruction won't be done by our heroes, but by the Diver, who has returned to take away everything he brought into the world. In fact, it's at about the same time as Miette and One are clambering onto the oil rig that one of the clones discovers that some explosives are missing from the laboratory. Krank is oblivious to all of this, having put himself and Denree into the dream machine.

Miette creeps inside to scout the place out while One remains outside, but things quickly go awry and One is forced inside to look for her. He encounters the clones, but quickly dispatches them with his great strength, leaving the more intellectual encounter to Miette. The youngster is obviously charmed as well as charming, because it's mere coincidence that the Diver appears just in time to save her life a second time, shooting the midget lady with a harpoon just before she blows Miette away with a pistol. The midget lady recognizes the Diver, calling him The Professor; he is their creator, the "original," and he has returned at last.

After a few falls and near-misses, Miette finds herself in the dream chamber, where the brain tells her that she must find Denree "in the grip of an evil dream." In short, she has to enter the dream herself (a theme echoed in numerous movies, including 2000's The Cell and the Nightmare on Elm Street series, as well as allegorized in the theme of Cyberspace that runs throughout Cyberpunk fiction). Plugging herself into the dream machine is the same as jacking into the 'Net or plugging oneself into the Matrix, and as it so often turns out, it's in the world of the mind that the physically weak Miette truly shines.

Once again, the dream is the Christmas Eve dream, with Santa Krank approaching Denree in his crib, but this time, unexpectedly, Miette enters the dream and fearlessly takes Denree away from Krank's clutches. She dominates the scene, physically aging as Krank finds himself growing younger. Miette as a middle-aged mother, Krank as a child. Miette as an elderly matron, Krank as a mere baby. And then, Miette (or perhaps the brain) inserts one of the clones into the nightmare, and the clone picks up the baby Krank and straps him into the dream machine. Of course, since Krank is already in the machine, this creates a sort of loop of illogic, whereby Krank dreams of himself being strapped into a machine in which he's dreaming of himself, over and over, ad infinitum. As with the feedback loop introduced thematically in Strange Days, Krank is reduced to a drooling, mindless wreck, his brain destroyed.

One rescues Miette and Denree at the last moment as the Professor, screaming "Void equals infinity", straps himself and a wad of explosives to one of the oil rig struts and blows it all to smithereeens. In one boat, the clones and the brain row away into the darkness, in the other One, Miette and Denree, who, as always, is eating a sausage. With a belch that echoes the exploding oil rig, they drift off towards home.

City of Lost Children is in the same vein as films like Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and Brazil, and Alex Proyas' the Crow and Dark City, with often confusing imagery, disturbing lighting, strange characters and odd camera angles combining with a non-standard plot to give the audience a real sense of how disturbing it must be to live in such a place. The world of One and Miette is a destroyed world, a dark world, more Transmetropolitan than Metropolis, more akin to the Batman Earthquake scenario (wherein Gotham City was totally destroyed) than any of the Dark Knight's escapades.

To the casual viewer, films like these are often seen to be a jumble of symbolism and imagery that calls back to mythological times. But Cyberpunk itself is, at its core, part of the cycle of mythology, and it's films like this that push the envelope and take things back to where they all started. In that sense, these characters are more "Human, All Too Human" than they are "More Human Than Human", more Nietzsche than Blade Runner.

In the senior thesis I wrote in college (not an easy or quick read, but located right here for those who are looking for something a bit more scholastic and involved), I surmised that Cyberpunk represented a return to myth, filling the role left vacant in the cycle that takes fictional characters from Divine (stories about Gods) to Heroic to Mimetic (modern heroes) to Anti-Heroic. Cyberpunk, then, becomes the part of the puzzle between the Anti-hero and the Divine, the place where the guy in the gutter stops looking up at the stars and decides to try and get there himself. It's where inferior, average humans are bestowed with often superhuman powers that give them a shot at climbing out of the confused hell in which they live. It's where weak-minded strongmen and weak-bodied little girls can, in a sense, enter the realm of the Divine and even shake things up a bit.

None of this is really that different from any other Cyberpunk fiction out there; it's just a matter of degree. Is there really much difference between Case's role in Neuromancer, Neo's role as "The One" in The Matrix and One's role here? Not really. All are, in a sense, ordinary men thrust into extraordinary roles where they interact with things that are beyond the normal confines of physical space. Neuromancer and Wintermute are as much gods as The Professor/Diver, though they take on different faces and aid characters in different ways. But unlike early Cyberpunk, films like City of Lost Children show us the one big myth that started it all, and ends it all as well: the myth of "The Fall."

The story's been told a million different ways, historically and mythologically. Adam and Eve live in paradise, and they are cast out into the wilderness. Lucifer lives in Heaven, and he's cast into Hell for wanting too much power. Rome is the most powerful nation in the world, and it falls into nothingness. Great Britain is the most powerful sea power in the world, and all their holdings crumble and fall apart. And evidently, in the upcoming Cyberpunk V3, we see that theme once again, a carefully constructed world of black and chrome ripped apart at the seams. You've got your near-mythological Rache Bartmoss who, having created much of the digital world is now going to tear it all to shreds. You've got your Corps floating about overhead somewhere, trying to hold the pieces together. And in the middle of it all you've got people like One and Miette, trying to survive and get by in a world that's all gone to Hell.

When the earliest Cyberpunk works hit the scene, they were seen as brilliant pieces of science-fiction that challenged the very notion of what sci-fi was all about; rather than focusing on slick-suited, do-gooder space captains doing battle with alien races in silver space ships, they focused on the guy in the trench coat in the alleyway with the shiv and the datajack in the back of his skull. But even back then, it was pretty obvious (if you looked a little more closely) that Rutger Hauer wasn't just playing Roy Batty; he was playing at Lucifer, at the guy who got shoved out of Heaven for being too powerful and ambitious. And it was pretty clear that Mel Gibson's Road Warrior wasn't just some guy in a leather coat; he was somewhat of a Dante, roaming through Hell in search of answers. And it was all too obvious that Peter Weller's Robocop wasn't just a cyborg in a silver suit, but another way of representing Frankenstein, and in that he was a representation of a far earlier myth, a post-modern Prometheus.

In short, the mythology of the rise and fall, of creation and destruction, of the beginning of new life and the end of all things, has always been there with us in Cyberpunk. It's only when filmographers try to make it more obvious that it gets people nervous. And it's that sense of unease that makes movies like City of Lost Children so brilliant and breathtaking. The chrome is tinged with verdigris, the dark shadows cast in browns and reds, the cold, inorganic, artificial world forced to embrace something more organic and alive just as it finds itself on the brink of despair. God creates Man, Man creates Machine, Machine becomes God, and what can happen then but for the end of everything, and the beginning of something new? Even the ancient Greeks knew that hubris was not something to be taken lightly. Challenge the Gods, presume to attain heights greater than normal and you will find yourself tied to a post with a buzzard eating your liver.

But then, in the end, isn't there always a strongman to rescue you?

Next time, another dose of heavy symbolism when we take a look at the sequel to the film that kicked off this entire series: 1996's Escape From LA. This time, "The One" ain't a Savior; he's the guy on the other side of the fence, and he's more than happy to ride the world straight into the mouth of Hell. As always, let me know what you think. I'll see you in a few.