I freakin’ love The Dark Crystal! Let’s watch it. Today it’s one of the most disgusting – and therefore one of the most beloved – scenes in the movie, 38:01-42:20 on the Blu-ray.
You’ll recall that we left off on an absolutely adorable shot of a Nebrie and its two babies, in a moment of extreme cuteness. But in this movie, which has given so many children so many nightmares over the years, such cuteness cannot stand, so we fade from the cute Nebries to a dead one, on a plate, about to be served as dinner to Skeksis. We’re in the castle, and the dead-eyed Podling slaves are carrying dead Nebrie to the dinner table. The plate also contains what looks like potatoes and some small hard shells, no doubt a lobster-like delicacy. The Skeksis hit the point home by saying, “Roast Nebrie, my favorite,” and, “I want the rare piece.” I guess “rare” in this case means something unique, that each Nebrie has only one of. I’ll leave it to your imaginations as to what that might be.
Yes, this is the famous dinner scene. The camera pulls back, and we see all the Skeksis sitting at their table, in oversized chairs, chowing down. This goes on for a while, with no dialogue, just shots of them all eating, with wonderfully gross sound effects of them chewing, slurping, and even belching. Two of them fight over a piece of meat. Another has a long metal spike attached to his fingertip, as a sort of eating utensil. The General dips a piece of meat in some sauce. The Gourmand (that’s right, the fat one is the Gourmand) plunges his whole face into a bowl and emerges with meat tendrils dangling from his mouth. Another rips meat off a bone with his beak.
Another Skeksis, the Ornamentalist, goes against type, daintily gnawing on a bone rather than chomping down on it, and then delighting with pleasure at its taste. On the Blu-ray’s bonus features, Jim Henson discusses portraying the Ornamentalist during this scene. This is where he states that despite the male pronouns, the Skeksis are in fact sexless, and that he sees a lot of feminine qualities in them, the Ornamentalist in particular. If you rewatch The Dark Crystal with the approach that the Skeksis are a bunch of dithering old ladies, suddenly it’s a whole different movie.
The General is not so pleased with the meal, declaring a chunk of meat to be “rotten” and tossing it over his shoulder. There’s a shot of a couple of rodent-like critters on the floor the Skeksis toss meat to. They look a lot like Philo and Gunge, the Trash Heap’s sidekicks from Fraggle Rock. Then… more eating. More meat hanging from the Skeksis’ mouths as they eat. Finally, the Skeksis Ritual-Master breaks the silence, reminding the others that the Gelfling, Jen, escaped. The General, speaking with his mouth full, argues that no Gelfling has ever escaped the Garthim. This is not true at all, as we saw Gelflings fight, defeat, and escape from Garthim in the manga Legends of the Dark Crystal. The General is clearly exaggerating in this scene, to maintain intimidation over the other Skeksis.
With that dialogue exchange done, we get even more eating. Showing increasingly deplorable table manners, the Skeksis pick their teeth, and one sticks his beak into a bowl of liquid. (Water? Soup? We don’t know.) He then shakes his head kind of like how a wet dog shakes itself, and he takes a napkin from a Podling slave and wipes his face. OK, so maybe there are some table manners. Another Skeksis demands, “More food!” A Podling arrives with a bowl full of small mouse-like critters. “Dessert! Crawlies!” a Skeksis says. One of the Crawlies, still alive, hops out of the bowl and skitters across the table. Several Skeksis try to grab or smash it as it runs past, but it avoids them. At the end of the table, the Gourmand catches it, and immediately stuffs the poor little thing into his mouth, saying, “Not bad at all.” Brian Froud has mentioned this scene in many interviews over the years, saying the Crawlies were cheap little wind-up toys he found at a local toy store. He likes to point this out, arguing that you don’t always need multi-million dollar special effects when simple innovation will do.
This has been just over two minutes of screentime devoted to nothing but the Skeksis eating. What are we to make of this? To start, it’s a contrast to the previous scene where Kira was all harmonious with nature, here we see Skeksis being all gross and carnivorous, eating the animals that Kira was so kind to. Second, all this helps establish the “reality” of this world, so we’re not thinking of these creatures as merely puppets. We see them biting into meat, tearing the meat of the bone with their jaws. We see them interacting with liquid, the water dripping from their mouths. It’s all about selling the Skeksis as living things, and further immersing viewers into this fantasy world. Also, note that the Skeksis are not sitting around a dinner table, but are seating in a single row, facing outward. This no doubt made filming easier, but it’s also a reminder as to their past. The tie-in fiction states that they once held grand balls inside the castle, and this dinner setup is clearly a remnant of those glory days. Look in the background of this scene and you can see junk all over the floor, more tattered curtains on the walls, and so on, all showing how far into disarray this world has become.
A few Garthim enter the room, and the Skeksis get all excited because they think the Garthim have captured Jen. The Garthim have a big sack with someone struggling inside it. The Skeksis demand, “Release the Gelfling!” Only, it’s not a Gelfling, it’s Aughra inside there. She struggles her way out of the bag as the Skeksis react with surprise. She calls the Skeksis fools, and tells them “Of course I’m no Gelfling you putrid lizards!” She then adds, “I’ll get my eye to you.” I’ll admit it: I have no idea what she means by that. Whatever it means, the Skeksis react with fear upon hearing this, as if it’s a threat. The Ritual-Master deduces that Aughra was with Jen and was helping him. He demands to know where Jen is. Aughra responds only with “Gone.”
Aughra approaches the Skeksis, taking a moment to punch one of the Garthim out of frustration. It doesn’t hurt the Garthim, but it makes Aughra look pretty badass, standing up to the big scary monster. She asks why the Skeksis didn’t just ask her to begin with, instead of sending their soldiers to attack her home. (Would she have helped them if they asked nicely? We’d like to think not, but it’s hard to say. Remember how scatterbrained she acted when she first met Jen.)
Aughra then loses it, going on an epic rant: “Moldy mildew mother of mouthmuck! Dangle and strangle to death!” The Ornamentalist doesn’t like this, saying “How crude!” The Ritual-Master calls Aughra a “harridan” and states that the Skeksis are the lords of the Crystal. (I looked it up. “Harridan” means a hag, shrew, or scolding woman.) Aughra takes a second to examine a piece of glassware on the Skeksis’ table, and then reminds them of the prophecy, that a Gelfling will end Skeksis’ power. Note that here it’s a definite that this will happen, when in other instances the prophecy only said it might happen. Aughra does her slapsticky sit-down-with-grunt thing again, and she says the Gelfling will come and “make you crawl like the worms you are.” Oohh, so she’s using the prophecy here not so much to be accurate, but to stick it to the Skeksis, no doubt in retaliation for them trashing her home.
For first-time viewers, this is mostly humorous stuff, in that the Skeksis captured her instead of Jen. Once you’ve read the tie-in fiction, though, this scene has a whole new dynamic. Aughra and the Skeksis know each other, and they’ve known each other for a very long time. Therefore, the Skeksis have every right to be afraid of her, because they know how important she is to this world, and she has every right to snap at them, because she’s seen all they’ve done and how far they’ve fallen. Instead of just a wacky mix-up, this scene is about years of tension between these characters finally coming to a head.
The General demands, “Find the Gelfling now!” The Ritual-Master orders the Crystal Bats to fly, commanding them to “Search the water, search the land, search the sky.” We see the Crystal Bats take off from the ceiling and fly off. As they do so, we can see the Garthim leading Aughra away. This shows that, despite her ripping into them, she’s still their prisoner. Then there’s the Wizard of Oz flying monkeys shot, with the Crystal Bats flying off into the sunset sky. The tie-in materials tell us that, like the Garthim, the Crystal Bats are artificial creatures created by the Skeksis. Each one is affixed with a crystal that somehow broadcasts images back to the Dark Crystal, in the castle. According to canon, the Skeksis grew hardier and hardier Crystal Bats over the years, to the point where they can command the Garthim through the Crystal Bats, so they no longer have a need to leave the castle. The canon features SkekMal the Hunter, and SkekLach the Collector, who both used to travel outside the castle, hunting Gelflings. They are both absent in the movie and their fates are currently unknown. Can we speculate that their demises led to a greater prominence for the Crystal Bats? All we know for sure is the Crystal Bats are looking for Jen. We’ll find out what he and Kira are up to next time.
Next: Rollin’ on the river.
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