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The Neverending Story, gendered design, and Mormons

January 29, 2012


Last weekend I watched the 1984 fantasy film The Neverending Story. I remember being blown away when I saw it in the movie theater aged eight or nine, but this time, the adult me cringed at the special effects–the “luck dragon” looks like one of those enormous stuffed toys you win at a fun fair–and found the story silly, a hodgepodge of quest myths with a dash of Rudolf Steiner thrown in.

But one thing about the film did interest me: the design of the Ivory Tower, the palace of the Childlike Empress. (Yes, that’s the character’s name. Or title? Not sure.) Rising from its rocky carapace, it looks like a crystal held in a human hand, or the pistil of a flower.

As the hero approaches the palace, its form comes into clearer focus: it’s a flower. The pinnacle of the tower is the stigma at the top of the pistil, and filaments wave below it.

Flowers have long been associated with female sexuality in art and literature (see: Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Georgia O’Keeffe), and in case viewers have any doubts about the symbolism, a scene with the Childlike Empress in her virginal boudoir drives it home.

Even fantasy buildings usually have real-world precedents, and I wondered what the Ivory Tower’s might be. Organic architecture seemed like the first place to look, but it’s too ground-hugging. There’s a passing resemblance to Seattle’s Space Needle–but that’s about it.

Which real buildings are gleaming white, blank-walled, and reach for the heavens?

Mormon temples.

These icy, tall-spired fortresses–which, as critic Christopher Hawthorne has observed, often exhibit the same “grandiose if tight-lipped late Modernist style”–are the most obvious source of inspiration for Wolfgang Petersen’s fairytale castle. The grandiosity is all there, but the lines have been softened. The severe architectural style of a patriarchal denomination has been…feminized. By Hollywood.

What would Joseph Smith say?

Neverending Story images: Fanpop; San Diego temple: Skycam San Diego; Washington temple:

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