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Ministering to the Magic - De File
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Ministering to the Magic
Our afternoon at the cinema yesterday was a great success. Skylar pronounced The Order of the Phoenix the best of the five Harry Potter films and I wholeheartedly agree. Adapting any novel into a picture short enough to please the multiplexes is a difficult task, but when the book is nearly 900 pages long, as The Order of the Phoenix is, it seems like an overwhelming undertaking. That director David Yates and his crew managed to make a movie that will be entertaining for people who haven't read the books without overly disappointing those who have is therefore highly impressive.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle, whose recommendations I trust more than his rejects, didn't like the film much. Interestingly, he criticizes the opening scenes for being too slow, while, if I were to nitpick, I'd complain that the second half moves too quickly from incident to incident, losing the sense of gravity it works hard to cultivate prior to the start of the school year at Hogwarts. For example, the pacing of Harry's trial at the beginning gives the audience time to register its importance -- as well as to reflect on tie-ins to the "Muggle" reality of show trials -- whereas the final scene with Sirius builds a little too rapidly to have maximum impact.

As always, the "grown-up" actors, most of them longtime British luminaries, highlight their younger collaborators' shortcomings. But the gap is closing in the case of Daniel Radcliffe, who has clearly learned a thing or two. Emma Watson, whom I like, doesn't get to do much in this one, however, and appears to regress as a consequence. On the other hand, Harry Potter newcomer Evanna Lynch does a very nice job as Luna Lovegood, a character the filmmakers wisely foreground, given the link between her outsider status and Harry's.

Perhaps the film's greatest achievement is the economical way that it makes the two main points in the book not related to the Harry-and-Voldemort story arc: 1) that the bureaucratic exercise of power in the name of propriety and decorum can lead to consequences just as severe as the actions of people who self-consciously pursue bad ends; and 2) that the objectivity of the media is an illusion that serves the interests of those who are engaged in that bureaucratic exercise of power. With judicious use of the swirling newspaper headline montages favored in Studio Era classics and the repetition of certain scenes, but each time with a difference, such as the nailing up of Dolores Umbridge's latest decrees, Yates & Company distill an awful lot of paper -- even J.K. Rowling admitted that The Order of the Phoenix could have benefited from more vigorous pruning -- into brisk sequences.

Although I did want the film to slow down more in the second half, I understand why it had to be cut down to its current length in order to accommodate the demands of theaters with tight schedules. This may be the first Harry Potter film, however, for which a director's cut wouldn't just be a way for fans of the books to see more of their favorite scenes. From the reviews I've read, it would seem that its current size was arrived at very late in the game, since some of them mention scenes -- Ron riding a thestral he can't see was one -- that weren't in the final cut we saw. Unless, of course, the people who wrote those reviews were confusing their own memories of the books with what they saw on screen. A look at the cast on the Internet Movie Database suggests, however, that the former is the case, since there is a listing for Chris Rankin as Percy Weasley, a key character from the book who was never mentioned in today's version. I suppose the inevitable DVD special edition will have to prove what's in that pudding.

Luckily, however, the sequence that Skylar was most looking forward to, Harry's first kiss, was permitted to play out without ellipses. Come to think of it, that's richly ironic, since the scene in the book hinges on a sort of ellipsis! But it was beautifully portrayed and the post-kisseal conversation between Harry, Ron and Hermione may have been the highlight of their cinematic interaction throughout all five films. It certainly made Skylar gleeful, which was what I was hoping for. As you can tell from this photo of her taken after the film, she was one happy Bean.

The occlumency training scenes between Harry and Snape were very effective. Alan Rickman is always great in the role, but this may be his best performance yet. The montage sequences documenting first Harry's memories and then, in their final scene, Snape's were also very well done, one of the better cinematic representations of stream of consciousness I've seen, in fact. It was heartening to hear members of the audience clap when Rickman's name came on during the credits at the end of the film. Perhaps they were trying to indicate that they believe Snape will turn out to have been good at the end of the seventh and final book. The Order of the Phoenix is pulling for him, I'd say.

My favorite aspect of the film, though, was the beautiful cinematography of the Polish master -- he was behind the camera for the much-praised "colors" trilogy -- Slawomir Idziak. This is the first Harry Potter film that has completely pleased me from the standpoint of visual aesthetics. Almost every shot was a treat to see. And, because the framing was so good, special effects that might have seemed gratuitous in a less polished film serve The Order of the Phoenix's "art part" beautifully. I especially enjoyed the two scenes where Ginny casts spells that reveal her special gifts. The numerous overhead shots were also highly effective.

As much as I liked the film, though, I have to admit that it might not appeal to those with less-than-fervent interest in the world of Harry Potter. I mean, you could appreciate it for its style, but that would only work for someone who inclines toward "cineastery." The filmmakers manage to hint at depths that a feature-length movie simply can't attain by including numerous unexplained details, such as Luna reading her father's tabloid, which otherwise goes unmentioned, upside down. The effect reminded me of Children of Men, interestingly, which suggests that the latter may have benefited from its director's own foray into Potterland for The Prisoner of Azkaban. Still, although I'd like to believe that such filmic texture would make the film less flat for non-fans, I suspect that I'm being guilty of wishful thinking. Alright, then, time to go dream myself into the body of a serpent. . .

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masoo From: masoo Date: July 12th, 2007 02:47 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I am so not the audience for this, so my comments will be even less important than usual. I have never read any of the books, didn't like the first two movies and didn't bother to see the fourth, and while I really liked the third movie that would seem to reflect more my taste for Cuarón
than my taste for Harry Potter.

You obviously have closer ties to kids than I do, and a better sense of what works for them, so my complaints in one area are especially not to be believed. But I continue to be astonished at the length of these damn movies, which are long even by adult standards. This new one is 2 hours and 18 minutes long, and even there it sounds from your comments that it's not long enough. All I can say is, you've got a great kid in Skylar (as if we didn't already know that!) if she can sit through these long-ass movies.

Still, I might like this one (if it doesn't matter that I've missed one in the series now and so am not up on what's been happening to the characters). I know director David Yates' work from TV ... State of Play was a terrific mini-series, Girl in the Cafe a less-successful TV movie that nonetheless featured fine acting (Kelly Macdonald and Bill Nighy, supporting players in the former, starred in the latter, and I love them both) ... TV is more a writer's than a director's medium, I think, but Yates has a nice track record, and it sounds like this is another "dark" HP story, which has been up to now the only thing that appealed to me in any of the previous movies. Mostly, though, Harry Potter gives the lie to any claims I make to being connected to the pop culture of our times ... I just don't get it.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 12th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Well, Kim isn't really a fan either. I think you probably have to have been into the fantasy genre in your youth to really become immersed as an adult. You're obviously more of a mystery genre person. And my sense is also that, when your kids were Skylar's age, you were less engaged with their taste preferences than you were when they were teens.

Also, although I am someone who has historically enjoyed fantasy -- I greatly preferred it over science fiction as a child -- I probably wouldn't have gotten into the books had it not been for Skylar's interest. It's a major reading commitment. But, as someone who sings the praises of TV series, you must know that, once you've devoted a considerable chunk of time to something that many people regard as good -- not total crap, in other words -- it becomes easier and easier to stay underwater in the world of that fiction.

As far as Skylar's attention span goes, we forget how remarkable it is. She sat through all three hours of Camelot for goodness sakes, and those are three hours that feel like nine!

I suspect that you'll appreciate the look of this film. It's visually -- and thematically -- dark. I think the third one is tighter narratively -- Cuaron did a great job with the concluding time travel sequence -- but there are enough "Wow, that's cool-looking!" moments to redeem the portions of The Order of the Phoenix that lag for non-aficionados.
masoo From: masoo Date: July 12th, 2007 07:21 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yeah, I don't remember reading much fantasy as a kid ... sci-fi, yes, fantasy, no.

Also, you're too kind with your picture of how it was with my kids. I became more engaged with their taste preferences when those preferences came closer to my own. That is, I never engaged with their taste preferences, and usually resented having to "dumb down" my habits in the slightest to accomodate the little tykes (I wasn't the best dad).

Also, and this is something I hadn't much thought of in this context (although it comes up quite a bit in discussions between me and Robin, and I just said something about it to my niece regarding Stephen King), but I hardly ever read fiction anymore. Back in the day, I might well have read Harry Potter, but now, it's very rare for me to read fiction of any kind ... usually I do it because I've assigned a novel in a class. For example, on our trip to Europe, the books I took were a Sy Hersh book on Abu Ghraib, a book about the Gospel of Judas, The Best and the Brightest for a re-read, and Eric Alterman on presidential lying. The only fiction I took was Martian Time-Slip by PKD, because I hadn't read it lately and was thinking of assigning it this fall.

As for Camelot, that's why you're a better parent than I ever was :-). There is no way in hell I would have sat through that movie again just so my kids could see it. Heck, I'd do everything I could to discourage them from wanting to see it in the first place. (I really did suck as a parent when they were little.)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 13th, 2007 03:30 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
That may be so, but your method of parenting still worked pretty well, didn't it?


Sometimes I wonder whether the efforts we make -- me especially -- to adapt to Skylar's taste, whether in food or film, won't turn out to have been a disadvantage to her. It's like we have the developmental narrative backwards.

Then again, given how it has played out heading forwards, a change might be salutory.

Oh, and the musical of Camelot, which we've been hearing all day, is way better than the film. It's quite witty. So all is not bleak on that front.
grandissimus From: grandissimus Date: July 13th, 2007 01:14 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
May I ask a couple of questions, because to this day I can't fathom the whole Harry Potter phenomenon? It may be that I had the extreme misfortune of having been working at a bookstore when one of the volumes dropped, but to this day I believe the hype incommensurate with the amount of inventiveness or originality actually in the product.

My HP exposure has admittedly been minimal. I've never read the books and only sort half-watched a few of the movies with my father, who, to my eternal dismay, is a huge fan. What I want to know, though, is why connoisseurs of the fantasy genre are so wild about Harry. To my unschooled eye, the whole HP universe seems horribly derivative -- retreaded Dickens names and plots with some by-the-numbers whimsy thrown in. How is it that people don't see it as a mish-mash or bricolage of works that came before it?

The other thing that bothered me about HP (the few films I saw, at least) is that, with all of its dogged moral relativizing and scrupulous observation of PC punctilios, it's truly a product of its times. Do you think, then, that Rowling's creation will have the sort of legs that, say, Tolkien's more absolutist fantasy world has?

By the way, former barmaid J. K. Rowling shows absolutely no consideration for her proletarian former compeers; the publication of one of her books forces exhausted bookstore wage slaves to work late into the night indulging screeching, witchy brats and their implacable parents.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 13th, 2007 02:53 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Well, I think it's precisely because the books are derivative that they are so successful. If there's inventiveness, it's in the fusion of genres -- fantasy + Bildungsroman + institutional romance -- and the fact that readers get to see the main characters grow up. The second Star Wars trilogy -- chronologically the first -- tried to pull off the same feat but suffered A) because the lead actor wasn't appealing and B) because his didn't have a school context and peers.

You're right about the product-of-the-times thing. The new film and the book it derives from are the most blatant example of Rowling's attempt to speak to our present condition. She's New Labour through and through, minus the affection for the States and its President. We'll see whether that translates to staying power. Philip K. Dick was very much in his era and yet still resonates today.

One final point worth mentioning is the books' pedagogic value. Having read portions of them out loud to my daughter, I can testify to the fact that they are perfectly suited to the building of reading skills. Both the vocabulary and syntax get more complex as you move through the series. And Rowling makes a point of repeating certain words to the point where they become easier to master. Skylar knows the meaning of "incredulous" and many other words as a consequence. I suppose that also may be part of their appeal for children, that the books "grow up" as their readers do. For that phenomenon, I can't think of a real equivalent.
grandissimus From: grandissimus Date: July 13th, 2007 04:08 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
One more question, if you don't mind?

I'll readily grant there's value in the HP novels' helping build children's vocabularies, but isn't part of the their pedagogical aspect an outlook best described by Zizek as "neo-Gnostic?" That the world of ordinary mortals (they have some quaint name in the film which escapes me just now) is hopelessly fallen, given over to drudgery, narrow-mindedness, self-service, irresolution, alienation; and only some inborn knowledge allows one to transcend immediate circumstance, to break the deterministic grip of the quotidian?

The virtue of the Tolkien films, which C. got me to watch after much resistance on my part, is that ultimately the great virtue and worth of a humble creature prevails against an onslaught of magic and monsters. The lesson of HP seems different -- a propedeutics on how to indulge power fantasies without causing undue harm to others. I fear the latter teaches that some extraordinary ability is requisite for effecting change, an attitude dangerously undemocratic in that it establishes a sort of ontological class system of wizardly guardians and the dull unmagical herds beneath them, who in their utter ordinariness need either to be controlled or simply abandoned.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 13th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
While there's some validity to your contrast between Tolkien and Rowling, your assumptions about the latter are off. One of the biggest themes in the Harry Potter books is the discrimination that pureblood wizards exert against both other magical creatures and half-blood and "Muggle" students of magic. It's true that Harry has special powers. But these derive as much from the circumstances of his initial injury as they do from innate gifts. Of course, Muggles -- ordinary humans -- who reject the idea of magic and plod through daily life unenlightened are represented as lacking, so there's some truth to your argument. I do think it matters a lot, however, that the keys to becoming exceptional in the Harry Potter world are desire, hard work and being loved, rather than advantages one is born into. As I noted previously, Rowling is steadfastly New Labour, even if she is pretty obviously opposed to the way in which Tony Blair chose to squander his mandate.
grandissimus From: grandissimus Date: July 13th, 2007 06:06 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Well, you've set me straight on the whole thing. I have to confess the times I was compelled to watch the films I had a difficult time understanding the nature of the drama or the various intrigues. The films presume their audience's familiarity with the novels, I guess.

It's interesting that in HP's world those who reject magic are unenlightened plodders who lack some crucial something. Kinda paints literary critics in an unflattering light, wouldn't you say? :)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 13th, 2007 06:16 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Oh, not at all. The books are very pro-Humanities. It's the hard science types who are implicitly slagged. Even Germans who practice Literaturwissenschaft still depend on the presumed existence of effects that cannot be measured in millileters. We're on the side of magic, though and through.
katieengl From: katieengl Date: July 13th, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)


I felt this was the greatest harry potter movie yet, and im glad they didnt try to shy away from the darkness. Particularly when luna (actress's name?) gets smashed in the face and bleeds from the mouth, its rather a horrifying shot. Anyway, i was quiet disappointed in the lack of depth in harry's thoughts after seeing snapes memories. I feel like harry's questioning his own father's goodness and feeling sorry for snape makes snape a more human character which is going to make the next films treachery so much worse. without it, its easy for the film-only audience to think that snape is nothing more than a bad guy... I hate when a character as cool as snape loses his complexity.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 13th, 2007 02:56 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: indeed

Interesting. I actually thought the scene with Snape's memories worked well. Of course, there were many Snape fans in the audience.

You're right about the Luna Lovegood bit. They did a great job with her character. The scene with the Converse at the end -- still getting teased despite her bravery -- was perfect.
xmoonbunnyx From: xmoonbunnyx Date: July 17th, 2007 04:49 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Yay for the HP movie!

Because I am Potter obsessed and completely fanatical about the final book coming out this Saturday, I've been reading Potter everything, and I picked up a book called "Mapping the World of Harry Potter." It seems to be a bunch of academic-based essays (literary analysis and such) of the Harry Potter books, and one focused specifically on Snape -- as portrayed by Rickman. I'd recommend checking it out, as it's fascinating and fun to read.

I loved the movie, but I don't see the likeness to "Children of Men," but I disliked that film, so maybe I'm just avoiding seeing any connection.

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: July 17th, 2007 05:18 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Yay for the HP movie!

Nice to hear from you again! Our household is also thoroughly potty for Potter at the moment. We're going to the midnight thing at B&N and buying two copies so that she and I can both read at the same time. That book sounds interesting. I'll have to track it down.

I did like Children of Men a good deal. But the comparison I meant to make was only about the way that the two films present an excess of details that can't all be assimilated at once, creating a "reality effect" in the process. I'm not sure the argument -- or the analogy -- holds up, but that's what I was driving at.
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