Monday, November 29, 2010

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows/Warner Bros.)
       Those who have not read the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or missed the last one or more Harry Potter films, or who have been dwelling in a cave in Siberia for the past decade, should be assured that they won’t have the vaguest idea of what is happening in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. To the basically uninitiated, the film will look like it is about a boy with glasses--for some reason, a real VIP-- whose friends run around with him everywhere flailing wands like mad men when they aren’t bickering at each other, hurriedly encountering so many mustached, long haired, and inhuman characters that it is impossible to tell who are their friends and who are their enemies, all the while being stalked by a cult of goth scenesters and an arrogant biker gang. To the initiated, the film will either fulfill the same obligations as the book, or it won’t.
            Literally speaking, it doesn’t. This is only part one of the mammoth conclusion to J.K Rowling’s series, so the film ends as suddenly as it begins. The first thing we see is a pair or ghoulish eyes, the last thing we see is some blaring flash of wizard-light. Squished—and oh, so tightly--- between these two images is the story of how Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emily Watson) careen through a magical version of England, being chased by Lord Voldemort and his whole host of Evil, trying to outwit the dark lord with various trickery, but not quite succeeding. Voldemort has taken over, so Wizards (Harry Potter and all his chums with wands) and Muggles (us regular schmoes) are not allowed to live side by side. Muggles and half-bloods must be killed and dark magic must prevail. Not one scene of all this high pursuit takes place at the school, Hogwarts; it’s too dangerous to go back there, although this is not made clear in the film. It leaves the film with a strong sense of anxiety for both the audience and the characters. No time for them to camp out in the highlands any longer, they better run for the woods. No time for us to camp our eyes on the remarkable sets, costumes, or Helena Bonham-Carter’s gleefully stylized performance; we’ve got part two to see, next summer.
(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows/Warner Bros.)

            All this anxiety is acceptable in and of itself; the film is about the various misgivings, conflicts and anxieties that almost tear Harry and his friends apart. But the film is all too ready to ignore the real elephant in its room, which is most certainly not Voldemort. It’s the “Muggle” world, or reality as we might call it. The first several Harry Potter installments benefited from juxtaposing Harry’s drab home life with the take-off-the-blindfold thrill of the world of Hogwarts. From there on, it steadily turned in to a body of work that hated reality with vitriol. Although this film is ostensibly about how the harmony between Wizards and Muggles is being disrupted, it is unclear where Rowling’s and the filmmaker’s sympathies really lie. The scenes on the streets of present-day London feel like a relief to the regular viewer; to Harry and his friends, they are an opportunity to smash up a café or drive recklessly through a tunnel. Then it’s back to this weird alternate reality, never entirely defined, where the characters feel more at home, pointing sticks and screaming Latin gibberish. There is none of the juxtaposition with the world we know; that of cars that sometimes break down and animals that don’t say a word, of total exposure and daydreaming. Aside from a cheap connotation of totalitarian regimes, there is no concrete metaphor for us in this other world. There is no grey area between right and wrong. The exploits of Harry and co. have become so divorced from being even a mirror of reality that each character has come to look as though they are in on a scheme the rest of us just don’t get. Harry and Voldemort may as well be on the same side.
        Of course, when a fictional world comes to resemble a scheme rather than a believable place, there is something poisonous about the imagination that spawned it. So without explicitly implicating Ms. Rowling—this is her creation per se, but she didn’t make the film—let’s place the blame on a whole strand of movie culture. At times, this film resembles The Dark Knight, other times Inception; there are dashes of The Matrix and obvious similarities to The Lord of the Rings. The film has the flight and feel of every other gadillion-dollar grossing franchise in recent memory, each one a fantasy or sci-fi spectacle. Harry Potter, as an idea, no longer looks like a kid who flies around on a broom and learns of his true abilities as a wizard. He looks like an anxious compendium of pop, now bursting at the seams. There are still likeable scenes and images in this film, including one animated segment that slows down, takes a breath, and creates a world far more mysterious than any shot surrounding it. But the films may be lost to cultural memory except as something that inspired a lot of fanaticism and made a lot of money. They are technically stunning, but have been anxiously losing their true wizardry almost since birth.
(Emily Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint/