06 January 2011

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The Harry Potter movies seem hellbent on punishing you for the first half-hour of each sitting, don't they? My fuck, each movie in the series gets some momentum once it gets into act two and the mystery is moving but it has the hardest time depicting what is ostensibly the real world. Every second -- every frame of film -- I have to spend in the company of Harry's hate circus of a family is like torture, and it's such a strange decision to make the opening act of your film so gleefully sadistic. It smacks of poor judgment but more than that, it smacks of lazy writing. There is a story here, and again it's an improvement on the previous one -- in style and tone, in pacing and performance, in aesthetics and plot -- but like every Harry Potter movie, it takes almost an hour to get there, almost an hour before I care in the slightest. For that first hour, I am so close to turning it off that the truth is, my dedication to finish the series and blog about them as I go is the only reason I didn't switch it off and find something less punishing to watch, like maybe Irreversible or Martyrs.

I have to admit it's pretty frustrating that each film follows such a predictable model -- muggle foster family, misery, hijinks, unauthorized magic, escape, diversion, train (or car) ride, up the stairs into school, a couple of pointless classes whose lessons will be shoehorned in later but feel far more interested in showing off pointless new teachers and pointless new magic spells that are all variations on the same idea (wave wand, incant some really ridiculous sounding faux-latin crap, and pow! magic), and during all this every single person seems to be talking like a 1980s video game NPC, doling out morsels of exposition that add up very quickly to whatever this year's big mystery is that Harry's not supposed to know anything about even though it directly involves him and he'll inevitably step in and save the day, and in the end Dumbledore will wander through with his benevolent smile and say that was very good Harry, like that's how he'd had it planned all along. Along the way we'll meet the new Defense of the Dark Arts instructor who will be incontrovertibly linked to the primary mystery of the story in one way or another, and Snape will show up and act sinister (but if you wait long enough, it will turn out he's acting as the good guy, so don't worry about mean old Snape), and by the end the DOTDA teacher will leave. Harry will clash with Draco in some of the most time-wasting, exhaustingly overwrought scenes that don't involve the Dursleys, presumably because the author assumes audiences wouldn't enjoy a story about high school without some half-assed obligatory bullying scenes, and then -- sigh -- there will be a Quidditch match, and eventually Harry'll start acting out, he (or he and his buddies) will sneak out or do something they're not supposed to, get caught, get away with it, talk with Hagrid, uncover some piece of the big mystery, and away they go on their adventures. Ron and Hermione will each have their chances to save Harry's neck before Harry steps up to the plate and hits the grand slam to win the -- oh wait, wrong lame sports metaphor, let's try that again -- before Harry catches the Golden Snitch and invalidates the score to that point. (Honestly, though, the puzzle of "It would take a great wizard to do what we saw happen, Harry" was solved by "I realized I'd already done it, so I just did it again, it was that easy." That's precisely resolution by grandfather-paradox, and that's precisely a crap end to what should have been a tense and moving scene.)

Don't get me wrong. I actually liked Prisoner of Azkaban pretty well -- a lot compared to the low bar set by Sorcerer's Stone and the slightly-less low bar set by Chamber of Secrets. But that enjoyment comes at a price, which is a heftier dose of suspended disbelief than I'm usually comfortable giving. The world is just so illogical, poorly thought out, and weakly motivated, with so many winking nods to the audience and so many moments of shoehorned exposition and rushed growth, it's a task to let go and say, okay, all right, show me what you've got, I'll overlook what I can. For instance, the characters of Lupin and Black are interesting, and Pettigrew too for that matter, but we went from "Sirius Black is the scariest murderer in the history of scary murderers, and he wants to kill Harry Potter" to "Sirius Black is my father's best friend and a wrongfully imprisoned man who's very gentle and kind and not the worse for wear or bitter at all despite twelve years in a scary prison" all in the space of a single David Thewlis-shaped hug, and I couldn't keep up. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the truth behind this second, all-too-easy lie to be revealed, but nope. The all-too-easy was the end of the matter. Likewise, the mystery of Lupin was telegraphed so much -- I mean, assuming the name alone wasn't a giveaway -- that I was sure there was more to it than that, that another layer was going to be revealed to the mystery of the Teacher Who Disappears Every Full Moon And Makes Other Teachers Paranoid About Werewolves, but nope -- thats it. He's just a werewolf. And he's "used to" the shitty treatment he receives, end of story, so even if it's a tiny bit sad we shouldn't dwell on it -- that's the way the world works.

Part of the thing with the story here is it's rather guileless, and I think this plays into my previous comments that the world is surprisingly unimaginative and blandly conceived. Quidditch isn't the only example of a system that could only be conceived by a muggle. A good writer comes up with a neat idea and writes it out completely and is pleased with that; a great writer comes up with a neat idea and then finds a way outside that idea, looks at it from every angle, and has neat ideas about that neat idea. Think of The Minority Report or Asimov's Laws of Robotics (examples that came up earlier today in a conversation with my friend Rex) -- both show us concrete systems, rules of governing the fictional world (precog crime units; laws of robotics) built on conceits of the story (precognitive mutants; sentient robots), but neither story just shows you this world and calls it done. Both then challenge their own systems from a variety of angles and come up with pleasing stories that show imagination and cunning. In the world of Harry Potter, it is sufficient that magic wands and funny words make things happen; the author felt no need to explore these concepts any deeper than that. When Harry goes to a boarding house -- or whatever the hell he goes to, after running away from home and before getting on the train -- it occured to me that, following the triple-decker bus doing it's "squeeze" routine, it would have been really cool to see the hostel/hotel as a series of essentially plywood walls with doors, almost like a maze and less like a corridor, but every door opened into a large, comfortable room -- compression of space within each wall, via magic. That would have been cool. What they had instead were kids pouring tea from a floating teapot (yawn) or waving their hand to make the spoon twirl in their cups on their own (double yawn). There's no imagination applied to the potential of the world Rowling has created, and the world she's created has pretty boundless potential. In a world so amazing, why are things so literal at all? If you can manipulate reality and defy physics, why are you content to show us the "wonder" of a floating teapot?

But I am caught in a critical digression it's hard to escape. Despite everything, this movie worked a good deal better than the others. It's just a kid's movie after all, and if the motivations are more obvious or the twists more predictable, well, remember that no matter how many adults love it it was written for thirteen-year-olds. The guilelessness is appropriate, the directness of the characters, even to an extent the moral black-and-whiteness of it, it does all work for the demographic age we're writing for here. In fact, by that standard, the unorthodox storytelling and grandfather-paradoxic overlap (though done too bluntly and too blasé for my tastes, not to mention just rewarming stale Back to the Future II plot devices) could be considered kind of bold and daring. That the monstrous villain is so readily a friend and that the rat (which, by the way: the rat? okay, whatever... I'll admit: that twist wasn't predictable, but this time I don't mean that as a good thing -- non sequitur storytelling is just another form of deus ex machina, after all) was the real villain in disguise, and that even he was "kind of" innocent because Voldemort is a hard guy to say no to, and the truth is this movie actually has no villain -- all that's different from your average adventure tale for tweens. The villain is of course the looming shadow of the omnipresent never-there Voldemort, but the only real antagonist in Azkaban is rumor, hearsay, and committee. The Hippogriff and Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew/Scabbers and Professor Lupin are all under fire from the same nameless, faceless foe -- the rules or laws that do not always have the facts right but force men to come to a judgment anyway. (Hey, an actual theme that ties together all the action throughout and actually affects the primary and secondary storylines impactfully? My, we have come a long way!)

In a way I wish the Harry Potter movies hadn't been made when and how they were. If the first one was being made today, with the same cast and art design and all that, it might have been made into an HBO or AMC style television series, one where separate episodes could explore the worlds and rules and systems, and characters could be given their proper due, and the overarching mysteries could be given enough time and attention to really have impact. The plotholes or inconsistencies could be ironed out, much like when we adapt Lord of the Rings or Narnia, or Philip K. Dick, or Roald Dahl, or anything ever from one format to another. As is, though, it feels weirdly disjointed, its episodic structure feels more stilted and unsatisfying. In each film we meet a couple of new teachers -- usually exactly one ringer (always obvious; also maybe always a woman? in 2 and 3 it was) and exactly one who ties into the main story. Our "regulars" like McGonnagal and Snape sometimes feel like walk-ons. (I've been watching a lot of 90s Star Trek lately, and occasionally Geordi La Forge will be in a scene for no reason, and he'll have one line that could have been said by anybody, and you realize that this is probably a contractual thing, to make sure everybody has at least one line and picks up a paycheck that week, even if the story doesn't need them; anyway, McGonnagal here and Snape in the last one kind of felt like that to me.) It'd be nice to give the world some breathing space, but it would require someone with stronger skills than Rowling, if I may dare say, to whip the world into a better kind of shape.

Anyway I daydream because I think it'd be a worthwhile endeavor. I see what people like about these, and each one is a significant step up from the last (though I'm warned not to get my hopes up for the 4th? seems like every film in the series needs the apologies and caveats of someone or other -- not a great sign), but I just can't as easily overlook a lot of the silliness and laziness of both plotting and world-building as my friends can, it seems.

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