Apr 112019
 

Columbus’s first two films offer a realist portrait of a magical school. Cuarón’s film offers a magical portrait, both gothic and expressionistic, and that makes all the difference.

The cost of the elevation in style is paid in plot, which is here reduced to something like a sketch that’s so vague I wonder what someone who didn’t have the original novel in their head would make of the thing. But ultimately, the source novels are so densely plotted cuts were inevitable. At least here they are made in the service of something other than distribution constraints.

However beautiful this film, it marks the point in the series where my experience of the novels and their adaptations diverge. The choices this movie makes don’t coincide with my narrative interests. So I wound up slightly annoyed with what was and wasn’t shown and deeply annoyed with how this affects our sense of the characters and their relationships. (Lupin is better than this!)

This annoyance is a problem I’m certain is only going to get worse as I work through the remaining films.

Apr 112019
 

So after finishing the books, I decided to watch the Harry Potter movies. They’re fine but not interesting enough for me to log one by one. If I tried, I’d just run out of things to say.

As far as the first two movies go, they do a great job of showing the stories and characters in live action, and the choices they make address limitations of space and the absence of discursive narration. They are also very much movies for children and are satisfied with capturing the most basic sense of the excitement of going to school to learn magic. (School would be awesome if we were learning magic!) All of this is fine, but I’ll never need to see either of them again.

One thing has been settled though: as I was reading the series I kept wondering how many of the movies I’d seen, and now I know I had only ever seen the first. All the images I had in my head of the others came from the trailers.

Apr 112019
 

The Half-Blood Prince ended in tragedy and the first full-scale battle in the war that’s been brewing since The Goblet of Fire. This book picks up with a brilliant set piece: an elaborate plan aiming to move Harry to safety at the exact moment his protections there fail and he is able finally to move secretly because of his age. The chase that ensues is frightening and exciting. The patronus that drops from the sky only a few chapters later, interrupting a wedding and sending Harry, Hermione, and Ron into hiding sets the pace (breakneck) for the double quest that will follow: find the horcuxes and find the hallows.

Because it’s the final book, I was ready to make judgments as I read and they came fast and fiercely. I don’t like Ron: he’s a brat and the fact he turns out okay is because his family is great and that sticks. I also find it very hard to like Harry: he pouts and is too quick to judge and I kept feeling like he’s a bit like a best-case-scenario jock who could easily go wrong. What saves him is that he loves his friends and tries (when he’s not pouting) to do right by them, even when it costs him dearly. Hermione is my hero and I love her through and through. Ron should count his lucky stars she even puts up with him, much less loves him.

Snape is a genuinely noble and tragic figure, damaged by the angry emotions and choices of youth, marked by them (literally and figuratively), but strong enough to see those choices through to the end, and he saves the day because of it. Dobly, the free elf, risks everything to save the boy who set him free, dying for it, but also saving the day. And then there are Neville and Luna, my two favorite of the students at Hogwarts: when Neville, in an echo of the Chamber of Secrets pulls the sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat and destroys the final horcrux—like Snape and like Dolby, saving the day—my heart sang.

So now the series is done, and I feel like Harry in the final chapter: older and apart and looking back on a past time. (Incidentally, the bit-like-a-jock Harry didn’t go wrong, he went bourgeois-boring. Which is fine. But still, surprising.)

All said, it’s a genuinely great series of books and I’m really happy to have read it simply for the pleasure of it. But I’m also glad because I’ve discovered that most of my students have read them as well and they love them and so we now share a wealth of references and analogies that we can use to discuss and make sense of things in class. And most importantly, because my students read the books as kids, references to them don’t read as “teacher trying (and necessarily failing) to be cool.” They are simply a shared, fun and useful reference allowing better communication.

Apr 082019
 

Ozon is a filmmaker I’ve followed consistently if not carefully for twenty years. So I was surprised to see him making a film about the sexual abuses of catholic priests. There’s so much opportunity for audiences to confuse homosexuality and pedophilia that I was surprised to see him wandering into the morass. And yet, he’s made his film, and I’ve seen it, and despite myself, I think it’s quite extraordinary.

Why does it work? Because he’s brought to bear every single aspect of his previous filmmaking in order to make it work. This is a film made by a melodramatist, who uses his sensitivity to form and to the moral implications of form to construct a non-melodramatic account of a group of victims’ discovery of the possibility of and their decision to pursue political-legal action. It is a film made by a sexually playful and campy gay man, who shows the temptation and the fall of a priest who could have loomed as a queer monster but who instead appears in his final scenes to be a disturbed man, an ill man who has a same-sex (rather than heterosex) object of desire. It is a film made by an actors’ director who is working with artists cast exactly into the correct roles.

The film is long. It is troubling. It is even difficult. But most of all, it is moving.

Apr 082019
 

A pure romantic comedy and gloriously, wonderfully done. Pure pleasure and without guilt.

Michelle Yeoh is, as per convention, rock solid and compelling. And Henry Golding is like ice cream. Double-scoop please.

Which means that Ms. Rachel Cho can get out of my way, or she can get cut. (And no, you do not want to test me Miss Ms. … )

Apr 082019
 

This book is Snape’s and Dumbledore’s, and it ends like it began: with an exchange of words that do not mean what they seem to mean, but only exactly what they say. In both cases, the novel invites us to misunderstand Snape’s meaning and intentions, and to a large extent, we don’t really have any choice. The narrative, which is Harry’s, takes the apparent meaning as real, and if we refuse it, it’s from instinct and from faith in the integrity of an underdog.

In the long stretch between Snape’s two damnations, Harry stumbles along damaged and, yes, angry, although less so than in the previous book in the series. If in that book growing up meant that Harry needed to discover and to accept that things would not work out the way he wished regardless of his feelings, in this book, it requires he learn that his enemies are people rather than monsters, a simple, fundamental and difficult lesson. The device Rowlings contrives for permitting this discovery—and for motivating extended, digressive flashbacks—is the pensieve, a bowl for collecting and reviewing memories that immediately became one of my favorite magical objects of all times ever.

I’m writing this post after finishing The Deathly Hallows, and so, I can say without question that the Half-Blood Prince—the book but also the enigmatic off-stage Snapes—has won my heart. Here the dangerous, mysterious adult world that first came knocking on the door of Harry’s childhood in The Goblet of Fire and then came crashing through it in The Order of the Phoenix, takes on a life of its own, independent of the narrative we’ve been reading, and sets Harry’s story into perspective, revealing its purposes and limits. Here, Dumbledore has a story. Snape has a story. Voldemort has a story. And we discover for the first time that the actual tragedy of the series—and yes, the intersecting stories of these men, especially when viewed from the perspective of the boy caught at their crossroads, is indeed tragic—is that the men’s stories cannot be reconciled, cannot be resolved, and so they cannot permit anything like a happy ending to emerge. At most, we can hope for resolution.

This is the hole the final book must get out of without being able to get out of it without failing.

Apr 052019
 

Unexpectedly, incredibly, this film has jumped to the top rungs of my informal list of favorite superhero movies. Visually and narratively, there’s no predicting what comes next. It’s insane. Also everyone is swimming all the time. And Aquaman talks to the fish. Patrick Wilson is present.

In short, this film is hitting a lot of buttons I didn’t realize I had but that, now that they’re activated and flashing green, I cannot deny.

I’ll be watching this one again.

Mar 302019
 

A discursive film communicating expressionistically through image, script, montage and performance. What emerges is a portrait of the artist as heroic seer, as champion of the beautiful ordinary. Obviously this makes him appear—and perhaps become—mad and a saint.

None of this is wrong.

Mar 302019
 

Harry and his friends grow up and become part of a larger world’s story in the way they had not been up to this point. The shock of this damages Harry, and he’s angry and difficult to be around this book. Other characters step to the foreground, especially Hermione, my favorite of the “Golden Three.” Of the others, I love Neville, and I keep rooting for Snape, even though he makes it very hard. (But then, Harry makes it hard as well, so I can make the effort for Snape.) Ron continually gets on my nerves.

The plot here is dark and menacing and operating on a level larger than Dumbledore’s Army seems to understand or to be able to handle. I read in constant fear of discovering who would be next to die, hoping all the while that it would not be Neville. (Please not Neville. Please.) By the final scenes in the Ministry I was reading fast enough to feel my eyes ache from the strain. The words were gone and I was there. It was that good.

Still, reading the book exacted an emotional toll. I work with Dolores Umbridge, and there were days I could only read a few chapters before I had to put the book down and do something else. I’m not a fiction writer in part because I can’t imagine, understand or bear evil in the everyday. I’ve tried. And so petty meanness and casual sadism catch me unaware over and over and hit me with a kind of fresh hurt that I’ve never been able to grow numb to. So the horror of finding it here in Hogwarts was a shock over and over again and it gave me nightmares if I read too much at a time.