Thursday, September 12, 2013

Blast from the Past: Part 3

Further to reprints of my editorials for the Harry Potter fan site MuggleNet, here is another stab at making the Book Trolley a multi-media experience. Again, italics in the original have been omitted because there are so many of them that it would take ages to put them back in.
Films and Videos to Watch While Waiting for HP4 (3/13/2005)

Some of you may be familiar with the Book Trolley, whose main mission is to suggest good books for you to enjoy while you wait for the next Harry Potter book. But, being almost as much of a movie buff as a book lover, I thought: Why shouldn’t I also suggest a list of movies that you should try while you impatiently await the next Harry Potter film?

There’s no reason why not. So here goes...

Part 1: Magical Movies for Kids

The most obvious films, to console Harry Potter fans in their agony of anticipation, are the type of films that contain magic and appeal to younger viewers. Here are the top twelve that come to my mind:

1) Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, which is, hands down, my favorite feature-length animation from the Mouse. Based on the first part of T. H. White’s retelling of the King Arthur legend, it features an adorable little boy named the Wart, who lives in Medieval England, and whose fondest dream is to be a page to a real knight. A wizard named Merlin has other things in store for him. Merlin becomes the boy’s tutor, teaching him a variety of lessons by turning the Wart into different kinds of animals. The movie also features some delightful songs, a wizard duel, and some moments of both heartwarming tenderness and side-splitting hilarity. Plus, you can’t help but love the Wart! (Side note: I should have mentioned the Higitus Figitus method in my Burrow article on Moving Magic.)

2) The other Disney movie that I have deigned to buy on DVD—so sue me, they’re expensive!—is The Black Cauldron, based loosely on the first two or three books in Lloyd Alexander’s beloved Prydain Chronicles. I must admit that some of it isn’t the way I imagined it when I read the books. I particularly didn’t like the way Gurgi was portrayed. But it is a breathtaking movie nevertheless, with romance, humor, menace, and mystery, starting with a pig that can tell the future, and involving a minstrel whose harp busts a string every time he fibs, a spoiled princess, a farm boy who wants to be a hero, and a villain that gives Skeletor nightmares. Not for nothing was this the first Disney animated feature to earn a PG rating!

3) The Neverending Story, once again based on a favorite book of mine, though I saw this movie loooooong before I read the book. I think the sequel, Neverending Story 2, is based on a part of the book that the first movie does not cover. These are live-action movies, and their special effects are somewhat dated now, but I think they still have a lot going for them—luck dragons, magic rings, youthful heroes, books that the reader becomes a part of (Tom Riddle’s diary, anyone?), and for you LOTR fans, a well-known theme song by Annie Lennox.

4) The Wizard of Oz, a 1939 classic that still looks new. I must confess, the flying monkeys scared me when I was very little. Later on, though, I loved this movie, and the book it was based on. A tornado sweeps young Dorothy Gale from her gray, Kansas farm to the vibrant, colorful land of Oz. Follow Dorothy and her friends--the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man--down the yellow-brick road to the Emerald City, so that she can destroy the wicked witch, meet the mighty wizard, and prove that “there’s no place like home.”

5) Mouse Hunt. OK, I’ll admit, the connection to magic is very thin. But there is a scene in which Nathan Lane and Lee Evans listen to a tape of Christopher Walken saying to a mouse, “Put that down! That tickles!” And Nathan Lane says, “I don’t think we’re dealing with an ordinary mouse.” Only if you can accept the idea of magic (at least for the duration of a movie), can you imagine the wonderful possibilities of what that mouse was doing. This modern-day slapstick from the director of the celebrated Budweiser frog commercials is breathtakingly funny. Sometimes laughter is the best magic of all.

6) The Iron Giant. Since I’m already stretching the definition of “magic in movies,” I can’t let this one slip by. This is an old-school, cell-animated feature from Warner Bros. and the director of the recent, deservedly Oscar-winning movie The Incredibles. It is the story of a twenty-foot-tall, indestructible robot from outer space, who crash-lands off the coast of Maine in the 1950’s. He soon befriends a very special little boy named Hogarth Hughes, who teaches him that “you choose what you become.” The giant’s choice becomes a matter of survival for the whole planet, in a very, very touching story featuring the voices of Vin Diesel, Jennifer Aniston, and Harry Connick, Jr.

7) A Series of Unfortunate Events. You already saw this one, didn’t you? Well, wait till it comes out on video. Then see it again!

8) Lilo and Stitch. I just recently saw this movie on cable TV. I think it came from Disney, but if that’s the case, I am amazed. Disney usually doesn’t do anything quite so edgy, weird, and full of character. Set somewhere in Hawaii, it depicts a tough, lonely little girl being raised by her older sister, and who adopts as her pet a “dog” that turns out to be a destroying machine escaped from another planet. How Lilo converts the little menace into a true member of her family, and averts a major interplanetary incident, comes about at the end of a wild, funny, scary, and just plain bizarre adventure which should apppeal to fans of both Disney animation and animé.

9) Holes. Innocent boy gets convicted of a crime he didn’t commit (stealing athletic shoes). Gets sent to a juvenile prison / boys’ camp in the Texas desert, where each boy is required to dig a hole in a dried lake-bed, five feet deep and five feet around, every day. Gets caught up in a dangerous adventure that spans several generations, including a gypsy woman’s curse in the “old country,” a female outlaw in the “old west,” a buried treasure, and a date with destiny. A very powerful story, starring an impressive cast that includes Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, and Henry Winkler.

10) Matilda. Directed by Danny De Vito, and featuring Pam “Aunt Marge” Ferris as the terrible Trunchbull, this is one of my favorite all-time movies, and it’s based on a book by one of my favorite authors, Roald Dahl. Matilda is a special girl who learns to make things happen by the power of her mind. This is an ability she will need badly, as she is forced to attend a horrible school where the headmistress likes to squish children.

11) Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. While I’m mentioning Roald Dahl, how can I forget this masterpiece musical comedy/fantasy, based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The most amazing thing about it is that the whole movie was made as a gimmick to promote a candy bar that isn’t even made any more. Yet the movie remains a classic, in large part because of the masterpiece performance of Gene Wilder as Willie Wonka. I hear tell that Tim Burton is remaking this film, with Johnny Depp in the Wonka role. That might be interesting to see, but Johnny Depp will never replace Gene Wilder!

12) Chicken Run. Magic shmagic, this is just a hilarious send-up of The Great Escape, in the form of a clay-mation film about chickens plotting to escape from a poultry farm before the farmer’s wife turns them all into pies. HP fans will thrill to vocal performances by the actors who play Peter Pettigrew and Rita Skeeter.

Part 2: Special Effects Extravaganzas for the Whole Family

Now that I’ve unloaded my dozen favorite children’s films, here are my top ten picks from the “Eye Candy” department. And by the way, I’m not including LOTR on this list because it is so OBVIOUS. You will watch the trilogy some time this year, won’t you?

1) Fifth Element. Critics panned it, and the box office didn’t treat this movie very well either, but I think it is becoming a cult classic. You have to understand that it’s a science fiction farce, a kind of movie that has not been made before. It is also a brilliant visual achievement, with detailed and panoramic views of our world (and others) a thousand years in the future—an age when taxis fly through the sky, opera singers have blue skin, and the ultimate evil in the universe is trying to end everything. The cast includes LOTR veteran Ian “Bilbo Baggins” Holm, our own Gary “Sirius Black” Oldman, Milla Jovovich, and of course, Bruce Willis.

2) Star Wars and/or Star Trek. Take your pick. Or better yet, watch both series of movies. The Star Wars movies get visually more and more amazing, and they are packed with thrills, though after seeing them I usually find that I can’t describe one thing that happened (plot-wise). The Star Trek movies are very uneven; I have heard a rumor of an “odd-numbered Star Trek movie curse” which, based on what I have seen, is pretty believable. I would begin by avoiding Star Trek: The Motion Picture because it is nothing BUT a “special effects extravaganza,” with no plot whatsoever. But Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has always been my favorite one.

3) Independence Day / Stargate / The Day After Tomorrow. Three movies by Roland Emmerich that explore the fantasy possibilities of the future (alien visitors), the past (ancient Egypt), and the present (ecological disaster). Loaded with eye-popping images, thrilling action, romance, tragedy, flag-waving patriotism AND subversive themes of distrusting the government, not to mention scenes of national treasures being blown up, each one had audiences cheering and applauding at some point. So I think they’ll be good for 3 evenings of fun, at least.

4) The Matrix trilogy and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I group these films together, not because they are officially connected in any way, but only because they are both epoch-making film achievements. From the moment “Trinity” high-kicks her way out of a room full of policemen in the first Matrix movie, until Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow float by an island full of dinosaurs at the end of Sky Captain, they reinvented the whole craft of making movies in a visually stunning way.

5) Anything animated by Pixar studios, from Toy Story to Monsters, Inc. and the aforementioned The Incredibles. These are truly adorable movies, and each one is an explosive leap forward for the quality of computer animation. Support them and, in effect, you are supporting the future development of special effects in the Harry Potter movies.

6) The Mask with Jim Carrey. The movie abounded in special effects, but that’s only the half of it. Jim Carrey’s face is a special effect. I think this is the movie that did the most to take advantage of that fact.

7) The Red Violin. What on earth am I saying? This isn’t a special effects movie; it’s a music video for the work of composer John Corigliano, featuring artsy-fartsy characters, superstition, sex, death, and a lot of subtitles (with dialogue taking place in English, French, German, Chinese, and Italian). But it is a movie of amazing beauty, both for the eyes and the ears, and it is so eerie, so full of forboding, so romantic, so tremendously moving, that (as if by magic) you forget that you are reading subtitles and believe that you understand every word in whatever language.

8) Any Marvel Comics movie, going back as far as you like. What they lack in story depth, they make up in thrilling visual effects.

9) Any M. Night Shyamalan movie. Why? They don’t have a lot of effects! Well, that’s why. I can’t think of a better filmmaker, working today, to use as an example of the awesome impact that can be achieved without loads of special efffects. Study him to learn what the Harry Potter filmmakers are going about as they obsess over every detail of lighting, make-up, costume, scenery, and photography.

10) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing, as particular examples of how a movie can stink, even when it has the best special effects—because the story isn’t there to back them up. And thus you will learn to be more thankful than ever that the genius of J. K. Rowling is behind the next Harry Potter movie!

I recently mentioned this old whimsy of mine in a duplex review of two books about the religious underpinnings of the Harry Potter series. Somehow it also made it into an issue of LOGIA, a journal of Lutheran theology.
Harry Potter and the Documentary Hypothesis (7/4/2005)

I would be the last person in the world to suggest there can be too much of a good thing -- such as enjoying every page of Harry Potter over and over and over! And when there are still so many questions to be answered, I say: speculate, speculate, speculate! But where does entertainment end and obsession begin? Where does reverent analysis become absurd? Take for example, this facetious essay, showing what might happen -- way, way in the future -- if we start taking Harry's world so seriously that it stops being fun!

* * *

Until recently, believers had always taken for granted that the entire Harry Potter series was written by a single author, whose name was actually J.K. Rowling. Admittedly there have been some dissenting views, but they were never tolerated for long. In the Year of Harry Potter 586, for example, Lothar of Noodlechop was expelled from the 600th annual Accio Debauchio held in Chicago, after Lothar refused to back down from his doctrine that J.K. Rowling was actually the pen name of the Prince of Wales. And in YHP 712, a disciple who called herself DorcasMeadowes8943385 was required to make a pilgrimage to Edinburgh with a broomstick lashed across her shoulders, after teaching that the Seven Books of Rowling were not meant to be interpreted as literal history. It is only in these more open-minded times that the right to ask such questions, without being flogged in public, has been recognized.

Scholars are generally agreed that the door to “critical scholarship” was opened by Dr. Les Moore’s seminal book, Harry Potter and the Oral Tradition. Published in YHP 1127, and revised the following year, Moore’s treatise argued that there was not actually a historical person named J.K. Rowling -- or at least, that she was not one person, but several people who lived at different times in the early centuries YHP. The effect on the Harry Potter community was explosive! But since people were reading the books with more interest than ever, the Webmasters were hesitant to condemn this new thought.

Building on Moore’s work, Dr. Augusta Blowhard published Unfogging the Past: or, Will the Real JKR Stand Up? in 1129. Blowhard’s chief contribution was to distinguish between the early pre-redaction sources "Y" and "H." In Blowhard’s view, the fact that Voldemort was sometimes called one, and sometimes the other, was compelling evidence that the work of two different authors, or oral traditions, was combined together at an early stage in the development of the Harry Potter canon. Source "Y" was responsible for all the times Voldemort was called "You-Know-Who," and was therefore preoccupied with the concept of secret knowledge and arcane magic. For example, the Mirror of Erised and the whole idea of the Fidelius Charm were supposed to have come from "Y." "H," on the other hand, uniformly applied the title "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named," and was responsible for the thread of prohibitions and taboos throughout the series, such as Trelawney’s distress at having thirteen people sit down at one table, and Hermione’s nagging against Harry breaking into Umbridge’s office.

Further scholarship found that Blowhard’s distinctions were not sufficient to explain all of the diverse attitudes and views woven into the Harry Potter tapestry. Dr. Edmund Skink in 1130, and independently Dr. Blodwen Filibuster in 1131, both posited a third “T” source, explaining the occurences of the name “Tom Riddle” in reference to Voldemort. This source was held responsible for all of the phenomenological explanations for the things that, elsewhere in the canon, were simply written off as “magic.” For example, the “T” source was the one Skink and Filibuster held responsible for all the long explanations that Dumbledore delivered at the end of each book, a rationalizing trait represented by calling Voldemort by his all-too-human birth name, Tom (which, indeed, is what Dumbledore calls him). However, Skink and Filibuster disagreed on whether T came from an earlier or a later date, in relation to Y and H.

In 1134, the Rev. Uriah Schmaltz produced his 11-volume landmark book, The Life of Harry Potter, which (among other things) made an invaluable distinction between the redactor THY and a subsequent traditor named D, whose references to Voldemort as the “Dark Lord” represented a shift in the early community’s attitude, away from the liberal, egalitarian views that typified the early community, toward a more centralized authority. At that stage of redaction, the positive aspects of the Ministry of Magic were inserted, to soften the negative image portrayed by the earlier contributor. Examples of D’s influence include the sympathetic portrait of Cornelius Fudge in Prisoner of Azkaban, and the character of the Aurors such as Kingsley Shacklebolt. Schmaltz also suggested that references to McGonagall as “stern but fair” were also evidence of a D source. It was therefore a review of Schmaltz’s work by Honorius Bigglesconk in Muggle Quarterly that coined the fateful name of the “YTHD Hypothesis.”

The name has stuck ever since, though the theory’s development did not stop there. In 1137, Dr. Hieronymus Chalk spotted the likelihood of an M source (named after the “Morsmordere” incantation that conjured the Dark Mark), which added the Death Eaters and their symbol at a much later date than Y, T, and H. The M source seemed to have a fixation on food; all references, for instance, to treacle tarts, Yorkshire pudding, and even pumpkin pasties had to have dated from later than the so-called “proto-canon,” which dated from a time in the mid-21st century when history records a major, worldwide dieting craze, the results of which included YHP 238’s Miss U.S.A. being the first winner to starve to death during her reign. Chalk’s very persuasive conclusion was that the M source must have been added to the canon during a second redaction by the “early mid-community” of the late 200s, when a reaction against the “twiggy look” had swung society so far in the other direction that most countries offered a tax deduction for “percent body fat.”

Then there was Dr. Lowell Howell’s moving dissertation of 1138, titled Who Was Harry Potter, After All? Not only was it a deep personal expression of the end of one phase of Harry Potter fandom giving way to the beginning of another, but it also explained that both the M source and the D source were subsequent to an S source (as in “Shipping”), which fulfilled the desires of the more hormonal members of the reading community by giving them a reason to flame each other in the forums without intruding upon the orthodoxy required by the Webmaster authorities. Ron and Hermione’s internecine bickering was dated, according to Howell’s 1139 treatise But Who Was He Really?, to the period during the early 300s (YHP) when Uruguay conquered and occupied Europe after their First Lady fell out with the Queen of Denmark over whether or not Hermione was good enough for [***Deleted for spoiler reasons***].

And now, most recently, we read in the Journal of Redaction Criticism, Vol. 77, No. 8, Dr. Lingenberry Dworak’s sniping critique of the whole movement titled, “YTHDM, LMNOP, LSMFT, and ABCBBD: Why the Documentary Hypothesis is a Load of Bollocks.” With his characteristic lack of charm, Dworak exposed some areas of the theory that do, in all honesty, need some touching up, but in the process he also added not one, but two new sources to the alphabet soup: B (the Buckbeak Source, which at a surprisingly late stage in the development of Harry Potter introduced the whole thread about magical creatures and respect for all living things, including Hermione’s enthusiasm over S.P.E.W.) and Q (a “sayings source” that introduced such memorable epigrams as “To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure,” and, “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”) This will, we are sure, provide sufficient fodder for another generation’s worth of scholarly wrangling and re-envisioning of the authorship of Harry Potter.

How does this effect the way we read the stories written by J.K. Rowling -- or rather, by any number of people who, over the centuries, contributed their part to the gathering of the Written Tradition? Well, I suppose it stimulates each of us to try to read back through all the layers of tradition and find, each in his or her own way, the real Harry Potter (if he actually existed at all) and what he means to us. According to Dr. Lyman Coquenutt, in his dissertation Why I Still Believe In Harry Potter Anyway from the year 1136, it could be as simple as realizing that the real Harry Potter was the World War I soldier whose gravestone now resides in the Harry Potter Cathedral in Edinburgh, and that he was really no more than a decent young man who, up to a certain point, inspired his fellow soldiers by his indestructible courage and cheerfulness. Or it could be, rather, as I see it today: that he was just a boy out of someone’s imagination, and we needed him to take us (all too briefly) out of our day-to-day frustrations and cares.

More in-depth Potter analysis...
Pure Evil: Pure-Blood Supremacists and the Annihilation of Magic (11/3/2005)

Annihilation. More than just game-speak for really wicked pwnage...more than a melodramatic word for killing people and breaking things...the word means total, complete, and utter destruction. It means being SO destroyed that there aren’t even any little bits to sweep up and dump into the ash-bin. It means being reduced to absolutely NOTHING.

When you talk about the annihilation of something clearly-defined and obnoxious, such as a batch of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or the U.S. Tax Code, or the symphonic works of Alexander Scriabin, the idea of reducing it to exactly zero doesn'’t seem so bad. The effects of their total elimination would be limited in scope, perhaps even an improvement. But when you’re talking about wiping out a whole species, or a world, or a universe, annihilation is the ultimate disaster. And I mean ULTIMATE. Most disasters can be repaired, somewhat. The survivors can pick up the pieces and try to put them back together. But annihilation means NO survivors. Everything -- gone.

Who would want that? It’s hard to imagine such a perverted will. But if you can imagine it -- and worse, if you encounter it -- you have to admit that the will to wreak annihilation on a world is the very definition of PURE EVIL.

Hey, I’m not making this up. This is the way most of our favorite authors portray evil. When they’re not trying to abolish death (for themselves, at the expense of anyone and everyone else), they are trying to abolish life. That is the goal of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. That’s what the Lone Power is after in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards novels. That’s the creed that Iago professed, in Arrigo Boito’'s libretto for Verdi’s Otello. The greatest monsters of human history practiced annihilation on the kinds of people they didn'’t like. The darkest nightmares of ancient myth and medieval legend craved nothing but the extinction of others. Even the devil of Christian belief is a spirit that aims to turn God’s creatio ex nihilo around and send it back to nihil. Nothingness. Destruction.

If you view the nature of Evil from this angle, then it doesn'’t take much to prove that the Pure-Blood Supremacy of many wizards and witches in Harry Potter’s world is a manifestation of pure evil. The great irony, or perhaps the great deception, of it is that the people who believe in Pure-Blood Supremacy think their way is the only way for magic to survive. But actually, in the classic way of pure evil, their Pure-Blood Supremacy is a path to annihilation. Annihilation of the magic world.

The first reason for this is one that Ron Weasley pointed out long ago. Pure-Blood Supremacy is ridiculous because, if it weren’'t for half-bloods and Muggleborn wizards and witches, magic would have gone extinct long ago. There isn’t a witch or wizard alive today who is more than a half-blood, remember.

When you consider what happens to those few strains of really pure blood (like the "House of Gaunt" in Half-Blood Prince) you can see another reason, besides the fact that magic doesn’t seem to stay put in the “proper” bloodlines. Namely, to make sure your bloodline is absolutely pure, you have to breed in smaller and smaller circles until you become a bunch of over-bred freaks like old Marvolo and his kin. Tell me THAT is supposed to promote the future of magic, and I’ll tell you about an island for sale off the coast of Idaho.

But to me, the most telling evidence that Pure-Blood Supremacy is an expression of Pure Evil has to do with the very nature of magic, and what makes it magical. If magic was only ever to be known or used by people who were born and raised to it, would it still be magic? Wouldn’'t it rather become mundane and ordinary, like another source of energy to be harnessed, another law of physics, another system of technology? Wouldn’'t it dissipate in a swirl of rules and regulations, explanations and observations, shortcuts and formalities and thoughtless mannerisms? Wouldn’'t it either be straight-jacketed by red-tape, or preserved in secret until it was completely forgotten?

Magic, in my view, is only magical when it is being discovered. It was most magical for Harry Potter at the beginning of his education at Hogwarts, when everything was an amazing new discovery. Everything was either a delightful surprise or a nasty shock, and some things could have been one or the other -- but only through the wide, wondering eyes of a boy who would never have guessed that magic was real, until...

With magic reserved for Pure-Bloods Only, there is no “until.” Or rather, until has fallen so far into the past that no one remembers it, or anything different from the way things are. Magic is less magical for Ron Weasley because he has a family full of witches and wizards, and he has never known anything else. Harry saves magic for him -- Harry makes his world magical again -- by discovering it with Ron, and so enabling Ron to discover it anew. But what about Draco Malfoy? Draco has no Harry to make him see his familiar world with fresh eyes.

Magic is less magical for Hermione Granger, too -- less than for Harry, and perhaps less than for Ron as well. For Hermione, the discovery has already taken place. She has read every book, has absorbed all the information, and now it is all a matter of applying the information to solving problems. Maybe this means Hermione is poised to make discoveries no one else has ever made -- the way a geneticist might study every tedious detail of the science of genetics, only to make amazing new discoveries that can change the world. But for the time being, Hermione’s attitude toward magic sucks all the joy out of it for Harry, and leaves him with one alternative -- Ron’s blasé indifference.

Harry walks the thin line between two extremes, either of which threatens to suck the enchantment out of magic. He could sin against magic the way Hermione does, and so become a rule-abiding, technically-proficient citizen of a magic world where every speck of fairy-dust has been counted and neatly labeled. Or he could fall into Ron’s sin of taking it all for granted, and missing his opportunity to discover it at all.

On the other hand, Harry is probably immune to the Ultimate Evil of the magic world. For him it will never be -- can never be -- a sacred entitlement which has always been his destiny because that’s the way things should be. Harry will always be questioning himself, doubting himself, separating himself from the rest of the world -- magical and otherwise. So even if he is too serious (or not serious enough) to notice a lot of the magic going on around him, or to pick up on the clues and hints and lessons that come at him in and out of class, he will still ALWAYS be discovering things. He will often be surprised; he will sometimes be shocked; he may be terrified, infuriated, heartbroken, discouraged. He will often question the way things are done, and step on people’s toes, and forget his manners, and be a disturber of the status quo.

But Harry will NEVER, EVER make his stand based on where someone comes from, as opposed to what they can do. He will NEVER, EVER deprive any worthy newcomer of the thrill of discovery, or try to wall up magic (and the power) in a catacomb of privilege, rank, and in-the-know-ness. Harry may make a lot of mistakes before he’s through, but he will never side -- knowingly or otherwise -- with the forces of snobbery, exclusion, chaos, or destruction. You know this if you know anything about Harry. You know it more and more as you get to know Harry better. And therefore you know the truth of what Harry said, the night before he went through the trapdoor in his first year at school: “I will never go over to the dark side!”

This evidently had something to do with the release of the fourth Harry Potter movie. Amazingly, there must have been some people saying they were going to skip the theatrical run. I can't remember who that might have been, but I doubt that I made them up.
Waiting for the Video? (11/6/2005)

You know who you are. Yes, you! The one who says, "Why see it in the theater, when you can wait a little while and rent the video?" The one who says, "Why buy the DVD, when you can wait a little longer and record it off cable TV?" That's who I'm talking to. And let me tell you why that you should see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in the theater:

1. All the better to see (and hear).
The movie is supposed to be seen on the big screen. It is made to engulf your senses with huge images and surround sound. It is made to be an experience that fills you, thrills you, and enthralls you. You will never experience it that way -- the way you were meant to see and hear it -- on the small screen. Things that would jump out at you in the theater will be eye-straining details on the TV screen. Sounds that make your hair stand on end in the theater, get lost in the oddly-mixed audio track on the DVD. It just isn't as impressive or exciting that way. I don't think it's even worth seeing it on cable or video unless you've already experienced it the right way.

2. We're in this together.
Sealed up in your living room, your audience is only as large as the number of people (if any) who are watching the film. But at an opening-weekend showing, with the largest possible audience in the theater, you can share the experience with at least a small part of the global audience that has gathered to see the same exciting movie. The humor, the excitement, the fear, and the romance are all magnified by the mass emotional reaction of the people surrounding you. Also, a movie is a social occasion. It should not be viewed alone. How can it take you out of yourself when you don't actually go out?

3. You owe it to yourself.
Yes, going to a movie costs money. Then again, so does your monthly cable bill. Okay, going to a movie (especially with the whole family) costs quite a bit of money. But, it's not like you watch a movie everyday! It can be a special treat. Most of you who can afford to be reading this, can afford to see a movie once in a while. Plus, you deserve a break from time to time....

4. Your time is your own.
Nothing is for free. And cable TV isn't as cheap as you think it is. A quarter of every hour you spend watching most channels (often more) is taken away from you by sponsors. So your "me" time becomes THEIR time. Do you really want to give that kind of time away? True, they show advertisements on the big screen before the film too. Sometimes they have a slideshow or a digital video showcasing local business, even before the trailers. Big deal! You can always come a little late, miss the ads and still catch the main event. In fact, it's probably therapeutic, once in a while, to be late for something ON PURPOSE and not get in trouble for it.

5. Your time is really your own.
You can skip the trailers too. Just be a little more late... which is probably that much more therapeutic. On the other hand, why skip the trailers? I know a few people who are really irritated by movie trailers, but I rather like them. They can be very entertaining, and in some cases, at least as good as the main feature! They are also informative. Most of us never realize how much movie trailers help us decide what to see the next time we go to the movies. And best of all, they give you a feeling of "inside knowledge" -- as if you are part of the movie-making process -- since you recognize what works and what doesn't, even before you see the full-length feature.

6. Someone else makes the popcorn.
And it's not burnt; that's always a plus. Also, the food they serve at theaters is over-priced, unhealthy, and served in enormous quantities -- the very epitome of a "special treat." But it's SOOOO convenient, and it gives you something to clutch, gnaw on, or hide behind during really intense scenes such as the rebirth of Lord Voldemort, or Harry's second task, etc.

7. Do you really want to wait?
One of the biggest reasons not to wait for video, or cable and network premieres is the fact that you've waited so long for this movie. How can you stand to let it go by without seeing it? How can you wait longer, just to be able to see it in a less-than-ideal format? That doesn't make sense! Oh, are we back on the economic argument again? Well, my way of looking at it is this: seeing the movie when it's fresh, in the format that best suits it, is WORTH the extra cost. In fact, the advantages probably pay for themselves.

8. Health problems, you say?
So now you're worried about the health effects of sitting still through a two-plus-hour movie. In my view it is probably healthier to watch a movie than watch two or three hours of TV a day. But then, you know about my prejudice against TV. I think for all the reasons I have listed above, seeing a movie, even once or twice a month, may actually be good for you. If I had to choose between that and watching TV everyday, you know which I would choose. In fact, I have already made that choice, and I don't miss the tube one bit (nor the cable bills).

9. You owe it to the creators.
Don't let it bother you that they're already making sinful amounts of money off this franchise. If you actually like the Harry Potter movies and books, if you actually think they are special, if you are actually thrilled by each new story that comes out, then it is just plain WRONG to wait for the book to be available at the library, or to tape the movie off cable TV. You support the publishing of quality books, and the making of quality movies, by BUYING the books, movie tickets and, eventually, the DVDs. If everybody waited until the book was on the clearance rack, or until the movie was on ABC, the series would be a financial failure and there wouldn't be a next book or film -- or at least not of the same quality. Do you want that on your shoulders? Of course not.

10. This too, shall pass.
There are only so many Harry Potter books and movies to be made. To be exact, one more book, and three more movies. If you miss your chance now, you won't get another opportunity to experience them amidst all the hype, anticipation, and excitement of the whole world discovering these wonderful stories for the first time. Sure, you'll always be able to go back and watch the films on video, or read the books you've missed. But, should the day come when you recall all the hoopla, will you feel contentment... or regret?

More from the multi-media shelf of the Book Trolley... I have had to search for the images to which the links in the original editorial used to lead. Nothing stays the same for seven years on the internet!
Harry Potter and the Magic of Art (5/9/2006)

I love the world of Harry Potter. It is a world of fantasy and entertainment where I have whiled away many a thrilling hour. It tickles my funny-bone, it moves my emotions, it sparks my imagination. But I have never been one to stay for very long in one, and only one, fantasy world. This is why I write reviews for The Book Trolley; this is why my column shies away from commenting about the Harry Potter canon; this is why my past editorials have explored the magic of classical music, learning a foreign language, living with cats, and working things out with your family. J.K. Rowling has done a great thing: she has cast a magic spell that captured people of all ages, peeled them away from their video games and soap operas, and taught them to love reading again (or, in many cases, for the first time). In tribute to J.K. Rowling, I make it my special business to point out still other realms of magical discovery that the Harry Potter world may have prepared you to enter.

This time, I want to discuss the enchanted world of art, as a Potterhead might enter it. Mind you, I’m no big expert. But I have learned a lot in the past year by working for a magazine that uses a lot of paintings; and I should also give some credit up front to a wonderful, searchable, online art gallery called Art Resource. Thanks to Art Resource, you don’t have to read my lengthy descriptions of the art works presented below. You can point, click, and see the paintings for yourself!

And now, a walking (and clicking) tour of Robbie Fischer’s “Magical World of Harry Potter Art Gallery.”

Here is a painting titled Woman with Child by Otto Dix. When I saw it, I was struck by the possibility that the woman’s maiden name is Prince, and that the child in her arms could be Severus Snape...

On the other hand, the same artist’'s Portrait of the Parents of the Artist could be, in my opinion, a picture of James Potter’s parents. And here I thought James was an only child!

A certain George Grosz painted a portrait of You-Know-Who, titled Lovesickness. What an ironic title.

For a creepy picture that might have a dementor in it, check out Salvator Rosa’'s Saul and the Witches of Endor.

Here is a job for the Magical Accidents Reversal Squad. The painting by Rene Magritte is titled Le Sorcier.

Hieronymous Francken’'s Witches’' Kitchen shows some dark magic brewing.

Who is the talented young pupil Dumbledore is tutoring in this picture? The title of Nathaniel Hone'’s painting is The Conjuror.

Here is a piece of art photography by Wanda Wulz, titled Me and Cat. Hermione knows this could really happen!

Oops! Somebody has been fooling around in the Time Room at the Department of Mysteries again. Here to show you the results (or consequences) is Salvador Dali’'s Persistence of Memory.

Need a little help in your Care of Magical Creatures studies? Take a look at this Egyptian bronze of a Griffin.

Or, dig this marble sphinx from the island of Naxos.

Most centaurs in classical art are depicted as bad guys, being slain by some hero or god or other. A couple of exceptions come from the villa of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The grown-up centaur is here.

The young centaur is here.

There are also several classic paintings of the centaur Chiron teaching Achilles, the hero of the Trojan war. Most of them have a lot of nudity in them, but here'’s one of the tamer ones, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi.

Finally, here is a Babylonian terracotta image of a “fish man or water sprite”—in other words, merpeople!

I do hope you haven’'t seen enough. Now it'’s your turn to pour through the annals of art and discover all kinds of magic for yourself. Like the magic of light, seemingly captured in paint. Like stone figures whose muscles almost seem to be in motion. Like pieces of rock, metal, paper and fabric that are prized above gold, because they make the joy, anguish and desire of men who died centuries ago come alive for us today. Everything short of pictures that move and talk of themselves (without the aid of television) – you name it, you’ll find it. And if you discover something really special, feel free to shoot me some feedback about it. Happy hunting!

And one more for now...
Modern Magic, Gift or Curse? (6/12/2006)

Once upon a time, magic was a gift. Wizards and witches could do things that Muggles could only dream of. So many things were possible to magical folk that their secret had to be protected -- otherwise they would have no peace, either from Muggles who wanted them to solve all their problems, or from the conniving malice of the envious and fearful.

Now, in my opinion, this is no longer the reason the existence of magic needs to be kept secret. The sad fact is that, in the last century, Muggle technology has overtaken magic in almost every area of life. Things are now possible in Muggle transportation, communication, medicine, warfare, and even cooking and cleaning, that equal or surpass the achievements of magic.

But wizards and witches cannot enjoy many of these Muggle improvements. The magical field that surrounds their places of work, play, and family life, interfere with the processes that make Muggle equipment work. Certainly simple, mechanical inventions, like all-manual cameras, have been adapted to wizardly use. But most conveniences of the modern Muggle world are lost on wizards and witches.

While the Muggle world has been swiftly changing, the magical world has stayed the same. So comparing what is possible for Muggles to what is possible for magical folk, it now looks as if magical folk are rather more disabled than gifted. They cannot enjoy the things that Muggle technology has made possible. Muggle gadgets don't work for them; even the discoveries of Muggle medicine don't seem effective on their illnesses. So ironically, instead of making amazing new things possible, magic merely compensates witches and wizards for the possibilities of Muggle science that are closed to them.

These effects seem to worsen where there are higher concentrations of magical activity -- so, presumably, one witch could take a ride on an airplane, but for a whole Quidditch team and their hangers-on, it won't do at all. You might ask, why would they want to fly on an airplane at all, when they can go by broom? This brings us to another aspect of magical disability: the need not to be seen.

As Muggle populations have grown and spread, as the density of Muggle inhabitation has increased, as their ability to see into every corner of their environment has improved through the use of aircraft and satellites and automatic cameras and such, so also the problem of keeping the magical world a secret has grown. Wizards and witches have been forced to take so much care of their secret that there almost isn't time to do anything else with their so-called gifts. It has almost reached the point where they can't do magic at all, except to keep the magical world a secret. It would take but a small step for keeping that secret to become their sole purpose in life.

Wedged between their fear of discovery -- in a world where that discovery every day grows harder to prevent -- and their inability to enjoy the improvements of Muggle science and technology, magical folk have changed roles in the world -- or rather, the world has changed around them. They are now, more or less, just an insular group of people who live a simpler life, like a religious sect that renounces worldly vanities.

Their chief reason for keeping magic a secret may now be that they have nothing else to do, nothing else that is entirely theirs, no other way of compensating for their disabilities, and no need or desire for the world's pity. Probably, if discovered today, they would be studied as an oddity, and then, in most places, tolerated with a smile and a slow shake of the head.

If this isn't depressing enough, there is the one chance in a million that it doesn't have to be that way. That is, there is one wizard or witch in a million whose power and comprehensive knowledge of magic enables him or her to discover new possibilities for magic. I don't know if there are even a million living witches and wizards in the world today, but if there are, that one-in-a-million wizard was Albus Dumbledore. I haven't heard about any benign witches or wizards of similar skill, standing in the wings, waiting to take up Dumbledore's mantle. If they are out there, great. If not, Dumbledore's death may be a greater tragedy for the wizarding world than we knew.

At age 15, Dumbledore did things with his wand that the OWL examiners had never seen before. Later, he discovered the uses of dragon blood and did important work in alchemy. Who knows what else Dumbledore discovered -- or could have discovered, had he lived, or had he done something with his life other than run Hogwarts and fight dark wizards? Perhaps Dumbledore could have opened up new realms of magical possibility, new areas where witches and wizards could have found fulfillment or served humanity, new ways for magic folk to be like regular folk with "something special added." Alas, that chance is lost -- for now. And perhaps, at this time in the history of magic, that loss is fatal for the wizarding world.

I would hate for it to end this way. But it is a possibility we need to be prepared for, as Book 7 looms on the horizon. Harry Potter's wizarding world may be fated to end. The war of the Death Eaters, culminating in Harry's last confrontation with Voldemort, may indeed be the deathblow to an already crippled magical community.

And maybe that is for the best. Maybe the only good reason to have a place like Hogwarts these days is to help kids with magical abilities learn to control them before they become serious problems. Maybe, after that, the best thing for them is "vocational rehabilitation" to prepare them to reintegrate with Muggle society. Maybe there isn't safety in numbers; maybe their best chance is to live as Muggles, among Muggles, unhindered by the magical fields that surround areas of concentrated magic; and maybe the current war serves a good purpose by destroying those "dark" witches and wizards who simply cannot, or will not, live that way.

One of the charms of a story like Harry Potter is that it takes magic -- which really needs a pre-technological, medieval world to flourish best -- and transplants it, with a combination of wit and anachronism, into the modern world. But the cost of that transplant is that it can only function for a limited period of time. Are the days of wizardry numbered? That is, perhaps, for only J.K. to tell....

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