Harry Potter Years 1-3 Podcast

In our second podcast, we reflect on the first three Harry Potter films: Harry Potter & the Whimsical Misappropriation of Turbans, Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secretions and Inferences, and Harry Potter & the Expectant Patronus. We reflect on the style of the first two compared to the third, the development of the actors, the refinements in the series, and spend way too much time laughing at our attempt to figure out the logic of the second film.

Check back for two more podcasts giving our once-over to the rest of the Harry Potter series.

Invasion Narratives and Spielberg’s Warring Worlds

“But who shall dwell in these Worlds if they be inhabited? Are we or they Lords of the World? And how are all things made for man?”

–Johannes Kepler, quoted in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), used as the epigraph on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds

wotw7

Though anything more than a decade old ought to be fair game, be warned that this analysis contains multiple references to the film’s plot, including its ending. Be ye thus warned, spoilers may lie ahead.

If it is discussed at all, Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is usually written off as a curiosity deeply influenced by the attacks and ensuing panic of 9/11. I’m not looking to dispute its meager legacy, only to suggest that the film is more than a romp through America’s shattered psyche. The film is also about invasions in general, no matter how sudden or prolonged. In this regard, Spielberg honours the source material, which Wells wrote in 1898 as a thinly veiled allegory about colonial decline, ostensibly mapped onto the waning British empire, while also offering some interesting questions about whether to be dominant necessarily requires domination.

The film starts with the main character, Ray, returning home and finding his ex-wife waiting with their two children and her new husband. The children are introduced like an invasive presence in his life. He has no milk in the fridge, he can’t be bothered to make dinner. His son steals his car while he’s sleeping. Ray’s problem is that he doesn’t know how to be a father to his children, of whom he is at best desultory ignorant (forgetting his daughter’s peanut allergy, or his total lack of any appropriate bedtime songs) or at worst aggressively intolerant (using a game of catch to indirectly assault his son). And yet, Ray’s dawning appreciation for his situation is juxtaposed by the utter failure of the aliens to come to terms with theirs. As Ray’s relationship grows healthier with his daughter, the aliens become sicker. These two themes overlap as Ray bonds with his daughter through his repeated attempts to shield her from the horrors of the alien invasion. In this way, the progress of Ray’s character subtly inverts that of the aliens’: his character becomes defined through his efforts to negate the alien presence–to keep, in a sense, his daughter’s mind from being invaded and overtaken.

The connection between the aliens as vectors of memetic transmission and infection is further suggested in the montage of rumours that proliferate amongst the refugees about the alien invasion, as it is in the film’s chilling use of the Red Weed. The shot of a dead cow on a dead farm, both strangled by a tangle of thick red veins, harkens to Wells’ reference of Tasmanian wildlife blighted by British colonisation. The imagery also invokes the modern ecological devastation wrought by factory farms, and the almost total conversion of American farmlands to chemically treated, nutrient-depleting crops to feed increasingly confined livestock. (As it happens, wheat itself is something of an alien occupier on American soil, having been imported from Europe in the 17th century). Moreover, the botanical elements allude to the invasive status of the aliens themselves, for what is a weed if not an aggressive occupier?

Our attention is first drawn to this theme when we are informed that Ray’s son, Robbie, has a paper due on the French Occupation of Algeria. The reference harkens back to Wells’ own novel, which early on reminds the reader of the total extinction of Tasmanian natives within 50 years of European contact in the 19th century. Wells’ sentiment expressed in the novel might well do with repeating: “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

While occupations are doomed to failure, as a character later rants in the film, colonisation typically is not, since its success comes through the extinction of the previous inhabitants. In rare cases, the colonized survive as a subjugated people. War of the Worlds concretizes this idea of a hostile colonization with the aliens keeping some humans as cattle to feed their tripods.

wotw20054

The film offers more invasions than the ecological, and often aggressively coopts the familiar for the horrific. Technologies of human progress and ingenuity are chillingly annexed and redeployed as images of apocalyptic destruction. A downed airliner in an upscale suburban burrow unmistakably recalls the terrible results achieved just four years prior with two feats of engineering: the air plane and the skyscraper. Some of it is modestly pitched apocalyptic imagery–a devastated church, a flaming locomotive–but there are other instances where Spielberg ignites explicit references–the walls of the missing and the dust clouds raised by the alien weapons. In the latter reference, Ray returns to his family covered in the ash of the first assault, recalling the hellish cloud of dust, debris and human ash from the immolated World Trade Center as well as the scenes of holocaust from another Spielberg film, Schindler’s List.

Other appropriations include Ray’s entrance onto the Martian-redecorated Earth like a nightmarish entrance into a red-weeded Oz. The most sustained cinematic allusion concerns a protracted (albeit veiled) tribute to 1954’s Godzilla. The first sighting of the titular creature is mirrored in the Tripod’s arrival into the ferry town, with the ensuing ferry destruction echoing Godzilla’s first prey, an ill-fated fishing trawler.

war-of-the-worlds

The associations go beyond the cinematic however. The fishing trawler was itself based on a similar instance of American hegemony, in 1954, when the crew of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru ventured too near a Japanese atoll that had been irradiated by American H-bomb testing and was showered with radioactive ash. The fallout was, in every sense, an unfortunate consequence of a Nuclear Age inaugurated by the destruction of Hiroshima, an event of foreign aggression that is itself used in the film to describe the devastating power of the alien attack. The nuclear devastation of Hiroshima is thus annexed from its national and historical connotations and converted, along with the 9/11 imagery, into a measure of inter-species genocide.

Another historical allusion probably more palpable to American audiences is the film’s climax in a war-torn Boston, the site of another insurrection against foreign occupiers and the inception of a similar war (if only between nations rather than worlds) nearly 250 years earlier.

And, in a stunning bout of prescience that probably amounts to luck more than precognition, the aliens first invade Ukraine, a country that would find a considerable portion of its southern territory annexed by Russia within the decade.

war5

The film also juxtaposes the clash of empires with subtle oppositions in colonial ideology, ironically espoused by three members of the same family. Seeing his daughter bothered by a splinter, Ray’s immediate reaction is to forcibly remove the occupying debris immediately. His daughter, however, advises patience: “When it’s ready, my body will just push it out”. This Zen-like tolerance is contrasted with the chauvinist militarism espoused by her brother; “If we had any balls we’d go back and fight one of those things”, Robbie remarks as they flee their immolated homestead, the result of an alien presumably having a similar idea and following through.

These opposing views to occupation, between expulsion and cohabitation, reach some measure of resolution in the film’s penultimate shot. The reunion between Ray and his son, though undiminished in its power to draw groans from audiences to this day for showing the family improbably restored, nonetheless suggests a peaceful cohabitation–if only between humans. The conclusion at least resolves the family turmoil which opened the film, which has Ray’s children decidedly more affectionate towards Tim, the new husband, whom we are told is even subsidizing their education—colonizing Ray’s family to the extreme. This information is delivered as an especially venomous retort from Ray’s son during a heated game of catch. That scene foreshadows the jarring imagery in the conclusion, in that an otherwise familiar space—the family backyard in the opening, Boston in the finale–is coopted into a battleground, albeit of vastly dissimilar proportions. In an abstract way, the conflict between Ray and his children manifests as a literal war between worlds, which perhaps explains their otherwise improbably corresponding resolutions.

The ending also has the added benefit of reversing the callous paternal abandonment of Richard Dreyfus’ character, Roy, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind–an ending Spielberg later claimed he could not condone after he himself became a father. Indeed, War of the Worlds offers an almost parodic inversion of that film’s benevolent (if benign) alien contact, featuring instead ancestral forebears (in this case, entombed, ruthless aliens) that simply refuse to leave even after the kids have long since grown up and wished they would.

These associations notwithstanding, there are still several niggling issues with the film, which builds on some promising scenes and themes but which fail to achieve much of anything substantial. And everyone who is not Tom Cruise acts with the distracting hyperbolic awareness that they’ve been given the good fortune of appearing in a Spielberg film. The distraction is increased by the shots designed to imply without revealing the titular war. The equally implausible though nonetheless real scene of cataclysmic destruction four years earlier probably tempered enthusiasm to see it all depicted again as entertainment this time. But scenes in which the war is fought just on the other side of a conveniently located hill, or when Ray and his daughter hide in the basement of a dilapidated farm, one can never quite shake the feeling that there’s a more interesting (if generically traditional) story to be told on the other side.

2833_1

Or maybe it’s because what we get instead takes a marginal encounter with a Martian from the book and turns it into an all-too familiar recreation of a scene about raptors in a kitchen from another Spielberg movie. However, the much-derided detour in the basement nonetheless manages to provide the film’s most iconic image when the alien probe comes face to face (so to speak), with its own reflection–Ray, his daughter and Ogilvie barely concealed behind the mirror. What is Spielberg getting at here? Are we meant to draw parallels between the two species–to note the same exaggerated faith in technology and biological superiority? (If so, Morgan Freeman’s narration which bookends the film, largely drawn from the book itself, no longer seems so out of place.) Or perhaps, by turning the alien’s reflection into a protective shield for the characters, does the film mean to suggest an unbreachable divide between the two species? The moment is at least an ironic reversal of the magical energy shield that the aliens use against the human weaponry. But is that all? Could the probe’s failure to see through the mirror be meant to suggest that whatever our failings as a species, we are not like that thing facing us in the mirror? Perhaps we do not war in the same spirit after all, as Wells would have us believe. That’s the hope at least, but not the only source that the film provides. Though it could’ve ended the film on an ambiguous or even nihilistic note, Spielberg leaves no catharsis unfulfilled by the film’s end.

Other curious holdovers from the book are the aliens’ vampiric nature and their radioactive weaponry. Yet the several scenes devoted to their sanguine proclivity seem antithetical to using death rays that reduce everything to atomic ash. Logically, it makes little sense to kill what you need to convert, but then the history of imperialism has always been precisely located in that illogical void. To wit, at the time of the film’s release the US was embroiled in a war with the stated aim of installing democracy. To miss the irony in that is to suggest little hope of catching it in the film.

Even rationalized as a crude borrowing from the book, the aliens’ defeat in this film defies credulity. One would assume that if they weren’t seeking to win the people’s hearts and minds, the aliens would at least account for their basic biology. Though the book was written at a time when germ theory was still incubating, and so an otherwise advanced technological society of the time could be excused for such an omission in their preparations, the film’s ending becomes all the more strange an appropriation since it’s one of the few ideas carried over directly from the book. The defeat also complicates the otherwise clever inversion of invasion narratives in having the aliens already buried in the ground, suggesting that they, and not the humans, are the Earth’s original inhabitants. Or were the pods simply launched aeons before? The film’s exclusive focus on Ray doesn’t offer much room to explore. Or is this yet another instance of Spielberg’s reflection on invasion, offering strained cinematic adaptation as a metonym for colonialization? In that case, the awkward passages heighten rather than foreclose appreciation for what amounts to a more cunning twenty-first century, Hollywood-style appropriation of a Victorian novel than its post 9/11 chronology might suggest.

Top 7 Rhetorical Fallacies Levied at Criticism–and why they’re all invalid

Angry naysayers in action

As digital technology enables countless voices to add their share to the din of culture, it seems necessary to remind my dear readers what passes for a valid objection or a foolish remark that ought to be dismissed outright. This is not to say the original opinion which provoked the retort is correct or valid, but to say that the following rhetoric simply does not (and never will) hold any validity. Thus do I present, in no particular order, the top seven erroneous and frankly idiotic statements intended to silence dissent and the expression of opinion: Continue reading

“Are you a good flick or a bad flick?”: The Waste of Arguing for Goodness

In 1983 Siskel and Ebert got into a frivolous argument with fellow critic John Simon, then film critic for the National Review and Drama Critic for New York Magazine, over whether Return of the Jedi is a great film or not. I include this piece because it displays the profound emptiness associated with a profession that wastes its time classifying films according to prescriptive judgments. It also reveals that these issues with which we contend in contemporary popular criticism are not so isolated. Though I am undoubtedly on the side of Siskel and Ebert in arguing the technical and affective merits of the original Star Wars trilogy, notice how both sides lapse into strings of non sequiturs when asked if the film is great. The reporter asks “Is this film good?” To which Ebert replies “it excited me, it made me laugh, it made me thrilled, and that’s what a movie like this is for.” I agree with him completely, but this gets us no closer to answering the original question, precisely because the original question is a useless question. Not a good or bad question, but a useless one. Nothing can be made of it. It’s the work of youtube viewer satisfaction tallies, not the issue of prolonged study (though the results could then be tabulated to form the basis of some anthropological observations about cultural responses to art, yet this work would be an abstraction from the original product in question: the film).

The real valuable statements are found precisely in Ebert’s response to the movie. The question “what did this movie do” provokes a more solid and valuable answer than “is this movie good or bad.” Ebert’s remarks are a useful foundation for exploring the film further, while ostensibly acknowledging its intent as an affective rather than intellectual piece of pop art. How did it excite Ebert, and what tools did it employ to do so? How did it thrill him? Arguing whether a movie being thrilling or not thrilling is good or bad is a useless debate. Continue reading

From the vault: Sarris vs. Kael

MBDCIKA EC019

In lieu of doing a proper post of my own criticism (it is the weekend after all), I thought I would direct your attention to this stimulating piece of criticism on criticism provided by the frequently acerbic and always insightful New York film critic, the late Andrew Sarris. In no small way does his work reflect my own creative impulse to hold modern film criticism accountable to a more formalized standard, it also suggests that my efforts to establish a productive dialectic on the role of film criticism is not altogether unique, nor impossible.

Though something of an historical curiosity at this point, the review is yet another piece in what became a long-standing feud between Sarris and fellow New York film critic Pauline Kael. With just a few paragraphs, Sarris offers a cogent and often humorous dismissal of Kael’s 50,000 word “half-hearted analysis” of Welles’ Citizen Kane, “Raising Kane”, predominantly with her dichotomous portrayal of Kane as “a great American film in a morass of mediocre Hollywood movies”. Also contended is Kael’s now famously debunked assertion that script-writer (and fellow New Yorker alumnus, no less) Herman J. Mankiewicz was largely responsible for the final script. Fun stuff.

http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2010/12/andrew_sarris_v.php

How Modern Film Critics Are Killing Creativity

“No filmmaker likes critics, no matter how nice they are to him.”

Francois Truffaut

The-Lone-Ranger-Movie-Poster-2013-Wallpaper

In an exclusive interview Monday, August 5, 2013 with Yahoo! Movies UK, stars of the box-office fiasco The Lone Ranger shared their thoughts on why the film failed to interest audiences. In no subtle way, Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer laid the blame at the feet of the critics:

“I think the reviews were written seven-to-eight months before we released the film,” said Johnny Depp. “I think the reviews were written when they heard Gore [Verbinksi] and Jerry [Bruckheimer] and me were going to do ‘The Lone Ranger’. They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that. I never do.”[1]

Not only do I want to consider whether their accusations bear any merit, I also want to examine the impact of this particular brand of film criticism on the art of cinema, one that seems more about raising the state of the publication’s view count than it does raising the state of viewership.

Continue reading

The State of the Art

New York Observer’s film critic Rex Reed has been making the rounds on twitter and the blogosphere recently as the subject of a revolving litany of abuses and defamations. Some are asking for his head, others, like this reasonably cool-headed piece by Jason Bailey, are only asking for his job, not simply for their disagreement with his negative review, but for the admission that he walked out. Heinous though that sin may be, I want to examine Reed’s review of V/H/S 2 (the particular film is irrelevant to my discussion) in more detail and consider what it might mean for the state of film criticism: Continue reading

A Vision of the New Criticism

Go on any major film site and marvel at the display. Let your jaw drop at the crass wasteland masquerading as Eden, where neon banners sit atop the words in all their glittering pageantry. Now scroll down to their denizens of the deep, scouring in the muck in search of the almighty Quote. Now look beyond it, to the expanse it could have occupied. Gasp in awe at what it could have been—a beacon of salvation upon a hill shining its light for all to see. But the people won’t look, nor will they listen, they’re too busy suckling at the teat of false knowledge. Junkies looking for the next critical fix, and the site provides. It pushes its content into their ossified network of veins, blasts it in their deafened ears just so even a faint blip might register. Truly this is hell, if only because some of us can still see that hill, and we’re moving further from it every day. The train has left the station, it’s teetering above the chasm, and there’s no stopping its descent. Continue reading