Monday, July 23, 2007

Great Movies Can Come From Anywhere

It's been reported that the latest and final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold more than 8 million copies on its first day alone. It should come as no surprise, given the media frenzy around all things Potter, but it still interests me that so much interest can be generated for a written work of fiction. It seemed when the Harry Potter craze was in its inception, these works were being hailed as a celebration of rich storytelling and and mythical archetypes. Some even considered the novels to be comparable to its many influences in literature and myth. But somewhere along the line, these voices became suppressed under the media firestorm that now circulates around Harry Potter, which is arguably now more of a trademark than anything else. That's nothing against J.K. Rowling and her writing abilities, for it seems that she has upkept a high level of writing quality and narrative structure throughout the series. Nevertheless, among more serious circles, Harry Potter seems to have lost its stance as works to be taken seriously along with its rise in commercial popularity.

Back in 2001, I was introduced to young Harry by the intense media coverage surrounding Warner Brothers' movie adaptation of Rowling's first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Since I am interested in pop culture (especially anything to do with movies), I went to a midnight screening, where some fans were costumed as witches and wizards, and I watched a movie that I considered a good old-fashioned adventure yarn about naive innocence and magic. Others came down on director Chris Columbus for being too stereotypically "kiddie", which the movie no doubt was at times throughout its duration. But I was delighted by the movie's sense of whimsy, flightiness, and ambivalence. Little did I know at the time that it was only the first in what would be a series lasting as many chapters as the eventual series of books.

Now, five movies later, Harry Potter's cinematic journey through the ever-expanding and intense magical universe is shaping up to be one of contemporary pop cinema's most intriguing stories. With the release of the fifth movie two weeks ago, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the last six years of American box office has seen the young wizard atop (or nearly so) the top-grossing list on all but two years. Now that's staying power. Sure, some of that is inevitably due to the massive marketing efforts on the part of Warner Brothers and the synergy between the movie and publishing business. The books therefore became more of a craze with the release of the movies, which then amplified the desire for future movies. Apart from market shares and economic accounts of success on the part of Warner Brothers' series of movie adaptations, the movies themselves represent an interesting experiment of largely consistent casting and artistic collaboration as the series has experienced four very different directors, each surprisingly lending a unique touch to the series.

In an article last week for the New York Times, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis took a brief look into this largely consistent level of quality of the five movies, something that's mostly unheard of in Hollywood tradition, even for series as popular as Potter. Their account is brief, but in it they breach several intriguing aspects of this building film franchise:

Looking at the five movies side by side, you can see how the material lends itself to diverse film genres and styles, from breezy children's movie to ominous political thriller, and how very dissimilar directors approach, sidestep and conquer similar material."

Whether aided by the books or other factors, the simple fact of it is that the movies are becoming more nuanced, appropriately darker, and are ever-changing in their approaches to a world that is in many ways pre-built by audiences (from their knowledge of the books) and previous movies in the series. It would seem that creativity would lag along as the series went on. But if the recent movie is any indication of quality, these movies will continue to creatively build on themselves as they continue. So far, they were lensed by four different directors, each with a different approach to the elements of detail and character, as well as visual storytelling. It hasn't all been an organic growth, with each moving improving in quality, but what we do see with the series is ever-more reliable staple of quality and care that goes into these movies. Seeing the battalion of young actors grow up together is as interesting as discovering what happens to their characters. By contrast, with a few small exceptions due to tragic circumstances, i.e. the death of Richard Harris, the adult actors playing teachers and wizards look remarkably the same over the course of the movies, as more of Britain's finest thespians join the Potter universe's ever expanding host of characters. Fine acting talent from the likes of Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese, Robbie Coltraine, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonhman Carter, Maggie Smith, and Julie Walters have anchored the franchise with a sense of consistency. Seeing these actors return to their roles with each film is a welcome bit of familiarity. With such a huge base of major acting talent, one wonders who they will enlist next.

As these movies continue toward their conclusion in Year Seven, one cannot deny their staying power and their overall amazing balancing act between convention and innovation; each of the four directors have been limited, certainly, but have also been allowed to inject their own vision into the Harry Potter universe. And while I like each of the films for their own reasons, there is one film that stands out to me as the emotional and visual anchor of the series; and that is Alfonso Cuaron's entry (the third in the series), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Were it not for Cuaron's willingness to abandon such stringent faith to the books (which he took much heat for from the biggest fans of the books) as demonstrated by Columbus' two films, the movies would not have been able to mature and grow as they have. As emotionally rich as Order of the Phoenix is, it is not only not as nuanced as Cuaron's entry, but its explorations would not have been possible had Cuaron not been given the freedom to overturn Columbus' more simple vision of Hogwarts, which was necessary-for-its-time but potentially constraining in its directness. As essential as Columbus' by-numbers direction was in getting the series onto its feet and moving, so too was the need for the third film to be challenging of that straight-aheadness.

Unlike its predecessors, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rich in subtlety and surprisingly daring; not just as an adaptation, but as an entry in a multi-million dollar film franchise. It straddles the perfect line between convention and abstraction as it introduces shades of dimension to Harry and the wizarding world that were not possible in Columbus' singular interests with first two movies. Unfortunately, the film is underappreciated. Its sublimities are often glossed over by fans expecting a visual regurgitation of the written word and by critics who limit their interpretation of cinematic images by pre-digesting them, comfortably labeling a movie like Azkaban as "kiddie fare", "Hollywood", and "sequel".

Before discussing the movie, I'd like to make note of an issue of readership and spectatorship. A movie is not just made differently, with hundreds, sometimes thousands of individuals collaborating to create a moving image, but they are perceived and thereby interpreted differently as well. The relationship between the spectator and the image is vastly different from that of the reader and the page (or word). So different are they that one should not strive to embody the other because this leads to an unproductive and limiting means of interpretation rather than a wise use of the tools of the medium. Often times, (pop) movies get a bum wrap by people who claim that Hollywood has run out of creativity and that it must rely on books and old ideas for its millions. This is true now more than ever; however, there are many social and economic forces contributing to this. Some pop movies inevitably capitalize on the creativity of our best writers, whilst failing to come up with new stories on their own. But popular filmmaking has been zapped into a state of market shares and commercialism that it cannot afford to enable screenwriters and artists to really explore the medium and come up with fresh material. The pressure isn't for new material so much as capitalizing on the lastest book series that hasn't already been optioned. The world of fiction is much different in the sense that anyone, literally anyone can pick up a pen and write a story. But as the saying in Ratatouille instructs, although a great artist (or writer) can come from everywhere, not everyone can be a great artist. There are probably millions of unpublished books out there ranging from excellent to terrible, some of which are lucky enough to be seen by the right people, others not. But that's what the publishing business comes down to. Movies simply cannot be made unless there is a source willing to fund it. Often those sources (studios) are not willing fund creative ventures; although some small studios position themselves as the answer to Hollywood's conquest of homogenization.

Another note about movies is that the moving image is more complicated than the written word. That does not mean that movies are better than books or that cinema is a superior medium, since that would be falling into the trap of assuming they operate under similar principles that enable us to really compare them. However, this is the "logic" under which many movie viewers operate. They have been lulled by the familiarity of convention to the extent of expecting movies to embody the books they read. This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the medium of cinema. Cinema and fiction offer completeing differing things, but since they both work under the principles of narrative, many audiences expect movies to just be visual representations of books. But it's just not that simple. To expect that of a movie is to limit its possibilities. Unfortunately, many filmmakers and studios pander to this movies as books mentality and want to offer streamlined, unchallenging stories that do not challenge the viewers to emote from the sights and sounds of something. Viewers are discouraged from feeling subtleties and unidentifiable feelings created through the complex relations of images on a screen. Therefore, many pop movies are made to go against the unique properties of this visual, auditory medium.

These issues present themselves in fascinating manners in the Harry Potter movie and book series, and equally interesting as the texts themselves (in how they compare, contrast, and live from/off one another) is how critics and fans respond to them. (For more on this crisis of readership/spectatorship, check out Damian Arlyn's post, Books and Movies: The Enemies That Never Were. Oddly enough, he posted his thoughts due to his experiences watching Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix). Amazingly, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that is is the most cinematic and sublime of them all is the one that has made the least amount of money and seems to be labeled as the worst by most fans. This only evidences the crisis of readership and spectatorship in pop discourse. Cuaron understands that cinematic storytelling is a different craft than other forms of fiction, such as written fiction or the stage, and his film is a careful experiment in pushing the comfortable confines of Hollywood storytelling to its brink. The best of popular cinema achieves this balance, as seen recently in Ratatouille.

The movie opens with a set piece that is one of the most preposterous events in the entire series, in which young Harry "blows up" his Aunt Marge after she disparages his parents. The scene itself, about four minutes into the film, is handled with Columbus-esque humor, and the movie seems to be right on track with the previous two in its visual style. But it's the moments before and after it that really are designed to jolt your comfortable Potter viewer. Immediately, Cuaron announces his washed out color palette, as opposed to the cartoony colors of Columbus. The camera frames Harry in shaky shots, as if he is an arbitrary element of the composition. But the fascinating aspect of this nature of framing actors (as Cuaron shows in his masterpiece, Y Tu Mama Tambien) is that these shots actually reveal more detail in performances, as opposed to a more adherent intensified continuity. Harry not only looks different, but he talks different, he emotes more, and he has more feeling in his voice. When Marge insults his parents, Cuaron frames the shot with Harry foregrounded and the dinner table in the background. Cuaron sustains one long shot with Harry's reactions/reflections to/on what she says, as he goes from frustration to nonchalant grinning to all out rage in just a few moments. It's a wonderful little moment, and that shot alone both in design and its attention to Harry's emotion immediately sets the film on a different path than its predecessors. After the "blowing up", Harry runs upstairs to his room, where he kicks the bureau, sits down on his bed, and then sees a picture of his parents (all one shot after he enters the room). In one shot, the camera zooms in from the wide shot of Harry walking to his bed and focuses on a photograph Harry's parents dancing happily, constrasting their once joy with his pain and anguish, John Williams' subtle score signals Harry's ultimate tragedy in a few quietly stated notes with a contrasting sustained line of high strings, adding pain and tension to Harry's pain. The shot lasts no more than 25 seconds, but it brings mood, atmosphere, and evokes an ambiguous (yet familiar) affect to the proceedings. It's a perfect moment, one of many in a film that masters the emotional burden and complexity of Harry's celebrity image, loneliness, and tragedy.

Following this is exposition and various meetings amongst characters, which is structurally similar to Rowling's style but looks and feels very different from Columbus' take on them. Yet, we're dealing with many of the same locations and characters, which feel very distinct from the previous two movies. Gone are the "big" moments of magic of transition scenes and conversations consisting of talking heads and reaction shots. In place are dreary images, oozing with sublimity in traditionally understated ways. One such example of a transition shot is the first shot of the Hogwarts Express, which travels alongside the hills of England through downpours of rains. Yet the shot, starting from a distance, narrows in closely on the train with the sound of the rain faintly in the background, accompanied by moody music consisting of abstract woodwinds chords and a harpsicord, which captures an atmosphere so beautifully in such a short time (less than 10 seconds) that blows me away each time I see it. As for staging, Cuaron constantly plays with depths of focus, staging actors in the foreground and background of busy shots, in so doing achieving a visual complexity in simple conversation scenes that seem more appropriate in character-based European cinema.

The sensuous fluidity (as Fernando F. Croce of CinePassion expertly calls it) with which Cuaron imbues the film breathes life into small transition shots and exchanges between characters; in said moments, the spirit of the school and the quirky idiosyncrasies of characters both new and familiar are revealed in tiny ways, but they set the tone of the film and its atmospheres. The endless hallways of the labrynthine Hogwarts school and the landscape outside of it seem more real; like we can feel the cement archways, and the blades of grass one our feet as the students walk down to Hagrid's hut. Harry's emotion is palpable when he's thinking of his parents, as is the icy dread of his encounters with the haunting dementors. Each shot in this movie is treated with care and precision, and it shows in big and small moments from expressions on Harry's face to shots of the changing seasons. (Watch for the brilliant montage of winter becoming spring, as drops of water drip from the brown leaves and branches of the whomping willow.) Part of what gives this movie such life in its brilliant compositions and editing patterns is how the filmmakers allow the sound and images come together brilliantly to provide a real mood and life to this world through its most minute details, like the "sound" that wands make when they are used, or the birds chirping on the school grounds. These details of sound -- including John Williams' aforementioned subdued score; one of his very best -- coupled with the unique visual style of sustained shots that fill every corner of the composition with movement and detail, enable the viewer to feel this wizarding world as an actual place with dense characters inhabiting real space, not some phony magic world of color and speed.

Cuaron also manages to hone in on the oncoming darkness which approaches in later stories. While this story isn't the real loss of innocence of the young wizards and witches, it signals the inevitability of darkness and maturation. It stradles both innocence and maturity, as is reflected in Daniel Radcliffe's introspective performance. More than any other movie in the series, this movie enables the spectator to identify with Harry's loneliness and despair, which even he can't quite come to terms with. In probably my favorite review of the film, Eugene Novikov over at FilmBlather details this feeling and how Cuaron so brilliantly captures it throughout the movie in unexpected (as well as expected) moments. He writes:

"Professor Dumbledore intones, 'happiness can be found even in the darkest of times,' and indeed, director Alfonso Cuaron finds room for friendship and love even in the midst of his generally pitch-black vision. Watch for the little stuff -- the way Ron grabs Harry's shoulder and turns him away when Draco Malfoy and his Slytherin compatriots start in with their unceasing, merciless taunts, or how Harry instinctively shields Hermione with his body when dementors and werewolves and animagi start attacking in the last act. These details moved me halfway to tears, and they are exactly what was missing from the earlier films -- a dose of genuine humanity within this elaborate magical world. When Harry goes for a ride atop Buckbeak the hippogriff, smiling and laughing and holding on for dear life as the animal soars through the sky and glides along the water, he's not just a kid having a blast, but a boy taking solace in a momentary break from the harsh reality below -- where Hagrid, Ron and Hermione are waiting, yes, but more importantly also Malfoy, Snape, Azkaban guards, and perhaps even the dread Sirius Black."

His mention of Harry's brief moment of pure exhiliration while riding Buckbeak is perfectly stated. There is such intangible feeling to that scene; it refuses to offer up conventional images of wonderment but instead locates a real sense of wonder from the simplicity of it. It melds together happiness and sadness in unspeakable ways, and it does so by removing Harry (literally) from the ground and separating him from all he knows, if only for a few moments. The images and music evoke this feeling to a tee.

Throughout the rest of the movie, there are small asides that don't seem connect with the overall plot, but which lend the film a sense of organic ingenuity that the other four films have largely abandoned in service of plot. Cuaron dares to dream of those little moments and sounds which contrast with the movement of the plot so ingeniously, such as talking heads and carolers in the snowy town of Hogsmeade or a flying creature floating about the school grounds before being snatched up by the Whomping Willow. These little moments, although arbitrary, give the film a strange, offbeat personality, one that sets it apart from the others.

But there are also character moments littered throughout, such as a short exchange between Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) and Harry, as Lupin tells Harry about his memories of James and Lily Potter. With the rest of the student body in Hodsmeade and Hogwarts feeling as empty as Harry's heart, this scene comes at just the right point in the narrative and strikes a muted affective chord. Once again, the camera locks in on Harry's expressions (with Lupin in the background, on the other side of the bridge); he is framed by the window of the bridge in the right side of the shot. It is one of the most revealing compositions of the movie in which we can peer right into his soul. At the end of the scene, Lupin rejoins Harry on the camera's side of the bridge and it eventually pulls out to and cuts to a long shot image of the bridge.

Another rich moment like this is between Harry and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who is revealed to be a loving godfather of Harry's rather than the vicious villain he'd feared to be throughout the film. Harry and Sirius gaze at Hogwarts at dusk during which time Sirius recalls his first moments entering the school. The camera sits behind their heads as they look up at the silhouette of the school cutting through the darkening, moonlit sky. The sounds of night creatures swarming from a tree echoe in the background as the quiet horns of Williams' music once again seem to mix hope with melancholy as Harry and Sirius share their first real moment together, each more cautious about expressing their inner vulnerabilities than they desire to be. They look to the horizon while they talk, never really looking at one another, even when Sirius nervously asks Harry if he'd like to live with him rather than his Aunt and Uncle. It's yet another small moment --one of many-- that makes up the emotional core of a movie of understated depth.

When I was putting together my list of favorite movies, one of the very first to go on was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Others may scoff, for sure, or cite me as a fanboy. But I learned when I saw this movie that the impressions I get from surface details of a movie before seeing it can never capture what a movie's about. Cinematic greatness can creep up on you in the most odd of times and places. I was enamored with this film from the first time I saw it; no experience with another Potter movie came close to equaling the emotional spectrum and pure feeling I experienced watching this movie. Since that first experience, it has remained strong in my memory and has held up to be just as emotionally rich on subsequent viewings. It's not just a atmospheric fantasy picture or a good character drama. This movie is a hybrid of so many genre styles, narrative techniques, and visual perspectives that it defies the easy labeling so often ascribed to it. Often, these labels and categorizing processes can pre-package the cinematic experience for us, conditioning viewers to process sounds and images as pre-digested concepts and feelings and limiting our interpretive abilities, in so doing suprressing the feeling of experiencing strangeness and pure unfiltered feeling, which cinema can aesthetically deliver. But if we allow our sensibilities to open beyond the easy interpretations offered to us, sometimes we can experience something much greater, more challenging and meaningful.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a movie that may be difficult to make sense of in terms of its plot or its positioning in the middle of a series of stories. Structurally and stylistically, it plays by the rules. It is not free of classical movie and narrative conventions; but it demonstrates that even the most traditional of storytelling convention can be explored in new ways so as to reval complexity and sublimity in the most unexpected ways. With Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Alfonso Cuaron finds that perfect balance between sameness and innovation, showcasing the undeniable lure of classical storytelling and mythic archetypes as well as the aesthetic potential of cinema to find the sublime in just about any image, moment, or story.


Daniel Vella said...

This is the best and most in-depth review of the film I have read anywhere, and I agree wholeheartedly. This is a wonderful, perfectly-executed and remarkably powerful film by any standards, not just that of the Potter series or of Hollywood blockbusters, and the fact that it is not often recognized as such, I feel, owes a lot to the preconceptions which are all too often allowed to colour critics' verdicts of a film.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the feedback, Daniel. I was wondering how this was received by fellow film lovers and writers. This piece hopefully represents the beginning into a bigger project I have in mind about blockbusters, sequels, and criticism. If you've read any of my other pieces this summer, particularly my Ratatouille review, my Jaws review, or my Critic and the Blockbuster piece, you'd know that the issues you mention concern me. Journalistic film criticism is waning -- no doubt -- and their limited interpretations of both mainstream and non-maintream cinema are transparent.

Daniel Vella said...

The issue is one that interests me...though I am in no way an academic I have become interested in writing a piece analyzing the blockbuster as a genre that is more than capable of genuine aesthetic worth. I read your review of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and I also found that to reflect to quite an extent what I felt about two films (DMC and AWE) that I thought many people rather missed the point of.

Anyway, just discovered your blog today and I have to say I've enjoyed reading it, looking forward to reading more.