13 July 2007

Roger the Hutt

I'm afraid that Roger Ebert has really, really lost it. He concludes his "review" of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as follows:

My hope, as we plow onward through "Potters" Nos. 6-7, is that the series will not grow darker still. Yet I suppose even at the beginning, with those cute little mail-owls, we knew the whimsy was too good to last. Now that Harry has experienced his first kiss, with Cho Chang (Katie Leung), we can only imagine what new opportunities lie ahead. Agent 009.75?

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (10 Jul 2007) (rating: 2.5 out of 4).

I'm not going to claim that the film is a masterpiece on the close order of Citizen Kane, or Apocalypse Now! (original cut), or 2001, or even The Stunt Man. It's not; no condensation can meet that kind of standard, particularly a condensation in which the screenwriter doesn't know the ultimate ending. Nonetheless, it has a narrative coherence that's extremely rare in "children's/family films" of any era or almost any film including "special effects" since the late 1980s.

Ebert's review shows two things about his current approach that, to my mind anyway, demonstrate why he should gracefully retire. First, he doesn't like, let alone understand, metafiction. Admittedly, the metafiction in HP5 is somewhat shallow, and a little bit too overt in the novel (it is actually handled a little bit better in the film). However, Ebert's long history of dismissing films that rely extensively on metafictional devices and/or themes reflects far too much of the "film as pure entertainment" school of criticism to which Ebert belongs. The arguments he used to have with the unfortunately late Gene Siskel often came from this preconceived notion of values.

Second, and perhaps more tellingly, how can he possibly make that remark about his hopes that the series "will not grow darker still"? Leaving aside the fact that only an ostrich (and a particularly isolated one) would not know that HP6 is a substantially darker book than was HP5, and that Joanne Rowling has promised more darkness yet in HP7 in a week's time, how can one complain about darkness in novels? Perhaps Ebert grew up with Pippi Longstocking in the midwest (about two miles from here, in fact), but the refusal of local media to report on the redlining occurring then in his own hometown — I live just west of a redlined "development" of the late 1950s — doesn't excuse his view of the valley of the dolls (note who wrote it) as the valley of the shadow of death.

All of that said, how was the film? It was marked by the continuing recession of Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) into the background, as is proper from both a faithfulness-to-story point of view and from a practical skill-of-actor point of view. It was marked by severe condensation and reordering of some events, mostly to the benefit of the storyline, theme, and internal coherence. (Kingsley Shacklebolt delivered one line much better than one could have gotten from a painting... and it makes much more sense coming from him, too.) Unfortunately, the sheer speed with which the publisher has tried to push volumes 4 and thereafter out the door has harmed them, because they all needed substantial pruning for their own benefit. The soundtrack was vastly better than previous films in this series; the composer has continued a well-considered retreat from John Williams's bombastic nonsense from HP1, and it wasn't mixed to overwhelm other sounds in the film. Overall, it was a much-better-than-average movie experience.

Unfortunately, my theater experience was marred by some asshole texting like a demon several rows behind me without turning off the audible "you have a text message" notification on his fucking cellphone, and by considerable discomfort due to the poor design of the theater auditorium itself. It would cost them literally pennies to have some back support in the seats; it would cost them even less to ensure that the speakers are in phase in a relatively small auditorium (one of the surround speakers — center right — was out of phase with the others). That's not the film's fault. Much.