It’s just past the midpoint of the year, a time of necessary reflection and pause, about the state of the art. Style, art and aesthetics are harder to quantify, and they’re typically distrusted by the masses. I went to take another look at Kelly Reichardt’s extraordinary Meek’s Cutoff recently, and the people next to me sneered at it much of it and were openly hostile by the movie’s enigmatic ending.
People are more comfortable responding to numbers, raw data. And so, the almost sexually-tinged response to the unprecedented box office of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 affirms once again the only time people truly get excited about the movies is as a business. I’ve said before, but it’s worth repeating, I care about films and directors (and actors and writers and cinematographers) and not the business. I’m not an investor in the original product and I don’t own stock in any of the major conglomerates that dominate the industry.
Harry Potter has been a phenomenon since the moment J.K. Rowling published the first book. The movies have been pretty good, for the most part. I have to admit, I’ve never seen the first two films, the ones directed by Chris Columbus, in their entirety (probably about eighty percent). All of the films are pretty much auteur (and critic) proof. Still, that doesn’t mean they’re not a great deal of fun to write about.
One might begrudge Rowling her insane wealth and great fortune; I applaud anybody with the smarts, nerve and brains to engender entire generations of kids to yield their video games and take up reading, even if it only proves temporary.
Rowling’s not a great writer by any stretch, but she has a near supernatural gift for plugging into an alternately soothing, frightening emotional simulacrum of childhood and adolescence played out as a series of daring games and riffs on identity and youthful competence.
For better or worse, the Potter films cannily suggest a classic studio era product updated to the technologically sped up present. By that, I mean, the movies feel less directed than assembled, with each film boasting the best in production designers, art directors, composers, technicians and specialists money can buy. We’re not talking William Cameron Menzies, but they’re awful good.
The series conjures the best of mid-thirties Warners in other ways, studio bound, ersatz and impersonal in many respects but also carried through with a delightful emphasis on the bit player (played by some of the greatest English actors of their era). Any series that throws at you pretty much the entire Mike Leigh company is worth taking seriously.
The producers are the real powerbrokers on the franchise. The directors are more typically hired hands, though I agree with most people that Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban is the strongest entry, not just because it is the best directed work, but it is the only one where you sense the authority and command of a director shaping the material visually and taking it into unexpected and lyrical heights. (Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire is by far the second best.) Steve Kloves, writer of seven of the eight titles, is also the main reason films play as well as they do.
David Yates directed the final four works; before Order of the Phoenix, he’d never directed a theatrical feature, all of his credits were BBC films. The movies are all really marvels of casting, particularly the three leads: Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), best mate Ron (Rupert Grint) and the luminous and dashing Hermione (Emma Watson).
They bridge the work, emotionally, and allow a human connection to the technical architecture, offering a sense of lived in experiences that encompass a range of feelings, actions, behavior about envy, ambition, pretentiousness, longing and awkwardness. They get at something very particular about the interior consciousness of youth, the precariousness of it all. It is also why all the movies are overstuffed and familiar and episodically drawn because the plotting is the weakest element of the stories, all variations of good and bad fathers and sorting through Harry’s Oedipal conflicts.
To his credit, Yates finds a resonant way to conclude the series while conceding dramatically how inherently anticlimactic Deathly Hallows is given there was no other way to end it other than the preordained showdown between Harry and his archnemesis Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the monomaniacal despot who murdered Harry’s parents.
Sensing the massive machinery coming to an end, Yates is finally able to exert a more dynamic shape and rhythm here than the previous entries. Yates and his great cinematographer Eduardo Serra, Claude Chabrol’s key collaborator for much of the last decade and a half, create some thrilling imagery and dazzling uses of light and shadow. The 3-D doesn’t do much for me; I look forward to seeing the movie conventionally projected.
I prefer the smaller, quieter moments; Yates becomes a bit too enamored with the digital technology and he overuses it during the big clash Hogwarts’ clash between Harry’s partisans and Voldemort’s armies.The series is over. I was taken and tenderly caught up in the moment. The movies didn’t change my life, but their messiness, volatility and size cast a considerable shadow.