Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

McKinney versus McGonagall

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On Saturday, my wife and I went to see Tabloid, Errol Morris’s hugely entertaining new documentary about the strange life of Joyce McKinney, former beauty queen, dog cloner, and kidnapper of the manacled Mormon. We went to see it at Landmark Century, one of Chicago’s leading art house theaters, and because certain shows can get pretty crowded on the weekends, I made sure that we got there forty minutes early. Once we arrived, though, I was surprised to find that the theater itself was almost dead, and we were the first ones to be seated for Tabloid. And while the other seats gradually filled, the auditorium was never more than halfway full. It was almost, I mused to myself, as if everyone else in the world was off seeing some other movie.

That movie, of course, was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which we ended up seeing the following day. The contrast couldn’t have been greater: although we saw Harry Potter at an early matinee on Sunday afternoon, the theater was packed, mostly with adults, all doing their part to contribute to the most lucrative opening weekend of all time. It’s tempting, then, to see these two films as extreme ends of the moviegoing spectrum. Tabloid is a modest production even by Morris’s standards—he doesn’t do any of his usual reenactments or even any shooting on location, with the entire film consisting of talking heads, graphics, and archival footage—while Deathly Hallows is one of the most expensive movies ever made. Taken together, its two parts cost something like $250 million, meaning that Morris’s entire filmography could probably be financed by the first five minutes alone.

Beyond their scale and subject matter, the films also differ radically in their conceptions of storytelling. Tabloid is structured around an unfolding sequence of surprises: it’s best to go in without knowing anything about McKinney’s peculiar story, but even if you’ve studied it closely, you’re almost certainly going to be startled by some of the revelations in store. Deathly Hallows, by contrast, is built on a complete absence of surprise: for the most part, viewers are hoping to see the literal realization of events that they’ve been anticipating in detail for years, and in many cases have all but memorized before entering the theater. Deathly Hallows isn’t out to surprise us, but to satisfy us with the exemplary execution of a foreordained plot—which is something that it does very well.

But while I have to admit that I liked Tabloid just a bit better than Deathly Hallows, there’s room in this world for both kinds of stories. They also have more in common than you might think, at least when it comes to fulfilling our expectations. It’s absurd to expect a $250 million movie based on the most popular fantasy series of all time to surprise us in more than superficial ways. (This is the same reason why a Pixar film, as I’ve said before, generally can’t be as beguiling or strange as a Miyazaki movie.) And there’s also something predictable about Morris’s very unpredictability. As much as a Harry Potter fan goes into Deathly Hallows expecting something very specific, I go into a Morris movie expecting eccentricity, odd twists, and weird lights on human behavior. His brand, in some ways, is as consistent as Potter’s. Both are necessary; both are oddly comforting. And there’s room in everyone’s life for both.

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2011 at 9:51 am

Potter’s wheel

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During my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked as a film critic for a currently defunct pop culture website, attending preview screenings and cranking out movie reviews at fifty dollars apiece. This was, believe it or not, my first real job of any kind, and while not particularly lucrative, it was hugely educational. (I learned, for instance, that while it may sound like fun, being forced to see every movie that comes out between January and March is a special sort of hell.) I also suggested occasional ideas for feature stories, and one day, probably in the fall of 1999, I noticed that media interest was growing around a series of children’s fantasy books about a boy wizard. I made a note to bring up the idea with my editor, then promptly forgot about it. I never did write that story. And it looks like this may be my last chance.

Now that the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is finally in theaters, there have been a lot of think pieces about J.K. Rowling and the future of her creation, but one of the themes I find most interesting is the seamlessness of the franchise. This is the first global fantasy series, born from a novelist’s imagination, where books, movies, and other media were allowed to grow along with their audiences. There are those who love both the books and the movies; a significantly larger worldwide audience that has experienced the movies alone; and those, like me, who began with the books, then switched to the movies, once it became clear that the films were finally doing justice to the series. There’s also the theme park, the video games, and even, dare I say it, the fanfic. The result has shaped how we think about mainstream storytelling in ways we’re only beginning to appreciate.

As far as the films are concerned, Harry Potter was never my favorite movie franchise, but for the past ten years, it unstintingly received the full resources of one of our great movie studios, resulting in a polished Cadillac sheen that shouldn’t be underestimated. The installments by David Yates, in particular, while a bit impersonal, are among the handsomest, most lavishly mounted movies in recent memory, to the point where they’ve spoiled me for lesser franchises. These days, I get a little impatient watching a movie like Thor, which is clearly a big studio production but with obvious limits to its spectacle—meaning that it cost $150 million to make, not $250 million. And while the escalation of movie budgets is far from a good thing, there was still something reassuring about paying eleven dollars to see a Harry Potter film, knowing that you were bound to get your money’s worth.

But that doesn’t mean that bigger is always better. Of the movies, my favorite, somewhat to my surprise, is Goblet of Fire, which is also the only installment I never saw on the big screen. The first two movies are frankly embarrassing. Prisoner of Azkaban gets more respect, but while I have nothing but love for Alfonso Cuarón, I can’t get past that movie’s tonal issues and confusing final act, although much of it is smart and charming. And while the Yates installments, as I’ve said before, are big, sleek machines, Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire comes closest to my idea of what this series should be about: not action, not special effects, but the idea of magic and of being a child. The lovingly detailed buildup to the Yule Ball, which otherwise puts the complicated plot on hold, strikes me as the most satisfying sequence in all the films. And that’s where I’ll remember Harry.

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