Friday, August 28, 2009

An Unusual Rant about "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

I recently tagged along with my Dad and little sister to finally catch the latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. After seeing it, all three of us agreed that it was, on the whole, a decent movie. A terrible adaptation, argued my Dad who had just re-read the book and spotted the most discrepancies between text and film, but considered on its own, a decent movie (on the technical side, I must say that the true star is cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who brought us the dazzling images in Amélie, A Very Long Engagement and Across the Universe). But early on in the film, there was a small scene that stuck around in my head for the rest of the screening; one which quite effectively reminded me of my feelings for the franchise (and franchises in general) in relation to other films and, for better or for worse, affected my perspective on the boy wizard’s latest round of adventures on the silver screen.

The scene in question is the one that introduces our titular hero, eschewing yet another Dursley-centered exposition and zeroing in on Mr. Potter as he reads a newspaper in a small subway diner. He is interrupted by an alluring waitress (played by an actress named Elarica Gallacher) who, noticing his name all over the paper, innocently asks who Harry Potter is. The two strike up a small conversation that ends with her promptly telling him before he asks that she gets off work at eleven. It’s a nice little scene that’s shot and acted in a relatively natural style, allowing the two actors to establish both their respective characters and the slightest touch of attraction between them – a glimmer of potential that could lead to so much more. But then, after the waitress has gone, Harry looks out the window at the passing trains and sees, appearing out of nowhere in true wizard fashion…Dumbledore. Like an obedient dog who sees his master, Harry goes to join the headmaster’s side. After some words of greeting, Harry casts a longing glance at the diner where waitress has just exited. She looks around, searching for him. But alas, their rendezvous is not to be, and soon enough Dumbledore whisks Harry off to his next magical adventure.

Now, these two scenes inspired thoughts of protestation in me and slightly soured the remainder of the movie that followed them. The reason for this was simple: undoubtedly like Harry himself, I wanted him to ignore or dismiss Michael Gambon’s bearded wizard and go with the waitress instead. A completely pointless wish, I know – especially since I had read the book, was familiar with what lay in store for young (or not-so-young-any-more) Harry and knew all too well that the waitress’ scene wasn’t even in the book and was invented solely for the movie, meaning it’s highly unlikely that Ms. Gallacher will ever be seen again in the Potter-verse (contrary to Roger Ebert’s own hopes expressed in his review). But regardless, I wallowed in my feelings of futile hope and bitter disappointment all the same. The effect was similar to having had a juicy steak dangled in front of you, only to see it yanked out of sight and replaced with a bowl of tasteless grey gruel. Not that the remainder of the film was as unpleasant as eating gruel, but after having seen such a good, simple scene that hinged on a moment of genuine feeling and emotional subtlety instead of a similar moment intruded upon by a magical quest or CGI beastie, it might as well have been.

My feelings about this scene are no doubt similar to Daniel Radcliffe’s (and his costars’) own impatience with being chained to Warner Brothers and the remaining Potter films. He has recently made relatively successful ventures into non-Potter projects such as December Boys and My Boy Jack, the most famous one being the Broadway play Equus, which required him to perform nude onstage and paid off with a flurry of reviews commending his performance. Indeed, Radcliffe has improved as an actor, and it shows quite often in Half-Blood Prince. But to have to continually walk away from “real” acting jobs to fulfill an obligation to the series of children’s films he began at the tender age of eleven as well as its legions of fans must be annoying at the very least. Granted, seeing this particular responsibility through to the end is, all things considered, the right thing to do, and definitely preferable to having some other actor stepping in with only two or three films left to go. But still, it’s easier than ever to imagine just how eager Radcliffe must be to finish up the series so he can move on to bigger and better things.

In a recent online interview for, Radcliffe made the following observation about the Potter films: “You know what I take pride in more than anything else about these films? They’re the only films since Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series that have featured one character going from about the age of 11 to 20. To be in Truffaut’s company, I’m happy with that.” That quote alone seems to contain in a nutshell Radcliffe’s sharp taste and intelligence and illustrates how, by now, both are visibly clashing with the Harry Potter franchise – or, heck, the whole notion of big budget, big studio franchises in general. While it is indeed refreshing to pick up on the similarities between the two characters’ onscreen exploits (including the freeze-frame at the end of Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is almost definitely an homage to the famous one at the end of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows), the simple truth is that, outside of the focus on young people, these are two very different animals. While all five of François Truffaut’s films to feature his alter ego played by Jean-Pierre Léaud (being The 400 Blows, the short Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board and Love on the Run) are, in adherence to the filmmaker’s recognizable style, devoted to the simple wonders of everyday life and fittingly crafted with light-hearted compassion and naturalism, the Potter films for the most part remain primarily focused on two things: keeping the plot rolling and providing the spectacle of Harry’s magical world. There is still some attention to stuff like character development and moments of emotional significance (there would have to be in order for the films to, like the books, have any resonance with audiences), but such elements have to be packed in along with Quidditch matches, house elves, magic classes, spell casting and the inevitable, race-against-the-clock rush to stop the Dark Lord and/or his servants. Add to that the usual lack of style found among the franchise’s veteran mainstream directors Chris Columbus, Mike Newell and David Yates (Azkaban’s Cuarón being a notable – and noticeable – exception as a rare interloper from the world of art cinema), and what you have is a collection of films designed to be slick, glossy and easily consumed by the masses instead of the more interesting and personal expressions created by filmmakers such as Truffaut.

That’s what makes the diner scene such a gem within Half-Blood Prince – it’s something that Truffaut could have made. And just think about the film that would have resulted if Harry had told Dumbledore to find some other Chosen One and went off with the waitress! No Ron, no Hermione, no owls, no Voldemort – just, to borrow an analogy pricelessly used in Stolen Kisses, two people navigating through the minefield of young love. Plus, while Radcliffe has some nice, natural acting moments in Half-Blood Prince (like when he is comically “drunk” on the Felix Felicis potion), just think of the possibilities if he had the chance to show such bits of humor and subtlety in an entire film. I’m sure he’d be a match for Léaud at his most awkward and likeable.

But again, this is all kind of pointless, since, as I have said before and will say again, I shouldn’t be walking into a tofu shop looking for a steak. The sixth Harry Potter flick is finished, and there are only two more films to go (both comprising the events of the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). They will be what they are meant to be, and then Radcliffe can move on to other, hopefully different things. It looks like the first one on his list will be a portrayal of Dan Eldon, the young photojournalist who was beaten to death in Somalia in 1993 in the upcoming film The Journey is the Destination (promising premise, but the title leaves something to be desired). There’s really no telling where he might go from there, but maybe, just maybe, could he do a New Wave-ish character-based film shot on the streets and in ordinary locations? I don’t think it’s too much to wish for.

Oh yes, and let’s also hope Elarica Gallacher pops up in a bigger role in something tasteful sooner rather than later.


karena said...

Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

Thank you Marc! I just watched The 400 Blows and didn't understand the hub bub, now it all makes sense.

Fascinating analysis of Harry Potter, it really does mark a shift if the series and peoples reactions have been all over the place.