Category Archives: fillum

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (5 of 5)

Do you know how tall he was?
Because that’s all that really matters
Do you know his mother’s last name?
Don’t you think that he’s divine?
You’ve seen the film, you’ve read the book,
You’re drinking vintage Elvis Presley wine
– Elvis Costello, “Useless thing” (from the sadly underrated Goodbye Cruel World)

THE STORY SO FAR: six main ‘plot strands’ have been identified in the ‘Harry Potter’ ‘series’. But is that all there is to it? And what has it got to do with the ‘brass tacks’ approach to fantasy? All will be revealed, hopefully.

There are, as we were saying, a whole series of plot lines in the Potter books:

  1. The Cinderella Factor (the cupboard under the stairs and how Harry escaped it)
  2. The Power Of Love (Lily’s sacrifice and its longer-term effects)
  3. Handsome Devil (Lily and Snape and Lily and James and Sirius and Snape and Lily)
  4. Noblesse Oblige (how the Malfoys (nearly) got in too deep)
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (the Ministry of Magic and how Harry very nearly didn’t escape it)
  6. We Could Rule The World (young Dumbledore and his special best friend)

The nobility of victimhood, I think, is the red thread that runs through plots ##1, 2, 3 and 5, contrasting with plot #6 (the false nobility of mastery) and to some extent with #4 (the false nobility of aristocracy). To put it another way, plot #1 – the Matilda plot, which appeared to have been shelved by the time Harry got to Hogwarts – is the master plot of the whole series: Harry is the victim who triumphs. More specifically, Harry is the sacrificial victim who triumphs by embracing his own sacrifice – and triumphs thanks to the strength he draws from the sacrifice of others, who had themselves each embraced their own sacrifice (first Lily, then Dumbledore, then Snape).

Celebrations of noble sacrifice are an awkward, self-contradictory thing in life: the person who did the noble deed isn’t there, while the people celebrating haven’t done anything. I tend to think self-sacrifice is overrated, both as a motivation and as an achievement; I firmly believe that Emily Davison intended to go home after the Derby, and I wonder if her death really gained the WSPU more than she would have given it in another five, ten or fifteen years of activism. (Clarence doesn’t tell George Bailey about all the people he could have inspired by dying heroically.) Even in the world of Potter, the canonical nobility of sacrifice is qualified by its uncertain effect: Lily’s death keeps Harry alive, but the only person who benefits directly from either Snape’s death or Dumbledore’s is Voldemort. (And if the magic of Lily’s love for her child was as powerful as all that – effectively rebounding on Voldemort not once but twice – you have to wonder why Voldemort’s curse couldn’t just have rebounded off her the first time round; it would have saved an awful lot of trouble.) Moreover, in the character of Snape Rowling comes uncomfortably close to endorsing the position that sacrificing one’s own conscience, so as to commit evil deeds for the sake of the greater good [sic], can be a form of self-sacrifice – a line of argument which rather uncomfortably evokes Himmler.

Nevertheless, I think this is the core logic of the books: Dumbledore as a willing victim, compromised by his thirst for power, but redeemed by his faith in Harry; Snape as a willing victim, compromised by being a Death Eater but redeemed by his love for Lily; Lily as a pure willing victim, ennobled by her love for Harry; and Harry as the Willing Victim Who Lived, mistreated by everyone from Aunt Marge to Lord Voldemort, but ultimately buoyed up by all that love and faith. The extraordinary range and variety of people who bully Harry also makes sense in this context: what else do the Dursleys, Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, Rita Skeeter and Rufus Scrimgeour have in common?

I suggested earlier that, although a lot of fantasy looks as if it’s set in a type-1 world – “here’s my made-up world, here’s a map and here are some stories set in it” – in practice successful fantasy worlds tend to fall into types 2 and 3, the ‘numinous’ and the ‘parasitic’. Both of these, in different ways, are animated by the aim of reflecting the world we know: ‘numinous’ worlds are about the meaning of life, ‘parasitic’ worlds are about how to run a country. (Earthsea is full of maps, but plainly numinous; Discworld has its own history, sort of, but it’s fundamentally parasitic.) I also suggested that even type-4 worlds – bodged-up, inconsistent worlds, like Narnia and the Potterverse – may turn out to have an animating goal, which in turn could be numinous/religious or parasitic/political; at least, Narnia certainly does, and its world-building is as bodged-up as you like.

I wonder now if, thanks to my starting-point with Tolkien and Lewis, I defined the category of the ‘numinous’ too narrowly; perhaps you can use fantasy to ask what life is ultimately like without involving religion, or anything like it. Consider the Moomin books: an awful lot of those stories are precisely about what life is like. What life is like, they tell us, is ‘sad’ – but, crucially, sad in different ways: you can be sad like Moomintroll because your friend’s gone away, or like the Muskrat because you’ve chosen the wrong personal philosophy, or like Moominpappa because you feel that you’ve done everything, or like the Hemulen because you have done everything (that you could think of), or like the Fillyjonk because nobody appreciates the effort you make just to hold it together, or like the Groke because you’ve got a chip of ice in your heart that nothing will ever melt. And all of those different sadnesses can lift, and give way to different forms of happiness, even if only temporarily. (Sometimes the Fillyjonk dances; even the Groke dances, once.) Or you can be like Tooticky, keep yourself to yourself, take one day at a time and not fuss about sadness.

Similarly, perhaps, with Potter and victimisation (a word which here means both ‘the process of being made a victim’ and ‘being picked on and bullied’). That ticklish focus-pulling between mundane and metaphorical levels of description – that sense that what you’re reading both does and doesn’t have a deeper meaning – is seen most clearly in the depiction of Harry as a victim. Is Harry’s endless suffering at the hands of his various tormentors an ordeal to be borne with dignity – and for which he’ll receive a corresponding reward somewhere down the line – or is he just a teenage boy having a really rough time of it? (A rich, athletic and nationally famous teenage boy having a rough time, admittedly. It must have been awful for him.) Come to that, was Dumbledore’s death pointless – or Snape’s? Or does each man’s embrace of self-sacrifice endow his death with power and virtue, thanks to some wrinkle in the magical scenery? Right to the end, it’s never entirely clear. (At the very end, of course, we learn that Harry has named his first child after both Snape and Dumbledore – but that doesn’t answer the question, so much as rephrase it in the form Is that all there is?) Those two things – the glory and honour of the ‘noble victim’ motif, together with the knowledge that being a victim is horrible and the never-quite-staunched suspicion that it actually gets you nothing but pain – may account for a lot of the appeal of Potter. Just as the Moomin books are a meditation on life’s sadnesses, the Potter books are a misery memoir.

But this brings us back to the sheer strangeness of the prevalence of brass-tacks interpretations of Potter; nobody treats the world of the Moomins as if it were real, after all. Why is it that, if I go looking for discussion of Dolores Umbridge, the first (and second, and third) thing I find is an elaborate fictional back-story for this fictional character, complete with her mother’s maiden name and her age when her parents’ marriage broke up? And not, for example, a reference to Eichmann in Jerusalem or “In the Penal Colony”; or a discussion of that name (“Pain, Indignation”); or a debate about how successfully JKR walks the line between disgust at a female character’s play-acting of a sexist role and sexist disgust at a female character’s play-acting. (Not a new question, that last one. “Let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”…) I could also ask why, when I finally do find literary parallels being evoked on one of these pages, they aren’t Shakespeare or Kafka but Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death and Toy Story 3, but that’s a slightly different discussion.

The only parallel I can find for Potter fandom’s investment in the reality of ‘their’ world is Tolkien fandom. Perhaps that’s all there is by way of an explanation; perhaps literalist fandom is just the kind of thing that happens when you have a story which focuses on ordinary characters making a big difference to the world, written by an author who’s keen to fill in the background. I’m not sure; I think the differences between the two worlds, and the kind of detail that the respective fans invest in, are too great for us to conclude that Potter fans are doing the same kind of thing as TLOTR fans.

Pedantic digression on abbreviations.
I keep having to remind myself to write TLOTR instead of the more familiar abbreviation LOTR. But the trilogy is called The Lord of the Rings for a reason. It’s not about the general idea that, if there were some important Rings, there might be such a role as Lord of same; it’s about the Lord of the Rings – and how he was defeated. I wonder what the vastly greater uptake of “LOTR” as an abbreviation – 119 million hits for LOTR without TLOTR, 96 thousand for TLOTR without LOTR – signifies.

Moving along… There’s a big difference between investing in the reality of Middle Earth and investing in the reality of the Potterverse. Getting back to our typology of world-building, Middle Earth is very much type 2; the world-building is numinous with a capital Nu. The reality you’re committing to, if you immerse yourself in the Tyler Companion or pore over Tolkien’s own maps (those mountains! that lettering!), is a reality that is always already metaphorical, a world in which (what are basically) angels do centuries-long battle with (someone who’s basically) Lucifer. The entire story of The Lord of the Rings apparently began with the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, which itself began with Tolkien’s fascination with the seemingly paradoxical idea that an eternal being (whether Arwen or God) might feel genuine love for a here-today, gone-tomorrow mortal (whether Aragorn or… you and me). This in turn grew out of Tolkien’s personal experience of the paradox of death – that the death of a parent, a lover, a friend is the one thing that we can be absolutely certain will happen to that person, and yet is experienced as an unbearable, earth-shattering tragedy, the one thing we could never have prepared for. (Cue the Daniel Handler quote: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”)

Put all that together and you have a view of the world – this world as well as Middle Earth – sub specie aeternitatis. Ahab: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” Ahab, admittedly, was crazy – and I’m not too sure about Herman Melville – but I think there’s something of this philosophy in Tolkien, and perhaps in any Christian author. (This world is certainly a ‘pasteboard mask’ in the Narnia books – but ultimately so is Narnia. Further up and further in!) The facts of everyday life, in this way of thinking, are a mundane backdrop, temporarily shielding us from a story that’s told in much bigger terms – the joy of absolute love, the threat of absolute loss; and that story, even though we only have access to it in rare and heightened moments, is our story, the story of our lives. I’m not saying all that is on every page of TLOTR, but it is in there somewhere. And it follows that to say you believe in the reality of Middle Earth is also to say you believe in life and death, good and evil, God and… certain tendencies to turn away from God. Big stuff.

Potter, not so much. The glory (or is it?) of the ennobling (or is it?) experience of victimisation (it definitely is) is the sore tooth that the Potter books keep going back to prod. But this cluster of ideas doesn’t really have any resolution; it only leads to savouring the put-upon wretchedness of being a victim, on one hand, and the vindictive pleasure of being a victor on the other. We aren’t brought up short by the sublime – confronted with something that exceeds anywhere that the hero, or the story, can go, in the same way that meeting God exceeds anything we can think and meeting death (or the Lady of the Cold) exceeds anything we can do. Rather, we’re left playing through an unresolved emotional conflict, with an endgame that reverses the players’ positions but leaves the conflict itself in place. Was everything Harry endured really necessary, or were people like Aunt Marge and Pansy Parkinson just really nasty to him? (And even if his suffering was necessary, did Dumbledore have any right to put him through it?) At the end of the series, does happiness reign, with people like Umbridge being punished appropriately, or has life returned to normal, with arrogant snobs like Draco Malfoy still contriving to fast-track their kids? If Umbridge is being tormented in Azkaban, is that something we can or should feel happy about? If Draco is still, well, Draco, is that something to feel unhappy about? There’s a satisfaction in playing it through, watching our hero repeatedly getting sand kicked in his face and then, eventually, turning the tables – especially when he tricks the system, turning the tables by being an especially good victim. But satisfaction isn’t resolution; there can be no resolution, because both sides of the opposition – victimhood and victory – are themselves impure, un-worked-through, unresolved. In short, an alternative title for Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass is Harry Potter and the Compulsion of Repetition. We have to keep going back to that world, and taking it on its own terms, for much the same reason that JKR keeps going back to it – because it’s not done yet. Another detail, another supporting character, another back-story plot-twist, another retcon, and it’ll be finished, perhaps… But it never will – or not without a change of narrative gear that would make the shift from The Subtle Knife to The Amber Spyglass look trivial.

Harry Potter will never approach the higher planes of meaning – big ideas entertained in tranquillity – frequented by Aslan, and Elrond, and Granny Weatherwax and Tooticky. The crushing revelation in book 7 that even Dumbledore was never really above the game – that he was a player, just as much as Rufus Scrimgeour or Narcissa Malfoy – eliminated that possibility. There is no good and evil in Potter, only people who dedicate themselves to the cause of good, or the cause of evil, with smaller or larger degrees of self-doubt and smaller or larger degrees of self-deception. Indeed, there’s a strong suggestion that those who don’t doubt themselves are deceiving themselves, and vice versa – Umbridge vs Dumbledore, Bellatrix vs Narcissa: “the best lack all conviction”, while the worst lack insight and honesty. What this means, though, is that both sides are impure; both can (perhaps) be forgiven for the bad, or condemned for their good, they try to do. It also means that the sublimity of death and glory is, for the most part, out of bounds; there is no noble victory and no obliterating defeat, only people fighting in the name of good things and people fighting in the name of bad things. We know how this goes: they’ll win, and lose, and win, and lose. Harry Potter will get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again. And then he’ll get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again.

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Mullet with headlights

I stumbled across this video the other day:

I’m a sucker for the old subtitle gag, and this is a particularly good example. It made me laugh like a drain, but then it got me thinking… thinking…

FX: repeat audio with echo and fade, visuals wibbly-wobbly and dissolve

about the song… Bloody hell, Jim Steinman! I’ve never been a fan of the work of Meat Loaf, or ‘epic rock’ in any form – I remember thinking “Born to Run” was a dreadful old pile of clichés the first time I heard it (and don’t even mention “Freebird”). But you’ve got to admit the man can write. I mean, the repeating “Every now and then” thing made it a bit easier for him, but those are seriously long lines, and plenty of them. The song as a whole may be the musical equivalent of a five-tier wedding cake consisting entirely of costume jewellery and American cheese, but the structure of the lyrics is interesting and actually quite ambitious. Try singing a whole verse if you don’t believe me.

…also, about the singer… Given that it is a beast of a song, you’ve got to hand it to the artist formerly known as Gaynor Hopkins – she made a damn good job of it. (OK, you can’t hear the real vocals in that version – try here, or a live version from 2005 here (ratty video, awful accompaniment but great singing).) A proper belter, which goes for the song and the singer – nice to see she’s still working. Shame she didn’t seem to be enjoying the video, mind.

…and about that video. The video is a strange one. The song seems to be about romantic love envisaged in terms of insecurity and obsessive dependence; the singer’s experiencing a moment of desperate need, while at the same time yearning for her lover to transform her life utterly. (Well, we’ve all been there.) The video, storyboarded by Steinman and directed by Russell Mulcahy, is another matter. According to Some Guy On The Net, the video “drew inspiration from the 1976 film Futureworld“, but what this means is something of a mystery – nothing I’ve read about that film bears any resemblance to the video. It seems to be about a woman visiting a boys’ school to present prizes, and dreaming the night before that she’s lost in the school and surrounded by… boys! Posh boys! Fit boys! Posh fit boys! Posh fit boys fighting, tumbling, dancing! Posh, fit, half-naked boys dancing around her! (I think we can see where this is heading.) Then the next morning she gets suited up and does the cool authoritative adult thing, and it was All A Dream. Or… Was It?

It may be best not to over-think music videos. Tim Pope, appearing on the briefly-revived Jukebox Jury, opined that one video (not one of his) was “full of symbolism”. Symbolism? replied Jools Holland. What kind of symbolism? “Meaningful symbolism,” said Pope. This video is positively rammed with meaningful symbolism (the rendering of the phrase “bright eyes” is some kind of coup) – and the “boys’ school erotic fantasy” setup is certainly a concept, if it’s a concept you want. And if the execution is over the top, what else would you expect from the combination of Steinman and Mulcahy? The overall effect, though, keeps going past Over The Top and comes out in Downright Odd: a strange combination of relentless pace and disjointed cutting, together with facial expressions from Bonnie Tyler which range from blankness to mild disgust, give it a really nightmarish quality. A clue may be provided by Some Other Guy On The Net, according to whom

Bonnie Tyler refused to spray a group of young men with water during the filming of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart.’ Tyler admitted she called Mulcahy a “prevert,” which may be Welsh for pervert.

(“Prevert” is of course a well-established English-language usage, and may have French-language roots.)

Watch the video again (go on, I dare you) and it’s quite striking how Ms Tyler seems to be trying to keep her distance from the circumambient boys, to the extent of not appearing in the same shot as them any more than she has to. If Mulcahy had been working with a singer who was a bit more up for it, the video might have ended up looking less uncomfortable and less disjointed. (Just getting that shot of Bonnie Tyler making with the bucket of water – instead of the swimmers being hit by an anonymous bucket of water from stage left – would have changed the whole mood of the video.) On the other hand, it’s hardly surprising that a singer wouldn’t be up for it, considering that this is a song about romantic love envisaged in terms of insecurity and obsessive dependence – and not, for instance, a song about being unexpectedly surrounded by ninjas, Fonzie clones (“Fonzie’s been cloned!”) and flying zombie choirboys.

Which is where we came in.

There will be emus in the Zone

Searching the Lovefilm catalogue the other day, I was delighted (and slightly amazed) to find that you can rent Chris Marker’s La Jetée from them – not only that, but that Sunless comes on the same disc. I don’t really want to say anything at all about La Jetée, except that everything you’ve heard about it is true: it’s half an hour long, it’s in black and white, it’s told almost entirely in stills with voiceover, and it’s the greatest film ever made. Well, one of. Top ten, definitely. The title, incidentally, is much less romantic than it sounds – for a long time, before I saw it, I thought it meant something like “the leap” or “the throw”, très kierkegaardien. It actually refers to part of a 1950s airport – “the pier”, I guess it would be if you translated it.

Sunless is a bit more conventional, inasmuch as it’s 90+ minutes long, shot on film and in colour. Unlike La Jetée, though, it’s not narrative; it’s more of an essay or a long poem in the medium of film. And it’s also the greatest… well, one of the greatest films ever made. (Top ten, no question.) It’s shot mostly in Guinea-Bissau and Japan, and to begin with you could take it for a travelogue. But Marker’s not interested in places so much as people: people in streets, in bars, in markets, in boats and on quaysides, caught by the frank, intelligent, appraising gaze of the man behind the camera and returning it in kind. His eye is extraordinary: the film stock he’s using frankly isn’t great (in purely visual terms it’s more like watching a news report than a feature film) but he creates, or finds, some truly beautiful compositions. The composition of the film as a whole is remarkable, too: just as it seems it’s starting to sag, around the 80th minute, he pulls the whole thing together and makes you realise what it’s about. It’s about revolutionary politics, in part, and about how the struggle to turn an unjust world upside down is always continuing. But at a deeper level it’s about time: how time destroys everything and defeats everyone, and how we need to live within that situation and do justice to it, and about art as a way of bearing witness to it and resisting it.

Fantastic, beautiful film. (And quoted on a recent waxing by a popular singing group called the Kasabians, apparently.)

I wrote about Sunless once before, in the February 2000 issue of Red Pepper; it was my contribution to a “lost classics” feature called Memory Hole. Here’s what I said then:

Chris Marker is best known here for La Jetée, a thirty-minute science-fiction film composed almost entirely of still pictures and the avowed inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. In fact Marker is a prolific film-maker, working mainly in the documentary idiom; he is also a deeply political artist whose films attest to his passionate engagement with the left. However, while many of Marker’s works have been distributed in English versions, their uncommercial nature has consigned most of them to oblivion. One which richly deserves to be retrieved is Sans Soleil (Sunless).

The film opens uncompromisingly, with several seconds of black screen followed by a snatch of film showing three children in Iceland in 1964; this represents a moment of happiness, the narrator explains. The film is a meditation on the loss of time and the particularity of place. Marker watches the people of Tokyo honour their dead; in Guinea-Bissau he performs an act of commemoration himself, evoking the long forgotten revolution of Amilcar Cabral and its wider effects, in Portugal and elsewhere. In Japan, he juxtaposes traditional street festivals with department-store imitations of American style, rituals to commemorate broken dolls with the struggle over the building of Narita Airport. The film is also extremely beautiful, with frequent freeze-frames to pick out a single face, a single glance.

Marker’s leftism is rooted in a deep interest in people and how they live their lives; perhaps his nearest parallel outside cinema is John Berger. Sunless conveys this political passion with heart and style.

Yeah, that still holds up. Not so sure about this one, though (reviewing another film I’ve recently found on Lovefilm).

Nanni Moretti has a lot on his mind. He’s working on a musical, his wife is pregnant and elections are looming. On top of all that, he’s making a film: this film. Aprile takes Moretti’s film-making to a new level of autobiographical intimacy. A disenchanted left-winger, who follows current events so attentively that he wraps himself up in newspapers, Moretti is an appealing everyman. His story ends hopefully – little Pietro is born, the left wins the elections – but without any real conclusion. Aprile celebrates personal and political achievements, but reminds us that everything is still to play for.
– Michael Travis

That’s from the film review slot in the May 1999 Red Pepper. Having finally seen Aprile, all I can say is, Up to a point, Mr Travis. I can forgive the reviewer for missing what’s now the most famous sequence of the film – Moretti shouting at the TV during a debate between Berlusconi and Massimo d’Alema: “D’Alema, say something left-wing! Not even left-wing, say something civilised! Reply! React! Say something!”. That sequence has hung round d’Alema’s neck ever since (as well it might) but it wasn’t that well-known in Britain at the time. But there are so many small errors – Moretti gives up on the musical to make a radical documentary about the elections, which isn’t “this film” (and never gets made); he’s not an “appealing everyman”, unless your idea of Everyman is an Italian Woody Allen, a middle-aged man who’s so anxious about everything in his life that he never shuts up about any of it; and he doesn’t so much “[wrap] himself up in newspapers” as buy every paper he can find, cut out all the political stories and stick them all together to make one giant newspaper with pages ten feet wide, only to give up trying to make sense of it and wrap himself up in it (although admittedly that would take a lot of words). And there’s one really big error, regarding the ending of the film. It’s not inconclusive in the slightest: Moretti (or ‘Moretti’) has completely turned his life around by the end of the film. He’s stopped worrying about the baby (who is beautiful, incidentally); he’s given up the political film and thrown away his collection of press cuttings (“why should I keep a collection of things that make me angry?”); he’s started work on the musical again; and he’s made a general-purpose resolution to be bold and not to hold himself back, symbolised by a voluminous cape that he wears for the last five minutes of the film (which makes him look ridiculous, but that’s part of the point). It’s not a brilliant film, but it does have a brilliant ending – not least its closing scene, an extended sequence from the shooting of the musical – and Michael Travis missed it completely.

Mind you, he did have an excuse, what with being non-existent (or fictional (another Top Ten nominee behind that link, incidentally)). I was editing the Red Pepper culture pages at the time, and I’d had an offer of a review of Aprile; unfortunately it fell through, leaving me with a space to fill and no time to fill it in. So I read a couple of other people’s reviews of Aprile and I did the best I could. And I have to say that, judged as a review written by someone who hasn’t seen the film, it’s not all that bad.

I’ll do a proper writeup of my time on Red Pepper some day; for now, I’m afraid, it’s a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

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