Thursday, November 25, 2010

Snape Charmer

Snake Charmers, Jaipur, India by Pants

There may be some karmic explanation for why I always pick a freak scorcher of a day to book my car in for its annual service, but since I'm not naturally a tuned-in type of person, I cannot intuit it. I chose a mechanic in the next town rather than one right here in Larrikin's End because he came enthusiastically recommended, and because 'mechanics' in Larrikin's End seem only to occupy garages when the fishing is no good.

I have learned it is best not to take your car anywhere near a garage that is not endorsed by at least three people who can prove they have no immediate relatives working there. I keep going to my garage because any mechanic who can look under your car and find nothing to tinker with is the motoring equivalent of a field of shamrocks made out of real emeralds.

Having alighted from the Pantibago into a day hot enough to qualify as a tandoori oven, I realised my only chance of survival was to find a place in which to pass the requisite three hours of servicing time. Since I did not have any chicken about my person, opening a tandoori stall was out of the question. I would need to find other employment for the duration, preferably in a freezer somewhere. The coldest place in town is always a cinema, so that is where I headed. As luck would have it, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 was just powering up.

I'm not a fan of the Harry Potter books, by which I mean, I tried to read the first one and gave up after a few chapters. In the world of Pants, that qualifies as significant rejection. It is rare for me to give up on a book. We have to be irreconcilably incompatible for me to withdraw my bookmark with this level of haste. I do, however, love the films and have seen all of them - some more than once. The relevance of this concentration of engagement becomes apparent as I'm watching the film as I've already been exposed to a number of reviews.

They were carping on a scale stretching from niggling to downright affronted. Some claimed the plot is hard to follow and relies too heavily on revelations contained in previous films. Well, yes, that's series for you. Recaps and flashbacks disrupt the forward motion and I'm glad the makers of the Harry Potter films have resisted the temptation to handhold the uninitiated. I don't have much of a sense of humour where condescension is concerned and I figure if I can remember a few basic plot lines, then anyone can. I do not want to be paying again for something I've already seen.

Granted, the film is short on those ingenious little magic tricks and trappings that abounded in the first couple of films. And if that's the thing that levitates your enchanted galleon, then you may be disappointed. There is no gratuitous gadgetry here. And there is no Hogwarts in which to stage all those grand ceremonial set pieces that temper the tone. In this episode Harry, Hermione and Ron are cast adrift on a creepy treasure hunt to locate and destroy a series of 'horcruxes' - objects in which ├╝ber baddie Voldemort has secreted fragments of his soul. All part of his grand plan to attain immortality.

There never has been anything particularly original about the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling's talent as a storyteller is that she can effortlessly lever in common and recognisable tropes from other stories or historical events, needing only a passing reference to import their meaning.

The films are even better at this type of shorthand. The presence of a black leather trench coat on a Ministry of Magic employee signals just how sinister and serious the pogrom on 'mudbloods' is likely to become. At one point, Harry wears a horcrux in the form of a locket on a chain around his neck. He becomes aggressive towards Hermione who orders him to take it off. She needs only to verbalise this and we immediately recognise that, like Frodo's ring, the locket corrupts. No lengthy explanation is needed.

The narrative niftiness and an almost complete absence of any other characters besides the teen trinity leaves a lot of space for some introspection. This hasn't gone down well with everyone. Some reviewers have scoffed at the long, lingering looks and painfully strained relationships. HP7P1 has a cinematic eternity to travel before it reaches the time-frozen excesses of Twilight gazes. Let's not lose that perspective. We've seen these kids grow and their burdens grow with them.

As dramatic trajectories go, I think the film has the character development about right at this point. When you're sixteen-going-on-seventeen, life really does slow to a torpid pace as you drag your adolescent self through those torturous final years of schooling towards adulthood and the freedoms it represents. And no one does tell you anything and you really do have to work the world out for yourself. And even if adults did try to advise you, you would never, ever have given them the time of day.

In one scene Harry leads Hermione into a tension-busting dance. They are holed up in a tent in the New Forest. Ron has scarpered and both are feeling mentally and physically beat. Harry extends his hand with youthful manliness. Hermione, for once, suppresses her inner control freak. They dance along to some music playing on an old-fashioned battery-operated radio, echoing a thousand films past. But this is no seduction scene. What we get is neither sexy nor romantic. It's the senior prom these kids were never able to have. This is the dance of transition. A small gesture from the seventeen-year-old who is destined to battle evil on behalf of all humanity, whether magical or muggle, indicates a rite of passage traversed. And it doesn't call for compromise on the part of Hermione. What we have here is a maturing of equals. In a cinemascape awash with girls depicted as legs with lips, I'm personally very glad of the individual that is Hermione Granger.

The parking of adult business while all this growing up is occurring is quite brilliant, I think. We are reminded at intervals that the mature-aged constants are mobilising on their various sides. The exception is Hogwarts head Albus Dumbledore who is killed by the series chameleon Severus Snape in the previous episode, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. Snape has been, from the very beginning, the bellwether character, the one who is always on the winning side. He is the one you know will always return in some pivotal way to turn the action.

Snakes have been used sparingly over the course of this series. But when they do make an appearance, they scale up, (sorry) the fear factor exponentially. Harry Potter, as any gule kno, is a parselmouth - someone who can speak and understand the language of snakes. He discovers this ability early on via a quality encounter with a friendly giant python at London Zoo. By the time we reach Voldemort's conference table in this penultimate episode, the serpent has become a terrifying enforcer of master's will.

There is no great mystery to the quest of Harry Potter. He's going to save the world. We all know that. It's what heroes are created to do. The skill involved in building suspense despite the outcome being uncontested territory is not to be underestimated. I was perfectly happy to have arrived at the destination at which Part 1 terminates and very much enjoyed the ride. It's selling this film short to dismiss it as 'one for true fans only'. It's way better than that. But it is a serial episode and you do need to have been following the story. It seems bizarre to me that reviewers should claim a right to expect that a cinema film must be comprehensible as a stand-alone product when it clearly markets itself as one segment of a whole. Serialisation is a tradition that is centuries old and one that has always met with popular appeal.

The decision by Warner Bros. to split this final book into two movies may well have been motivated by a desire for greater profit. The last time I looked, film companies were not in the primary business of elevating public culture. It's a bit like chiding a casino for promoting gambling. It's not like we're being horribly and cynically exploited here. I doubt there will be many people moaning that they'd have preferred to see a movie series that has transfixed a decade done and dusted this year.

I'm looking forward to the 2011 finale. As I said, I haven't read the books, but I know what will happen. I just don't know how it will happen. I do know that the Pantibago will need a service about the time it comes out though. Wainsdale will have to wait until 2012 for that tandoori stall...