Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Conjuring

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

The keenly anticipated prequel to J.K. Rowling’s hefty private school saga begins with shrieking newspaper headlines, indicating shock and distress on the part of the wizarding world’s media intelligentsia. If there were a more fitting outset to a blockbuster opening worldwide in November 2016, I can’t think what it could be. In a society whose politics and culture coil closer together and intrude more abruptly on one another each passing day, it’s impossible for the mainstream media not to reflect itself and its hysterias more frequently, however unconsciously this is done. The effect is heightened by the fact that the script for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, unlike each of its Harry Potter predecessors, was written by Mme. Rowling herself, a prominent personality both in popular culture and, increasingly, in political discourse. One highly doubts she’d ever pass up the opportunity to weave her own hot take on current events into a major Hollywood feature.

And one would be proven right when one sees the film. Rowling is a first-time movie writer, and the film language she employs is not so much richly symbolic or ironic, as it would be in a high allegory, as it is plainly metaphoric. One sees what she means and respects her right to say it, sensing that one is hearing blunt parables and moralistic fables during a bourgeois dinner party discussion rather than watching the creations of a potent imagination, committed to celluloid and projected in a dark theatre for expectant thrill-seekers.

The studies on racial discrimination and class struggles in the wizarding world, and how it parallels our own, became tedious somewhere in the middle of the Harry Potter film series, and reached a grand summit of banality with the fascist iconography and rhetoric in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I. Not quite satisfied that the full potential of the subject was fulfilled, Rowling has elected to focus the central struggle of her new series on the same issue. In this film and the four that shall follow it, the main villain is a nasty wizard named Grindelwald (you’ll have heard of him briefly in the two Deathly Hallow films), once again bent on exalting the pureblood wizarding race over all non-magical people, and bringing the wizarding world out of hiding, if only so that it can entrench and lord over a muggle underclass. How is he different from Lord Voldemort, then, you may ask. For one thing, he’s a properly formed human being, with suitably Aryan platinum-blond hair, instead of a contoured, serpentine English Patient; for another, speculation and rumours abound that Grindelwald is the feverish former lover of Professor Albus Dumbledore. Merlin’s beard! One awaits with a new avidity Dumbledore’s familiar injunction: “Wands out!”

As it happens, a burgeoning gay consciousness is just what Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sets the stage for, with a gay liberation metaphor nearly as obvious and as trite as its colourblind earnestness. There are a few plot threads being spun in this film, obviously in order to lead us through the new byways and back alleys of Rowling’s magical universe that she intends to lay out over the new series. Our Ariadne here is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a student of magical zoology, who explores the world’s terrains seeking out new species of all classes and orders of magical beasts and bugs, and studying them. His objective is the conservation of magical beasts, which are increasingly threatened by an ignorant and hostile wizarding community; in America, the breeding and private ownership of magical beasts has been banned. In England, Newt had been expelled from Hogwarts because of incidents involving beasts (thought the incidents are not named or described, viewers are free to imagine what misdeeds Newt carried out in private prep school dorms, as well as why one specific Professor took such a liking to him there). He arrives in New York quite unmagically – by steamboat – in the midst of a citywide crisis that originates in the wizarding world, but plagues wizards and muggles alike: something called an Obscurus is on the loose, destroying buildings and endangering New Yorkers’ lives.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) An Obscurus is a malevolent magical force that wells up in a young host when they are fearful of being caught and punished for practicing magic and are forced to repress their powers. In this case, the young host is a teenage wizard named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a charge of a witch-hunting crackpot, Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), who heads the New Salem Philanthropic Society. Any viewers hoping for an apposite Arthur Miller allusion, or a nod to the moral and political courage he embodied for causes related to gay liberation, should keep their hopes bridled; neither Rowling nor her trusty steed of a workhorse director  – David Yates – is at all so adept as to bring real political ideas into their endeavours. What they manage is to present Mary Lou as a villain as bland and unambiguous as a cartoon thug, by stuffing her dialogue with cliches of Christian fundamentalism and having her beat Credence with a belt for his missteps. In short, he can’t healthily express himself and openly explore his true nature, which induces in him a terrifyingly malicious fury, ultimately leading to self-destruction. Couple this recognition with Ezra Miller’s now familiar persona as the ebullient gay Bestie in 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (and the sexually eccentric intern in last year’s Trainwreck), and the gay coding is decrypted.

All doubt is blown away during scenes between Credence and the auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, recognisable as the fount of many gay men’s fantasies), which take on a peculiar and quiet tenderness. It’s clear that Graves is manipulating Credence for information; he discern’s the boy’s need for intimacy and affection, whispering to him suggestively, and leaning in for an uneasily sensual embrace. The plainness of Credence’s story and its meaning are perhaps a semiconscious atonement on Rowling’s part for having given no indication in her Harry Potter novels of the sexual orientation or identity of her most beloved character, Albus Dumbledore, despite shamelessly deploying the “fact” of his homosexuality with such boldness after the last book was published. The rest of the film’s background is a heap of contemporary gay culture talking points, with unfair laws against whom witches and wizards are allowed to love, the secrecy in which they’re forced to conduct their entire lives, the hysteria of hate groups who wish to out them and destroy their communities, their own underground bars, and the coded gestures and actions by which they identify each other when out in the muggle world. No doubt, Rowling saw the tentative steps taken in recent hits such as Frozen and X-Men towards explicit depictions of gay struggle, and decided to move one step further in her own Hollywood forays.

The other major plot thread running through the first two thirds of the film involves Newt hurrying around New York City in search of the animals that have escaped from the old suitcase he carries around with him. He’s accompanied by Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler – and, yes, Rowling and Yates pass up opportunities to allude to Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan here as well), a humble factory worker with the lofty ambition of running his own bakery, for which he is in need of finance; Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former auror and current clerk in the employ of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, whom Newt runs into on his first day in the city; and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), a big-hearted bombshell who indecorously reads the mind of whoever is closest to her. These sequences are generally poorly conceived and dully executed; and I suspect that the sterile scenarios set out in the script provide an unintentional view behind the scenes, into why the film is so uninspired, so unmagical.

The Magical Congress of the United States of America appears to be a large, authoritarian, federalist state, headed by a female President (Carmen Ejogo), and is otherwise totally absent from the film. We see and enter its building, a large skyscraper in Manhattan, but don’t encounter a single Congressman or -woman, nor hear the mention of any constituencies, Constitution, legislation, judicial system, government process, public forums, or any other instruments of democracy. Judging from this film, America’s magical government is run by the executive power of the President alone, which is as apt an illustration as can be drawn of how the entire cast and craw of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them serve at the pleasure of J.K. Rowling, who has consolidated her power over the film series and extensive Harry Potter media empire, and seems dangerously hostile to allowing any broader freedoms to anyone else on set. In fact, she seems hostile to allowing freedoms to fans of the books as well, often countering their allegories and fan fiction with pronouncements of her own, seemingly out of nowhere. The true text of Harry Potter lies not on any page, but in her head, and the world and all its inhabitants, in whatever incarnation they may take, are totally under her ownership and control. For this reason, any film adaptation of Rowling’s works is doomed from the start. No director can create his own world based on the novels, or deliver fantasies from his own imagination; it all must originate from and be approved by the writer, which is a defeat of the purposes and powers of the cinema. Cinema is about its images and the joy it imparts through its visual ecstasies, while J.K. Rowling’s vision is about plot and character – two vector entities that can be set out as usefully on the page as on the screen, and that render the wonder and innovation of cinema virtually useless.

Harry Potter always has been a reactionary fairy tale: a minority class of people is seen as inherently superior to everyone else, in a view that is not once questioned or even consciously acknowledged at any point in seven novels and eight films. Hogwarts is the hub of supreme elitism in the wizarding world – the magical analogue to Eton, which comes to mind whenever Redmayne, an Old Boy, crops up – training up the offspring of the bourgeoisie and upper classes and eventually admitting them into aristocracy, if they don’t yield to darker impulses of fascism and magical supremacy. And the question separating the good from the evil (again, blandly and unambiguously distinguished from the very beginning, a few cheap twists in the plot arc of Severus Snape aside) is not one of freedom versus oppression, but whether this innate upper class should enslave the lesser beings or curl up in its aloof and distant comfort and leave the unhappy muggles as they are. Every agreeable adult seems to work for the great bureaucratic institutions of magic throughout the world, while all those we find disagreeable operate outside of the law. The way the characters talk about the law makes it seem as if it was imposed on them by some outside hand and that no part of it can be questioned, altered, removed, or added to, which is presumably why so many wizards’ discontent must translate into violence and savagery rather than discussion and reform. And Rowling seems genuinely unaware of the various political symbols or echoes she introduces throughout her work, that nonetheless resonate with viewers and readers: Harry’s lightning scar calls nothing to mind so fully as the emblem of the British Union of Fascists, the main character in the new film shares a name with a former Republican Speaker in the very unmagical Congress of the United States of America who is still prominent among the political right in 2016, and her main female character, Tina, harbours some desperate need to register and issue permits for each wand in private hands in America, which is bound to bring about unnecessary aggravation among the wizards who hold their equivalent of the Second Amendment particularly dearly.

Rowling’s hackneyed prose, plodding narrative constructs, lifeless dialogue, insufferable dei ex machina, and continual revisions and overdue revelations exposed her as a novelist of unequivocal ineptitude, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does the same for her screenwriting career. Those who disagree with me are welcome to her and her work, but I’d point you in the direction of authors like Dickens, who show that popular and sentimental works of brisk entertainment can also be feats of high imagination and literary colour, or Lewis Carroll, who demonstrates the great potential of intellectual play and imaginative agility in children’s fantasy. And her stultifying text and imposing presence over her work have a deplorable effect on Yate’s execution of her script.

The primary virtue of film direction is to evoke experiences and ideas through the use of image and sound. In this regard, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fails almost entirely. A few moments during Credence’s climactic rampage on the subways show a little of the visual display Yates and his crew first exhibited in the final Harry Potter films, but in terms of visual style and artistry, the rest of the film’s 133 minutes are a non-experience. Whatever aesthetic redemption lay in store for the constricting groundwork supplied by Rowling would have to be in the way of melodramatic artifice and exuberant excess, but Yates offers professional moderation instead. He no longer has powerhouse experienced and skilled performers like Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, or Maggie Smith on whom to rely for theatrical displays when directorial inspiration is absent, and so from Redmayne, Waterstone, Farrell, and Ejogo we get the sort of bland naturalism that passes for good acting and convincing storytelling. Yate’s CGI spectacles are elaborate but not ecstatic, and contain no element of felicitous visual surprise. There’s nothing on the screen to show devoted attention to detail or committed creation of a vast world. The setting seems arbitrarily selected, since neither Rowling or Yates do much with the distinctive characteristics of the city of New York or the time of the roaring twenties, except to allow what must be James Newton Howard’s ideas of ragtime and blues to faintly sway through the soundtrack. And this monotonously professional, bland delivery is dependent on and connected to the unrealised faults and shallowness of the textual foundation of the film. I surmise that the further away from a film set J.K. Rowling is, the safer is the production. Alas, we’re to expect her full and abiding involvement in four more installments in this series. How much longer can the spell of her success last?


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