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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘film’

Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time

There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive*; and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films — the period ones, at least — is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study — following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

Adaptation

In which we discuss the Scott Pilgrim movie, one case of a comic-to-film adaptation that keeps all the spirit of the comic it came from.

Back, back in the mists of time — well, in December 2007 — I posted a review of Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, the fourth, and at that point, the latest, book in the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Since then, of course, the world has moved on. In Spring 2009 the fifth book, Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe was published, with shiny metallic cover. We quickly bought it,* and I intended to write about it on here, but somehow other things kept coming along and SP5 never got its review.

Forward to this year, and publicity started to appear for Scott Pilgrim, the movie version. The sixth and final book, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, was published this summer. “I really must write on the blog about this one,” thought I, “before the film comes out.” But it didn’t happen. So, last weekend, we went to see the film, not sure if we would love it or hate it.

Quick recap for people who have never heard of Scott Pilgrim, never seen it, never read the books: Scott Pilgrim is a 20-something slacker geek with no job, in a rather bad band, who starts dreaming about a mysterious girl. She turns out to be a real girl, a delivery courier called Ramona who knows the secret of using people’s dreams as shortcuts between places in the real world. Scott immediately falls in love, but quickly discovers that her emotional baggage is somewhat more real than most people’s, as she has a whole league of Evil Exes she’s dated in the past, who Scott must defeat in video-game-style fights before he can win her heart. Now, read on…

Adaptations often get a bad press. What works well in one medium, after all, doesn’t always translate; but if an adaptation’s not faithful, it can end up pleasing nobody. Scott Pilgrim vs The World, though, is one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen, despite the fact it has to cut six books’ worth of action down into one single film. From the moment it started, with the same fonts onscreen as in the book, it was, I think, as close to the comic as any live-action adaptation could get. Lots had to be cut out, of course – the books are set over the course of a year, the film over a few weeks at most – and due to release schedules the last act is radically different to the final book; but, overall, the spirit of the books is captured extremely well. Some subplots were pruned entirely; some of the backstory was moved to an animated short; and some of the characters’ emotional lives are simplified or made less explicit; none of it feels missing from the film, though. Moreover, the film uses a lot of the books’ stylistic quirks. Just like in the books, each new character gets a little black caption explaining who they are and what they’re up to. Just like the books, the film is full of cunning references and semi-hidden jokes. The film does a very good job, like the books, of portraying a realistic world in which, nevertheless, video-game events can happen.

There are a couple of places where you could argue that the film’s better than the books: in plot terms, there are two places where the story is told in a slightly better way.** In general, though, I still prefer the books: a much fuller story, because there’s more space to tell it in. At some point, I should write an essay about the ending of the series, and what I think it says about life; that’s not for today, but it says something that the books can inspire me to consider something like that.

Some reviews of Scott Pilgrim vs The World have said that it’s “too hyperactive”. It is, definitely, a fast-moving film: that’s what you get when you compress that much shelf-space into one movie. Philip French, in the Observer, complained that at 1 hour 52 it’s “overlong” – maybe that was the effect of the various fight scenes, which do come close together. Myself, I found it both witty and touching; but I did worry that a newcomer, someone who’s never read the books, would have no clue what was going on at all.

In general, for both me and K, it’s the case that we can’t watch films too often. Once we’ve seen something, even a film we both love, it has to sit on the shelf for a few months before we can happily watch it again. As we walked out of the cinema after seeing Scott Pilgrim vs The World, almost the first thing we did was: work out when we have some time free to go back and watch it again. If that isn’t a recommendation, I’m not sure what is.

* Coincidentally, the day I bought it was also the day I auditioned to go on Mastermind – I stopped off at Forbidden Planet on the way home.

** Spoilers: the defeat of Todd, the third Evil Ex is directly caused by Scott in the film; in the book, it’s a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s set up earlier, so not a complete bolt from the blue, but Scott doesn’t really have much involvement with it. Secondly, the treatment of Scott’s extra life is handled better in the film, in that he has to “replay” the previous few scenes a second time, but knows how to handle them better; in the book he returns to consciousness straight after the dream/afterlife sequence with Ramona. You can, of course, find examples of video games that work in either way, but I preferred the film version.

Stranger In A Strange Land

In which we watch some films with sex in

It’s been a quiet month on the site this month, as regular readers might have noticed. There have been plenty of things to keep us busy, firstly; and the hot summer days leave me feeling rather drained each evening, not in a mood to sit down and write something. Not to mention that we spent three successive evenings this week going down to the cinema. We heard that The Cube was showing a mini-season of Japanese “Pink Cinema”. Reading the descriptions in the programme, we couldn’t resist any of it.

Pink Cinema” is, not to put too fine a point on it, pornographic. It is: dirty films, made to fit a strict template. An hour of film, with plenty of sex but nothing to concern the letter-of-the-law Japanese censors, made to fill up screen time in specialist cinemas which show nothing else. As the audience, such as it is nowadays, doesn’t really care what’s in the film as long as there is enough sex, the writers and directors can choose whatever topic or style they want to write about; as a result, pink cinema is an astonishingly broad genre. The season – curated by a chap called Jasper Sharp who is probably the world’s leading expert in the field, having written a comprehensive book about it – included five films over the three nights, but each of those five was radically different in style and contect, from serious drama through martial arts action to political satire.

First up was A Lonely Cow Weeps At Dawn, also known as The Cowshed Of Immorality. Before you start wondering, it had nothing to do with actual bestiality (very illegal to show on-screen, of course), but was a sad tale of an elderly farmer who had been plunged into senility by the deaths of his son and his favourite cow. His daughter-in-law tried to take the cow’s place, and his wayward daughter, a prostitute, returned to their village and became involved in a scheme to trick the man out of his land. Hot on its heels came Sexy Battle Girls, which I’ve been assured was a big influence on Tarantino. Made in the mid-80s, its story concerned a man who, years ago, had been humiliated when a rival with a larger penis stole his wife away from him. He brought their daughter up as a martial arts expert who would one day seek revenge using her special superpower: a vagina of inhuman strength. How this superpower emerged, or how it was discovered, wasn’t quite explained; but we did see her father shoving an apple inside her underwear and shouting “Crush it!”, before four neatly-quartered apple pieces dropped to the floor. Scary. The villain of the piece turned out to be headmaster of a prestigious school. In typical villain fashion, he also turned out to be selling delinquent schoolgirls to top politicians. In slightly less typical villain fashion, a small stuffed bird was attached to his shoulder at all times.

Friday night’s films started with another serious piece: New Tokyo Decadence: The Slave. It was, as you might expect, about BDSM; rather like Secretary, it followed a masochist who starts an affair with her boss. It was a subtle film, which carefully showed the title character’s emotions as she struggled to balance physical pleasure with affection. It was followed by a film which wasn’t subtle in any way: S&M Hunter, an almost-slapstick tale of a laconic one-eyed bondage expert commissioned to rescue a gay man from the clutches of a group of rebellious and sex-mad young women. He triumphed, of course, suspending the gang’s leader from a construction crane, despite having lost his other eye in their final duel. The series was rounded off on Saturday night by one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, The Glamorous Life Of Sachiko Hanai. The title character of the film is a sex worker shot in the head during a dispute between two spies. Running away alive, she accidentally leaves with the object the spies were fighting over; moreover, the bullet in her brain gives her superhuman intelligence and mind-reading powers. She starts an affair with a philosophy professor (who shouts out things like “Noam Chomsky!” and “Susan Sontag!” as he climaxes), and then discovers that the object the spies were fighting over is a disembodied finger cloned from George W Bush (the film being made in 2003). If you’ve never seen a girl being raped by a bright red finger, apparently able to fly, while the American President shouts things at her from a TV screen in the background, then, well, I’d recommend this movie.

Each night’s programme was followed by a question-and-answer session with the curator, Mr Sharp, which tended to turn into something more of a freeform discussion. Friday night’s, in particular, turned into a slightly vicious debate between a group of people near the back of the theatre who had been giggling, sniggering and reading out the subtitles all through the most serious bits, and a woman at the front who had told them to shut up.* The let’s-laugh-at-the-dodgy-subtitles group defended themselves on the grounds that the whole programme was Exploitation Cinema, and therefore audience participation should be expected; and that it doesn’t matter if anyone talks over a subtitled film because as you can read the words, you don’t have to be able to hear the dialogue. I don’t really think either argument was particularly strong, and neither did anyone else we spoke to.

I’m glad we went along to the Behind The Pink Curtain season, and the titillation angle was neither a plus or a negative. “It’s definitely porn you can watch with a girl!” I heard one audience-member say during an interval. “Well, indeed,” said the girl he was talking to. I think he might have been missing the point of the films slightly. Unlike most hardcore porn, solely about the mechanics of sex, these films had characterisation, plot and sometimes subtlety. The sex, moreover, was realistic, naturalistic sex.** Dirty, messy, noisy everyday sex. That, alone, sets “pink films” aside from most of what appears in the media. It makes me think that maybe, despite the offensive and extreme aspects to some of the films, maybe the Japanese attitude to sex is healthier than ours.

* As we were leaving, I think I overheard this woman saying she thought she could have taken the others had it come down to fighting. I’m kind of disappointed it didn’t.

** Well, apart from that one scene with George W Bush’s finger

Photo Post Of The Week

In which we compare analogue and digital

It took me a while to catch on to the idea of digital photography. “Bah,” I thought, “you can’t spend hours in the darkroom with a digital photo. And I’ll always need to keep buying more and more disk space.” Both slightly false excuses, to be honest: it’s years since I’ve had easy access to a darkroom, and the disk space doesn’t get burned up that quickly. Generally, though, it was a good thing that I didn’t rush into it; I saved up, until I could afford a good camera, rather than jump in at the cheap end. And I’m pleased with what I got.

This post, though, follows up from the previous Photo Post Of The Week, in which, as I said, K and I walked up through London from Tate Modern to Clerkenwell, retracing a route I’d done a few years before. Both times, I took photos. Three years ago, I had my cheaply-grabbed-on-Ebay Nikon F801 with me. Here’s one of the photos:

Grand Avenue, Smithfield

This time, we took K’s nifty little compact Panasonic. Remembering the last trip, I deliberately retook that last photo with it:

Grand Avenue, Smithfield

I can see straight away which is the better photo. That doesn’t mean I regret waiting until I could afford a good digital camera; but it does make me wonder what opportunities I missed, and what I could have improved with my film shots.

Eternal Youth

In which we go to the cinema

A trip to the cinema with Mystery Filmgoer the other week, to see Let The Right One In (or, rather, Låt den rätte komma in) the Swedish vampire movie which has been going down very well lately. As I haven’t seen any Swedish films since I was a student, as usual I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Raw meatballs? Home-assembly furniture dripping with blood? Bat-haunted forests with man-eating elk?

The film’s trailers implied action, as vampire films tend to do. Fast pace, fast cutting, sudden surprises and sharp shocks. Anyone who went along because of the trailer, though, would have been rather disappointed. There were long, slow scenes; quiet snowy landscapes, thoughtful looks, reflection.* The film was crisp as snow and sharp as a gooseberry. Most of the deaths were slow and brutal; young men being slaughtered like pork, for example. The cuts were offscreen, as were the vampire’s flights; but the trickling blood and fluttering wings were heard loud and clear.

The long shots of wintry landscapes and quiet thought slowly built up into a touching story, a touching story of childish love. Peter Pan seen from another angle, almost. The 12-year-old protagonist’s tender life was mapped out in front of us in a wide hidden circle; and as he disappeared out of sight at the end, over the horizon in a railway carriage, the storyling was tightly coiled to a perfect closure. Perfect for the audience, in any case.

The film had a delicate, scarcely-mentioned 1970s setting. None of the heavy-handed period truncheoning of, say, Life On Mars. No overt references at all, just a subtle landscape of brown furniture, smoking and leather jackets. It was carefully observed, and carefully understated.

These vampires weren’t fashionable vampires, as per Anne Rice or Being Human. They weren’t strong, or powerful, and they didn’t have enough self-control to contemplate any sort of world domination. The human characters, or some of them at least, were far more cruel, far more sadistic and destructive, whether by design or accident. The vampires were, on the other hand, realistic, or at least as realistic as a vampire might be. Realistic, inhuman animal creatures, undead but nevertheless made from flesh and blood. I’ve never seen vampires before that were quite so real and quite so believable. Let The Right One In is, you could say, vampire cinema verité, and it is a beautiful, cold and haunting film. There is, apparently, an American remake on the way. I live in fear, not from a vampire plunging in the night, but that the original Swedish version might end up forgotten.

* although not of the vampires, of course.

Cutthroat

In which we go all grand guignol

Before going off on holiday, we popped down to York to see Sweeney Todd, the new Tim Burton version of the Sondheim musical. It contains, as you might expect from a Tim Burton film, a lovely, dark, damp and grimy version of 19th-century London, albeit one with a rather anachronistic Tower Bridge opening near the start.*

I’m not normally a fan of musicals, but I rather liked this one, despite feeling slightly ill by the end at the amount of blood spurting around in best grand guignol style.** I loved Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as a barber-showman with prominant genitalia, and I even guessed the ending twist (although not the direction it would be coming from). He’s a very good mechanic, too, Sweeney Todd, knocking up a mechanical barber’s chair overnight; I never did work out where he got all his pinions from. And as Mrs Lovett explained how all the blood and waste was poured down into the sewer, it occurred to me that back then nobody would have noticed anyway. Back then the sewer was the River Fleet, which daily ran red with blood and offal from Smithfield Market upstream.

Above all, though, the film reminded me of one of my favourite books, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. On a superficial level: the almost constantly dark and smoky London of the film reminded me of Lanark‘s fictional and Hadean city of Unthank, with its constantly dark skies. Moreover, though, it was the film’s sense of alienation, between rich and poor, between ruler and oppressed, which made me think of the book.*** Todd’s alienation and disconnection from the London population, caused by his unjust transportation to Australia, lead directly to his sociopathy and psychopathy. It echoes the defining line that isn’t actually in Lanark**** but which sums up much the themes of that novel: “Man is the pie that bakes and eats itself, and the recipe is separation.”

* it wasn’t built until about 90 years after Todd was supposedly around, in most of the versions of the story which give him a date.

** “It looked more like paint,” said Mystery Filmgoer afterwards, laughing. “It was too brightly coloured, more like the blood you get from superficial cuts – arterial blood is darker.”

*** Some of the lyrics also echo George Orwell’s famous quote about “a boot stamping on a human face forever”.

**** The line never appears whole and complete as I’ve quoted it here, but fragments of it are repeated many times through the book.

Ovines

In which we become scared of fields

“That’s two hours of my life that I’ll never get back,” said one of the women in front of us, as we left the cinema* I thought she was being slightly unfair. The film had only been 87 minutes long, after all.

Besides, I’d rather liked it. We’d been to see Black Sheep; it was, like me, rather silly; but played very straight all the way through, which is always the best sort of silliness. The implausible B-movie science was glossed over, and the actors put on their Most Serious Faces as they fought to defend themselves against mutant killer zombie sheep.** Some of the characters were caricatures, and some of the foreshadowing was very obvious indeed, but sometimes, in this film, that’s the sort of thing you want to happen.***

One thing did puzzle me: why, when all the sheep in all the fields started to become blood-crazed man-eating carnivores, did noone really seem very surprised? Now, for the hero, it’s explained: he suffers from a fear that one day sheep will do exactly that. But all the other characters also behave as if it’s a normal, everyday crisis, something they’ve been expecting all along. Maybe everyone in New Zealand is like that. Maybe everywhere though the islands, at the back of people’s minds, is the thought: one day, the sheep will start fighting back.

* “We” being, of course, me and Mystery Filmgoer as usual.

** These were Modern Biological Zombies – not dead, just rather ill; which does make them rather easier to despatch, with none of this “you must remove the head or destroy the brain” trickiness.

*** When you see a big, round, deep hole, with a sign next to it that says: “Warning: Offal Pit”, you know what’s going to happen later on.

A Big Splash (Or, Films I’ve Never Seen, Part One)

In which we wonder what the filmmakers were thinking

Every time I’ve been to the cinema recently, I’ve had to sit through a trailer for newly-released film Evan Almighty. And it makes me slightly uneasy. Because – if you’re lucky enough to have managed to avoid the thing – it’s a lighthearted family comedy based on the story of Noah And The Flood, from Genesis. God comes down to Earth, visits an innocent politician, and tells him to build an ark because he’s decided to do the whole flood thing again.

Read that again. It’s a lighthearted family comedy, where God comes down to visit a politician, because (going on what happened last time) he wants to warn him that everyone else on the planet is going to be killed in the biggest natural disaster you can imagine. Did anyone even think at all about this film before it was made? Did they get beyond “comedy, sequel, some Bible story that everyone vaguely remembers”?* To my mind, the idea of writing a comedy about God breaking the only promise he ever made to the whole of mankind,** and apparently planning to kill everyone on earth apart from an American politician, is a little … well, perverse.***

I assume – not having seen the film – that not everyone (apart from the blessed family) gets killed at the end. Surely no Hollywood studio is going to release a big summer comedy where everyone on earth apart from a handful of people dies at the end? Drama, maybe, but not comedy. All in all, it sounds like a bit of a mess. Does God turn out to be nice in the end? Does he say: “Aw, I was only kidding. I just wanted you to learn how to be a better person.” How many people are killed by the flood that I did spot in the trailer? I really don’t want to find out.

* Although most people forget the bit at the end where Noah gets drunk, and one of his sons is forever cursed for seeing his drunken father’s tadger.

** Because it – the promise that “I’m not going to kill you all ever again” – was made before the Tower of Babel incident, when God scrambles everyone’s brains and makes possible the Tourist Phrasebook – so, as everyone was rather samey, there wasn’t any one Chosen People. And he never does kill everyone all together again – after that, he limits himself to smiting one city at a time.

*** And not in the good way

Harry Potter And The Are We Nearly There Yet?

In which the end of a series is within sight

No, not the book. As I reviewed film number four for this blog, back in 2005, I thought I may as well review the fifth one too. I still haven’t seen any of the earlier films.

It fits in well with something I said about J K Rowling’s books recently: I parenthetically accused them of being big, baggy and badly-paced.* The film of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix isn’t, though. It zips a lot. It’s as good a faithful film treatment as anyone could have done: it cuts out an awful lot of unnecessary excess baggage without losing much at all of the main story. The book of the film of the book (should it exist) could well be a far better read than the original.

JK could learn from some parts herself. Without spoiling too much: the school is taken over, in a way, by direct “state” control. The Ministry’s representative issues constant diktats aimed at blocking resistance from the children and staff. In the book, it’s handled like this: the notice is pinned to the wall, and then the children discuss the awful effect it is going to have on the plot their lives, for a few pages. In the film: the notice is pinned to the wall, with children around looking gloomy. Close up on the notice, so we can read it. That’s it. We know the effects it is going to have; we don’t need to have it all spelled out for us.

A lot is taken on assumption in the film, though. There is no world-building, at all. You have to know where you are, and what is going on, because nothing is explained. Why does the Ministry have a room full of dusty glass orbs? Where do they come from, and what are they for? You’re only going to find that out if you read the book. The Ministry itself was a far cry from the endless edifice of the book: it seemed to be limited to two or three sets,** no doubt for sensible budgetary reasons.

So: better than the last film, and surprisingly good. I’m still wondering how you order a phoenix, though, especially as there’s only one of it.*** If I ever get into any trouble like Harry, I’m going to rely on a little-known but powerful secret society of vigilante lexicographers: The Alphabetical Order. And one thing that had me puzzled for a while: the voice of the Ministry’s lift. I was sure I recognised it: probably from something on the radio, as it was a radio comedy kind of voice. It turned out to be someone called Daisy Haggard, who has been in an awful lot of good things I’ve seen on the telly over the past couple of years.

Right, now I’m off to print out sheets of sticky labels saying “Harry dies at the end!” to stick up around town in the morning. I’m not really bothered what happens at the end of the series myself, and I have no idea if he dies or not; but if I do that tomorrow morning, it’s bound to look plausible.****

* The Plain People Of The Internet, in chorus: Like this post, you mean?

** Although, to be honest, I can’t remember if as much of the book’s action takes place in the Ministry’s main foyer as the film’s seems to, and I’m not going to look it up. I did enjoy the foyer’s architecture, though, because it reminded me of original Underground Group architecture.

*** I can’t seem to find any reference to there only ever being one phoenix at a time – myself, I remember reading it in The Box Of Delights, which isn’t exactly authoritative.

**** I’m not really going to do it. But it’s a very tempting idea.

Film review

In which we detect a foul-smelling villain

Last night: to the local cinema for the first time in ages, with my friend Mystery Filmgoer, to see Harry Potter and the Empire That Struck Back Goblet of Fire whilst it was still on. As I’ve not seen any of the three preceding films I wasn’t too hot on the idea of going at first; but I have recently read the book; so I thought the film would be an interesting comparison.

I didn’t like the plot structure of the book, because I thought the final rabbit-out-of-the-hat plot twist was far too unshadowed and unexpected. The film completely solves that, by actually mentioning the main Evil Villain* more than once before the end, and adding in lots of extra clues along the way. Plus, he is definitely one of the sexiest evil villains I’ve seen for a long time.** An awful lot of subplots were stripped out of the book, but it still feels like a very crammed film, with far too many points left unexplained. If I hadn’t read the book, I don’t think I’d have had a clue what was happening at some points.

In other ways, it’s very unbalanced. The middle act is mostly light-hearted teenage embarrasment comedy; then the ending swings completely round to gloom, darkness, and foreboding. There’s nothing happy about the ending at all; just death, destruction, and the appearance of the real Evil Villain Who Is More Evil Than Anyone Else.***

The effects are all very, well, magical, and the design does seem very solid and well-thought. It does seem that if you’re a British wizard you’re expected to be a big fan of Victorian Gothic and the Arts and Crafts movement; and the design of Hogwarts’ bathing piers made me think more than anything of the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway. Like all British films, too, you have the fun of spotting all the usual British actors: That Bloke From The Fast Show, That Bloke From Drop The Dead Donkey, That Bloke Who You’re Sure Was Dead By Now, and Ooh, Isn’t He The Sexy One Who’s Going To Be The Next Doctor?****

I had a good time watching it, but it’s definitely not a stand-alone film, what with the lack of explanation and the dark, anti-climatic ending. The point of which, I suppose, is that in a year’s time I will probably want to see the next one.

* I don’t mean Voldemort, I mean the chap who is his Evil Sidekick and actually does all the dirty work

** although Mystery Filmgoer disagreed loudly on this

*** “My evil overlord’s got no nose!” “How does he smell?” “Awful!!!”

**** I think Mystery Filmgoer was probably going to slap me if I called him sexy again