Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 18/31: What three places in the world would you most like to visit? (suggested by Ben Skinner)

Bachhill of the bush mountain bothy

Travel After visiting both the RSC and The Globe last year, the places I’d really like to visit has dwindled somewhat. For all my desperation to stand at the top of the Empire State Building, I know that the romantic notions I have would be broken by how "unlike the films” the experience would be, and the number of tourists, the queues, the weather, the lack of early 90s Meg Ryan. That was certainly the case when I finally stood in front of the Mona Lisa or the Rosetta Stone and had to share the space with thirty other people all of whom were jostling to have their picture taken with these icons rather than seek to treat them as objects of interest and intellectual discovery.

Which is why I’ve lately been hankering after spending a month, perhaps longer, in a cottage somewhere, fairly secluded, basic amenities, with a pile of books to keep me company, a radio, but no television, no internet, no people. Just lots of time to catch up on all the reading I’ve kept putting off and putting off for most of my life. As someone who’s used to the noise of the city (even living on the edge of a park there’s some traffic and shouting) the prospect scares me a little bit, the lack of artificial noise and no interuptions. I wonder how I’d feel at the inevitable end, drawn back into those things. Would I cope? Would I be depressed?

Because really it’s probably that I just need a disconnection, to be able to go somewhere else were nothing makes sense any more, were everything is a challenge. That’s how I imagine Tokyo to be. Photographs of the city are filled with familiar shop names, but the sheer chaos of life, of being part of such a mass of people is equally attractive because I suspect it allows you to be alone even in a crowd. The trick, and this is the case in most large cities, is to not let that tip over into loneliness, and the problem with any city is that unless you live there, work there, you’re only ever a tourist and can never truly be there. It’s all about time, and having the time to become geographically acquanted.

Snowy Evening

Snowy EveningSnowy Evening, originally uploaded by feelinglistless.

Finally Liverpool enjoys the snow. The golden hew seems to be an interaction between my camera and the street lights, though it ironically makes the city look like it's been transported to the surface of the Sun on one of the coldest days of the year.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 17/31: Shanghai (suggested by Alison Gow).

bamboo accumulation

Fiction “Shanghai!”

The Doctor enthusiastically burst out through the TARDIS doorway, arms raised in celebration. “Bright lights, big city!” he shouted, “Population spilling out onto the streets, the smell of commerce, buildings punching into the sky …”

Then he stopped and bothered to look around, “Bamboo huts, mud, mist, the smell of fish … oh …”

Amy stumbled out behind him wearing a now completely inappropriate sailor uniform. “Wrong year then?” She said.

“Yes. Sorry.” The Doctor gestured towards the blue Police Box which had landed incongruously on a getty, looking heavy enough to break through the bamboo but strangely not. “She’s … well … we’re in Shanghai, it’s just …” He glared at his watch. “Hmm … turn of the millennium … about 1080 AD. Early in the morning I think.”

“Only a millennium out.” By now, Amy was standing parallel to the Time Lord. Pushing her long ginger hair back behind her ears, she peering out across a sea which seemed to stretch out into infinity. “Well, you did promise me a harbour view.”

The Doctor grinned. “What d’ya think?”

Amy opened her mouth to answer, but before she could, a scream broke through the fog.

* * * *

The Doctor’s acute hearing followed the noise to one of the huts on the harbour and inside he and Amy found a woman standing on a stool, the palms of her hands pressed against her elderly skin. She glanced about furtively then screamed again as a small rodent scurried past the three of them, cheekily taking a scenic route underneath the woman before disappearing through a vertical crack in the wall.

“It’s good to know some stereotypes are valid no matter where you are in time.” Amy enjoyed the image far more than she knew she should. Then she noticed the Doctor stooped by the crack blaring his sonic screwdriver into the darkness. “It’s not that crack is it?”

“Hmm. Oh no. No." He replied popping the screwdriver back in his pocket. "For a change."

The Doctor then turned and held out his hand, gesturing for the woman to step down. At first she was as nervous of him as the rat but something in his eyes suggested safety so she took his fingers and put foot on the ground for the first time in hours.

“Terrorised by a rat. The rat peril. Well, there’s a first time for everything.” The Doctor was licking his lips like a cheese concessioner within tastebud distance of a new flavour.

The woman, who apparently had no idea what he was saying simply grinned at him, her mouth showing more darkness than teeth. She gestured for the Doctor and his companion to sit down and the Doctor chose the stool that had previously been her safe haven. Amy knelt on the ground nearby, constantly on the lookout for the return of the rodent.

* * * *

Within minutes the three sat drinking saki silently. The woman, who by now was quite calm was staring at the Doctor’s clothing, particular whatever it was he had around his neck.

“Bow ties are cool.” He grinned conspiratorially.

“Yes, right…” Amy coughed changing the subject, “So you have a rat problem?”

“Oh yes, hate the thing, always in and out, can’t sleep most nights” and suddenly words were spilling out of the woman’s mouth. In a cockney accent.

Amy’s eyes popped. “Wow, you’re a loud one.”

The Doctor grinned. “How long has it been going on?”

”Three weeks. Frightened out of my wits I am…”

“So Chinese is …” Amy considered this new quirk of the TARDIS's translation circuit.

“Yes. Have you got any traps?”

“Traps?”

“You know boxes to catch it in? We could scoop it up, take it out of your hair.” The Doctor unconsciously glanced at the woman’s hair. It was snowy white. With a bob.

Linda nodded her head enthusiastically. The Doctor’s eyes followed the bob up and down before focusing on the woman again. He smiled.

* * * *

Minutes later the Doctor was back from a trip to the TARDIS carrying a bundle of humane, bamboo mouse traps.

“So we’ve fought Patient Zero, Daleks, lizard creatures and now rats are our thing?”

”All creatures great and small, Pond.” The Doctor said pointedly. “You could wait in the TARDIS if you’re too frightened.”

“No. Oh -- give it here.” She snatched one of the traps from him and began setting it, pulling the small wooden door up ready to imprison the rat should it blunder in. The Doctor handed her a chunk of Mars Bar as bait. “So Linda?”

The Doctor, who was also busying himself with the traps, looked at Amy then the hitherto unnamed woman.

“We’ve bonded,” Amy smiled. “Do you live hear alone?”

“Oh no, my husband, Jabe, is out fishing. He’s a fisherman.”

“Out long?” The Doctor asked with a slight hint of concern.

”A few weeks. Should be back soon.”

“I think we’ll be finished by then.” Amy noticed the Doctor sounded more relieved than he should and considered briefly if he was keeping something important from her. Again.

Before long all the traps were set. They sat and waited. More saki.

* * * *

And waited. And waited. The Doctor sat fiddling with his sonic screwdriver. Amy was beginning to fall asleep.

“Maybe there are too many of us in ‘ere. Scared him off.” Linda said abruptly.

Then, as if on cue, the three were startled by the sound of a trap shutting. They turned in unison.

The Doctor’s ear knew which trap it was straight away and skipped over to it. He reached down and triumphantly held the tiny prison at eye level, the rat stuffed inside.

“Well, then what have you got to say for yourself?”

The rat’s eyes seemed to widen briefly then boil with anger.

“You can’t stop us!” It squeeked. “Our fleet is massed on the edge of the solar system. Once I’ve reported back on this miserable little mud ball, we’ll take it by force! There’ll be no stopping us!”

“I think I’ll be having words with them.” The Doctor was sterner than you might imagine would be with a rodent. He was clearly very concerned.

Amy’s eyes were fixed on this furry ball of hatred. “Sentient, um, rats?”

“Sentient rats! Ratapharian’s to be exact. I recognised it as soon as we stepped through the door. Not big enough for a sewer rat, too big for a mouse. Ratafarians.” He mock shivered.

“Just get him out of here, whatever he is.” Linda said dryly.

* * * *

Back in the console room of the TARDIS, having stored the Ratapharian's cage safely on a shelf, the Doctor was busying himself with the take-off procedure. The rest of the alien rodent's race were about to get a piece of his mind.

Amy was taking one final look at Shanghai through the viewscreen. By now the mist had lifted and they could see the rump of the bay, mostly huts similar to the one they'd just liberated.

“I think it’s a decent enough place for a holiday, Doctor. But I couldn’t live here. Too quiet.”

“You live in Leadworth.” The Doctor said, pulling a lever with a clunk.

“That’s different. There are people.”

“There over ten thousand people living here. The place was just gained town status.”

“But still China. All those dynasties. Which one is this?”

“Um, Ming? No. Song, Song dynasty.”

“Song dynasty? Not?”

“No. Nooo. At least I don’t think so …”

And with that the TARDIS made a grinding, wheezing sound as it disappeared back into the time vortex.

Follow @alisongow here.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 16/31: 'The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? and Other Essays' by William Goldman.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Film William Goldman sets out his stall early in the introduction to The Big Picture, a collection of articles originally published in the likes of Premiere Magazine and the LA Times: “What you have here is a chronicle of the worst decade in movie history” Those of us who’ve sat through both Transformers films, watched the rise of torture porn and 3D conversions might imagine he’s talking about the Noughties (especially if we’ve skipped the copyright page) but the next sentence elaborates: “If you were to ask me what were the best ten films of the 90s my first thought would be the old joke ‘the girls in my town were so ugly that once we had a beauty contest and nobody won.’

For someone like me who became cine-aware in the 1990s, the decade didn’t seem too bad. As he lists in the following paragraph, it brought The Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven, Babe, Hoop Dreams, Fargo, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Four Weddings and Groundhog Day, which is high praise indeed from someone who delivered the screenplays to All The President's Men, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride. But his argument is that in comparison to earlier decades, when the studios were still making thematically strong films for grown-ups and nearly every film nominated for best picture had integrity and would go on to be considered a stone cold classic, in the 90s, Hollywood had fallen back on producing genre based entertainments and nothing more (not something which has arguably changed).

It’s this persuasive argument he returns to throughout the collection which contains roughly three types of essay, previews of coming seasonal attractions, Oscar speculation and ceremony reviews, interspersed with the longer polemicals that create the back bone of his argument with titles like “Who Killed Hollywood” and “Year of the Dog”. Mixing his own opinions and those fielded from friends in the industry, he makes his best guess as to how something like The English Patient will do at the box office and what chances it has at winning Best Picture, all the while pushing against the truism from his seminal Adventures In The Screentrade which has become to most quoted line in film journalism “Nobody knows anything”.

With an extra decade of hindsight (the collection was published in 2001), part of the pleasure of the book is the nostalgia for a time when Apollo 13 was new and exciting release rather than something that not too long ago was repeated once a fortnight on ITV2. Flicking through to the piece looking towards the release slate for summer ’93 and we find Cliffhanger, The Firm, The Fugitive and In The Line of Fire all ready to be obliterated by Jurassic Park, which also left Last Action Hero as a casualty (remember the rocket with Arnie’s likeness on the side?). It’s impossible not to want to line up a day reliving that group (and even Super Mario Brothers which also came out that year, though not Dennis The Menace). Twenty-ten looks weedy by comparison.

His longer essays are best. Goldman’s analysis of Saving Private Ryan is pretty seminal already with a structural deconstruction demonstrating why the last half hour is phoney as hell (who’s flashback is it?) and his neutering of LA Confidential is similarly painful (six minutes too long). He suggests Twister is “the worst movie in the history of the world” then offers some close comparison with Jaws to conclusively prove it which seems a bit unfair until you realise what he’s demonstrating the extent to which computer generated spectacle has replaced proper characterisation. This is exemplified in “And Where Will You Leave Jimmy Stewart?” in which he uses the death of the actor as a jumping off point to list the images which he believe best exemplify certain actors like “Bill Holden, running at the Kwai Bridge shouting ‘kill him’”.

In the end, Goldman was a soothsayer. As he predicted, Hollywood is no longer interested in the middle budget film preferring instead to plough their millions into goliaths like addicted gamblers going all in with the hope of jackpot. Which pays off quite often now because people are still desperate to go to the cinema even if whatever’s on is rubbish or at least that’s the only explanation I have for the aforementioned toy related franchise films doing the business. He’s no longer writing about films in the same way so we won’t know whether he thinks Inception or The Social Network will win best picture. I think he'd go with the former because it would show Hollywood congratulating itself for producing an expensive blockbuster that just this once made the audience think as though that absolves them from churning out the shit they do the rest of the time.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 15/31: Women comedians are not funny. Discuss. (suggested by Zoe Pattullo)

Josie herself

Comedy Just to show some of my workings for a change, the first version of this opinion began with a paragraph which listed a vast range of women comedians, from Maureen Lipman to Shappi Khorsandi pausing briefly to mourn the loss of Linda Smith in an attempt to demonstrate the fallacy that women comedians aren’t funny because there are plenty that clearly are, just as there’s a fair share of awful, awful male “comics”. I don’t happen to like the kind of comedy which seems designed to shock, the Frankie Boyle / Jimmy Carr irony black-hole, but they sell millions of dvds. It’s all about personal taste.

This unfunny perception of comediennes is however perfectly understandable. Much of the time, the history of funny women in the UK is reduced to a footnote in the history books (and I know because I’ve read a couple) were the author, usually male, finds themselves giving grudging deference to Victoria Wood somewhere between offering a justification for the comic genius of Bernard Manning and talking up Harry Enfield’s accomplishments. When they are covered in any detail it tends to be in relation to men, Caroline Aherne being a late rare exception.

It also doesn’t help that less funny comediennes have drowned out the rest. French & Saunders bestrode the eighties and nineties to such a degree that when they lost focus later (at least in relation to performing their own material which at some point became more interested in celebrity cameos and spoofs than saying anything genuinely interesting), I’d argue people assumed that all female comedians had stopped being funny too (even Wood has lately developed the same affliction not helped by turning up in interviews and saying that she knows what’s funny – we’ll be the judge of that).

It’s also not until very recently that comediennes have been allowed to expand their comic repertoire to mirror the men, covering biographical to observational to topical and in the case of Khorsandi all three. Radio 4 in general has been very good at expressing this kind of change, and it’s been gratify to hear The Now Show asking more female stand-ups to cover the news stories of the week, Sue Perkins is especially good on The News Quiz when she’s allowed to take an idea for a walk and even Laura Solon is growing on me. On tv, say what you like about Catherine Tate, but she can bury a catchphrase with the best and worst of the men, though she was still funnier in Doctor Who.

Which rather demonstrates, it depends on where you’re looking. If you’re looking at some tv panel game like Mock The Week in which “comedy” becomes an intimidating masculine pursuit, then admittedly, the intellectual rigour of a female comedian isn’t necessarily best suited – how often has the seat next to Hislop on Have I Got News For You been filled by a giggler with an XX chromosome? But if you make a point of searching out a Josie Long, you’ll find someone making observational comedy with big heart and emotional weight, that isn’t just funny but memorable. Which won’t be to everyone’s taste, but certainly suits mine.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 14/31: Will the sale of Liverpool Football Club to new owners in America be beneficial to the city of Liverpool as well as the team itself ? (suggested by Jacques Baptiste)

Liverpool FC Official Store

Sport Fighting against the cultural stereotypes of my home city is something I’ve become very adept at over the past thirty-odd years, but it was all for nought during the days or weeks of uncertainty surrounding the ownership of Liverpool Football Club. It’s in these moments, sometimes of success or as on this occasion crisis that I really understand the extent to which team sport seeps into the culture of a city, as it becomes the single topic of conversation in streets and pubs, spilling out of the local radio stations and across the front pages of the newspapers.

In the days leading up to the purchase of the club by John Henry it was as though the buildings themselves held their breath, awaiting combustion should LFC enter administration instead. When the agreement was inked, after the battles in the high court, the streets sighed. This was an event that touched not just Liverpool supporters but us Evertonians too, the interconnectedness of support for the clubs, a kind of collective spiritual and historical responsibility, deep enough for all of us to be on tenterhooks. Could Everton survive without the other large club to fight against?

If nothing else, then, the new ownership cooled the emotional temperature of the city after years of insecurity, fans watching as their beloved was essentially asset stripped and left for dead. With background profiles in the media hyping the positive effect he’s had on Baseball, vox pops with fans on the streets of Boston talked up his accomplishments. Unlike the previous owners too, he’s been especially cautious, dispassionate even, in making outrageous promises, humbly talking about assessing what needs to be fixed in the club, that nothing can be changed overnight.

As for the team: I’m the last person to ask. But glancing through the fan assessments on Just Liverpool Blogs, the away performance that was eluding them the last time I was asked a football question in 2006 still doesn’t seem to have been fixed, or for all I know was repaired but has broken again. The advice offered by these fans is roughly the same. Play better. They all have their own ideas on how that advice should be carried out, but oddly none of them are calling for the loss of the manager, presumably because Roy Hodgson hasn’t been in the job that long. Does John Henry have magic hands?

Macbeth (BBC Four).



Theatre Apparently at some point during last night’s broadcast of Macbeth on BBC Four, the title of the play was trending on twitter, which is quite an achievement considering it was running directly opposite the finale of The X Factor and demonstrating that there is an appetite for theatre and especially Shakespeare even on a so-called minority channel. But this was not a simple filming of the original Rupert Goold directed production originating from Chichester Festival Theatre (then the West End, then Broadway). This was a fully cinematic piece of drama that was as interested in the details of the characters behaviour as the depth of the poetry.

A typical example of this was in the moment just before MacDuff discovers his murdered king. Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth guides the general towards the door which will lead to his master and afterwards leans on a kitchen table as Lady Macduff (touchingly rendered by Suzanne Burden), who in this adaptation has been given Lenox’s lines, fills the idle moment with some small talk about the weather. Throughout Stewart watches the back of that door, genially but shortly answering the woman’s statements, but clearly very preoccupied because the sight MacDuff is about to discover etched on his brain and he knows as soon as the door opens, everything changes.

This is Macbeth as chamber piece; shot in and around Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Goold’s drama trades the vistas of Polanski and Zeffrelli for a mix of cramped interiors and large halls which seem to oscillate depending upon the timidity or arrogance of the title character’s ambition. The choice of shots too, rather than simply resting on whomever’s lips are moving goes with the emotional centre of each scene. When Lady Macbeth reads of her husband's good fortune, our focus is on the letter. In the moment when MacDuff is related the bleak circumstances of the loss of his family, the camera fixes on his face as Malcolm turns this grief toward revenge.

Goold’s chosen setting is a non-descript east-European country in the mid-twentieth century. Sporting a generous moustache, once in power, Stewart’s Macbeth is represented by a giant Stalin-like portrait in the main hall with the tyrant’s arrogant grasps at holding onto power, the murdering of friends and families in the text fitting neatly into the general sense of oppression exemplified by the archival footage of massive armies marching along wide boulevards that fill the antiquated televisions throughout the living quarters. The impression is of a shift between a benevolent military dictatorship under Duncan into one built on paranoia.

The paranoia engendered in Macbeth by the three witches. In his post on the BBC blog about the making of this version of The Scottish Play, producer John Wyver of Illuminations offers the films Downfall and The Shining as inspirations for the drama and asks for other guesses. As well as The Third Man, for its projections of shadows across the tiled walls of the tunnels, I’d like to suggest the films of Guillermo del Toro for the depiction of the supernatural against a backdrop of jackboots and submarine jackets. Like The Devil’s Backbone in particular, the witches are rendered even creeper by the manipulation of frame rates to create totally unreal movements in the actresses and when Banquo walks he’s captured in the same state as the moment of his death.

These three minxes were genuinely unsettling. One of the worst episodes of The West Wing, from the fifth season, just after creator Aaron Sorkin had left, has all of the main characters literally bawling at each other, entirely out of character, for forty minutes. As unpleasant as that is, if these witches had passed through now and then and conspiratorially given us a wink, the seething mass of negativity in the fictional White House that day would have been rendered totally convincing. These nurses or servants or whatever they are act as puppet masters in this scenario, and it’s not entirely clear, and this is suggested by Shakespeare’s text, whether we’re watching their prophecies coming to pass or whether they’re simply bending the situation to their will, those emotions their playthings.

The brilliance of the lead performances, from Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as his eventual queen is that they don’t tip the balance in our understanding either way. Fleetwood offers a dark, manipulative figure, and sexual animal in the Nigella Lawson mould, but unlike many interpretations there’s a certain collusion from Stewart from the off, as though he was already considering a great future for himself even before the wyrd sisters presented themselves. He might look slightly gutless when Lady M bats away his suggestion that he won’t kill Duncan but is soon turned around when she seductively carries a massive chocolate cake past his eyes. He has that cake and as we see later when just one slice is left, he eats it too.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 13/31: Macbeth (BBC Four).



Theatre Apparently at some point during last night’s broadcast of Macbeth on BBC Four, the title of the play was trending on twitter, which is quite an achievement considering it was running directly opposite the finale of The X Factor and demonstrating that there is an appetite for theatre and especially Shakespeare even on a so-called minority channel. But this was not a simple filming of the original Rupert Goold directed production originating from Chichester Festival Theatre (then the West End, then Broadway). This was a fully cinematic piece of drama that was as interested in the details of the characters behaviour as the depth of the poetry.

A typical example of this was in the moment just before MacDuff discovers his murdered king. Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth guides the general towards the door which will lead to his master and afterwards leans on a kitchen table as Lady Macduff (touchingly rendered by Suzanne Burden), who in this adaptation has been given Lenox’s lines, fills the idle moment with some small talk about the weather. Throughout Stewart watches the back of that door, genially but shortly answering the woman’s statements, but clearly very preoccupied because the sight MacDuff is about to discover etched on his brain and he knows as soon as the door opens, everything changes.

This is Macbeth as chamber piece; shot in and around Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Goold’s drama trades the vistas of Polanski and Zeffrelli for a mix of cramped interiors and large halls which seem to oscillate depending upon the timidity or arrogance of the title character’s ambition. The choice of shots too, rather than simply resting on whomever’s lips are moving goes with the emotional centre of each scene. When Lady Macbeth reads of her husband's good fortune, our focus is on the letter. In the moment when MacDuff is related the bleak circumstances of the loss of his family, the camera fixes on his face as Malcolm turns this grief toward revenge.

Goold’s chosen setting is a non-descript east-European country in the mid-twentieth century. Sporting a generous moustache, once in power, Stewart’s Macbeth is represented by a giant Stalin-like portrait in the main hall with the tyrant’s arrogant grasps at holding onto power, the murdering of friends and families in the text fitting neatly into the general sense of oppression exemplified by the archival footage of massive armies marching along wide boulevards that fill the antiquated televisions throughout the living quarters. The impression is of a shift between a benevolent military dictatorship under Duncan into one built on paranoia.

The paranoia engendered in Macbeth by the three witches. In his post on the BBC blog about the making of this version of The Scottish Play, producer John Wyver of Illuminations offers the films Downfall and The Shining as inspirations for the drama and asks for other guesses. As well as The Third Man, for its projections of shadows across the tiled walls of the tunnels, I’d like to suggest the films of Guillermo del Toro for the depiction of the supernatural against a backdrop of jackboots and submarine jackets. Like The Devil’s Backbone in particular, the witches are rendered even creeper by the manipulation of frame rates to create totally unreal movements in the actresses and when Banquo walks he’s captured in the same state as the moment of his death.

These three minxes were genuinely unsettling. One of the worst episodes of The West Wing, from the fifth season, just after creator Aaron Sorkin had left, has all of the main characters literally bawling at each other, entirely out of character, for forty minutes. As unpleasant as that is, if these witches had passed through now and then and conspiratorially given us a wink, the seething mass of negativity in the fictional White House that day would have been rendered totally convincing. These nurses or servants or whatever they are act as puppet masters in this scenario, and it’s not entirely clear, and this is suggested by Shakespeare’s text, whether we’re watching their prophecies coming to pass or whether they’re simply bending the situation to their will, those emotions their playthings.

The brilliance of the lead performances, from Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as his eventual queen is that they don’t tip the balance in our understanding either way. Fleetwood offers a dark, manipulative figure, and sexual animal in the Nigella Lawson mould, but unlike many interpretations there’s a certain collusion from Stewart from the off, as though he was already considering a great future for himself even before the wyrd sisters presented themselves. He might look slightly gutless when Lady M bats away his suggestion that he won’t kill Duncan but is soon turned around when she seductively carries a massive chocolate cake past his eyes. He has that cake and as we see later when just one slice is left, he eats it too.

Review 2010: The Opinion Engine: 12/31: Harry Potter (suggested by Annette)

Indian Eagle Owl (star of Harry Potter)

Film On a couple of occasions recently people have asked me where I stand on Harry Potter. The questions seems to be an attempt to divine the kind of human being I am. My initial reaction is that I’m perhaps not as passionate about Potter as some other franchises, certainly not as much as the various Whedonverses, Douglas Adams or Doctor Who.

But I'm certainly not anti-Potter. I just took two decisions early on that have probably effected my connection to the franchise. Firstly, I haven’t read the books. I've decided to enjoy the films as they stood and not have the alternative textual version running in parallel in my head throughout. Second, I’ve only seen everything since Chamber of Secrets once, for reasons which will become apparent.

No queuing at midnight for each exciting hard copy or as I imagine my version would be preordering it on Amazon before Rowling had even finished spell checking (which has to be a nightmare with Potter or has Microsoft supplied her with a special non-muggle version of the dictionary?), so no stories either of dressing as Hagrid and making the appropriate advances to a female peer dress as Herminone.

The most extra-curricular excitement I’ve had is listening to Mark Kermode’s reviews as he comes to terms with the fact that they’ll probably never be as good as The Prisoner of Azkaban but that they’re still rather better than some of the Benjamin Sniddlegrass-like clones, his flappy hands becoming ever more agitated when he's faced with descenting voices. Oh and hello to Jason Isaacs.

Instead, I've spent the past seven-odd years avoiding the tiny spoilers at the expense of the great big ones. With the ever increasing gap between the publication of JK Rowling’s hardcopy and the widescreen version, I’ve often felt like I might as well have returned to source. The unfortunate event at the close of the Half-Blood Prince was broken within minutes of publication, but I managed to avoid hearing about the method.

Which means that when I think about what I love about the movies, I’m mostly trading in faded memories and images in a way which has to be reminiscent of films fans before the home market, remembering vaguely the time travel sequence in Azkaban to the scary search through the swamp in The Half Blood Prince, Hagrid’s laugh to McGonagall glower and only a vague notion of the jargon.

When next Christmas, after nearly a decade, I’ll finally be able to sit and watch these films in a couple of sittings, there will be three elements I’ll be looking out for along with whether it’s possible to enjoy these films as a single story or if they really are just a bunch of episodes. The narrative structure, the actors and the atmosphere. Oh film school, how I miss thee.

I've often pitied Steve Kloves, the screenwriter who's adapted all of the Potter films; like anyone else in his position he's had to deal with the prospect of producing a story the details of which its core audience will already have an intimate knowledge but unlike them, he's had to deal not only with a huge mythology but one which has developed generally outside of his control.

Unlike the Bourne franchise, in which directors Doug Lyman and then Paul Greengrass essentially kept the name of each of the books and then did what they liked, for Potter fans the pictures must ring true to the words. Apparently sections of The Half-Blood Prince had to be reshot in light of revelations from the print version of The Deathly Hallows so that the closing couple of films could still be relatively faithful to the source material.

Most Hollywood franchises also become very bothered with the business of making sure the main character has a goal which is set up at the beginning and is dealt with at the climax. What Kloves has done is appropriate the alternative narrative style of the art house, in which a collection of incidents cumulatively lead to a story, with only the broadest of linking tissue between the scenes.

I love this. If you’re simply keeping with the films they can at times be as entertainingly scatter-shot and obscure as an Andrei Tarkovsky film and all the better for it. I’m frustrated when people complain that they don’t understand some plot element because they haven’t read the book, because it actually allows the viewer to become part author of the work, filling in these gaps for themselves.

* * * * *

Impossible as it is to imagine now, but sometime around the making of The Goblet of Fire, the scuttlebutt was that since the actors were growing beyond their character’s screen ages, the studio was putting some thought into replacing the leads in the Harry Potter films. If ever there was a banner moment as to how proprietorial I was towards the franchise it was this and I was flabbergasted.

A point of difference in the Potter films was the knowledge that we’d be watching these three younger actors grow and develop both into their characters and in their craft and it seemed unconscionable that the film company could even find worthy replacements. Luckily they’ve seen sense and sure enough once the final two films are released, that unique quality will remain intact.

In casting the central trio the producers with very lucky and clever. Just as Grint has grown into a very fine comic actor, Daniel Radcliffe has gained timelord heroism and Emma Watson could become a very good leading lady in the Kiera Knightley mould assuming all three can find some way of respecting the opportunities this franchise has offered whilst simultaneously not letting themselves become synonymous.

The series has also been able to retain the wider cast in their respective roles. With the high profile exception of ZoĆ« Wanamaker (and Richard Harris god rest his soul) all of the adults, a galaxy of British acting talent have stayed in place, as we’re also seeing a whole school full of kids growing into young adults. If nothing else, the Potter franchise has inspired loyalty amongst its cast.

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The films have all retained a consistent atmosphere, better even than some television series, whilst simultaneously pushing the feel of the imagery ever darker. After Alfonso Curan abandoned the golden hues of the two Chris Columbus openers, the photography has become increasingly bluer and greyer, with some scenes in The Half-Blood Prince bordering on nourish monochrome.

This could be interpreted as demonstrating the slow maturity of the main characters, Harry’s inextricable journey towards darkness and his inevitable rematch with you know who, but for me it shows that as directors Mike Newell then David Yates see these as valid artistic endeavours rather than simple franchise pictures, eager that what appears on screen has integrity beyond simply reframing someone else’s text.

Even if those first two films were relatively staid and conventional, they set up the world perfectly so that each small and large measure of destruction wrought on Hogwarts is keenly felt because it means we and the kids will no longer be able to enjoy a game of Quiddich for what it is, the main dramatic thrust whether Harry will can goal, or sit in the main hall and cheer Gryffindor’s end of year score.

So here’s to the end of the series, and to next Christmas when I’ll be able to watch the whole thing again. Perhaps after that I’ll understand more of the jokes, be wanting to buy a Hogwarts scarf even read the books finally and hoping that Rowling will indeed succumb to the temptation and write a proper epilogue so that I can stand outside Waterstones at midnight knowing that I won’t be sleeping for the next seven hundred odd pages.