Friday, September 03, 2010

An Expedition in Wizarding

In the following months I am going on a journey that will require incredible feats of stamina, strength and fortitude. With the impending arrival of the final two movies (or the one two-parter movie) in the Harry Potter franchise, I’ve decided to make my way through the entire series, hopefully in time to see the finale in theaters. Let me just get this out of the way to begin with: I’ve never seen any of the films before and I have never read any of the books. I won’t play ignorant, however. In this era of pop-culture saturation I’m vaguely familiar with the central concept (a boarding school for budding wizards) and some of the looks and characters from the film. I even know that a guy named Voldemort, played by the great Ralph Fiennes, shows up at some point as the big bad. But as far as the intricacies of this fantasy world, I’m largely in the dark.

Now, I haven’t been avoiding these films because of a kneejerk dislike of the either its popularity or the central conceit. I’ve been known to immerse myself in plenty of sci-fi and fantasy geekery. I’ve merely never gotten around to it. By the time I missed the first two movies in the theaters it seemed like a lot to catch up on, and almost everyone I know either has seen these films and refuses to invest the time in watching them again, or is just not interested. So why now? I’ll admit I was intrigued when I discovered that the third film in the series, The Prisoner of Azkaban, was directed by the great Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron also helmed the obscene Y Tu Mama Tambien and the pessimistic Children of Men. I was curious to see what the creator of a raunchy film about sex and a bleak dystopian film would do with a children’s story.

Furthermore, it is difficult for even detractors not to admit the accomplishment of creating eight (?) films that have a single narrative thread. From what I understand, each film is over two hours long, meaning the entire story, from beginning to end, is probably around twenty hours. Now, there have been both experimental and narrative films that have lasted for 24 hours or more, but I can think of few Hollywood cinematic expeditions that aim for this kind of epic length. Two factors probably made this lengthy series possible: the popularity of the source material and the advent of DVD. The former factor is obvious. The bean counters at the studio obviously saw the revenue from the book sales and knew there was an audience for eight two-plus hour long films featuring a kid wizard. The latter factor is less obvious. DVDs have in many ways changed the way Westerners have looked at narrative. This is especially true of television, where serialized stories like Lost can weave intricate plots without worrying about losing the audience because they can always return to the DVDs. This is also true of film. If a detail from an earlier Harry Potter film is important latter on, then I’m sure the audience is either aware of it thanks to repeat viewings or can return to earlier parts of the story thanks to how easy DVDs have made home viewing. In some ways this long form narrative is nothing new, but rather a return to the form of the serialized novel from authors like Charles Dickens.

So there you have it: essentially all of my knowledge and early impression of the Harry Potter series before I have watched even a single frame of the film. I’m certainly hoping to enjoy these films, because the moment I pop in the first DVD I don’t think there’s any point in stopping.

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