Monday, July 18, 2011

A Treatise on Harry Potter

I was five years old when I read the first Harry Potter book, and to this day I picture Hogwarts as the house in which it was read to me; the house belonged to my friend, and it was a significant part of my childhood. It was an amazing house, and reading The Sorcerer's Stone in her yellow-painted bedroom of the three-story, renovated barn is one of the many happy memories I have from the house.

For a long time every book release was quite a bonding experience for her and her mother and my mother and I. When she grew out of it, it became an event that some other close family friends of ours and my brother and I did together, and it was the only time we'd get together. Book, and later movie releases, were bright spots in my mundane summers, where I could have an excuse to sit down and read for a week straight then reunite with childhood friends and stay up late talking and reading and analyzing every aspect of the series.

I was, for sure, as obsessed as anyone--and it's easy to see why. Harry Potter defined much of my childhood, and even to this day, as an "adult" to some degree, who can recognize the literary and filmic downfalls of the franchise, I cried when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two in Imax 3D closed with a three-shot of Ron, Hermione, and Harry. For me, and for thousands of other people in my generation, Harry Potter has been a constant--as, for the class of 2011, who started Kindergarten the year the first book was released and who just graduated, has been school. The painfully obvious tagline--"It all ends Summer 2011--" poetically punctuates not only the end of a series I have grown up with, but the end of my time living in the little town where I was born and going to school with the same group of people.

Regardless of my emotional connections to the story, I wasn't as psyched about this release as other people were, and until I was actually sitting in the enormous IMAX theater, after having waited in line for an hour when I could have been home doing something productive, I didn't care to see the film at all--in fact, I never saw Deathly Hallows Part One. People have been going on and on about how a huge chunk of their childhood is ending, about how a little part of them died, about how it is, in fact, all over, and how much of an effect that is going to have on their lives.

For me, that feeling has long passed. While a lot of people--especially those a little bit younger (current sophomores, my brother's age,) who were five when the first movie came out--have grown up with the films as much as with the books, if not more, definitely see the movies as entirely a part of Harry Potter, I still can't.  I felt the way so many people are feeling now when we got the seventh book at midnight, and when I closed the back cover at one in the afternoon the next day. Equally poetically, it was the summer before I began high school--in a parallel to the story, I was ready to move on.

Of course, not many other people were--HP continued to define our generation, most clearly shown in a pep rally skit performed by my class, the theme of which was, of course, Harry Potter. I saw the sixth movie at midnight, and I, like everyone else, still find the best way to explain many things is to use Harry Potter analogies. ("you know, he said it Ron says to Hermione in the sixth book," or, "Maybe the little boy at the end of Turn of the Screw wasn't killed, it was just a Harry Potter kinda thing," or, "The only parallel to the rise of Hitler is Voldemort.") All in all, though, the franchise and the fandom became sort of a nuisance to me. I have things to do. I am a grown up lady and I won't bother myself anymore with this nonsense.

Not true, of course. But my cynicism of all things enjoyed by the masses has led me to be a lot more critical of the series, and, in turn, the movies.

Part of the brilliance of Harry Potter  is that, for my generation, the books aged with us perfectly. The Sorcerer's Stone is like a gateway book to a lifetime of reading for so many young kids, and The Deathly Hallows is a dark, dramatic, and complicated fantasy. This brilliance also becomes a bit of a downfall for the series, and especially for the poor characters. There's a massive disconnect that comes in the end of the fourth book. The first three stories are whimsical, spooky, and fantastic for children. There's a clear good vs. evil, the plot follows a formulaic, episodic model that's already familiar to the audience (summer, school, Halloween, Christmas, Spring sports, finals, and so on.)

By the end of the fourth book, I was eight, and kind of ready for the shock of an almost main character getting killed by the big bad guy. By the fifth, I was ten, and, even though it was traumatic, almost ready for the angst and death that marks Order of the Phoenix. Almost. What had been a fun and whimsical tale set in a fun and whimsical location was suddenly a story of political intrigue, of abandoned houses and prophecies and such, but still sprinkled with fun and whimsical things like pixies and bogarts and the like. Harry's frustrating and inexplicable angst was somewhat incongruent with the stories we knew.

The sixth book continued with the drama, but at least still at Hogwarts, to some degree; the seventh book could be part of a completely different series. There are two ways to look at this: one, the audience got to old for the fun and whimsy, the universe got so big that there had to be an epic fantasy/war book in order to get things wrapped up, and Rowling wrote the book long after the directors of the films had switched from the lighthearted Christopher Columbus to much darker directors and was being influenced by the style somewhat. This is one of many criticisms, and opens up a discussion about the simplicity of the plot and characters and the simplistic, unchallenging writing, the dependence on a franchise and strong fanbase, and the lack of vitality that the story has.

Alternatively, one can look at the entirety of Harry Potter as following a similar pattern--if with a more Disney ending--as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, or Greek Tragedies, or Film Noir--because, by the seventh book/movie, the entire world of the three main characters has completely crumbled. As in Things Fall Apart, the majority of the first part of the story is marked by episodic plots controlled by specific dates, dotted with dramatic adventures that make the characters grow some, but in the end, it is an outside force that the characters feel they need to singlehandedly defeat that entirely destroys their way of life.

This is an emotional moment for those of us who are emotionally attached to Harry&company. It mimics our own realization that the world is not necessarily all whimsy and fun, and somethings things to fall apart entirely. Ultimately, the whimsical, wizarding setting of the series is incidental; the stories are about death, what happens after death, dealing with the after life and with mourning; it is about a group of non-muggles who are still mortals, who cannot beat death even though they have infinite luxuries of magic and such. This is philosophically somewhat simplistic, but it hits home for the audience of adolescence who, developmentally, are realizing the idea of mortality themselves. Not only that, but it emphasizes the fleeting nature of adolescense and school; no matter how dramatic it may be, you may only be one white page labeled "epilogue" or one black screen titled "19 years later" away from a pleasant adulthood. Harry's life reflects our own in many ways, and while he says the well acted line that so easily could have been cheesey, to Voldemort, "Let's finish this the way we started it--together!" he says to us, the crazy high schoolers who so many times have banged our heads against a keyboard in sincere imiation of his puppet self, chanting "angst, angst, angst, " who grew up with JK Rowling and Harry&Co fixing our problems:"Let's finish this, the nonsense battle with the world that is puberty and public education, the way we started it way back on the first day of first grade--together!

Overall, the movie itself greatly exceeded my fairly low expectations. IMAX 3D was much more impressive than I expected, and I can now see it as being a tool for innovation in cinematography rather than a novelty tech toy. The combination of light and dark  and long and close-up shots was much better and more balanced than the usual (dark field. dark castle. black dragon. Emma watson. Field. Dragon. Castle. Emma. More Emma. Some castle. Field. Castle. Emma.) They didn't dwell too long on many things, the movie didn't feel drawn out as some of the others in the series do. Helena Bonham Carter had to act like Hermione, which was brilliant. The battle scenes and the epilogue, were, dare I say it, better for me in film form than in the book--again, possibly because Rowling had the films in mind when she wrote the seventh book (all the unecessary description in the epilogue does make it read somewhat like  a script.) The casting for the whole franchise is quite brilliant. I really enjoyed the whole audience clapping when Ron and Hermione kissed, and when Molly Weasley yells, "Not my daughter, you bitch!" I wasn't  even too bothered by the fact that Daniel Radcliffe is 22 and not 17, and that Harry Potter is the most pretentious character in modern film.

Actually, Harry Potter's pretentiousness did bother me, some. I suppose that's something that also plays to teenagers developmental tendency to be as egocentric as a four year old--three characters, your age, who probably fill enough types that you can relate to at least one of them, who are literally the center of the universe. The movies, especially, are very Harry-centric. Fair enough, he is the eponymous character, and, again, the center of the whole wizarding world. But still, there are some scenes--such as snapping the elder wand in half and throwing it into the lake as his average friends stare in disgust--where his haughtiness is just overwhelming. My favorite part of the movie may very well have been when Neville stepped in after Voldemort had allegedly killed Harry and said something along the lines of, "The forces of good don't simply cease to exist because Harry Potter is dead, you guys..." and everyone was like "wait, what....oh yeah! Stuff happened here before the kid was born too!" (Even though, to be honest, as soon as Voldemort said, "I've killed Harry Potter!" I really wanted  Radcliffe to just stand up and yell something like "Think again, bitch! Avada Kadavera!" [or, Voldemort style, ahhvahdah kadahhha!"])

 In my opinion, the most interesting part of the series is the backstory of Voldemort--again, and seriously, it is very close to the rise of Hitler, and feels similar to study--how is it that these villians that we hold in this special, "he who must not be named" spot, in reality or literature, come to be as evil and as powerful as they are? I'd like to see a film directed more around Tom Riddle, personally. I did love in the seventh movie when Harry called Voldemort Tom to his face...that was quite the scene.

The hype is still a little much for me, but again, I do have an emotional attachment. I'm glad that, in the future, even though I won't be able to say I saw any classic bands playing live, I will be able to say that I saw Harry Potter in theaters when it first came out,and got the seventh book at midnight, and lived through a phase of fandom that was, at the time, rivaled only by Elvis and The Beatles.  And I did cry during the film, not only at seeing Ron cry over his brother's body or at the first shot of Dobby's grave, but also when Olivander echoed his line from the first story, "The wand chooses the wizard," and whenever the main theme came in, and in the last shot of the three friends holding hands.

In an emotion that, again, poetically mimics that of Harry himself as he walks into the forbidden forest, I realized walking out of the gluttonous theater that while I am sad, I am ready for this part of mys life to be over--but I also know that it will not be. Literature and film are written about in the present tense, so any day that I want to relive a sleepover in my best friends bedroom in her old house, or the night I stayed up all night with an old pal finishing the series, I can pick up one of the easiest books to read, and Dumbledore and Dobby and Voldemort will still be alive, it will still be up in the air whether Hermione ends up with Ron or Harry, and the terrible epilogue will not yet have occured.

Also, does anybody really believe that WB and JK Rowling are going to stop sitting on that comfy pile of ever-growing cash created by the franchise? I think not.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Writing in the media. What is happening.

You know what's terrible right now?
Ok, bad question. Lots of things are terrible right now. The economy and the war are terrible. Corrupt dictators are terrible. Disease is terrible. Stuff is not looking so good.

Here's what I think is the most terrible: the media.

The state of journalism right now is just sad stuff. Of course, this is why I'm going into journalism as a career--I have an incredible urge to fix it. The whole thing. Fix it all.

Really, though, every day I go into my kitchen and watch Fox News with my father, and as he's laughing at the "clever" commentary or "groundbreaking" discoveries, I just die inside. Every moment that those silly blonde women or the silly man who stands in front of the capital building in Massachusetts and yells about stuff says something else I just see the art that I love descending down the steps to hell.

My thoughts on this are stirred by a conversation I just had after I was accused of getting all my news from Stephen Colbert and John Stewart. First of all, not true. I am a regular news junkie. I get news from those two, but also my Google News Feed, NPR....Wait Wait Don't Tell Me...SNL....The Week...

You may see my problem here--five out of seven of those things are, in fact, news satires. Therein lies the question--where else am I supposed to get news? Satire is the only place where people, instead of talking about all the strange and irrelevant horrible things that are happening, talk about what is happening and how horrible all the people reporting on it are.. Everything right now is a distraction for our bigger problems--we seem to be stuck in an endless loop. Think of the biggest news stories from the past few months. The Royal Wedding? Anthony Weiner and friends? The End of the World?

Short answer--nothing important. Nothing long term. So much is going on right now, and these are the things we've decided we care most about. The big problems, everything from the corrupt medical system to the war to climate change and our depleting oil supply, is pushed into the background. Which, as far as I'm concerned, adds the media right onto that list of big problems we don't want to think about.

Until I was thirteen, I wanted to be the president of the United States. I've since decided journalists are much more powerful. Where on earth would the Tea Party movement be without Fox News or Rush Limbaugh? How many democratic bills do you think would have passed if the conservative media hadn't been so upset and critical? Everywhere we can see evidence of the media--television, specifically--being used in ways that it never has been used before. Look at the perfect case study, Sarah Palin--a governor turned vice presidential candidate turned reality show star who may run for president or vice president again. Better yet, we have Donald Trump, who the country braced itself against/embraced the idea of him as a presidential candidate, even though he has been a television icon for the past decade. Rumor has it that Alec Baldwin, a movie star, is considering running for mayor of New York--hilariously, since he himself is a political satirist. Not even to mention Colbert's Superpac, and his run for president last year jokingly, etc.

The point is, the country is being more influenced by the media than ever before, I might say, and we are influenced by it quite a bit. And if the media most of us were getting was accurate or unbiased, that'd be great. If you're getting your news from the television though, which most of us undoubtedly are, it's almost impossible to do that. You can't check the sources, they are the sources. You can't form your own opinions, the opinions are right in there. Fox isn't going to cover a story of a democratic senator doing something awesome or successful, they're just going to give us twenty four hour coverage of an irrelevant sexting scandal.

And, as much as I hate to get political here (a bit late for THAT now, Krista,) there's an interesting thing about Anthony Weiner and all of his nonsense--would any of that happened if he were a republican?

The reason I watch Colbert and Stewart is because they back up what they're saying. They point out the contradictory things that the other news stations do--which makes it nearly impossible to take the other stations seriously--ironically, since they are literally the serious ones compared to Stewart's comedy.

This is my personal favorite example of a comedian backing up something that they say and contradicting the news giant's own commentary--when Stewart totally destroyed Fox news when they got mad that a senator had compared one of his conservative opponents a Nazi.

Here's where I get to my point--the most important thing, at least to me currently, about being a good journalist with a strong opinion is using your facts. Find them. Put them in your articles. Make it easy for your readers to believe that they are true, even make it easy for them to find those facts themselves. I'm all for fancy rhetoric and style, but you are nowhere, you are nothing more than an arrogant internet troll, if you don't have facts.

There is one website that I read with embarrassing regularity that is actually the best example of journalism that I think is around right now. Nowhere am I more inspired or can I learn more from for both my blogging and my more serious journalism than this site. And that site is--you ready for this?

I'm not saying, of course, that you should get all your news or trust everything on Cracked, but there's no argument that they provide interesting information in an accessible, hilarious, and intelligent way. I've borrowed a lot from their style in terms of incorporating facts and pictures and captions, which you'll probably notice if you read my blog as well as theirs.

The reason they are so smart is because they do their research and they use technology to tell you about it. One of the reasons I love blogging so much as a journalistic medium is because it's so easy to just throw links into your writing to just about anything. This means that instead of having to present your facts in lengthy paragraphs about statistics that people will just skip over/not necessarily believe, or having to choose what statistics and facts are best from piles and piles of data that support the statement you're trying to make, you can just bring your readers right to the source and they can figure it out for themselves. I've always been impressed with the way Cracked does this, and they're starting to do it in creative ways: take this article for instance, which has a sentence with every word being a link to another piece of evidence. Or this one, which is a perfect example of how much they back up what they're saying with legitimate sources.

A lot of people write Cracked off as a crude humor site, which, don't get me wrong, it certainly is and totally intends to be. Because they have an excessive amount of pictures of scantily clad ladies and NSFW text, they aren't considered to be a very intellectual site. But what are you supposed to do but swear when the state of journalism is so sad that the most innovative and intelligent source of information is a crude humor site?

Perhaps the only other thing to do is get a liberal arts degree with a concentration in journalism and try to fix it myself.