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Two Films About Adolescence: One Good, One Harry Potter
by Lucius Shepard
December 10, 2005

I will let dung beetles run across my eyes before I see another Harry Potter movie. I will pulp spiders in a blender and gargle with the resulting glop; I will eat gopher guts on toast; I will lap up cobra venom; I will do any dangerous and/or disgusting thing to avoid a repetition of the experience. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was that bad.

The reviews are good. They say, in essence, a Potter for the ages, 157 minutes that passes far too quickly, dark and uncompromising . . . Well, Potter #4 is, indeed, dark, containing disturbing scenes of self-mutilation and what appears to be a full-blown satanic ritual in the midst of a graveyard, but otherwise the film is a graceless collection of failed moments—tired attempts to inspire that merely bore, moments intended to edify that manifest as overlong preachments, etc.—larded with puerile flutterings about teenagers just entering the sexual arena, the trials of first dates and proms that, in their candy-ass approach to the subject, conjure memories of Twixt Twelve and Twenty, 50s pop idol and charter member of the Christian Right Pat Boone’s book of advice for teens. The director, Mike Newell, whose masterwork, Four Weddings and a Funeral, presented the ever-so-annoying Hugh Grant fluttering his eyelashes non-stop and affecting boyishness, here gives us another case of pre-fab cuteness, Daniel Radcliffe, the whey-faced clot of mother love who plays Harry as a pallid counterfeit of a fourteen-year-old. There are those who suggest that he must be exterminated or else he will initiate a cult of milk-and-cookies-eating, stick-up-the-butt, faux-plucky mummy’s boys, but I am not among them. I envision a worse fate for young Daniel, starting out, perhaps, with a stretch in big boys’ prison.

For those fortunate enough to have missed the Potter phenomenon, Harry, along with best friends Ron and Hermione, is entering his fourth year at Hogwarts, the British academy where children talented in magic are taught the arts of wizardry. Hermione is the progeny of “muggles” (ordinary humans incapable of magic), but absent is the subtextual material relating to this concerning class that made the previous incarnations of the Hogwarts saga so delightfully Tory. Gone, for that matter, is any subtext whatsoever. You would think that even the most consummate hack could mine some subtext from a scene, for instance, where the kids swim in a lake full of merpeople and the bodies of drowned friends, but Newell never falters in his disregard for subtlety and texture. Poorly edited, with some scenes left, apparently, incomplete, Potter 4 limps away from the gate with one of the worst openings in recent memory, a horribly scripted scene at the World Cup of Quidditch, where nothing really happens with as much noise as possible. This establishes the tone for ensuing FX set pieces that play as if we, the audience, are supposed to gape, applaud, and twiddle our thumbs until the next one comes along. And so we twiddle, because there’s nothing else to watch, especially the acting. In the previous films, the presence of character actors such David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, et al, served to minimize the inadequacies of the child actors; under Newell’s direction, the presence of Brendan Gleeson as Madeye Moody (who seems to be having great fun as a one-legged, one-eyed, battle-scarred professor), Michael Gambon (who takes wise old Professor Dumbledore in an earthier direction), and Miranda Richardson as smarmy gossip columnist Rita Skeeter serve rather to point them out. Sometimes it seems there are several movies going on, one involving children posing as actors. In sum, the worst of the Potter films, sketchily hung togther, infused by a profound absence of vision.

By chance, in the same time frame that I saw Potter #4, I watched Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-Chou, a coming-of-age film of equivalent length, but of far greater ambition. Lily is beautiful, ethereal; born at the moment Mark Chapman assassinated John Lennon, she emblematizes eternal rebirth, a pop diva for the cyberculture, part Tory Amos, part Enya, past-mythological creature. Fans use her “amniotic” music to insulate themselves from the violence of Japanese culture. Yuichi, thirteen years old, inhabits a milieu in which rape, murder, suicide, and degradation predominate. He lacks the social skills to escape the ever-intensifying sado-masochism of his friends, and so he hides himself away in Lilyphilia, a website he runs; his only true relationships are those with his fellow devotees, especially “blue cat,” whom he meets online. It almost destroys him when he learns that Hoshino, the kid who beats and bullies him, who has manipulated him into a life of petty crime (serving as bodyguard for a schoolgirl whom Hoshino is pimping to businessmen), is also a Lilyhead.

This is probably the most beautiful film ever shot using digital video. Iwai brings the milieu to life by circling the plot (which is basically a year in the life of Yuichi and his associates), letting pictures and vignettes tell the story, moving seamlessly between public moments and the intimate, giving us blurry home video of the apathetic adults in Yuichi’s life; startling operatic moments such as Yuichi sitting in the midst of a ricefield, listening to Lily on his headphones, or standing isolate beneath a dramatic, otherworldly sky; scenes at Yuichi’s school wherein the air looks to be full of ice particles; and intercutting all this with chat room messages and computer garbages. It’s visually astonishing, every frame remarkable, a love-letter to the art of filmmaking. Eventually the movie homes in on a Lily Chou-Chou concert, where both Yuichi and Hoshino meet the test of fate, but before that we have been inundated with details that bring this culture, very like our own yet alien in its particulars, to vivid life. We not only understand Yuichi’s dilemmas, we feel them along our spines.

There’s little point in juxtaposing these two films; they have nothing in common other than their theme and basic circumstance. One is intended as an entertainment and fails miserably at fulfilling that intent; whereas the other intends to illumine and succeeds to such an extent that it also entertains. I suppose there may be a lesson to be learned here, something about the Potter film being seen by, it’s likely, approximately a kazillion times more people than will see Lily Chou-Chou and the possibility that the vast Potter franchise, which has been lauded for getting children to read again, is part of an insidious conspiracy designed to produce a generation of Potterheads who, hiding behind a screen of cute wizards and clumsy dragons, will giggle and titter their way through puberty and teen angst to adulthood, more-or-less unmindful of the pestilent, grim reality threatening to choke the soul out of them and reduce America to a Third World country populated by muggles so addicted to escapism, they’re unable to cope with the crucial challenges facing them . . . Of course this is a bit of an overstatement and, hey, maybe it’s for the best. If the oceans should catch on fire and the streets fill with the dead, they can just whip out their wands and cast the spell of This Isn’t Happening.

Oh yeah. One more thing.

Aeon Flux Sux.