Sometimes you want to say something smart. You amble out of a movie theatre, drop from a book, pass by a snip of conversation, and you want to deliver something witty about the experience to the next friend you encounter. So when Schmutzie asked me what I thought of Hoary Putter and the Giblet of Fur, I wanted to knock it out of the park. Instead I said, Oh, it was okay, I guess.
PaliDude, you say. What's wrong with you? Where'd your mojo go, Schlomo? (Would you really say that to me? My name's not Schlomo.) Can't raise a phrase to swat down a franchise flick for kids? Not this time, I say. Then tell me what's going on, you say. How did it beat you?
Simple. Harry Potter was stronger than I, and I submitted. Not just brute strength, either: a imperturbable Zen strength, a reed-in-the-wind strength. And a craftiness that made up for its lack of intelligence.
Its first weapon was the smell of stale ketchup. As I picked out a seat I noticed it: sugary, ripe, slightly sweaty. The whole theatre reeked of it. I realized that the day's matinees, packed with Potter kids, had been filled with people eating movie theatre wieners (the theatre I went to was not of the grade to sell fries). Imagine a movie whose primary audience was a bunch of wiener-eating kids. I knew that I was no match for such a mass, since there were certain to be wiener-eaters all around me, waiting for the signal to start munching away and going back for nachos.
Its second weapon was its crazy heft and density. I know who Harry Potter is, and I know what Muggles are, but I've never read the books and I'm not familiar with the whole backstory (like the mark of Tiny Zorro on his forehead). I've seen the second movie, but it was so bad I just emptied it from my mind as soon as I saw it, like an airplane toilet emptying itself at 40 000 feet. I watched the third one somewhere around the tenth hour of a fourteen hour night flight across the Pacific, and I think I was delerious at that point. All I came away with was the impression that David Thewlis played a gay teacher who cruised the moors at night in a butch getup. Therefore I had no idea what the Goblet of Fire was going to be about. But I think this is what I watched:
First there's a tower with a little scaly guy who's friends with a giant snake who lives in a skull, or at least the skull is the door to the snake's house. The snake and the little scaly man and his friends look at someone, and it's a Bad Look. But it was a dream and the dreamer was Harry Potter. Harry Potter is fourteen years old, and he looks fourteen the way Wilford Brimley looks twenty-two. Harry's friends make him get out of bed and touch a boot in a field. Somehow touching a boot in a field is related to painful teleportation and adolescent sexual tension. Why not? Then they're at a gigantic sports match that the entire world knows nothing about but appears to equal the GDP of Ireland. Then a bunch of guys with pointy hats show up and that means all the tents are going to burn and some guy in a leather coat is going to light up the sky with the Sign of the Snake and Skull, which probably means that Iron Maiden is signalling its lordship over the magicians. Then there's a scene with people talking in the ruins of the tent field and every so often they look up and yes, the Sign of Dickinson is still there. Then there are exchange students, dancing, tears, dragons and eggs, squabbles, ugly mermaids, hedge mazes, and a cup that everyone wants. And then there's the little scaly guy, who turns out to be Ralph Fiennes looking pretty much like he does on any given day at home, except for the lack of a nose (I tell you, Ralph Fiennes has overinvested in consonants). He touches Harry's Tiny Mark of Zorro and it seems to be a Bad Touch. He and Harry Potter point their wands at each other and spray magical fire for a few minutes until Harry's parents show up and tell him to stop that right now. And a beloved character dies, but it's not Harry or Hermione or the bitter red-haired guy so it carries the emotional impact of shaving cream, but everybody's upset anyway. And that turns out to be a typical year at Hogwart's. Given all that - and I'm leaving the whole Brendan Gleeson bit out - what possible response could you muster?
But its third and mightiest weapon was its obviousness, its happy indifference to subtlety and irony. The movie goes to some lengths to show that the pains of insecure adolescent wizards are just like the pains of insecure adolescent muggles, and it is to this keel that critics have attached themselves. Look at Hermione hang off the arm of some jock while sensitive red-haired guy moons on and rakes in the bitterness. Look at Harry struggle with asking girls out to a dance. Aren't these weak and distant pulses of recognizable human behaviour a sign of intelligent life? Isn't this proof that the whole Potter enterprise is worth our obsession with it? Sure, you want to believe. You've thrown down ten bucks and spent two a half hours surrounded by wiener-eating tweens in a fug of old ketchup smell. You'll take any old stool to lift yourself above that experience. But it seems to me that the Goblet of Fire gets childhood and early adolescence exactly wrong: the world of magic is not overt, and conducted under the guidance of authority; it is covert, performed with a tiny band of friends, out of sight of the difficult and unresponsive world. But the difficult world is left far behind in this movie - not a single normal human being shows up - and it makes the magical seem muggleish, which causes the muggleish to lose its magic.