Martha Bayles: December 2005 Archives
Two of the top-grossing movies in the world right now are The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire . Strange, isn't it, that these huge, loud, public spectacles began life as small, quiet, private children's books, suitable for bedtime reading?
Bedtime stories lead to dreams, though, and these dreams are now shared by millions. So perhaps it's worth asking whether there's any substance to the squabble over the role of magic in Harry Potter versus the allegorical Christianity in Narnia.
The Judeo-Christian objection to sorcery and the occult goes back to Deuteronomy, so it's hardly surprising that orthodox believers would object to the Harry Potter trope of brilliant lovable youngsters escaping the dull bourgeois world of non-magical humanity ("Muggles") for the fantastically exciting Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
But are the Harry Potter stories really about magic in this traditional sense? They revel entertainingly in its lore and trappings, to be sure. But the real source of the stories' emotional resonance is their vivid portrayal of a generation growing up amid an only slightly more fantastic version of 21st-century technology ( especially the extraordinarily transformative powers of digital electronic media as displayed in the films themselves!).
Like Harry, young people are better at commanding these powers than their elders. But unless they are studying micro-electronics, they have only a weak grasp of how their wonderful toys work. Hence the need for a few aging mentors who understand the origins and secrets of the magic they teach. (It is no accident that Hogwarts itself should resemble a pipe dream of Oxbridge.) But this creates a problem: these mentors are also supposed to impart great wisdom, not to mention an ethical code. And at this, they are pretty poor.
So while I admire the Potter books and (especially) films, I also think their religious critics have a point. Does the world of Hogwarts have a moral compass, apart from the vague benevolence of senior-citizen witches and wizards? The question matters in the real world, not just the fantasy one, and becomes more urgent as the films make the Faustian journey toward ever more malign magic. To judge by the raves of critics whose vocabulary extends from D (for "dark") to E (for "edgy"), these frail counselors may not be able to hold out against the fabulous noseless hideousness of Voltemort.
Meanwhile, Narnia has the opposite problem. The richly animated Aslan is a wonder, even before he starts growling in Liam Neeson's mellow baritone. But here the evil isn't vivid enough. The White Witch may satisfy religious viewers who grasp the symbolism of white witchcraft being just as bad as black. But to a generation raised on state-of-the-art bitchcraft, how scary are those frozen dreadlocks?
Moreover, Narnia lacks the contemporary resonance of Potter. Its human characters command no magic, being instead at the mercy of the unknown forces that transport them to and fro. They aren't passive, and the moral transformation of Edmund is more sophisticated than any lesson offered in Harry Potter. But compared with the students at Hogwarts, what do these kids actually get to do?
They get to wage a picturesque medieval war against the wrong sort of demons, in order to become the rightful rulers of the kingdom. Excuse me, but this is 2005, and it is hard to imagine a saga based on the divine right of kings packing the same emotional wallop as one about state-of-the-art wizardry being employed for evil purposes.
Memoirs of a Geisha is doing a brisk business in Japan, despite many cultural false notes. (Personally I am still wondering why all the US ads show Zhang Ziyi, the Chinese star of the film, as having blue eyes. What, she's not beautiful enough with the eyes God gave her? Why not make her a blonde, and call the movie "Memoirs of a Shiksa"?) But I digress. From press reports I gather that Japanese audiences adore the film, just as they adored the Tom Cruise missile, The Last Samurai (2003). And probably the reason is simple: these films are glorious to look at. The phrase "eye candy" comes from the TV producer Aaron Spelling, whose vapid productions are now justly forgotten (I don't think Love Boat even qualifies as camp.) But let's face it. Some confections are irresistible. If a chocolate Santa comes from Fassbender & Rausch, who cares if he looks like Howard Stern?
Beyond its dazzling settings, acting, and soundtrack; beneath the twists and turns of its fantastically pretzled plot; Syriana is based on a pretty dumbed-down idea: the root of all evil in the world - the Great Satan, if you will - is American Big Oil.
Wearing Hermes and Rolodex instead of horns and tails, the bad guys are instantly recognizable: glit-edged attorneys, greedy politicians, colluding bureacrats, and gimlet-eyed techno-warriors all orchestrating the assassination of Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), the lone progressive leader in an unnamed Arab Emirate who is about to sign an oil deal with the Chinese.
Prince Nasir is Doing the Right Thing, because according to the prince's American consultant (Matt Damon), "the Americans are sucking the Emirate dry" and the prince cannot modernize or redistribute the wealth while "the Americans keep making demands."
Here is where the dumbing-down kicks in. The Chinese, evidently, are not going to make any demands or mismanage any natural resources. Is this because they have modeled their environmental policies on the wisdom of Chairman Muir ... er, Mao?
In another plot twist, Big-Oil-Ze-Bub is depicted as being directly responsible for terrorism. Not because the United States has invaded Iraq - that little detail is not mentioned in the film (too controversial, perhaps). No, the Evil One encourages terrorism through unfair employment practices. Early in the film, a group of Junior Managerial Demons summarily fire a hundred Pakistani workers, an unhappy event which leads directly to two sweet-faced young men being recruited by a suicide bomber cell.
Again, the meaning is clear. This sort of thing would not happen under the enlightened management policies of Beijing. (Or maybe we wouldn't hear about it, under the enlightened media policies of Beijing?)
I could go on. But suffice it to say that this film, like so many other "thought-provoking" Hollywood confections, provokes only one thought: Better the Devil we know ...
My ever-elusive dream of snagging a Pentagon R&D contract may now be coming true. I understand why the military never asked me to design weapons systems, desert camouflage, or toilet seats. But now that they're in the propaganda business, I respectfully offer my services as a PR consultant.
My fees are pretty high, but not unreasonable when you consider how esoteric this PR stuff can be. Only a high-priced expert like me can understand some of this stuff. Here's one example:
If America wants to revive its Cold War image as a beacon of human rights, the perhaps we should not make illegal detention and torture a staple of our entertainment. Lately I've been struggling with an addiction to 24, the first TV series to succeed in turning the war on terrorism into family entertainment. Famous for its steroidally suspenseful plots that unfold in "real time," 24 contains scene after scene of systematic bloodletting, bonebreaking, electrocution, and summary execution of familiy members - acts performed as often, or more often, by the good guys as by the bad. The series is thoroughly gripping, and while the torture bits are not my reason for watching, they do make the show feel ... well, cutting edge.
How this plays overseas, I will be happy to speculate if the powers-that-be put me on retainer. Call me greedy, but I'm not the one driving up the price of common sense.