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Wednesday, Jul 11, 2007

In the never ending head-scratching about what happened to the classical music audience comes this nice entry at the Huffington-Post blog: Glenn Kurtz Who Cares About Classical Music, Part 3.  Basically, Kurtz tells us the reason that there ain’t an audience out there is because not only DOESN’T classical music speak to many listeners today (so much for timelessness) but also because it literally isn’t of this time, period.


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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007


In a recent piece for Entertainment Weekly, bestselling author (and frequent contributor to the media mag) Stephen King made an interesting point about the entire Harry Potter series. When the final book is released later this month (July 2007), it will represent a nearly 10 year journey for the readers who first fell in love with the orphaned boy wizard and his outsized adventures. He suggests that an eight year old who was drawn into the world of Hogwarts and Quidditch, the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Prisoner of Azkaban will now be close to 18. They will have passed through grade school and may have even graduated. All now possess a world view radicalized by the onset of puberty and dating. While he admits that they should still be affected about the way creator J. K. Rowling ends the journey, he wonders if they haven’t moved beyond the emotions they associate with the character and his cohorts.


This may explain why the latest film in the ongoing cinematic interpretation of the novels – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – is so different from the other installments. There is something very intriguing going on here, a fascinating grown up subtext that suggests, as its fanbase has aged, so has the entire Potter mythology. Indeed, it’s time to stop dreaming and get down to the business at hand. Initially, such a shift is far more compelling than all the prophesying and enchantment. Almost like an espionage thriller from World War II, rebellion is in the air, both metaphorically and magically. And our hero Harry is at the center of an unpopular socio-political position. For those who’ve forgotten the previous narrative, the now notorious student tried to save a classmate from wicked Lord Valdemort’s deadly designs, and his failure has filled him with guilt. In the meantime, the Ministry of Magic (how very 1984) is downplaying the rumors of the Dark Lord’s return, and is setting up a behind the scenes plot to silence Harry once and for all.


Thus one walks, woozy and a tad paranormal punchdrunk, into this evocative entertainment, a movie meant to move away from the spectacle oriented elements of the series and into the emotional and interpersonal heft that transforms eye candy into epics. Trying to maneuver three major plotpoints at once – the ongoing battle with Voldemort, Harry’s decision to gather up a wizard’s army, and a newfound restrictive reign of terror at Hogwarts thanks to the arrival of Dark Arts instructor, the sweetly sinister Delores Umbridge – may seem like an impossible task, and many fans have worried how the longest book in the series would manage to make its multifaceted points. Even more disconcerting, longtime series screenwriter Steve Kloves (he did the adaptation on the previous four films) is not involved this time around. Indeed, both director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenburg are new to the Rowling realm.


As stated before, Harry is under close scrutiny by the Ministry. When he wards off an attack using a banned spell (he is not old enough to employ it), a witch’s witch hunt ensues. At a hearing before the board, our hero is defended by his loyal friend and Hogwart’s headmaster Dumbledore. Yet all this does is make the bureaucracy bitter. They bring in Umbridge to lay down order – and, some fear, pave the way for Voldemort’s eventual take over – turning her particularly important class into an ineffectual routine of rote memorization. Angered that they aren’t learning how to defend themselves, Harry is convince by longtime best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger to start teaching the others. Soon, a ragtag group of recruits are using a secret room to prepare for battle. As Harry is haunted by dreams of the Dark Lord, a confrontation between all three – the boy, the beast, and the battleaxe – looms large.


For full blown Potter heads, there is no need to worry about the infusion of new creative forces.  While some of the subtlety and depth from Phoenix’s fleshed out pages may be missing, this fifth installment is still immensely entertaining. Beginning with a bang and ending on an incredible display of martial magic, Yates is a director who understands cinematic shorthand. He gets lots of information across in clever newspaper montages, using the iconic Daily Prophet as a means of supplying backstory and subtext. Similarly, minor flashbacks for the previous films fill in informational blanks that a 129 minute movie can’t possibly afford to confront. Granted, anyone coming into this movie blind, without an inkling about what’s going on or where we are in the Potter paradigm will be wildly confused. Like walking into the middle of a play’s third act, number five is not the place to start your Muggle modification.


But if you’re invested in the whole wizard universe, Order of the Phoenix should provide untold personal pleasures. Aside from seeing your favorite characters again (Gary Oldman’s emblematic Sirius Black, Julie Walters’ jovial Mrs. Weasley), new recruits to the storyline also shine. For her part, Helena Bonham Carter is perfectly depraved as Death Eater Bellatrix Lastrange, and Evanna Lynch is defiantly ditzy as slightly loony loner girl Luna Lovegood. But the real secondary star here – after Daniel Radcliff’s dazzling turn as our Harry – is Imelda Staunton as the devilish Delores Umrbidge. Playing the part of underhanded villainess perfectly, she exudes a kind of pent up paranoia and dictatorial derangement. In her office outfitted with live kitten commemorate plates (tacky and terrifying), her preference for pink hides a soul as black as pitch. With the help of her Inquisition Squad – nothing subtle about this amoral administrator – she begins to undermine everything Dumbledore has done. Before long, she’s managed to turn Hogwarts into a stifling center of cold conformity.


Naturally, we demand a massive comeuppance, and one of the many joys in this thoroughly engaging film is watching Yates and Goldenburg build to her possible retribution. Following the continued quest to discover the truth about Voldemort and the title organization’s preparations for the eventual showdown, this is a movie that makes us aware of its intricacies, and asks us to pay close attention to what is going on. Of course, it helps to have read the four previous books (or at the very least, seen the other films), and yet Yates never allows things to tumble completely out of control. Those pining for all the meat in Rowling’s writing will probably be disappointed – its impossible to condense almost 800 pages into a little over 130 – but if they accept the film on its own terms, they will find a great deal to enjoy.


So will those just slightly outside the fervent fanbase. Yates has fun with his visuals here, rendering the familiar spaces of Hogwarts and the newer locales (like a Ministry mausoleum filled with crystal ball prophecies) into stunning cinematic backdrops. He also plays within the genre, referencing Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which is ironic, considering that the ex-pat Python was the first director approached about helming the Potter franchise) and drops a foray into Lord of the Rings territory (as when Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid shares a ‘secret’ with Harry and Hermione). And King is partially right – this is a darker, more demanding Potter plot. Kids who’ve just been introduced to the wizard’s wonderstuff might not be ready to take on such adult material. Death and evil are in the air after all, and Harry’s fate definitely hangs in the balance.


While one might question the viability of the franchise once Rowling releases the last Potter tome (imagine how films six and seven will play out once all the beans are finally spilled), five finds the series settling in quite nicely. There will be complaints from completists, and without a foundation of familiarity with the serialized narratives basics, one could become instantly lost. But for full fledged fantasy that doesn’t skimp on the imagination or the intrigue, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a brave, exciting entertainment. It makes the impending end of the series all the sadder.



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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007
by Peter St. Onge and Jeri Krentz [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]
Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette was killed in a single-car accident Tuesday morning, July 10, 2007, in Mississippi, authorities said. He was 57. (Catawba County Library/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette was killed in a single-car accident Tuesday morning, July 10, 2007, in Mississippi, authorities said. He was 57. (Catawba County Library/Charlotte Observer/MCT)


CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Doug Marlette tweaked authority for more than three decades, from his brazen and prize-winning cartoons to a popular syndicated comic strip to the Charlotte Observer parking lot, where the young cartoonist habitually stole the publisher’s space.


Marlette, 57, was killed in a single-car accident Tuesday morning in northwest Mississippi. He was a passenger in a Toyota pickup traveling from Memphis to Oxford, where he was to planning to see friends and help a high school with a production of his musical, “Kudzu.”


The car, driven by the school’s drama director, hydroplaned in heavy rain and struck a tree just before 10 a.m., said John Garrison, the coroner in Mississippi’s Marshall County.


Marlette was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1988 for editorial cartoons he drew at the Observer and the Atlanta Constitution. He was author of the comic strip “Kudzu,” syndicated in hundreds of newspapers worldwide. He was a successful two-time novelist, a composer, a university journalism professor.


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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007
by Sarah T. Williams [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)]

Michael Dahl, a children’s book author and editorial director of Stone Arch Books in Mankato, Minn., oft has been heard to say that “the No. 1 rule for writing good children’s books is to get rid of the parents.”


No need to take “Umbridge,” moms and dads; it’s just food for thought during the burbling buildup to the July 21 00:01 release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful series.


Part of the secret to Rowling’s success, said Dahl and other children’s book experts, is that she understood the enormous appeal of creating an orphan (or otherwise unparented child) and throwing him to the wolves. It’s a formula that has worked well for others.


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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007

One more post about Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Retreat From Class. Wood spends a chapter casting doubt on the idea that socialism might evolve naturally out of bourgeois democracy without the need for a revolution. She sees this as arguing that there can be socialism without having to redefine the economic organization of society, which wouldn’t amount to socialism at all. Instead, she argues that the claim that politics and economics are independent of each other is one of capitalism’s main lines of defense—this separation allows the exploitative prerogatives of private property to coexist with a discourse of rights in the political sphere. The point at which political rights are used to question exploitation, the political system becomes a battlefield, and the privileged classes will use their concealed leverage, and the barriers inherent to limited representation, to protect their interests.


Wood then raises the point that it’s dangerous to become enamored of democracy as an abstract end unto itself. It is a good, as far as socialists are concerned, to the extent that it allows for collective social action, but is there an inherent, organic human desire for democracy, that human nature demands democracy as an expression of its essence? Doesn’t seem like it when you look at history. Here’s what Wood writes about such advocates of democracy for its own sake:


We are given little guidance as to who in particular might want or need democracy, whether some people might want or need more—or different aspects—than others, how a social force capable of bringing it about might come into being—or indeed why there should be any difficulty or conflict about it at all. If, on the other hand, the democratic drive is not universal, or not immediately so, and yet at the same time is not constituted by material conditions and class relations but is constructed by ideology and politics more or less “autonomously,” then are we not again thrown back upon the old utopian elitism which Marx himself denounced? Must we not look to some privileged producers of “discourse” to implant the democratic impulse from without, giving a collective identity to an otherwise shapeless mass, creating the “people” and then imparting to them a socialist or democratic spirit which they cannot bring forth out of their own resources?


This not only sheds light on the hubris of the American project of exporting democracy to the Middle East as if the shapeless masses there were just waiting to be shaped into pseudo-Americans, but it’s a reminder of the problem of classes requiring “organic intellectuals”  to harness a group’s potential power and direct it toward a goal that will continue to motivate and unify them. Because of this, the temptation is always there for those shut out from participating in the revolution to revise that requirement, and come up with ways in which the working class can be told what is in their best interests by those who don’t necessary share them, or to argue (a la Laclau and Mouffe) that the working class is not necessarily pertinent to socialism. But there’s no way of knowing where the class struggle is headed once the fellow travelers take the wheel.


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