Saturday, November 19, 2016

Thoughts on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts.  Where to begin.  So this isn't a full recap of the film, lets get that out of the way. Rather, I have three main issues/ thoughts about the movie that I really wanted to talk about in a longer form than a Facebook or Twitter post.


So let's start off with what I liked.  Surprisingly, this was Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of Newt Scamander.  The soft-spoken Hufflepuff was somebody I really identified with.  His concern for animals and people was admirable and kind, and he seemed like a real genuinely good fellow, which is typical of people from our House.  Yes, I too am a Hufflepuff, which is certainly a fact that needs to be revealed for the sake of transparency.  The Harry Potter films, of course, follow Gryffindors: "heroes" who head into danger for the sake of glory and to "save the day."  Gryffindors can be headstrong as well as brave, daring as well as self-aggrandizing.  Hufflepuffs are often maligned by other people in Hogwarts, and by readers of the books, as being milquetoasts or bores, nothing in particulars.  This reading of Hufflepuff House is a gross misunderstanding.  Hufflepuffs are instead known for their intense loyalty and compassion to others, their protectiveness of friends and family. They are patient, kind, dedicated, and hard working.  They don't seek glory for themselves, they seek to set things to right, to make things fair.  The most famous Hufflepuff from the Harry Potter series was Cedric Diggory, a boy whose goodness and compassion literally cost him his life.  Other famous Hufflepuffs include Madame Sprout and Nymphadora Tonks, women who were instrumental in helping to protect Hogwarts and save the wizarding community in their own way.  Don't knock Hufflepuffs.  We are good people.

Newt's Scamander's primary motivation in the movie is not to achieve fame, not to catch beasts to prove his worth, not to hunt or track evil
wizards, but rather to write the definitive book on magical creatures so that other wizards will understand and protect them, and to free a Thunderbird which he rescued from captivity.  That is the main reason he travels to North America in the first place.  Now of course some of his other beasts get loose and he has to track them down, and there is a deeper mystery he becomes involved with, but the whole thing starts off because he wants to save an animal, to save and protect magical animals in general.  Let's unpack, this shall we.  Scamander is not an Auror, is not a "hero" in any traditional sense.  The character he is most similar to is probably Hagrid.  In the Harry Potter books and films Hagrid is a very important person, but his actions and character are always observed by others, by Gryffindors primarily, who view his sometimes reckless concern and love for the animals under his care as being eccentric at the best of times, and dangerous at the worst. In truth, Hagrid made a very good gameskeeper and a very poor professor.  It is a good thing then that Newt Scamander never went into teaching.  In fact, we are told he was kicked out of Hogwarts for his obsessive protection of "monsters."

The wizarding world in the works of J.K. Rowling is characterized by a profoundly mixed, mostly negative view of non humans.  From the enslavement of house elves to the disdain of creatures like centaurs and werewolves, time and again wizards have shown deep-seated attitudes of racial/ species superiority.  These attitudes are shown even in worthy characters like the Weasleys, who view gnomes as nuisances as an example, fit to be tossed across a field.  To have a main character in a film whose primary characteristic is concern and care for magical creatures, is really significant.  When Newt sets off to recover his creatures, he cares more for their safety and well being than he does the harm they may or may not do to others.  I loved that about him.

Oh look it's the 11th Doctor... I mean Newt
In many ways, the film is structured very similarly to an episode of Doctor Who, and Newt's comparisons to The Doctor cannot be ignored.  He too has a magical box that is bigger on the inside, he too pals around with a human who doesn't quite belong in this odd and curious world, he too wears a long overcoat and bow tie, he too is just a little bit odd.  Jacob felt so very much like a Who companion to me as well: unwittingly courageous, simultaneously awestruck, delighted, and terrified by the world he is introduced to.   Also Who-like is how Newt's climactic "battle" involves him trying to calm down a deeply disturbed/abused and powerful child, attempting to protect him from harm and revealing that he is not the villain others made him out to be.  There were definitely elements that reminded me of several Matt Smith episodes, specifically The God Complex and The Zygon Invasion, among others.  But while plot elements and character traits of Newt certainly reminded me of The Doctor, there are profound differences between the two characters, mainly that Newt lacks The Doctor's arrogance and self righteousness.  The calm and soft spoken Newt does not make any big speeches or grandstanding gestures. Newts niceness, his kindness, his love for Muggles (or NoMajes which is a term I will NEVER get used to) are really refreshing to see in a big budget action movie.  Think of it: the hero in a major tent pole franchise is not the grandstanding hero, but a man who simply wants everyone to get along and understand one another.  I love it.

Eddie Redmayne is an actor for whom I have mixed feelings, mainly due to his portrayal of a trans woman in The Danish Girl, and his insane over the top performance in Jupiter Ascending.  While I liked his Steven Hawking in The Theory of Everything, he is not exactly my favorite actor in the world.  But I really liked his Newt.  I liked it a lot.  My main concern with the film going in was whether he could carry a franchise.  Based on his performance I believe he can.  However, the quality of the remaining films in this series are really dependent on the quality of the writing and plot going forward.

One aspect of the plot that was profoundly disappointing for me was the treatment of the Goldstein sisters and of New York itself.  When I first learned that the leads of a major wizarding film were named
Tina and Queenie Goldstein I was beside myself.  Here are two new Jewish protagonists for a major film.  There have been no other Jews mentioned in this series at all.  This, to me, represented an opportunity to go into other cultures, other realms of magic.  Would there be discussion of Golems, as an example, of Kabbalah, etc?  The answer of course is no.  We have two women whose name is Goldstein who are Jewish in name only, and just to be clear Goldstein most certainly is a Jewish name.  Even if they didn't want to really dive deep into religiosity, at the very least they could have shown a mezuzah on their door, a menorah in the background of their apartment, a mention of their parents dying perhaps of something more sinister than dragon pox, perhaps a pogrom in the old country etc.  The film takes place in the 1920s with two women of Jewish ancestry.  How long has their family lived in this country?  Why do they lack any connection to their community?  If the intention was not to imply they were Jewish then perhaps Rowling should have given them different names.  You don't give characters Jewish names and then just erase their Judaism.  You just don't.  Even if you want to say that magical people don't interact with NoMajes, then maybe make an effort to show other magical Jews or something.  The rest of the wizards still celebrate Christmas, you can do something with non Christians.

Tina was a great character, though.  I liked her determination and her strength.  I like that she was given her own storyline, her own motivations, which intersected with Newt's but weren't all about him. Queenie was too much of a ditsy Monroe-esque caricature rather than a fleshed out human being.  Neither felt of the time and place as much as I wanted them to.  Katherine Waterston was a Brit playing a New Yorker and not quite succeeding and Alison Sudol was playing Marilyn Monroe from Some Like It Hot.  In general New York didn't feel like New York to me.  It was too clean, too shiny, for the period.  I wanted to see more cultural richness all around.  There was a magical jazz bar/ speakeasy with a black elf singer and a black woman as the president of the MACUSA, but no real understanding or acknowledgement of the racial and cultural dynamics of New York at the time.  The movie was written by a Brit and directed by a Brit and it definitely showed.  What I would give to see a film like this written by, oh I dunno, Michael Chabon, or somebody who has some understanding of the culture and time they are setting this story in.  New York of the 20s was teeming with immigrants; we saw none of them.  On top of this is the fact that the thunderbird is a creature from Native American mythology and the presence or even acknowledgement of Native Americans was non existent.  Rowling, you need to do better.

No discussion of this film would be complete without talking about Graves, Grindelwald, and poor Credence Barebone.  To get it out of the way, I don't know how I feel about the casting of Johnny Depp, but I am definitely in the wait and see camp on this one.  I was rather impressed with Colin Farrell's portrayal of Graves, and I actually would have rather seen him continue on in the role, but that is here nor there.  I expected Graves to be working for Grindelwald based on the direction the franchise was going; I did not expect us to do a whole Barty Crouch Jr. thing again but there you go. However, by making Graves and Grindelwald one in the same, Rowling has revealed much about Grindelwald's character and in turn, Dumbledore's, which I think is really fascinating.  What we know of Grindelwald from the books is that he and Dumbledore were friends who were both interested/ obsessed with the Deathly Hallows.  Dumbledore developed romantic feelings for his friend and Grindelwald, whether he reciprocated those feelings or not, utilized them for his own benefit, isolating Dumbledore from his brother and sister in his quest for more power.  Eventually, Aberforth confronted Dumbledore about his friend/ (lover?)s actions, how he isolated Albus from his family, in particular from his sister who needed medical care, and how his quest for power was unhealthy.  This confrontation lead to a dual in which Dumbledore's sister Ariana was murdered by Grindelwald, who also used the Cruciatus curse on Aberforth.  Albus and Grindelwald went their separate ways with Albus returning to teach at Hogwarts and Grindelwald going on to lead a group of dark wizards, until they later fought in the most famous dual of wizarding history, which resulted in Dumbledore claiming the Elder Wand from his former friend.   In reading Deathly Hallows, and in hearing Rowling's statements about Dumbledore's homosexuality after the fact, I always wondered about Grindelwald: what his desires were, whether Dumbledore's feelings for him were reciprocated, whether he was simply a sociopath who manipulated Dumbledore for his own benefit.  Based on what I saw of his relationship with Credence Barebone, I would say that I am firmly of the belief in the latter.

Predatory behavior at its finest
Make no mistake about it: everything about Graves' interactions with Credence felt like the sociopathic grooming of a child predator.  Credence Barebone's story is the story not only of a wizard repressed, but of a queer youth tortured into straightness by a religious mother, who finds comfort in an older man who promises him something more in return for keeping secrets.  Graves' words, his physical closeness, the touches on Credence's face, tell me that their relationship, if not explicitly sexual in nature, certainly played on Credence's attachment and attraction, which seems to be Grindelwald's MO.  I wonder about how this trope of dangerous/ corrupting queerness will impact storytelling going forward.  From interviews, it is clear that Dumbledore's homosexuality will be made explicit.  Are they going to reveal that Grindelwald is gay as well, or that he simply is very good at manipulating young gay men?  Dumbledore himself is not immune from criticism either, as one could argue he manipulated Harry in much the same way: using Harry's affection for him to his own ends, hiding secrets from him even when he knew that the path he was on would inevitably lead to Harry's own demise.  A horrible thing to ask of a child.  Dumbledore is most certainly a character that is not without criticism and it is quite possible that this kind of manipulation was learned from his former friend.

The fact that Credence's latent magical ability and repressed queerness was literally weaponized
You deserved better
made for a fascinating plot device.  The fact that he was killed in the end for the monstrous sin of being a repressed queer wizard cannot be ignored.  Once again we are shown that the wizarding world is fearful of the "other," mistrustful of "creatures" they view as not quite human, and how their policies and actions enable wizard-supremacists like Grindelwald or Voldemort to flourish. There is some question as to whether Credence's demise is completely final.  I'm not sure if it is or not, but I will say I really feel badly for this poor abused boy and whatever happens to him, whatever he does, I don't hold it against him.  What was really significant to me was how deeply affected Newt and Tina were by Credence's situation and how their compassion for him motivated all of their actions in the last act of the film. The hero of this franchise is not a man who seeks to fight evil in a conventional sense; the hero of this franchise is a man who believes we must be kind and good to all people and beasts, must understand the other, protect the other from harm.

For these reasons, I found Fantastic Beasts to be the most political of all the films in the Harry Potter franchise. Newt Scamander is telling the wizarding community, and by proxy the audience, that our misguided attitudes toward things we do not understand, our belief in the rule of law over the rules of compassion and fairness, will be our downfall.  The villain of the movie is not the destructive force that breaks buildings apart and takes the lives of NoMajes who would oppress it, rather the villains are the oppressors:  the religious fundamentalist who abuses children, the wizard who would manipulate the oppressed for his own gain, and the MACUSA who is content to take an isolationist stance rather than uphold the rights of the oppressed, who would rather kill "creatures" than protect them from harm.

In adapting the Harry Potter novels to the screen, one thing that I really missed seeing was Hermione's creation of S.P.E.W.: the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare.   If you have not read the books, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Hermione forms a group that fights the injustices in the treatment of the house elves that are used by Hogwarts, and the abuse of house elves in general. Hermione, an outsider, a Muggle born witch, sees the usage of house elves as what it was: slavery, and rallies her fellow students to try to correct this injustice.  It was sad that this plot was cut from the films because I always found it really meaningful how she demonstrated that blind acceptance of societal norms is wrong.  How refreshing it is then that we have a new franchise which makes this statement its very thesis.

I look forward to future installments of this series, something I did not expect.  However, going forward I really hope that Rowling does better research in her worldbuilding as her American wizarding community is definitely wanting in cultural and historical details, and her supporting characters, aside from Tina, the Hermione surrogate, and Jacob the everyman, don't feel as well rounded as one would hope.  I also hope that, despite some of the rumors out there, that we do have a more nuanced story like the one in this film, rather than simply a "let's all hunt Grindelwald like he is Voldemort" kind of deal.  I know Dumbledore will play a significant role going forward, but I don't want this franchise to just become about Dumbledore and Grindelwald at the expense of everything else.

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