Tuesday, July 25, 2017


J.K. Rowling

SPOILER ALERT, you can learn a lot from a fable.

July 31st is Harry Potter's twelfth birthday, but what's he care? None of his school chums have kept in touch. Uncle Vernon has an important client to impress over dinner, and Aunt Petunia has a dead sister to continue pointlessly envying, so Harry is banished to the bedroom. Life's lonely till a house-elf named Dobby appears, imploring Mr. Potter to avoid school at all costs. (I wouldn't have needed told twice, but I never attended a school where everyone wore sweet-ass robes and gathered in a big ol' hall to eat sausages on top of puddings on top of pumpkin pies and recess consisted of flying lacrosse.) When he sees for himself how hellishly bent Harry is, Dobby races downstairs and ruins dinner.

Gingers to the rescue! Specifically, Ron Weasley and his twin brothers George and Fred, chilling out in a Ford Anglia that's been charmed to fly by their Muggle-mad father. They take Harry to their home, the Burrow, a ramshackle yet cozy dwelling that Harry immediately falls head over heels for. He's instantly doted on by matriarch Molly (always has her behavior towards Harry irked me, and contributed to my fondness for Ron) and avoided by Ginny, the only girl of the seven Weasley children, who's been obsessing over Harry the entire summer.

Harry and the Weasleys head to Diagon Alley, crossing paths with Hagrid, Hermione and the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, Gilderoy "The Lilac Dandy" Lockhart, a celebrity wizard whose bibliography is almost as bloated as his ego (Hermione is but one of many smitten witches). Even he is in wonder of Harry, gifting the bemused boy a complete set of autographed books. Harry deposits said tomes into Ginny Weasley's cauldron, and who should be on the scene to make a wise-crack but Draco Malfoy? As the kids share words unkind, Draco's father Lucius takes the opportunity to slip another book into Ginny's cauldron.

Unable to pass into Platform 9 3/4, Ron and Harry return to the friendly skies. All's well ends well, so long as ending well entails smashing a car into a tree and breaking Ron's wand.

Out on the Quidditch Pitch, Draco is showing off the new brooms his father bought for the Snake Squad. When Hermione tells him to piss off with his privilege, Draco calls her a "Mudblood." Ron's attempt to strike the little twat with a spell from his busted wand backfires, and he begins vomiting slugs.

Which he's still doing when the trio visit Hagrid's hut. In between filling a pot with the slimy buggers, Ron explains that "Mudblood" is a derogatory term for a witch or wizard born to Muggles--such as Hermione. As Hagrid is quick to point out, so-called "blood purity" has no real bearing on a witch or wizard's abilities, with the brilliant Hermione herself serving as a prime example. Despite this provable fact, the prejudice felt by some purebloods towards their "tainted" brethren is just too comforting to let die.

Which is why the message written on the wall outside of the first-floor girls lavatory ices the bones of those at Hogwarts who know the school's history:


Hanging on a nearby torch bracket is Mrs. Norris, pet cat of Hogwarts caretaker Filch. Poor thing's alive, but rigid as rock.

History lesson time. Hogwarts founders numbered four: Rowena Ravenclaw, Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff and Salazar Slytherin. Things were cool beans of every flavor for many years, until Salazar proposed admitting only children from purely magical families. The others balked, and Slytherin left. Before departing, though, he constructed a secret chamber in the castle, inside which he placed a Basilisk, a giant serpent whose direct gaze brings sudden death. An indirect gaze, however, merely petrifies the victim. (Fortunately, those so afflicted can be cured with a draught made of Mandrakes.)

Who, then, is this heir of Slytherin? Harry Potter becomes the prime suspect after a classroom duel with Draco. The towheaded ninny summons forth a snake which Harry repels not with a spell, but by speaking in Parseltongue, the recognized "language" of snakes. Fluency in Parseltongue was also a skill of Salazar Slytherin…hmm.

Harry suspects Draco is the heir (or knows who is), and when two students are found petrified in the halls, both having had recent, shaky interactions with The Boy Who Hissed, he recruits Ron and Hermione to find out. Draco has two toadies that follow him around school, Crabbe and Goyle. The decision is made to brew Polyjuice Potion, which will allow Ron and Harry to temporarily assume the forms of Draco's thick-headed friends and perhaps hear something incriminating, or at least, illuminating. Great idea, but turns out Draco's no more in the light about the dark stuff going on then Ron and Harry are. 

Moaning Myrtle is a bit more in the loop, though. Makes sense, seeing she's a ghost that haunts the girls lavatory. Her "home" has flooded, thanks to the fact that books don't flush well. Harry confiscates said book, a diary which once belonged to former Hogwarts student Tom Riddle. Although no text is visible, Riddle enchanted the book with a few choice memories. Harry drops ink onto a page and watches as it dissolves. He then picks up a quail and begins writing, asking about the last time the chamber opened. The book shows Hagrid (then a student), hiding a monster on school grounds. This beast escaped and killed a student, leading to Hagrid's expulsion.

Harry can barely believe his sweet, gentle friend could be the man responsible, but then the snake strikes once more. The victim: Hermione Granger. Harry and Ron visit Hagrid's hut, more desperate than ever, but are forced to take cover under the John Cena cloak when guests arrive. Cornelius Fudge, who serves as the Minister of Magic, and Lucius Malfoy. Here's how corrupt the Wizarding Government is: Hagrid was linked to the last appearance of the beast from the chamber, so he must be to blame for the current appearance as well. So off to prison he goes, no investigation, no Veritaserum (the magic equivalent of sodium pentathol), no trial. Further, Hogwarts governors voted to remove Dumbledore from office.

Awesome. Cancellation of Christmas the next move, then? Perhaps rip the ears off the Easter Bunny and let the children gather to watch him bleed out?

Hagrid is able to pass along a clue to the boys on his way out of the hut, leading them into the Forbidden Forest. They seek and find Aragog, an enormous spider who absolves Hagrid, drops a tremendous clue of his own, and then orders his children to eat Ron and Harry. Hey, remember the flying car? It's feral now, and has an (almost) unequalled sense of timing!

Harry and Ron try to sneak into Myrtle's bathroom for more info, only to be caught by McGonagall, who believes the boys' story that they were on their way to visit Hermione in the hospital wing. Which they then proceed to do. They also take the time to actually do more than just gawk at her, which I can only assume no one else did, since they are the first ones to notice the piece of paper clutched in her little hand. It's a page torn from a library book, describing Basilisks. In the margin, Hermione had written the word "pipes." Ron offers that, if the serpent is traveling through the school's plumbing, the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets could be located in Myrtle's bathroom.

Definitely a tidbit worth passing along to staff; unfortunately, none of them are in the staff room when Ron and Harry arrive. Then, suddenly, all of them are there. The boys hide and overhear the dreadful news that Ginny Weasley has been taken to the Chamber of Secrets. The other teachers look to Professor Lockhart, whose feats are legend. Harry and Ron follow him back to his office, only to discover he's in no hurry to do anything but skip school. Turns out he's a fraudulent Frankie, no more capable of infiltrating the COS than anyone other adult in the vicinity. At wand point, Harry forces Lockhart to accompany them to the ostensible Chamber's entrance. Once inside, Lockhart tries to wipe their memories with Ron's errant wand, which does nothing to them but leaves him feeling rather--if you'll pardon me--sluggish. Ahaha, he can't remember shit! He was totally gonna curse kids!

Less amusing is the rockfall that follows, forcing Harry to continue into the Chamber alone. A horrifying tableau awaits: the prone body of Ginny Weasley, watched over by the ghostly form of Tom Riddle, the true heir of Slytherin, the boy who grew up to become Lord Voldemort, the most formidable dark wizard ever.

Tom explains how he used Ginny through the diary for his own nefarious purposes. She began spilling her emotions into every page: anger at the relentless teasing from her brothers, shame at growing up in poverty, fear that she would never be special enough to earn the notice of the magnificent Harry Potter. Eventually, the Riddle diary possessed Ginny's soul, compelling her to open the Chamber of Secrets.

Harry (with a mammoth assist from Dumbledore's personal phoenix Fawkes) defeats the Basilisk, defies certain death, and sends Riddle back to oblivion. Then he rather cleverly frees Dobby from his obligations to the Malfoys, which so enrages Lucius he tries to fuck Harry up, in front of other adults.

Deranged shit happens in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Children wishing death upon one another, killer snakes, racism, slavery, child abuse. Oh, and while Lord Voldemort's Killing Curse failed to end Harry's life, it succeeded in leaving a part of himself inside of Harry.

The book ends, but of course the story doesn't, and more questions exist now than before. For instance, how exactly did Fawkes the phoenix know the perfect moment to enter the Chamber? Magic, or something more? What could be more than magic? Anyway, Professor Lockhart says it best, doubtless quoting some other, smarter fucker: "Books can be misleading." Believing in everything you read is dangerous, regardless of the author's intelligence or conviction.

The follow-up to the best-selling, award-garnering tale of a young English wizard orphan with a cool scar may push at the barriers of plausibility a bit. Heads up.

Director-Chris Columbus
Writer-Steve Kloves

Didn't break, so put the glue away. Oh, John Williams returned as well, always welcome. His scores possess more personality than most humans I've met.

Columbus and crew bring viewers another cram jam (longest in the series, in fact) that spreads warm and easy, even if that is a lot of bread to eat in one sitting.

Speaking of, Vernon is even fatter, more blustery, and extra irascible. What's narrower: the man's mind, or his arteries? Dumbledore is still one ill-timed knock-knock joke away from Merlin's door and Snape is looking especially Chopin.

Kenneth Branagh takes every opportunity to show the world that the Irish also cook damn fine ham. No actor was going to make "Lyin' Lockhart" likable, but Branagh sinks his teeth into the role with a jaguar's ferocity. (I wouldn't be surprised if the actor had a self-portrait hanging up at home.)

The kids are wriggling still, growing ever more comfortable in those giant shoes. It's almost a shame Rupert Grint pulls faces so well, it made Kloves a very lazy writer indeed.

That ending. That gurgling, spewing cheese-volcano of an ending. I wouldn't have enjoyed that ending even as a child. I may have been a fat child, a shy child, an asthmatic child, but I most certainly was not a stupid child. It's that last line. If they'd kept it to just big hugs and hurrahs, no qualms.

Ginny's internal turmoil goes unexamined; she is a means to an end. This would become a trend.

I love Arthur Weasley. The movies get him right…mostly. In the book, he inquires about escalators; in the film, he asks about rubber ducks. There's a reason Charles Schulz chose Beethoven over Mozart as Schroeder's idol.

Film Hermione is Wonder Girl, the Pink Power Granger, a Muggleborn who somehow already knows the definition of the word "mudblood," because heaven forfend Ron Weasley know something she doesn't. This is especially galling considering that the books themselves--you know, the material as written--establish Hermione as a young witch of superior intelligence and abilities. Indeed, without Hermione's brilliance, the titular hero of the piece would have been dead before his 15th birthday. Steve Kloves is one of those scriptwriters who cuts two slices of cake where one will do, and this greediness is a disservice to the entire movie series and, actually more significantly, the most important character in them.

"There's no Hogwarts without you, Hagrid." Sorry to keep walloping a dead Hippogriff, but that line has stood the test of time as a top five worst line in the entire series. Although I appreciate that only three of the four Hogwarts houses participated in the standing ovation. For all its general uselessness, I'm grateful that Pottermore placed me in Slytherin.

And gave me a 13" wand made of elder wood with a dragon heartstring core.

Again, Vernon Dursley isn't a bad guy because he carries 'round extra pounds. He's a bad guy because he has no moral compass, no willpower, and he gave his son a stupid name. The weight is, ironically, the least of my grievances. Hey, there but for the grace of Godot go any of us, experiencing stabbing pains in our chest right before letting out a sneeze. Judge not lest ye be judged for choosing raw cookie dough as your dinner.

Polyjuice is a complicated and time-consuming potion to whip up, involving eight ingredients, one of them being something taken from the body of the person you wish to become. (Usually this is hair, but a cold sore would work as well.) The better the brew, the longer its effects. Hermione is able, at the age of twelve, to concoct Polyjuice that lasts for an hour. Why weren't these books about HER, again?

Hermione's crush on Lockhart reaches its apex (nadir?) when Ron finds a hilariously pompous "Get Well" card from the Professor underneath her pillow.

I shudder to think what "Emma Watson as a cat" means for certain of the fandom.

"Scarhead," hey, sometimes that Draco's all right.

A diary that writes back? Jesus, that's even scarier than the snake. "Dear journal, today Karen made fun of me in Math. She said I had dirty sneakers." "Clean your shoes and stop crying, fatty."

I've regurgitated spaghetti noodles before. T'was angel hair, though, so after the first wave they barely registered.

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