Monthly Archives: January 2006

January 19, 2006

Jagged Edge (1985)

directed by Richard Marquand
written by Joe Eszterhas

Onward through my backlog. Why did I watch Jagged Edge of all things? We were at the beach and we wanted to take advantage of the On-Demand movie service, but they cleverly deny you the option of watching anything good. That Jagged Edge seemed like our best bet indicates the quality of the selection.

The movie was serious junk, and, given that we were at the beach and had thus lost our capacity for feeling our time was being wasted, slightly amusing as such. Joe Eszterhas is one of these simple folk who thinks that when people say “fuck” a lot, things become more gritty, exciting, and fun. That sort of thinking governed not only the amount of swearing but much of the plot, which revolves excitedly around rape-murder-mutilations. They get described in delighted detail; just as with saying “fuck,” there’s the sense that Joe, like 10-year-olds, still can’t believe how cool it is that if you call it “forensics” you get to talk about naked women and cutting people with knives and other stuff that, oh man, is totally wrong! But, as every 10-year-old knows, when you get to stay home sick from school, you’re not supposed to act like it’s fun; you’re supposed to act like you’re indifferent – and when grownups talk about rape, or say “fuck,” they don’t enjoy it, so to be really mature you should just say fuck whenever the fuck you want and not make a big fucking deal about it. And so this movie goes its ridiculous way.

It’s hard for me to build up any annoyance with director Richard Marquand, because, knowing that he was also the nominal director of Return of the Jedi (a poster for which appears on a kid’s door in this movie), I’m inclined to think of him only as a simple pawn caught up in someone else’s crazy scheme; in this case, Joe Eszterhas’s.

The movie attempts only to be “one of those movies” and is nonetheless a little too stupid to pull it off. The “answer” to the mystery isn’t decisively revealed until the very very very end, which adds absolutely nothing to the movie and in fact only heightens the viewer’s overall impression that any given detail of the plot has been completely arbitrary. Watching the movie isn’t like being drawn into any kind of story or world or experience; it’s like watching some idiot moving chess pieces around, concentrating hard with his tongue sticking out. He manages to win the game, after starting with the wrong number of pieces and making a few illegal moves. And playing both sides.

Is it possible that in 1985 this genre (Bleached Noir, it should be called) was so new, and its proper form so incompletely established, that Jagged Edge could pass as clever and intriguing? What was Roger Ebert thinking? Something about the movies of the 80s is genuinely different; every era has its own set of superficial things that are passed off as sufficient and vital – but 80s Hollywood picked such a weird set of those things. It’s not just their superficiality; it’s that they don’t even seem to relate to basic human desires – not like the much-mocked superficial nonsense of the 50s, which at least was meant to evoke security, luxury, and confidence. These Jagged Edge folk were neither perfect nor troubled; they were just characters. The focus seemed to be somewhere slightly to the left or right of them, on something I couldn’t quite place, like maybe the movie was actually, secretly, about their curtains. A lot of movies from the period seem to share that quality.

I was there but I wasn’t watching Jagged Edge at the time so I can’t call on any memories to help make sense of it all. By the time I was old enough to really notice what was going on in movies, things had changed, so this remains a historical puzzle for me to figure out.

January 16, 2006

Thought while watching Portrait of a Young Man (1925-31)

For Christmas or Hanukkah or something, I was gifted a copy of Unseen Cinema, a huge and fantastic DVD collection of rare early experimental films. I’m making my way through it quite slowly – these things want my full attention and I do better when I only watch one at a time, no matter how short. I’m just now getting to the end of the first of 7 discs. I’ll probably talk here about each disc as a whole or maybe the whole collection or something. At some point.

Anyway, the final film on the first disc is Portrait of a Young Man (1925-31), by Henwar Rodakiewicz, a completely silent 54 minute study of rippling water, rising smoke, rustling leaves, and the like. In looking up online info about some of the other films on the disc, I had come across some complaints about how tedious and painfully boring this film was, and I was, frankly, nervous. I put it on just now pretty much only because I feel obligated to the set as a whole, and committed myself only to sitting through the first of the three “movements” of which the film is composed.

To my surprise I found myself deeply enjoying it. The rippling water isn’t just any footage of rippling water – it’s been shot and edited with an artist’s loving eye. The film isn’t simply about movement in nature; it’s about the specific kinds and features of natural movement that draw in one’s attention. It manages to highlight and cast in art that certain rich, blank quality that makes something like the waves striking the sand so involving. If you have ever found yourself transfixed by the way water runs over a rock, this is a gold mine. Oddly enough, I mean that seriously.

The people who complained that the film was horrible must either have been in an unreceptive mood or else just not the sort of people who are as easily compelled by abstract patterns as I am. And this brings me to the titular thought of this post. The film is called Portrait of a Young Man and a prefatory onscreen note explains why:

As our understanding and sympathy for the things about us must reveal our character, so this is an endeavor to portray a certain young man in the terms of the things he likes and his manner of liking them: the sea, leaves, clouds, smoke, machinery, sunlight, the interplay of forms and rythms [sic], but above all — the sea

Watching the film and observing that, indeed, the focus was not merely on these sorts of forms and rhythms but on their capacity to captivate a certain kind of attention, I was impressed by the fact that the artistic goal above, which had sounded a bit indulgent and potentially flaky, had been pursued with such integrity. Watching these forms shift and shimmer, and knowing that the real goal was to portray the attention that was focussed on these things, I thought, “I suppose I’m exactly the sort of ‘certain young man’ of which this film is a portrait – these choices feel familiar to me; this sort of attention is my sort of attention.” My next thought: “Well, that’s too easy – rather than letting the film portray the young man, I’m just assuming that he is me. It’s much more likely that his name is ‘Henwar,’ or perhaps he is a fictional character. Let me try to actually imagine him and see whether he is any way different from me.” And, immediately upon distinguishing myself from this young man, I became thoroughly annoyed with him. He was obviously some sort of self-satisfied Stephen Dedalus type. Some insufferable poet-lad, pleased with himself for musing on nature’s mysteries. Get over yourself, young man!

In other words, I either identified myself as the young man of the film or else had instant disdain for him. Perhaps this has something to do with my own ambivalent feelings toward the poetic mindset, in general, but I don’t think that’s the core of it; enjoying patterns in smoke and water is one of the most truly ego-less things I do, so I really don’t think the answer is that I’m secretly disgusted with myself for being “that type.” I think the problem, actually, was that for all my efforts to be more empathetic in life and art, this film, in using a technique I had never before encountered, was testing an empathy muscle that I have rarely, if ever, exercised.

Most portraits are, of course, external, so I come to terms with the subject of such a portrait just as I would with an actual person. I receive information about a person in a painting just as I receive information about the real world – I see its exterior. Of course, any good painting generally tries to encapsulate other, non-visual kinds of information in a visual form. Empathy might well be called into play. But it will always be on a secondary level, something to be added to the visual.

Then you have first-person writing, which can put you inside the head of a character who is explicitly not you. The experience of making space for this person, learning to play their role as you make your way through their world, and reserving (or at least filing separately) the judgement you would apply to them if they were external to you, requires empathy. First-person writing has undoubtedly improved my social skills and been one of the most important influences on the way I think about other people; one learns to make the self flexible enough to accomodate the thoughts of others.

But the technique of this film lies beyond portrait-via-first-person-thoughts – the only sliver left of the first-person in this film is his attention – his thoughts are unknown to us, and because the editing is abstract and discontinuous, his motivations are not even guessable. All we know is what sorts of things he chooses to look at. We are left either alone or else in the company of a disembodied attention. Finding myself alone, I was pleased to have found a film with which I felt a certain kinship. Finding myself in the company of this rogue attention, I was irritated by the smug ass whom I instantly imagined to be directing it. My capacity for attention-empathy, it appears, is low. If I read a story telling me that someone is watching terrible TV and thinking complex thoughts, I know exactly how to will myself into a generous understanding of that person, even if he is unlike me. But if I am simply shown terrible TV and told that this is what an unnamed person is watching, I tend to assume that he is an idiot.

This sort of benefit-of-the-doubt is actually something very important for me to work on, because it comes up all the time in relation to works of art. It happens all the time that I’ll enjoy some movie but my enjoyment will be hampered by the fact that I can also imagine lots of people enjoying it some wrong way. Likewise, I’m often ready to enjoy some seriously gooey, floral, flighty art in a very sincere way, only to have it ruined for me by the inevitable specter of the Verdurin types whose insipid thoughts seem to be implicit in the mere act of focussing attention on the work. But I must remember that those insipid thoughts are not implicit in the work itself. It took me a long time to build up the strength of focus necessary to enjoy a painting of a beautiful landscape in the same way that I enjoy a beautiful landscape, rather than see it as a tainted artifact of some perfumed art culture. Today, I was enjoying film of swirling water the same way I enjoy swirling water – until I suddenly remembered that the film was actually about the viewer, a guy for whom I have no patience. Time to rectify that, I think.

I’m looking at the title, Portrait of a Young Man, and the young man in my mind is still wearing a scarf and smirking. I’m going to start by trying to get him to take off the scarf.

January 13, 2006

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

written and directed by Roman Polanski
based on the novel by Ira Levin (1967)

This movie is great.

I’m going to start off with the first edition book cover this time, instead of saving it for the end.

Sorry I couldn’t find a cleaner image, but you get the idea. For once, I actually know who designed this cover: Paul Bacon, whose work (click on the ‘image gallery‘ link), now that I’ve googled my way through a bunch of it, readily coheres into an “okay, that guy.” One of those figures whose importance is indicated by the fact that I was aware of his work’s significance before I was aware that it was any one person’s work. It’s always a bit exciting to discover that some vague part of the aesthetic landscape in one’s mind can actually be quantified and ascribed to a specific point of origin. This recent piece on jacket design by John Updike includes a brief assessment of Paul Bacon. It’s got some other interesting stuff in it too – the thing at the end about the possible legitimacy of a “deceptively conceptual… nonexistent point of view” is going to ring in my head for a while. But it has nothing to do with Rosemary’s Baby so let’s move on.

Next on the list is Krzysztof “Christopher” Komeda, composer of the movie’s excellent score. I’ve seen the movie quite a few times and the distinguishing thing about this viewing was that the score “popped,” for me. I remembered the main lullaby theme (sung, I have only since learned, by Mia Farrow herself), but I don’t think I had ever listened closely to the other cues, which all sounded sort of familiar but now revealed themselves as really interesting, clever choices, especially the squeaky freaky jazz elements under scenes of horror. I love the little cue when she eats the raw liver, without which the scene wouldn’t work. Komeda’s straight jazz compositions are less interesting to me, and even his other movie work, from what I can hear of it, sounds pretty similar in style to Rosemary’s Baby. But his dramatic sense seems to have been strong, and of course a smart musician can get a lot of emotional range out of a limited style. I’d be curious to see some of the many other movies he scored – they’re pretty much all in Polish, though, but several of Polanski’s are still available. Komeda was apparently a major jazz figure in Poland and might well have been just on the verge of becoming an international big deal, what with this movie and Polanski’s career in general, but he died less than a year after its release, from injuries sustained in a car crash.

The best thing about the movie is John Cassavetes’ thrilling performance, which constitutes a perfect, archetypal caricature of a certain popular blend of impenetrable bullshit and misogyny-by-default, and which frequently comes to mind when I am trying to figure why I hate some guy so much. For me, one of the most upsetting sequences in the whole thing, I’m not entirely sure why, is when Rosemary asks Guy to show her his shoulder (suspecting that he has been hiding some kind of satanic tattoo), and he complies, as though he can’t imagine why she’s asking, in faux good humor, smirking “that’s as far as I go without a blue light.” I think what gets me is the fact that even his malicious and unfunny joking is, itself, bullshit; even the part of his personality that’s a dismissive asshole is only bullshit. Even his cruel display of disinterest is just a mask for the true blackness of his fundamental, cosmic, deadly disinterest. Yes, he is after all a “bad guy,” but there’s something scary there that goes well beyond the issue of Rosemary’s baby or Rosemary’s Baby. To me, there’s something truly, philosophically dark in that performance that I want to attribute to Cassavetes himself. The role as written (as it appears in the book) is just a hateful, frivolous, self-serving jerk. In the movie, he’s a pit of darkness that has decided to act the part of a hateful, frivolous, self-serving jerk because that seems like a good idea.

More than any paranoid fear of conspiracies or of the devil, the horror in Rosemary’s Baby is of the possibility of complete isolation. It’s the fear that nobody cares about you, regardless of what they might say – nobody.* While, in the movie, the reason for all the lying is a conspiratorial plot, the presence of that horrible husband character gets the wider message across – people might be lying to you and using you for their own purposes because that’s all there is out there. Rosemary’s childlike claim to being a sophisticated young woman is terrifying because it’s so insufficient in the face of b) all of them witches and a) her husband and everyone else. Almost nothing scary happens in the movie that we don’t pretty much know is going to happen – the fear comes from the worry that we are all as nitwitted and hopeless as Rosemary, being duped for whatever reasons (the devil is just a nice stand-in for any dark cause) by everyone around us. Ultimately she’s duped by her own baby. In the book the punchline seems to be “and now the world is doomed ’cause of the devil baby!” but in the movie, I read it as “of course, your friend Rosemary can only ever be a witless, hopeless slave – sound familiar?”

Is that just me? Or, alternately, is it of course everyone and I’m the only one who thinks it’s just me? Anyway, it’s me.

* The presence of good ol’ Hutch definitely dilutes this a bit, which is part of the reason that I don’t think this kind of sweeping existential curse was ever quite Ira’s (or Roman’s) intention. But it’s what makes the movie work, to me, and I like to imagine that John Cassavetes was in on it. Assigning the role of Satan to the ridiculous, commonplace Castevets is a gesture that the real horror is elsewhere. I think Ira’s idea was that horror in the present day would take a familiar present-day form, and that its outward mundanity would make it all the more horrific (cf. The Stepford Wives). But by keeping the Castevets silly even to the bitter end – in the theater where we saw this (midnight screening!), Minnie’s gossipy delivery of the grandiose in her climactic line about “he chose you out of all the women in the world!” got the movie’s biggest laugh – the book and the movie don’t make them more horrific, they just indicate that the horror is something above and beyond their specific machinations. Maybe they thought it was the devil, or the whole conspiracy thing. But obviously that stuff is just fun genre stuff. The real scare in the movie, though it may well have arisen only as a serendipitous byproduct of the plotting, is that we are all on our own and the world couldn’t care less.

Oops, okay, so I’m putting this below the footnote because it’s an addendum a few days later and unrelated to the above, but related to Rosemary’s Baby.

In the movie (and in the book), Rosemary proudly tells several people that Guy “was in Luther and Nobody Loves an Albatross and a lot of TV commercials.” Only in googling around for the above post did I learn that both plays were real and both premiered on Broadway in the 1963-4 season. Obviously, the first question was: was there an actor who was in both productions? Answer: no. Luther, by John Osborne, ran from September 1963 to March 1964, and Nobody Loves an Albatross, by Ronald Alexander, ran from December 1963 to June 1964. Obviously, nobody could be in both shows. More likely, in fact, that Ira Levin saw both shows around the same time. He certainly seems to have seen Luther, based on the fact that Roman Castevet calls it “a good picture of the hypocrisy behind organised religion,” and from the sound of the thing, it seems possible that the subject matter of Albatross was meant to connect to Guy’s life of cynical TV-land lies.

So, to the important questions: did Albert Finney play the title role in Luther as reported by Roman Castevet? Answer: yes. (Scroll down to see a press caricature here.) Okay, and does his character have a fit, as reported by Guy Woodhouse? Answer: Yes, at the end of the first scene, according to the synopsis in this helpful study guide. And now the big question – did Albert Finney have an understudy, and if so, would he have been onstage during the scene when Luther has his fit, so as to make the “involuntary reach” gesture for which Guy Woodhouse is praised? Answer: yes, and most likely, yes. The IDDB page (same link as above) indicates that one John Heffernan was the understudy for the role of Martin Luther, and that he played Weinand, whom, if you read the synopsis carefully, you will see is very likely onstage during the fit.

So, who is John Heffernan? Well, he played Eddie Niles, the bank teller who takes the bets at the end of The Sting. Can anyone find me a picture?

What does this mean? I believe it means nothing. When asked if he was Albert Finney’s understudy, Guy does, after all, say “no.” However, the implication of the scene is that Roman Castevet noticed Guy and identified him in the program, which would have been impossible if he were just one of the six cast members credited only as “Monks, lords, peasants, etc.” On the other hand, the further implication of the scene is that Roman is masterfully manipulating Guy and his praise for Guy’s performance is probably a bluff based on research rather than memory. BUT, since the scene mentions a real event in the play, it seems probable to me that Ira Levin was describing an actual gesture he saw onstage. Perhaps he had Guy say that he was not Albert Finney’s understudy solely to avoid slandering the actual understudy, whose gesture was nonetheless the one described. Or perhaps John Heffernan is a horrible horrible person, the kind who’d sell his wife’s womb to satanists, and I’ve revealed the truth to the world. But I doubt it. He comes off like a pretty nice guy, in The Sting. Plus, remember how he was so reasonable and pleasant that time when he witnessed an explosion on 20th Street? Now that was scary!

ADDENDUM 2: Okay, now it’s almost a month later and I’m still adding to this. Enough already! I just wanted to let everyone know that I’ve checked the book itself and the dialogue actually runs like this:

“A good picture of the hypocrisy behind organized religion,” Mr. Castevet said, “was given, I thought, in Luther. Did you ever get to play the leading part, Guy?”

“Me? No,” Guy said.

“Weren’t you Albert Finney’s understudy?” Mr. Castevet asked.

“No,” Guy said, “the fellow who played Weinand was. I just covered two of the smaller parts.”

“That’s strange,” Mr. Castevet said; “I was quite certain that you were his understudy. I remember being struck by a gesture you made and checking in the program to see who you were; and I could swear you were listed as Finney’s understudy.”

“What gesture do you mean?” Guy asked.

“I’m not sure now; a movement of your–“

“I used to do a sort of thing with my arms when Luther had the fit, a sort of involuntary reaching–“

“Exactly,” Mr. Castevet said. “That’s just what I meant. It had a wonderful authenticity to it. In contrast, may I say, to everything Mr. Finney was doing.”

“Oh, come on now,” Guy said.

“I thought his performance was considerably overrated,” Mr. Castevet said. “I’d be most curious to see what you would have done with the part.”

Laughing, Guy said, “That makes two of us,” and cast a bright-eyed glance at Rosemary.

Which very explicitly lets John Heffernan off the hook. I’m not going to do the hard research right now, but if we take Guy’s comment to mean that he understudied two of the smaller parts, which is how I take it, that leaves us with these three, all originally credited as “Monks, lords, peasants, etc.”:

Harry Carlson (understudy for Lucas, Weinand)
Stan Dworkin (Eck, Hans)
Roger Hamilton (Leo, Prior)

Though it doesn’t sound like Guy thought of Weinand as a “smaller part.” My bet is on Roger Hamilton, the only one of the three with a real Broadway career. Thoughts?

January 12, 2006

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

written and directed by Noah Baumbach

I thought it was really excellent, the best new movie I’d seen in the theater in a long time.

Something that I always admire about Wes Anderson’s troubled output is that way he has of pushing his characters through a plotted script, with clear, story-progressing events in every scene, and yet keeping the focus on silly superficial details. The overall effect is of slightly bewildered characters who are trying to contend with the fact that they’re caught up in some kind of drama but can only seem to think directly in terms of the frivolous quirky stuff around them. The problem for Wes Anderson is that his movies have been increasingly fetishistic about the frivolous quirky stuff, to the point where it no longer seems justified by the fact that life is full of such stuff; the effect is of a diorama world entirely unlike life, into which this stuff has been placed, and it all becomes as bewildering to the characters as the drama was. In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the characters seemed gamely bewildered in relationship to everything about their world, including themselves. Bill Murray was playing a character who always seemed to be on the verge of saying “Hello, I’m [quote marks] Steve Zissou.” Which, I would say, takes the device of bewilderment in the face of the details a bit too far.*

Anyway, so The Squid and the Whale took that sort of approach but took it seriously, and the effect was, I thought, tremendously successful. The progression of events, which was perfectly clear, registered as a kind of dark, steady undercurrent to the actual goings-on, which were all about the eccentricities and petty details. The writing and (especially) the acting were attuned to the eccentric surface life of things in the smartest possible way; I never felt that I was being offered smugly calculated “quirkiness” or, alternately, that I was watching a formulaically “realistic” gloss on something fundamentally simplistic (as in, say, a pseudo-improvised Woody Allen scene with lots of hemming and hawing “because that’s the way people really talk”). By taking seriously this idea that was, it seemed to me, at least latent in Rushmore – that the absurd surface of life is our only interface with (and protection against) the despair that lies underneath it – Noah Baumbach found the ideal device for portraying the coming-of-age struggle that the Noah Baumbach stand-in teenager goes through.** Namely, the pain of facing the fact that one’s parents are fallible and that one is therefore all alone. Kids, even as they hunger to understand what’s really going on with themselves and everyone else, would still much rather believe that their problems have to do with ping-pong, just as audiences, even as they hunger to recognize themselves in drama, would rather believe that their movies are about quirky people doing funny stuff. By not overselling the comic detail-work but still letting it be the life of the movie, The Squid and the Whale allowed a certain desperate and queasy feeling to seep in that I recognized well but hadn’t felt with such force in a movie before.

On the commentary track on the DVD of You Can Count On Me (2000), Kenneth Lonergan says something about how people always say that characters should change and develop, but that actually people in real life don’t change very much, and that if someone really changes in some small way, that’s a big thing, and that he tried to make his movie be about that scale of change. I really admire that movie and that goal, and I think back to that comment often, regarding other movies (and books, etc.). I know someone who complained that the final sequence of The Squid and the Whale came on too suddenly and didn’t seem to suit the movie. I can see ways that it might have seemed a little artificial, from a technical perspective, and while I was watching it, I was preoccupied by stupid thoughts like, “Oh, so it’s one of these things where the music rises up and he has a moment. Is he going to end on that? Will that be the last shot? I’ll bet this will be the end. Or will they show something else? Is this the last shot? No, I bet this is the last shot!” That sort of thing is probably my own fault, but could equally be blamed on the movie’s pulling out a “gesture” for the finale rather than remaining with the more naturalistic scene that precedes it. In any case, it was a gesture that I liked and one that delivered the only possible resolution to a movie like this: one of the characters has changed, internally, in some small way. It’s left up to us to imagine just what that way is, but we have a good idea. Doing it as a lyrical “moment” was actually deserved, because that’s no doubt what the change feels like for this character.

I guess that’s what I enjoyed so much about the movie – it was a movie about fairly unpleasant people that got laughs out of their unpleasantness, and yet we were drawn into empathy for them because movie was to the audience what the world was to the characters.

On a whim, I thought I’d try to find the name of the artist responsible for the “artist’s conception” diorama for which the movie is named, but all I could find was this page. The museum does, however, have a little article and gallery about diorama arts, which is more than I can say for the rest of the internet. For shame, internet! Does nobody care about dioramas anymore?

Hopefully this movie will give a boost to diorama appreciation, and the names of Francis Lee Jaques and James Perry Wilson and Rudolph Zallinger will finally get the recognition they deserve. Okay, so I’m joking, but hey, why not?

* Although I think I was more willing than most people to give The Life Aquatic credit for being a sincere shot at portraying the peculiar paralyzed post-adolescent pseudo-adulthood that Wes Anderson must be experiencing along with everyone else I know. I just think Wes is too deep into it to say anything about it without it getting muddled.

** I know, I sound silly saying that this idea comes from Rushmore when of course it’s a basic idea in all comedy back to Shakespeare and before. I just mean that the specific aesthetic-cinematic execution of that idea in The Squid and the Whale seemed to be of a piece with Rushmore as opposed to, say, with Twelfth Night. Also, Noah Baumbach co-wrote The Life Aquatic and Wes Anderson was a producer on The Squid and the Whale. So this comparison is, um, reasonable.

January 5, 2006

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)

by J.K. Rowling

It’s been a busy time and the prospect of scrounging up some thoughts about this book hasn’t been particularly appealing. But I’ve got to either give up on my project of writing about everything I encounter, or just spit something out and move on. Since I don’t think I should be allowed to do the former until I’ve caught up doing the latter, here’s the latter.

This is a sequel that reads like a sequel. It reads like a sequel written by someone uncomfortable with the problem of writing a sequel. In the commentary track on the Back to the Future Part II DVD – a fine start to a sentence if ever there was one – Robert Zemeckis (or more likely, the other guy) sums up the no-win quandary of sequels: people want a sequel both to be the same as the original and to be different from it. If the sequel is too much the same, it feels like a weak retread. If it’s too different, it feels like a betrayal. Bob Gale or maybe Zemeckis then says that they tried to address the problem head-on with a playful “meta” approach. Nope, people didn’t like that either.*

So it’s not surprising that poor Joanne Kensington-Moames Rowling comes off more than a bit timid and uncomfortable in her second Harry Potter book.** Rather than expanding or exploring any of her existing characters, she just shuffles them around and “makes them talk,” like a kid improvising a new campaign for his army men. The major new additions to the cast are mostly clownish distractions – Dobby the whimpering idiot elf is the worst kind of non-amusing miscalculation, and Moaning Myrtle the whiny pathetic ghost is another shot in the same wrong direction. Though the ridiculously self-centered “Gilderoy Lockhart” has a great name and gets the best material in the book, he doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot and feels like a stowaway who is clinging desperately to one side of the story, trying unsuccessfully to liven things up.

The plot is based on a lot of oddly unsavory “pure bloodline” talk. I don’t actually care in a serious way about the racial implications, because clearly J.K. doesn’t, but there’s something strange going on in these books, and this one brings it to the foreground. Hitler Youth-style bully Draco Malfoy slurs wizards from non-magical families as “mudbloods,” and the book shouts him down as a bigot. But then all of Harry’s exciting claims to greatness turn out to be based on his line of descent – ’cause that’s exciting and magicky, when it happens to good guys. That’s in fact how he comes by the snake-talking talent that allows him to enter the Chamber of Secrets, a sort of temple to bigotry. The school’s four houses, which conveniently correspond to the character of their students (heroes, villains, thinkers, laborers) turn out, at the end, to be tied, via bloodline logic, to the four founders of the school. Why are the bad guys so bad? Because they have the pure blood of the founding bad guy in their veins.

I’m not saying either the racist or the anti-racist model is inappropriate for a children’s book; just that it’s odd to see them butt heads in one place and that the one sours the other.

Rowling’s prose is, if anything, clunkier than before. Or maybe it just seems that way because there’s less entertaining content to distract us. In talking about the first book I said that her strong suit was making up stuff and her, um, weak suit was choosing words to convey it. In this installment it was as though the inelegance of the prose had spread to infect the plot and even, worst of all, the stuff.

We’re on to book three now – almost done, in fact – and it’s much better than this one. So it’s not just me. This one was just no good.

* Although, actually, I think the Back to the Future sequels get a bad rap. Part II and Part III might only hold up as riffs on the original rather than equals to it, but since the premise of the whole thing is nerdy time-travel gamesmanship, I don’t think that’s so wrong. Last year we rewatched Part II and had a good time with it. People who tell me I’m too negative and sour in my posts here, to you I say: you, sir, are too negative and sour, in your cranky dismissal of Back to the Future Part II and perhaps also Back to the Future Part III. Now let’s return to my cranky dismissal of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

** Kathleen.