Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Goblet of Fire: Worst Movie, Best Music

Having debated with fellow Potter-heads about our favourite books in the series, Goblet of Fire is often at the bottom of the list. I think this is largely because, apart from the final few chapters, the book does nothing to advance the overarching 'Voldemort' story. But for me, the fourth installment is where J K Rowling really comes into her own. She fleshes out her world with explorations of government and international relations, and the Triwizard Tournament serves as a thrilling metaphor for Harry's overwhelming struggle with the forces of evil.

It's just a shame about the movie, really.

After two very bright, family-friendly films directed by Chris Columbus, Alfonso CuarĂ³n's interpretation of The Prisoner of Azkaban helped move the franchise in the darker, emotionally mature direction for which the later films are renowned. But in between lies the Goblet of Fire, and within it I see none of the things I love about the fourth book.

We marvel at the build-up to the Quidditch World Cup, with its incredible set design and art direction, only to have the match take place completely off-screen. Indeed, the film spends very little time exploring the 'grown-up' wizarding world, preoccupied instead with the angst-fueled relationships of its teenage protagonists. It's not a dreadful film, but it's indecisive - its tone is all over the place, and excellent performances from the likes of Brendan Gleeson and Miranda Richardson are stilted by the slow, often awkward pace of the non-action scenes. Oh, and then there's its glaring lack of fidelity to the book.

The film's saving grace, however, is its incredible score. Just as Mike Newell was a one-time director in the Harry Potter world, Goblet of Fire sees Patrick Doyle's only contribution to the series. And boy does he make a mark. Taking over from John Williams of all people must have been a daunting task, but Doyle rose to it with gusto, creating an original, but still totally magical, soundtrack.

In the film's opening, he heralds a change in musical style by deliberately twisting the famous 'Hedwig's Theme' into his own, darker arrangement. With the exception of the Quidditch World Cup, the first forty minutes of the film is underscored with wonderfully threatening motifs, as tensions rise between Harry and Ron, and the enormity of this year's challenge is brought to light.

The score really hits its stride once the two boys are back on terms, with sweeping romantic melodies that Potter fans will forever be humming while they wash up. 'Neville's Waltz' is subdued like its namesake, but without it, the famous 'Potter Waltz' would not have the triumphant payoff it deserves during the Yule Ball. Speaking of which, let us not forget that this is the film that combined Pulp and Radiohead to form a semi-fictional magic rock band.

As the film goes on, the film folds back into its dark underscoring, with Doyle once again subverting John Williams' notorious glissando in 'The Maze.' The final scene is one part of the film I think Newell got absolutely right. The emotions are complex - Harry is alive and well, but the knowledge that Voldemort has returned looms large in the mind; Doyle complements this with 'Another Year Ends,' a simple and reflective piece that is by no means triumphant.

All four composers employed in the Harry Potter series do brilliant jobs - Nicholas Hooper's score shows variety and expertise at every turn, Alexandre Desplat's haunting arrangements are consistently spine-tingling, and of course John Williams' theme is one of his many timeless trademarks. But Doyle's score is special. He captures the essence of The Goblet of Fire more than anyone else who worked on it, whether celebrating Harry's retrieval of the golden egg, or beating out a Bulgarian fight song. I listen to this soundtrack all the time, and every time I awe at its scope: mystery, jeopardy, thrill, wonder.

And its not just me who loves this soundtrack. I won't tell you what's in the final room of the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden, just in case you haven't been. But I will tell you that it's made me cry both times I've seen it. And the two pieces they play on repeat just before you leave: 'Harry in Winter' and 'Hogwarts Hymn,' both from this soundtrack. They truly do encapsulate, perhaps more than anything else, the magic of Harry Potter.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Trump's America: The Government of Gut Reaction

If you've ever seen one of Donald Trump's tweets - and let's face it, you have seen at least one of Donald Trump's tweets - you'll have noticed he's a prolific user of gut reactions. One of the huge advantages of social media, especially Twitter, is the efficiency with which one can openly react to or comment upon something: The transition from written thought to public statement is literally the speed of light. Use of a tool that fast and powerful requires care, thought and deliberation, especially for someone with 29 million followers.

Now, I'm not trying to condemn the gut reaction. I know all too well that I let my emotions respond to things before I've truly processed them. I'm glad to be in touch with my emotions, but I feel I have the presence of mind to vet my raw thoughts before shouting them into the void.

But the more I think about it, the more it seems that President Trump's success has depended on the power of the gut reaction.

In a recent episode of popular podcast This American Life, I learned about a small congressional race in Virginia that took place in 2014. I highly recommend the podcast, and I'll link to the episode at the end, but the TLDR version of it is this: an unknown candidate ran against the House Majority Leader, and won against all odds. Why? Well, it's complicated.

Steve Bannon, then executive chair of alt-right media network Breitbart News, got involved in the race, and began polling Republican voters on their issues, asking if they would vote for their rookie candidate Dave Brat. With defence and health insurance they got nowhere, but asking about immigration got a positive reaction. So they altered their strategy accordingly.

A post-victory poll revealed that immigration was not really a priority for voters in that election at all. But the gut reaction was enough. And two years later, Steve Bannon helped Donald Trump pull off the same trick. Crowds of people chanted "Build a wall!", committed acts of violence towards those of ethnic minority. And surely most of them wouldn't be seen dead doing that outside of a Trump rally?

Trump played on the instant, emotional reactions of even the most reasonable - suspicion (where are those emails, Hillary?), injustice (Where's my factory job gone?), pride (The American Dream is gone!). And he has not stopped. Ordering a military strike over dinner with the President of China; trying to ban as many immigrants as possible as soon as taking office; lashing out at any media network attempting to fact-check the White House.

Gut reactions can be useful. They are a window into our instinct, they tell us how we really feel, help us to make decisions. But every day Trump is making choices on behalf of millions of people, that could affect millions more. Getting elected on gut reaction is one thing, but leadership is different. No one can fly a plane on intuition alone, and the US is one big plane. If he wants to avoid impeachment, I suggest Mr Trump takes some lessons.

Inspiration for this post: