Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Harry Potter and the Old School Tie

Oxford, England is a town dedicated to higher education of a very exclusive sort. Everywhere you look, there are turrets, bell towers, twisting staircases, and elaborate iron gates. Also tea shops, bicycles careening down the High Street, and charming little establishments vending fountain pens. and vellum notebooks. It all looks like a medieval theme park, crossed with a swath of Victorian kitsch. Or, of course, a page out of Harry Potter.

I’ve read that J.K. Rowling, as a young woman, applied for admission to Oxford but was not accepted. If so, writing a series of internationally top-selling books has certainly been her best revenge. When the seven Harry Potter novels were filmed, the stately halls of Oxford were chosen to fill in for Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Witchcraft as well as its neighboring village, Hogsmeade. Theoretically, these key Rowling locations are supposed to be found somewhere in Scotland. But filmmakers know that you can’t do better than Oxford when it comes to quaint and musty medieval-looking structures. (It also is a mere two hours from London.)

Today’s Oxford tourists—of whom there are many, from all over the globe—are so attached to the Harry Potter universe that  gift shops display Potter memorabilia and there are walking tours dedicated to pointing out which college building is featured in which scene from which of the Potter films. Though I didn’t spring for any of these specialized tours, my own wanderings still put me in contact with the wonderful world of Harry and Ron and Hermione and Hagrid and Dumbledore. My guide at the venerable Bodleian Library, which dates back to at least 1602, announced with some pride that the ancient hall known as the Divinity School—noted for its spectacular fan vaulting—was used in one film to stand-in for the Hogwarts Infirmary. When I toured Oxford’s Christ Church College, founded by King Henry VIII in 1546, I learned that a certain noble staircase was the spot where Harry and friends had a key conversation with Professor McGonagall. And there was more: the Christ Church dining hall, with its long rows of banquet tables and an impressive dais for faculty members, became the model for the dining hall that plays such a key role in the first Potter film. Christ Church is served by a so-called Custodial Team, fitted out in bowler hats and formal uniforms, who explain to visitors the college’s long and illustrious place in history. They’ll grudgingly discuss the Harry Potter phenomenon, but woe to the kid who innocently asks to be shown Harry’s regular seat, or inquires about his favorite foods. When a tyke dared to ask such a question in my presence, the custodian snapped out his answer: that Harry Potter is not real. .

Try telling that to the Oxford shopkeepers who supply visitors with wizard robes, wands, and Gryffindor hoodies. .One sidewalk placard announces its shop’s allegiance as follows: Wizards Welcome. Muggles Tolerated. Of course, the rest of England is trying hard to jump on the lucrative Potter bandwagon too. A throwaway London travel guide announces (just above an entry for Westminster Abbey) family tours of Warner Bros. London studio, where you can see the sets representing Diagon Alley, Hagrid’s Hut, and the brand-new Gringott’s Wizarding Bank. And London’s King’s Cross Station now boasts its own Platform 9 ¾, to reflect the famous magical platform where Harry and his peers board the train to Hogwarts. It started out as a mere sign, but now has its own memorabilia shop, complete with a professional photographer to deck you out in appropriate Potteresque garb.  

For Roz Arnold, my fellow Oxford explorer.
A Christ Church College custodian

The Divinity School, which morphed into an Infirmary
Dining Hall, Keble College, Oxford

Friday, July 26, 2019

Mad about "Mad"

 My father didn’t approve of Mad magazine. As the child of immigrants, and someone immensely grateful for the blessings he’d enjoyed as a citizen of the United States, he was drawn—especially in his later years—to entertainment that was uplifting and non-provocative. (The Music Man and The Sound of Music were special favorites.)

My dad’s middle-of-the-road tastes are doubtless one perverse reason I gravitated toward art that made waves. By the time I was in my teens, I was discovering avant-garde poetry, esoteric novels, tough-minded theatre (think Edward Albee’s brand-new Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?),  and arty foreign-language cinema. And, it went without saying, Mad. To be honest, its occasional grotesquerie didn’t always tickle my funny-bone. The tit-for-tat comic violence of “Spy Versus Spy” was a bit too real for my taste, and I wasn’t much of a Don Martin fan. (I still remember, though, one especially inspired cartoon, in which a typically crazed-looking Don Martin mad scientist holds aloft a frothing beaker and announces that by quaffing its contents he will turn himself into a creature of unspeakable horror. He drinks—but nothing happens. Disgusted, he pours the concoction down the lab sink, which instantly turns . . . into a toilet.)

 What I loved was the wit and slightly skewed wisdom of Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side” features, and, of course, Mad’s movie parodies, the work of the irreplaceable Mort Drucker. I’m happy to report, via my browsing of Wikipedia, that Drucker is still living in Brooklyn at age 90, and that his covers for Time magazine, reflecting his skill as a political caricaturist, are now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Reportedly, in a 1985 Tonight Show appearance, Johnny Carson asked Michael J. Fox, "When did you really know you'd made it in show business?"  Fox’s prompt reply: "When Mort Drucker drew my head."

Drucker’s movie parodies were always clever, but what really made them soar was his ability to capture the physical characteristics of Hollywood’s most famous players. As the author of Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation, I loved learning that director Mike Nichols didn’t realize how much his subconscious was contributing to The Graduate until he came upon “this hilarious issue of Mad magazine . . . in which the caricature of Dustin says to the caricature of Elizabeth Wilson, ‘Mom, how come I’m Jewish and you and Dad aren’t?’” And I still remember fondly how one of other great films of 1967, Bonnie and Clyde, was turned by Drucker into “Balmy and Clod.” The depictions of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were spot-on, and I loved how Bonnie’s real-life doggerel about their romantic life as robbers on the run was turned into something like this: “Clod and Balmy, Clod and Balmy/ Gentle as rain and strong as salami.”

But my all-time favorite Drucker parody featured his imaginative re-tread of 1961’s West Side Story. Instead of merely caricaturing Natalie Wood, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and the other Jets and Sharks, Drucker had the brilliant idea of  turning the story of rival New York street gangs into “East Side Story,” with the bodies of Hollywood actors now crowned with the faces of global political leaders, those who would normally be assembling at the United Nations on Manhattan’s eastern shore. Jack Kennedy led one gang of dancing thugs; Nikita Khrushchev headed up the other.  Cold War-era songs included “When you’re a Red  you’re a Red all the way . . .”  How long ago it now seems, and how innocent. What, me worry?   

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Foreign Films for the Dog Days of Summer

My Life as a Dog. My Life as a Zucchini. The two films stood next to each other on the foreign film shelf of my local library. I’d heard of both but never saw either. What I discovered is that the two films, while aesthetically very different, both deal smartly and tenderly with similar subject matter. Both explore the terrors—and the wonders—of childhood, from the perspective of a young boy faced with losing his familiar world.

My Life as a Dog (originally Mitt liv som hund) is a Swedish film from 1986 by Lasse Hallström, almost his first feature after years of churning out ABBA videos. So great was its international acclaim that it was nominated for two Oscars: for best director and best adapted screenplay. (Needless to say, it’s rare indeed for a foreign-language film to be in the running in these high-prestige categories.) On the strength of this production, Hallström went Hollywood in a big way. His directorial projects have since included such winners as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and most recently The Hundred-Foot Journey. All are marked by technical skill, deft acting, and a strongly humanistic outlook.

My Life as a Dog, adapted from a Swedish novel, focuses on a pre-teen boy, Ingemar, whose single-parent mom is dying of something like tuberculosis. Caught up in her own misery, she has no time or sympathy for his pain. So he’s sent to live with his uncle, a benevolent free spirit who lives in what seems to be a wacky community of glass-blowers. In his uncle’s village, he learns to laugh and to love. There are quirky neighbors to enjoy (the old man who gets his jollies by having young Ingemar read to him from catalogues of women’s clothing; the eccentric who decides to go swimming in the frozen lake in the middle of winter). And there are kids his own age, infatuated with soccer and boxing. It’s the era when Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson challenged world champion Floyd Patterson. One of the toughest, most enthusiastic local boxing enthusiasts turns out to be a tomboy just Ingemar’s age. Their interaction, both pugilistic and faintly romantic, is clearly part of Ingemar’s eventual path toward adult sexuality. The film is frank regarding the curiosity among pre-teens about the opposite sex. But (despite a topless scene that raised some hackles in the U.S.) it is never less than respectful of young people’s fascination with the adult world.

My Life as a Zucchini, based on a French-language novel called Autobiographie de Courgette, was a 2017 Oscar nominee for best animated feature. It’s done in stop motion animation, featuring exaggerated characters who have enormous heads, odd hair-styles, blue-circled eyes, and huge pink ears. The quirkiness of the film’s visual style softens a story that is in many ways brutal. Young Icare, called Zucchini by his mother, is not a happy kid. His mother, abandoned by his father, is a drunk who dies early in the film, partly as a result of a household skirmish. So Zucchini is taken by a local cop to live in a group home along with other deeply troubled children. At first it seems he’ll be bullied, but he and the other kids soon form a tightly supportive unit, helped along by kindly teachers who have the children’s best interests at heart. The fly in the ointment is an evil aunt who claims one of the girls as her own, but the kids’ cleverness saves the day. So heartening to see two films in which a child’s resilience overcomes personal tragedy.