By Christopher Campbell | Spout July 14, 2011 at 5:36AM
What is there left to write critically of "Harry Potter"? It is impossible to recommend the final film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2," to anyone who isn't going to see it anyway. Its lack of context for any newcomers is vast yet justified. And it is also impossible to keep any fans away with claims that it's a rather mediocre (and surprisingly grainy-looking) spectacle for such a climactic episode. Like many series on film and television, say "Star Wars" or "Lost," its end will be met with equal numbers approving and disappointed, but it must be seen if you've made it this far.
The only question left to ask is, perhaps, "is it really over?" I don't mean in the rhetorical way "Potter" "addicts" will be mournfully asking this amongst themselves as the withdrawal kicks in as the credits go up. I mean in a semi-literal manner, as in, "are these characters limited to their narrative confines?" Too analytical an inquiry for a fairly straightforward YA story? Blame Albus Dumbledore, who woke me out of a mindless experience of watching extras and objects running and wizzing around the screen back and forth by uttering these deep words: "Of course it's happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
Harry Potter and the Identity Units
Okay, so also blame Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose mindbending sci-fi film (or two-part mini-series) "World on a Wire" I had watched only hours prior to my screening of "Harry Potter 7 Part 2." This 1973 German future-noir adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye's novel "Simulacron-3" (which gets a theatrical re-release next Friday) deals with levels of reality and creation that very much relate to the concepts of authorship, fictional universes of immense construction and to what extent we can ignore gaps in that construction in order to perceive it as an accepted reality. I had managed to suppress my mind's contemplation of that film for a good two-thirds of the "Potter." But then came that Dumbledore scene, set in what first seems like heaven, or just a dream, or simply a "cleaner" version of King's Cross Station, which is specifically stated as being the inside of Harry's mind (it could be all these things, really). That sudden, plot-interrupting moment ruined any chance of my just letting the movie be.
Any more reflexive and Dumbledore would have had to be substituted out for J.K. Rowling herself. Or, maybe Harry would be substituted out for Rowling? It is all from her head, after all. She could be in either position, whether blue fairy to Harry as she insinuates he's a real boy or creator being metafictionally confronted by Dumbledore and being told her characters have a life beyond her words. Rowling wrote the line, which appeared in the book of "Deathly Hallows" before being vocalized on screen, and so it was already as if she was speaking through the Hogwarts headmaster to her readers, acknowledging and encouraging that Harry and the rest live on in our imaginations, whether solely in our heads or maybe in the form of fan fiction and other interactive content (particularly that which Rowling has developed for her Pottermore website).
Portkey Past Key Plot Points
Of course, since that stimulating statement of Dumbledore's comes from the book, what can it mean for the film specifically? Little, I suppose, but then I've always found the "Potter" movies to be of scant worth as isolated film works. And "Deathly Hallows Part 2" is definitely the least able to stand alone, not only because it is a continuation of the previous movie and is entirely incomprehensible by itself, but also and primarily because it plays like a succession of motion-enhanced illustrations lifted from and only supplementary to the book. Illustrations, of course, never show us everything the text tells us (not even in a graphic novel, which is still stationary and gap-ridden), and this movie even more than others appears to be missing a lot of expository information and action.
That is fine and good for those who've read the book. They can fill in the gaps with what's in their head, if their memory of the novel is dependable. Or, maybe others recall important information from the previous films and can do the same with that. "Deathly Hallows Part 1" was as talky as this part is not, which is to say they put most of the exposition over there so we could just enjoy the action over here. My memory of the last, or any, "Potter" movie is apparently not too dependable, so I found myself filling a lot of gaps in with material of my own devise. Which isn't to say I was making shit up so much as allowing my brain to logically assume the steps connecting point A to point B, just as we regularly do with narrative anyway, not mulling over the fact we didn't read or see every single literal step walked by a character.
Mind the Gaps
It's not unlike our perception of cinema itself, our mind filling in the gaps between each frame of film or ignoring the little units making up a digital picture, and in the case of this movie trying hard not to notice all the little grainy bits during the very dark sequences (or was this just my problem? I do regularly have a hard time not perceiving all these minuscule building blocks and picture details -- it's the ex-projectionist in me, I guess). Just because that filler is in our heads doesn't mean it's not real, at least not enough to make it unbelievably so.
All this is a long way of saying that the "Potter" universe continues if we let it, whatever the official or unofficial form. All we have to do is think it into being, like we're Bastian at the end of "The Neverending Story" or a dream architect in "Inception" or a programmer for the simulated second-life in "World on a Wire" (a precursor to "TRON," "The Matrix" and of course "The Thirteenth Floor," which is also based on the same novel). But it doesn't have to be a forward-looking consideration. We can fill in the gaps going backward, like the autobiographical protagonist of Malick's "Tree of Life," though I'm thinking more Schopenhauer than Heidegger here.
But there is something to an expansive fictional universe that causes its interpreters to internally grasp the whole, in its entirety, spatially and temporally, just as Malick considers and presents his film's macrocosm (our macrocosm) to its audience. Charlie Kaufman attempted a like-minded yet very dissimilar representation of everything in "Synecdoche, New York." However, Malick and Kaufman are both dealing mostly with our own world. The best example of a fictional macrocosmos, of course, is the "Star Wars" universe, which we can have a strong sense of in our mind's eye because it has been so complexly composed over many years and through different media.
The Boy Who Lived or The Boy Who Lives?
The thing about "Deathly Hallows Part 2," though, is that it kind of suffers from a case of extreme causality, with everything on screen existing for an end result rather than just -- or, I guess simultaneously just -- being. Maybe because it too closely follows Harry's actions without showing enough of the surrounding Hogwarts battle -- a streamlined plot absent of the epicness it should have, paced quickly and bouncily, creating more noticeable gaps than is typically permissible. It wasn't simply that I wished I had seen some of the action that occurs off screen; I couldn't even properly imagine it having actually happened. Characters who wind up dead just seem to be alive in one scene then dead in another with little sense of the link between them.
I especially had this problem at film's end, with its epilogue. Watching those last few minutes, it's very hard to fill in the many years that have passed. It has nothing to do with the fact the characters in the coda look far less aged than intended, though that doesn't help. Nor does it matter that those years must have, life-wise as much as plot-wise, been rather boring without the good vs. evil purpose/narrative driving it. There is something to the way films, unlike literature, consist of more distinguishably artificial aspects, such as familiar actors acting and speaking lines that come off more as dialogue than organic speech. Well, maybe it's not the literature, with its words and pages, that are less artificial so much as our imagination interpreting that literature.
So I guess those Pottermaniacs who can't bear to see the series end will be better off if they've read the books. Maybe even more so if they've only read the books. Fans who only know the movies should have a harder time at giving the characters life, inside the reality within their minds or elsewhere.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is now playing worldwide.
Recommended If You Like: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"; "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"; "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"