Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and where to find them

The latest installment in the capacious Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016, David Yates) is author J. K. Rowlings' first venture into screenwriting.  The film is likeable but conflicted:   Rowlings doesn't know exactly how dark to make the picture and, so, there are really two movies uneasily combined into one.  The first film is whimsy -- a young wizard named Newt Scamander arrives in New York City in 1926 with a valise full of magical beasts.  Some of the beasts are cute; others are scary as that term might be employed by a nine-year old child.  The beasts escape and run amok in Manhattan with various comical consequences -- about half of the film chronicles Scamander's attempt to corral the unruly beasts and return them to his suitcase.  In this effort, he has the help of a practical, down-to-earth girl witch and a Muggle (inexplicably called "Non-Mages" in this film), a plump and cheerful baker called Kozlowski.  This team is amusing and their byplay appealing and this part of the film is wildly inventive and by far the best part of the picture.  The second plot entangled with this first, whimsical story is much darker:  a cruel woman is trying to stir up hatred between the wizards and ordinary mortals.  She has a 12 foster children some of whom seem to have magical powers that she is trying to beat out of them.  There are all sorts of sinister edges to this story, a kind of allegory about self-loathing and racial bigotry.  The cruel woman has a servile son who seems to be just about the her age -- she leads him around with a dog leash that apparently doubles as a lash.  (Because the woman, who is supposed to be the boy's mother, seems to be about the same age as her slave, the relationship between the two has a sickly sado-masochistic edge.)  The servile young man has suppressed his wizardry, creating a kind of ferocious, deadly id called an Obscurus.  Yeats used the term "fabulous, formless darkness" and the Obscurus has this nature -- it's a kind of hairy darkness, a combination of a mass of writhing snakes and black worms and animate pubic hair.  From a Freudian perspective, it's pretty clear what this medusa-like Obscurus symbolizes -- it appears to be some kind of mother-monster, a horror that correlates to female genitalia, the "fabulous, formless darkness" that men can see but that they can't quite understand or imaginatively visualize.  As one might expect, the Obscurus gets loose and wreaks massive havoc before being repressed once more -- we see a whiff of it escaping, presumably into a sequel.  The Obscurus is vanquished, not surprisingly, by an overtly phallic monster -- a kind of winged snake, or Quetzalcoatl beast that has the capability of engorging itself to "fill any space in which it is confined."  When we see the winged snake battling the maternal Obscurus, it has a twin tale that looks surprisingly like testicles dangling down from the bird's phallic breast and beak (or pecker).  The snake defeats the animate female mons veneris and, then, the wizards have to impose "obliviation" -- the film's term for repression into the sub- or unconscious -- on the populace of New York.  The phallic snake penetrates a cloud, and like the Father God, Zeus, throws thunderbolts causing rain to fall.  The rain symbolizes repression -- when it touches the bodies of the non-Mages, they can no longer recall the cosmic battle between animated genitalia that took place in their city.  This second story, sutured to the cheery beast fables of the first narrative, is far more formulaic and involves much tedious hurling of bodies across space.  There is even a subtext about an evil sorcerer concealing himself in Colin Farrell, the leader of the wizards -- guess who he contains?  Johnny Depp in pancake make-up.  The movie's special effects are brilliantly achieved and the characters are picturesque -- Kozlowski's aborted romance with a beautiful blonde flapper witch is touching in its own way.  (Ron Perlman has a wonderful cameo as a nasty gangster troll who runs a speakeasy).  The film recreates New York City in 1926 with spectacular and pointless fidelity and each shot swarms with interesting background details.  The female leader of the witches and wizards seems to be Jennifer Lopez, although, in fact, the role is played by the British actress who played Martin Luther King's wife in Selma.  It's a reasonably entertaining film but too long by a half-hour and utterly forgettable except for the unintentional Freudian imagery that bursts forth toward the end of the film.  No doubt, Rowlings is concealing great and awful abysses in her work -- she has a toxic imagination, it seems, and I would like to see her draft a horror movie for adults.   

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