Fighting the franchise funk

Over the last few years we’ve been watching the Harry Potter movies with a friend who lives abroad; every time she’s been over, we watched another one or two of the films, and over the holidays we saw the two parts of Deathly Hallows, in my case for the third or fourth time. As far as I’m aware, the first part fared less well with critics and audiences than the second one, and it’s clear why: it’s definitely the less crowd-pleasing film of the two. Its plot meanders, what big setpieces there are don’t feel as cathartic as the showdown against Voldemort, and a lot of the movie seems to be dedicated to Harry, Hermione and, with some interruptions, Ron hiking, camping and generally looking wet, cold and miserable.

Nonetheless, rewatching the two films, I found myself clearly preferring the first one. Deathly Hallows Part 2 largely works because it’s the end of a journey, but it feels (and felt even when I first watched it) perfunctory to some extent. We need to resolve the different plot strands, we need to bring closure to Snape’s story, we need to dispose of the remaining horcruxes and of Voldemort himself – but little of this feels like it tells us anything about the characters. We know that Harry is brave, Hermione is smart and Ron is, well, Ron, and we also know that the visual effects wizards are great at doing what they do, as are the designers, artists and everyone else responsible for the way the film looks and sounds. After a while, though, setpieces become interchangeable, and while the escape from a fiery Room of Requirement is exciting in the moment, it’s also strangely bland. It’s a Harry Potter movie, of course there would be some chase or fight involving pixel magic, derring do and last-minute escapes. It’s fan service to some extent, but fan service isn’t automatically bad.

It's quidditch time!

However, there are moments in Deathly Hallows Part 1 that are decidedly different, that are quiet and unexpected, that have nothing to do with crowd-pleasing 3D whooshery. The film already starts with some of these scenes, filled with foreboding and sadness, as Hermione for instance wipes herself from her parents’ memories so they’d be safe. It’s a largely wordless scene, not of teary farewells but of loss and poignant resolve. Another scene I found surprising and delighting was the animated Tale of the Three Brothers; and later, as Ron is temporarily off and Harry and Hermione are alone, Nick Cave’s “O Children” plays on the radio, and Harry engages his friend of many years in a clumsy, sweet dance. It doesn’t further the plot, and it doesn’t get the pulse racing with excitement and danger – but it surprised and enchanted this muggle here more than all of the final part of the final part of Harry Potter.

Obviously the Potteriad wouldn’t have worked, or at least been as successful, if all it consisted of were these quiet, unexpected, intimate moments (though it would be intriguing to see someone try their hand at creating the Before Sunrise of the wizarding world) – but for me it highlights both the shortcomings and the potential of big franchises. Many of the fans love the Harry Potter films for the magic and the world, the quidditch matches and firebreathing dragons and wizards’ duels, so obviously these are things by which later instalments are judged. We want what we know, what is comfortable, because that’s how we came to love the franchise. These expectations are reasonable, but they’re also a trap, keeping a franchise frozen like an insect in amber. It’s similar with something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where we get some variation between the different strands – Iron Man isn’t the same as Captain America, whose pulpy WW2 first instalment and more sombre second film differ from Thor‘s sci-fi/mythology mashup – but we know what we’ll get, namely some good action setpieces, some snarky humour and a band of heroic characters that need to put their rivalries and disagreement aside and come together as a family to defeat some colourful yet dull villain – or, if you’re lucky, Tom Hiddleston.

Loki here!

Franchises are the storytelling equivalent of comfort food: when you want a plate of spaghetti, you don’t want it to surprise you with chopped coriander or shiitake mushrooms or a honey-aceto balsamico reduction with shavings of shock-frosted lamb’s kidney. The line between comfort food and tinned spaghetti is thin, though, and there’s always a risk of that exciting quidditch match or that bit where the Hulk goes smash getting stale, to the extent where you hardly know which particular instalment you’re watching at the time. Franchises thrive on constancy, on giving fans what they want, but they can’t be that and that only if they want to be alive and vibrant. They need scenes like Harry and Hermione’s awkward dance to Nick Cave, just like they need Trevor “I am (not) the Mandarin” Slattery. They need to be willing to withhold the simple, immediate gratification of More Of The Same” at times if they want to be good and not just safe. And there’s potential in exactly this: fans know what to expect, so you can surprise them by playing with the format. The most memorable episodes in TV series (which tend to be prone to becoming formulaic) are often the ones that, once the format has been established, play with the formula: Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body”or “Once More With Feeling”, House M.D.‘s “Three Stories”,  M*A*S*H‘s “The Interview”. It’s because people know the formula that they see how it’s played with, and if it works, it can create some of the most memorable moments a franchise can afford.

Doing that with an entire film is risky: people who go and watch a Harry Potter movie want to see an adventure for the whole family, with magic and special effects setpieces. Iron Man fans want an action comedy with explosions, flying metal suits and Robert Downey Jr. doing what he does so well. But the safety net of the franchise shouldn’t become a prison. By all means, establish a formula, make us fall in love with the flying brooms, the comic-book villainy, the TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers and light sabres. But use those things as a starting point. Don’t just give us what we already know we want: surprise us and win our hearts again by whisking us into a clumsy, earnest dance to the strains of “O Children”. Because being a franchise doesn’t mean we want to watch the same movie over and over again, forever stuck on repeat.

A season too far…

We watched another two episodes of the second season of Life on Mars yesterday, and while they were more enjoyable than a couple of the ones earlier this season, they still felt like variations on a theme – and minor variations at that. The impression I got was that they had material for a total of eight or nine episodes, at most. Instead they decided to stretch it to two seasons and 14 episodes altogether, and as a result much of the impact was lost. This could have been a little gem of a series, and instead it turned out to be an okay execution of a clever premise, extended past its sell-by date.

You doity rat (redux)

Quite a few series are milked, the episodes becoming tired, stale rehashes of earlier material. Even fans say that The Simpsons have been going on for too long (although they also argue that the last season has been a marked improvement). Same seems to go for Spooks (another BBC series by Kudos, the producers of Life on Mars), Buffy (I’ve seen few defenses of season 7), The X-Files or most of the Star Trek series.

And then you get series that are killed untimely. Firefly and Deadwood come to mind, but I’m sure there are other examples as well. (Futurama, perhaps, ending with one of the best episodes of the entire series, but it’s being revived right now, so I’ll wait and see.) Series that, quite simply put, had much more to say. Series that quite often also expected something from the viewer, that made demands – for instance, that you tuned in every week. You can’t really tell a good, sustained story if viewers may look in once a month, at best.

Death by trampoline?

To be honest, I can only think of a handful of series that managed to end when they should have. Six Feet Under is a candidate. M*A*S*H, perhaps, although the jury’s out on whether the series maintained its quality, got better, or simply got smug and self-righteous. Most people loved “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”, but there are some who hated it with a vengeance for being Alan Alda’s soapbox.

I guess that, given the choice, most fans would prefer more material of their favourite series even at the price of diminishing quality. But it is frustrating to see them putting out yet another cop series or medical soap but at the same time not allowing more complex, more ambitious – and, admittedly, less audience-friendly – material the breathing space it needs.

A Prairie Home farewell

I’ve never quite warmed to Robert Altman, perhaps because 14 is too early an age to watch MASH, and I wasn’t enough of a film nerd (yet) when I saw The Player. Raymond Carver works better for me on the page than on the screen. Even if P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia was an adolescent Short Cuts on too much caffeine, it clicked for me. Altman’s films rarely did so. Yet I’ve always envied the old man his magnificent casts – you rarely get as many high-quality actors in the same film as in Altman’s ensemble pieces.

Robert Altman

When I heard of his latest – and, as it turned out, last – film, I was intrigued. I liked the cast, and what little I’d heard of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show (which the film was to be based on), I enjoyed for its whimsy and its gentle irony. (What is usually called irony these days is much closer to facile sarcasm, if you ask me.)

I wasn’t sure from the trailer, though: did this look like the sort of film I’d genuinely like, or was it rather the kind of movie that I felt I should like, and that I’d be too stubborn to admit to be somewhat boring, actually? As a well-meaning cinemaphile, I knew I was supposed to like Altman.

I ended up liking the film a lot. It’s impossible to watch A Prairie Home Companion and not think that Altman was close to death when he made it. Yet it’s not a sombre film. It’s melancholy and wistful, but it’s got a lightness that is quite fitting. Some critics felt it was too hokey and corny in its folksiness. I don’t think that’s quite fair. The film does express sorrow at the passing of a certain kind of radio variety show, and perhaps a certain kind of popular culture, but I think it’s quite aware that the culture it shows may be well past its sell-by date. If there is sorrow, it’s the sort of sorrow that comes with not wanting to let go, even if you know that you will have to. I think it should be permitted to an 81-year old to say: “I don’t want to go, not yet,” which is what the film felt like to me. It’s better to go out when things are still good than to fizzle and fade and vanish, yet bowing out when you wish you could do another show, and another, an eternal farewell, hurts. Altman conveys that pain with gentle, wry humour. I hope that his angel of death had “a smile so sweet you could have poured it on your pancakes.”