Meditations on

Monday, May 1, 2017

Potter-world gets grim with "Fantastic beasts and where to find them"

I didn't get anything close to what I expected from J.K. Rowling's "Fantastic beasts and where to find them." I expected a return to the fanciful world of Harry Potter (which was increasingly dark later on but still mostly warm and escapist) but instead found a grim, noir film that seems to have wisely anticipated that the Harry Potter audience is now older and grappling with an interesting and challenging world.

I was dimly aware that some people got a sense of modern politics in the story. Typically if an average person sees a movie as somewhat political I'm going to feel hit over the head with a hammer since I'm generally more sensitive to the politics or worldviews expressed in a film. What I found in this movie's politics and worldview ended up being rather interesting and artfully subtle, or at least not over the top and cringe-inducing, nor stupidly simple or pandering.

If you ever follow Rowling's public statements on politics that's frankly rather surprising. She has a keen mind and intuitive sense of humanity on display in her writing...when she's being blunt on twitter she comes across as simplistic or "daft" as the Brits might say. In her stories however, there is real depth of insight. She's probably stronger at understanding characters and human emotions than abstract ideas.

Here's some of what I saw, I'm going to include spoilers in this so don't read it if you don't want plot details revealed.

So where do you find fantastic beasts?

The strangest thing about the movie is the title. It was named after a book on Harry Potter's reading list in year one, with the character of Newt Scamander fleshed out and placed within the context of Gellert Grindelwald's emergence in the early 20th century.

The movie juxtaposes Grindelwald's search for a young wizard who was repressing their magic inside and forming a violent, monstrous force with Scamander's search for magical creatures that are being threatened by the wizarding world.

Rowling clearly has very little respect for either the state or the press and both are portrayed in her stories as bumbling and constantly causing problems with their overreaching responses to various problems that emerge in society. In this story the problem is relations between the magical community and the non-magical world.

The wizard's plan is to hide their existence and thus avoid generating fearful and violent responses from the more numerous "no-majs." The problem is that this leads to them seeking to wipe out magical creatures, who are incapable of getting the memo that they should remain hidden, and in the apparent repression of magic within young people that don't fit within the protective shield of the magical community.

There is great irony in the juxtaposition between the motivations of the good guys and bad guys within the story. The story's "good guy" Newt Scamander is keen on discovering and understanding the magical creatures and educating his fellow wizards and witches on why they should find ways to protect them by pointing out their positive attributes.

Gellert Grindelwald is actually aiming to discover an "obscurus" or a magical child who's powers have been so repressed that they are bursting out in violent ways. On this point, I think Grindelwald is aiming higher than Scamander, but as so often happens with deeply emotional and justifiable motives, Grindelwald's methods and proscriptions are not as good or noble as that of Scamander.

Instead of seeking to educate fellow witches and wizards, Grindelwald has an ISIS-like plan to manipulate them into flocking to his banner by using the obscurus to provoke a war with the non-magical community.

The major question of the story isn't "where" to find fantastic beasts but rather "how" to approach them.

Identity politics in the wizarding world

Gellert Grindelwald spends the movie disguised as an American auror named Graves and is played by Colin Ferrell until his unmasking at the end of the movie where he's portrayed by Johnny Depp. They give him (Ferrell) a fasci hair style which lets you know that he'll inevitably prove to be a villain.

Indeed Grindelwald seemed an appropriate stand-in on many levels for the Alt-Right or other identity politics groups of our modern times.

Both he and Scamander (and co) are trying to reach "Creedence" the young wizard who's repressed magic has formed the obscurus that has wreaked havoc across NYC in the film. Then the bumbling state agents show up and murder Creedence, which leads Grindelwald to be the only who actually serves to provide a eulogy for the poor boy in which he asks his fellow wizards,
"Ask all of you, who does this protect? Us? Or them?"
The diverse world of magical people and non-magical people requires compromises and sacrifices and Grindelwald is asking whether those costs to the magical community are worth it. He sees his fellow magical people as an oppressed group and he wants them to instead seize power so they can protect themselves.

Of course when you put angry and aggrieved people in power they tend to use it to do some unsavory things. The movie's treatment of Grindelwald here is perhaps the best as they demonstrate the sympathetic nature of identity politics and the "why?" asked by groups that feel they are suffering needlessly for a negotiated outcome that isn't working out.

The good guy, Scamander, seems ill-equipped for the real search occurring in the film. He's better with creatures than with people and has his work cut out for him.

The state gets a pretty bad shake in this movie as they are seeking to ask their own people to take on some of the heaviest costs of maintaining peace with a non-magical world yet they're portrayed as incompetent and doing it in such a manner so that it's too costly and breeds grievances that grow into monsters like the obscurus and Grindelwald.

Scamander now has about four movies to explain to the world through the way he unlocks the potential of working to protect and get along with magical creatures that the same is possible in diverse societies. Depp's Grindelwald will be seeking to explain that it's easier to grab power and act on the interests of your own people. The result should be a rather relevant story.