The Pope vs. Harry Potter

Oh my. Five days ago, I asked why a certain article made claims about the Catholic Church’s opposition to Harry Potter when I, a reporter who has covered this beat for several years, had never heard of any such opposition. Apparently I spoke too soon.

The front page of today’s Vancouver Sun features a story on a couple of letters that were written by Pope Benedict XVI two years ago, when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger, in which he thanks a German author, Gabriele Kuby, for “enlighten[ing] us on the Harry Potter matter, for these are subtle, barely perceptible seductions, and precisely because of that they have a profound effect and can corrupt the Christian faith in souls even before it [faith] is able to properly grow.” Copies of these letters may now be downloaded from the Canadian website

As it is, I happen to be reading a review copy of A Parent’s Guide to Harry Potter right now; the author, Gina Burkart, seems to be Catholic, and the publishing firm, InterVarsity, is evangelical; and one of the interesting things about this book is that Burkart apparently doesn’t feel the need to waste all that much time defending the Harry Potter books — instead, after some pro forma comments acknowledging that there has been a controversy, she plunges right into what she thinks is good about the books.

I had thought that this was indicative of how the controversy had finally run out of steam and been laid to rest. But perhaps not. I just hope it turns out that the Pope’s position is a bit more nuanced than these muggles have made it out to be.

UPDATE: Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin has already eviscerated for the “special kind of hypocrisy” they have shown in condemning the media’s carelessness while simultaneously exploiting it. Curiously, his post is dated July 14, although — based on the time stamp on the e-mail through which an e-pal referred me to this post — it apparently went up at a time when it was still July 13 in all North American time zones.

JUL 14 UPDATE: Akin has more comments here and here.

JUL 22 UPDATE: And now Orthodox Harry Potter expert John Granger weighs in, with a detailed timeline.

Catholics go Bollywood

The Indian Express reports:

Treading uncharted territory, the social service wing of the Delhi Catholic Church is producing a full-fledged Hindi feature film, with all the ingredients of a typical Bollywood blockbuster, including a very hot item number.

Aisa Kyun Hota Hain, slated to hit theatres in October 2005, is possibly the first feature film produced by the church worldwide.

“As far as I know, this is the first film produced by the church anywhere in the world,” Fr Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese (DCA) said.

Can it really be that no branch of the Catholic church has ever, ever, ever produced a film before? I would be very surprised if this were true, but then, the world is full of surprises, and I imagine it all depends on how you parse a phrase like “produced by the church”. For example, The Spitfire Grill (1996) was produced by the fund-raising arm of a Catholic charity, I believe, but the money for it might not have come from the diocese’s operating budget, per se — that sort of thing.

Anyway, it is not clear from the story what the specifically Catholic nature of this film will be (we are told simply that “the film explores relationships at three levels — that of mother and son, husband and wife and friendship”), but we do know, at least, that “a Sikh basketball coach” will provide a bit of comic relief, and in the words of producer Fr. Emmanuel himself, “It is about communal harmony — the film even has a Buddhist character.”

UPDATE: Hmmm, the only recent film bearing this name at the IMDB is a movie slated to open in August, directed by Mahesh Bhatt and starring Rati Agnihotri, and the plot outline given there is: “A single mother contend with her playboy son’s newly diagnosed case of HIV infection.” That’s all the info the IMDB has — but it sure sounds like the same film. Could be interesting.

UPPERDATE: Come to think of it, I also wonder what ever became of those two duelling Bollywood films about the death of Graham Staines, a Christian missionary who was killed along with his two sons by a Hindu mob. As reported nearly two years ago, The Murder of a Missionary was supposed to take Staines’s side, while Dara: The Hero was supposed to be a tribute to Dara Singh, the man who was convicted of burning the Staineses to death.

Catching up on my links

I must confess I still haven’t figured out the pace or rhythm at which the ChristianWeek website uploads its new stories, so it was only today that I noticed they had posted my review of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, which has appeared in slightly different forms elsewhere. It looks snazzier here, though.

I also discovered this editorial on Orthodox Christianity, which appears to be a response of sorts to a feature that I wrote on the subject a few months ago. Make of it what you will.

Happy Endings — another abortion comedy?

The local press screening for this film is still a week away, but in the meantime, links to this NPR interview with Don Roos, director of Happy Endings, a dysfunctional comedy about various characters, one of whom is a pregnant woman who chooses not to abort her child but to put her son up for adoption.

The film, says Roos, was partly inspired by his and his partner’s own recent adoption of a child. I haven’t had time to listen to the whole interview yet, but here’s the sample quote provided by

My politics changed a lot, in a way, when I became a father, because I depend upon young women and young men choosing not to abort. All my life I’ve been a right-to-choose kind of guy, but secretly hoping that there were girls who thought it was wrong. . . . We were hoping to find a girl who thought abortion was wrong and yet gay parents were a fabulous idea — so it’s a very narrow group.

FWIW, I remember liking Roos’s directorial debut The Opposite of Sex (1998) — partly because I was on a Christina Ricci kick at the time and partly because I’m a sucker for films about adult brother-sister relationships (a rarity, alas) and this movie had two of them at its core — but I haven’t seen it since it was brand new, and I have no idea what I would make of it on a second viewing. His follow-up, Bounce (2000), made no impression on me at all — or if it did, I have completely forgotten what it was.

Meanwhile, it looks like we can add this film to Palindromes (2004) and, uh, the almost-decade-old Citizen Ruth (1996) on the “abortion comedy” list. Are there any others? And is the arrival of two “comedies” on the subject in recent months indicative of a more sophisticated approach to this subject in our culture?

Catching up with Following

I have been meaning to catch up with Following (1998), the first full length film directed by Christopher Nolan, ever since I saw a trailer for it on the DVD for Memento (2000; my mainstream review; my Christian review; my 2001 top ten list; my article on memory movies). But it wasn’t until someone mentioned Following in an online discussion of Nolan’s newest film, Batman Begins, that I finally put a hold on it at the library.

As it turns out, the film is so short that you could probably watch it twice in the time it takes to watch Batman Begins once. And so I did; after watching the film itself, I played it again with Nolan’s commentary. I have not yet taken advantage of the special feature which allows you to watch the film — which jumps back and forth in time — in chronological order, but I plan to do that, too.

The film’s original premise is so interesting, it’s a bit of a shame to see it get shunted aside in favour of a more contrived noir-ish double-cross story. The original premise has something to do with a man’s tendency to walk into a crowd, pick someone at random, and then follow that person around; there is an interesting tension there between faceless masses and individual human behaviour that surfaces again in the discussions over corporate and individual responsibility for crime in Batman Begins, and it reminds me of a conversation I had with my wife, long before we were married, when we stood at the north end of Stanley Park and watched the car lights streaming down one of the roads in North Vancouver, way over on the other side of the river, and I asked her if she ever wondered what was going on in the minds or lives of the individual drivers behind those far-off pin-pricks of light.

A more meditative film could have milked this premise for, oh, I don’t know, ten or twenty minutes; but Following zips right through this set-up in its first few minutes so that it can cut to the chase and kick off the real story: Cobb (Alex Haw), one of the men being followed by Bill (Jeremy Theobald), confronts him and then offers to help him achieve even newer levels of voyeurism by showing him how to break into people’s flats and mess with their minds while making a bit of money burgling on the side. This, too, is a precursor to Nolan’s later films: in Memento, Leonard Shelby suspects he is being used by his protector Teddy, and in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s mentor also turns out to be a villain.

Other Chris Nolan motifs make their first appearance here. For example, Cobb tells Bill that “everyone has a box,” i.e. a container in which they keep their most personal objects; this has parallels to the personal effects that Leonard burns in an almost ritualistic fashion in Memento, as well as the case that contains Thomas Wayne’s stethoscope in Batman Begins. And hey, when Bill invites Cobb over to his apartment — which was apparently Theobald’s apartment in real-life! — there’s a very noticeable Bat-signal on the front door. A cute, and eerie, harbinger of things to come.

Newsbites: Aslan! Slump! Potter vs. Wonka! Vengeance!

Time for another batch of rumours and stories.

1. Ain’t It Cool News reports that Liam Neeson may be the actor who replaces Brian Cox as the voice of Aslan in the upcoming film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. (My sister Michelle’s ecstatic reaction: “I don’t know if I want a sexy Aslan! That could be scary!”) If true, this could be at least the third film this year — after Kingdom of Heaven and Batman Begins — in which Neeson teaches a young man how to use a sword.

2. My colleague Steve Greydanus has an interesting theory about the surprisingly huge success of Fantastic Four, a mediocre at best movie that most critics had dismissed, which nevertheless made almost double what the studios expected and thus helped to end this year’s record-setting box-office slump. He writes:

Here is what I think is an important part of the answer:

Until FF, the big movies of summer have all — quite rightly — come with warnings not to bring the kids.

Even properties with built-in kid interest, such as Batman and Star Wars, have been the subjects of media and critical cautions that these films are too intense for young kids. And they are — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

As a result, though, the family market has been neglected. Yes, there have been traditional “family films” like Herbie: Fully Loaded and Madagascar. But families seem to crave films outside of the “family film” mold, i.e., cartoon-style comedies (whether live-action or animated) about children / families or anthropomorphic animals, cars, robots, etc, flatulence humor, kicks in the groin, etc.

Based on its marketing, FF, supposedly a “funny family action film,” seemed to fit the bill. Its initial success, like last year’s National Treasure (also not a great film, although much better than FF), may suggest that family audiences crave the same kind of thrills and action as teenagers and young adults, but without the heavy violence or sexual content. In fact, families may be so desperate for acceptable fare of this type that they will even embrace movies that are mediocre (National Treasure) or lousy (FF).

Unfortunately, it also seems, at least at the moment, that it may not be necessary that the movie be actually family-friendly — only that it be marketed and perceived that way. With FF, a running thread of trashy exploitative content, mostly in connection with the character of Johnny Storm, keeps it from being family-friendly, but it didn’t keep the studio from marketing the film to families.

3. Speaking of box-office, E! Online wonders if this Saturday’s release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince may interfere with the box-office prospects for Tim Burton’s remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which would seem to be targeting a similar audience. Ironically, the Tim Burton movie is being distributed by Warner Brothers, the same studio that produces the Harry Potter movies. The article notes that the previous book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, came out the same weekend as Hulk (2003), which grossed $62 million in its first three days — an impressive income to you and me, perhaps, but at the time, it was still perceived by some as a disappointment.

4. Reuters reports that there is some disagreement among the actors working on Steven Spielberg’s next film, about the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics, as to what the theme or message of the film really is. There is also some debate as to whether the film’s source material — reportedly a book called Vengeance, written by George Jonas, one of my favorite Canadian pundits — is all that reliable.

Murderball — quadriplegics kick ass!

I just got home from a screening of Murderball, a documentary that opened in the United States last week and opens in Canada in just a few days — and I really, really liked it.

There are a number of subtextual ironies wrapped up just in the film’s name. For one thing, “Murderball” is the name that quadriplegic rugby, or wheelchair rugby, apparently had when it was invented in Winnipeg almost 30 years ago — by a man who now lives in Vancouver, in fact — but the sport has acquired a more polite and politically correct name now that it has spread to other countries; one athlete interviewed in this film quips that the name change was designed to make the sport more palatable to corporate sponsors, though it is not clear that corporations have signed on in significant numbers just yet. The film, on the other hand, puts the game’s original in-your-face name right there in the title, and it’s doubtful the film — which will probably do more to raise the game’s profile than any other single initiative — would be anywhere near as successful if it were called “Quad Rugby”.

For another, the film can afford to be so in-your-face because, although the sport was invented in Canada, the film is about Team USA, and we all know how aggressiveness and competitiveness are celebrated in American culture but shunned in Canadian culture. And what is the film’s central narrative? The rivalry between the American team and an American athlete who was so competitive that, when he could no longer play for them, he became the coach of the Canadian team just so that he could get back at them!

Alas, as far as this film is concerned, the Canadians are merely accessories to their coach, Joe Soares, and they are never treated liked individual characters; and it is the American team’s members who are fleshed out properly, with girlfriends and parents and high-school buddies and whatnot. But this is, after all, an American film, so that seems fair enough. And the characters who populate this film are certainly an interesting bunch.

For example, it is intriguing to see how Soares, whose family came to the States from Portugal when he was 11, considers his success a tribute to the “American dream”, even as his former teammates accuse him of “betraying” his country by coaching the Canadians. It is also interesting to see how obsessed Soares can be with his sport, in a way that seems to marginalize his wife and brainy son, whose lack of interest in athletics is a bit of a letdown to stern old dad; in one scene, Soares goes out for dinner with his wife on their wedding anniversary, and when she toasts him, “To you,” he replies, “To Team Canada, hopefully.” Soares’s personal story takes an interesting turn about halfway through the film, incidentally — a turn that evokes the closest thing this film has to religious language — but I won’t spoil that here. (And speaking of religious language, it was interesting to see this film about athletically inclined quadriplegics so soon after re-watching Joni.)

There’s a lot more I could talk about — the former intern at the morgue who misses her job because she misses “the people”, the child who wonders how a remarkably dextrous quad with no hands handles his pizza, the grown-ups who wonder if the men can still function sexually, the bizarre and semi-graphic informational video that teaches quadriplegics how to function sexually, and so on — but it’s better if you experience the film for yourself.

I will say, though, that I appreciated the epilogue, in which these athletes — mostly men in their late 20s or 30s who lost the use of their limbs to disease and accidents some years ago — visit a group of Iraq War veterans who seem to be so much younger yet have lost their limbs in situations that were presumably much more serious. There is nothing particularly political about the way this coda is filmed or edited together, and the scene is of a piece with other scenes in which the athletes visit and inspire people who are just beginning to get used to their quadriplegic situation; but it’s still a remarkably poignant note on which to end this film.

FWIW, the screening was followed by a Q&A; with Ian Chan that was nearly as interesting and entertaining as the film itself. Also, check out the cover story in this week’s Georgia Straight.

Harry Potter — is the secret out? (spoiler-free)

Whoops, looks like a store near Vancouver mistakenly sold some copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince over a week before its July 16 release! According to Reuters:

Raincoast Books Ltd., which distributes the books in Canada, said a “small number” of the books were sold, and it has won a court injunction barring the buyers of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” from disclosing the plot.

I wonder how such a thing could be enforced. I suppose blogging could be blocked through some legal mechanism or other, but would the buyers be barred from e-mailing story details to their friends, or even from sharing such details in conversation?

The court also ordered all the copies be returned to Raincoast, which has promised the early buyers book plates autographed by Rowling once the embargo is lifted.

I wouldn’t want to be bossed around by the courts, myself — especially if I had bought the book in good faith (and had already started making notes in the margins!) — but hey, if I were one of these people, I’d much rather have an actual autographed book plate than a story, about buying the book before anyone else did, that people would only be able to accept on my say-so.

JUL 12 UPDATE: Today’s Vancouver Sun has more details.

Why I like Babylon 5 (seasons 2-3 spoilers)

One of the first conversations between my wife and myself concerned DVDs and home entertainment options, and somewhere in there, she mentioned that she wanted to own the entire Babylon 5 series some day.

Nearly two years later, my friend Betty gave us the first season as a wedding present — and my wife and I managed to watch most of it on the honeymoon, in between going for walks and, um, other activities. Since then, we’ve picked up seasons two and three, and so far, we are four episodes into the latter.

I have been impressed throughout by the show’s sensitivity and complexity where the question of religion is concerned. Unlike, say, Star Trek — where religion is something the aliens do, while human beings apparently have no more need for faith or spirituality (except in the case of, say, Native Americans, who are still sufficiently “other” by mainstream cultural standards) — this show recognizes that human religious practises will continue into the future, and it gives each of the alien races at least one religious system that forms an essential part of their self-identities.

It is interesting to wonder how these themes might have been developed if Commander Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), who was trained by Jesuits, had remained in charge throughout the entire series; instead, he was replaced by Commander Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) in season two — because of pressure from the studios, who wanted a better-known actor in the lead, I believe — and I guess it would have been a little too coincidental if two commanders in a row had had the same religious background.

And lately, the episodes have been rather interesting. Near the end of season two, there is an episode that portrays Jack the Ripper — yes, as in Star Trek, it seems this 19th-century character will outlive us all — as a former religious fundamentalist of sorts who believed it was his duty to kill sinners, and who was then abducted by the Vorlons and then turned into a relentless skeptic who seeks to deprive other people of their religious certainties. It’s a striking portrayal of how some of the worst religious zealots can end up being some of the worst anti-religious zealots.

Most recently, we watched ‘Passing Through Gethsemane’, the fourth episode of season three. Wow. Brad Dourif (now known to Tolkien fans as Grima Wormtongue) as a sincere, penitent Franciscan monk named Brother Edward? Fascinating. And his conversation with Ambassador Delenn about the emotional centrality of the Garden of Gethsemane to his faith is also quite interesting — not least because she says something to the effect that, in Minbari thought, consciousness is the universe’s way of trying to understand itself, yet the episode revolves around scientific devices and themes such as memory erasure, and the role that memory plays in forming personalities.

There is a mysterious link between the soul and the mind that this episode touches on in a disturbing and fascinating way, and I can only wish that I had been aware of this particular episode before I spoke on ‘Memory @ the Movies‘ at the Imaginarium at last year’s Cornerstone festival (FWIW, I eventually distilled my notes for those seminars into this brief article for Books & Culture).

Alas, I didn’t entirely “buy” the episode on dramatic terms, especially in its very last minutes. I do like the idea that society, in an effort to be “humane”, might abolish the death penalty in favour of erasing a man’s memories and giving him a new personality disposed towards community service; it brings to mind the question I once asked a radio evangelist and his guest, back in the ’80s, regarding whether we would remember our sins in Heaven (if so, then how perfect could we be? if not, then would we really be the same people?). And it is touching to see how Brother Edward is profoundly troubled by the discovery that he was once a serial killer; in a way, his debt to society has been paid — certainly the courts are satisfied — but he still believes there is a “stain” on his soul that must be atoned for somehow. And as with Total Recall (1990), so here — if a “bad” person is reprogrammed with the memories of a “good” person, what significance do the “good” man’s actions have? Are his choices still “free”? And so on.

But the very rushed way that Brother Edward’s killer is himself memory-wiped, as though he were somehow on the same level as a repeat offender or as though the courts would have rushed him through to his judgment so quickly — this part of the story does raise interesting questions about our ability to forgive others (as embodied by Sheridan’s reluctance to shake the killer’s hand), and it does raise interesting questions about whether people can ever truly forgive themselves if their memories are not wiped first, but in terms of dramatic world-creation, it does not convince me; in Tolkien’s terms, I can no longer create belief in this world at this point but must now “suspend disbelief” and “condescend” to it.

And that’s before we get to my concern over the way Brother Theo, the head of the Franciscan order, seems to just accept that this is the way things are done, when perhaps, like the minister in A Clockwork Orange (1971; my comments) who objects to Malcolm McDowell’s reprogramming, he ought to be protesting against the intrusion of technology into spiritual matters.

Nevertheless, I am still rather impressed. Brother Edward doesn’t abandon his faith when he finds out why he is predisposed towards serving others; the only thing that matters to him is that he might not have dealt sufficiently with the “stain” of his sins on his soul. (And this, BTW, is another reason why I think Brother Theo and the others should be a little less sanguine about memory wipes or personality deaths.) And this raises another interesting set of questions, for me. As I understand it, one of the things that distinguishes Orthodox theology from Catholic and thus Protestant theology is that the Orthodox do not see sin as a “stain” but, rather, as a “separation” from God or an “absence” of sorts — this is why the Catholics have the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, whereas the Orthodox do not, at least not in the strictest sense. So I wonder if an Orthodox response to Brother Edward’s situation might be different — and if so, in what way.

Hal Hartley and Netflix exclusives

It’s been a long time since anyone paid all that much attention to the films of Hal Hartley — see this article from last February’s New York Magazine for more on that subject — so it’s a little odd to hear that his most recent film, The Girl from Monday, will now be available on DVD exclusively through Netflix, i.e. as a rental, i.e. impossible to purchase, at least in North America, for the foreseeable future. It’s a curiously strange way to try to come back from obscurity — assuming Hartley has any interest in doing so. There is no word yet on whether a similar deal is being struck with any Canadian DVD rental outfits.

FWIW, I got into the reviewing business around the time Hartley’s star began to fade, so the only review of his work that I’ve written, at least that’s available online, is this blurb on The Book of Life (1998) during its appearance at the local film festival.