Up Close And Personal With Harry Potter’s Magic Wand

Harry Potter: The Exhibition

There are moments when we just have to embrace our inner geek. Considering that this is Mount Holyoke, where many of us have quirks and hang ups about the strangest things, this is something not unusual. I had one of those moments when my inner film nerd came out in full force this weekend. There I was, standing in front of the Mecca of all film set props: Harry Potter’s magic wand…and broom…and everything else from the Harry Potter movies you can imagine.

Harry Potter™: The Exhibition is a new exhibit that opened at Boston’s Museum of Science on Oct. 25. Here more than 200 props, costumes and creatures from the six Harry Potter movies are on display, transporting fans into the wizarding world. The props are displayed in settings inspired by the film sets: Hagrid’s hut, the Dark Forest, the Great Hall and many more.

The exhibit begins with a sorting. Several lucky members from the tour group are chosen from the crowd (I suggest you jump like a maniac in the back row, like my friend Ruth did, if you want to be selected), are placed under the sorting hat and learn their Hogwarts house. From there you enter into a screening room where clips from the films are shown, setting the mood for the experience you are about to have.

Once the doors open, you are led past the Hogwarts Express and down a corridor filled with magical paintings. You walk through the Fat Lady’s portrait and into the Gryffindor common room. Now the real adventure has begun. As you stroll past endless props and costumes, you are transported into Harry Potter’s world. There is Harry’s admission letter to Hogwarts from Sorcerer’s Stone; the Basilisk from Chamber of Secrets; the Time Turner and Marauder’s Map from Prisoner of Azkaban; Hermione’s Yule Bal gown and Triwizard Cup from Goblet of Fire, Dolores Umbridge’s office from Order of Phoenix; and the potions book from Half-Blood Prince.

These props and costumes are a part of elaborate film set recreations. Everything from Ron Weasley’s dorm room to the Divination classroom to the Great Hall have been splendidly recreated. Throughout the exhibit, you can participate in essential wizarding world activities toss a Quaffle, pull a screeching Mandrake and sit in Hagrid’s chair. All that is missing is the chance to ride Buckbeak the Hippogriff or duel a Hungarian Horntail dragon.

While at Harry Potter: The Exhibition, I was reminded of the significance that Harry Potter has had in my life. They certainly are not the first books I remember reading as a child, but are among my childhood favorites. This exhibition is a wonderful reminder of why I love the Harry Potter films. Most of all, it is a reminder of how Harry Potter has affected not only my life but will influence a whole new generation of fans. Throughout the exhibit, I kept stumbling over a little boy who was no more than 10 years old dressed like Harry Potter. While his costume was not as elaborate as the couple dressed as Dumbledore and Trelawney (it was Harry Potter), this little boy perfectly encompasses what the Harry Potter franchise truly represents. J.K. Rowling created a world that offers the perfect escape from reality, and there is no doubt it will continue to influence and delight in the years to come.

The flying car from the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter: The Exhibition will be on display at Boston’s Museum of Science until February 12, 2010.

Published: November 5, 2009
The Mount Holyoke News

Life After Death: How Celebrities Linger On In Public Memory

When artists, musicians, actors and celebrities die, they leave behind something that has been imprinted in our memory: an image, a song, a film, a book, a sensation. Yet what fascinates me is how the death of a celebrity, when it is most unexpected, becomes the center of our universe. Take Michael Jackson’s death, for instance-here a ruined musician who went from being completely loathed by society in life to becoming a beloved icon adored by all in death. Let’s be honest-the reaction to and coverage of Michael Jackson’s death was one of the most sickening occurrences of this decade. Never before had we seen the power and frightening reality of the media-obsessed culture we currently live in.

But what happens to a musician, who was largely unheard of in the United States, who died under bizarre and horrifically tragic circumstances, and who was just beginning her career? How will she remembered by the media?

Taylor Mitchell was a Canadian folk singer who I bet practically no one on this campus had heard of until her death. I didn’t either until I read a headline that I believed was a joke: “Taylor Mitchell, singer, killed by coyotes.” Mitchell was hiking in a Canadian national park when she was attacked and killed on Oct. 27. Had Mitchell just been an average person, her death surely would have been reported on; it is only the second human-killed by coyote case in North America.

Taylor Mitchell

Her death is most striking because Mitchell was only 19. Now her life, and brief career, will have a new, far more significant meaning. She will, undoubtedly, in death have a greater influence than she ever did in life.

Like most people, I sought out her music on her MySpace page. What I found were seven promising tracks of a singer, who had she had been given the time, certainly would have made a mark in the US. Songs such as “Don’t Know how I got here,” “For Your Consideration” and “Fun While It Lasted” not only speak her talent but, when heard in the context of her death, they have a chilling and eerie foreshadowing effect.

What has occurred following her death are remembrance posts on MySpace, tribute videos on YouTube, trending topics on Twitter, memorial groups on Facebook-which are all very banal and very impersonal. They focus on the way she died, not necessarily on her life. Even more disturbing is how these tribute videos, for instance, often include images of coyotes spliced together with images of Mitchell. We, as a collective society, trivialize celebrity deaths for the sake of entertainment. Should we expect anything less when we are given so many outlets to make light of the phenomenon of celebrity?

How we address the deaths of celebrities shows how we are unable to deal with the reality of death, something that is so final and conclusive. We can easily trivialize the death of someone like Michael Jackson because we know too much about his life. But what happens to someone like Mitchell and her legacy-of what little there is-is a clinging to the idea that there is life, through memory and in her case music, after death. Taylor Mitchell’s life will most likely be that of something similar to James Dean. She is someone who did so little in life, but left us with just enough to immortalize her in a way that assures us of the longevity of being.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
November 5, 2009
Reprinted with permission

Watching Bollywood: The plight of one overly neurotic filmgoer

No place is more comfortable or more eerie than a dark movie theater just as the previews are about to begin. Chances are you have sat in a theater waiting to enjoy a movie before but once the lights go off you are transported to a different reality all while being surrounded by complete strangers. Perhaps I am being neurotic but the thought of experiencing any sort of emotion—and you experience countless emotions during movies—in the presence of strangers is utterly frightening. The room might be dark but someone is always watching.

Clearly I have read too much film theory if, rather than seeking pure enjoyment from the cinema, these are the thoughts that wander through my mind during a screening. Needless to say, it is hard for me to leave my neurotic theories on spectatorship at the door and just watch a movie.

While most people enjoy company while at the movies, I prefer going by myself and completely isolating myself from the main audience. Rather than be in the center row and in close proximity to anyone else in the theater, I prefer the very back, right corner. Believe me—no one wants to sit there. Of course, this makes watching any film especially difficult and makes me seem pretty ridiculous, but it is a practice I have perfected.

My somewhat—okay very—bizarre screening tendencies were challenged this summer when I attended the Cannes Film Festival, where placing one very neurotic filmgoer in a 2000 seat theater could lead to serious ramifications. All of the sudden I had to sit next to strangers who applauded for everything: the film festival logo, the opening credits, the lead actress’ name, the closing credits, the music played during the closing credits. (Unless this person was a French film critic; I’m convinced that they don’t know how to express emotion during a movie.) I learned to embrace the novelty of the situation – how many times would I be surrounded by people who applauded a single frame of L’Avventura? Still it is amazing that I didn’t suffer endless panic attacks while at Cannes.

Knowing this, the last movie anyone should expect me to willingly attend is a Bollywood film. There is no other national cinema depends more on audience interaction than Bollywood. So attending a screening Om Shanti Om at Amherst Cinema on Sunday, I was faced with my worst nightmare—audience participation. The girl sitting next to me clearly loved Om Shanti Om; she sang along with every single song and yelped with glee whenever Shahrukh Khan appeared on screen. Considering that Khan is singing in practically every scene, this happened frequently.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p92YbtfeI58]

The sight of one girl raising her arms in complete exuberance by the mere presence of Ambitabh Bachan probably strikes a western audience as odd (we certainly don’t greet cameo appearances by Dustin Hoffman that way). Yet that is what makes Bollywood cinema absolutely fabulous. These films are meant to elicit a certain response from the audience, one that depends on elaborate stylistic norms, song and dance sequences and star personas to create pure joy and excitement. Because, I suspect, many people attending the screening of Om Shanti Om had never been to a Bollywood film or at least to a public screening of the film, this was lost to them.

Om Shanti Om was hardly my first Bollywood experience. I’ve just quite conscientiously avoided the whole attending a public screening aspect until now. Yet what will keep me, an incredibly cynical and neurotic filmgoer, coming back for more is knowing that films such as Om Shanti Om are meant to be enjoyed. If anything, Bollywood cinema has reminded me something I forgot once I became so academically engrossed with film—how to have fun while watching a movie.

Oh who am I kidding. I’ll always be that neurotic girl in the back of the movie theater.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
October 22, 2009

Celebrity, Law and Sensationalism: The Arrest of Roman Polanski

Few directors are more fascinating than Roman Polanski. His life and films have an inexplicable relationship between life and death that is wonderfully complex yet absolutely horrifying. This filmmaker, who teeters on the edge of genius and disturbing, has been one of the most polarizing figures of the last decades because of the horrific nature of his personal life and decisions. This fact has become glaringly apparent following Polanski’s Sept. 26 arrest in Switzerland. Yet what makes Polanski’s case intriguing is not whether or not he is guilty for having sex with a minor—that is a proven and accepted fact. It is how, since 1977, this case has blurred the lines between celebrity status, media sensationalism and just legal action.

Polanski was born in 1933 to Polish immigrants in Paris; his family returned to Krakow in 1936 and were forced into the Krakow ghetto in 1939. While Polanski escaped the ghetto in 1943 at the age of 10, his mother was killed in Auschwitz. Beginning in the 1960s, Polanski established himself as a great filmaker in Poland and France with such films as Knife in the Water (1962). His Hollywood breakthrough came in 1968 with Rosemary’s Baby It was the year after his initial Hollywood success when Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered when she was 8 1/2 months pregant by followers of Charles Manson in 1969. Before Tate’s murderers were discovered, the media—at its unbiased best—accused Polanski for the murder, thus establishing Polanski’s tense relationship with the media.

Of course no other incident has affected Polanski’s life and career than his 1977 arrest and guilty plea for unlawful sex with an underage minor. Judge Laurence Rittenband resided over the case and the trial quickly became more about the media frenzy than actual justice. In the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Rittenband is described as a conflicted and sometimes corrupt judge obsessed with maintaining a certain media image. Rittenband would often hold press conferance in his chambers to discuss the trials proceedings and kept a scrapbook of his previous celebrity trials. This action only increased the media hype surrounding the Polanski trial, which because of the directors heritage also attracted attention in France and Poland. Soon the trial was not only affecting Polanski’s life but the victims, Samantha Geimer as well. Her name was leaked to the press and her family was scrutinized by the media. Geimer has since said: “The judge was enjoying the publicity. He didn’t care about me, he didn’t care about Polanski. He was orchestrating some little show that I didn’t want to be in.” When it was ­decided that Polanski would serve prison time in 1978—in spite of the family’s plea that he not be imprisioned and court documents proving that Polanski was not a threat to society—the director left the country and has never returned. Both Roger Gumson, the prosecuting attorney, and Doug Dalton, the defense attorney, admitted that Polanski was treated unfairly by the court and are not surprised he left the country.

Polanski and Geimer settled a civil suit in 1997 and she publically forgave him. That same year, an attempt to settle the case failed, reportedly because the court requested to televise the precedings; Polanski refused to participate although the charges would have been dropped. Since then Geimer has stated that Polanski has suffered enough and appealed to have the charges against him dropped. At the time of his arrest, Polanski had also appealed the case on the grounds of misconduct the prosecution.
Here lies the problem: Polanski evaded capture by US authorities for 31 years while maintaining a practically infalible image in Europe and in Hollywood. Rather than be made an example of, as Judge Rittenband often declared he wanted to do, Polanski has had continued success. The standing ovation Polanski received when he won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Director verifies that this is not a man who is loathed for his transgressions but is respected by his peers. This is further realized by the fact that more than 200 film industry professionals including Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen, have signed their names to a petition demanding Polanski’s release.

The Polanski case began before the current time of media oversaturaton, before 24 hour news stations, before the OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson trials and before celebrities were endlessly exploited by the tabloids. This case has become apart of that craze in the worst possible way. It is not that US authorities are wrong to arrest Polanski; what is wrong is how the media continues to feed off a 30 year old story that none of the affected parties wish to be reminded of.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
October 8, 2009

Reprinted with permission

Review: Whip It

There is one place I never envisioned myself on a Saturday night—sitting behind the Pioneer Valley Roller Derby team at a preview screening of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It. That is because one, I didn’t even know that there was a Pioneer Valley Derby League and two, everything Drew Barrymore touches typically makes me cringe. But Whip It is an entertaining and refreshing coming-of-age comedy that has made this notorious film snob less cynical.

Whip It stars Ellen Page (Juno) as Bliss Cavendar, a Texas teen who is constantly pressured by her controlling mother, Brooke (played by Marcia Gay Harden) to participate in beauty pageants. Bliss, however, wants nothing to do with pageant life. By chance, she and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development) attend a roller derby match and Bliss finds herself determined to join the Hurl Scouts, an Austin roller derby team. Suddenly Bliss finds herself embedded in the roller derby world, falling for the guitarist in a local band and lying to her parents about her newfound passion.

The roller derby world comes alive through the movie’s exceptional supporting actors. SNL’s Kristin Wiig plays Maggie Mayhem, Bliss’s mentor while Eve and Barrymore appear as Rosa Sparks and Smashley Simpson, Bliss’s teammates. Juliette Lewis plays Iron Maven, the trashtalking captain of a rival team. Andrew Wilson and Jimmy Fallon round out the supporting cast as the Hurl Scouts coach and the league’s bizarre emcee respectively. These characters provide the film with hilarious literal and figurative comedic punches.

At its heart Whip It is a teenage coming-of-age story. Yet it feels refreshingly real. That is in large part due to the focus paid to the heartfelt mother-daughter relationship. What on paper reads like a cliche—a daughter rebels from her strict upbringing only to find herself and to understand her mother along the way—feels much more than that. In one final scene, Brooke reads a sentimental note from Bliss. Rather than cut the scene, the camera lingers on Brooke’s expression longer than you would expect as both she and the audience realize how these two characters have grown. The inclusion of this particular scene shows how Whip It benefits from having a female vision behind the film.

Female directors rarely direct feature-length commercial Hollywood films. As someone who has been in the film industry since the age of five, Drew Barrymore is a logical person to transition from acting to directing. Her presence in the male-dominated directing field will certainly enliven Hollywood’s representations of women. Whip It is a reflection of this. The film’s sharp and sassy humor, focus on individuality and independence, and overall empowering message make Whip It a must-see movie of the fall.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
October 1, 2009