Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Alfonso Cuarón, Harry Potter and the Etymology of Sonship

In the days loking forward to Harry Potter Film #6 (which, by the way I absolutley loved: it's the Harry Potter film Robert Altman would have made if he'd ever made one- driven by relationships and naturalistic moments rather then heavy plot- and the dialogue and acting felt so much more spontaneous and honest- in some ways in was the least "movie" of the movies and really felt more like Gosford Park than Chamber of Secrets- a good direction in my opinion), I spent time reflecting on why I love these movies so much. (With the exception of Goblet of Fire which I find to be inane and dishonest in its characterization and storytelling).

I always come back to Prisoner of Azkaban, which I consider one of my top ten films ever. I love it that much, and respect it that much (and have seen it at least 12 times). Most of the reasons I love it all come back to the fact that Alfonso Cuarón transformed Chris Columbus' fantasy kids movies into art. It's not the first time Cuarón took on a potentially insipid kids box office draw and arrayed it with subtlety, aesthetic depth and integrity. His version of Frances Hodgsen Burnett's "A Little Princess" that came out in 1995, though seemingly sappy from the previews, was a tender and passionate story of love and compassion, told from a daughter's perspective. (Also, to either its strength or detriment, its from his Green period, like Great Expectations- does every scene need 23 green accents in the room?).

Like "A Little Princess", "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is about being orphaned and being fathered, and the more I think about it, that seems to be the story Cuaron tends to tell. The theme of fatherhood or needing a father pops up continually in his work, whether its his short segment in Paris, je t'aime or the aptly tiitled Children of Men. Cuaron continually evokes in viewers questions and feelings around what its like to live without the protection of a father, and the ache that brings.

This is what makes the 3rd Harry Potter film so resoundingly powerful for me. There's no Voldemort, no Death Eater crap, just the story of Harry being fathered by at least four men who value him in different ways, and the impact that has on Harry's ability to know himself better. Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Professor Lupin, Hagrid and Mr. Weasley as well, all speak into Harry's life in guiding ways that both respect Harry's feelings and what he's been through, but also in ways that want to protect his childhood and not thrust him unnecessarily into responsibilities that should belong to them as adults, not a thirteen year old kid. There are also strong mothering characters as well, with Mrs. Weasley's fierce-some tenderness and Professor McGonagal's watchfulness and strength.

What is most powerful is the symbolism of the patronus charm. While we see Harry being truly seen and loved by a diversity of strong men and women, we see how they help him see himself apart from the abuse he was raised under, and step more into his own strength. When Harry is saved by the patronus charm on the lake where Sirius in being attacked by dementors, he believes its his somehow his father, back from the dead. The audience sees a white stag. In the books, we learn that the stag is the same animal that James Potter turned into as an animagus. Both we and Harry later realize that Harry is actually the one who sent the patronus. In the moment when he realizes his father is not going to appear to save Sirius (and himself in a time-traveling complexity), he finally, instinctually steps forth with his wand and shouts "Expecto Patronum!" and a beautful eruption of light beams resound out, almost like sound waves, rocketing through the trees and casting out the dementors.

Here is the one instance where J.K. Rowling's silly puddy approach to new etymological creations actually has depth. Patron, is Latin for protector, and comes from pater, meaning father. To produce the charm, Harry pulls from his deepest memory of happiness then shouts "Expecto Patronum" - "I Expect My Father!" which is both literally true because he thought his father sent the patronus, but also feels like a cry of his heart saying "I deserve a father, I expect protection, i believe I will be fathered still." And if you take the word "expect" a little father to its use in the word expectorate- meant for coughing/spitting but able to mean "to send out from the chest", Harry is also saying "From myself I send out a protector", which is exactly what happens as he sends out his patronus deer to defend himself and his godfather Sirius.

In this haunting and heart-expanding moment of the film, Harry both waits for the protection of the father he knows he truly belongs to and also acts as his own prtoector out of love for the godfather who has just come into his his life. In believing that he is worthy to be fathered, Harry is able to father himself. Soon after, Harry tells Hermione, "It wasn't my dad I saw earlier. It was... me. I saw myself conjuring the Patronus before. I knew I could do it this time, because...because I'd already done it. Does that make sense?" Yes it does make sense. Harry could save himself because in "Expecting his Father" he also found the strength to "Expect/Send himself".

I can't help but find spiritual meaning in this scene. The "I Expect My Father" feels like a prayer for protection even as it claims and achieves that very protection. The expecting of a father can only come when one feels named as a son/daughter. Harry's most powerful display of magical strength comes in the moment when he feels most like a son- both a son to Sirius who will die if Harry doesn't save him, and a son to the parents who loved him and were killed before he could love them back. It's love that makes the patronus charm work, and that love is rooted in the identity of knowing he was loved by those who father/mothered him and who sacrificed in order to protect him. Harry's mother gave her life to save him, and her love literally entered his skin and marked him for life. I believe this moment in Prisoner of Azkaban, the sending of the powerful patronus against the dementors, is when Harry ceases to be an orphan and truly knows himself to be loved, worthy of being loved, and truly able to love others. I want to cry every time I see it.


Amber said...

Thanks for this. I have always loved both Azkaban and the Half Blood Prince. For Azkaban it wasn't until I saw the movie that I started to love the story but I have to say I was a little disappointed in Half Blood Prince. Having loved the last scenes of the book I expected more to be made of Dumbledore in the end.

Becca said...

woah.. i hadn't thought about the 'expecto patronum' meaning! so profound. and latin, at that! apparently training isn't everything:)

Maryann said...

Going to re-watch this movie ASAP.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your comments. This moment in the film always makes me cry, too.

-- Needing to be protected or, as Hermione says, you are going to die. That your life will be sucked out of you...

-- And yearning for someone to be there to claim you, to defend you.

-- And then there is something inside that is fierce and that does not fear, and it is like roaring "You will not harm him."

I'll go back and re-read your comments. What a struggle for me to put anything about it into words. -- William