Thursday, July 26, 2007
Reviled About Harry
I've been thinking a lot about a guy named Bill Cosford over the past few days.
If you lived in Miami during the seventies, eighties and early nineties, chances are you recognize the name -- likewise if you happen to go to the University of Miami or have gone there within the past decade or so (as the on-campus theater was officially dedicated to him in 1995).
Cosford was the film critic for the Miami Herald from 1973 until 1994 when, following a ski vacation in Colorado, he contracted pneumonia which killed him in a matter of days. During his lifetime and particularly his tenure at the Herald, Cosford was known both for his love of good movies -- as well as the better aspects of pop culture in general -- and for his scalpel-sharp wit, which he wielded unforgivingly in his reviews and occasional columns, making him seem at all times like a slightly more misanthropic version of Hawkeye Pierce.
Never was his brand of merry troublemaking better on display than when, in a column decrying the loss of criticism as an artform, he figuratively bitch-slapped ready-and-eager-for-prime-timers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert for putting themselves above the films they were charged with reviewing. (If I remember correctly, he essentially told them where they should shove those "thumbs.") This brought a quick, angry and entirely condescending response from Ebert who, in predictable fashion, ran down his almighty resume, which includes an oft-touted 1975 Pulitzer.
The Herald printed Ebert's letter, along with Cosford's rebuttal which read simply: Are you the bald one or the fat one?
Bill Cosford was the evil antithesis of Dr. Seussian dingbats like the late Joel Siegel. He was Bill Maher with a pop culture jones. He was a punk with a pen.
Needless to say, he was also my fucking hero growing up.
My worship of Bill Cosford as a teenager was so fanatical in fact that upon enrolling at U.M., the second thing I did was attempt to sign up for a course in film criticism which he taught as an adjunct professor. (The first thing I did was get myself a show on WVUM, U.M.'s radio station and a campus institution that I would quickly attempt to destroy from the inside-out through a series of on-air pranks, profane humor and generally juvenile and despicable behavior. For the record, they let me keep the show for five years, which was two years longer than my actual collegiate career.) Unfortunately, when it came to actually getting an audience with Cosford, I apparently wasn't the only one with an apostolic respect for the man: I found myself locked out of the class.
Which simply meant that I was forced to take it without officially being enrolled.
When Cosford found out about this, I'm pretty sure he had the locks changed on his condo.
It took almost no time for me to realize that my wholly on-spec endeavor was worth the unnecessary effort; his class had a more profound and lasting effect on my Anschauung than most of my other classes combined (ie: Ethics in Journalism, given the state of the media I would eventually become a part of, was worthless; Institutional "Manipulative" Psychology, given the state of the media which I would eventually become a part of, was not.) Bill Cosford's take-no-prisoners, authoritarian view of criticism -- as well as the wise-ass nature of the way in which he hammered it home -- was absolute, and over time it became a philosophy that I learned to both adhere to and perpetuate.
Cosford's view was that he had no view, only the truth.
As far as he was concerned, the word of the analyst -- be his or her topic social, cultural or political -- was nothing short of gospel.
He taught those in his class that they were never to dilute their assessments by referring to them as simply "assessments;" you never said "I believe that..." "As far as I'm concerned..." or "In my humble opinion..." In the Cosford-Kai Dojo, your opinions weren't humble, they were fact -- and you defended them as surely as you'd resist the notion that the earth wasn't round. It would be easy to disregard such audacity as sheer arrogance, and no doubt many readers did, but to those under his tutelage, even as briefly as I was, this dogma became yours. You learned your craft -- learned about the topic at hand so that you could make an informed observation -- then you issued your edict. You never shied from healthy debate, but at the same time you never waffled.
If you ruffled a few feathers, so be it -- that's part of your job; you forfeited your position among polite society when you signed up to be an honest and critical writer in the first place.
I had assumed by now that I understood this fact and was well-acquainted with the bitter "reward" reaped from infurating a certain portion of the general public.
And then I went and pissed off the Harry Potter kids.
By now, those for whom the conclusion of the Harry Potter and the... series is nothing less than an event of life-or-death significance are probably aware of how the final chapter unfolds. As I'm not one of the former, I can in no way attest to the latter, but I do know this: My entirely made-up "spoiler," which was published merely as a kind of adolescent joke last Thursday, wasn't even close. That's fitting, seeing as how it was never intended to be.
It was, as I said, a joke, and one that in no way put anyone's enjoyment of his or her beloved weekend diversion -- no matter how rabid that particular Potter-head might consider him or herself to be -- in any sort of jeopardy.
Yet given the level of unbridled bloodlust that flooded my comment section, e-mail and MySpace account, you would've thought that I'd not only divulged the real ending of the latest and final Potter tome, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but actually tied J.K. Rowling to a chair and forced the Potter Nation to watch me squirt her down with lighter fluid and burn her alive -- along with, apparently, its collective childhood.
I might've feared for my life had the threats of physical violence I received not come from, well, Harry Potter fans -- but it was disconcerting nonetheless for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that an averagely-written children's book had the ability to inspire such maniacal devotion among those who had, in every other facet of their lives, stopped being children a decade or so ago.
It's this fact that comprises my main argument against the Harry Potter phenomenon. It's a little like Christianity: The book that it's based on isn't awful per se, but the extremist adoration that it inspires is utterly creepy. (I wouldn't be surprised, in fact, if a couple of millennia from now, the world is overrun by warring factions of Potter "believers" who've adopted this fantastical crap as a religion.)
I suppose it should be mentioned that I did actually read the first couple of Potter books -- at the behest of a friend of mine who was in her mid-20s at the time and had assured me that they were an exceptional read; I didn't much care for them, although I'm certainly willing to acknowledge that the later chapters may be more up my alley, so to speak. As I said though, my issue isn't so much with the books themselves as with the otherwise intelligent adults who behave as if the fate of this fictional character is inextricably linked to their own. While there's quite a bit of sense to the ubiquitous argument that Pottermania is inherently a good thing simply because it happens to have encouraged an entire generation of kids to read, the argument that invariably begins with, "Well, I grew up on these things," is ridiculous at face value; I grew up enjoying a lot of things that I abandoned as the years and -- believe it or not -- levels of maturity piled on.
I liked Duran Duran as a kid. They've released plenty of material since the heady days of Rio, and yet I haven't waited in line at midnight for any of it, nor have I midlessly shouted down those who want to know why I never grew the hell out of such a questionable phase.
If that analogy doesn't work, let me try another one -- one sure to generate even more unnecessary controversy and hostility among the fanboy crowd: Star Wars was the be-all-end-all when I was seven years old; looking back on it now it isn't half as brilliant as I remember, and with the exception of the inarguably excellent Empire, every movie in the series since has been average at best -- despite an overall claim to have grown with its audience.
No, I didn't dress up as Darth Vader and hit the Ziegfeld early for any of them -- and it's not just because I didn't feel like being rightfully and mercilessly mocked on national television by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
It's because I grew out of it.
To those who never could say the same of Harry Potter, that's certainly your choice -- although from what I've read, I'm not entirely sure that the epic tale of the boy wizard is any more worthy of such glorification from adults than, say, M. Night Shyamalan's last idiotic "fairy-tale," which was filled with just as much mythical nonsense as the Potter saga (although admittedly a hell of a lot less ill-advised hubris).
But to hitch your very happiness to such a mindless diversion, and to live in fear that someone might take that away from you -- might "spoil" your shot at joy itself -- simply by saying something you don't want to hear?
That's more than a little crazy.
Last week, I was out to dinner with a group of friends when the subject at the table turned to music, in particular, albums that changed our lives. I mentioned that the first record I ever bought had been Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (an album that was, up until the release of Michael Jackson's Thriller, the best-selling in history). For some reason, this elicited laughs from one person at the table, a guy from Jersey -- go figure -- who insisted that I had no idea what I was talking about.
He asked me why I held the album in such high regard, and I answered him.
Why was Fleetwood Mac's Rumours one of the best rock albums ever recorded?
For the same reason that it's inexcusably ludicrous for otherwise sane adults to attack somebody for making a joke that purports to give away the ending of a fucking kids' book: Because I say so -- and because it happens to be right.
Who knows, maybe Bill Cosford would've disagreed with me on both counts.