Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

“Harry Potter and the Historical Anachronisms”

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One of the most startling things about J.K. Rowling’s world of wizards and witches is the importance placed on material objects, both by the author and her characters. When the basilisk is terrorizing the school after being released from the Chamber of Secrets, Colin Creevey survives only because he is looking at the serpent indirectly through a camera. In the film, while investigating the object, Dumbledore opens the case and the film explodes once exposed to light.

If the books and films are set in the contemporary moment, which they seem to be (Hermione’s muggle parents are dentists, and live in a nicely furnished home on a quiet, suburban street; Mr. Dursley manufactures drills), why would Colin not have an iPhone like every other privileged kid in Western civilization? The film in the camera is an anachronism; such ubiquitous slippages in history strike me as one of the most interesting things about the world of Harry Potter.

Despite its antiquated appearance, Colin’s camera could only protect him from the basilisk’s power (to kill you upon looking at it), if it is a single lens reflex camera, one where a system of mirrors allows the image in front of the camera to appear to be seen directly when one looks through the viewfinder. The film’s “error” thus points to its larger ideological project, an investigation of history via the anachronistic objects that are improbably part of the wizard world.

Indeed, there is very little need for materiality in a world of magic in the first place. Such powerful sorcerers could summon out of nothingness absolutely anything they require: the food at the magnificent feasts appears out of nowhere at Dumbledore’s command. And yet, both the books and films distinctly materialize a world of the English boarding school of the nineteenth century, a world of white privilege accessible to only a few. Does the world of Harry Potter, despite Rowling’s radical proclivities, allegorize the wizards as the chosen few who rightfully lead the world into despair and destruction? For that’s exactly what the British did in the 1930s, either deliberately unconcerned with the rise of Fascism, or woefully impotent to stop it.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Professor McGonagall teaches the children how to dance in preparation for the Yule Ball, a Christmas celebration. The scene in the film is introduced via a close-up on a gigantic phonograph, as out of proportion with the humans as the beloved Hagrid, a half-giant who befriends Harry. McGonagall’s nineteenth century machine, which mechanically reproduces sound from wax embedded on a piece of plastic, is one of the series’ most fascinating material objects. Surely she could magically summon up music for the children to dance to. And yet, instead, she stages an emotional drama, in the center of which is the record player, a hearth to this seemingly insignificant yet in the end completely crucial social experience; it is Harry’s love for these friends that will ultimately defeat Voldemore.

Throughout Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry, Ron, and Hermione squabble like the fourteen-year-olds they are. They discover love, and jealousy, and indifference, just like the rest of us. The phonograph serves as the material linkage that grounds the Imaginary drama back in the world of the Real. The adult wizards engage in the same pettiness that will set the world on fire, and our beloved teens are in training to wield power in this world come the ascension of the next generation.

For this reason, it strikes me that the most significant anachronistic object in all of Rowling’s world is the radio in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a device Ron uses to try to learn of the fate of his parents while Voldemort’s minions wreak havoc across Britain. So clearly evocative of the function of the radio in World War II Britain as the nation endured the German bombing night after night, the sequences remind us of Rowling’s absolute hatred of our adult world, a world that produces willful pain and suffering.

A story that lurks in the background of the seven Harry Potter novels and films, Albus Dumbledore’s greatest moment, his defeat of the dark wizard, Gellert Grindlewald, comes to the fore in the newest Rowling film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Here, we see the rise of Grindlewald in the United States, and assume that the sequels will lead us to the 1945 battle in which Dumbledore finally brings his evil reign to an end. The 1945 date, of course, links Grindlewald allegorically to Adolf Hitler; the 1920s American setting of Fantastic Beasts links the British boarding school fantasy of the Harry Potter books to the necessary Anglo-American pact that defeated Nazism in the 1940s.

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Like its predecessors, Fantastic Beasts is obsessed with the materiality of the wizarding world. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) begins the film disembarking a British ocean liner (run by “The Royal Star Steam Company”) at Ellis Island, having come to the United States to repatriate an endangered giant bird in the wilds of Arizona (Monument Valley, to be cinematically precise). We are so familiar with the Harry Potter anachronisms that we barely pause to consider why a wizard would need to endure an almost week long ocean voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to visit the United States. In Bewitched, Samantha could travel to other planets and back with the twitch of her nose.

Set in 1920s New York City, Fantastic Beasts offers a complex meditation on the nature of rising modernity. So-called “New” New York was built in the first decades of the twentieth century as the city became the financial center of the world, displacing London. Its skyscrapers, tall buildings only possible because of the Industrial Revolution, built with steel frames, and electrically-powered elevators and lights, serve as metonymies of modernity.

The twenty stories of the Flat Iron Building, completed in 1902, positioned the city as prepared for the new world of centralized commerce. With the economic boom of the 1920s, the city expanded wildly, culminating in the opening of the Chrysler Building in 1930, and most famously, the Empire State Building in 1931 (at 1,250 feet and 102 stories, the tallest building in the world until the completion of the World Trade Center in 1970).

The plot of Fantastic Beasts concerns a secret plot by Grindlewald to infiltrate the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA), to foment a war between humans and wizards. After the conflict nearly destroys the city, exposing the magical world to humans, Newt and his friends finally thwart the plot. When the President of the American wizarding world, Seraphina Picquery orders Grindlewald carted off to jail, she laments that their world is forever exposed.

Newt again saves the day, using a potion extracted from one of his creatures to cover the city with an “obliviating” rain. The giant bird, seeming more and more like a bald eagle, is the mechanism for the delivery of the serum into the clouds above the city. The sequence is beautiful: unlike in comic book movies, which thrill in the destruction of the city, but never stop to question the aftermath, Fantastic Beasts revels in its reconstruction, as aurors wander around New York waving wands to undo the damage Grindlewald’s plot has wrought.

In my favorite shot in the film, an auror stands upon the steel beams of a skyscraper still under construction. The sequence is so remarkable because it is about the repair to a structure not yet complete. The closest intertextual linkage is the modernist photographers of the first half of the twentieth century—Paul Strand and Albert Stieglitz—who reveled in shooting the not-yet-finished skyscrapers as metonyms for modernity. In Fantastic Beasts, do we witness the salvaging of the construction of the Empire State Building? Perhaps, as Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) tells us that he has returned from fighting in World War I late, in 1924, and has been working for some time in the drudgery of a canning factory.

As the central non-magical character, Kowalski is important for tracing the film’s interrogation of modernity. As the film begins, Kowalski gets rejected by a callous banker for not having any collateral to secure a loan to open his proposed baking business. Mr. Bingley, the bureaucrat observes, “There are machines now that can produce hundreds of donuts an hour.” Kowalski leaves dejected at having blown his chance to make his grandmother’s wonderful recipes and share them with others. This is the tension of modernity: mechanical reproduction produces efficiencies, but it cannot compete with the hand-crafted love that Kowalski will bring to his bakery with the help of Newt Scamander at film’s end.

Fantastic Beasts’ engagement with modernity traces the shift from the prior Harry Potter world’s anachronism of the British boarding school of the nineteenth century to the United States’ rise to global superpower in the twentieth century. Unlike the British wizards’ replication of the role of Prime Minister, the Americans have a purportedly more democratic Congress of magical folk.

In the film’s most canny anachronistic move, the President of the American wizards, Seraphina Picquery is played by Carmen Ejogo, heretofore most famous for playing Coretta Scott King in Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014). Half Nigerian and half Scottish, Ejogo is the film’s most radical representation of Rowling’s commitment to diversity. Amid Jim Crow in the non-magical United States, the wizards’ president is a black woman.

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Indeed, the Grindlewald action plot pales in comparison to the film’s subtle engagements with identity politics. Despite the American wizards’ seeming forward thinking politically, when it comes to racial difference, things are a mess. Newt calls attention early in the film to the American wizards’ backwardness when it comes to wizard/human romantic interaction.

In a subplot, Kowalski’s relationship with Queenie Goldstein, sister of the auror befriended by Newt, serves as Rowling’s plea for tolerance. Forty years before the Supreme Court decision, Loving v. Virginia (1967) relegated anti-miscegenation laws to the dustbin of history, Kowalski and Queenie fall in love. As in the Harry Potter novels, this is Rowling’s greatest gift to us as an artist. Whatever our failings, wizards and human beings alike have the capacity to love, if we can only overcome our bestial instincts, those exploited by the Voldemorts, and Grindlewalds, and Trumps of our base material world.

–Walter Metz