Fine Day Sunday

in my opinion, best day of the week

Archive for March, 2013

Sluggish

Posted by finedaysunday on March 31, 2013

I didn’t read too much into this at the time, but for several years the Harry Potter series had sort of fumbled the whole moral ambiguity angle. Of course, I never expected the early books to tackle that sort of material in the first place. But with the sixth entry, Half-Blood Prince, something jumped out at me and signaled the coming of an important new approach.

Before we get to that, a bit about how I arrived at that discovery. See, what I still find so unique and compelling about this series is that I, like millions of others, grew up alongside these books. With each new entry, J.K. Rowling honed her craft for telling compelling stories with likeable characters, all the while expanding the boundaries of its universe and enriching the relationships between its inhabitants. I’m an absolute sucker for that degree of care in world-building. But there was one facet of the wizarding world that always bothered me, so much so that I was relieved to find out that I’m not the only one who felt this way.

In Harry Potter’s world, the villains are presented under the all-encompassing umbrella of Slytherin house. If you weren’t a hapless bumbling bully or a stone-cold murderer, chances are you were one of the good guys. The early books do very little to challenge this, and nobody seems surprised when someone who got sorted into Slytherin at age eleven grows up to be a jerk. We’re told that the four founders enchanted the Sorting Hat to distinguish a new student’s personality traits and place them into one of four groups for the duration of their academic career. However, this is rarely presented as anything other than the notion that Hogwarts has three “good” houses, and one “evil” house. This black-and-white approach always seemed so clumsily executed to me, this idea that Slytherins are always depicted as fitting neatly under one of the two “villain” templates I mentioned earlier.

Enter Horace Slughorn.

Slughorn

Introduced in what became one of the most pivotal chapters in the series from my point of view, Slughorn is a former teacher who Professor Dumbledore hopes to persuade to come out of retirement for the upcoming school year. To do this, he enlists the aid of the famous Harry Potter, hoping to play up the “Boy Who Lived”/”Chosen One” angle as an added incentive. Harry and Slughorn strike up a conversation, and the latter casually drops that he was also Head of Slytherin house when he last taught at Hogwarts. Harry is immediately suspicious, and Slughorn warns him against jumping to conclusions.

Horace Slughorn is at the very heart of the events of Half-Blood Prince. Many years earlier, he had played an integral role in Voldemort’s rise to power, and the search for the truth behind those events is one of the story’s major turns. But even before he is introduced, we are already expecting a new teacher to be added to the staff, and that they will probably be out of a job by the end of the book. We’d been trained to be just as suspicious of all new teachers as Harry is of Slytherins. However, the story throws us a curveball and reveals that Slughorn is in fact the former Potions master, and that instead Severus Snape will fill the annually vacant position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Already, our expectations are being toyed with.

This is all merely setup. The real follow-through is Slughorn’s character arc. While we’re all busy waiting for the other shoe to drop on this whole “new teacher = evil” thing, we learn that he is in fact a good person who feels genuine remorse at being unwittingly manipulated into aiding Tom Riddle’s transformation into the most evil wizard of the modern age. We also learn that he is vain, ambitious, materialistic, gluttonous, attracted to power and fame, and possesses an inescapable favouritism towards purebloods.

In other words, he has all of the qualities of an honest-to-goodness Slytherin.

There is a lot going on in Half-Blood Prince to prove that this is a deliberate shift in morality dynamics. This is the book that introduces Cormac McLaggen and Romilda Vane, two minor Gryffindor students who don’t exactly fit the previously established mold of “Gryffindors = unflinchingly good.” The former is selfish and arrogant, while the latter is shallow and inconsiderate. Perhaps the surest sign of all is that, after five books as little more than a running gag, Draco Malfoy is finally given character depth and becomes a human being.

As early as Chamber of Secrets, we’re already diving headlong into subjects like purity of blood and the ugly slurs associated with them. That’s pretty heavy material, and I commend Rowling for giving younger readers enough credit to be able to handle it. Maybe that’s why it’s such a surprise to me now that it took six books before the heroes and villains stopped being so neatly categorized according to their Houses (obviously I’m excluding Snape, who had been morally malleable for much of the story by this point). The more pleasant surprise is that, with each successive book, the stories Rowling tells are able to explore these themes in greater detail and scope than the last. In other words, this series, like Harry himself, is allowed to “grow up” with the reader.

Horace Slughorn stands out to me specifically because he broke the mold. We had been led to be suspicious of Slytherins simply because they were Slytherins, not unlike the students in the other three Houses. I see this as a warning against baseless prejudice, and Slughorn clearly does as well. When he tells Harry that he was Head of Slytherin, then quickly adds “don’t go holding that against me!”, he’s not just talking to Harry. He’s talking to us.

None of this explains how Peter Pettigrew ended up in Gryffindor. I’m going to assume the Sorting Hat was drunk that day.

~ ~ ~

Richard Griffiths

I was very sad to learn that Richard Griffiths passed away this week at the age of 65. Thanks for your delightfully entertaining turn as Uncle Vernon Dursley, and for contributing to some of the best inside jokes among my group of friends (as well as providing the inspiration for the name of this website). Rest in peace.

“Justice.”

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Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land

Posted by finedaysunday on March 24, 2013

About a year ago, I was introduced to the Slender Man phenomenon via a sepia-toned photo of bare trees with long, twisted branches. I spent what felt like several minutes trying to spot him somewhere in that tangled mess. Just as I was starting to suspect that this was one of those annoying “jump scare” GIFs, there he is holy crap right there in front of me I didn’t even see. I felt a sudden rising sensation of dread, something primal and apprehensive. I attribute my reaction in part to the fact that it was 3 a.m. at the time, but there was more to it than that. Something about that experience affected me more than I could have expected, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized why. Being introduced to Slender Man scratched the same part of my brain that this did:

The first time I heard this song, I was sitting alone in my car at night waiting to pick my sister up from work. This was no dusty vacant lot surrounded by miles of fields. This was a heavily populated mall parking lot right at closing time, and despite being surrounded by people, hearing this bizarre rushing and whirring emitting from the speakers set me on edge.

Everything about the buildup here fills me with anxiety, restlessness, and an alert suspicion. The static of what sounds like a demented disc jockey combined with intermittent rushes of air. The dissonant piano keys and gentle cymbals. The usually soothing voice of Thom Yorke had somehow been inverted, turned chillingly against me. Then at the 2:27 mark, it all comes to a head as the “chorus” heralds the sudden shift to recognizable forwards English. It’s an indescribably unsettling effect that deceives the listener’s expectations after spending so much time winding them up into a nervous knot, while still offering a gradual release softly back to earth.

I had been listening to each Radiohead album chronologically, and even though my assumptions of what to expect from the group had been shattered long before I reached this album, nothing could have prepared me for “Like Spinning Plates”. Whenever I see Amnesiac‘s cover art, this is always the song I think of first.

The story goes that the band was unsatisfied while working on a different song entirely, so they turned the tape around and listened to the melody in reverse. Yorke was pleasantly surprised at how much better it sounded that way and, learning the new vocal melody, sang the lyrics backward to match. Reversing that vocal track resulted in an eerie-sounding, though lyrically recognizable, “backwards” effect. I always love hearing “happy accident” stories in the creation of art, and this is among my favourites.

Kid A and Amnesiac are often generalized as that brief era in which Radiohead “went electronic”, and while there’s some truth to that, it’s important to remember that they had been experimenting to varying degrees for years by that point. But never before this terrifying period in the year 2000 had their work seen such a bold expressional shift. Abandoning the comfort zone of their far more accessible previous albums yielded some seriously mixed results. Whether some of those results leave you cold is up to you, but I consider “Like Spinning Plates” to be among the peaks of that era.

It even works well as a mournful, frantic piano ballad when Yorke plays it live:

Can I get away with one more? Let’s see if I can get away with one more. Have a listen to what these beautiful geniuses have done here:

Fantastic. I think it speaks volumes about a song’s strengths when it can be pulled into so many different directions while still maintaining its irresistibly eerie quality. And ever since that late night last year, every time I listen to it, I’m right back in the woods with Slender Man.

“While you make pretty speeches”

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Welcome!

Posted by finedaysunday on March 17, 2013

Okay. Thanks for visiting the (to my knowledge) only website to be named after Vernon Dursley’s lunatic ramblings. Here’s where I’ll be sharing my thoughts once a week on whatever subject happens to be on my mind at the time. Expect a good helping of movies/music/TV/videogames musings combined with a healthy dose of hockey, topped off with my own thoughts on any given subject from one week to the next. If any of that sounds of interest to you, I hope you’ll come back every Sunday, where I do my best to make the best day of the week just a bit better.

Without further ado, let’s begin. And what better way to start than with something hockey-related?

The year is 2006. It’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal playoff series between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. Tied at two goals apiece in overtime, this happens:

Oh my. I’d like to say that nothing more need be said about that hit, but then this would make for a pretty mediocre first post. So let’s dive right in.

This is, as far as I can remember, the hardest clean hockey hit I have ever seen. Umberger receives what turns out to be a suicide pass as Campbell catches him square on the jaw. Note that Campbell did not charge, elbow, or otherwise leap up into Umberger. There’s some brief discussion amongst the commentators about the possibility of interference, but everyone comes to an agreement pretty quickly that Umberger did indeed play the puck, and that this is just a massive, brutal, but most importantly legal hit.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was Brian Campbell delivering the hit, either. There’s a good reason he won the Lady Byng last year for sportsmanship and gentlemanly play. Sure, a major reason is that he committed almost no penalties over the course of an entire season while putting up great numbers, but also because he’s smart enough to know how to play a strong physical game without crossing the line into playing dirty.

This is such an excellent hit that to this day I’m convinced that it’s at least 90% of the reason the Blackhawks signed him to such a monster contract in 2008.

But let’s not leave it at that. Let me take a moment to talk about the video itself. There are higher quality videos out there that do a better job of breaking down and analyzing this hit and its aftermath. None of them grab me quite the same way this one does. Right away you’re presented with ominous intro text set to the tune of Coldplay’s “Fix You”, and before you know it there’s longtime Sabres play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret (who’s also on the short list of people I’d want to narrate my day-to-day life) absolutely losing his mind over one man flattening another. From there, the replays kick in, the commentators from various media feeds overlap, and all the while that song is still there in the background, elevating this whole experience to inspiring levels. My favourite part is how the final refrain perfectly synchs up with “This is a clean hit, folks….” right at the end.

The tone of this video makes me feel like I’m watching a montage of an underdog high school basketball team winning a championship, or some political figure achieve resounding success as reporters and talk show hosts across the country breathlessly weigh in. This is the stuff movie trailers are made of right here, and the care that was put into creating it is obvious.

Or maybe I’m analyzing this way too much? Hey, welcome to FineDaySunday.

“That’s not a gaze of somebody who’s with us.”

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