Thursday, July 26, 2007

No Spoilers, I Promise

It's done.

For five consecutive nights that stretched well into the early morning, my head has been filled with horcruxes and hallows, wand lore and wizardry. And friends, I am tired.

So it's time to close the book on Harry Potter and return to the real world. As an unabashed fan of the series, I have to admit that I feel a bit of loss now that it's over. At the same time, I hope that J.K. Rowling sticks to her guns and ends it here for good. If the dreadful Star Wars prequels taught us anything, it's that even grand epics have a limited shelf life. When the story's told, it's time to walk away.

Still, it was easy--and fun--to get swept into the frenzy that accompanied the release of each book. Cultural moments like these are rare and, if ever a body of work was mostly deserving of its hype, it's Harry Potter. But as compulsively readable as the books are, I think there's an even stronger force at work behind Potter-mania.

Over the last few years, I've read the latest installment in the series while riding the subway in Boston (back when adults were still embarrassed to be reading the books in public and removed the dustjackets), in the common room of the London flat I lived in, the stifling hot Brookline, Mass. apartment I subletted the summer after college, an airy suburban California house and, finally, in my new apartment in Los Angeles. If you've been a fan of the series since early on, then Harry Potter and friends have probably been with you longer than half the people in your life right now.

It's tempting to scoff at pop culture and the over-the-top displays it sometimes inspires. The phrase itself suggests something that is disposable and frivolous--but to discount the impact of pop culture in our lives is to overlook what a powerful unifying force it can be.

Sure, it may seem stupid to bond with someone just because you both share a love of cheesy WB coming-of-age shows or, at one point in your lives, could sing along with the entire soundtrack of "Rent." (I've had lasting friendships develop from both of these things). But we live in a world where we're constantly moving--changing jobs, changing cities, changing friends and communities. Pop culture is one of the few shared experiences we take with us wherever we go.

It seems like we now tend build our communities around the things we love: the books and music that inspire us, the TV shows we slavishly follow, the movies we line up for on opening night. When something as massive as Harry Potter comes along then, for a short time, we're part of a global community.

While I myself draw the line at costumes, I can understand what drives people to don their Hogwarts finest and head to their neighborhood Barnes & Noble. Sometimes we just need to feel swept up in something much bigger than ourselves. (Unless of course it's something creepy, like the Manson Family. Or Scientology.) But if you like to go to Comic-Con in a strom trooper costume every year, may the force be with you. If camping out at your local bookstore on Harry Potter-eve is your poison, I say embrace the obsession!

Then go grab yourself a squishee and get in line for The Simpsons movie.

Monday, July 09, 2007

And the Award for Best Celebrity Sighting Goes To...

Matt K. (Although I don't know if this story can top the time I saw Ben Stein reliving his Ferris Bueller glory days. Or the time I was on a flight to Florida with Kirk Cameron and he started proselytizing the passengers. But that's a story for another post.)

Anyway, Matt (who has recently discovered his inner Emeril) was in Crate & Barrel loading up on supplies for our woefully understocked kitchen. While searching for a suitable mixing bowl, he noticed Courteney Cox browsing nearby. After a couple of minutes she turned to the woman she was with, exclaimed "$35 for a bowl!?" and walked away in disgust.

Of course Matt, not being a celebrity stalker, just continued to go about his business. Had I been there, I might have been tempted to walk up to her and say, "Excuse me, Ms. Cox. Or Cox-Arquette, or whatever your name is. While I admire your frugality, remember when you were making a million dollars an episode for that show you were on? Why not go crazy and treat yourself to that $35 bowl?"

Or, I might have just burst out with, "I loved you on Family Ties!"

Either way, I guess US Weekly was right after all. Celebrities are just like us!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Moorening Sickness

So, I recently saw the new Michael Moore documentary "Sicko." Actually, this post is coming a bit late as I saw the movie a week before it opened at a special screening in Santa Monica. (Let it never be said that I'm not at the cusp of the cultural zeitgeist.)

There is a very specific kind of audience that attends a screening of a Michael Moore film in Santa Monica a week before it opens. To put a finer point on it, it's a group that leans so far left it's a wonder the theater didn't tip over into the Pacific Ocean. Since I have a long standing love-hate relationship with Moore's films, it was interesting to watch the movie in the church of his most devout disciples.

There's a reason Moore has become such a polemic. His movies are provocative, entertaining and anything but objective. His greatest talent may be in his ability to take on Goliath-sized issues and dissect them down to a basic human perspective. It's one thing to know that the health care system in this country is broken; it's another thing to meet a man forced to decide which of the two fingers sliced off in an accident he could afford to reattach. Narrating with an air of wry weariness, Moore makes a pretty airtight case for a U.S. health system that has failed the people it's supposed to serve on every level. (With a few jabs at Republicans thrown in for good measure.)

But the biggest problem with Moore in general is just that you don't really believe him a lot of the time. It's never enough to allow the overwhelming evidence to speak for itself, he's compelled to make enormous factual leaps to hammer his point home. In "Sicko" he takes us on a whirlwind international adventure to show just how much the U.S. sucks in comparison to everywhere else.

To this end, he spends the second half of the film extolling the virtues of socialized medicine in Canada, the U.K., France, and Cuba--places where health care is universal and free to all. He makes his jolly way across several countries, interviewing helpful doctors and satisfied patients who gently mock the U.S.'s inferior system. Admittedly, it will make you green with envy to hear about free hospital stays, doctors who make house calls in the middle of the night and social services that provide live-in help to new mothers. One of the best ironic laughs comes when Moore--playing the skeptic--triumphantly uncovers a cashier window in a London hospital. Only it turns out this is not where patients come to pay for services rendered, but rather to be reimbursed for their travel expenses.

But here is where my Moore frustration really kicks in. A few years ago, I spent a semester studying journalism in London. While this hardly makes me an expert, I do distinctly recall media reports about long wait lists for procedures and patients left unattended for hours in hospital emergency rooms (sounds familiar). As we were walking out of the movie a couple of weeks ago, I overheard a woman telling her companion that her friend in Britain pays for private insurance because of frustration over the inefficacy of the government-run system.

This is not to say that I'm opposed to socialized health care or anything that would be an improvement over the managed-care system we've got now. But considering that I was confronted with evidence of an imperfect European system without having to leave the theater, it's surprising that Moore was unable to uncover even a shred of discontent on all of his travels.

I imagine it is because he is less interested in documenting than in sending out a call to action. And his main point, that we should free ourselves from the yoke of for-profit insurance agencies, is well-taken. One of the most interesting observations he makes in the film is that many aspects of American life are already socialized--education and public safety to name a couple.

Imagine living in a nation where privatized police and fire departments tried to increase their profits by expending as few resources as possible. What if when you called 9-1-1 to report a crime in progress, a board had to review your claim and determine whether it merited a response? It's a lunatic notion--but surely responsive and affordable health care is just as essential?

I guess the basis of my Moore-inspired schizophrenia is that I admire him for raising these points, but dislike the arrogance that leads him to discredit himself at every turn. He's a guy who views the world in black and white--an irritating habit that liberals are constantly berating Republicans for. In some ways, Moore really isn't that different from a neo-con, except that his evildoers happen to be Republicans.