Monthly Archives: February 2010

Oscar Grouching #1: Avatar

The Oscars are upon us. Another gaudy, self-congratulatory ceremony; another barrage of fashion coverage; and another bunch of nominees to spur discussion. What do the Oscars even mean, anyway? They’ve never been intended, after all, to really select the finest achievements in film from the preceding year. They’re far too mired in the politics of the industry, the current state of society, and all sorts of discourses totally unrelated to the quality of the films at hand. And yet, the Oscars are still a fun and worthwhile gateway into a year’s worth of (American) filmmaking. They show us how the public perceives different artists’ achievements, and try to throw together some kind of crude consensus that negotiates between popular mediocrities, inaccessible art films, and the occasional crossover success that maintains its aesthetic integrity while also having mass appeal (e.g., The Dark Knight – which was snubbed in 2008).

So instead of moaning about how the Oscars are bullshit, no one cares about the Oscars, they have no legitimacy, etc. (each of which have elements of truth and falsehood to them), I find it far more useful to look at the Oscars for what they are. Yes, they’re an awards show, they’re superficial, and they want ratings. They’re often a way for the film industry to more or less fellate itself. But they’re also a peek into the dark soul of Hollywood, and they often recognize some genuinely great movies (like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment). Overall, they’re a very mixed blessing, far too rich and complex a part of film history to be dismissed with a simple declaration of “They don’t matter.”

That said, I still have no interest in the dresses – unless they involve Amanda Palmer’s near nudity, as this year’s Golden Globes did. Nor am I particularly interested in making odds on nominees and winners, which seems pointless to me. I’m more captivated by what the choices say, and what leads up to them. Thus, this year I actually decided to pay attention and watch all five ten Best Picture nominees. The nominees are always a snapshot of a historical moment, complete with all the mistaken inclusions and exclusions that will become obvious as the years pass. They’re not really meant to be the ten best movies of the year. But they do mean something. I saw four of this year’s nominees in various theaters (Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and District 9), while I pursued the other six through various not-as-kosher means. They’re a pretty diverse collection of movies, and together, I think, they narrate the scope of popular taste in 2009.

As part of this Oscar-observing project, I also wrote an article for the Carl entitled “Confessions of a Celluloid Junkie: Oscar Grouch Edition.” Here’s what I had to say this time around about Avatar:

“I might as well as start with the film that’s first both alphabetically and financially, James Cameron‘s Avatar. After stealing the hearts and minds of American moviegoers for the past zillion weeks (the number “zillion” can be applied to most aspects of this movie – budget, profits, amounts of Pandoran blades of grass and sci-fi action clichés), the big blue blockbuster appears poised to also seize the collective consciousness of the Academy. Will shininess alone be enough to net Cameron another naked gold man? Considering the accolades heaped on his Titanic, not to mention Return of the King, it looks very, very possible.”

I’m not going to go into any depth about Avatar‘s merits (or lack thereof), since I’ve already talked extensively about just that. Instead, I’m going to address its broader significance in terms of the Oscar race and beyond. As I see it, Avatar is a giant monolith of a movie hovering over the rest of the competitors, like the mothership in District 9. It’s fully saturated the pop culture du jour, and Cameron has massive plans to heighten that saturation, from an already-released video game to a novel prequel to (at least) two film sequels. And if the average American can’t block it out, how could the Academy?

After all, people love spectacle: this has been a truism about film since the Bros. Lumière projected a train approaching a station and the audience dived to avoid it. Or ever since William Wellman’s WWI epic Wings won the first-ever Best Picture award. Or ever since 1953 when, against all good judgment, Cecil B. DeMille’s overlong circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth was given a Best Picture statuette as well. These are the fruits of The Dark Knight‘s rejection, you see. The Academy ignored Nolan’s incredibly profitable yet cerebral superhero movie, prompting popular backlash, prompting the addition of five new slots for Best Picture nominees, and voilà – the Academy has no excuse not to nominate Cameron’s big-ass movie.

I don’t actually have much else to say about Avatar; it all feels pretty self-evident. It’s got some good precedent going for it: the oft-compared Dances with Wolves, Cameron’s earlier (and similar) Titanic, and Peter Jackson’s equally gigantic The Return of the King all had oodles of Oscar success. Maybe, for all we know, Avatar will sweep its nominations, with the Academy content to let everyone else scramble for acting and writing awards. The voters are about as fickle as paralyzed veterans put in blue alien bodies. Or maybe a little something called “the overall quality of the movie” will trump $300 million worth of exotic, artificial flora and fauna. I have no real way of knowing this – like I said, I’m not an odds maker. I’m just laying out possible scenarios for how March 7 could go down.

Avatar, I think, is especially interesting for the spice it adds to the mix. As I hinted earlier, in a way it’s the glue that holds the nominees together, a potential point of comparison for the other nine. For example, I believe that a large part of its popular appeal is because it’s a feel-good story, like The Blind Side and unlike District 9. (My thesis for this year: the contest is all about race and war.) Even after all its climactic-upon-climactic confrontations, everything in Avatar turns out OK, and the Na’vi go back to their emphatically environmental way of life. (Ah, the ol’ invocation of the zeitgeist.) And sure, part of the moral is ostensibly “Humans Are Bastards,” but thanks to some narrative shiftiness, the real moral you take away is that humans are bastards, but redemption is possible for one flat, empty protagonist (i.e., YOU) who has “a strong heart.”

In other words, the moral of the film each viewer takes away isn’t that he or she is a bastard, but that he or she, put in the same situation, would be just as valiant and brave as Jack Sully. Obviously, the real bastards are those military-industrial fuckers who are bombing the Na’vi in the first place; the viewer would naturally have nothing to do with that system of oppression. Because every viewer identifies with the Na’vi, not the soldiers, and therefore all the blame gets displaced onto some nebulous but definitely evil “Powers That Be.” Avatar is an inherently self-congratulatory movie, and this admittedly makes it a pretty good fit with the Oscars.

Yes, the Oscars love movies that claim to show ugly truths, then double back and sugar-coat everything with a dose of sappy liberal sentiment. (Consider the whole point of the 2005’s dark horse, Crash, or 1994’s beloved Forrest Gump.) And that’s a large part of why Avatar‘s been so successful: its audience is encouraged to eat its cake and have it too, by condemning corporations and embracing a natural lifestyle while shelling out to 20th Century Fox to see a totally unreal world designed on computers. So if, a week from Sunday, Avatar takes away some serious hardware, I believe these will be a lot of the reasons why.

I’m cynical about it because it’s a damn cynical film. It’s covered all of its bases, and is full of so many beat-by-beat storytelling mechanisms that it looks more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a movie. I’ll grant one thing: conceding the visual beauty feels obligatory at this point, but it is pretty beautiful. Maybe if the same financial resources had been in the hands of someone more capable of telling a less run-of-the-mill story with less offensive racial politics (I’ll get to Up later), then I’d be less reluctant to give Avatar any praise at all. This is why I prefer Star Wars and its wide-eyed awe to any piece of Avatar, whose usage of its own fictional landscape feels more like a series of money shots than the vicarious thrill of Luke gazing up at the double sunset.

So there’s yet another diatribe against Avatar. (I really need to stop doing that.) It may well win Best Picture; it’s got all the right attributes going for it. But, frankly, if it does I’ll be disappointed. The Best Picture Oscar is not sacred; it’s been given to a lot of worthless shit over the years. But I’d love to see something of quality awarded and encouraged, as I’ll probably discuss further over the next few days: maybe a movie with the intensity of The Hurt Locker or the sheer spunk of Inglourious Basterds, both of which live in dangerous territory that Avatar doesn’t even approach. But I’ll leave that for another day.

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The tragedy of lost films (and what you can do)

This is kind of last minute, but I very quickly want to give as much support and gratitude as I can to the wonderful folks who are currently running the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, the Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn of Ferdy on Films. The blogathon is nearly over, and I’ve sadly been kept from posting anything by the stresses of 7th week, but I can’t overemphasize how noble and important of a project this is. The purpose of “For the Love of Film” is to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation, whose raison d’etre is pretty much right there in its name. (I’ve dreamed of volunteering for the NFPF for years, but Minneapolis isn’t exactly a Mecca of film preservation.)

Imagine that you’re Burgess Meredith in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” You’re the last person on earth, and you’ve got all of mankind’s collected work at your fingertips. Let’s say your glasses didn’t break. But what if the library started on fire? Would you do whatever it took to get a fire extinguisher or a hose, anything, to quench the flames? OK, this may be a strained analogy, but my point is that film preservation is essential to preserving our collective identity.

Film is such a young art, but already it’s produced so many sublime and beautiful masterpieces, works which literally improve us as human beings and the world we live in. Yet tragically, this hasn’t always been acknowledged: during the days of the Hollywood studio system, for example, before the public even knew of such a thing as “art cinema,” filmmaking was regarded first and foremost as an industry. This is how Thomas Edison treated it, and this is how it was viewed by the men who controlled it over the following decades. At that historical moment, despite the fact that Hollywood was exporting countless great works of art, film just hadn’t acquired the necessary approval from the broader artistic and intellectual communities.

Granted, I’m oversimplifying a little, but I’m trying to hastily spell out some of the reasons why film preservation is so very fundamental. Because it was this dominant attitude toward film as nothing but a transient form of entertainment that helped lead to the ongoing crisis we face as cinephiles. Our cultural heritage is literally decomposing. Imagine (yes, more hypotheticals) if you learned that a vault somewhere in Vienna contained thousands of pages of sheet music, with a few lost Mozart symphonies in there somewhere, and the paper was slowly rotting away, so that much of the music was already unreadable. Would you be a little concerned? I can’t overstate the gravity of this situation.

Already, so much – far too much – has been lost. If you want to make me cry, force me to peruse a list of lost films; it’s like gazing over a memorial to lost lives, experiences, sacrifices. Just think about Theda Bara, the beguiling, vampy sex symbol of early silent cinema. Her very image is intriguing, she’s one of the first true movie stars, but out of her whole prolific career, only four feature films remain; barring an archival miracle, no one will ever see her legendary Cleopatra in its entirety. I want to see Cleopatra. I can’t, because it hasn’t been preserved. Donating to the NFPF at least ensures that future generations will be able to enjoy the films of other silent starlets.

I’ll mention a few other tragic losses, cautionary tales about the fragility of film: consider Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), an expansive masterpiece of intense psychological realism. Of course, we’ll never see the whole thing, because some janitor decided to throw away a huge amount of its running time. This is just a sample of how one person’s brief carelessness can harm all of humanity; the NFPF works to overcome the effects of individual carelessness. (Luckily, janitors have redeemed themselves, since legend says that one recovered Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc in a Norwegian insane asylum.)

Another classic example of negligence depriving us of great filmmaking is Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. A failure when first released, RKO’s apathy toward it eventually led to about an hour of footage being irretrievably lost. As it is, Ambersons feels so potent, so full of the same layered storytelling that defined Citizen Kane, with great performances from Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, and Agnes Moorhead – what could that extra hour have added? How would it have changed our perception of Welles’ talent?

(It’s worth noting that a couple months ago, I had a conversation with my advisor, a Cinema and Media Studies professor, in which he happened to mention, “I was in Madison recently and ran into David Bordwell, and we happened to talk about The Magnificent Ambersons…” to my quiet awe.)

It’s so frustrating; it’s as if James Joyce had, in his fit of rage, thrown the manuscript of Ulysses into the fireplace, and then Nora hadn’t rushed to salvage it. Except in this case, it’s all thanks to the studio’s short-sightedness and penny-pinching. This also counts as a great lesson for anyone in any period of history: don’t pretend to know what will or will not end up being historically important. Rash actions, based on hubris like that, has lost us so many would-be classics, ones that never lived to see the light of the present day.

I can’t talk about lost films without touching on the holy grail, perhaps the most desired and most sorely missed film out there, and one to which I feel a personal connection: Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). How many times as a child was I entranced by photos of Lon Chaney, Sr. as the Man in the Beaver Hat; how many times did I contort my face in an attempt to mimic his? Sure, as with Greed, there’s a reconstruction by Rick Schmidlin (whose work I admire), but it’s just not the same. The reconstruction gives an outline of what London After Midnight may have been like. But I can never experience firsthand chills from seeing Chaney’s pseudo-vampire in motion, the essence of cinema (La Jetée notwithstanding).

We’re fighting a war. It’s a war against time, fire, mold, decay, and apathy. It’s a war against lack of funds and space. Think of these lost films as a few of the higher-profile casualties over the years, though rest assured, there are thousands and thousands more. If you want to learn more about some of the success stories of film preservation, and the endless tally of losses, look around at the lists on the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Film. You can find out all about the technical reasons that films decay (an area where I’m pretty lost myself), as well as great film preservationists, porn preservation, and so much more. These collected posts are an amazing accomplishment, providing glances into areas of film history that are usually off limits to all but the most dedicated researchers. To everyone involved: thank you!

(Also, DONATE to the NFPF!)

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Pop culture and the world of Jack Chick

And now, after another (couple of) sad weeks of blogging inactivity, I return. Since Ashley now has Internet, she’ll hopefully be inspired into a spate of blogging soon, but until that happens, this will have to suffice. It’s important, after all, to keep on writing, generating ideas, weaving this giant ball of digital ideas together. I’m really tired from two consecutive nights of very little sleep, but nonetheless I’ll try to write coherently. I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, and intend to discuss the Oscars soon, but first, I must discuss a vital topic very near and dear to my heart.

That’s right: the art of fundamentalist cuckoo Jack Chick. I’ve gone on at length about Chick’s extremely idiosyncratic style and his wackily illogical messages before, and I feel like it’s worth doing again. He’s one of those artists toward whom I have a strange yet powerful set of mixed reactions. He’s full of acidic hatred aimed at millions of people, but his art is so out there, so irrational, and so un-self-aware that it somehow becomes compelling. He has these immediately visible authorial trademarks, from his mediocre and often nonsensical drawing style to his attitude of seething, pervasive paranoia. His comics are so very easy to mock, but so intensely sincere that they couldn’t be an elaborate prank, although sometimes it feels like they can be nothing else.

So today I specifically want to address Chick’s relationship to the rest of the world – you know, the comparatively “normal” world you and I inhabit – and the language it speaks, namely pop culture. Unsurprisingly, considering that he’s an 85-year-old religious extremist who considers Bewitched sinful, Chick doesn’t really have his hand on the pulse of today’s youth. But knowing nothing about young people, to say nothing of how they think or behave, doesn’t stop Chick from making America’s youth one of the primary markets for his evangelism. Countless tracts feature “hip,” dissolute young folk on the road to hell, sinning freely until a tract-brandishing Christian shows them the way. Granted, a lot of tracts also appeal to little kids (easier to convince) or middle-aged men, but teenagers seem to be a special target for Chick.

And naturally, in trying to appeal to kids, Chick tries to speak to them in their own argot by referencing pop culture. But he makes a mistake common to uptight old people who want kids to do what they say: he tries too hard to come across as cool, and ends up sounding dated, desperate, and clueless (which, to be honest, he is). To make my point, I’ll make use of three similar tracts that each drive home a typical Chick argument – i.e., that Satan lures the youth into hell through witchcraft – Dark Dungeons (1984), The Poor Little Witch (1987), and The Nervous Witch (2002).

Dark Dungeons was and still is perhaps the most notorious of all Chick’s tracts. It’s far from the most morally extreme or artistically absurd, but it’s a perfect representation for a mainstream audience of the one-of-a-kind brand of crazy that is Jack Chick. Dungeons & Dragons was first released in 1974, but the big panic didn’t start until the ’80s, prompted by the 1979 disappearance of James Dallas Eggbert III, and the subsequent book and TV movie very loosely based on his case, Mazes and Monsters. (The latter of which starred Tom Hanks.) Not one to be left out of a moral panic, Chick jumped all over it, both by publishing two pieces by Bill Schnoebelen and, of course, by writing Dark Dungeons.

With Dark Dungeons, Chick tries to reach vulnerable teens in the most heavy-handed and poorly thought-out of ways, and as a result depicts a world which exists only in his paranoid, puritanical imagination. Admittedly, I’ve never played D&D or had any interest in it, but as someone who’s been generally a part of nerd communities since high school, I can easily debunk a few aspects of the tract. For example: D&D as something played obsessively by covens? As a gateway to actual magical powers? As a game played in equal numbers by boys and girls? Each of these representations are demonstrably untrue. (Besides, among other questions, if playing D&D gives you access to “mind bondage” spells, why the hell would you then sit in a grungy basement playing D&D?)

It’s not hard to see why Dark Dungeons is seen as the archetypal Chick tract,  serving as the model for many parody strips like Daniel Clowes’ “Devil Doll?” It follows the usual tract storyline to a T – sinner goes on the path to hell, gets saved, old friends go to hell – and, so early on and so memorably, it showed how out of touch Chick was with any part of youth culture. But he wasn’t about to let up. Oh, no. Only 3 years later he struck again with The Poor Little Witch. This time around, he dropped D&D as a gateway into satanism, and broadened his scope to the general high school experience.

Chick does have a definite cultural touchstone here; however, it’s presented pretty obliquely. He’s borrowing liberally from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), which had already been out for over a decade at the time this tract was written. But instead of the female outsider developing psychic powers and using them on her peers, her peers are the ones with the powers, which they’re willing to share with her. Chick uses some familiar names and images from Carrie – the volleyball scene that opens the film and tract, the last name White, even the biblical quote “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live…” – and repurposes them in his own incoherent, self-contradictory ways.

As usual in Chick’s visions of the world, the devil is everywhere (here he goes under the name “Bruth”). Whereas De Palma and Stephen King saw the cruelties of Carrie’s classmates as an evil of its own, Chick portrays it, along with their influence on his Carrie stand-in “Mandy,” their tendencies to drink the blood of infants, and the hypocrisies of the local church as all manifestations of the same big evil in the service of Satan. Chick starts out with a similar premise, but veers off in his own formulaic, counterintuitive directions, unwilling to stop until Mandy has been thoroughly converted by fundamentalists. No matter how convoluted and implausible the storyline becomes, Chick insists on each tract reaching this identical ending.

And just as he shoehorns his stories into these neat little finales, dictating who goes to heaven and hell, Chick has to shoehorn his worldview into his faith, no matter how far the end result may depart from what the world is actually like. Obviously pressures to drink baby blood weren’t the greatest form of evil confronting American girls, but to Chick it only makes sense that blood-guzzling satanists would be causing this decline in teenage morality. After all, it allows him to divide the world up into good and bad, “Christian” and “Satanist,” without having to face any kind of moral ambiguity.

So Chick isn’t just out of touch with the youth culture because he’s ignorant; it’s also because he’s too ethically and intellectually lazy to accept that anything other than Satan himself acts as an obstacle in teenagers’ everyday lives (or that anything other than loving Jesus could give them real satisfaction). The most recent of the tracts I’m discussing, The Nervous Witch, is pretty much a revamp of the other two, reworking the same themes of peer pressure and the occult.

Comparatively, though, it kind of falls flat, since Chick leaves behind the cultural specificity of D&D or the paranoid fantasy of a small town under Satan’s thumb that dominated The Poor Little Witch, and instead creates a mano-a-mano spiritual battle between Sam and Holly, two girls who think that “God… loves us witches!” and Sam’s saintly uncle Bob. (In retrospect, “Bob Williams, Demon Hunter” would have made for a far more compelling title.) The battle never really climaxes, though, since Holly just walks off (and presumably goes to hell), while Bob literally pulls the evil spirit out of Sam.

The tract also suffers, as do so many of them, since the storyline is stopped dead for a heavily-anotated Bible story, immediately and sensibly decried by Sam as “lousy.” (Also, how mature is Bob’s retort to Holly’s “And we win!” with “No, you lose“?) But beyond this poor pacing and his apparent assumption that all pairs of young female friends are also God-hating witches, Chick manages to make even more outlandish, audience-alienating claims.

Bob: Tell me, Samantha… How did you and Holly get into the craft?

Sam: Through the Harry Potter books! We wanted his powers… so we called for spirit guides. Then they came into us… They led us into stuff we found in the Harry Potter* books – tarot cards, ouija boards, crystal balls…

That’s right: never one to be left off of a moralistic bandwagon, Chick takes this last-minute chance to hammer away at the Harry Potter series. By 2002, four books had already been released. The fundamentalist furor against them had already reached its peak, even resulting in an Onion parody in 2000. But Chick, of course, wants to remind everybody that he knows what’s new in the world of evil! Chick somehow even outdoes the Onion‘s coverage of the outrage, going so far as to mention magical phenomena – spirit guides, tarot cards, and Ouija boards – that are completely absent from the books.

The tract then concludes with a good old-fashioned bonfire of demonic paraphernalia, showing that Chick hasn’t really tuned in to pop culture since John Lennon said something about being bigger than Jesus. In the end, comparing these tracts does lead to a few revelations: Chick takes an extraordinarily reductionistic, one-size-fits-all view of morality. This probably helps explain why so many of his tracts follow these rigid narrative patterns. Whether the issue at stake is D&D, Harry Potter, or generic witchcraft, Chick can’t conceive of any cause that doesn’t involve satanic intervention, or any solution that doesn’t involve turning to Christ.

This also points the way to Chick’s greater understanding of humanity itself: basically, we’re all puppets. Even though Chick believes passionately that salvation comes from belief in Jesus Christ and that alone, he still thinks that bad behavior comes from demonic prodding, and good behavior from… well, that’s unclear. Chick demands to eat his cake and have it too in every situation, to the point that Uncle Bob can fail to convince Sam or Holly with his “lousy story,” yet still somehow “win” by the end of the tract.

Chick can also have his treacherous reverend quote the “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” line and give its biblical attribution, then undermine it with another Bible quote. This is one aspect of the tracts that makes them so compelling: their total lack of internal consistency. As long as the final outcome is the same (somebody goes up before God and is either accepted or condemned), it doesn’t matter what came before. And if the logical puzzle pieces don’t quite fit, Chick will nibble on the ends until they do. It doesn’t matter if Harry Potter doesn’t use tarot cards, or if D&D just doesn’t work that way at all. Truth or reality are always a distant second to Chick’s all-consuming faith. Don’t bother trying to figure out how his world works, because it’s not like ours. Jack Chick, you see, is a fundamentalist.

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I am back from the dead; maggots do not suit me.

What’s up, blogosphere. It’s been awhiiiiiiiiile, I know. I had no internet for four fucking weeks. FOUR. As much as it sucked though, I was reading like crazy. I read at least a dozen books, including Trash by Dorothy Allison; Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut; Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth; a reread of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath; and a rereading of the complete Harry Potter series (the internet returned while I was finishing up Goblet of Fire [book four, for those who are unaware] and I’ve got about a third left in Order [book five] ). I’ve reread all of the books at least two times (at most upwards of 6 or 7 times) except for the last one, Deathly Hallows, which left me feeling rather upset and confused and mildly unsatisfied. But that was over two years ago and, as I tried to explain to Andreas, rereading the series is a sort of closure thing, since I haven’t reread any of them in full since reading the last one  and also a way to see the books from a different perspective and see how they changed and grew throughout their run. I will probably end up writing epic blog about the politics and moral implications of the books, of which there are many. But after I finish rereading the series which, given the last two books’ statuses as Door Stoppers, probably won’t be for another month or so.

In other news: on the 19th of this month I am leaving for two weeks to be in Minnesota with Andreas and that makes both of us very happy geese indeed. I am very excited; I’ve never been able to travel on my own before and I’m excited to do so now. And also, I really need to get the fuck out of this town for awhile before I set the place on fire (and it doesn’t need that again).

More news: THIS BITCH IS GOING TO COLLEGE. Which is wonderful, scary, amazing news. I got my acceptance letter the same day I lost my internet, which was fucked up and annoying. So I’m currently in the process of doing financial aid/worrying about finding apartment (my campus doesn’t have on campus dorms)/other stressful shit. But regardless I am happy and excited; I will not rot in this town, yayy.

So hm…forgive my lack of really interesting things to say; I’ve had interwebz back for a week and it’s taking me awhile to get back into the cyber groove. So this is just a little update. I now leave you with Harry Potter art that makes my inner fangirl squee with glee:

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