VIDEO ESSAY: Alfonso Cuarón’s Cinematic Canvas

VIDEO ESSAY: Alfonso Cuarón’s Cinematic Canvas

Alfonso Cuarón and
the Prisoner of Azkaban

The following is an
appreciation of my personal favorite film by Alfonso Cuarón, which I fear has
been somewhat critically neglected. But for more on the man’s impressive career
as a whole, see Nelson Carvajal’s video “Alfonso
Cuarón’s Cinematic Canvas

People sometimes ask me whether I think “the kids today” are
all right. That always seems to me a strange question and perhaps a rhetorical
one where the speaker is really suggesting that there’s something wrong with
anyone younger than us. The logic, inasmuch as I follow it, is that
thirty-somethings had the privilege of growing up with movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and Time Bandits, and those movies fucked us up, and made us the clever
intelligent beautiful sophisticates we are today. Well, I’m not so sure it
works like that, and for every subversive film by Gilliam and Henson, there
were many more popular flicks like The
Karate Kid
, Teen Wolf, and Short Circuit. But, sure, I always
respond, “the kids today” should be totally fine, because they had Pokémon—surely
one of the strangest cartoons I’ve ever witnessed—and what’s more, they had Alfonso
Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the
Prisoner of Azkaban

I disliked the
first two Potter films, though I also wasn’t fond of the first two books. But
with Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K.
Rowling started hitting her stride, complicating Harry’s bright happy world with
more intricate plotting and morally ambiguous characters, the prime example of
which was the titular prisoner himself, Sirius Black. And can you imagine what
Chris Columbus would have done with that character? But Columbus bowed out of
the franchise, allowing Cuarón to inherit it—and totally redesign it.

Gary Oldman as Black was a bit of genius—this is the guy who previously played Sid
Vicious, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Guildenstern (I mean Rosencrantz), Mason
Verger, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, and that deranged cop determined to kill the
pubescent Natalie Portman and her kindly middle-aged French hit man boyfriend.
(Although come to think about it, had Stansfield succeeded, might we have been
spared the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy?) Oldman’s mere presence—recall those
initial glimpses of the man, howling in rage in those animated wanted
posters—made Black feel genuinely dangerous, and made the Potterverse feel suddenly
dangerous. Adding David Thewlis to the mix, as the reluctant, melancholy
werewolf Remus Lupin (he’s rather Hulk-like), pushed that fictional world even
further into some dark corner of the crooked Diagon Alley. Think about it: Azkaban’s the movie where Harry Potter’s
stable of mentors swelled to include not just Oldman, but Johnny from Naked (and were we meant to sense in
Thewlis’s presence a hint of the Verlaine / Rimbaud relationship in Total Eclipse?).

importantly, with Azkaban, the Potter
films went from something with the look and feel of an after-school special to the
look and feel of cinema. If you’re
shaky on the details, just compare any scene in Columbus’s version with any
from Cuarón’s—for instance, these two classroom bits:

Note, in that Azkaban
scene, the wide variety of techniques on display—long gliding takes and dramatic
insert shots—as well as the inventive staging. (I particularly like the moment
when Harry steps up to the boggart, and the camera affixes itself momentarily to
the bobbing jack-in-the-box.) Azkaban
was also the movie where Hogwarts—until now a stable, horizontal, and above all
else comfortable boarding school—went
all cockeyed, becoming in Cuarón’s hands someplace sprawling and ancient, a
place with enormous swinging clock pendulums that could kill an unwary kid, and
perched precariously amidst crags and ravines. Here’s what Cuaron did: when
Columbus left the project, the producers initially turned to Guillermo del
Toro. But del Toro declined, having found Columbus’s first two installments “so
bright and happy and full of light.” But a few years later, he
expressed interest in helming a later installment

“After seeing the last few films,
however, the director famed for a shadowy imagination and morally ambiguous
characters has begun to reconsider. ‘They seem to be getting eerie and darker
… If they come back to me, I’ll think about it.’”

Thank Cuarón for that eeriness, that darkness (though to be
fair, the books do get more complex with that installment).

He departed
after Azkaban, but he left his mark
on the franchise: successors Mike Newell and David Yates kept the basics of his
approach, even if their direction never matched Cuarón’s. With the exception of
Bruno Delbonnel, who provided the cinematography for Half-Blood
, no one else ever came across as having as much fun with Rowling’s
sprawling world as Cuarón.

my own part, I saw The Prisoner of
three times in the theater. And whenever anyone asked me what I
thought of it, I said, “It’s great. It’s this generation’s Time Bandits.”

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

A.D Jameson is the author
of the prose collection
Adult Fantasy
(Mutable Sound, 2011), in
which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel
and Gibson
, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of
Gilgamesh. He’s taught
classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College,
DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and
StoryStudio Chicago. He’s also the
nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal
Requited. He recently
started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. In his spare
time, he contributes to the group blogs
and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

One thought on “VIDEO ESSAY: Alfonso Cuarón’s Cinematic Canvas”

  1. Actually Kristin Thomson did an amazing post on here blog recently :


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