Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Han Shot

In “Veronica Decides To Die” Paulo Coelho wrote that “there is always a gap between intention and action.” If, however, anyone were capable of taking, say, a Navicomputer keyboard and wedging it between the intention and the action, thereby rendering that gap obsolete, it would definitely be the irascible spice smuggler Han Solo, which was what popped into my head when I read about Harrison Ford’s recent Reddit Q&A. He was inevitably asked for his thoughts on whether or not Han shot at Greedo first in “Star Wars: Episode IV.” Ever curmudgeonly, Ford replied (and you could hear the growl from Corellia), “I don’t know and I don’t care.”


To a certain breed of cinema devotees, the story is not merely familiar but probably played out – still, some may need context, and so we will provide it. In the original “Star Wars” of 1977, before “A New Hope” was woefully tacked on, we were essentially introduced to Ford’s Han Solo at the cantina in Mos Eisley where a bounty hunter named Greedo, his laser blaster drawn, sits down across from Solo to collect the mark on his head. Solo, coolly, draws his own laser blaster out of sight beneath the table and blasts Greedo down. Han not only shoots first, he’s the only one who shoots, most likely – as scholars note in their scholarly language – because he’s, like, a total badass, man. Unfortunately, upon the “Special Edition” release of 1997, Grand Chancellor George Lucas chose to make a notable change – that is, Greedo shoots first, somehow splaying his laser blast badly to the side of Han’s head and clearing the way for Han to get off his own shot. Or, to say it another way, Han Shot Second.

Aside from Lucas, grievous Lucas apologists and Skywalker Ranch Yes Men, no one cared for this revision, though some expressed their dislike for it more extravagantly than others. The creators of a website, for instance, with the expository name of HanShootsFirst.org went so far as to enact a petition officially calling for Greedo’s first shot to be revoked. The revision has been referenced with extreme distaste in Kevin Smith films and on the just shuttered “How I Met Your Mother.” Timothy Olyphant as Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens (a man who knows a thing or two about drawing first) knew that Han shot first. Go to a comic con, bellow through a megaphone that Greedo shot first, sit back, and watch the righteous spittle fly. And hey, I’ve long been pro-Han Shot First, thinking that it crucially underscored his character’s laconic cool. Except that hearing the man who brought Han to life growl that not only didn’t he know who shot first but that he didn’t care who shot first, I realized that I too didn’t care who shot first.

Lucas has gone on record in the years since with some sort of marble-mouthed blarney about how even in 1977 he intended for Greedo to shoot first, but no one’s buying it and it doesn’t matter anyway. In spite of the laser blast addendum, what Lucas could not change in his “Special Edition” was Ford’s demeanor. That was baked in and it was everything, because ultimately what this scene comes down to is not its mechanics but its philosophical underpinnings. The only way in which Lucas could have altered the philosophy of this moment would have been to somehow CGI it so that Han kept his blaster holstered and Greedo’s laser magically ricocheted off the wall and hit himself in the face. (I fear I may have just given Lucas an idea for the “Star Wars Maxima Cum Laude Edition”.)

In other words, the point isn’t that Han shot first. Han’s intention and subsequent action, minus the gap that he brazenly rejects, was to shoot, and he would tell you in no uncertain terms that in the same situation he shoot again. Or as the green dude from Dagobah might have put it: shoot or shoot not, there is no shoot first.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Museum Hours

“How do you know Cradle of Filth?” This is what Johann (Bobby Sommer), a gentlemanly security guard at a Vienna art museum, asks Anne (Mary Margaret O'Hara), a Canadian visiting an ill relative in the Austrian capital, over coffee. A one-time band manager, he has revealed his adoration of heavy metal. She, in turn, has referenced AC/DC, Judas Priest and Cradle of Filth, though she wonders if that last one is really more like “death metal”. We would likely not confuse either of them for having even rudimentary knowledge of metal music, let alone being genuine fans of it, but then a first look or cursory glance does not yield full understanding of the complete picture. This is the lesson which "Museum Hours" imparts again and again in a myriad of stimulating ways.


Jem Cohen's modest and intimate film might be described as a unique amalgamation of fiction and documentary. The foremost setting is the Kunsthistorisches Museum and Cohen is not shy about filling the frame with its assortment of famous and stylized paintings and sculptures - often literally filling the frame with them, as if the viewer him or herself is a museum patron, standing on the opposite side of the velvet ropes and taking it all in. This might make it sound like "Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, in which Werner Herzog more or less used a film as a wondrous excuse to show us something we might not otherwise get to see, but that under sells the central relationship.

Cohen connects the artistic dots with the simple story of Johann and Anne's easygoing friendship, their expression of ideas and desires and secrets becoming as integral as the art. Sommer, a non-actor, possesses a voice that sonically resembles a museum’s soothing tones and often the film simply stops to grant him his inner thoughts. He confesses to us, and to Anne, a life of growing solitude, online poker and stillness, a tourist not only in his own city but in his own life. Likewise, as Anne sits solemnly at the side of her friend’s hospital bed, companionship is shown to be as vital of love.

Eventually the characters depart the city for the countryside where the camera remains fixed for an extended shot, gazing out across an amber field. From a distance, Johann and Anne enter the frame, walking to their right, before exiting the screen, then re-appearing, meandering back to the left, and evaporating from view once again. The shot has, in essence, become a portrait, presenting a broad and beautiful canvas, effortlessly illustrating how the view can change.

At another point Johann discusses a painting of Christ, except that what has stayed with him is not Christ’s image but the color blue. The blueness of the sky. The blueness of the river. It made me think of a Lissie concert I attended last year, the way it rejuvenated and cleansed me, and how when I expressed this sentiment, an old friend, now a Lutheran minister, remarked that this was my own way of having fellowship with God. Maybe that thought seems absurd, but while the frame of a painting can seem so finite, not unlike the world itself, it never truly is. We see it from our own angle.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Noah

The ark has been erected. The animals have been loaded. The rain starts to fall. Thus, Noah (Russell Crowe) looks to the sky, and as he does, the camera pulls straight up above him. And it keeps going, up through the troposphere and the stratosphere and the mesosphere and the thermosphere and the exosphere and then, finally, into space, where the whole of Earth is revealed as covered in a colossal storm. It's a remarkable moment because we are more or less seeing The Great Flood as detailed in Genesis in the form of a satellite image that might be consulted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It's creationism seen through the prism of science.

When I think of Biblical Epics, I think of the school of Cecil B. DeMille, the overt pageantry, uber-blocked scenes and VistaVision. That approach has been maligned, but, to me, it's always felt appropriate, apropos of the Bible's blocky writing. Then again, the Bible can be a pretty intense place and Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is not the whimsical doves and rainbows version of youth Sunday School lessons. Instead it is a genuine glimpse into the dark heart of the Old Testament, "real wrath of God type stuff", to quote Ray Stantz. DeMille is left in the dust.


The landscapes, as photographed by Aronofsky's usual accomplice Matthew Libatique, are rocky, burnt-out and apocalyptic. It's almost "Mad Max"-ish, an unexpected if appropriate comparison because "Mad Max" may well have opened with a title card that declared "And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt." As the film opens, Noah and his wife (Jennifer Connelly, who mostly stands by but occasionally is allowed to show gumption) and his sons, are essentially in hiding, holdouts of severe piety in a world gone wicked. Plagued by visions that he can't quite make sense of, though able to sense they foretell doom, Noah packs up the family and travels to see his aging grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). It is then that he receives clarity - the Great Flood is on its way to wipe the whole world clean of its impurity. He will pack an enormous ark full of animals two by two - all of whom curiously, if conveniently, spend most of the film asleep - and re-begin the world when the water recedes.

Noah's story as told in the Bible is surprisingly short on specifics, and while this film is true to some of those specifics, it is less apt to pay heed to others. It creates rock monsters, christened as "searchers", evoking more ornery Ents of "The Two Towers", BC-era "Transformers" that seem out of place, as if demanded by producers who needed toy figure tie-ins. And while Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone) is mentioned briefly in Genesis, "Noah" transforms him into William Fichtner of "The Perfect Storm", existing solely to add extra conflict aboard the wooden vessel and provide an explicit villain in human form.

So too does Aronofsky's script, co-written with Ari Handel, appropriate the story of Abraham and Isaac, re-purposing it through an invented granddaughter (Emma Watson) for Noah who becomes pregnant while at sea (snuffing out that whole 40 days and 40 nights thing). This invention, however, ultimately works to underscore the film's foremost and most interesting relationship - that is, God and Noah.

God Himself is never heard from in this movie. "Why won't you talk to me?" demands Tubal Cain. "Why won't you answer me?" cries Noah. In the Genesis passages that give birth to the film, God is a main character, speaking plainly ("So God said...") and issuing direct commands. In Aronofsky's film, both the audience and Noah's family are left to take Noah at his word. In this way, the character could easily (controversially?) be read as a self-declared prophet, an ancient twist on Harold Camping, one who claims to be in contact with The Creator and asking those around him to have faith.


That faith becomes more difficult to follow the longer the rains fall and the waves crash. Noah literally turns his back on humanity, ignoring screaming innocents who cling to rocks in the distance because he believes their sins have deservedly engendered their deaths. Yet, as the ark remains afloat and the less likely "Land Ho!" becomes, the more Noah cracks, becoming convinced God's intention was to kill off man entirely and give Earth back to the animals. Crowe plays this frightfully to the hilt, willingly alienating his family, convincingly demonstrating a prophet's emotional toll and illustrating how a prophet might seem demented to all those who can't comprehend what he claims to know.

Regardless of whether or not a film should be judged on the basis of itself alone, each audience member, Christian or not, is likely to bring pre-conceived notions to "Noah", not apart from how a reader of a novel adapted for screen might bring a certain amount of bias for and preexistent knowledge of the source material. If we grow up hearing this Bible story, as I did, we might assume that Noah is in direct contact with The Creator. But Aronofsky presents the material so as to leave that question open to interpretation.

Aboard the ark in the midst of the crushing, cleansing deluge of rain, Noah gathers his family together and recounts The Creation, a means to calm them much like an "Arrested Development" re-run might calm us in the face of a CNN-touted weather apocalypse. As he tells it, however, Aronofsky employs an incredible bout of time-lapse photography to illustrate it, the light and the darkness, the heaven and the earth, the water and the dry land, the creatures and man. It's akin to Terrence Malick's work in "Tree of Life", but more than that it's "Noah" combining legitimate Biblical passages with the sort of camera work that a proponent of The Big Bang Theory might utilize in a slide show. Evolution or Creationism? That's not the point. We're all invited into this $125 million ark and made to wonder whether such a catastrophic downpour is the work of meteorology or the divine.

The story of Noah is doubtlessly rooted in religion, but Darren Aronofsky's "Noah", spectacular, bloated and bold, is not so much ecumenical as it is universal.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Recap Vomit: Trophy Wife (The Minutes)

I confess, I may not have been the intended demographic for the latest episode of “Trophy Wife.” This is because “The Minutes” turns into a half-“Scandal” homage and I have not seen a single second of a single “Scandal” episode (unless Tina Fey and Amy Poehler dramatically saying “Scandal” at the Golden Globes counts). So, when the episode inevitably deviates from its “Trophy Wife”-ness to go straight “Scandal”, I had nothing to go on, nothing to gauge it against. For all I know, it was exactly like “Scandal”, though the attempts a rat-a-tat-tat dialogue seemed a little less potent than might be required. For me, it evoked memories of Harry Crumb and Nikki Downing, and I’m not certain whether that’s good or bad. Should it matter that I haven’t seen “Scandal”?


For instance, I never saw (and still haven’t seen) a single second of a single “Melrose Place” episode and yet one of my 127 favorite “Seinfeld” episodes is the legendary “Melrose Place” episode. I remember hearing about the latter all the time, and I remember it always being referred to as a “guilty pleasure”. It was something people loved to watch but didn’t necessarily admit they loved to watch because it seemed so trashy. And that’s what “Seinfeld” played to, and they played to because it was universal. We all have things we love but don’t want to admit to, don’t we? So rather than act as a straight homage, it featured Jerry denying that he watched “Melrose Place” – even though he loved it – and being forced to take a lie detector test by his policewoman girlfriend to determine the truth. It’s incredible. It’s hilarious. And it didn’t matter one iota if you didn’t know what “Melrose Place” was or who was in it because “Seinfeld” effortlessly made it relatable to everyone. That’s why “Seinfeld” was and still is the greatest.

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INT. POLICE HEADQUARTERS – DAY 

NICK PRIGGE, infamous anti-Reality TV activist has been hooked up to a lie detector. A grizzly DETECTIVE stands above him. 

DETECTIVE: “Nick, have you ever watched Reality TV?” 
NICK: “No.” 
DETECTIVE: “Nick? (Clears throat.) Have you ever watched Reality TV?” 
NICK: (sweating) “No.” 
DETECTIVE: “Nick. (Dramatic pause.) Have you ever watched…… (Even more dramatic pause) ……‘Temptation Island?’” 
NICK: (Breaks down crying.) “Fine! FINE!!! I watched the first season of ‘Temptation Island!’ You wanna know why?! Because Reality TV is lewd and disgusting and EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH SOCIETY and ‘Temptation Island’ was the lewdest and most disgusting and EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH SOCIETY reality show of 'em all! And I loved it! Okay?! Are you happy?! I! Loved! It!" 
DETECTIVE: "And who was your favorite?" 
NICK: "Mandy! Mandy was totally my favorite! Yes, I remember her name!" (Falls to floor, writhing in a pool of his own tears.) 

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This isn’t to suggest “The Minutes” is an eyesore for any non-“Scandal” fanatic. Marcia Gay Harden is too good, first playing up the part of a binge-watching “Scandal” fanatic and then showing Kate how to play dirty when Kate runs afoul of the PTA and finds that her inflammatory comments about Harden’s Dr. Diane Buckley behind Dr. Diane Buckley’s back have officially been entered into The Minutes. (Scandal!!!). The idea of a PTA-related Scandal!!! is simply irresistible, but the means by which the Scandal!!! erupts – Person A saying things about Person B without Person B present only for Person A to realize Person B might hear them after all – and the follow-up – having to do with a PTA mom’s devotion to the sport of squash – come across so much less than juicy. And I suppose that’s partly the point – that in the world of the PTA, a Scandal!!! would be less than juicy. But shouldn’t it still feel juicy in spite of its non-juiciness? Like, to a bunch of PTA moms this Scandal!!! is as skandalouz as the Scandal!!! shown during the commercial for “Scandal” in the midst of “Trophy Wife” where some dude puts his hand around Kerry Washington’s throat and says “You killed the President” (Scandal!!!). I dunno. It just seems to me that aside from Marcia Gay Harden, everyone is playing Kerry Washington dress-up. It’s a cutesy homage, an aw-shucks, gee-whiz, “we’re family friendly!” scandal, and it doesn’t do much to invite non-“Scandal” watchers into the proceedings.

And the episode’s biggest problem is that the “Scandal” homage runs counter to the tale of Hillary wanting to go to the semi-formal dance with a boy who is the son of the neighbors with whom Pete and Jackie have a long-running feud involving a garden hose. There is a hint of potential Scandal!!! here involving the feud but that mostly gets ignored to instead build to a moment of fatherly heroism on account of Pete. It’s rather sweet but at odds with the other half of the episode. So too is Warren’s woebegone quest to get in on the Ask-A-Celebrity-To-The-Dance-Via-The-Internet craze by asking Vanessa Hudgens to the semi-formal by pretending to be gravely ill a misfire on a potential Scandal!!! I mean, if you’re gonna go for the fellow-ABC-drama gusto then, you know, go for it. “Trophy Wife” doesn’t quite go for it. So let’s all just watch this instead.....

 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Wild River (1960)

Both literally and metaphorically, a small island stands at the center of the “Wild River.” The island and its aging matriarch is the lone piece of land the TVA – Tennessee Valley Authority – has failed to clear in advance of flooding that will be wrought by a new and necessary dam along the Tennessee River. It also becomes the symbol of progress, what is being left behind and all that is to come. It was directed by Elia Kazan, a noted cinematic social crusader, and while Kazan’s leanings are in no way unclear, the film itself never quite becomes a full-on rally cry for one side or the other. Everyone is wrong. Everyone is right. Taking a stand is brave and foolhardy, meaningful and pointless. It’s a film set in the 1930’s, made at the tail-end of the 1950’s, but it still feels topical and urgent, as necessary now in this pick-a-side America as ever.


Shot in majestic Technicolor, the Tennessee River seems to cut through the background of nearly every shot, always suggesting the battle lines, always reminding of the imminent flood that will tear through to bring about (force) change. Montgomery Clift, out-of-place from his first entrance into the frame in a stodgy three-piece suit, is the requisite idealist sent by the TVA to convince eighty-year old Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to sell her land and evacuate. His stance will be swayed, of course, but Clift was far too clever an actor to ever make an arc so dramatically obvious – that, and the writing paints him as a man of morals and realism. It’s not simply that he yearns to save Ella from certain death, but to help re-vitalize a dying region. Notice how in his first moments Chuck is already asking locals what they think he should do, not simply trying to enlist their approval but to demonstrate a willingness to listen.

Perhaps politicking over-consumes “Wild River’s” opening stanza, but then what else happens when a Government Man turns up? Ordinary conversation over a cup of coffee? Please. Policy debate is all they know. Ah, but the riverside beauty awaits, and here she is Ella’s granddaughter, Carol, played by Lee Remick in a grand performance of quiet desperation. Her husband has passed and the little house where they lived on the other side of the river, across from the island, sits empty and alone. She now tends to her grandmother and, as such, becomes the demarcation line between the past and progress. That is not to say she is simply an emblem. In one splendid moment she literally says each line of Chuck’s before he says it – a step ahead. A love interest, an adversary, an ally, a human being. She doesn’t save him, and he doesn’t save her. Rather, they help each other grow, as painful as that growth is.

As she inevitably falls for the TVA man and their relationship gradually goes public, the public turns against her, in one frightful scene forming a kind of lynch mob, reminding us this is the 1930’s south. “For a moment there,” says Chuck, “I forgot where I was.” That is, a place where whites are hired to clear away the land in advance of the flood, not blacks, because if blacks are hired, the whites will walk off the job. Chuck eventually hires blacks anyway, and it is just another evocation of Clift’s acting dexterity – a man maintaining efficiency while also acting ethically. Thus, the flood, just like the great one that sent Noah scrambling to construct his Ark, breeds progress of the social order, coming to wipe away outdated mores.


Then again, that’s not all the water is coming to wipe away. “Maybe in the days of the pioneers a man could go his own way,” declared Burt Lancaster in another Montgomery Clift production, “From Here to Eternity”, “but today you gotta play ball.” Ella is caught between those notions – a pioneer who wants to maintain their ethos of individualism and being forced (literally in the end) to play ball.

Anymore if you lament progress, just a little, you are instantly branded a Luddite who simply REFUSES TO GET WITH THE TIMES. Watching Ella dig in her heels and espouse her roots even as it all fades away, it’s not hard to detect echoes of the futuristic stunted factory towns and technological advances that are slowly eroding the middle class. Ella Garth’s no dummy. She knows she can’t stop what’s coming. She cut her teeth in a world that has left her ill-equipped to face the new one. And perhaps it’s technically a spoiler to say she is moved off the land and the dam goes up and the water rises and the island floods, but how on earth is that a spoiler? It’s what’s been going on since the beginning of time. Sink or swim. Adapt or die. Black or white. It’s never really that simple. But somehow, by the time the check comes, it always is.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Dream On...

Round about 1999 I began toying with the idea of taking a road trip to see the sites where my all-time favorite movie, “Last of the Mohicans”, was filmed. Thus, I noodled around the Internet, attempting to glean just where filming occurred and how one might go about mapping out such a pilgrimage. One of my more unsettling finds involved a triad of waterfalls, each one essential to the movie in its own way. A certain chunk of filming took place in the Blue Ridge forests just outside Asheville, North Carolina but these three waterfalls were not originally part of the State-owned Forest and despite North Carolina’s attempt to purchase the land from its owner, it was sold to a private developer. For a time, these falls were thought to be in danger – in danger of having public access completely denied by instead incorporating them into some sort of Rich Man’s gated community. Long, winding story short, the developer lost, the falls were saved and made part of the State Forest.

My Mohicanland pilgrimage finally, thankfully came to fruition in 2006, and I can report the falls themselves are handsome, particularly in the throes of autumn, and worth the trip and/or hike. Still, to a “Mohicans” devotee, all that rushing water would hold nowhere near the same sentimental sway independent of the fact Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe stood in front of them and walked alongside them as Hawkeye and Cora. And I remember considering this when I sat on a rock in front of Triple Falls as if it were a pew at the synagogue. In an area rich with them, I could have easily found another one to behold, but to an honorary Mohican, these falls were it. These were the falls we/I needed to see, and without them one of the most memorable weeks of my life would have been a lot less eventful.


You may or may not know the current brou-ha-ha unfolding in regards to the Field of Dreams – that is, the baseball diamond in the cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa that made for the main setting of Kevin Costner’s 1989 baseball fable about fathers and sons and the 1919 Chicago White Sox. It was, for many years post-film, a tourist attraction run by the owners of the two farms where it was built, down-home, plain-spoken. I was there once, when I was much younger and much more awkward and not yet a real fan of the film. I didn’t fall (deeply) in love with it until I left Iowa. After all, it’s very much a film about nostalgia, and I had become nostalgic for all that I loved and missed (and still love and still miss) about Iowa and watching it in that light cracked it open for me. But on my lone trip there, I recall it being scenic and lovely and less like a state fair and more like a county carnival. (I am not nostalgic for the Iowa State Fair. I still hate the Iowa State Fair. I am, however, nostalgic for the Adel Sweet Corn Festival.)

In 2010, however, after years of internal squabbling, the property was put up for sale. Lo and behold, a couple suburban Chicagoans, Mike and Denise Stillman, bought up the acres and, as Adam Doster recounts in his Atlantic article chronicling the entire ordeal, intended to turn it into what they term an “All-Star Ballpark Heaven.” Iowa may be home to The World’s Biggest Truck Stop but ostentation is not typically the state’s style. Thus, this plan has met significant resistance within the community and, on one hand, I cannot argue with this resistance. The All-Star Ballpark Heaven is meant to resemble the Cooperstown Dreams Park, site of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Of course, Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame, and as the Field of Dreams was meant as Shoeless Joe’s sanctuary, it would seem wrong to model the latter after the former.

That, of course, is not the kind of metaphorical connection I would expect someone with an MBA to make or care about, and besides, I can see the new owners’ viewpoints too. The previous owners, as the Stillmans note, had no mortgage. They do. They have to generate revenue somehow and, as it turns out, you can build it and they can come, but you can’t maintain it unless “they” cough up the clams.


I haven’t the foggiest how to resolve this situation and that is between the Stillmans and the citizens of Dyersville anyway. Still, I feel I bring a unique perspective, being a nutjob who – as established – traveled halfway across the country to see where his favorite movie was filmed. Those waterfalls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina are the backdrop of a few of my most cherished memories and to think that they were almost made inaccessible to the public and, even more, to people who value them – however ridiculous it might sound – as something so much more than just dazzlingly rushing water, is something I can express with all my melodramatic heart that I’m ecstatic did not happen.

Those falls are not quite the same as an All-Star Ballpark Heaven. With the teensiest bit of off-the-beaten-path hiking, I had Triple Falls all to myself. Then again, the last twenty minutes of the movie, its most powerful part, was filmed at Chimney Rock State Park. It’s easily accessible and even when you’re high above on the trail where the most meaningful moments of my cinematic life were shot, there is a highway below with the sound of passing cars (and on the morning I paid homage, there was even the distant racket of construction).

Yet, you stand where Alice – or Jodhi May, they’re inseperable to me – stood and all the noise and all the rest of the real world just……give way. A place can be powerful apart from the setting, if that makes sense, and I can’t help but wonder if no matter how circus-like they attempt to make the Field of Dreams, it will always feel as if the people have dipped themselves in magic waters.

In other words, perhaps keeping the Field, however it has to be done and in whatever form it needs to be to do it, is what matters most.