The Not-So-Miserable, Actually
|January 15, 2013||Posted by Jess under Movies, Musicals|
I had no illusions about Ms. Holmes’ vocal performance, but I was too young to realize that Dawson’s Creek was basically dreadful, and…“On My Own,” you guys. “On My Own” was my heart’s song, as it has been to many 14-year-old girls before me and will be to many 14-year-old girls hence.
That summer at camp I gushed over it to a friend, who was a diehard Les Mis fan and immediately told me the entire plot in excruciating detail. I was captivated; as soon as I got home I holed up in my room with a(n abridged) copy of the novel from the library and my stepmother’s copy of the OBC. Oh, the tears that were shed over “A Little Fall of Rain!” Oh, the assurance that Eponine’s tragic story spoke to my very soul!
Also there was some guy named Jean Valjean. Whatever.
Whether you’re in it for Eponine or Javert (is anyone in it for anyone else?), it’s my firm belief that Les Mis is a dish best served at age 14, or thereabouts. It’s an age awash in emotions, primed to enjoy some glorious tragedy and free of the cynicism that might keep you enjoying a musical that’s basically a dozen people fighting to see who can sing about their feelings the loudest. I sang “On My Own” when I auditioned for the musical my freshman year of high school2; two years later Les Mis had been replaced in my heart by the almost-as-bombastic but saucier RENT; two years after that I was pretty much over super-tragic operettas.3 That said, Les Mis always retained a special place in my heart.
When Sarris died last summer, I finally did actually write up a hypothetical syllabus, in what I hope will be seen as an homage and not a sign of disrespect. I’ve actually thought about blogging the “course” here, and I may still do so, but in the meantime, I’ll spoil you all and tell you that the final class was titled: “How Can They See with Sequins in Their Eyes?: The Cynical Dreamscape of the Modern Musical.” (I had a lot of fun with these titles, can you tell?)
That title, of course, is a reference to Chicago, sung by snakeoil salesman Billy Flynn as he assures the murderess Roxie Hart of his complete lack of faith in the justice system. If you throw enough glitter at your audience, he promises her, they’ll never see your complete lack of substance.
I have a lot of thoughts about this line in relation to the 2002 film, but I’ll stick with this: Chicago, the movie, popularized the “dream sequence” gimmick for musical numbers for a decade. With a few exceptions, all of the numbers in Chicago are fantasies, products of Roxie’s star-dazzled brain. (“Mr. Cellophane” is probably Amos’ fantasy, not Roxie’s. “All That Jazz” and “Nowadays” are actual performances and thus safely ensconced in the realm of believability.)See, modern audiences, the theory goes, can’t handle a character simply opening up and singing their feelings. We can’t suspend our disbelief that far. The dream sequence gimmick allows the number to happen in a way that makes sense to this highly-critical, musical-hating viewer; anything can happen in a dream, obviously, but the cinema is a world that must remain free of the slightest hint of unreality, lest the whole Dream Machine come crumbling down.
(Can you tell I’m not a fan of this particular theory? So I like musicals. Sue me.4)
No other musical hewed as faithfully to the dream sequence technique as Chicago, but it’s certainly been present throughout the 21st century’s examples of the genre. Hairspray indulged in a fantasy or two of the characters, with magical costume changes and singing photographs. De-Lovely is nothing but a fantasy; Moulin Rouge likewise (though it predated Chicago and is also, you know, Baz Luhrman, so what else would you expect?). The first High School Musical, made on a typical Disney Channel Original Movie budget, had no fantasy elements – fantasy sequences are expensive – but #2 veered into the surreal a couple of times, and #3, the only one to be theatrically released and until Les Mis the musical with the biggest opening weekend of all time, was straight-up crazycakes. Like, there were ninjas. DANCING NINJAS. Even Fame, theoretically a story that strips away the glamour and shows the toil beneath, was given a fresh coat of gold paint for its 2009 remake.5
Sure, people are singing, but don’t take it too seriously, these movies seem to say from behind their flashing lights and quick cross-cutting. We certainly don’t.
Last week, when Les Mis was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars – and last night, when it won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical6 – I was surprised. I’ve seen the movie twice now, once on opening night, and though I really enjoyed it, it strikes me as a better adaptation of a stage play than as a movie.
Take, for example, the infamous closeups. “What Have I Done?” is sort of awkward and easily forgotten, washed away in the thunderous wake of Anne Hathaway’s absolutely stupendous “I Dreamed a Dream.” When the technique returns for “Who Am I?” it’s clear that it’s here to stay; by the time “On My Own” rolls around, it’s barely even noticeable. Oh, it’s time for a character to sing their feelings? Let’s stick the camera up their nose and leave it there, politely, until they’re done.
(The second viewing I noticed the Super Subtle Symbolism more. Like the fact that Valjean sings “Who Am I?” to his reflection. Like the pavement sparkling like silver right on cue as Eponine’s voice conjures it up, or the bundled-up figure who hurries past the minute she sings the word “strangers,” when the streets have been deserted up till then. Or – my favorite – the bird’s eye angles and giant painted eye hovering behind Valjean’s head during “Bring Him Home,” as if crouching over Marius like a vulture while singing directly to God couldn’t convey the idea of watching over someone by itself.7)
I tease, but it’s entirely out of love. As I said, I really enjoyed the movie. But it wasn’t until this morning, thinking over last night’s awards ceremony, that I realized how profoundly groundbreaking the closeups – and all the attendant really really earnest imagery – are. How groundbreaking the very faithfulness of this adaptation is.There are no fantasies in Les Mis. Another director might have been tempted to portray Cosette’s castle on a cloud; to show Eponine in Marius’s arms as she dreams; to do something more splendiferous with the end than Fantine standing there all clean and pretty and dead and a barricade that stretches the length of Paris. But no; Les Mis is all about the in-your-face syphilis and bloody drool and sadness, which suits the title.8 More importantly, though, it’s all about taking the time to let the singers sing.
I mean, think about that. Musicals have been jumping around like rap videos for years. It’s been decades since performers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly had the clout to insist that the camera remain full-length on them throughout the number. To return to Richard Gere in Chicago, remember the hype for his big “tap dance” number? And when you see it, it’s sliced up six ways to Sunday, so much so that I couldn’t swear to it that those feet are actually his, which kind of misses the point.9 I went to see the terrible Step Up 3D solely because it featured Alyson Stoner in an Astaire-Rogers tribute with no cuts (which was actually delightful, if you ignore the whole rest of the movie). That’s how rare that kind of filmmaking is.
But in an era where musical numbers are carefully presented with excuses, and edited to smithereens so that the audience doesn’t have a moment to breathe, Hooper stuck the camera in front of his actors and told them to sing. Live. And didn’t cut until they were done. Where most modern musicals seem embarrassed that you might think they take their own songs seriously, Les Mis basically tells you, “Yes. He’s singing his feelings. What are you gonna do about it?”No. “Seriously” is the wrong word; I hate things that prize seriousness over entertainment. Earnest is the word for Les Mis. It’s not so much that it’s insisting on its own importances as that it’s insisting on the conviction of its characters and of its music. Which is only fitting, because Les Mis is about anything but cynicism. Les Mis is about a guy with super strength and love at first sight and a slew of improbable coincidences. Les Mis is about a sincerity so pure you die from it.
So last night, when Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman kept saying over and over how brave Hooper and the producers and the studio were to make this movie, I thought, “Actually? Yeah, they were.” Not just because it’s a tremendously beloved and bombastic operetta. But because they weren’t afraid or ashamed of the genuine, raw sincerity of their source material – the sincerity that is the very reason it latches onto 14-year-old hearts and gives them something to weep joyously over.
I still can’t tell you if Les Miserables is a good movie. The musical touches something too close to home for me, something that meant so much when I was 14, for me to be objective.
And it’s too soon to tell if it’s a true game-changer. I mean, it has the biggest opening day of any musical ever, and the second-biggest opening day of any Christmas Day release, and it’s been nominated for awards out the wazoo. But The Hunger Games broke records too, and Hollywood is still spouting off that “truth” about how women can’t carry action movies. So the “truth” that audiences can’t handle musicals where the characters sing without any excuse other than feeling a lot of ways is likely to be with us for quite some time.
But it was a brave movie. And it was a movie that explodes my complacent little theory about the arc of the musical genre – experimentation to art to mass production to deconstruction to slick and soulless homage – in a way that truly delights me.
I am far too cynical, it turns out, to call this the death of cynicism. But a lot of things die in Les Mis, and wouldn’t it be great if cynicism was one of them?
- This is a little bit of a lie – there was one summer at camp when I was 12 where I did almost nothing but bellow “Do You Hear the People Sing?” continuously – but I didn’t know what show it was from until two years later. ↩
- Bad idea: for one thing, I’m an alto; for another, I was auditioning for A Chorus Line. ↩
- I’m more of a Golden Age-style musicals girl at heart. Give me The Drowsy Chaperone and Cole Porter revivals any day. ↩
- What can you do me? I love you. ↩
- I didn’t see the RENT movie. Were there fantasy sequences? It’s my understanding that they cut a lot of the sung-through-ness of the play – true or not true? ↩
- Hoo boy, do not get me drunk and ask me what I think of that particular categorization. ↩
- There’s also the wacky tame butterflies in “A Heart Full of Love,” but those are less symbolic and more hilarious. ↩
- Side note: can I just say how much it tickled me to see Eponine swanning around Paris in a slightly-dented Balencia gown and that weirdass, terrifying corset-belt-thing? I love – in a fondly mocking kind of way – that she gets easier on the eyes in every adaptation. Her slightly torn dress is a step up from the play, where she’s a smudgy newsie, which is itself a step up from the book, where she’s basically Gollum. ↩
- Well, not to cast aspersions, but I would not be surprised if the hype was there to disguise the fact that those feet aren’t his. Ahem. ↩