Les Critiques Misérables: The Tears, The Book, and The Backlash
“Last night I went to a showing of Les Misérables,” writes blogger Matt Walsh. “And when I say ‘went to’ I mean ‘hogtied and dragged at gun point by my wife, her sister and her mom’.” Walsh then summarizes Hollywood’s 2012 adaptation of the London/Broadway musical:
You don’t need to buy the soundtrack. I’ll sum up every song in the movie. Here you go: “I’m so lonely, I’m so alone, look at me my life is hard, I’m alone, I’m on my own, there’s this empty chair here, it’s empty because I’m alone, I’m lonely, all this bad stuff has happened to me because of my inexcusably stupid life choices, I’m alone, I feel so alone, on my own, on my own, on my own, did I mention I’m on my oooooowwwwwn?”
I guess that means he didn’t like it. And unlike the film’s characters, he’s not alone. A student of mine named Annabel, fed up with all the Les Miz hype, shared Walsh’s blog on Facebook with the following herald: “World, I give you someone who hates Les Miz more than I.” The responses to his blog and her share were immediate and enthusiastic: “I’m alone in a world of Les Miz lovers so I’m glad I’ve found someone else.”
Of all the possible targets for backlash, Les Miz is by far the backlashiest. The Sweeping Love Story. The Historical Drama. The Based-On-A-Novel Pedigree of Respectability. The Obvious Bait for the Oscars. The fact that it’s kind of European. There are so many pretty costumes. There are so many pretty actors magnificently endowed (for the most part) with pretty voices. And above all, the film is ubiquitous; the hype for Les Miz is just about everywhere. Omigod, you have see it. And you have to like it. In fact, you have to love Les Miz, lest the film and its disciples pursue you like Javert right down to the sewer’s bottom as you scramble in vain for escape.
Put David Denby into the mix, and suddenly your backlash has the dubious hue of respectability. Here’s a critic who wasn’t even assigned to review Les Miz; Anthony Lane, The New Yorker’s other film critic, was given the task instead. But Denby’s is a voice that will not be silenced. The blogs of Denby and Walsh have pently in common, only Walsh is a much better writer. To be honest with you, there’s something kind of unsettling about reading Denby’s There’s Still Hope for People Who Love Les Mis. It’s sort of like coming downstairs and finding your uncle, the middle aged college professor, nursing a mean old hangover while he’s paddling around in his bathrobe shouting out at anyone who will listen about everything wrong with the world:
This movie is not just bad…it’s terrible…
(Hugh) Jackman doesn’t sing, he brays.
The music is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise.
I was doubly embarrassed because all around me, in a very large theatre, people were sitting rapt, awed, absolutely silent, only to burst into applause after some of the numbers, and I couldn’t help wondering what in the world had happened to the taste of my countrymen—the Americans (Americans!) who created and loved almost all the greatest musicals ever made.
Wow. I guess people who love Les Miz must be really stupid, huh? Whereas Walsh’s manifesto is pure Lester Bangs vitriol, Denby takes it upon himself to educate his ignorant readers of the finer distinctions between high culture and low, fine cinema and poor, good taste and bad. “I want to render a public service,” he begins in an apparent attempt at irony. But by the piece’s end, it is clear that the critic means business:
…our great musicals were something miraculous. They were a blessed artifice devoted to pleasure, to ease and movement, exultation in the human body, jokes and happy times, the giddiness of high hopes.
Gee, Uncle Dave, I guess things were a lot better back in your day. Denby’s public service is recommending a bunch classic American musicals (Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, etc.) as a cure for those of us who were dumb enough to be moved by Les Miz’s transparent sentimentality. Call me crazy, but I’ll bet Denby’s blog didn’t generate a run on Gene Kelly musicals at Netflix.
The Critic’s Curse
Oscar Wilde once warned us: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.” And truth be told, I shouldn’t be so hard on Denby. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of spending more than five minutes with me at a party can probably tell you the moment he wished I was dead. “What do you mean you didn’t like (Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love, Dead Poets Society, Whatever)? Can’t you just sit back and enjoy it? Do you have get all analytical and think about everything? Aren’t movies supposed to be fun? They’re not? Oh Jesus, fine then, have your opinion, but for god’s sake, keep it to yourself, because I like this movie!”
Sorry. And I get it. I really do. The “I have a right to like this” response is especially intense when part of the package is music. Stacy Wolf writes in The Washington Post:
There’s a deep well of nostalgia for “Les Miz,” especially among women who came of age when it was on Broadway or on tour — even though it doesn’t reflect our feminist politics. Music is powerful when it’s connected to childhood; it reminds us of where we were in our lives when we first heard it. “Les Miz” feeds our hunger for familiarity in the present as well. The music is seductive because it’s repetitive, making us feel as if we know the songs, even if it’s our first time watching.
Of all Les Miz’s reviews, Wolf’s is the best. “Les Misérables should have feminists up in arms,” she writes. “But I can’t help it: I love Les Miz.” She then proceeds to point out what should have been painfully obvious all along: women barely drive the plot. They live – and often give up – their lives for their men, their children, or both. Their roles are always subordinate, never primary. Rather than act, they merely “emote, propelling others to action.”
Yet unlike David Denby, Wolf never lectures us, or chastises. “Looking at culture through a feminist lens doesn’t mean that you don’t have fun or sing along. It means that you can also see what’s missing or what’s politically troubling.” For all her unflattering commentary, Wolf implicitly understands a little known cultural maxim: the critic who mistakes himself for a missionary is miserably doomed to fail. I’ll try to remember that the next time I go to a party.
Now Is The Time For Your Tears
But when it comes to a mega cultural event like Les Miz, passions prove hard to temper. I understand why Annabel and her posse feel so alone: the vast majority of my students love this piece. And when they talk with me, it seems pretty clear that they want me to love it, too. That’s why I simply can’t bring myself to tell them the truth: I find Les Miz phenomenon extremely troubling. It’s not so much the film itself, but the public’s response, which always begins with a confession that everyone makes after telling you they’ve just seen the movie.
Almost without fail that is what leads. I cried. Students, relatives, friends, and colleagues, they all tell me the same story. I cried, I cried, and I cried.
And, for the record: so did I. Lots of sad things happen in this story, so crying seems like a normal, healthy response. At least it was for me. But I’ve also cried during lots of other films like To Kill a Mockingbird and It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet in all the conversations I’ve had with people about both of these movies, I’ve never talked about my tears. I’ve never heard anybody else talk about theirs, either. No, the usual conversations center around what happened in the movie: the story, the performances, or a particularly exciting scene. That’s not to say that these things don’t get discussed with Les Miz, but they’re never the first to be mentioned. The first thing is always: I cried.
What’s going on here? Why is this movie different? Why does Les Misérables make you focus on the intensity of your own emotional response?
The answer is simple: that’s what the film is about. Your emotions. Not emotions in the general or the abstract, but your emotions, yours personally, the ones that you privately feel. Because in this case, it is all about you. The costumes, the sets, and especially the story’s historical context – these are all bait to get you hooked in on the movie’s real subject: You. Me. Us. We – and our capacity to feel, to hurt, to suffer. So don’t feel bad if you’re in the omigodIcried club, because you fundamentally get this film in a way that the likes of Denby never, ever will. Les Miserables understands your sufferings. It suffers with you. It embraces your suffering, and wants you to suffer more, and cry as you suffer together.
What is the cause of your suffering? A-a-ah, don’t go there! Shhhh. Les Miz doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t even care why its own characters suffer. Poverty and injustice are certainly part of the plot, but in this film they quickly recede to the background and prove to be little more than a MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for the thing that sets the plot in motion, but is ultimately of little importance). Hurry up and get to Fantine so she can just start singing and cry. Quick, get those strappingly handsome political activists up in arms so we can be inspired by their awesome, youthful commitment to whatever it is that they’re awesomely and youthfuly committed to. And for God’s sake, closeups! Get me closeups! More and more closeups so I can see the pores, the tears, the sweat, and every angsty crease of the sweet and indomitable pain. Let the space between the actor and me evaporate, let all else cease to exist, so there may only be us in our beautiful new bonded struggle. I am Fantine. I am Valjean. I am Éponine. My suffering is her suffering. Her song is my song. Our tears are one.
Les Misérables Buy The Book.
Ok, wait. Isn’t all art manipulative? Aren’t we supposed to identify with a film’s or a book’s protagonists? Sure we are. So perhaps we can say that there’s nothing wrong with this spectacle of mega personal identification. That it’s ok to become lost in a cathartic world of escape that is uniquely and entirely personal. Yes, I think we can say that. Until we read Victor Hugo’s preface to his 1862 novel Les Misérables, and realize that once upon a time all of this was supposed to be about something a little bit bigger:
So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells
amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.
Unless we all fail to make use of them. Whatever praises the Schonberg/Kretzmer musical adaptation has earned – and its strengths are certainly legit – no one can credibly argue that its current cinematic incarnation shows any real concern with pauperism or hunger, the plight of children or social asphyxia, and certainly not ignorance or poverty. The production budget for Les Miserables was $61 million. And even though it’s currently in fourth place at the box office (Texas Chainsaw 3D is now at the top) Les Miz is well on its way towards doubling its initial investment with a box office take of over $104 million.
That’s an awful lot of money. I mean, sure, it’s a lot less than Avatar (#1 box office earner of all time) or The Avengers (#3) or even Transformers: Dark of the Moon which is – would you believe it – the fifth highest grossing movie in the history of the world, coming in at $1,123.7 million (beating out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2 and The Dark Night Rises). I guess next to those behemoths, $103 million seems like a paltry little art house sum.
Still, a hundred million’s nothing to sneeze at. And besides, the Transformers franchise is nothing but pure fantasy; it has no conscience to betray. Les Misérables is a different matter. Its creator Victor Hugo was an important political activist and infamous provocateur. His 1830 play Hernani was so ahead of its time that during the course of its two-month run fistfights routinely broke out in the theatre. After Napoleon III’s coup d’état, Hugo went into exile on the island of Guernsey for almost 20 years, where he wrote, among other works, Les Misérables. His commitment to social equality was clearly spelled out in his last will and testament, a five-sentence document that reads:
Je donne cinquante mille francs aux pauvres. Je veux être enterré dans leur corbillard. Je refuse l’oraison de toutes les Eglises. Je demande une prière à toutes les âmes. Je crois en Dieu.
Translated into English: “I give 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be carried to the cemetery in their hearse. I refuse the prayers of the churches. I ask for a prayer for all souls. I believe in God.”
Victor Hugo died in 1885, one hundred years before the musical adaptation of his masterwork Les Miserables premiered in London; 2 million people attended his funeral. Were he alive today, against what forms of social asphyxia, ignorance, and poverty might he turn the power of his pen? Perhaps he would write about infant mortality. In the world 6.9 million children under the age of 5 died in 2011. That’s 19,000 children dead per day of entirely preventable diseases.
Or maybe the creator of prisoner 24601 might turn an eye to the United States, which has the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world. These rates are hardly equitable. Young black men make up a disproportionate number of our prisoners: in 2008, 37% of America’s black men between the ages of 18-34 were behind bars. What’s more, it is clear that many American prisoners of all races are not guilty of the crimes for which they serve. As of today 301 people have been exonerated through DNA testing; 18 had been awaiting execution on death row. Those exonerations came at great cost; according the Innocence Project,“These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.”
Be honest. Did any of these issues cross your mind when you watched Les Miz? Or were you like me: crying with Hugh Jackman and getting carried away with the music, the spectacle, and the power of your own emotions. Besides, what do you expect from a blockbuster movie? It’s not a documentary; it’s entertainment. And of course it made millions of dollars. That’s what Hollywood movies are supposed to do. I don’t want to pay $10 to see some movie and think about infant mortality or how many people are locked up in American prisons. And it’s not that I don’t care. I do care, really, really I do. But those people, you know, the people who are dying or in prison or whatever, those people aren’t me. Fantine is. And Jean Valjean. And Éponine. I identify with them. And the other people? The ones out there, outside of my darkened world of crying? They’re not really a part of my life. They’re just…well, they’re different. They’re the Unfortunates. The Outsiders. Les Misérables.
Bad criticism seeks to inspire personal shame at our gauche and abominable taste. Great critics like Victor Hugo seek to inspire collective shame so society can get off its ass and make the world better . The tragedy of inequality is in our failure to act against it. Is it absurd to expect Broadway or Hollywood to bring about fundamental social change? Perhaps. After all, the business of show business is business. Or, as Lily Tomlin used to say, they don’t call it “show art.”
Besides, the fault is not with Hollywood. That hundred million dollars is our money. We spent it on Les Miz. And Transformers. And The Hobbit. And hundreds of other forms of escapist fare while children die and the innocent rot in prison. Victor Hugo never intended for Les Misérables (or Les Miz) to distract us from these inequities. His work was to be of use.
Well? There’s no reason why we can’t use it. Interested in working to end world hunger? Donate to UNICEF now. Does it bother you that taxpayer dollars are incarcerating people for crimes they did not commit? Make a contribution to The Innocence Project. These are admittedly small steps, but to my mind they honor Hugo’s legacy far more our drops of sweet cinematic tears. If Les Misérables does nothing else, it shows with stunning clarity and power the urgent need to work for justice and social equity. Because in the end, Jean Valjean’s compassion and generosity know no bounds. Through his relationships with Fantine, Cossette, Marius, and finally even Javert, he learns that the world is a place where we are never truly alone. He and the rest of us have an obligation to society, and his tireless work on its behalf is transformative, even redemptive. Les Misérables was never meant to distract us from our social ills, but wake us up so we could fight them. If we rise to Hugo’s challenge, then we may still cry. But our tears might now mean something different.
If not? Well then, rest assured that when it comes to Les Miz….
…it’s really still all about you.
January 8, 2013
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