Sunday, January 20, 2013

Les Miserables: What Tom Hooper's Victor Hugo Offers Us

The Man stands in a fertile valley with his legs steadfastly planted on the ground. He takes his shoes and socks off and digs his toes into the cool, rich, soil. He surveys his world: his house is sturdy, his crops are good and his family is fed.  He feels a worm ooze across his bare foot and  watches as it burrows into his soil.  A cat silently sneaks up on a robin and in a second the sharpened felines claws have ripped open the tender red breast.  The Man changes his glance, but there is not much to see for immense trees rise up, cutting off his view.  For a moment he glances at the night sky, but sees only an impenetrable darkness. There are some specks in the heavens, but they are so distant they offer him no light or warmth. His gaze returns to his farm, and to his black soil speckled with the warm red blood of the robin.

His Brother stands precariously upon the summit of the mountain of the valley.  He looks past his feet to the earth below and sees The Man with his toes snuggled in the earth, and that man's house, crops, and trees, and beyond the trees to the next man's house and his crops.  Still The Brother sees further: a battle is skirmishing and a man has just been shot; two young lovers leave a church; a boy reluctantly buries his dog.  Nothing escapes the eyes of The Brother, for the mountain commands a sweeping view of the valley.  But The Brother's eye not only looks past his feet; it regularly ascends to the heavens whence he draws his strength.  The stars shine exuberantly to him, a reminder of his faith in the divine creator that he worships.
          The Man is Emile Zola, and The Brother is Victor Hugo

I felt a serious connection to Victor Hugo in high school. I wrote the above as the lead to a 25-page close reading of the novels Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-three) by Hugo and La Debacle (The Downfall) by Zola to compare the literary philosophies of Romanticism and Naturalism.

My philosophical visualization flashed into my mind as Russell Crowe walked precariously along the very edges of towering buildings in Paris in Tom Hooper's film of the stage Les Miserables. So Hooper felt some of the same vibe from Hugo that I did and visualized it in a similar way.  That was a surprise. The Romanticism vibe informs his big, epic, intense vision for the film, and for my reading of Hugo, his creation is a huge, messy success.

I Missed the Global Phenomenon, til Now
One thing I have in common with Anthony Lane and David Denby is I'm outside the "60 million people in 42 countries" (Guardian article) who have seen the stage version in some form or another. And after getting close to Hugo in Ninety-Three, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I found him too intense to stay near and so I didn't read Les Miserables.

That meant I was completely unspoiled for the the film experience. I really didn't know where the plot was going to go. Instead I entered the Ziegfeld Theatre with Denby's Culture Desk post in The New Yorker on my mind. He hated it with a Mencken passion:

"My fellow-countrymen, we are the people of Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin! Cole Porter and George Gershwin, Frank Loesser and Burton Lane! We taught the world what popular melody was! What rhythmic inventiveness was! Let us unite to overthrow the banality of these French hacks!” (And the British hacks, too, for that matter.) Alas, the hall is filled with people weeping over Les Mis.”

The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, however, is a defenders of these barricades.

"Even as a non-believer in this kind of "sung-through" musical, I was battered into submission by this mesmeric and sometimes compelling film, featuring a performance of dignity and intelligence from Hugh Jackman, and an unexpectedly vulnerable singing turn from that great, big, grumpy old bear, Russell Crowe."

Team Jackman & the Weepers
Hugh Jackman as Valjean is thrilling to watch. He's on the screen 90% of the time, aging 17 years, carrying the character with ease, embodying the very soul of Valjean even through the difficulties.  I'm also a fan of Russell Crowe here. The tessitura of his songs is too high for his voice, but the strain just adds to his characterization. Anne Hathaway is good, but that role has so much melodrama built in, she's doesn't have to stretch much.

Denby, we know,  is equally appalled and surprised that his countryfolk are weeping.

Maybe the tears come because the film is a safe place to see the big themes of life in a bold, messy "easy" way:  justice, injustice, love triangles, the healing of redemption, the power of love, faith, and death. Nothing is nuanced, just big, out-there human condition with simple music. The film is permission to connect with these ever-important questions without having to pay up; it offers a look into the abyss, and then invites you to go home with a catchy tune in your head. Clearly for  many, this is a gift, and the poignancy of having this gift makes adults—carrying serious, adult problems into the movie theater—cry. For others, simply NOT (can you spell G.U.M.P.?)  I was a weeper.

History Smiles: The French & The English
What I also love about the film is its distinct creative journey.

(Bits and pieces from Wiki) It all started when French songwriter Alain Boubil is watching the musical Oliver! in London. So Dickens has a hand in it. He sees how Les Miserables can be a musical. He pitches the idea to French composer Claude-Michel Schoenberg, and they block it out. It becomes a concept album in 1980. That leads to French stage production that year, and then an English language version, with lyrics by Herbert Kretamer and new material by James Fenton that opens in 1985 at the Barbican.

It's the English-language version that ignites pop culture. It's France's history, but it's the English interpretation that touches the deepest chord. The French & the British have been sniping at each other for centuries: culturally, economically, with many, many guns, cannons, and swords.  And yet, Les Miz.

Then it was time for the upstarts, the Americans to partake. It premiered on Broadway in 1987 and ran until 2003, revived 2006 to 2008, and is set for another Broadway revival 2014.

2012 was the year that an English director made a big Hollywood film, staring a pair of Australians.

All because Victor Hugo was walking the streets of Paris in 1832 and found himself at a barricade for the June Revolution (43 years after "the famous one") and was compelled to spin a tale. I love it.

Back to high school:

The abstract idea of revolution pervades Ninety-three and The Downfall, and both use the metaphor of a gangrene limb of a soldier that must be amputated. For Hugo, Breton devotion to the nobility, which was the very core of their courage and bravery and the source of his tremendous admiration for them, was nonetheless gangrene. For Zola, Maurice ceased to be a believer in Republicanism "considering the remedy not drastic enough. . . . he was a believer in the necessity of Terror as the only means of ridding them of the traitors and imbeciles who were about to slay the country."

Where the romantic succeeded, the naturalist failed; where the romantic became noble and glorified, the naturalist was humiliated; where the naturalist faltered and was uncertain, the romantic remained steadfast. But at the end of both novels, at the death of the old and the birth of the new, the philosophers are united.

For place the mountain between two larger mountains, and it quickly becomes the valley.

The French "Do you hear the people sing" aka "A la volonte du peuple"