Thursday, December 27, 2012

Under the Microscope

"It is a strange thing, this transference of emotion. We sicken with the same maladies as the poets, and the singer lends us his pain. Dead lips have their message for us, and hearts that have fallen to dust can communicate their joy. We run to kiss the bleeding mouth of Fantine...."

-- Oscar Wilde, Intentions: The Critic as Artist


At first glance, Tom Hooper's current resume'--past awards notwithstanding--could lead to some initial confusion. How is it, after all, that a young British filmmaker (he's only 40 years old this year, for God's sake!) is chosen to direct a project the size of Les Miserables (the long-awaited, much-anticipated, highly-debated movie version of the musical version of the drastically-truncated version of the massively-celebrated 1,500-page 19th-century French novel by Victor Hugo)?

Just wondering...

But actually, upon closer review of Hooper's directorial body of work, the choice isn't all that surprising, really. With what initially may appear to the casual observer to be a case of filmic schizophrenia--a long list of smaller, closeted made-for-British-TV period-pieces as well as such feature films as Red Dust (2004), Elizabeth I (2005), the acclaimed HBO multi-part series of David McCullough's presidential biography, John Adams (2008), and culminating, possibly, in the Academy Award-winning The King's Speech (2010)--Hooper clearly seems to be thematically drawn to the idea of the microscope as opposed to the telescope, the microcosm within the macrocosm, the fate of the lone, vulnerable individual within the crushing broad sweep of epic, historical momentum.

And if that last phrase doesn't describe--in 16 words--the entirety of Hugo's weighty tome' of sin, redemption, and the 1832 Student Revolution of Paris, I don't know what does.

In other words--at least in the estimation of this reviewer--Hooper has proved himself to be the perfect choice as director and a worthy match of Hugo's vision. The merits of the film will be debated, of course, for years, I would imagine. Such designations (meaningless or not) as awards or nominations of said awards have yet to be determined, but it's almost a sure bet the film will garner several statuette-considerations along the way, if for no other reason than its inevitable and considerable sentimental heft of simply being the cultural phenomenon, Les Miserables.

*[Aside: Which brings me to another point before I finally get to my main point, although, when I think about it, this may actually be my main point. I haven't decided yet. Much like Hugo's careful weaving of subplot within plot, an almost eerily postmodern intertextualizing of a story about a story within a story--like the gentle turning of the microscope's dial, bringing the insignificant (the lowly and the miserable, after all) closer into larger-than-life view--I seem to be didactically distracted and digressive. But there is a point here. I know it. And besides, Hugo would understand. At least I'd like to think so.]

And what of this curious cultural phenomenon, this global sensation known as Les Miserables: The Musical? What are we to make of all of this, finally? Since its English-language debut in 1985 on the London stage, the team of composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyricist Alain Boublil, and librettist Herbert Kretzmer (it sounds like a hell of a law firm, in point of fact), practically came out of nowhere with their ridiculous notion of turning Hugo's immense novel into a 3-hour musical.

*[Aside: Just try, for a moment, to imagine that virgin sales pitch to a then-unsuspecting Broadway producer, Cameron Mackintosh. Go on. I'll give you a moment....]

In the process--after a successful word-of-mouth campaign to turn around the show's initial negative reactions--the team succeeded in doing the impossible. And now--some 27 years and an uncountable number of incarnations later--the musical version of Les Miserables has, in its own inherently revolutionary fashion, won the war, so to speak. And it has now finally reached the big screen. Which brings me to where I was originally intending to go, it would seem.

First things first, though, and that is to say that I am not--by most stretches of the imagination--a fan of musical theater. But let me try to be even clearer: I am a big fan of music, and I am an equally big fan of live theater; but, unlike that advertising campaign of many years ago for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups ("You got your peanut butter on my chocolate! Hmmmm... Hey! Not bad!"), I've never really liked the incarnation resulting from the mixing of the two--live music and live theater.

I understand and appreciate the historical and cultural heritage passed down from yesterday's opera in the form of Don Giovanni to today's theatrical musical mega-opus of Wicked.

*[Aside: At least I think I do.]

But I guess, for lack of a better way to say it, it's just not really "my thing."

But it is "the thing" of many, many people. And many, many people the world over have proven this many, many times by repeatedly turning out for performance after performance after performance of such shows as Les Miserables.

Myself included, as it turns out. Though admittedly not a fan of musicals, I, too, have seen Les Miz (as we--who have seen it live--like to call it) performed on the stage. Twice, if the truth be told. (An honor which I can not say about any other musical.)

And I liked it. Both times. I liked it quite a lot, actually. As it would seem many, many people could also say.

But think about that for a moment. The Sound of Music. West Side Story. Oklahoma. Guys and Dolls. The Music Man. Even the goofy, over-the-big-top freakishness of Andrew Lloyd Weber's spaced-out extravaganzas, Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Cats. I get all of that, in a way, as far as those shows existing as nearly perfect vehicles for live musical theater. I get the audience-transportation aspect of leaving the street-world outside the theater and transporting yourself into the never-never world created on the stage, where every thought is put to song, and every emotion is worn directly on both sleeves, and every show (with the above exception, perhaps, of West Side Story) leaves the audience smiling, and feeling good, and walking back out into the street-world with a lighter step and a song stuck in their collective brain that they can't and don't want to lose. 

I understand all of that. I get how it works. I even get why it works. I'm not questioning or disputing any of that.

What I don't understand (even though I guess to a large extent I do, in some hard-to-define sort of way), is just how in the hell Les Miserables manages to do all of that. Buried within its complex strata of characters and plots and subplots of pain, and anguish, and suffering, and misery, and greed, and loss, and yearning, and death, and sacrifice, and sin, and grace, there lies a very simple story of love in its most elemental incarnations--romantic, parental, and spiritual. And along the way this deceptively simple story is "delivered" in song. Lots and lots of song. (This is, quite literally after all, a contemporary opera, with hardly any spoken lines throughout its 3-hour entirety.) The music is melodic, and complicated, and stirring, and overtly manipulative and memorable. But it works. The whole damned thing works. And I have never understood how, exactly.

Les Miserables, as a novel originally published in 1862, is quite possibly the most eloquently sad and depressing work of literature the world has ever seen, in any language. Just how it has been transformed into this worldwide cultural touchstone and live theatrical phenomenon is beyond me. But it has.

First a musical. And now a movie version of the musical. So it's a done deal, I suppose.

Whether we like to admit it or not, there seems to be something going on below the surface here. Given the degree of suffering and misery presented in Hugo's original story of Jean Valjean, and Javert, and Fantine, and Cosette, and Marius, and Eponine, and given the massive popular response to the tragically sad story--in all of its various guises--there seems to be something rather unsettling and perverse in our communal enjoyment of this story.

The Germans had a word for it, this human inclination to take an almost perverse sense of enjoyment out of another's misery and unhappiness.

*[Aside: Go figure.]

They called it "schadenfreude," meaning, quite literally, the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.The medieval church called it "morose delectation," meaning our inborn, natural inclination toward impure and evil thoughts. In our more modern parlance, I suppose, we may reduce it quite simply to the more commonly heard expressions: "Better you than me," or "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

However you choose to say it, though, it all comes down to the same basic notion: We're sorry that misfortune has to fall on anyone. It's not nice, and it's certainly not fair. But if it is a given that evil and misfortune are going to happen--and it is--then we choose for it to happen to others in place of ourselves. And we don't want to admit this. And we certainly don't want to take part in this--we don't want to be spectators to the tragedy of others--but we cannot help ourselves. We cannot help but watch. And so we gather in the Coliseum to publicly witness the deaths of others. And we turn on the evening news to be drowned in the sea of misery and suffering of others. And we tap our car brakes amidst the long line of red taillights glowing in front of us, caught in an inescapable "gaper's delay," as we notice the flashing red lights of the ambulance up ahead and off to the side of the road, and we slow our vehicle down to a crawl--not because the accident is still on the road; it's off to the side, in the ditch or on the median--but we must slow down anyway, out of respect, of course, lest anyone be hurt or dead, but also out of curiosity (let's admit it, let's just finally admit it) because even though we don't want to look (we can't look, we don't want to see something not meant for us to see, we don't, we really don't) we slow down and look anyway, because deep down inside of us we can't help but look. And we shake our heads sadly. And we smile, perversely, inside. And we say to ourselves, "That could be me. But it's not me. So better you than me."


*[Aside: And, yes, to further complicate matters, I am fully aware of the irony that there is a song by that name in the contemporary musical, Avenue Q--a cute and ironic and self-referential little musical, in itself, about a Sesame Street-like world...for adults. So in a way, my using that word to talk about a popular musical over the past 27 years and now a current movie in the theaters--Les Miserables--is, itself, another example of self-aware layering upon layering upon layering. A "wink to the audience," I suppose. A form of "dramatic irony," in a way, which, again, is yet another kind of layered irony within the irony of what is already inherently and irrefutably ironic. And...well, anyway...]

Is that what's going on here with the massive popular acclaim of Hugo's original novel, and then the musical, and now the movie? Is that what's happening every time the book is opened by a new or returning (valiant) reader, or the opening chords to the musical's overture are sounded, or the movie theater's lights go dark and the first shadowy images flicker onto the screen? Is that what's happening with Les Miserables? Is that--partly, at least, in some deep psychological recesses of our human impulses and desires--what is at work within us and within the basic storyline of this deceptively simple and traditional tale?

I don't know. But I think so.

How else to explain the emotions I saw and heard--and experienced myself--while watching the new movie, directed by Tom Hooper? All around me, as the film progressed over the course of its 2 hours and 45 minutes, I heard sniffling. And I saw cheeks, wettened with tears. And I saw others in the audience dabbing inconspicuously at their eyes and trying not to draw attention to themselves. And as the film faded to black and the end credits began to roll, people got up from their seats, still wiping at their eyes, and yet (and here's the point) smiling. We were smiling at one another. And many in the audience even applauded. We were happy. We were sad, to be sure. (How could you not be sad? The film--so well done--is emotionally draining throughout. So true with Hugo's original intent, I believe, the sadness of the story and of the characters within the story is inescapable.) But we were happy, and smiling, and as we walked out of the darkened movie theater, back out to the parking lot-world and the coldness of our cars, we were singing songs from the musical--each to ourselves--as we made our way home. And we were happy for the very same reason that over the past 27 years everyone who has ever seen the musical on stage and loved it has shared in this unexplainable happiness.

In the sheer magnitude of human suffering on display within the story, there is a sense of comfort and peace and hopefulness at the end. And you are happy to have spent your time in the company of these poor people, so noble in spirit. And an overwhelming sense of not only "Better them than me" washes over you, but also a sense of "What would I do in their place?" as well as, "Would I be so noble and graceful of spirit?"

It causes one to pause and to think.

And nowhere during Hooper's film does this elemental and epiphanic "pause" get a chance to happen--again, at least in this viewer's estimation--more than it does during Anne Hathaway's solo performance of Fantine's soliloquy, "I Dreamed a Dream."

Yes, that's right: Anne Hathaway. That Anne Hathaway.

Let me be fair and clear: Anne Hathaway is a beautiful and talented young woman. Up to this point in her career, she has proven herself to be able to keep up with some heavyweight talents in the entertainment industry, such as Julie Andrews, Meryl Streep, and directors like Ang Lee, Jonathan Demme, and Christopher Nolan. She has sung before in other roles that have come her way, and she's proven herself with a more-than-capable voice. She was even nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, for her performance in Rachel Getting Married (2008).

Not bad, actually, if you stop to think about it.

But the problem is--no matter how much this makes me sound like a pig, which I most assuredly probably am--when I have stopped to think of Anne Hathaway before now, those thoughts have generally drifted not only in the direction of: Anne Hathaway is a beautiful and talented young woman. But, instead, most particularly: Anne Hathaway is a beautiful young woman.

And so there you have it.

And let me get even more particular: When I stop to think about Anne Hathaway in recent memory, what undoubtedly comes to mind is her performance this past summer as Selena Kyle (a.k.a. "Catwoman") in The Dark Knight Rises--and by "performance," I mean (with only a small sense of shame admitting this, actually) the way she wore her little Catwoman outfit, so perfectly form-fitting in all its skintight black leather glory.

*[Aside: Yes. That Anne Hathaway.]

So, what am I saying? Or trying to say?

I think I'm trying to say this: Hathaway, as a young actress, has done her share of floundering along the way, trying to find her way, certainly, with the occasional glimpse of real talent lurking beneath her natural beauty. But when Hooper looked about to cast his film and decided on Hathaway as Fantine--the archetypal sympathetic and suffering young mother-turned-to-the-streets-to-do-what-a-woman-must-do-for-her-young sort of character (which, in the wrong hands, can become an unwitting comedic turn of caricature)--Hooper was inspired. For as it turns out, Hathaway was ready for this role. Boy, was she ever. And not to put too fine a point on it, but she is stunning.

To be even more pointed, Hathaway, and her turn as the unlucky, miserable young mother of the angelic Cosette--as it turns out--is the heart of Hooper's movie. I'm not sure anyone saw this coming. I'm not sure anyone predicted this, necessarily. (I know I didn't.) But she is outstanding in this role.

Hooper demanded a lot from his actors for this film. Mainly, he sought top-shelf actors, because he knew--with this musical more than most--it is the acting which would be the most demanding of the performers. With film, unlike the live stage, the camera would be in the actors' faces--often close up, mere feet or inches from their faces, truth be told (again, much like Hugo's fascination with the "micro" within the "macro.") The singing is undoubtedly demanding, with challenging time signatures and breathing requirements and vocal ranges. But these characters--as envisioned originally by Hugo--were meant to be real people, suffering from real agonies in their real lives. And in Hooper's vision, that doesn't include clinically and technically "perfect" singers. All of the actors in his film version are good singers--some of them are very good, in fact--but a brilliant and challenging decision by Hooper, to add to the sense of verisimilitude he was going for in his adaptation, was to record the actors singing live on the set, with only a small, invisible earpiece inserted in their ear, playing back a piano track to help guide them through the song.

The rest, as seen on the screen as the finished product, was added in later--with full orchestra behind them.

Not only did this decision from Hooper add to the sense of realism on the set. It also, undeniably, required of the actors that they do what they do best while singing the songs--act.

And this brings me, finally, to my main point about Anne Hathaway and her performance as Fantine. Hathaway "found"' herself inside this sad role of Hugo's doomed young mother/prostitute. She rose to the occasion and found her acting "chops" to lead her through the performance. And she is remarkable. Hathaway is--in my opinion--the best part of Hooper's exceptional movie of Les Miserables. Her performance is daring, and risky, and she is willing to make herself as vulnerable and as open as the character, Fantine, herself. Though not in the movie for much screen time, Hathaway burns her way into your memory with her absolutely undeniable sense of screen presence. And her crowning achievement here can be found on full display in her five minutes of glory--her solo, "I Dreamed a Dream"--when the camera pulls in tightly on her face, without makeup, with her beautiful hair chopped to the skull, and her perfect teeth yellowed and decaying from her infected mouth, bleeding and so full of anguish and sorrow for the words and the feelings she has never been able to bring herself to say.

Until now, that is. And so she says them. Or better yet, she sings them. Beautifully, in a way. But painfully, as well. And honestly. And unforgettably. Shot all in one take, the camera never for a moment cuts away from her. The camera is relentless in its gaze. Like a microscope zooming in on her and her unfortunate predicament, it is like she is trapped within the borders of the frame. She can't get away, even if she wanted to. And she is forced to be there, to reveal her soul at that moment in her life. And it is shattering. It is five minutes of transcendent revelation. It is five of the most gut-wrenchingly real  moments I have seen onscreen by an actress since Naomi Watts' performance in Alejandro Inarritu's 21 Grams (2003).

It is, after all, what the ancient Greeks meant when they referred to the necessary ingredient of "catharsis" amidst the inevitable darkness of a dramatic tragedy--the human connection of character and audience, and the communal purging of feeling shared by all involved, followed by a sense of purification and peace.

Hathaway has never been better. I don't know if she will ever equal this scene again in her career. She's young, yet, after all. She might. But she did it here, at least. She steals the emotions of the moment. She owns them all--Fantine's as well as her own personal feelings (you can't help but wonder, just a little), as well as your own. She is drawing on something deep and fundamental for the performance of her career, and the result is devastating.

Though I'm guessing never one to be labeled "the life of the party" (I have yet to stumble across a picture of him in any semblance of gaiety), somewhere, somehow Victor Hugo has to be smiling about all of this.

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