Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

01.07.13

Why All the Hate for Les Mis?

Melodrama captures a lot of the truth of our internal lives

I might as well just get this out of the way: I loved Les Miserables.  

I loved it on Broadway, where I saw it for the first time in 1989, with Colm Wilkinson, "The Voice of God", playing Jean Valjean.  I loved it in London in 2004, where I saw it again.  And so I was prepared to love it again in the movie theater.  Which I did, extravagantly.  I happily sobbed for the last half hour of the movie, while my husband, a movie critic, kept uncomfortably leaning over to ask if I was all right.  I listened to the album all the way back to Washington D.C. from Boston, where we'd been visiting my father.  I sang "At the End of the Day" and "Master of the House" while I made the first meal in my new pressure cooker.  I haven't enjoyed a movie so much in years.  

I am not oblivious to its faults.  The singing in the film is very uneven (though Eddie Redmayne was a very pleasant surprise as Marius).  Russell Crowe was badly cast as Javert, though I understand why the producers needed a star in the part.  On the other hand, I do not understand why on earth they cast Amanda Seyfried, who was completely unequipped for a role meant for a strong soprano.  Her already thin voice soared to the top of its range, and then onward into a series of heart-rending squeaks that made you very angry at the director who had inflicted this shame on a naive young actress.   Hugh Jackman, a baritone singing a tenor role, was also overmatched; it was hard to tell whether the questionable singing choices were actual choices, or compromises he'd been forced into by the limits of his voice.  

For all that, I loved it; the filming gave the story both an intimacy, and a scope, that it could never have on stage.  That is not to say that it was better than the play; the singing was certaintly worse.  Rather, it was different, in a way that added as much as it subtracted.  I know that I will happily watch it again.

In that, I am not alone: the $61 million film just passed the $100 million mark at the box office. But the critics are not so enamored. The nicer reviews damn with faint praise and read like extended sighs, usually ending with a reluctant acknowledgement that I suppose people who liked the musical will probably like the movie too. The less nice reviews—well, I think David Denby speaks for most of those critics:

Didn’t any of my neighbors notice how absurdly gloomy and dolorous the story was? How the dominant blue-gray coloring was like a pall hanging over the material? How the absence of dancing concentrated all the audience’s pleasure on the threadbare songs? How tiresome a reverse fashion show the movie provided in rags, carbuncles, gimpy legs, and bad teeth? How awkward the staging was? How strange to have actors singing right into the camera, a normally benign recording instrument, which seems, in scene after scene, bent on performing a tonsillectomy?

Hugh Jackman, as the aggrieved Jean Valjean, delivers his numbers in a quavering, quivering, stricken voice—Jackman doesn’t sing, he brays. Russell Crowe as Javert, his implacable pursuer, stands on parapets overlooking all of Paris and dolefully sings of his duty to the law. Then he does it again. Everything is repeated, emphasized, doubled, as if to congratulate us on emotions we’ve already had. The young women, trembling like leaves in a storm, battered this way and that by men, never exercise much will or intelligence. Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, gets her teeth pulled, her hair chopped, and her body violated in a coffin box—a Joan of Arc who only suffers, a pure victim who never asserts herself. Hathaway, a total pro, gives everything to the role, exploiting those enormous eyes and wide mouth for its tragic-clown effect. Like almost everyone else, she sings through tears. Most of the performances are damp.

The music is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise. Listen to any score by Richard Rodgers or Leonard Bernstein or Fritz Loewe if you want to hear genuine melodic invention. I was so upset by the banality of the music that I felt like hiring a hall and staging a nationalist rally. “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.”

… Every emotion in the movie is elemental. There’s no normal range, no offhand or incidental moments—it’s all injustice, love, heartbreak, cruelty, self-sacrifice, nobility, baseness. Which brings us to heart of the material’s appeal. As everyone knows, the stage show was a killer for girls between the ages of eight and about fourteen. If they have seen “Les Mis” and responded to it as young women, they remain loyal to the show—and to the emotions it evoked—forever. At that age, the sense of victimization is very strong, and “Les Mis” is all about victimization. That the story has nothing to with our own time makes the emotions in it more—not less—accessible, because feeling is not sullied by real-world associations. But whom, may I ask, is everyone crying for? For Jean Valjean? For Fantine? Fantine is hardly on the screen before she is destroyed. Indeed, I’ve heard of people crying on the way into the movie theatre. It can’t be the material itself that’s producing those tears. “Les Mis” offers emotion… about emotion.

But, you say, what’s wrong with a good cry? What harm does it do anyone? No harm. But I would like to point out that tears engineered this crudely are not emotions honestly earned, that the most cynical dictators, as Pauline Kael used to say, have manipulated emotions with the same kind of kitsch appeal to gut feelings. Sentimentality in art is corrosive because it rewards us for imprecise perceptions and meaningless hatreds.

But, you say, what’s wrong with a good cry? What harm does it do anyone? No harm. But I would like to point out that tears engineered this crudely are not emotions honestly earned, that the most cynical dictators, as Pauline Kael used to say, have manipulated emotions with the same kind of kitsch appeal to gut feelings. Sentimentality in art is corrosive because it rewards us for imprecise perceptions and meaningless hatreds.

I am not a critic. Indeed, I barely even see movies anymore, which is a side effect that they don’t warn you about when you marry a movie critic. So it’s rather presumptuous of me to disagree with the likes of Anthony Lane and David Denby, when I have neither the breadth of movie knowledge, nor the critical background, to join in any sort of high level critical conversation.

And yet. I think the critics are badly wrong about stuff like Les Misérables. I mean, they’re right that they don’t like it. But disliking stuff like this seems to be some sort of requirement for becoming a critic. And it seems to me that this misses something fundamental about the role of stories in our lives.

Compare the critical reaction to Les Misérables to the reaction to The Grey. I pick them because they are sort of neat inverses of each other: critics liked The Grey much better than the audience did, while that is reversed for Les Misérables. (Critics also, it sort of goes without saying, liked The Grey better than Les Misérables.) But I also pick them because of the effect they had on me. Both of them stayed with me for days—Les Misérables in a lingering sensation of oceanic emotion, The Grey with the sort of leaden horror that I imagine to have pervaded Stalin’s personal staff offices.

Les Misérables is, to state the obvious, a plot-heavy melodrama. People are forever being unjustly persecuted, struggling with their conscience, risking all to do the right thing. The Grey is a story stripped down to its barest elements: it is, I think no accident that while Les Misérables comes from a thousand-page novel, The Grey was adapted from a short story called “Ghost Walker”. In it, some men who survived an Alaska plane crash try to make it to civilization while being pursued by a pack of wolves. Nothing particularly remarkable happens except that—SPOILER ALERT!!!—all of the men find some moderately dramatic way to get themselves killed. There is some character exploration, in which we learn that they haven’t much.

The subject matter of both movies is, by and large, people losing precious years of their lives to an unjust fate. There’s a whole lot of dying. But there the similarity ends, because while the people in Les Misérables are struggling for virtue and meaning, the people in The Grey are losing meaningless lives to unhappy accident; the meaningless universe doesn’t even care enough to kill them deliberately. One could practically hear Kurtz whispering “The horror! The horror!” in one’s ear. It was dreadful. I deeply regret having forced myself to see the end of it.

It is notable that critics found this considerably more admirable than the life-affirming, panoramic saga of Les Misérables—found it more admirable precisely because it is tedious and small and offers the “message” that life is meaningless and rather horrible and yet nonetheless, all too short. This seems like a rather stupid criteria for enjoying art. I mark myself as unsophisticated for having liked Les Misérables—but what is more adolescent than the notion that futility and horror are the secret truth of life? Certainly the majority of life is anything but; no one spends most of their life thinking or acting as if they believe that all this is truly insignificant. If anything is the secret truth of life it is hope: grandiose, impractical, and with us to the last. Yet critics valorize the films which celebrate its destruction, over the ones which celebrate its triumphs. There’s a moderate exception for films in which some oppressed minority wins a legal (or occasionally physical) battle against the forces of oppression—but even these fare less well with the critics than bleaker fare.

This seems to me like an odd cultural choice. It may not be odd in an individual critic—the main asset a critic has is his or her personal aesthetic, and who am I to tell them what that aesthetic should be. But it’s odd that nearly every single critic seems to have the same set of aesthetic preferences. What is it about bleakness and tedium that are so attractive, other than the fact that most people instinctively recoil from it? By which logic, scorpions are superior to puppies.

The sort of movies that one prefers—or wants to prefer—say something about the culture one lives in (or wants to), the person one is, or wants to be. When films decide to eschew the gauzy-halo’d bride and the heavenly choir singing in the birth, and reassign the halo and the choir to the last moment that you saw that guy you had the weekend fling with in Prague, they are telling you something fairly important about the culture of the filmmakers, not to mention their emotional lives.

It seems to me that a culture that valorizes the values of Les Misérables would be a better place to live than one which preferred The Grey, as would an individual life. Why does seemingly every critic except Mat Zoller-Seitz disagree with me?

That’s not to say that I think there there’s some sort of moral requirement to like Les Misérables. As one friend remarked, when I confessed that I liked Wagner, “Megan has an unusually high tolerance for bombastic swill”. De gustibus non est disputandum.

But I do object when disliking Les Misérables becomes some sort of litmus test for thinking intelligently about art. Especially since over the centuries, stories like Les Misérables have a great deal more staying power than stories like The Grey. It’s easy to imagine Les Misérables still being watched 80 years hence, just as Gone With the Wind is now. It’s very difficult to imagine our great grandchildren making a special effort to watch a movie where the main message is that people in 2011 were afraid of dying. Almost all of the stories that survive the centuries are plot driven and super-dramatic, even melodramatic, filled with archetypical characters wreaking physical and emotional havoc on the lives of the people around them. Doesn’t that tell us something important about what stories are for?

The reaction of Denby et al seems perilously close to dismissing the movie precisely because it’s the sort of thing that really resonates with ordinary people—those sentimental fools. I find it interesting that in his piece, Denby speaks admiringly of the musical comedies of yesteryear—he endorses the music as more innovative, and its pleasurable escapism as somehow more authentic. Did Denby’s historical counterparts praise all that musical innovation and pure escapism when it was new? Or does middlebrow entertainment become appealing only when it has aged into a minority taste?

Even now, after deciding to write a long-winded defense of Les Misérables, I am fighting the urge to demonstrate that I read Proust and listen to Schoenberg—that I am not, in short, the sort of mouth-breathing morlock who just likes it because she doesn’t know any better. When the point of the essay should be that even mouth-breathing morlocks can have a point. Art that’s just for the eloi is an art disconnected from the motive power of its own society.

Can you hear the morlocks sing?