Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Friends of 4DK: "Do You Hear the People Sing?" by Andrew Nahem

My fellow Drive-In Mobster Andrew Nahem is a boss on Twitter and co-creator of the Webby Award winning site Elevator Moods. For this edition of The Friends of 4DK, Andrew dug extra deep to bring us a peculiar oddity from the forsaken sub-basement of arcane cinema. If I didn't know him so well, I'd think he made it up.

When Todd asked me to contribute a post to the Friends of 4DK Initiative, I was naturally appalled. First of all, I am not a bloggist. I may have written things here and there, but nothing discernibly blog-shaped (“oblog,” in the parlance I think—but again, I’m no expert). Furthermore, while I do enjoy the cult- or B- films, my knowledge of them falls far short of the 4DK standard. What could I possibly contribute to a learned discussion of Bollywood action films or rare Malaysian ghost stories that would elicit anything more than derisive laughter from this audience? What dark byway of cinema could I illuminate for these obscurantists and international cultists?

But at last I think I’ve unearthed a bizarre offering that could perhaps use some unpacking.

Les Misérables (USA, UK, 2012), dir. Tom Hooper.

This film opens with a grand sweeping shot of prisoners in a place called France, who for their crimes (stealing various baked goods, those just under the line for capital offenses) are punished by being forced to haul giant ships around on land. Why the French Navy in 1815 has no better use for its frigates is one of the mysteries this story never illuminates.

Right away the uncanny nature of this production becomes evident. Readers of this blog are obviously familiar with the concept of the movie musical. But unlike the familiar tropes of, say, a Bollywood epic, these characters lift their voice in song while standing in the muck of sewers, getting a pixie-cut, etc. yet they do not dance. The colors, in fact, remain steadfastly dark and heavy. Further investigation reveals that the filmmakers attempted the rarely-tried experiment of having the actors sing these numbers live, which arguably increases the quality—and certainly the quantity—of the acting.

One of these bread-snatchers, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has attracted the notice of the chief ship-wrangler, the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), for being insufficiently downcast during the song “Look Down.” Valjean, a narcissist who never grasps the enormity of his crime, once released, thinks nothing of breaking parole to go on a mountain tour of regional convents.

Eight years pass, and rather than emigrating to America like any sensible ex-convict fugitive, the self-involved Valjean has installed himself as a very public factory owner—and mayor of the town, where he can hardly take two steps without tripping over his old nemesis, Javert, who has not as yet recognized him. Distracted one day by one of these coincidental appearances, he allows the beautiful Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to be fired for filing a sexual-harassment claim against his factory foreman. In this society, such whistle-blowers are forced to sell their hair and teeth and are apparently infected with a kind of terminal brain fever.

One night Valjean, out for one of his daily run-ins with Javert, discovers that one of the ships he had dragged into town as a convict so long ago has finally been turned to some use—as a brothel. It is there that he and Javert find Fantine plying the old trade, but as is their wont, they hold differing views on what to do about it.

By this time the long-suffering Javert has begun to twig that “Monsieur le maire” is none other than Valjean, whom he had nicknamed “24601” back in the day. They meet up over Fantine’s corpse for a much-needed sword-fight and a song. Valjean pledges to turn himself in after three days, but characteristically decides to blow off this promise in favor of his new interest: Fantine’s young child, Cosette, whom he has decided to claim as his own and raise in hiding in a bucolic atmosphere of secrecy.

Nine years later and this France is in an uproar. A fickle group, the citizenry had previously had a king, and this had displeased them. But once they’d disposed of him, they found they wanted another. Now it’s 1833 and they are heartily sick of the whole business again. In addition, Paris is being menaced by the appearance of a giant stone elephant in the middle of the city. Unfortunately these young hotheads can think of nothing to do about all this besides throwing their furniture out of the windows and making a huge mound of broken pianos and chaises longues in order to disrupt the regular flow of traffic, thus involving the put-upon Javert, who is dispatched to set things right once again.

This naturally attracts Valjean, who—though he has no dog in this fight—can never resist toying with his old enemy. This time he drags Cosette, now a young woman, along for the fun. She, in the person of Amanda Seyfried, happens to be a symbol of love and strength and light, so she cannot but enslave the heart of one of the rebel alliance. This all leads to a series of deadly duet/confrontations between the two adversaries. Valjean cleverly manipulates the youngsters into allowing him to deal with Javert whom they've managed to capture and stage in a macabre tableau with a noose around his neck. Spiriting him into an alleyway, Valjean delivers the coup de grâce: he lets him go, thus posing a logical conundrum—not unlike those used by Captain Kirk to confound various futuristic computers in Star Trek—which Javert’s noble police mind cannot reconcile (“And does he know/That granting me my life today/This man has killed me even so?”).

A few months pass and Valjean, inexplicably aged, decides to hit the convent trail one last time, ostensibly to avoid Cosette’s wedding to the former revolutionary, an event that he’d taken as a personal inconvenience, like the theft of a favorite bauble. Nonetheless—in tribute, perhaps, to the investigative tenacity of old Javert—they smoke him out in in his God-lair, weepily singing about how he wishes Cosette were there to watch him die instead of frittering away her time on a foolish wedding. As usual he gets his own way, but not before Fantine—in one of this film’s rare supernatural effects—appears to him as some sort of demon or phantom. Cosette pleads with him to hold on to life, but Fantine grips him with the icy Hand of Death and drags him off.

We never find out what happens to France.

All in all, a peculiar work. The baffling approach to the music—making the tunes as unmemorable as possible in order to shift attention to the facial expressions—the strange symbols abounding in the mise-en-scène (the elephant, a mysterious eye which seems to watch the characters wherever they go, etc.), the unfamiliar societal customs which nevertheless at times appear to follow a kind of dream-logic, all these elements show Les Misérables to be the work of a singular artistic vision and a worthy object of cult affection.


Mr. Cavin said...

Ah, 24601. Mathematically proven to scan anywhere in a sentence. Pretty sure the theorists just use the feta cheese notation. Great article!

Tremor Engine said...

" Unfortunately these young hotheads can think of nothing to do about all this besides throwing their furniture out of the windows and making a huge mound of broken pianos and chaises longues in order to disrupt the regular flow of traffic, thus involving the put-upon Javert, who is dispatched to set things right once again. "

What the heck ?