Kicking and screaming, I was dragged into my living room, last evening, to view the premiere of the finally-available-for-free film of Les Miserables. But the “free” aspect didn’t compensate for the lost hours spent watching it.
I had enjoyed the stage production when it appeared in Toronto a few years ago. The story was clear, the singing and production superb, and it boasted some touching and beautiful songs. I bought the live show CD and grew to love the music. A recent Guardian poll voted Les Miserables the greatest musical of all time. Amidst the bloated productions that typify Broadway’s output in recent decades – from the morbid Phantom of the Opera to the meaningless spectacle of Miss Saigon – Les Miserables evinced genuine substance and appeal. But mixed critical reaction to the film version had made me wary.
Director Tom Hooper comes with the kind of credentials that made him an ideal candidate to helm this $61 million musical film of Victor Hugo’s famous novel. His passport to success was having landed the film interpretation of a royal turkey, The King’s Speech, in which we watch King George VI – the frantic replacement for his dim-witted, abdicating, fascist brother, Edward VIII – manfully struggle with a speech impediment so that he can declare war on his German cousins, the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family and their champion, Adolf Hitler. Family squabbles can be so upsetting.
Despite King George’s overwhelmingly political task (some 63 million “commoners” would die in what official history terms “the good war”), bourgeois story-telling rules require us to view this as a deeply human story – about a problem student and his kindly but firm teacher – a tale we can all relate to! The film’s apolitical emphasis encourages response similar to that of the propaganda campaign “Support Our Troops!” in which the plight of nice young men who inadvertently find themselves caught in theaters of war demands our sympathy regardless of our government’s excuse for sending them there. It’s a transparent (to some) attempt to garner political support through appealing to the sentiments of people whose world-view is dominated by the perpetual plight of cute puppies in danger – and the practice applies to stories of our royals as well. Audience fondness for Valentines to the monarchy was reaffirmed by widespread acclaim and the usual awards for The King’s Speech despite its failing to deliver even the clichéd charm of an insider look at the British/German monarchy.
While slavish devotion to things kingly highlighted Hooper’s interpretation of George VI’s plight, questions of trust may have arisen from the difficult subject matter of Les Miserables, with its themes of rebellion and revolution: Would his work demonstrate proper revulsion for the poor? A pious despair in face of human suffering? Cynicism regarding the motives of those who would change the world? And conscientious belief in the fallibility of human nature? In other words: loyalty to a bourgeois world view? But they needn’t have worried: Reverence for the royal family is unvarnished class prejudice. Hooper drowns Les Miserable’s unsavory proletarian content in a deluge of reactionary contempt, coming through with colors as shining as his old school tie.
Les Miserables treats us to hyperbolic ugliness of production design and camera style that barely bothers to masquerade as art. The film boasts not a second of beauty on any level. Not that film should be pretty, but I firmly believe that it should be beautiful. Yes! Poetic! But like many of today’s film makers, Hooper seems to be engaged in a race-to-the-bottom competition that fetishizes grotesquery and human degradation, its chief aesthetic influence what may be termed Zombie Apocalypse. Ever wondered why zombies are so popular?
There hasn’t been a massive public demand for the zombie stories that have saturated popular culture in recent years, or, if there was a vote, I missed it. But IMDb lists 871 zombie films and TV series. The Walking Dead is a current TV mega-hit. In an era marked by escalating capitalist ferocity, where the poor are preyed upon by the rich – hideously exploited, slaughtered in war, condemned to starvation and homelessness, subjected to random police violence – victim couture has taken on a zombie flair. Aren’t all those un-dead-looking people sleeping on city street corners and lurking under bridges rather zombie-like? And what do you do with a zombie? On the big screen, rather than letting the marauder overwhelm you and suck your lifeblood, you blow him away – in the most grotesque manner possible – with big-time American fire power. Oh lighten up: Zombies aren’t human, after all. Or are they?
The chief target audience for all this zombie hoo-haw is the middle class. By middle class, I don’t mean workers. I mean those people who drive SUVs and BMWs, the people who shop at Whole Foods and Neiman-Marcus, who own comfortable houses and vacation in Europe. American propaganda calls anyone with a job “middle class”, but a finer, more useful distinction can be made: doctors, lawyers, business owners, corporate managers and other professionals are the real middle class. Inevitably, they’re people who own things, and they’re the people whose opinions matter. George Bush spoke clearly to the middle class when he referred to his America as “the ownership society.”
For the middle class, loss of status and everything they’re entitled to is threatened (they believe) by all those zombie-like people lurching about in the streets, living off unemployment insurance or welfare, depleting our precious medical system, occupying parks, complaining about the 1%, and burdening our overworked and beleaguered police forces. The middle class is especially prey to scare campaigns regarding over-population, illegal immigrants and the real estate bubble – their greatest fear is that they’ll become zombies themselves. This ownership class is well-represented on the extreme right of the political spectrum by people who may be starting to wonder if we should just blow all those zombies away, like on TV. My suspicion is that the prevalence of zombie apocalypse entertainment helps to externalize these fears, and the genre just may be used to soften up middle class acceptance of extreme measures against the poor and propertyless. We’ve seen first glimpses of this trend in the treatment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But that would imply a conspiracy, wouldn’t it? Well, yes. If they can invade other countries in defiance of international law, build mega-prisons, militarize policing, destroy public education, spy on everyone, and abandon victims of natural disasters to die (even murdering some of them), isn’t it child’s-play to manipulate the arts as well? This will only come as a surprise to people to whom it hasn’t occurred that government is a massive conspiracy in defense of class rule. But I digress.
What does all this have to do with Les Miserables? I thought you’d never ask. It’s a truism that each historical era interprets classic texts through the filter of it own assumptions and prejudices. The recent film of Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice – in cultural lock-step with fashionable attitudes (see my review of Michael Radford’s Merchant film elsewhere on this site) – endorses homosexual relationships and entrepreneurial ruthlessness, and dismisses anti-Semitism by implicitly encouraging us to “lighten up” (my words, not Shakespeare’s) by identification with its nasty, opportunist protagonists. In this most reactionary of times, creative works that deal with social issues are particularly vulnerable to interpretation that reflects the values of our ruling class. Hugo’s Les Miserables, with its anti-monarchy sentiments, sympathetic portrayal of revolutionaries and contempt for police, presents a pithy challenge for an England still caught in the ideological vice-grip of Thatcherite neo-conservatism. Thus, a loyal artist will emphasize aspects of the story to create an overall interpretation that reinforces the “right” of the rich to rule. In the case of Les Miserables, conforming to the Zombie Apocalypse vision that saturates popular culture takes care of a lot of issues, both creative and political.
How else to explain the hiring of performers who can’t sing? Any given morning, across the civilized world, bathroom showers ring with voices that put Russell Crowe’s croaking Inspector Javert to shame. If Hugh Jackman (Valjean) can sing, there’s little evidence of it here, and Anne Hathaway’s rendering of Fantine’s death is one hundred times more vocally excruciating than it needs to be. The entire production seems to be in the wrong key. Only Samantha Barks (as Eponine) was able to transcend the shrill squeak of everything emanating from the screen. Compounding the fiasco, Hooper decided to have the cast sing all the dialogue as well, robbing us of what might have been the sudden, arresting beauty of many of the songs. An experienced musical producer friend says that the two best things music does is start and stop. Hooper Gang: take note, svp.
The ugliness doesn’t stop there. Hooper’s solution to the complex demands of staging and framing performance is to endlessly track forward or back with hand-held camera, as though the cast is trapped in an invisible labyrinth, frantically trying to escape. It was on this level that I sympathized whole-heartedly – I wanted to escape this stunningly tedious production from its first moments.
Under-populated confrontation at the barricades has the scale of a frat-house prank, and Hooper daftly cuts to an arial shot to show – not widespread revolt, but – empty streets surrounding a tiny tempest. Apparently, a $61 million budget doesn’t include adequate extras. Is this the technique of a director who doesn’t grasp film grammar – or an attempt to trivialize the rebellion?
But it’s the Zombie Apocalypse motif that dominates the proceedings. With massive efforts from the designers and production staff, the cast and sets look exactly as ugly and disgusting as dozens of other dystopian visions. It’s made doubly so by the poetic potential which Hooper has so thoughtlessly squandered… or was it thoughtless? In rendering the world of political turmoil, revolutionary struggle and working class aspiration so thoroughly repulsive, the ownership class’s prejudices – anti-worker, anti-politics, anti-everything that may threaten their privileges – are reinforced. But even they can’t have had a good time while watching Les Miserables, can they? It’s a film made – not for but – by a zombie: a director in slavish thrall to the ideology of the class that employs him. And we all know that no idea is as powerful as one that’s accompanied by a pay cheque.