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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 3, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Recycling, Les Miz, Hobbit

No sooner do I finally figure out Greensboro's rules for which objects can be put in the recycling bins than they completely change the rules.

No longer are we restricted only to plastics in the form of narrow-necked bottles. Now any plastic with recycling numbers from 1 to 7 can be recycled, regardless of shape. This includes yogurt and dairy containers; though of course they still ask us to empty them and rinse them so the workers don't have to wade through rotting food bits.

We can also recycle pizza boxes, milk and juice cartons, and pots and pans. They also take, not just newspaper, but also common sheets of paper like the ones used in offices, schools, and computer printouts.

This vastly increases the amount of waste that can legally be recycled. And I'm eager to cooperate.

The trouble is that a few years ago the city scaled back its recycling schedule, emptying the brown recycling bins every other week instead of weekly.

That is not going to work at our house, folks. Even as it was, our recycling was jammed full. Now, with far more items eligible, we need them to come every week, since at least half our garbage will now be recyclable.

In a recent article, the rulers of recycling complained that while city residents recycled 28,500 tons of materials this year, they threw away more that 10,000 tons of items that could have been recycled.

If they come every week, we'll give them more.

*

I don't know if Les Miserables is the best movie of the year. I still lean toward Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Looper, or Argo, and I haven't seen some of the leading contenders yet, like Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty.

But Les Miz is quite possibly the best film musical adaptation of all time.

Note that I don't say it's the best film musical -- I'm not ready yet to evaluate it in comparison with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Singin' in the Rain, both of which were original film musicals, without ever appearing on stage.

Often when stage musicals are adapted for film, the designers and performers get some insane concept of trying to duplicate the stage experience. That's why we get fake-looking color palettes and sing-your-lungs-out acting.

Les Miserables is a different kind of stage musical, for two reasons. First, it began life as a concept album -- a sound-only adaptation of Victor Hugo's beautiful, classic, and absurdly overwritten novel. What this means is that one hundred percent of the story is carried by the songs.

Second, it was created by French composers. Think back to that other classic French film musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with a score by Michel LeGrand. As I recall, there's exactly one song in it, sung again and again. By that standard, High Noon is a musical.

American composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim complained about the fact that Les Miserables has only four songs in it. It's true, but this does make it four times as varied as Umbrellas; and it's French, so what do you expect?

Besides, Boublil & Schonberg do an excellent job of varying the setting, lyrics, and emotional effects of each iteration of the songs, so that it's possible for audience members not to realize that this song and that song have exactly the same melody.

The point of this is that Les Miz is almost, but not quite, a sung-through musical, which is only different from an opera because of the musical tradition out of which it arises.

The actors are singing every bit as much as in an opera, but in opera everything is sacrificed for the sake of producing the optimum singing quality, while in the musical, story and character and passion are more important.

That's why operas don't translate to film, but a sung-through musical can. Film offers opportunities that aren't available on stage. While film requires that you "open up" the show, by getting the action out of the handful of enclosed sets that are usual in stage productions, the real challenge is handling the singing.

On stage, the singers have to project their voices. Even with amplification, you need to fill the hall with your voice. The great musical performers produce loud and resonant tone that vibrates the audience's bones -- literally. You feel transported, filled, inspired by the power of the voice.

But to produce that voice, you have to shape your jaw, mouth, tongue, and body in ways that can look weird. On stage, there's a protective distance (except for audience members who bring binoculars). So you can do what it takes to cast that voice without distracting the audience.

On film, however, the big voice isn't needed; in fact, it can feel absurd. The strength of film is the closeup, and now the contortions that produce the big voice are very distracting.

Normally, film musicals are done by pre-recording the vocal tracks and then lip-synching during the filming. This allows the actors to concentrate on performance instead of voice production. However, when we hear a big voice but don't see the actor doing the things that produce that big voice, it feels false.

With Les Miz, because the most important thing is Victor Hugo's story, they did away with the artificiality of the prerecorded track. But they also did away with the big voice. The actors sang in the moment, and most of the time they sang intimately, quietly, trusting the sound techs to pick them up and amplify them.

The result is the most natural film musical I've ever seen.

It may seem absurd to call it "natural" when almost every word is sung! But singing is not unnatural. No, we don't normally converse with formal music; but music heightens and intensifies speech, and we are used to hearing lyrics that compress speech into a more powerful diction, so it can be sung. It strikes us then with far more power; it feels more important and, yes, more true than speech.

So Les Miz struck a new and unusual balance between singing and acting, between formality and reality. We recognize that there are formal songs behind the performance, but the actors treat their singing much more like speech, including notes too soft to be heard on stage.

This really came home in Eponine's death scene, where she and Marius sing a surprisingly long time while she's bleeding to death from a bullet wound. On stage, it invariably reaches absurdity, for there she is with an abdominal wound, producing a strong tone that suggests that she is feeling no pain.

But in the film, Samantha Barks sings Eponine's death song in a quavering, weakening voice that does not deny the idea of pain and approaching death.

I'm not suggesting that Les Miz does everything perfectly. Some of the actors could not resist the temptation to overact in closeup. Anne Hathaway sometimes forgot that closeups magnify every facial expression. The effect is to make us think she's trying too hard. Film acting is barely acting at all, and this is just as true when the words are being sung.

More important, though, is that, because movie musicals are rarely made any more (and when they are, they're usually over-edited monstrosities like Moulin Rouge and Chicago), actor-singers have forgotten that the very fact that words are being sung carries an enormous power.

The goal is not for the actors to display emotion, but for the story to make the audience feel emotions. In fact, there's often an inverse relation: The more emotion the actors show, the less the audience needs to feel. The greatest audience emotion comes when the character displays almost no emotion at times when we know that there must be unbearable inner turmoil.

In other words, Anne Hathaway sometimes comes perilously close to that precipice where the actor's emotions are pushed so hard that the audience is distracted or -- the worst response of all -- laughs.

Close -- but she never quite goes over the edge. Maybe there are takes where she did, and we owe it to the director and editor that they never let her go to the point of absurdity.

Fortunately, because of Hugo's novel, the female parts are good but not dominant. The film belongs to three men: Jean Valjean, played to near perfection by Hugh Jackman; Marius, the young idealist and lover, in which Eddie Redmayne does achieve perfection; and police inspector Javert, in which Russell Crowe was a brilliant casting choice except for the tiny problem that he has a weak voice.

Don't get me wrong -- Crowe hits the notes, and as you watch the film, you barely notice how weak and thin his singing is.

But Crowe and Hathaway are the reason why there is no reason to buy the Highlights of cd. As you watch them on the screen, you are convinced and involved. But listening to them, with no visuals to help you, Hathaway's overwrought vocal performance and Russell Crowe's weak one become nearly unlistenable.

That was the choice the filmmakers made -- to subordinate the music to the movie. Because they made choices that ruined the cd, they made the movie brilliant indeed.

I cry at movies, but not at the "sad" things, or not usually. People dying don't affect me -- by my age, I must have seen thousands of on-screen deaths, and I am aware that most of the time, the actors aren't really dying. I take it in stride.

No, what moves me to tears in a story are two things: magnanimity and valediction. Magnanimity -- greatness of heart -- comes over and over in Les Miserables; indeed, one might make a case for the idea that Victor Hugo's primary intent was to demonstrate greatness of heart, beginning with the bishop who forgives and covers for Jean Valjean's theft, and continuing through Valjean's and others' acts of honor and sacrifice to the end.

The magnanimous characters are contrasted with the small-hearted ones -- the Thenardiers, who are merely selfish and low; and Javert, who is great in his relentless pursuit of right, but small in his imagination and utterly lacking in generosity.

So Javert's death strikes me as an easy way out for the writer; the Thenardiers are usually annoying; but the magnanimous characters move me, if only because I aspire to such greatness of heart, though I usually fall far short of it.

One of the best things about this production is that they cut back drastically on the Thenardiers' stage time, particularly near the end, where their lengthy and boring "comic" number always makes me impatient. There are important matters going on, and we have to watch these unamusing, dull people cavort?

The film cuts them down nearly to nothing in the second half of the film, so they really are a pleasure to watch during the screen time they do have. (Helena Bonham Carter is a delight, of course; and Sacha Baron Cohen is actually watchable; a first.)

Magnanimity brings tears to my eyes, but valediction opens the floodgates. This is the moment in a story when someone's secret greatness is revealed and publicly honored.

This is the deep underlying dissatisfaction with the superhero movies -- even the best of them. Batman and Spider-man are constantly unrecognized, criticized, vilified. Yes, the audience knows their goodness; but we are hungry for goodness to be publicly known and recognized.

That's why in the book (but not the movie) Return of the King, the moment when Aragon honors Frodo and Sam is so very moving. Their sacrifices were private, seen by no one but each other. But the greatest people understood what they did, and so when Aragorn and Gandalf give Frodo and Sam their due -- especially Sam, who is the least sung yet the greatest hero -- deep emotion is aroused.

Think also of It's a Wonderful Life. Nobody dies, yet we cry like babies at the end. We don't cry when everything is falling apart for George Bailey, or even when he's contemplating suicide. We don't cry when we see how sad everything is in the world without him.

We cry at the end, when the whole community gathers to show how highly they value his life, his works, his sacrifices. That's when the floodgates open and we soak our kleenexes.

So it is at the end of Les Miz. Marius realizes that the stranger who saved his life in the battle was none other than his dying father-in-law; and as Valjean is dying, we see him receive honor, in vision, from Fantine, to whom he kept his word, and the bishop who claimed Valjean's soul for God, who welcomes him into heaven.

This is what apotheosis is for, and it's hard to think of a literary work in which the effect is better earned than in Hugo's novel -- and in this film.

Of course, from the original concept album on forward, the musical Les Miz misunderstands what is working. The finale, as written and as performed, thinks that the emotional power is attached to the social cause: The liberation of the working classes.

It's true that the anthems of Red and Black and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" are powerful -- they are a brilliantly stirring first-act curtain.

But at the end, while the display of a vast barricade that shows the people united and triumphant, is very nicely done, that is when we dry our eyes. It was Valjean's valediction, not the cause of social justice, that moved us.

Les Miserables is a musical event that bears relistening -- I own all the albums and listen to them all (the French original is still the best, but none is perfect). I have seen the stage production several times and was moved each time (though toward the end of the Broadway run, the actors playing the Thenardiers became unbearably bad).

But the film of Les Miz is a watershed in filming musicals. It is, arguably, the first great musical to shed the conventions of the stage completely -- there is no dancing, and there are no editing "tricks" to replace it.

If filmmakers have the wit to understand what worked here, perhaps we'll see more great film musicals; I'm not holding my breath. Hollywood usually misunderstands what makes great movies great, and imitates all the wrong things.

The very things that made Sondheim criticize the score of Les Miz are part of the reason for its success as a film. Isolated songs designed to be standalone hits do not work like this; Les Miz is not about songs, it's about story.

And story is the thing that Hollywood, or at least the money in Hollywood, doesn't comprehend. Story, when it happens, is brought about almost against the will of the people doing the funding.

Which is why The Hobbit was such a dreadful disappointment. Oh, it's making money -- Peter Jackson does know how to use New Zealand scenery to good effect. (Though, to tell the truth, the special effects are often surprisingly shoddy.)

In Lord of the Rings, Jackson proved his absolute noncomprehension of story, as he fiddled with one of the greatest works of literature of all time, adding his own childish and stupid story elements while cutting out the very heart (and the primary valediction) of the original.

But with The Hobbit, a slighter work to begin with, Jackson's contempt for Tolkien and his incompetence as an inventor of stories is laid bare. There is no legitimate way to stretch this picaresque tale into three films.

But Jackson is that tragic creation of Hollywood: a filmmaker who believes the stupidest things he was taught in film school. Thus every new element he introduces is straight from the best-thumbed volumes of the Collected Cliches of Hollywood, and his use of them is astonishingly uninspired.

You know you're in the hands of incompetents when a movie resorts to that ubiquitous line of dialogue in an action sequence: "Go go go!"

When, in real life, has anyone every spoken like that? Maybe now they do, because the line has been so grossly overused in movies; but let's face it, this is straight out of the Dick and Jane primers. "Run, Spot, run!" "Go, Dick, go!"

Every change that Jackson makes from Tolkien's original makes it worse. In the novel, Gandalf overcomes the trolls by cleverness. In Jackson's movie, nobody is clever -- Gandalf simply splits a boulder apart to allow sunlight to shine through. Brute force. Who can read Tolkien and think that brute force is how victories are achieved by the good guys?

Peter Jackson filming Tolkien is like putting Saruman in charge of writing the history of Middle Earth. He thinks he's being subtle and clever, but he never understands what's really going on at all.

The Hobbit is not a great book, but it's a good one. Tolkien was very careful to keep the use of magic to a minimum, and to put strict limitations on what magic could do. In Tolkien's work, the power to heal is in few people's hands -- Elrond and Aragorn -- and it's a slow process even so.

But Jackson, perhaps too schooled in the usages of videogames, has people healing the sick and injured with the alacrity of picking up health points. Tolkien makes sure that Gandalf is wise more than powerful, and that he intervenes rarely; Jackson uses Gandalf as the secret weapon in all situations.

Nowhere is Jackson's reliance on videogames more obvious than in the battle inside the orc caves, where audiences have a right to groan over a long, utterly absurd sequence of miraculous stunts that make it impossible to believe -- all of them designed like a videogame level, complete with the Boss at the end.

All the cliches of bad filmmaking are present: The bad guys who are fifty feet away and on horseback, yet somehow, a moment later, manage to be three hundred yards behind the heroes. The bad guys who always miss, while the good guys make incredibly lucky moves when the story needs them to.

Did we really need to have a revenge plot involving Thorin and an orc chieftain?

And couldn't somebody have tried to write dialogue at the level of diction, cleverness and care that Tolkien invariably applied to his work?

Despite all of Peter Jackson's destructive and arrogant changes, however, two actors emerge from the mess with his dignity intact: Ian McKellen, who makes Gandalf seem smart even when the writing makes him dumb; and, above all, Martin Freeman as Bilbo.

The dwarves, alas, are dwarf soup -- the film tries to distinguish some of them, but Tolkien gave us too many of them to work with and Jackson hasn't the talent to overcome their sheer numbers. I've heard people say that Thorin emerges from the pack, but only because he's given lots of dialogue and the most obvious of motivations.

But Freeman, who plays Watson in the new BBC series Sherlock and had a wonderful, if naked, part in Love Actually, is the entire reason why the movie is watchable. His good-natured earnestness transcends the stupidity of the writing, so that we like him and care about him and admire him. As so often in Hollywood, casting trumps all.


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