Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cosette in Oz

You may be wondering why I'm critiquing a movie musical on my Oz blog - the answer is three-fold: I have had the idea for the little visual pun (seen above) for quite a while; I found this a good time to share the little-known John R. Neill illustrated edition of Hugo's novel; and finally I'm still a bit peeved at the film and this is as good a place as any to to pitch some furniture into the street.

For me, the film of Les Mis fails on several fronts. The most problematic aspect of the film is the mostly mediocre singing and the often unintelligible lyrics. Director Tom Hooper's desire to film all the singing live instead of prerecording it is understandable, but it just doesn't work. And frankly it is a solution looking for a problem. No one has really ever had a problem with prerecorded singing in films - it's just the way movie musicals are usually made. Did anyone ever watch The Wizard of Oz and say, "Yuck, Judy Garland is so emotionless - she's just lip-synching!" Or turn up their nose on Julie Andrews spinning in the alps for the same reason? Of course not - people don't even notice - many people probably don't even know that's how musicals are usually created.

Now what many people DO object to in film musicals is dubbing - where the performer singing the role is different than the performer we see acting on screen. This "dubbing" very often does lead to a distancing and lack of authenticity in a film musical. One of my favorite movie musicals, My Fair Lady, is marred by the studio not allowing Audrey Hepburn to provide her own vocals. I just can't suspend my disbelief when I hear Marni Nixon's voice coming out of Aubrey Hepburn's mouth. As long as we're on My Fair Lady, I do want to take a moment to point out that Rex Harrison performed all of his songs in the film "live," just like they now do in Les Mis - contrary to the Les Mis PR, it's not a new technique. Thus I'm not wholly against the idea of live singing in film - I'm not even wholly against dubbing. For some reason I'm more than willing to accept Marni Nixon supplying the singing voice for Natalie Wood in West Side Story.

OK, back to why I think the live singing in Les Mis fails so miserably. For me, musicals are about enhancing dramatic structure, revealing character, story-telling.  If you can't for the most part understand the words being sung, the film is in big trouble. I suspect anyone who has not either read the novel or spent a long time with the stage musical could not tell you what's going on in the film. That is a big problem! This does not mean a fan of the musical can't enjoy this film - if you bring your preexisting knowledge of the characters, the story,  the lyrics, you may get a lot of pleasure from this plotless and unintelligible ramble of a film - it might even be a new favorite! But just because one likes something does not make it objectively good. Many folks - especially critics - seem to have lost track of this idea. For instance I love the 1970 film Pufnstuf. It means a huge amount to me and if I was going to be stranded on the figurative desert island I would take it along as one of the ten films I chose to be marooned with. The film makes me happy, nostalgic, joyous. But that is a subjective reaction. Objectively, the film is a piece of crap: it's a badly filmed, low-budget, cheesy Saturday matinee film starring a boy who can't pronounce the letter "r."  The vast majority of criticism of the Les Mis film amounts to saying "I like it," "I love it," "It's the best!" or worse, spouting off a few mindless sentences from the Les Mis press-kit explaining why gurgled heavings are the new singing and choppy editing is better than trying to tell a story in a visual medium. What a world . . . what a world . . . throw water on me now!

I heard an interview with Les Mis director Tom Hooper on the radio and I admired his ideas. I just think he failed to pull them off. I am curious why Hooper didn't take a different approach to the live singing. If his desire was to be able to give the actors the freedom to act, breath, and voice their parts on the fly while he filmed them, fine. But why not send everyone into the studio to re-record their voices for the final film - at least editing out the grunts, replacing failed notes, and making sure the words could be understood?

But there is a more basic reason I think Hooper's technique fails, and that is related to Les Mis itself - it isn't really a musical. Now before you start throwing tomatoes or old Oz books at me, hear me out. By musical I mean a story that is enhanced by music to advance the plot, reveal character, a drama where all of the parts must be present to make the whole. My Fair Lady, Carousel, Porgy and Bess, Cabaret, Into the Woods, etc. are stories that are told with music. Les Mis is music that tells a story. This is a HUGE difference. In effect Les Mis is an oratorio - and that's one reason I think the show has been done so often in concert form, in minimal stagings, and in recording after recording.  The music, the vocal aspects of Les Mis, are the core of the piece. When the vocal splendor of Les Mis was sacrificed for the huffing, puffing, and grunting in the film, it pointed up all of the show's inherent weaknesses as a musical. Les Mis without voices is like Sweet Charity without dancing. The point and joy in Les Mis is in the singing and everything should have been subordinate to that. But things being what they are, this will probably just inspire Mel Gibson to film Handel's Messiah with live singing and all the appropriate out-of-breath grunting, retching, and bleeding. Hallelujah! 

Enough of that! Let's take a look at a genuine Les Mis/Oz collector crossover item - the very rare edition of Les Misérables illustrated by John R. Neill.

This edition of Les Misérables was published in 1925 by Ginn and Co. as an easy-to-read text for students of French. Hugo's sprawling novel is abridged to just over a hundred pages with another hundred pages of glossary. Like the full length novel this edition is in five sections, each one featuring a very handsome pen-and-ink illustration by Neill.

Below you will see three examples: Jean Valjean with the priest just before stealing the silver, Cosette looking hungrily into a toy store window,  and the rescue of Marius by Valjean having just emerged from the sewers.

The book is quite handsome, but, alas, it is also quite rare. Below you can see the title page of Neill's own personal copy where has has scribbled his own credit line. He is not credited in the actual book, although his signature appears in each of the five illustrations.

A plus tard, mes amies!


Ozaline said...

Do you own Neil's copy David? Either way that's a pretty cool book thanks for sharing.

Anyway I avoided the film for a few weeks after reading your review my Mom wanted to watch it on Christmas but we went to Hobbit instead since I didn't want the movie to be my first exposure to this show since I've never seen it staged, and I didn't want my experience marred by a version where I could not hear what was being sung. But earlier this week I finally did see it.

I mostly know the story of the book from the 1998 film, but I was not lost at all in the movie musical.

I found that some of the chorus lines were hard to make out, but I understood all the lines in solo numbers with little to no difficulty.

Just from the young people I've talked to I found that even the totally uninitiated seemed to understand the story, and were crying at the appropriate moments.

Perhaps when they are talking about a new technique with live recording they meant the use of wireless headsets to give them Piano music to harmonize with; but it's definitely a very Hollywood thing to claim your the first when you're only the first high profile example.

Anyway I don't think the live singing added much; I mean like any modern film a given scene is going to be a collection of composited shots each filmed independently. So it's not like you're getting a complete and full rendition of the song, it's still pieced together... I think on some of the longer shots it did help their performance a bit to be singing the song for real, but ultimately I think you're right that it probably did more harm than good.

I also felt the cinematography was really off in a few places too... there were some close up shots where the camera was wavering around noticeably on what should have been a steady shot, and I don't think shakey cam should have been used in the battle at the end, it doesn't work in period pieces at all (I'm not even a fan of it in scifi).

As someone uninitiated with this particular play, I didn't feel lost at all, and I enjoyed it... but it does have major flaws.


Unknown said...

Thanks for that David, I was not aware of that book. No one I know of in the family has that, or at least I've never heard of it.
Brian Farnsworth

David Maxine said...

@ Rachael - I don't doubt your friends were moved - but I'd be surprised that anyone could tell you what was going on in more than vague terms.

What exactly is the student rebellion about? Why did they start it at a funeral? Why Does Fantine have to pay the Thenardiers to keep Cosette but they won't let her go without receiving cash? Why exactly does Javert kill himself? Why are the prostitutes even in the film and why are they trying to bring a prettier girl into their fold (why do they desire competition?)

People may well watch the film and get a basic story - one can get that from watching a music video - but if a newbie's plotline boils down to: Some guy was arrested for stealing bread and then a bad jailor-guy keeps trying to put him back in jail. There's some poor girl who gets fired and she has a kid and the convict-guy decides to look after the kid and then after ten years or so they live near some kids who start this riot and eventually the jailor jumps into a river, and then the main convict-guy dies while everybody sings that theme song of the street-gang boys.

More than a handful of youthful viewers have been posting crap about the film being about the French revolution. How closely did they watch this movie and yet feel qualified to express an opinion?

Glad you liked it - and I got some enjoyment from it it, too. I just wanted to balance the hype with a little cold water :)

Sam said...

I knew very little to nothing about "Les Miserables" and even though I have forgotten most of the songs/words from the filmusical, I did still enjoy it (except for maybe Sacha watsisname) - though I didn't notice (or don't remember) all the huffing and puffing and heaving, as you say. But I would have like to have seen the movie title at the BEGINNING of the film instead of the end, which I don't like becoming more common than before.

Some friends of my parents saw this movie and walked out within the first hour because they don't like musicals!

I'm surprised at how different the illustrations look to the characters/moments, which I shouldn't be, it always happens.

Ozaline said...

I really think most people should be able to answer your questions based on the movie, but these weren't exactly close friends I was talking about (my friends tend to be the type who would have already known the story). So I'm not exactly going to quiz them, on their understanding.

I agree with your points, and as I said I thought the movie had several weaknesses.

I just didn't think the lyrics were that hard to understand, and I'm pretty sure if I didn't already know the answers to your questions, I would have picked up most of them... Certainly the movie explains Javert's inflexibility and inability to reconcile the law with justice when he sees how Valjean comports himself, and that the general was the only voice in government who supported the students and that his death means that they need to take matters into their own hands having lost the hope of political change. I agree that they might have a hard time explaining the student's goals beyond "we're mad as heck and not going to take it anymore!" :D

But then I was at least familiar with the story going in, even if I got it from other sources... and yes I've watched the 10th anniversary concert since and it does make things more clear.