Here’s to the ones who dream

Every musical has a manifesto number. It’s usually a solo, and it packs a huge emotional punch. After all the razzamatazz, the stage filled with people, noise and colour, the stage darkens and the spotlight literally falls on one person, singing their heart out to someone that really matters. In Funny Girl, it’s People. In The Sound of Music, it’s Something Good. The power of such songs lies in the intimacy, the directness, the peeling away of layers.

And La La Land has a stunner. An audition piece, because in LA that’s the ultimate make-or-break, sing-for-your-supper situation.

Mia has had six years of humiliation, knockbacks and broken dreams. In true musical fashion, this is her last throw of the dice and she puts everything into it. She cares too much to pay games any more. She’s also learned the cost of chasing your dreams and this beautiful song comes from a rare place of self-awareness.

This isn’t a movie blog, it’s a blog about libraries and what they mean to children. Setting up three school libraries was my big thing, my impossible dream that would take everything I had to give. Okay, that sounds cheesy, but sometimes cheesy hides the truth. And as it happens, a library remembered from childhood plays a significant part in the plot of La La Land, which gives this song an even bigger emotional punch for me.

I want this on my library wall:

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

Librarians tend to fetishise order; they are natural introverts, happiest a in calm and controlled environment. I have spent weeks setting up school libraries, listening to the children safely behind my closed door and feeling apprehensive about the day I finally have to let them in and allow them to make a mess. As it happens, I’ve a library opening coming up tomorrow. But creativity is messy, filled with mistakes and compromises. There’s another fantastic couple of lines earlier in the song, as Mia recalls someone who inspired her:

She captured a feeling
Sky with no ceiling
Sunset inside a frame

Art begins with that feeling that something is so amazing, so beautiful, so filled with possibility, that it can’t be captured. And yet if the artist doesn’t try to put a frame around it, to give it form, it can never be shared. The only perfect work of art is the one that stays locked in someone’s head. The thing I loved most about La La Land was that it’s absolutely honest about the cost of having dreams, yet if nobody ever did that the world would be a grim and colourless place.

All children begin with the capacity to dream. Libraries are the laboratories where those dreams can be shaped and forged, where children can find the confidence to bring them alive, to expose themselves to the risk and pain and effort that will involve. Libraries are filled with the products of other people taking that risk. They are a safe place to contemplate its cost. They are a refuge when being different becomes too much to handle, a source of comfort, strength and – at their best – a kind but firm process of propelling people back out into the world to try again.

Now go and listen to the song. It won’t spoil you for the end and it’s amazing.

 

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A Tale of Three Movies: Abuse, Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Eric Lomax with Takashi Nagase
Eric Lomax with Takashi Nagase

We saw The Railway Man last night, completing our recent hat-trick of “abuse movies.” The other two were Philomena and Twelve Years A Slave.

It was my partner who pointed out the interesting parallels and contrasts between these three stories. Each concerns a person who was dreadfully abused, caught up in an evil system without their knowledge or consent, but simply as an unfortunate accident. Philomena bears an illegitimate child in 1950s Ireland, which leads to the removal of her baby and its forced adoption, sanctioned by the state (in contemporary terminology, outsourced to the Catholic Church).

In 12 Years A Slave Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1840s Saratoga, is duped into being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Finally, The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax, appallingly tortured by the Japanese in Burma as a young man in World War II. For the rest of the life he is emotionally crippled by this trauma, and eventually has the opportunity to meet one of his tormentors face to face and decide whether to murder or forgive him.

All three are based on true stories. All continue to have contemporary resonance. We still struggle, as a species with the questions of torture, war, trauma, slavery, racism and what to do about people who don’t follow the socially sanctioned rules for reproduction within marriage.

And all three ask a vital question – is it possible to recover from severe abuse, and is forgiveness an essential, or even desirable, aspect of that process?

Such forgiveness takes two forms – forgiveness of one’s individual abuser(s), and forgiveness of the ideological system in which the abuse takes place. You can have one without the other. It may be too difficult and dangerous on a practical level to return to the scene of the crime, even assuming you would want to do so. This was clearly Solomon Northup’s situation. The evil of slavery was so entrenched in society at the time that his only option was to continue to fight on outside the South as an abolitionist, which was what he did.

Eric Lomax, however, was offered the opportunity to return and offer reconciliation. It is interesting that, according to his second wife Patti (who features prominently in the film, played by Nicole Kidman), he returned to Thailand with every intention of killing his torturer, expecting that to bring him closure, if not inner peace. It was only when they met, and he discovered the reality of Takashi Nagase’s commitment to reconciliation through his work of historical education that Lomax concluded, “Sometimes, the hating has to stop.” This is the most complete reconciliation of the three stories under discussion, and the film depicts it movingly and convincingly.

Philomena’s case is rather more complex. She remains a Catholic and is, in that sense, reconciled with the institution that was the author of her pain. In fact, the film strongly implies that only the Church gives her the moral framework to cope with the very pain it has caused her. She is not reconciled with the individual nun who sanctioned her child’s adoption, and we see that her attitude has, if anything, hardened in old age. And the film does not touch on Philomena’s views towards the Irish government for allowing her child, and many others, to be sold rather than creating a society where illegitimate children were valued and included. So this is a partial, and rather problematic and incomplete, reconciliation.

However, the parallels between these stories are instructive, and it is interesting that they have all been made into successful films at roundabout the same time. The questions they ask have a timeless relevance and are arguably the stuff of compelling drama. In each case, though certain accommodations with the original source material have inevitably been reached, the movie treatment is broadly faithful to the original.

Undoubtedly all are worth seeing. Of the three I found Philomena the most entertaining, 12 Years A Slave the most shocking and The Railway Man the most emotionally satisfying. In addition, The Railway Man gave me a far more powerful insight into the reality of being consistently and repeatedly tortured than the far more morally problematic Zero Dark Thirty I saw about a year ago. At the time I concluded that Zero Dark Thirty was morally justifiable because it showed that torture brutalises the perpetrator as well as the victim. Now that attitude has shifted. Torture is wrong, period. There are no attenuating circumstances and justifications whatsoever.

Twelve Years A Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in Twelve years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in Twelve years a Slave

Twelve Years A Slave, which I saw yesterday, is a harrowing and shocking film. I expected that. I was rather less prepared for what shocked me the most.

I was primed for scenes of sickening violence and they will stay in my mind for a long time. I also thought I was a decent, liberal person who understood racism and what it must feel like to experience it.

In fact, I was wrong.

Yes, the n-word was used, repeatedly and casually, to such an extent that I felt that, for the first time, I could imagine what life would be like in a community habituated to such things and the attitudes that accompany them. It was the absolute commoditisation of human beings that shocked me the most. That sounds like a no-brainer – slavery is about owning people, well, d’uh. We think we understand it, that we can imagine it. I think we’re wrong. At least, I was.

The scene where the new batch of kidnapped slaves are put on the market was as shocking, in its own way, as the vicious beatings and lynchings that followed. Here were human beings being sold as possessions, regardless of any dignity or feelings involved. A little boy forced to demonstrate his physical fitness. A mother screaming as her children are sold away from her before her eyes (later, when she arrives at her new home without them, the mistress says, ‘Poor creature. Give her rest and food, she will forget them in a few days.’) Human beings tagged, abused, robbed of all dignity and self-determination. And hope.

Keep your head down. Don’t let anybody find out you can read and write – they’ll single you out as an uppity n-r. You are now, officially, someone else’s property, to do what they think best with. If you are a woman, you may be raped regularly by the master and, as if that isn’t bad enough, savagely beaten by him because he loathes himself for being attracted to you and takes out that loathing on your body and soul and, for good measure, his wife will hate you for reasons of her own and find her own ways of making you wretched.

If you are a man, your destiny is to work until you drop dead in the field and then be thrown into an unmarked grave with scant ceremony.

A system so evil is horrendous for everyone to live in. For the slaves, that’s obvious. But equally disturbing is the brutalisation of the entire society, the acceptance of extreme violence as part of the texture of everyday life, the well-dressed little white children playing while lynched bodies swing or vicious beatings occur in the background of their world.

We may congratulate ourselves on the wickedness of times past and feel a sense of false worthiness because people don’t keep slaves now (an argument that it, as it happens, untrue). But we continue to live in a society that singles out particular kinds of people – poor people on welfare, for example – as being less worthy of the description “human” and the privileges that go with it. And that is an attitude that impoverishes us all.

I can only watch and reflect, in humble horror, and feel glad that at least Solomon Northup escaped, returned to his family and did not forget his sufferings – that, quite literally, he lived to tell the tale.

Thoughts on La Dolce Vita

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space - were it not that I have bad dreams. Hamlet
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.
Hamlet

Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weigh upon me. Peace frightens me; perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it is only a facade hiding the face of hell. I think, ‘What is in store for my children tomorrow?’ ‘The world will be wonderful’, they say. But from whose viewpoint? If one phone call could announce the end of everything? We need to live in a state of suspended animation like a work of art, in a state of enchantment. We have to succeed in loving so greatly that we live outside of time, detached.”

Cinema gives us the ability to frame moments of beauty and passion and replay them again and again – but only by creating and staging them in the first place. Is there any such thing as an authentic life that is a beautiful work of art? Or must all beauty carry within itself the corollary that it is the product of artifice?

Is this why Steiner finds his life unbearable?

****

Rather bizarrely, we watched this on a DVD that had been given away with the Daily Mail years ago, harvested from John’s parents’ home.

I’m really glad I was almost completely ignorant of this movie before watching. It meant that I went in blind to all the moral judgements others had made on the characters, particularly Marcello. Although he works in a shitty job and does some very shitty things, right from the start of the movie, I never felt he was completely beyond redemption. So although the movie has satirical elements, and definitely a satirical character, I saw it as a tragicomedy (or perhaps a Divine Comedy), with some clear decision points for Marcello, and therefore it had dramatic tension.

Another example – according to Philip French, Maddelena is a nyphomaniac. Well, that might be true, though her behaviour doesn’t seem noticeably more promiscuous than that of others in her set. I saw her rather as a privileged woman suffering from crippling ennui, hungry for any new experience, including slumming it in a prostitute’s bedroom. It seems to me that she is a balance to Emma, who is romantically deluded, thinking that she can save Marcello through her devoted, maternal love. Clearly that is a non-starter, given the kind of man he is, and in fact her behaviour is smothering and controlling. I didn’t feel that Fellini was presenting Emma in a particularly attractive light.

Maddelena is more complex. With all her faults, she can touch a nerve in Marcello that few others can reach. What he loves in her is her total lack of illusions. Even while she is proposing marriage to him, she’s flirting with someone else. He doesn’t see this happening (though you wonder if he suspects), so he is free to imbue her with whatever ideal qualities he needs. But to call her his Beatrice is reductive in the extreme. He would like her to be his Beatrice, but he knows she never would be. In fact a recurring theme of the whole film is Marcello experimenting with different kinds of womanhood, and rejecting them all. Other archetypal females are Sylvia, Steiner’s wife, Nico, Fanny (the Kit-Kat hostess) and possibly even Nadia – there are also a couple of archetypal cultured women (interestingly neither are Italian). They are all possibilities, but ultimately he rejects them.

That leaves Paula, his little Umbrian angel from the sunlit cafe. I do think Fellini may be setting her up as a genuine alternative to the cynicism and sensation-seeking of Marcello’s milieu. She remains an innocent, a pure and natural template on which anything could be engraved. She still takes a simple delight in pleasures like a piece of catchy pop music (later used very differently as the background to Nadia’s striptease). She appears in one of the few scenes shot in the full light of day (this is very much a movie of long nights and weary dawn scenes). She appears as Marcello is trying to write, making at least a gesture towards what Steiner believes his true vocation to be.

And we see her in the film’s last frame, smiling enigmatically, Madonna-like. It’s inconceivable that we shouldn’t connect this to the film’s opening scene. Considered blasphemous by the Catholic Church at the time of the movie’s release, this showed a Christ statue being airlifted over Rome, holding out its hands in apparent benediction. But Christ was pursued by a helicopter containing Marcello and Paparazzi, and the noise of the rotor blades made communication impossible. We saw the world of the trivial and the depraved in pursuit of the holy and the ideal. The last scene echoes this set up, but now the fish (an old emblem of Christianity) is an enormous, stinking, three-day-old corpse. And Marcello cannot hear what Paula is saying; her words are blown away and lost in the crashing of the waves, so ultimately he returns to the battered crowd of revellers and turns his back on her.

What are we to make of Steiner, who appears to represent everything worthy and desirable in the pursuit of a meaningful life? Steiner has it all – wealth, a beautiful home, gorgeous children, devoted wife, interesting friends and cultural authority. But he can’t enjoy it. He is tormented – by the past (World War II – there are searchlights outside his balcony?), by the future (nuclear Armageddon?) or just by existential angst?  Whatever the answer, his demons pursue him until he shoots himself and his gorgeous children, and in a particularly tragic scene (with an undertow of dark comedy) his wife becomes a commodity pursued by Marcello and his band of paparazzi – and at first she’s flattered (“Are you turning me into a film star?”) before she senses the terrible truth.

Peter denies Christ three times. Marcello has three – or possibly four – opportunities to turn his life around:

1 the “truth scene” with Madellena

2 when he reaches out for connection with his father

3 when he breaks up with Emma (this one is the most ambivalent, I feel)

4 when he is complicit in the reporting of Steiner’s suicide

Most if not all of these come with huge caveats. The third in particular is probably a complete illusion (interestingly, it’s the only one where we witness him changing his mind). All are presented with a dark mirror. Immediately after (1) we have a ghostly mock-wedding procession breaking into a church that almost became a brothel. In (2), the hottie that Marcello lines up for his dad almost ends up killing him, as if to remind us that once youth is gone, it is futile to try to recapture it. (3) is so full of contradictions that there is no need for any subtext, although I still find the presence of a blinding floodlight interesting. And (4) carries its own heart of darkness into an apparently perfect set up.

In all these scenes, there’s use of silence and space, and that contrasts with the movie’s generally noisy and frenetic world. Normally, there are too many people around, too much going on, for any real human communion to take place, and you get the sense that most of the characters are actively avoiding it. And the framing first and final scenes both use the contrast between space and supposed “civilisation” to make a satirical point about affluent society and its discontents.

What came over most strongly to me was how beautiful the film was to look at, as if it carried the DNA of every James Bond movie, every Avengers episode, every Martini advert of the 1960s (perhaps it did). You could imagine that anyone wanting to portray sophisticated people in a movie for at least the next 10 years would have aspired to make them look like they do La Dolce Vita. And that is what makes it such an honest movie – it shows us how attractive excess can be.

Every scene carries a weight of conflicting metaphors. A church can be a brothel. A popped balloon can become a smashed plate. Again and again there is the still, small, wordless voice of pathos invading scenes of feasting and success. When the showgirls take a break, onto the dance floor comes an incredibly beautiful, Chaplinesque comic trumpeter, and although he plays badly, he pulls all the balloons away with him and makes the onlookers cry, without really knowing why. In a world of lies, the truth cuts like a knife.

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Reason and Faith – A review of “Philomena”

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Imagine this. You’re just about to go to work one evening when you find your elderly mother quietly weeping over the photograph of a three-year-old boy. She tells you he would have been 50 today. She had him out of wedlock in the 1950s in Ireland, and has never mentioned him since. He was taken away from her without her knowledge or consent, sold to a rich American family by the Catholic Church, and she was told on pain of damnation never to tell a living soul.

That’s the starting point for Philomena. It’s a true story, more or less.

What would you do? Philomena’s daughter contacted a journalist who was, as it happened, a lapsed Catholic called Martin Sixsmith, cast aside by the Blair administration, contemptuous of doing a mere “human interest story” but in no position to be picky. Drawn in despite his prejudices, he takes Philomena to Washington to find out what really happened to her son. It turns out to be a life-changing experience for them both.

There are a good few movies around exposing the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries where pregnant Irish women were incarcerated in the mid-20th century. Philomena’s baby was born breech without pain relief – the Sisters in their mercy wanted her to really suffer for her sin. There are also plenty of road movies featuring the sparring of odd couples. Remarkably, Philomena doesn’t fall into either of these rather hackneyed groups. It’s an initially unassuming movie that slowly creeps up on you and shows you that the contrast between good and evil, faith and reason, meekness and crusading fervour, is nowhere near as simple as we might think.

Martin is a very angry man. It’s convenient that Philomena’s horrific story gives him something socially acceptable to be angry about. He’s angry with God, he’s livid with the Catholic Church, and he’s angry at his own circumstances. Being a reasonable, civilised man, he doesn’t necessarily like to admit to the last one, at least. He’s utterly cynical and hard-nosed when he sells Philomena’s story to a features editor, but deeply uneasy when he realises what it’s putting her through. He finds her infuriating and incomprehensible, particularly her refusal to question or abandon her Catholicism, but gradually he comes to realise that, although the Church has been the author of her pain, it also gives her the tools to make it bearable – forgiveness, acceptance, a measure of inner peace. And ultimately, he realises that in that respect she may be better off than him.

Steve Coogan is wonderful as the kind of charming but smug metropolitan intellectual who’s waiting for all those simple people out there to catch up with him and admit that this religion business is a load of dangerous rubbish. He’s charming, he gets things done, but in his interactions with this simple, Irish lady who can’t quite believe how nice the hotel staff are in Washington and wants to lend him romantic novels, there’s more than a hint of snobbery. It’s a snobbery that many upwardly-mobile baby-boomers can recognise in themselves when they confront sincere and arguably irrational belief.

There are about half-a-dozen fascinating stories in this film, any one of which would make a good movie in its own right. At its heart is a very good script, the kind of story you’d dismiss as ludicrous if it didn’t happen to be true, and two stellar performances from Coogan and Judi Dench. Dench is one of those actresses who becomes transparent, completely subsumed into her character. It’s an incredible performance.

A quiet movie, without razzmatazz or fireworks, that packs quite a punch.

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/nov/22/philomena-judi-dench-steve-coogan-comedy-skills

To present is not to condone – the moral dilemma of Zero Dark Thirty

Burnt out and alone - Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Burnt out and alone – Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty seems likely to go down in history as the movie that condones torture. I’ve seen it now, and frankly I don’t agree. To present something is not to condone it. That’s not to say that there aren’t some awkward moral issues preesnted by the exercise of semi-fictionalising the hunt for Bin Laden, and like Mary Ann Johanson I would probably be more comfortable about the movie in general if it had been presented as a fictional account of a hypothetical situation. The barriers between fiction and documentary are easily blurred and I’m uncomfortable with the difficulty of verifying the accuracy of this particular cinematic account.

Would it be a better movie if it had just been the story of an imaginary female CIA agent’s obsessive manhunt for the ultimate enemy, and the ensuing emptiness once she succeeded? It would certainly be less bankable, and therein lies the problem. Significant Hollywood backing obviously gives you the chance to reach a worldwide audience; it can also become a juggernaut that grinds your ideals to a pulp, spits them out and leaves the lions to pick over your carcass.

Let’s get one thing straight – like it or not, Zero Dark Thirty is a damn good movie. Despite its considerable length, it grips like a vice and earns every minute in both plot and character development. It doesn’t fall back on tired cliches just to tick the right boxes, such as giving the main character a Pakistani boyfriend to challenge her narrative or walk out on her when it turns out there’s no room in her life for any kind of relationship. There are people who would probably feel more comfortable with the movie if it did, but Bigelow credits the audience with the intelligence to weigh up the moral dilemmas presented to them and try to figure out where they stand. She doesn’t deal in trite solutions. We can’t say, with any degree of certainty, that she tells it like it is, because the truth about a story such as this one is unlikely to emerge. But if we view this movie as a study in obsession, isolation and the personal cost of severe moral compromise, it succeeds brilliantly.

Slavoj Zizek has drawn the analogy with the Holocaust, and seems to be arguing that any movie that dared to present that particular example of absolute evil in a morally neutral way should, by definition, never get made. I’m not sure about that. As soon as we start declaring difficult subjects off-limits, we’re stepping into Orwellian territory. I’d much rather see someone tackle them and not entirely succeed, than for them to be left unexplored. As for a hypothetical movie that presented the perpetrators of, say, the Final Solution in a sympathetic light, there’s a world of difference between that being made by a Nazi director and a more critical one who decides to tell it straight and let the story speak for itself.

The unpalatable truth is that the people who invented waterboarding, and implemented the Final Solution, were human beings, just like us. By declaring any account of these crimes against humanity off-limits, we create the dark corners where such abuses fester and thrive. To seek to understand is not to forgive, or even to condone. There is a danger that the ultra-liberal stance can create a worldview where we simply don’t open these unpleasant issues up to public discussion, for fear of provoking revulsion and being accused of complicity. That cannot be healthy.

Certainly there are moral issues with this particular movie. The SEALS who blast into Bin Laden’s compound aren’t presented entirely unsympathetically, but if they were wouldn’t that be as morally compromised and simplistic as presenting every Muslim character as a paragon of saintliness and the voice of reason? I don’t have any doubt in my mind that if Bigelow’s aim was to show us the hideous cost of living in a climate of violence, evasion, paranoia and fear, she succeeded. We see Maia, the main character, sprayed with bullets as she leaves her heavily guarded home, losing the nearest thing she has to a friend to a suicide bomber, living in constant fear of her life and, ultimately, a completely isolated, burnt-out emotional wreck. In this story, there are no winners.

When the People Sing (and the liberals squirm)

ImageI’ve just been wiping tears away as I listened to Les Miserables, which seems a bit odd because I saw the movie on Friday night and left the theatre dry-eyed and chatting brightly. But I’ve noticed that tends to be the norm just after I’ve been exposed to highly-charged emotional artistic experiences. It happened after several key episodes of RTD’s Doctor Who – fans will know the ones I mean. Some of them almost paralysed me with what I can only describe as grief – but only later on, as I reflected on them.

I think emotional workouts resemble physical ones. It’s the day after when the pain and stiffness kicks in, and you realise you’ve pushed well out of your comfort zone; there’s work to do and you’ll eventually be all the better for it. Just like the tendency to stay on the sofa when you should be hitting the treadmill, I view certain DVDs on my shelf as undetonated explosives. I wouldn’t be without them, but I view them at my peril, and I know it will hit me later on if I do.

So it was with Les Mis. It’s not a work I was terribly familiar with. Like many rather analytical people, I fear emotional manipulation. I think of glassy-eyed acolytes at Nuremburg rallies, obsessive religious zealots or, more prosaically, uncritical readers of the Daily Mail. None of those are places where I’d want to be. And when some public spectacle does move me, I’m a little embarrassed. I’ve read numerous comments over the last week or so by intelligent people who want to pick holes in Les Mis. All the women are victims, the feminists protest. One columnist in The Guardian complained about its historical inaccuracy, and I have friends who adore Puccini but wouldn’t be seen dead going to a musical because it’s inherently “unrealistic when people keep bursting into song.” Then there are the hardcore fans of the live show who grumble that Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe can’t sing, and invoke conspiracy theory to explain the mysterious disappearance of Alfie Boe’s concert performance from YouTube.

If Les Mis can be likened to an unexploded bomb, then to stretch the analogy I think many of these works contain a series of landmine moments that affect different people at different times. For me, the trigger number is “Bring Him Home”, which plunges a dagger into my empty-nester’s heart. If you’re gay and lost friends to AIDS, it might well be “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, and for many it’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” Undoubtedly, we unconsciously project what is going on in our hearts at the time onto the big emotional beats we see on screen or stage. I think it’s probably a healthy process. Until I fell apart this morning, I hadn’t appreciated how much emotional homework I had to do connected with my kids leaving home, and indeed the memories that evoked of my own smothering mother, which has greatly restricted my ability to express my love for them.

The sheer number of people who have seen Les Miserables on stage or screen, and the intensity of their responses to it, has accorded it status as a mythic narrative. In fact, that’s probably been the case right from the start. Though received with reservation by contemporary critics, Hugo’s epic novel was a massive popular success. It’s significant that by 1910 it had already been filmed twice. His huge canvas and heightened emotional sensibility made it a natural fit for the cinema. For most people in our culture, the medium of choice for these things is film. It simultaneously offers a sense of intimacy (with the characters) and connection (with the audience). Les Mis is the kind of film that people seem to want to see communally. Though I’m sure it will be a massive hit on DVD, I suspect most people will buy it to relive the original experience of seeing it.

In its mythic quality, it resembles other hugely successful narratives like Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and possibly Titanic. I don’t personally care for some of the films on that list and even with those I admire I can accept their limitations (LOTR is not too hot on strong female characters, for example). But what I can’t deny is their power to move large numbers of people, and shape our popular culture. Now why should that be? The Hero’s Journey offers some answers. I think that basically, works of art fall into two main categories. There are those – Hamlet, for example – that revel in exposing human experience in all its ambiguity and contradiction. With their layer upon layer of subtext, they are much loved by literary critics, who rightly point out that they continue to reveal new meanings with each revival and never really date.

But myths don’t date either. And their power is universal – one of the oldest recorded human activities is the telling of stories. The Iliad is the first major work of literature to survive, and within the English tradition Beowulf has a similar status. The mythic form has a tendency to reject ambiguity in favour of imposing a moral order and logic on what can be a confusing and chaotic universe. Deep within the myth is buried the longing for things to be more straightforward than they are. We want good to triumph over evil, for redemption to be possible, for mercy, love and personal development to triumph over desperate circumstances, injustice and random tragedy. We very much want to believe that if we all just loved each other a bit more, things would be okay. And it’s an uncomfortable truth, though denied by many Guardianista-type liberals, that if we think too much about the world, we might well end up doing nothing practical to make it a better place. I’m not knocking thinking, far from it. But it has its pitfalls as well as its uses.

Why the music, though? Why do people have to burst into song? My husband, who is so analytical that I’m amazed he even came to see it with me, thought Les Miserables would have been better without the singing. I don’t agree.  Most mythic retellings involve music, spectacle, or both. Certainly they are all about theatre, right from the days of itinerant poets telling tales of Troy. There are times, I deeply believe, when we humans need to gather together with the express intention of doing emotional work as a community. We need a simplified version of the moral universe we live in where the heart says what the head struggles to articulate. The intellect rightly looks at all the nuances of the bigger picture, but music pierces deep and, undoubtedly, there are times when that piercing of the heart is what we feel we need. I can see that Javert’s number “Stars” is an articulation of Enlightenment values which will be eclipsed by the more Romantic sensibility embodied by Valjean and the revolutionaries. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t move me, and Russell Crowe’s croaky performance – the man of few words trying to articulate the values he lives his life by – most certainly does.

russellcrowe

VARIATIONS ON LES MISERABLES

(One More Day)

Too much heart would be a bloodbath,

Too much head a frozen lake,

Though emotion is a tough path,

It’s a road we need to take.

There’s a time to read the papers,

There’s a time to watch the news,

We must try to analyse it,

But still walk in others shoes.

There are people who are dying

There are homeless in our street

While we’re wondering if quinoa

Is sustainable to eat.

(To Do You Hear the People Sing?)

Do you hear the sound of drums? Do you hear the people cry?
They are pouring from the theatres and we should be asking why
There’s a clear and present risk that we all could turn into sheep

But the world won’t change if liberals never weep.

If to love another person is to see the face of God,

We can reognise with certainty where other feet have trod,

We can criticise a little less and care a little more,

Not treat every moral issue as a point we have to score.

Poetry is sometimes bad, and beware of rousing tunes,

They’re bombastic and the spectre of manipulation looms,

But when the rhythm of the drums meets the rhythm of the heart,

We’re returning to the place where a change can start.