I’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.
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.