I don’t like musicals. Even “good” ones. They have always struck me as silly or, worse, just plain dull. Don’t get me wrong. I respect the genre and those who appreciate it. Mostly. I just can’t take them seriously.
And so it is with this prejudice I took my wife to see Les Miserables, the Academy Award winning film based on the musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo. I’d never seen the actual musical (see above) let alone read the book. Yet long before the film I’d been aware of the show. Like Cats, Chicago and Wicked Les Miz is an unavoidable piece of popular culture. If I shut my eyes I can vividly see those iconic posters beckoning we pedestrians with as much fizz as Coca Cola. But for all their ubiquity the ads never persuaded me. That is until the movie came out and the kudos along with it.
Um, I still don’t like musicals. And I didn’t much care for this one either. Alas, I found myself getting bored and fidgety. I kept hoping beyond hope that the talented cast would take a break from singing and just have a goddamn conversation. But they never did. Everything was a lyric. And once I succumbed to reality I kept waiting for an amazing, recognizable tune. None was forthcoming. The actors sang about tables and chairs and looking down and not looking up and everything else. They warbled about the mundane and melodrama to the point where it all blended together like Thousand Island dressing, heavy and too sweet.
I’ve got to give Hugh Jackman his due. Wolverine has chops. Frankly, all the stars in this studded affair deserve props for getting outside their comfort zones and singing not badly for 150 fucking minutes. Even Russel Crowe. He only sometimes reminded me of a crooning William Shatner. It couldn’t have been easy.
By far my favorite part of the movie was the way it looked. From the opening scene, as epic as Titanic, the sets were stunning. If you’ll forgive a pretentious French term, the “mise-en-scene” was impeccable. All that period detail, as good as in Lincoln and maybe even better. Thank God. Otherwise I would have been tres miserable instead of merely somewhat.
February 11, 2013
After seeing Argo with my wife we discussed it in a nearby wine bar (ah, date night!), where she commented on how much she appreciated the history lesson imparted by the movie. We were both children during the Iran hostage crisis and I can still remember seeing all those yellow ribbons. I also recall the fervor of anti-Iranian sentiment sweeping the country. The Ayatollah Khomeini was Public Enemy #1 and our society’s hatred of him equaled, and to my memory, even exceeded the vitriol directed toward Osama Bin Laden thirty plus years later.
In any event, my wife’s remark made me think. Accurate or not, Argo is indeed a history lesson, as are many of the other big Oscar-nominated films, especially Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. Even Django, for all its Tarantino-infused brio, brought forward a difficult time in our nation’s history to tell its story. Granted, Tarantino’s film is patently (and sublimely) ridiculous but still: I couldn’t help but wonder (especially as newspapers and books fade from the popular culture) if movies and videos are becoming our new teachers.
While Hollywood has always trafficked in “true stories” culled from history, rarely have they been portrayed with so much attention to historical accuracy and detail. Django aside, one really senses these new filmmakers passion for trying to get the story right, even if rubbing audiences the wrong way. For example, Kathryn Bigelow’s excellent Zero Dark Thirty depicts American torture of Muslim extremists with complete objectivity, evoking much criticism from concerned groups, including factions of the US Government. This criticism may even hurt her film’s chances for garnering top honors at this year’s Academy Awards. Yet, because of the way in which she made the movie, almost like a documentary, I believed her depiction far more than not. The same can be said for Argo and to a lesser extent, Lincoln. In all these films we get the distinct impression the makers of them are aspiring to accuracy over drama. Perhaps we have You Tube to thank for this?
Either way, this is new. In the past Hollywood loved to infuse countless fictionalized storylines into their fare. War and Western movies always had love interests. In addition, there had to be a hero and a villain. The filmmakers were compelled to portray good and evil in black and white. Not so much anymore. Lincoln is shown to compromise his position on equal rights for black people in order to rid the country of slavery. In Zero Dark Thirty The United States employs illegal torture to try and find out where Bin Laden is hiding.
“Inspired by true events” used to mean a germ of truth might exist in the story. Now it implies journalistic integrity. Whether that’s bad or good I don’t know. However, I do know that were it not for these films I likely wouldn’t have learned about these seminal events in world history. Neither would most people.