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Misérable means Miserable

UnknownA lot of discussion about Les Misérables has been had.

I’ll join with some scattered thoughts under the following categories:

  1. Musicality
  2. Vulgarity
  3. Spirituality

Musicality

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and everyone has a reason for why their opinion is credible (whether it makes sense or not). I’m no different. I think I know a thing or two about music having had some formal training in music. Thus, I think my opinion about the vocals and musicality has some credibility (with me anyway).

First of all, it’s hard to do a disservice to the music. The literature itself, musically and lyrically, is tested by time and will be sung for years to come. But it was the musical experience that was totally different. Many of us have heard the best singers in the world sing the music on the world’s largest stages. Or we have heard recordings of the same. Or we have seen cinematic musicals that were recorded differently than Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables in which he had the actors sing the music directly as they were acting. No studio recording of the solo and lip syncing here. The singers are singing the take live. It’s been done before, but it’s extremely rare and therefore a mainly novel experience for today’s viewers.

It’s for that reason that some were disappointed with the soloists, particularly Russell Crowe. Adam Lambert thrashed the movie for not having professional singers and Russell Crowe agreed with him to a point in a tweet.

I don’t disagree with Adam, sure it could have been sweetened, Hooper wanted it raw and real, that’s how it is.

Yup. That’s how it is. And they knew they were breaking ground. Russell Crowe knew he was vocally out of his league.  I’ll talk more about Russell Crowe’s Javert momentarily, but let’s think about the musical experience this particular movie offered. These soloists are singing intimately and unlike a Broadway performance they did not need to project their voices to be heard by the entire audience. There was a loneliness about their singing, as if they weren’t performing for anyone to hear. And their voices were uncomfortably natural. But, to me, this is what made the movie vocals a spectacular success: it’s imperfections. Once I got my ear acquainted to it and dismissed the countless recordings I’ve heard in the past, I started to really enjoy the raw singing. It was a third dimension of Les Misérables to experience; there was the Broadway stage, the studio performances, and now the raw singing of people more adept at conveying emotions than keeping perfect pitch.

Russell Crowe as Javert

Russell Crowe as Javert

Many people disliked Russell Crowe’s singing. And I agree that he was the weakest link vocally. By the time I had made my mental adjustment as to what kind of experience this was going to be musically, his interpretation and voice didn’t bother me as much and, in fact, there was something poignant about his  performance that merits a section to itself later. In short, I don’t think Crowe’s vocal deficiencies were significant enough to diminish the power of his performance. In fact, it may have enhanced it. More later.

Vulgarities

From the reaction I’ve seen from many blogosphere moms, I wonder if they realize that “misérable” means miserable. And the “lovely ladies” are miserable. But that tricky French accent mark sometimes throws people off. Or maybe they forget the title completely. Victor Hugo was the Charles Dickens of France, with a Dickensian flair for hyperbolic characters, extreme ugly in contrast to angelic purity. And, like Dickens, he had a zealot’s passion to expose the injustices of social stratification. The libretto of the 1980s musical was written first by a Frenchman who clearly imbibed the republican ideals of Victor Hugo and tried to capture in song the essence of Hugo’s thousand page tome. Apparently, most people think he did just fine. The point, however, is that Lovely Ladies is satire at its best. As one literary critic put it, “in satire irony is militant.” And the irony of Lovely Ladies is, indeed, harsh and in your face. It’s militant.

Lovely Ladies is sung by prostitutes in sarcastic despair and craven and lecherous misanthropes and a broken woman. It’s a trio of misery.

Many conservative-minded and cautious parents objected to this vulgar and brutal scene in Les Misérables, insisting that the Lovely Ladies was over-the-top in its portrayal of the street life.  I actually thought it was fine. Gritty at times, yes, but it certainly wasn’t titillating. And Hooper didn’t intend for it to be. I thought it was fine because it forced the viewer to see the ugly without gratifying any secret fantasy. These were not Pretty Woman hookers. These were like the sick and wasted women you see on Seventh Street in our city.

I was bemused by the many Christian lovely ladies in the blogosphere who were scandalized by the Lovely Ladies song (and Master of the House). Haven’t they ever listened to the actual words of that song? The lyrics are famous. The movie did not falsely advertise itself. It was a screenplay of the famous musical. What movie were they going to see? And what did they expect?   “[H]ungry for a poke” doesn’t mean a Facebook poke, for crying out loud. And a “thick one” is not talking about a french baguette. I’m just sayin’. It’s crass. It’s rude. It’s ugly. It’s sailor talk.

It’s miserable.

And the problem with trying to depict that kind of misery with all of its crass is that there is no way in the world anyone can do it without offending somebody’s sensibilities. In the previous paragraph I’ve offended somebody, I know. It’s the risk the artist takes. And though he may occasionally push the envelop too far for most people, he has succeeded if he wins the sympathy battle by getting people to feel the right things at the right times. In Lovely Ladies, no one but a pig in the audience is feeling any desire to ogle the degraded women for personal gratification.

The art that is most harmful to Christians is not the art that has scenes with bad language or uncomfortable depictions of evil acts. It is, instead, the art that has us almost involuntarily sympathizing with the wicked. We all know, for instance, that we shouldn’t sympathize with the vigilante murder of a bully, but if the artist has captured our affections with his storytelling and we are sympathizing, literally feeling with, the protagonist even if we know that his actions are morally reprehensible then we have succumbed to worldliness. But Tom Hooper didn’t give anyone an opportunity to sympathize with the sex-crazed sailors and foul-mouth thieves. He showed it and we were all led by his artistry to recoil in hasty disassociation from the wanton lust, greed, injustice, and bawdy humor. In a packed theater there were no laughs at the crass jokes. Nobody wanted to identify with them. There was comic relief when the master of the alehouse pretended to love Cosette and laughter erupted then, but during all the crass singing prior to that it was relatively subdued. Humanity embarrassed by humanity.  Count that as a win for the producer.

I wrote this for a friend’s thread on Facebook:

We saw it and I thought it was fantastic. There were some bawdy scenarios, yes, but I thought they masterfully succeeded at making the whole hovel bar and prostitution scene unattractive and demeaning to both women and men. As for the tawdry vulgarities and the “lovely ladies” song, there were no cheap laughs or gratuitous opportunities to lust if anyone was looking for it. There was no skin to be seen except for lots of cleavage that actually succeeded in presenting the plebeian street women as desperate female fops. It was a turn off. On purpose. If anything, it had the effect of making sex seem like something fun for only pigs, and that’s sad too. But in that context, brutally realistic. Perhaps I’ve been around street people a lot, but I didn’t find it offensive at all.

Instead, I found it inspiring me to want to rescue the women on Seventh Street and incarcerate the pimps that use them. It made me want to teach a nobler culture and walk into the center of broken poverty and point to a better way, a brighter future, and mercy. It made me want to stop at the bars and say, “You’ve been made for better things. There’s this Good News called mercy from God.”

Mercy. Wonderful mercy. That leads to the third category.

Spirituality

Much is made about the Christian themes in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but I want to opine on a theme that was in this particular performance, perhaps unintended: Russell Crowe’s Javert. In most performances Javert, in typical Victorian sentimentalism, is presented as a beastly man, evil personified, a terrifying darkness with a booming voice, meant to contrast with the noble and good Jean Valjean. This was shockingly different, and probably one reason Russell Crowe is criticized more than any other actor.

Crowe’s Javert seemed normal. A man under the dominance of the law. A person that believed in right and wrong. A man who was doing his best to do right. He looked pathetically dedicated, crushed by the burden of his own zeal, worn out by morality, a religious man that had never become acquainted with mercy.

He looked like I once looked.

Javert was the “elder brother” from Jesus’ parable. He was not that bad, bad prodigal. He honored the law, did his best, and believed that mercy threatened justice. He did not realize that mercy is the handmaiden of justice. The priest who forgave Valjean was the only one who could give mercy because he was the only one justly offended. But in Javert’s world it was a law that knew no mercy.

If Crowe was trying to look evil, he failed. He looked normal. He looked like a pathetic do-gooder that had committed his soul to being scandalized by all that which was, well, miserable. I see Javert in church on Sunday. He relentlessly pursues good, exactitude, and righteousness. He’s chafed when mercy is shown. He believes it’s a sign of weakness to refuse to exact the punishment called for by the letter of the law. He believes that he will never need mercy.

And he sings with conviction, albeit not very good. In fact, tomorrow the bulk of church goers will be Javerts. They will be in suits. They’ll be in the choir. They’ll be protective parents. They’ll be scandalized religious people. They’ll be people unacquainted with the misery on Seventh Street. They’ll be people who don’t screw up. Javerts live rightly. And most people who live rightly go to church. Yes, Crowe’s Javert looked pathetically normal.

Crowe’s Javert looked sad. His performance interpreted a man who was obligated to be right and to hate whatever was not legal. In the end Javert exacted justice on himself, committing suicide, unable to find mercy because he had been cursed with the affliction of always being on the right side of the law, therefore never needing mercy. Because mercy is for broken people. It’s for people who find themselves outside of the camp, outside the lines, outside the safety of acceptance, and hunted by the law. Javert dutifully sacrificed and served the law, and because he failed the law by not bringing Valjean to justice he dutifully killed himself.

I was Javert.

Few people fought for right like I have. Few people relentlessly pursued justice. Few people were made unhappy by the crushing burden of the law. The law will kill you. And it almost killed me. Like Javert, not only could I not accept mercy on other people but I could not accept myself as a broken person because, well, it wasn’t right.

But I found mercy when I found myself hunted by the law. When the law made me realize there was no escape, I found mercy.

Sadly, the movie is only a sentimental story because Christian themes are not ultimately helpful without Christ. But the rest of the story for all the world to know is that, like Jean Valjean who stole the silver from the priest, we need to meet our Priest face to face and get his blessing. Jesus, our Priest, said to the Javerts of the world,

Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous [Javert], but the lawbreakers [Valjean]. Matthew 9:13

images-1Only the priest who has been personally sinned against can justly grant mercy.

The genius of Crowe’s portrayal was its humanity. And, in the end, that’s why I’m glad his voice sounded so human. He didn’t snarl. He didn’t have an other-worldly thunder about him. In some places where other vocalists have thundered with terrifying evil, Crowe’s voice delivered an enslaved yell of a man caught in the dilemma of his own convictions. Hollywood likes to portray the evil antagonist as something that none of us could ever be. Crowe made it look like any of us could be Javert. It was incredibly authentic. Whether he meant it or not.

As a Christian man who has found mercy, I came away from the movie sad that millions will see this story and, for them, it’s only a teaser. Without a clear understanding of the Gospel of Jesus’ mercy to sinners, they grasp at an ideal of mercy that can never be realized until they know the terror of the law. And they can never know the terror of the law until they know that, according to the Bible, they are les misérables. 

Only  les misérables find mercy.

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