Too Earnest

The sometimes serious, but generally frivolous, musings of a city girl now living in the woods.

Histories

les-miserables

Yesterday, I went to see Les Miserables. 

How was it?

Well, I am not made of stone, people.  Those first few notes of One Day More come through the theater speakers and I can actually feel my heart beating a little harder; by the end I am actually sitting taller and am a little embarrassed about how demonstrably I was just lip-synching.  When Eponine sings On My Own, I again mouth the words, but once, (okay, twice), I close my eyes and imagine myself up there on screen, just like I did when I saw Les Mis in the theater those many years ago.  Like then, I had to make myself NOT sing aloud.  (This is actually something I have to do often.  I just gotta sing, know what I mean?)  And, come on, when Anne Hathaway Fantine starts to sing I Dreamed a Dream in a coffin, with her shaggy shaved head and skinny ass quivering, well, I was moved.  I am only human.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking about how amazing it was that someone made this piece of art.  I mean someone came up with those notes, that when strung together, make me want to join the fight or weep with grief.  Someone else figured out the right words to illustrate the fear, the injustice and the bravery in these characters’ lives.  In all of our lives.  I wish I could make something so lovely.

Sigh.

Musical theater can make one get a *wee* bit carried away.

But, lest you think I can’t pull it together and watch critically, I can.  Let me just collect myself.

See, it wasn’t all great.  For one, it was way, way too long.  So effing long.  I remembered that there were not one, but two intermissions in the play, you know so you could stretch and wake up your ass?  This movie contained exactly zero intermissions.  Zero.  So by the end I was all “Get on with it, yeah?  Just sing the rousing finale, already.  I don’t care how wonderful and pious Jean Valjean is.  I want to go home.”  I might have even asked my companions, “are we there yet?” when we still had another half-hour to go.  Luckily Javert fell to his overly splat-y death just at that moment, so I was awakened momentarily.  (What?  Everyone dies.  I just thought you would know that if you are this far into the review.  Sorry for the spoiler…)  I know that the play was long and that Victor Hugo’s novel was five thousand pages long, but the filmmaker could have cut just a little.  The whole beauty of doing a movie is that we can be up close and personal with the action.  The actors’ faces could’ve done the angsty job of several of Valjean’s interior monologue songs, and maybe one of Javert’s.  A few squints and hanging heads could convey the serious, soul-crushing angst, and at least a half-hour could’ve been cut from the movie.  Also, I think Hugh Jackman’s face might have been better than his voice in a few scenes.

Yup.  I said it.  Hugh Jackman, patron saint of Broadway, beloved of all musical theater aficionados and superhero fans the world over, might have been a teensy, weensy bit miscast.  While I was watching the film, I kept giving him the benefit of the doubt; really, Valjean’s songs are the not best.  They’re a little pious, and a little boring and really, I dunno, just a step up from talking.  So I kept thinking Jackman just got the raw deal; all the other characters got to sing epic songs, remembered by drama students the world over, and he was stuck worrying about fessing up for jumping parole.  Snooze.  But then came a beautiful song, a song sung so resonantly by so many people, in so many productions:  Bring Him Home.  And Jackman, bless his heart, strained and groaned through the whole thing.  At that point, I realized that it was OK to agree with the critics who said that Jackman didn’t bring it.  Sorry, Hugh.  (At least I didn’t bring up how distracting your curly hair and mutton chops were.)

Also, I want to say one thing, and it will be short, because this review is starting to drag.  Tom Hooper, the director, seems to have a hard time deciding when to be theatrical and when to be filmic (filmlike?  filmish?).  What I mean is, he made sure all the characters had muddy clothes and distractingly bad/realistic teeth, but then proceeded to make a ridiculous Paris set that didn’t seem to (a) resemble Paris, or (b) convey the grandeur of the fight he was depicting.  It looked a lot like the stage set, to be honest.  But why, when the earlier parts of the movie had such great, dramatic countryside, did the finale, the most robust part of the film look like it took place at Disneyland?

And you will never hear me say it again, but RussellCrowewasalrightinthismovie. It wasn’t A Beautiful Mind level of awesome, but he was alright.  He did some great face acting alongside his passable singing.

I guess what I’m saying is, if you loved the play in high school, like I did, go see it.  It’s a kick.  But bring a comfy pillow to sit on.

Oh, and go to YouTube to watch Alfie Boe or Colm Wilkinson sing Bring Him Home.  They are both breathtaking.

***

You know, I don’t just lounge around all day, going to movies, lunching with my ladies.  I actually engage in some higher intellectual pursuits.  Sometimes, I lay around and read.  About a year ago, my book club read a book by Geraldine Brooks called March.  It, (1) was really good, and (2) generated a lot of discussion.  So I thought, why not check out another book by Ms.  Brooks?

I chose People of the Book.  It met a lot of the criteria of my favorite books: historical fiction, multiple narrators, non-linear storytelling and a pretty kickass retinue of female characters, particularly the lead, Hanna.

But before the review, I offer a brief synopsis.  Hanna is a rare book conservationist.  She hails from Australia, has a fraught relationship with her neuro-surgeon mother and is absolutely passionate about her work.  There is one anecdote in which she talks about making vellum the old way, which involves preparing animal skin, just so she can imagine what it was like to be a writer or illustrator back in the day.  It is fair to say that she is both slightly obsessive and extremely good at her job.  She is asked to help restore a book, which was rescued during the Siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian war.  It is in restoring this book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, that she unravels some of its mysteries, and, of course, comes to know herself a little better.

haggadah

Brooks bases the story on a real Haggadah that is from the 15th Century, written and illustrated in Spain.  Its history is rather remarkable, really.  It is one of the earliest known illustrated haggadot, though nobody is sure who illustrated it and for whom.  It managed to survive the inquisition in Venice, though just how it got there is unknown.  It survived anti-semitic Vienna around the turn of the century.  It then made it through the Nazi occupation of Bosnia, because a Muslim librarian, Derviš Korkut, risked his neck to protect it.  Then it managed, again, to survive the Bosnian war by being hidden by yet another librarian.  All this is the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah. What Brooks does is to imagine the voyages this precious little volume must have taken as it traveled through Europe.

She does this by weaving the stories of Hanna–remember her, the book conservationist?–and stories of people in the past.  Hanna makes a series of discoveries when restoring the book: a butterfly wing stuck in the binding, a grey hair in the clasps, wine stains, and more.  Hanna researches each of these items and the information she uncovers becomes clues that round out the Hagaddah’s history.  For example, after she researched the butterfly wing and discovers its species and provenance, we get a chapter about the librarian who saved the book from the library and the Jewish refugee he sheltered during the war.  While the book is based on, or perhaps more accurately, inspired by the real history of the Haggadah, she is able, through lovely storytelling, to invent robust worlds and vibrant characters in various historical periods.  I was especially interested in the section on Venice during the inquisition.  She tells the story of an unusual friendship between a priest and a rabbi, and how together, though not necessarily without disagreement, they protect the Hagaddah from the Inquisition’s heresy book burnings.  The details about the Jewish Geto, life during Carnivale and about the inner workings of the High Inquisitor’s office were fascinating.  She does this throughout time, always revealing a little bit more of the daily life of the Europe of the past, but she always comes back to Hanna, and thus to us.

What she manages to do, in a relatively fast read, is tell compelling stories of Jewish life in Europe: it’s vibrancy, its resilience, and frankly, its near annihilation.  She also tells the story of a woman coming to terms with her own childhood and her own family.  She manages to make cross-cultural friendships seem ordinary and reminds us that women have been vital contributors to history, even though their stories are not often told.  Trust me.  I think you will really like this novel.

***

Speaking of multiplicity of identities (yet another seamless transition), let me introduce you to a fellow Jack-of-all-Trades, though he is actually a Master of at least a few.  This here is Ice Cube, he of N.W.A, Boyz in the Hood, Three Kings and Barbershop.  (See, he is good at some stuff.)  Know what else he likes?  Architecture.  Yup, before he was Ice Cube, he was a draftsman and got interested in buildings.  Check what he has to say about The Eames Case Study House:

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6 comments on “Histories

  1. Pingback: Zero Dark Thirty and Its Accompanying Mindf/cks « Too Earnest

  2. Alicia
    October 13, 2013

    “I mean someone came up with those notes, that when strung together, make me want to join the fight or weep with grief. Someone else figured out the right words to illustrate the fear, the injustice and the bravery in these characters’ lives.”

    Oh, so completely this. I’m not particularly a fan of musicals (I thought Phantom of the Opera was dire) but Les Mis just gets to me. I’ve seen it four times (I think), first when I was sixteen and then at various times when I’ve said to various people ‘you haven’t seen Les Mis?? We must go!’. I took my BFF once, she cried so much that she didn’t forgive me for putting her through it for the whole of the rest of the day (but she got her own back by making me sit through Phantom).

    I liked the film although I didn’t see it in the cinema so my viewing experience was improved by being able to pause it ;-). It wasn’t as good as the stage show though, there was a weird disconnect because it wasn’t happening in front of me, it really did seem like something that happened a long time ago (if that makes sense). Plus it’s better when it’s done with stark, bare-bones staging, I think, a lavish film production lessens the impact of it. Too much going on.

    Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe were good, I have issues with Hugh Jackman that are entirely the fault of Scrubs but I like Russell Crowe and he has a good voice. He does, hmmm, have a little trouble acting and singing at the same time on occasion but I give him a lot of leeway because Javert is my favourite character. I find his story so much more interesting than Valjean’s; his backstory has more meat to it and his redemption comes much later in the film whereas Valjean’s is really at the very start and he gets a bit ‘meh’ after that.

    The women were even better than the men, I thought. Anne Hathaway was wonderful and Samantha Barks was astonishing. And as usual, Éponine completely stole the show. Why does Marius ever choose Cosette over her, eh? Baffling.

    Disneyland! *snort* it did rather! The barricade was laughably ineffectual, I mean they just piled some chairs up across one narrow street. Ooh, that’s going to flummox the National Guard, isn’t it! Because there are no other streets in Paris. I don’t know why they didn’t just nip down a side street and hit them from the rear, really.

    And as usual, I found the Thénardiers annoying. There’s just something about them that drives me nuts, I’ve no idea what it is.

    • Girlsage
      October 14, 2013

      I am also not a big fan of musicals, although I defy anyone who has grown up in the AIDS ers not to find Rent amazing. Much of my love of LesMiz is nostalgic. I knew all the words to every song!

      And yes, Javert’s journey is far more interesting, but I do not like Mr. Crowe, so I was definitely doing my best to like his performance.

      You found the Thénardiers annoying because they are.

      Thanks for checking in!

  3. SJ2
    October 14, 2013

    I think you’re right about the vocal performances…. on screen, you can have more nuance than is allowed on stage and yet that music was written for the stage and is so big and bombastic that it doesn’t always translate well into being softer and more intimate for the screen.

    That being said, I cried like a baby, maybe two or three times. Like literal real large tears running down my neck not just the feeling of “OMG I could cry” I often get when watching something sad or moving. JVJ’s death scene got me, big time.

    • Girlsage
      October 14, 2013

      Much of my dislike had to do with the strange choices that were made in converting the play into a movie.

      I also cried. Both “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” and “Bring Him Home” make me weep. Every time. I feel you, girl.

  4. Girlsage
    October 14, 2013

    Woah. Comments on my blog. I guess I better start posting again! Thanks, girls.

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