Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why some critics don't like Les Miserables

The reviews of Les Misérables have been mostly positive, but a significant contingent of critics have been, not just negative, but hostile. On the surface, it's hard not to surmise that some of the hostility comes from the explicit and unapologetic Christian message. But Stanley Fish has put his finger on something deeper, and I suspect he's right.

He points out that the real voices of the actors and director Tom Hooper's penchant for bringing the camera right into the actor's face has deprived critics of the critical distance they need to put themselves above what they are critiquing:
The key to what is intended by these technical choices was provided for me by Hooper himself when he remarked in an interview (also printed in USA Today) that while “we live in a postmodern age where a certain amount of irony is expected, [t]his film is made without irony.” Irony is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more naïve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions. 
The artist who deploys irony tests the sophistication of his audience and divides it into two parts, those in the know and those who live in a fool’s paradise. Irony creates a privileged vantage point from which you can frame and stand aloof from a world you are too savvy to take at face value. Irony is the essence of the critical attitude, of the observer’s cool gaze; every reviewer who is not just a bourgeois cheerleader (and no reviewer will admit to being that) is an ironist.

...Endless high passion and basic human emotions indulged in without respite are what “Les Misérables” offers in its refusal to afford the distance that enables irony. Those who call the movie flat, shallow, sentimental and emotionally manipulative are not wrong; they just fail to see that what appear to them to be bad cinematic choices (in addition to prosaic lyrics that repel aesthetic appreciation, and multiple reprises of simple musical themes) are designed to achieve exactly the result they lament — an almost unbearable proximity to raw, un-ironized experience. They just can’t go with it. And why should they? After all, the critic, and especially the critic who perches in high journalistic places, needs to have a space in which he can insert himself and do the explicatory work he offers to a world presumed to be in need of it. “Les Misérables,” taken on its own terms, leaves critics with nothing to do except join the rhythms of rapt silence, crying and applause, and it is understandable that they want nothing to do with it.
I went to see it with most of my children, all of which do not like musicals. They all liked this one, some very much. I think it was one of the best things I've ever seen on screen.

Read the rest here.

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