Wednesday, April 24, 2013


* I saw the recent film version of Les Miserables this weekend. I think it highlights a problem with Hollywood musicals these days: the noncommutative character of acting and singing. That is to say, acting-with-singing is not the same as singing-with-acting. The two can never be co-equal, because they will have ongoing competing demands, and one has to be subordinated to the other; this subordination has to be reasonably consistent, or the character stops seeming coherent. In musicals this ends up being a serious problem: musicals are based on singing-with-acting, but Hollywood musicals are packed with people who are acting-with-singing. This can still get good results. Both Jackman and Hathaway have some powerful moments. But they are always and everywhere actors who are singing; the rhythm, mood, and overall performance are determined by, and subordinated to, the requirements of playing the character. With some talent and experience integrating song into acting, as Hathaway and Jackman certainly have, this can get us something reasonably impressive. But the one character who really makes the film is Éponine, played by Samantha Barks, and this is because Barks is the only person in the film who is singing-with-acting: she sings with the rhythm, mood, and overall performance that is appropriate to the song, and adjusts the acting accordingly. (Unsurprisingly, it turns out that her primary background is singing rather than acting.) Barks was nominated for a lot of awards for her part, and rightly so: it was exactly what a film musical requires. Had there been a greater proportion of people singing-with-acting, like Barks, and fewer people acting with song thrown in, this would have been a stronger movie.

But it is worth seeing. I found some of the more negative reviews rather hilariously funny, with their slinging of insults like 'bombastic', 'over-the-top selling of emotion', and the like. Filtered through stageplay and screenplay though it may be, this is Victor Hugo we're talking about, that literary great than which no more melodramatic can be conceived, the quintessence of melodrama sentiment and bombastic caricature turned into enduring story. It's precisely this sort of reviewing that leads people to dismiss movie reviewers as not knowing what they are talking about.

* Speaking of Hugo-esque movies, I intended to say something a while back about Atlas Shrugged Part II. Samantha Mathis was excellent; she does the exhausted-yet-resolved thing very well. In general, having the more experienced cast made the acting less bland than in the first part, and the pacing problems in the story are less pronounced. It does suffer very seriously from middle-movie syndrome: all transition and no resolution. It's also has some difficulty handling an over-strained plot, which is less troublesome in a book than on screen. This leads to inconsistent moods throughout, and on several points they go the wrong direction and make it more melodramatic than Rand does, which is impressive.

One thing they did right, and I'm not sure that it was deliberate, is actually drawing out the fact that Atlas Shrugged is science fiction: it's near-future dystopian science fiction in which the major plot devices are technological advances -- indeed, the book itself is heavily structured by the three inventions of Rearden Metal, the Galt generator, and the scientific/engineering enclave of Galt's Gulch, cloaked by its field. The movie has to turn 'near-future' into 'retro-future', but it brings out the science-fiction component well. This is emphasized by the casting, which has a number of actors who would be best known to science fiction fans (Picardo, Morales), and by the thematic focus on the generator. Playing the thing out as a science fiction movie is exactly the right way to go, and would have greatly improved Part I.

There are in-jokes that are too obvious to be coincidental; e.g., the fact that the security guard is Teller from Penn & Teller, and the fact that the Head of State is played by Ray Wise, another well-known SF actor, one of whose most most widely known recent parts was playing the somewhat goofy President Dugan in the video game Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2.

Victor Hugo was one of Rand's favorite authors, and the style of the novel owes a great deal to Hugo and Rand's understanding of how his works succeed -- right down to John Galt's extended speech, which has parallels in Hugo's infamous not-quite-digressions. From which it follows that what we really need is an Atlas Shrugged film musical.

* Anyone who has ever lived in Central Texas knows that the three weather seasons here are Hot, Temperate, and Lunatic. We are currently in the Lunatic season, bouncing back and forth between, on the one hand, days with highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s, and, on the other hand, days with highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s. This weather is extremely enervating, so things will probably slow down around here a bit.


* A new superhero:

A Samurai sword-wielding Mormon bishop helped a neighbor woman escape a Tuesday morning attack by a man who had been stalking her.

Kent Hendrix woke up Tuesday to his teenage son pounding on his bedroom door and telling him somebody was being mugged in front of their house. The 47-year-old father of six rushed out the door and grabbed the weapon closest to him -- a 29-inch high carbon steel Samurai sword.

It turns out he's also a pharmaceutical statistician, so he has the perfect cover identity. It's a better idea than a lot of superhero ideas.


  1. MrsDarwin1:34 PM

    The tricky thing with operetta-style theater is that you have two forms of musical expression, the aria and the recitative. The recitative is the "acting with singing" element, where the action of the plot is progressing: there's not always a lot of melody going on, so the performer can give a more personalized reading of the line. Pop-erettas such as Les Mis or Phantom of the Opera have incorporated this more operatic style of dialogue, though the use of recurring motifs to score these recitatives means that the actors have less leeway to follow the rhythms of natural speech. You see the actors in Les Mis falling down when they try to force these natural rhythms into a musical line that a) can't bear that stress, and b) is being underscored by an orchestra recorded in a separate session. It's madness to expect an orchestra to follow the singer; it's even madder to think that a real unity can be achieved in such a piecemeal recording program.

    The aria is, of course, the song, the place where the action pauses to allow the character to deliver a jolt of pure musical emotion. In this case the musical line is what is manipulating the emotion -- think how banal many song lyrics sound divorced from their musical context. Schonberg is a competent composer and his music is very accessible, so it's easy to decode the emotional content of his songs even without a highly stylized performance. As a result, the kitchen sink naturalism of Jackman and Hathaway's acting jars with music and lyrics that don't require that level and style of interpretation. The odd thing is that Jackman is a musical theater performer from way back. Barks was far more restrained in her performance, pacing herself to the demands of the music.

  2. branemrys4:21 PM

    I had forgotten that you did a review. Looking back over it, I found it interesting that you were taken with Redmayne's performance, which didn't stand out for me at all; but you have a more musical ear than I, so it's likely you caught more subtleties than I did.

  3. MrsDarwin7:51 PM

    Marius is about as much a non-character in the movie as in the book, to my mind, and some of the cinematic/theatrical shorthand doesn't do the love story any favors, but dude can sing. I wasn't sure about his hair, though -- it distracted me.

    I'd forgotten that I'd reviewed it as well. My, how punchy I was in January.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.