Les Miserables and Irony

Anne Hathaway as FantineThe following is a few snippets from a great article by one of my favorites, Stanley Fish, on why the film Les Miserables is “good” and why critics say it’s “bad.” (read in the quotes my disdain for being forced to categorically call a movie good or bad, and my further disdain for the equivocation of statements of personal taste and value judgments like “good” or “bad”)

“I may have missed it, but I don’t recall USA Today devoting a full one and three-quarters pages to a movie, never mind a movie that’s been out for some time now. But there in the Life section of the Weekend edition was a lengthy discussion of “Les Misérables,” or, more precisely, a discussion of the furiously negative responses the musical epic has evoked from a gaggle of critics who simultaneously trash the film and express an incredulity verging on outrage at fellow moviegoers who don’t share their view.

. . .

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.

“Les Misérables” defeats irony by not allowing the distance it requires. If you’re looking right down the throats ofthe characters, there is no space between them and you; their perspective is your perspective; their emotions are your emotions; you can’t frame what you are literally inside of. Moreover, the effect — and it is an effect even if its intention is to trade effect for immediacy — is enhanced by the fact that the faces you are pushed up against fill the screen; there is no dimension to the side of them or behind them; it is all very big and very flat, without depth. The camera almost never pulls back, and when it does so, it is only for an instant.

. . .

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.”

Read the entire post here.

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