Friday, June 21, 2013

Beat It, Essay: Back to the Beginning

It occured to me that I have a stash of spectacularly written film essays from my second semester at CSULB and, in an attempt to keep new material going while I'm working on some longer-running topics (as well as during my periodic brief movie watching hiatuses), I could release my essays in case anybody happens to be interested in how I'm doing in school (Hi, mom).

This essay is why I'm here. I included it as part of my application into the film program at CSULB in the "critical essay" portion. It incorporates elements from my original review of Les Misérables, but focuses on more specific (and academic) qualities of the film and omits some of my... non-professional sentences.

Notable omissions: The phrase "You guys, Les Misérables is friggin’ incredible." Also pictures.

I would like to take this moment to state once and for all that my references cited at the end of this work are complete and utter horsesh!t. I made them up. Sorry, mom.

The December 25th release of Les Misérables made for a not so merry Christmas. Popcorn and tears covered theater floors in equal proportions. Les Mis is a film which paints its emotions in broad strokes and isn’t afraid to demand that you feel exactly what it wants you to feel. It is over-the-top, bombastic, and occasionally full of itself. However, while those qualities might kill a normal movie, the normal rules do not apply to this larger than life musical; they only serve to enhance the spectacle that provides the lifeblood of its narrative.

While there are certainly no parts of the plot that can be considered subtle by any definition of the term (The film can’t be blamed for this; the stage musical it is based on as well as the 1862 Victor Hugo protest novel that provides the source material both seek to pummel rather than suggest [Hugo].), the filmmakers deftly scale back the grandiosity, bringing the film a more organic and accessible onscreen quality. The three most important things utilized in maintaining the balance between the spectacle and the humanity of Les Misérables were the technique of recording the vocals live in camera, the cinematography, and the color scheme.

Singing live in camera is something that has never been attempted on such a scale before and it overwhelmingly, undeniably, works. Almost the entirety of the musical is sung-through (there are some 20-odd brief lines of dialogue here and there), and thus the vocal performances are the one factor that holds the most weight in the success of the movie as a whole. This method allows the actors much more freedom to emote and act through song, much more than if they were lip-syncing to a track that had been pre-recorded in a studio, a process which produces some absolutely stellar performances. Anne Hathaway’s I Dreamed a Dream is undeniably the absolute best performance of that song that has ever been sung.

Occasionally vocal polish was traded for emotive quality, but it is a worthy price to pay. Russell Crowe was clearly laboring to sing the notes properly and Eddie Redmayne sounded like Kermit the Frog more often than not, but the former’s portrayal of the upright Inspector Javert humanized a character whose staunch, one-note devotion to the law can sometimes, in the hands of a lesser performer, be utterly inaccessible [Behr]. Likewise, the latter’s performance of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables perfectly reflected the anguish of the entire film and provided the tonal turning point between the battle at the barricades and Valjean’s ascent to the afterlife.

As the actors threw themselves full-tilt into their performances, they achieved an incomparable level of audience immediacy. Such an intense close-up experience of human tragedy enhanced the grand emotive measures of the film, underscored greatly by the cinematography. Director Tom Hooper was limited in a sense by the decision to use live performances, because, to capture the entirety of a song or a line, the performer had to be in the shot the whole time, and cutting between shots was a near impossibility.

To counteract this limitation, he compensated with handheld camera shots and extreme close-ups, both of which did their part in bringing the spectacle of Les Mis to the level of the cinema audience. The handheld shots allowed the performers free reign over their movements and their improvisations led the camera’s movements, rather than the other way around. The close-up shots worked in tandem with the handheld, keeping us in tight focus on the human face of tragedy [Mercado], instead of soaring with the songs and taking us farther away. This works for the same reason that Anne Hathaway’s I Dreamed a Dream was so superb. Instead of being merely a beautiful moment in a musical, it feels like an authentic moment in a real person’s struggles.

The need to scale down can be reflected in the enormity of the film’s themes, represented in the tagline: “Fight. Dream. Hope. Love.” However big, these themes are still central to the narrative and are heavily reflected in the color scheme. The overall design of the film is drab and grey, reflecting the poverty and struggles of daily life in 19th century France. The only times bright colors are used are when the central themes are present, because they all exemplify a way to escape from the grey world of reality.

The Fight at the barricades is marked by the vivid reds and blues of the French uniforms and the flags of the rebels as well as the deep, oaky earth tones of the barricade. Fantine’s Dream is represented by her pink outfit – contrasting with the washed out blue of the other factory workers – and her daughter Cosette’s Dream is reflected in the vivid hues of the doll shop at which she wistfully gazes across the avenue. The most color in the entire film – glowing oranges and yellows, elegant silvers and golds - can be found in churches, the strongholds of Hope. The Love that fuels the second half of the movie is likewise heavily featured in the purple and silver buds in the garden where Cosette and Marius meet in secret, as well as the deep emerald of forlorn Éponine’s dress.

Les Misérables is an ensemble musical and no single part could function without the others. The tableau provided by the vocals, the camera work, and the color scheme functions in the same way. Each part is essential and it all works together to create a spectacular, yet singularly human narrative.

Works Cited
Behr, Edward. The Complete Book of Les Misérables. Little Brown & Co, 1990.
Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Cie., 1862.
Mercado, Gustavo. The Filmmaker's Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition. Focal Press, 2010.
Word Count: 1147

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