Confessions up front: I rarely watch the Oscars broadcast, and I had to do a search on Seth McFarlane to find out what his day job is. That’s just how immersed I am in popular culture. (I still don’t understand who the Kardashians are, and why Bruce Jenner seems to be involved, in spite of having it explained to me more than once by my younger, hipper sisters.)
So I don’t know if last night’s broadcast differed significantly from previous Oscar productions. I do know it had some very jarring moments, and not in a good way. Here are my top two:
1. Michelle Obama’s appearance – surrounded by military members in their dinner dress uniforms – via video-teleconference. What was with the service members in dinner dress? What point was this tableau trying to make?
Inserting the First Lady into the Oscars would have been weird – political, off-key – to begin with. (Frankly, for me, the right jokes would have compared her Oscar moment to Nixon’s path-breaking turn on Laugh-In). But the presence of the military transformed weird into proto-fascist. Mrs. Obama talked about nurturing the arts in our young people, against a backdrop of military members in dress uniforms. She also threw in a drive-by allusion to the hype-cause of the moment, same-sex marriage.
The first things that come to mind are the purportedly arts-based appeals to national greatness made by Mussolini and Hitler. Then, nothing else comparable comes to mind. There is no non-sinister context for this inherently political imagery.
Statist-collectivism needs to get some new material. Which brings me to:
2. The seemingly endless riff on Jews uttered by the puppet character “Ted” (whom I am apparently supposed to recognize). This was about three-quarters of the way through the broadcast. “Ted” was ably supported by Mark Wahlberg in a brief stage excursion, during which he covered the topics of Hollywood sex orgies and the control of Hollywood by the Jews.
As with the “we saw your boobs” theme early in the show, the “Jew jokes” theme is one that might have seemed a little funny – not much – if it had been left at a single sentence. You can joke about almost anything if you do it with a light hand. But the “Ted” segment laid it on with a trowel. Or an industrial soil compacter.
“Ted’s” soliloquy – which probably lasted no more than 60 seconds, but which seemed like an eternity – included the obligatory references to Jews controlling people’s jobs and slavishly supporting Israel; it was framed with the implication that to prosper in Hollywood, you have to bow down to the peculiar priorities of Jews. It was, in other words, anti-Semitic boilerplate, the kind of thing Chuck Hagel has been (justifiably) raked over the coals for having said, in the weeks since Obama nominated him for secretary of defense.
What possible point there was in going off on this tangent at the Oscars may be left to the imagination. I suppose whoever wrote the segment knew that Oscar Sunday was the final day of Purim: the celebration ordained in the book of Esther to commemorate the Jews’ salvation from a planned genocide, during their captivity in ancient Persia. The writer probably didn’t have that in mind when he wrote the material for “Ted.” Maybe “Ted” is well-known in pop culture as an anti-Semite; someone will have to tell me, if that’s the case. Before last night, I couldn’t have picked “Ted” out of a line-up (and yes, I do know that he is a character created by Seth McFarlane, so I understand the tie-in. It’s the claw-taloned, faux-comic “Jews” riff I don’t see the McGuffin for).
Try to imagine “Ted” getting in the same kind of digs at Muslims or even Christians in an Oscar broadcast. Go ahead, try.
It was hard not to think “utter depravity” last night, with the combination of “boobs,” “sex orgies,” “Jew jokes,” and a national political icon piped in with military uniforms arrayed behind her. Berlin, 1930s. The ugly reality-context of Cabaret, fronted by the pleasant, baby-faced Mr. McFarlane. There’s only one direction sly transgressiveness goes; it never has a fresh or surprising idea. It always flogs the same old themes. When you’re softened up for one, you’ve been softened up for them all.
Has America been softened up as completely as the Oscars last night suggested? Time will tell.
Meanwhile, I thought it was interesting that the musical number from Les Misérables, performed by the actual cast, got a standing ovation from the Oscar audience. I don’t think it was just the dramatic unfurling of the flags at the end of the number, either. The music is inspiring, and the director (Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech) and cast did a remarkable thing with the live-recording of the singing in the movie. Argo’s best-picture win was well deserved, but Les Miz had to run a close second for the sheer interest of the craft, I think.
The live singing got the most attention before the movie came out, but the real issue for bringing any musical to the big screen is resolving the tension between theatrical forms. A musical is about the music and the spectacle; a big-screen drama is about the story (which is the central reason why story-poor blockbusters like Avatar and the newer episodes of Star Wars fall flat for me).
The performers do different things to inhabit one form versus the other. Les Miz turned out to be a fascinating hybrid, something I liked, while not thinking that it resolved the tension very successfully in most cases. Its most artistically unified moments were those of les Thénardiers, the miscreant innkeeper couple played with hilarious zest by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. The video camera was born to make such heights of choreography, expression, and lyrics more vivid to the viewer. Bonham Carter and Cohen got short shrift at the Oscars last night, but during the movie itself, their turns on the screen were the ones I wanted to literally applaud for sheer boffo artistry.
That said, it was hard to find dramatic fault with any of the performances. This was actually kind of a problem, in that the performances kept making you want to follow a story to a satisfactory conclusion. That’s not a problem, of course, when you see Les Miz on the stage. There may be no camera to zoom in on Anne Hathaway’s face, or help you appreciate the cleverness of the Thénardiers’ petty thievery – and that’s a loss. But the lack of a camera allows the musical to proceed on its own terms, guided and developed by the music. With cinematic inspection in the mix, you can’t help wanting the story to offer more.
For me, that aspect was most apparent in the trajectory of Javert, the police inspector – Jean Valjean’s pursuer – played by Russell Crowe. Crowe is a tremendous actor and did much with a relatively small part. But in a sense, he’s too good: when he sought to infiltrate the group of anti-monarchists in order to discover their plans and plant disinformation, you found yourself wanting that to be a whole movie plot of its own. Screen actors sell the story and their place in it, in a way no other type of performer does, and so you wanted to see the story of Javert – and his politics and beliefs – as you wanted to see the story of Fantine, or see Valjean, the broken but unbowed man, interacting over the years as a loving father with Cosette.
Some musical passages in Les Miz are familiar territory for the big screen, of course, like the lovers’ duets of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne). I didn’t think at first that I would like Samantha Barks as Éponine (the Thénardiers’ lovelorn daughter), but she won me over. Hugh Jackman’s death scene as Jean Valjean was very affecting, and of course, the promise of Anne Hathaway’s performance – previewed throughout the fall of 2012 – was more than fulfilled. She was wonderful as Fantine, a richly deserving best-supporting-actress winner.
But somehow, there was too much there there, with the Javert character, only moments before he cast himself from the ramparts in despair. Too much interest, commitment, and purpose; too much visceral life.
Javert would be hard to play in any theatrical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, which probably is because he begins as a unidimensional character and functions more symbolically than anything else. For Hugo, Javert’s demise symbolizes the ultimate end of justice, as opposed to mercy. In the face of mercy, Hugo might say, justice cannot justify itself. A focus on the evil deeds of the past is confounded by good deeds and redeemed character in the present. This is the reality of our God-given life, in Hugo’s concept; it is not the other way around.
This essentially Christian-themed imagery may or may not go unnoticed by today’s average moviegoer, although it’s hard to miss in the finale of Les Miz, in which – true to the allusions of Hugo’s original – the characters celebrate having gone on to a next life where there is no sorrow, misery, or earthly injustice. Perhaps the strange, soulless, disjunctive suicide of Javert is the best possible depiction of the screeching halt to which justice is to be brought – if justice is a temporal, made-for-earth concept with no future in the hereafter.
Getting to that conclusion requires an abstract intellectual exercise, however, rather than merely following the sound and fury on the screen. And in a way, that’s part of the attractiveness of Hooper’s Les Misérables, beyond the obvious visual beauty of the production, and the performances of an incredible cast.
It’s a mélange of forms, and at times, I’m not sure even it knows what it’s saying to us. Twentieth-century audiences have had their own perspective on the musical’s theme of popular revolution, for example, but that pasteurized, homogenized political perspective was not Hugo’s. His perspective was deeper, less categorical, more philosophical, and profoundly influenced by Christianity and the histories of France and Europe. Hugo didn’t see the revolutionaries of the 1830s as agents of an eschatological history, in what would later become the pat “Marxist” sense. In his novel Les Misérables, as in other works from his pen, he effectively pulls out the prop of “justice” from underneath the revolutionary left. Not only do the revolutionaries not hold a patent on “justice” – justice is not even what wins in the end.
But I don’t think it’s out of sync with Hugo’s attitude for an audience to have to think about that, rather than being spoon-fed a set of elided, bumper-sticker precepts in foot-high neon letters (think virtually every movie Hollywood has made about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). As with the best storytellers, Hugo leaves the polemics to the polemicists, and urges us to something more important: to seeing anew. Les Misérables offers opulent staging – sometimes startlingly so – and human performances of range and power. It mixes these elements in with an uneasy melding of theatrical forms, and a perfunctory, anachronistic treatment of the politics of the setting – a sort of epistemic drain-stopper, if you will – side by side with food for genuine and open-ended philosophical thought about the human condition. In doing all these things, the 2012 Les Misérables manages to capture that most apposite of attributes: being very Hugolien.