In Defense of “Les Misérables”
Cinema & New Media Arts | On Jan 10, 2013
Brett McCracken discusses Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables over at Mere Orthodoxy.
Some may be (understandably) skeptical of any movie that can bring so many people–even grown men like Gerson–to tears. Surely a movie like that must be manipulative, saccharine, simplistic, right?
I think we should consider the possibility that it may simply be because that’s what art does. In its quest to reflect our world back to us, or perhaps to show us a fantasy world or eschatological vision that is foreign to us, art can strike us in the deepest places of our soul–those pining places beyond day-to-day emotions; the reservoirs of existential longings so often only stirred up by beauty and art.
Movies especially are a form of art prone to elicit such emotional, existential responses. Movies can capture, probe, explore the tangible world in ways no other medium can. We feel the texture of a silk dress in Anna Karenina. We smell the blood-splattered cotton in Django Unchained. We languish at the sight of Anne Hathaway’s tormented face – every line and wrinkle of which the camera so painfully exploits. Movies are visceral.
In a movie, the raw materiality and physical geography on which the story plays out (i.e. nature, sets, bodies, props) can resonate with us as much as the story itself. This is reality, shooting out at us in flickering light. Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer believed that the primary function of cinema was to open up reality and re-focus the spectator on the mundane and everyday elements of life that are typically taken for granted. It is through this encounter with the “texture of everyday life” that cinema serves to reconnect humanity with its estranged material habitat, urging us to look closer and see the world for the concrete thing that it is.
This re-connective power of cinema–which among other things fosters a potent, immersive empathy between audience and whatever action transpires among the flickering pixel players–is so striking that it leads some viewers to build up defense mechanisms so as to resist its affective force. This is one (but not the only) reason why some respond to Les Mis with such skepticism. It’s a movie that embraces, unapologetically, the power of cinema to consolidate the extremes of human experience in such a way that audiences can’t help but be moved.
That is, if the audience is willing to suspend disbelief and accept that yes, a movie is movie. People don’t really sing every emotion and monologue that runs through their mind. Our experience of the world doesn’t jet back and forth in time and space, covering decades in the span of a few hours. Movies are artifice, symbols of truth. But so is all art. So is all language. Without these methods of “assimilating the world,” how could we live?