Grace in the Raw

Review of Les Misérables (2012)

This review was written for Chesterton House and can be found here on their website.

Before attending Les Misérables, I heard from a friend – a long-time fan of the stage musical – that she found the rawness of the cinematography distracted her from the music. Armed with this observation, I did not expect to be as ravished by the film as I was. Most captivating is the way in which the musical and filmic elements work together to create a deeply engaging experience of the narrative and its characters that spills over into life, especially through the portrayal of grace.

Photo credit: NCR online

Film settings necessarily contrast with the expectations established by stage dramas. Many film interpretations of musicals retain a relatively theatrical setting and the perceptual distance of a stage drama.  To say that Les Misérables abandons any theatrical effect would be to entirely mistake the film, but nevertheless, the film takes advantage of the medium’s capabilities. The city is shown in various states of disarray: the prostitutes appear ill, the poor look starved and cold, the inn is chaotic, the streets are dirty. Aerial shots are juxtaposed with extreme close-ups to create a continuum of varied perspectives on the story. The close-ups are especially raw, introducing us to the vulnerability of the characters in an intimate way that is downright uncomfortable. Les Misérables thus eliminates the lens of ironic distance common to popular postmodern perception, much to the chagrin of critics. Put differently, it dares to “treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions with reverence and conviction” (Stanley Fish; NY Times).

Trained musicians tend to disparage the quality of the vocals in this film. Although Anne Hathaway presented a stunning performance as Fantine, other leads have come under some severe criticism. However, with the possible exception of Russell Crowe, I think the vocal issues are balanced and even, perhaps justified, by the circumstances in which the characters find themselves; the raggedness of the physical and emotional states of the characters is much more pronounced in this film than it could be on stage, and the rough edges in the vocals are generally appropriate to the dramatic situation. This trained musician finds that the vocal imperfections contribute to the film’s powerful effect.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

One might think a film offers little advantage over a staged production with respect to large ensemble numbers, usually staged as a colorful choreographic spectacle. Yet this film production of Les Misérables balances the spectacle and the underlying character of the events portrayed. Take, for example, “Lovely Ladies,” in which shots of the whole group of prostitutes dancing are juxtaposed with disorienting footage of Fantine as she winds her way through the chaos and is swallowed up by it. The scene becomes grotesque and disturbing–the crude humor of the lyrics offset by Fantine’s desperation. We are not supposed to laugh and the film makes laughing impossible.

Consider also the intriguing contrast between musical time and the “real” time of the narrative. In Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Jean val Jean’s “Bring Him Home,” all else comes to a halt. No other characters hear these songs; they are reflections, prayers, asides. This feature is not unique to musical dramas but is perhaps most pronounced in them because words take time to sing and are often repeated in a way that would be nonsensical if unaccompanied by music. The realism of the film setting is what makes these pauses in the narrative so emotionally striking. Combined with improbably close-up cinematography and realistic expression, these “slow” moments drag us into the characters’ inner reality.

Many reviewers have remarked on the pervasive theme of grace in Les Misérables. Here again, the film’s interwoven cinematographic and musical elements provide a suitable lens. The grace of Les Misérables is visceral rather than philosophical. We cannot distance ourselves from the ragged horror of the characters’ circumstances and experience, but are rather invited – even compelled – to empathize with and extend grace to Fantine and val Jean, Marius and the young rebels, even Javert. These are sinners all, yet desperately craving mercy. Freed of ironic distance, do we recognize our own desperate need for grace? Are we not also inspired to empathize with, extend grace to, and even act on behalf of our fellow image-bearers who are suffering in the world around us? The epilogue articulates what it might mean for grace to be extended, for all things to be reconciled, at the moment when Jean val Jean steps into death and encounters the prior dead from the story singing a revised version of “Do you hear the people sing”:

Do you hear the people sing? Lost in the valley of the night.
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.

We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the plough-share, We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward! 

(To start the clip below at the above lyrics, skip to 4:25. However, the whole clip is worth listening to.)

Epilogue (Val Jean’s Death/Do You Hear the People Sing Reprise)

Other reviews of interest:

“Les Misérables and Irony” (Quoted above; Opinionator Blog, NYT)

“Two Cheers for Javert” (Cardus blog)

“Law and Les Misérables Revisited” and “Les Misérables Review” (CT)

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The Goodness of Time

If in Christ ‘all things’ have found their fulfillment, then, presumably, the same is to be said of time as an integral dimension of the created order. (Theology, Music and Time, p. 71)

Jeremy Begbie’s book Theology, Music and Time (which I have briefly mentioned here) explores the connections between the interactions of music and time and a proper theological understanding of time. In Chapter 3, “In God’s Good Time,” Begbie sets out to use properties of music to suggest that time is intrinsic to creation and that time is essentially a positive part of God’s “good ordering” of the world (p. 71).

Photo credit: art knowledge news

To support the first assertion, namely that time is intrinsic to creation, Begbie draws on earlier arguments in the book, suggesting that music is necessarily made up of time in the very way it operates – that in music, time is seen not as a container, backround, or mental construct but as absolutely inherent to the “interrelationship between the physical entities involved in the production and reception of sound” (p. 80).

To support the second assertion, that time is good, Begbie presents four ways in which music demonstrates that a “link between time and fallenness” is not necessary:

  1. In music, change and order are seen to coexist; “change need not imply chaos” (p. 85). Tonal music (at least) is by nature subject to persistent change and yet embodies dynamic order.
  2. Music takes time not only to be created but to be. The implication is that the created world takes time to be, and that in music we can see that the fact that creation can only reach its fulfillment through time is not necessarily a negative, fallen characteristic of creation. Thus patience and waiting become potentially positive and enriching rather than empty. Music demands patience and waiting, the trust that there is something worth waiting for, and the realization that the “something” is not detachable from the music. (pp. 86-87)
  3. Different entities have different “time-structures,” different rates of coming into being, reaching a peak, returning to non-being. In musical works, multiple different temporal operations occur concurrently, often with irregularities (for those in the music world, an example is multiple layers of hypermeter, in which irregular hyper measures might occur), and these fluctuating and simultaneous layers of temporal action are crucial to the integrity of the piece. These differences and varieties should be seen not as signs of corruption but as signs of the diversity God has given his creation for good (pp.89-91).
  4. Finally, music challenges the assumption that finitude – boundaries and temporal limits – is by nature a fallen characteristic (p.91). As a result, Begbie suggests (with Barth) that limited duration in human life is “fundamentally beneficial and advantageous” (p. 94). A quote seems clearest here:

Music depends heavily for its meaning on finitude at every level… Musical continuity emerges from transience, from the coming into being and dying of tones, for in this way and only in this way can their dynamic qualities be sensed. The fact that music never solidifies or coagulates to form a thing or substance is critical to its intelligibility…(p.92)

Implicit in our finitude is an invitation and direction to through ourselves upon the divine graciousness…creation praises God in its very finitude and thus shows what authentic praise is…[T]he universe is suspended between nothingness and the infinity of God – music can exemplify and embody just this suspension. (pp.95-97)

As Begbie suggests, these characteristics of music in conjunction with the doctrine of Incarnation (Christ’s entering into the created order as God and man) should waken in us the conviction that temporality is an intrinsic dimension of God’s creation and that our interaction with it should recognize it as a gift, as an opportunity to recognize not only our limitations but also the divine goodness of our creator, as something with which we can work and live peacably, working in “the stream of God’s wisdom” (Rowan Williams, qtd. on p. 97).

…the purpose of music…

…the purpose of _De Musica_ is to bring the soul to a recognition of its fallen state and promote its return to God, to move from the world of sense to the world of intelligibility. The soul is fallen from the restful contemplation of eternal truth, into the busy-ness of temporal activity. Because of the fall, we are ordered by the tapestry of time, ‘sewn into’ the order of spatio-temporality. We have become so many individual ‘words’, each forming part of the poem of the temporal whole but unable to perceive the harmony and beauty of the connected work. By immersion in temporal sequence, we have lost the purview of the whole temporal series we possessed prior to the fall.

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…by the time we reach the _Confessions_ a more positive attitude to the created order, materiality and temporality is evident… The recitation of a psalm, though so obviously in time and subject to the distractions of the temporal order, is … used to illustrate the way in which the mind’s descent into diversity has not entirely effaced its ability to grasp that Unity from which all things proceed. Insofar as the mind achieves some ordering power over time, it approximates, albeit very weakly, to the perspective and character of eternity.

…For all the qualifications we have noted, it is hard to ignore the signs of the ancient tendency to run together temporality and fallenness, and especially significant for us is the way in which music is discovered and known insofar as we abstract from the temporal relations of physical realities patterns which reflect in some measure the order of eternity. Despite its considerable subtlety and fascination, for this vision to be advanced as offering a way forward for the theological deployment of music today would be, I suggest, dubious.

[Because] [t]onal music exhibits not the temporality of a single straight line but that of a multi-levelled matrix of waves of tension and resolution, in which the temporal modes interweave within an overall directionality[,]… it would seem that music is capable of demonstrating that such a strong link between time and fallenness need not be assumed, and that there is no necessity to distance ourselves from the mutable multiplicity of the temporal world in order to experience beneficial and enriching order.

Jeremy Begbie on St. Augustine’s remarks on theological engagement with time and music (some of which are quite beautiful); also questioning the assumption that temporality and fallenness go together, that materiality is only of value in its signification of that which is eternal. ~ Theology, Music and Time, 82-84, 68, 85

Selections from my bookshelf

(re-)Read in 2012

  • Photo credit: SPCK Publishing

    be not afraid (Samuel Wells) – A slim but encouraging volume on the nature of fear, whether it is all bad, what kinds of things we are afraid of, and why and how our hope in Christ should influence the way we handle fear. I found this volume particularly helpful in my own struggles with anxiety this past year.

  • The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis) – A re-read item, but I don’t actually remember the exact time I last read these lovely books. As an adult, I found returning to these fanciful stories with a greater understanding of Scripture, literature, and the other writings of C.S. Lewis to be both delightful and stimulating. The Last Battle is especially puzzling yet illuminates some of the glorious ideas Lewis had about eschatology and the community of believers.
  • Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell) – I am a long time fan of 19th and early 20th century British literature, especially of novels written by female authors (e.g. Jane Austen; Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte). Elizabeth Gaskell is a relatively recent discovery of mine through her books (and their recent film adaptations) Wives and Daughters and North and South. Cranford is less a single narrative than a collection of intertwining stories of the residents of the sleepy town of Cranford. The narrator – Mary Smith – records events with a partial eye, but her participation in the story is the window into the light and yet serious matters of the unimportant characters in the story.
  • An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle) – The finale to the Time series engages in questions about the nature of time, how we interact with past and present and future, how God’s presence might have been known (if at all) among those who had no opportunity to hear of him. If you’ve never read the children’s series (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time), I’d highly recommend it to any adult reader. Some of L’Engle’s ideas about time and the universe are fanciful, but her imagination brings a breadth and depth to our engagement with things we don’t understand about the cosmos. Perhaps creation is singing, and has been sung into existence, and we just can’t hear it unless we listen.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events (David Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, narrator) – Another
    Photo credit: Goodreads.com

    Photo credit: Goodreads.com

    children’s series… I read many “easy” books this year due to my need for rest from my studies, but this series, along with The Chronicles of Narnia and An Acceptable Time, is very interesting to read as an adult. Based on the premise that the three Baudelaire siblings face many unfortunate events, most of which are perpetuated by the villain, Count Olaf, the series follows the siblings as they face questions about the nature of good and evil, the difficulty of making a decision when all the options are poor, and the potentially deceptive nature of language. The tone is actually comedic – somewhat darkly so – but the undercurrent of hope in familial bonds, trust in each other, and forgiveness draws these books together in an unexpectedly redemptive narrative.

  • Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton) – Another re-read item, this book is one of the most charming, well written, and compelling defenses of faith I have ever read. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in how one might find belief in Christ and God a foundation and a rock in the swirling turbulence of ideologies and uncertainty in our day. Another great book in a similar vein is C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Current/To-read queue

  • Theology, Music, and Time (Jeremy Begbie) – I’ve tried to read this book a few times, but in the middle of the dense readings of my degree program, I had not found the energy or concentration I needed to delve into the meaty prose of this work. Now that I have the opportunity, I’m intrigued by the coincidence between many of the issues Begbie deals with and the broader issues I encountered in Contemporary Aesthetics (Spring 2012). Begbie critiques and expands on Zuckerkandl in an effort to explore the dimensions of time in music and how these might affect our understanding and experience of time through a theological lens.
  • Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen) – The Jane Austen novels are dear friends; I return to them on a regular basis, especially to Pride and Prejudice, which I read every year. Northanger Abbey is the closest in tone to Austen’s juvenilia, even though it was published posthumously. I re-read it less often than most of the other novels, so I found returning to it this time to be a very fresh take on the story. Austen’s satire and wit is closer to the surface in this novel, which makes it both a pleasant read and a window into the ideas that informed her writing style in her later novels.
  • Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art (Abraham Kuyper) – I’ve heard so much about Kuyper in my readings and discussions about the way our theology should impact our engagement with culture. This translation of a partial volume of Kuyper’s is exciting and approachable – I’m looking forward to exploring it further.
  • Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World (Timothy Keller) – One of my favorite reviewers says this about Every Good Endeavor:

it … remind[s] us that we join our work to God’s work because of God’s gracious overtures and the gospel’s effective power in our lives… From the good plan of God to the hard news of sin to the exciting news of a Kingdom approach, these three units offer a great structure for a great book, and Keller plumbs this well.  It isn’t a cheap structure or a casual one, it is profound. His astute teaching about all this helps us see that.  Like other things in life — from sex to art, science to politics — we can see what is good and wondrous, what is sinful and broken, and what is being redeemed by gospel transformation, and how to take up our vocations into the world in wise and proper ways.  This is the story of the God’s redemptive work in the world and is how we take up the calling, as in his subtitle, to relate our daily work to God’s work. ~ Byron Borger, Hearts and Minds Books

  • Photo credit: Tyndale

    The Just Church: Becoming a risk-taking, justice-seeking, disciple-making congregation (Jim Martin) – If I’m honest with myself, I’ve let much of the conversation on social justice in the church pass by me. This book just came out last year and appears to be grounded in the gospel and practical. Again, I quote Byron Borger: “this incredibly useful book does just what its subtitle promises — it helps integrate justice advocacy into ordinary discipleship, and helps ordinary churches realize they must be proactive in building wholistic disciples.  Dare our churches not take risks for the cause of justice, dare we sit on the sidelines of the great historical battle for justice and liberation, dare we continue with church-life as usual?” 

  • Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Richard Mouw) – I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since it came out, and I just haven’t gotten a hold of it yet. One of my biggest frustrations with public conversation (and private conversation sometimes) is the tone – we are so quick to condemn others, to be angry, to insist that we are right – we are so often uncivil and unwilling to hear others. This book calls us Christians to a totally different mindset.

Alongside this last book, I’ll just mention that this weekend is the Institute for Biblical Studies in Ithaca, NY, and Richard Mouw is the speaker this year. If you are nearby, I’d encourage you to attend.

For other book ideas this year, see my friend Bethany’s recent post: The year in books: 2012

The temporal whole

An interesting idea about how music and time interact.  Unfortunately, I’ve had to cut a number of the elaborating bits that flesh out the argument.  If you are very interested, check out the book Sound and Symbol, Chapter 12: The Musical Concept of Time.

[…] melody is a temporal Gestalt; temporal Gestalt presupposes that a temporal whole–a whole whose parts, with the exception of the one part present at the moment, either are no longer there or are not yet there–is given to us in an immediate experience. […] thus past and future are given with and in the present and are experienced with and in the present […] But the past is not a part of the future because it is remembered, nor is the future a part of the present because it is foreknown or forefelt. […] The temporal whole with which we are here confronted is, then, certainly not the work of memory and foreknowledge or forefeeling. […] Every melody declares to us that the past can be there without being remembered, the future without being foreknown–that the past is not stored in memory but in time, and that it is not our consciousness which anticipates time but that time anticipates itself.  The possibility of music and of every temporal Gestalt rests entirely upon the premise of a time […] that stores itself and anticipates itself.

[…] What a melody is on a small scale, the total course of a musical work is on a large scale–a whole that unfolds in time and is so constituted that, though its individual members appear one after another, the whole, in order to be present, does not have to wait for member to be added to member, but is, so to speak, always already there, not factually, as with the spatial Gestalt, but as direction, as oriented tension.

~ Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol, 236-237