Les Miserables, Red Lights, etc.
January 15, 2013 § 8 Comments
One of my friends texted us in a group chat about the Golden Globes awards show and its unbearable celebration of whiteness. As this Tumblr post puts it: “The Brave White Artists of the USA”. The white culture industry congratulating its white industrially cultural self. Most of us love to watch it and talk about it because we’re saturated in it and even though I hate it so much I enjoy watching people watch it: a meta-spectacle. I mean, Debord wrote about this. Debord said it all. Everything shit will come to pass, said Debord.
I just had the best time looking at this twitter feed throughout the thing:
I watched Les Miserables because a friend wanted to see it. I’m no fan of musicals. Or opera. At all. I had some familiarity with Les Miserables the musical because we put on bits of it for a concert when I was in the English Literary and Debating Society in secondary school. Yes, that’s really what it was called. The English Literary and Debating Society. I have stage fright, so I was never on stage but always in the background running around doing important things for the people on stage, but this has nothing to do with anything, really. Or does it?
Where Les Miserables the musical is concerned, I never understood why poverty had to be romanticised, aestheticised, into a feel-good musical. You might ask the same question of the novel itself, which I haven’t read, but then I’m biased—I majored in literary studies. Maybe I think the novel can do important things. So kill me now. I don’t know, this novel thing is a big question. I read Pierre Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production and still understand nothing. That is, whole chunks of Macherey’s text were incomprehensible to me.
(The all-pervasive fear, a daily check in: How stupid am I? Is my stupidity increasing?)
Can the musical do important things? Perhaps it can—if so, I’ve yet to see a musical that felt like there was something there, but this makes no sense because as a general rule I avoid musicals, so I wouldn’t know a good musical if it came and warbled in my ear.
It’s hard to take anything seriously when people are singing about it to you, although certain scenes had its power. The “End of the Day” sequence with the faces of the workers, the poor, the underclass. The opening scene with the song “Look Down”, again primarily because the camera honed in on individual faces of prisoners. Because Hugh Jackman didn’t look like Hugh Jackman the celebrity. But then he “reforms” and becomes an honest man by becoming a capitalist—a factory owner, to be precise. He also became a philanthropist. A good-hearted capitalist with morals and God. So an honest man is a man who stops stealing and starts openly exploiting workers—the women in his factory. As soon as he becomes an honest man, i.e. a capitalist, i.e. a man with money, Jean Valjean looks like Hugh Jackman and he even has Hugh Jackman’s teeth.
I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel, but I wonder if this ideal of white womanhood is a problem in the book, too. This ideal of the virtuous, pure, good-hearted, moralistic, and dreary woman played by the likes of Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. Particularly in the case of Seyfried’s Cosette, the heir to her mother’s beauty and goodness: Good skin, good hair, good teeth, sparkling eyes, good health, good disposition, perfect for breeding. The way in which Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne (the reason I finally gave in and watched the damn movie) falls in love with Cosette is so tiresome. So tiresome I don’t even have the energy to be angry anymore—most heterosexual love stories just put me to sleep these days.
Then there is Eponine—finally, an intriguing female character!—who pines for Marius, becomes a boy for a day, then dies. Imagine if instead of continuing to pursue Cosette, Marius starts to look anew at Eponine! Imagine a story where Marius nurtures his revolutionary, radical spirit and finds his soul mate in the woman who fought beside him! Imagine a story where Marius doesn’t put his own beliefs aside, temporarily, to follow the dictates of his penis, running after a normative, ideal vision of womanly perfection to “settle down” to a life of “happiness”. Jean Valjean, now an honest capitalist and honest patriarch, has a role to play here in ensuring his ward’s happiness. She must have the man! And how fitting that Marius, too, comes from money. The rich man will have the beautiful woman! And how fitting that Cosette’s mother was so virtuous that she is now a dead angel. 100% pure extract of Good Woman, is Cosette, and a good man will have her.
This Les Miserables is such a reactionary film. After the fighting and the death, things go back to normal. The barricades are now manned by the dead figures of revolutionary past. The future is with these two youths who are now married to each other. Their individual blonde European beauty is reflected in the other. Beyond that—who cares.
I have no idea why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role, by which I mean I guess I know why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role: This role is award bait. The culture industry loves a good woman in trouble, especially if she’s beautiful and has the good sense to weep for her child, sing sad songs, and die prettily. (They should have given her a nomination for the Batman film, instead, where between her and two seconds of Cillian Murphy they made the excruciating thing watchable.)
So Hathaway shaved off her hair for Les Miserables, but did you know that Cillian Murphy shaved off an eyebrow for Peacock? Where is Cillian Murphy’s award? Where is Cillian Murphy?
In Red Lights, as it turns out, which is not award bait. Red Lights is about the ever-rational, all-seeing, white bourgeois gaze and how it tries to impose itself upon the world. It fails, to some extent, and the result is that blood splatters all over Cillian Murphy and he looks really good—Cillian as Carrie/Jesus hybrid, basically—but I digress. I think maybe the movie is itself conflicted about this gaze. I say “think” because this movie is a bit of a mess, or a lot of a mess. Not the kind of mess that I like, because I generally am quite fond of a really good mistake, but because it’s a smug, self-approving kind of mess.
I watched Red Lights in the cinema, alone, because I do like to watch movies alone for the most part but also because I have A Thing for Cillian Murphy, and I’d heard that Red Lights SUCKED SO BAD, so it was a matter of embarrassment and self-preservation. I can’t watch Cillian on-screen without feeling as though my face was melting into itself and my face can’t melt while people I know are with me. More so if the film is supposed to be bad.
So alone I went.
The thing about the gaze is interesting here, because Robert De Niro’s character is supposed to be blind, but because he apparently has psychic powers, he can still see. Isn’t that how colonial/imperial white supremacy tries to convince itself and others? That even though it can’t see and it can’t be everywhere, it can still see and know more than you would ever know. He is blind but fortunately he is a rich white man who can claim visuality, what Nicholas Mirzoeff in “The Right to Look” calls “the authority to tell us to move on and that exclusive claim to be able to look.” When he first meets Cillian Murphy’s character and runs his fingers over his face it feels authoritative and assertive, almost like a violation.
But Red Lights didn’t need De Niro. Maybe it would have been less of a smug mess without him. He plays the character of Simon Silver, a charismatic superstar psychic, with absolutely zero charisma. One imagines that De Niro might have possessed some charisma at some point—so many people seem to love him—but that charisma is gone and you’re left with De Niro and his superstar-psychic soliloquies. With De Niro now you get a superstar playing an actor playing a superstar psychic. Something was lost along the way, and I think the something is Feelings. What happens to male actors who are great (or considered great?) They ossify and become spectres of themselves. This is what awards shows like the Golden Globes “honour” year after year. Ghosts. While real people like black women and women of colour try to find roles that don’t demean them too much.
De Niro is not there, he’s never there; to compensate he tries to be there too much. His performance is embarrassing yet his face is right in the middle of the Red Lights poster, signalling some kind of great cosmic, Hollywood-star significance. Right away you know this film stars a great white man playing a great white man, and who cares if either one of these great white men is ultimately revealed to be a hack? He still commands crowds, makes money, gets to make his way in the world and be attended to by a coterie of power-hungry next-in-line soulsuckers. Which is the culture industry in a nutshell.
Sigourney Weaver is the key authoritative figure of the film, and this is nice until she dies because then there you realise that the first authoritative figure to die is a woman. What a coincidence! Sigourney’s character is one who knows things, the one who is wise and yet not afraid to admit that she’s afraid of doubt; the one who’s conventionally successful and yet not a walking shell of herself as so many successful women are often required to be, emptied out of all feeling.
She and Cillian have intriguing chemistry. When I think about the movie now I think about the scenes where they’re together, particularly the one conversation where she tells him that she’s afraid of Simon Silver because he was the first person to make her doubt. Cillian just listens and looks at her, and that look was something—a combination of love and respect. The right to look devoid of the need to claim authority over the object of one’s gaze. And I just thought about how that’s rare in most contemporary movies, especially if it’s between straight male and female characters who are not invested and/or interested in each other sexually, especially if it’s between an older woman and a younger man.
There was real energy between them, energy that I think would have pushed the film into new/different/interesting places than where it finally ended up. De Niro now seems like such an uncharitable actor in this film. He never plays off the energy of the other actors and in the denouement, he’s like a parasite sucking all intelligence and heart out of the movie with his belligerent ranting. And there’s poor Cillian, beaten to a pulp, bloody, without his Sigourney, having to be both Carrie and Jesus at once to De Niro’s entitled superstar. (In some of behind the scenes footage I found on Tumblr, De Niro is shown calling Cillian “Sillian” which to me is astonishing—the authority to mispronounce your relatively less-famous co-star’s name just because you’re De Niro and you can. You’re working with this person and you could care less that you don’t have his name right.)
But the thing about Sigourney’s character is that she makes an unkind remark about housewives that Cillian’s character picks up on. “I like housewives”, is what his character says, if I remember correctly, because he was just caught watching a reality show about housewives. Cillian says this line as if he’s unsure if it’s meant to be delivered straight or in jest. Which I suppose is the feminist conundrum of our times. Are successful women supposed to hate housewives? Are men supposed to be feminist or post-feminist or just sexist as usual in their opinion of housewives? Discuss. Write a series of articles about for The Atlantic. Write a book. And so on.
As for Cillian? Someday JR is going to write “The Meaning of Cillian Murphy” but until then I will stumble about trying to figure out why his performances, even when he’s cast in some truly atrocious movie, consistently unsettle me. This was the case in Red Lights, too, until the ending—an ending that really did make me laugh because it was filled will all kinds of shit lines, shit lines that were recited in Cillian’s wondrous, melodious voice, sure, but still—SHIT LINES. “We are who we are” or “We have to know ourselves” or whatever, I mean, please. I think Cillian did a superb job of shading his character in various tones of ambiguity but then perhaps I’m biased, or maybe that’s why I’m a “fan”—he’s always got a quality of excess, or disquiet, about him, like he’s about to jump out of his skin or melt into his bones or float off the face of the earth. I don’t feel safe watching him. I get the sense that acting is, for him, a means of working out or through anxiety about something (many things) (everything). I’m never bored when I watch him and this is important to me. So many actors are the walking dead. I mean, here’s Cillian Murphy next to Robert De Niro and without making any sort of qualitative judgment—which boils down to taste, which is a long story—there’s just a clear difference between the living and the dead.
Red Lights almost becomes yet another crisis of masculinity film and no doubt Leonardo DiCaprio could have sleepwalked through it like he did in Inception but Cillian never does (or can’t do?) conventional masculinity by the book and this redeems this movie. Somewhat.
But the film itself undermines Cillian’s character, because there are so many things it could have explored but stayed away from in the interest of giving us “a thriller”. Because ultimately it’s a film that questions or has its doubts about absolute rationality but opts out of the complexity by trotting out soothing, pop-selfhelp speak: “Know yourself” and all will be well. The film spends a good amount of time trying to prove all libidinal energy as anti-logic that finally it has to contradict itself, and Cillian’s character comes to embody the kind of emotional excess he has tried to disavow/reject/ mock. I’m wondering if hysteria is always feminised, that I’ve internalised this sexism that even when I see a male actor perform it I’m thinking about how his role is feminised, made precisely unstable because of its lack of conventional masculinity (which must always be rational). I’m not sure. Red Lights could have gone another way, but it needed to soothe is audience with optimism, progress, and realism. In the end, Cillian’s character must make meaning out of his madness. Thus, the movie ends with a truly atrocious voiceover where Cillian is made to mansplain his hysteria to himself and the audience.
There are a few non-white characters who pop up for a few seconds, as seen through the rationalising white gaze, hovering at the edges of the film as figures of dread or alarm. There is the requisite Tall Black Man who gives wee Cillian a scare. He looms up as a figure of terror until Cillian and the audience realises that he’s just part of Simon Silver’s mini security apparatus. There is one black lady dressed in tattered clothes who gives Cillian the evil eye and spits in his face after he almost (accidentally) runs her down. In that one scene she’s shown to be Really Scary and Possibly “Crazy”. The film doesn’t do well with these people living on the fringes of respectable bourgeois life—they’re shown here to be desperate and unsound of mind, often both—and the one instance with a black family who was convinced their son was manifesting special powers through his drawing was just awkward and strange, with Cillian and Sigourney as the two sensible white interlocutors observing and later, passing judgment on them while giggling in the car on the drive back.
Perhaps Red Lights would have been award bait if it was better made, smoother, slicker. Maybe it needed an American director or the backing of major studios. There have been a zillion reviews panning the movie. The critics went to town. I wonder if these are the same critics who later included Zero Dark Thirty and Argo in their year-end best-of lists. Almost as if it’s a requirement to be an Empire apologist if you’re going to be a film critic. But what’s more stunning, or vomit-inducing, is the general critical consensus. How they know which films to collectively mock, and which ones to collectively swoon over? Does it involve actual thought? I mean, Peter Bradshaw was practically having an orgasm over Django Unchained in The Guardian. And right on cue these films go on to be nominated for awards.