Empty Chairs At Empty Tables: “Les Miz” and Sandy Hook

I got through Tom Hooper’s “Les Miz” (*there are spoilers in this post] without the cathartic cry so many experienced. I thought the movie was only just pretty good , with fantastic performances by Hugh Jackman (Huge Ackman, as I like to call him), Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Samantha Barks as Eponine. I felt that only the three of them managed to serve both the demands of the camera and the musical score. I left an eight- minute review of the film on my Facebook page (there’s a link on the bottom of this page if you’re interested in following me there) if you want to hear more on that.

I had fun giggling to myself over alternate title for the film, things like “White People In Trouble.” I finally settled on “White People Walking Toward the Camera Crying and Singing.”

I have seen the show many times and identified with various characters along the way. My mom gave me the score (on a cassette tape!) as a gift for my birthday when I was in college. I will never forget the thrill I got when I first heard that four-note cascade of twinkling sound that signaled the start of the show and serves as its theme. “One day more…!” I had been planning to go out that night, but I hung up my coat, called my boyfriend (on the DIAL PHONE that plugged into the wall — there was no coordinating to “meet up later” in those days, as there was no way to get in touch once you left the house) and cancelled our date. I sat on the floor of my bedroom and listened to the entire score, sobbing at “I Dreamed a Dream” and feeling ecstatically wrung out by the time the friendly ghosts surrounded Jean Valjean to accompany him to heaven.

I have been Fantine, I have been Eponine. I have been little Cosette. I have been Javert, and the Thénadiers (and of course, Mme. Thenadier is a dream role). I have been Valjean, and Marius, and I have been Enjolras, the student revolutionary.

This time, for the first time, I was Gavroche.

Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) is the little street urchin who delivers messages between the barricade and the streets, and who is shot several times by soldiers as he cockily attempts one last dodge through the front line. In what was the most moving moment for me in the movie, Inspector Javert pins a medal from his own jacket onto Gavroche’s dead body. They are fighting for different sides of the rebellion, but Javert knows that here lies a truly courageous soldier.

While previous viewings of “Les Miz” provided a delicious sort of romantic pain –oh, the lovelorn Eponine! Oh, the neglected child Cosette! Oh, the tormented obsession of neurotic Javert! — this viewing just hurt. It hurt because of the shooting, at almost point-blank range, of pre-adolescent Gavroche. It hurt because, although some cultural critics have raised the issue of the studio’s silence around the shooting of a child in their blockbuster release, we all know there is nothing to say. How can we be such ridiculous hypocrites as to protest the shooting death of a fictitious child in a movie about a student revolution in 19th century France while we live the way we live in 21st century America?

Spare me the hand-wringing. Of course it’s responsible and considerate to inform American viewers in December of 2012 that the film includes a scene of a child being shot and killed. But let’s not waste our time debating the emotional harm that might be caused by that scene, or any other scenes of violence depicted in the movies. Scenes of violence always cause emotional harm. It’s just that humans decided long, long ago that violence is an acceptable form of public entertainment, not just for sadists and psychopaths, but for everyone.

I wonder how many shooting deaths I’ve seen in the movies and television in my life? It has to be in the thousands, and I’m not a big action genre fan (although I do enjoy it, and some of my favorite movies are extremely violent). You could argue that even before moving picture entertainment, people could read about shooting deaths. Sure they could. But they almost never saw them with their own eyes unless they had been to war.

We have all been de-sensitized. We’re mostly pretty numb to gun violence unless it has taken someone we personally know. Children are killed by guns all the time in the cities and so far, America has not much cared. Kill them one by one on a street corner, one by one walking from school through the empty parking lot, one by one through the walls of their bedrooms while they sleep and no one much cares. Kill them by the classroom full and suddenly we realize that we’re sacrificing our nation’s children to the false idol of a monstrous interpretation of the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment, perverted by paranoid domestic terrorists and sustained by the insatiable greed of the gun lobby, is now impossible not to see in anthropomorphized form as a monster, dripping with the blood of human sacrifice.

I will never again be able to hear this song, sung with heart-wrenching beauty in the film by Eddie Redmayne, without thinking of little kids coloring or playing or talking at kindergarten tables, while attentive, loyal teachers hover around. There’s a pain that can’t be spoken.

At least little Gavroche knew what he was dying for.

Empty Chairs At Empty Tables

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone….

Oh my friends, my friends forgive me.

That I live and you are gone
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on.

Phantom faces at the window
Phantom shadows on the floor
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more.

Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more.

– from “Les Miserables,” music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Alain Boublil (French), English by Herbert Kreztmer

 

Should We Be Laughing At Honey Boo Boo?

 

A friend made me watch it.

No, really. She did. And we sat and watched three episodes back to back, fast-forwarding through the commercials and screaming with horror and laughter at the antics of the Honey Boo Boo clan, the rural Georgia family of Alana Thompson (the titular Honey Boo Boo), a 6-year old beauty pageant star who was apparently foisted on the viewing public in another terrifying show called “Toddlers and Tiaras” (also on The Learning Channel).

Honey Boo Boo is actually a pretty charming kid, and she seems happy. Her mama, June Shannon, loves her and is devoted to her and her siblings, all of whom have colorful nicknames like Pumpkin and Chubbs. Their father (well, Honey Boo Boo’s father — the other kids have different daddies) is a taciturn, exhausted-looking guy named Mike who goes by the name Sugar Bear.

Not that you didn’t know this already, but this is mostly just class prejudice and humiliation served up as entertainment. The family is edited to seem like the crassest of all possible hillbillies. They’re constantly passing gas or blowing their noses into washcloths or taking about poo.  In one episode, Sugar Bear brings home a little pet pig for Honey Boo Boo as consolation for her losing an important pageant. The pig, named Glitzy, is adorable and funny scrambling around her play pen. She seems to be getting decent care. Then the kids put her on the dining room table and she poops, causing all of America to join in one communal, “Ewwwwwww!” Makes good viewing: apparently, episode 6 of the show got higher ratings than the RNC.

I admit that I had a great time guffawing with my friend at the things that came out of these people’s mouths (like when June said of her failed diet that she “fell off the bandwagon”). Little HBB herself already has some catch phrases that are destined to become pop culture classics (“I holla for the dolla!”) and she’s pitching ring tones at the commercial breaks. No one knows how much the family is getting paid to be exploited like this — the media reported $2-4,ooo per episode, but Mama refuted that. Who knows? Only their lawyer, and I hope they have a good one.

Somewhere along the second or third episode of the show I viewed, I stopped laughing so easily and became queasy and guilty for enjoying the show.  It dawned on me, for one thing, that these obese people are probably seriously malnourished.  Mama June is a couponing addict (by her own admission) and serious devotee of food auctions. With her coupons at the store and at auction at a some kind of local hall, June buys huge amounts of junk food — potato chips, mini frosted cakes, Nestle drink mix (pure sugar), and “snacks” for Sugar Bear to take to work. You never, ever see or hear of any kind of actual nourishment pass these people’s lips. They’re fat and starving, and all candidates for Type 2 diabetes. The adults constantly look exhausted and twice my age – but they’re fifteen years younger than I am.

The producers undoubtedly thought it would be a laff riot to have an etiquette coach visit the house in one episode, and I did get a kick watching the coach barely conceal her disgust at the uncouth behavior of the little girls, one of whom asked if it’s okay to fart at the dinner table. However, if The Learning Channel wanted to live up to its name (ha ha – not in this lifetime), it should have had a nutritionist visit the household and teach the adults how to feed their family on a budget.  My heart breaks for mama every time she steps on the scale to tip it at well over 300 lbs. and then weighs in her kids. They’re all fighting a losing battle, trying to stick to their “diet” when they must be famished all the time.  Mama don’t know the first thing about how to eat.

Continue reading “Should We Be Laughing At Honey Boo Boo?”

“Hope Springs” A PeaceBang Review

I am in shock.

I just saw a mainstream summer Hollywood movie that treated sex as an expression of intimacy in a committed relationship. Furthermore, this movie is about marriage. Marriage. Not marriage and murderous revenge after the wife gets kidnapped. Not marriage and drug addiction that winds up with the wife becoming a prostitute. Not marriage and infidelity that winds up with the husband betraying his family and running off with the daughter of a Mexican drug lord.

Marriage of a very ordinary middle-aged couple from Omaha, Nebraska. Arnold and Kay. She works at Coldwater Creek and shops at Barnes & Noble. He works in finance and watches golf. They go for intensive couples counseling in a picturesque Maine town called (permission to groan granted) Hope Springs. Steve Carrell plays the therapist. Guffaws ensue, right?

Nope.

What ensues is a series of intimate scenes between a very fine pair of actors, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, played not for laughs but for honesty. Pastors and counselors who see this film will recognize the authenticity of Vanessa Taylor’s straightforward screenplay, where Dr. Feld asks Arnold in a measured, kind and professional tone, “Is that the best you can do?”

The dialogue is page after page of real-to-life questions and responses familiar to anyone who works with long-married couples. Dr. Feld doesn’t leave enough time for his clients to respond, sure, and he emphasizes sexual intimacy far more than most couples counselors do, but that’s as far as the Hollywoodization of this process goes. Steve Carrell gives a beautifully serious performance, making Dr. Feld someone whose name you wish you had in your Rolodex to refer parishioners to. This man clearly cares, and the cheezey set-up threatened by casting such a gifted comic in the role and setting the action in a small, seaside Maine town where one might reasonably expect a “wacky Down Easters teach the repressed Midwesterners how to loosen up!” plot to develop — doesn’t develop. It’s a minor miracle.

The movie was greatly hampered by a noxiously overbearing soundtrack of “GET THE MESSAGE” pop tunes, but that couldn’t destroy its integrity. It’s a strange little movie, really — not truly a romantic comedy and not a drama, either. There are no comedy shenanigans — no one sprains a muscle trying a creative sex position and needs to be carried out of the hotel room on a stretcher. There are no tragic revelations: no one turns out to be keeping a painful secret or keels over of a heart attack before the last act.

What there is is recognizable people dealing with recognizable and familiar pain. Arnold and Kay are no more articulate than the average American of their generation.  Their grievances against each other, revealed in one of the rare scenes where they actually speak freely and without walking on eggshells of Midwestern politesse with each other, are as petty as your own grievances with your spouse of 31 years. Kay’s loneliness is not expressed in any particularly eloquent way. She is an ordinary woman and she speaks in ordinary, and even dull, terms. I would have preferred to see a less showy actress in the role than Meryl Streep, whose technical brilliance is sometimes a bit much for this simple woman, but Tommy Lee Jones was perfect in the role and had fantastic chemistry with Streep.

This isn’t a great movie. It isn’t very entertaining and it’s not at all exciting. It’s a slice of life about people like you and me, written, directed and acted with respect and care. And that’s special enough that I highly recommend it to you.