Friday, January 4, 2013

Fix It Friday: Les Mis EXTREME CLOSE UP Edition

**Standard Warning: SPOILERS.  Many, many spoilers.**

Okay, so I love love love the music of Les Mis and I bawled the first time I saw the play, and I was delighted by some of the casting choices (did y'all see who the Priest is? Did you?!) so I was prepared to LOVE the movie. And I sort of almost maybe did. Ish. Except... not really.  Here's the thing:

When you have constant abnormally extended close ups of highly emotional people singing and nothing else in the frame is in focus so you are forced to stare at them for long periods of time while they emote into the camera... it's kind of like the cinematographic equivalent of a little kid running up to me and saying "Look at this!" as they shove something so close into my face I can't process it. So no matter how awesome their drawing or toy or whatever is, I can't see it. And no matter how AMAZING the actor's performance is, I can't emotionally process it because it is RIGHT IN MY FACE and I just want to step back to get some perspective. The cinematography KILLED that movie for me. Which is so so so disappointing because everything else about it was so brilliant. If they had just moved the camera back a few feet, I would have been in heaven. I would've cried. As it was... Performances? Brilliant. Emotional resonance? Absent.

They completely wasted the opportunities gained by having it be a movie not a play.  No "phantom faces in the window" during Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.  In fact, no chairs and tables, because why would we want to see anything except Marius's extremely close and freckled face as he cries?   Why would you want to be able to see the city or the way "the pavement shines like silver" during On My Own?  Even ensemble songs were a series of extreme close ups from different characters so we really never got a sense of people singing together.  And weirdly, the one song that might have benefited from Extreme Close-Up Cinematography (Bring Him Home) was shot with Hugh Jackman in profile, a middle shot from a lower angle so it's not even a "god" angle.  Almost no establishing shots were used so we lack a sense of where people are in relation to one another or where they are in the world (the exception being Stars, which I thought was beautifully shot... one song out of thirty, should we call it a victory?).  They wedged in a new song (meh, probably wanted to get it nominated for an Oscar) and eliminated the "could it be you fear to die?" verses of Drink With Me (which is one of my all time favorite moments in theatre, so I'm a little tetchy about that one). 

And yes, I realize the musical transitions are all right there in the score if you want them, but while having walking music is helpful when people are moving sets and hustling on and off stage, in film it makes it seem like the music is happening to the characters, rather than springing out of them.  It's a subtlety that was completely missing.  No single note of music was sparked by emotion, emotion was cued up on schedule by the music (which makes it seem forced and false).

So the take-away from this one... Converting a play to a movie is more of an art than just putting a camera in the middle of the stage and having everyone sing right into it.  And sometimes an emotional connection with your audience depends on their ability to absorb what you're saying to them. So be nice. Give them a chance to breathe.  Give them enough distance to let their eyes focus, a chance to take it in. Because shoving your emo-ness in their face (cough, Twilight) is not nearly as emotionally effective as restraint and subtlety.

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