January 03, 2013
No sooner do I finally figure out Greensboro's rules for which objects can be put in the recycling bins than they completely change the rules.
No longer are we restricted only to plastics in the form of narrow-necked bottles. Now any plastic with recycling numbers from 1 to 7 can be recycled, regardless of shape. This includes yogurt and dairy containers; though of course they still ask us to empty them and rinse them so the workers don't have to wade through rotting food bits.
We can also recycle pizza boxes, milk and juice cartons, and pots and pans. They also take, not just newspaper, but also common sheets of paper like the ones used in offices, schools and computer printouts.
This vastly increases the amount of waste that can legally be recycled. And I'm eager to cooperate.
The trouble is that a few years ago the city scaled back its recycling schedule, emptying the brown recycling bins every other week instead of weekly.
That is not going to work at our house, folks. Even as it was, our recycling was jammed full. Now, with far more items eligible, we need them to come every week, since at least half our garbage will now be recyclable.
In a recent article, the rulers of recycling complained that while city residents recycled 28,500 tons of materials this year, they threw away more that 10,000 tons of items that could have been recycled.
If they come every week, we'll give them more.
I don't know if Les Miserables is the best movie of the year. I still lean toward Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Looper or Argo, and I haven't seen some of the leading contenders yet, like Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty.
But Les Miz is quite possibly the best film musical adaptation of all time.
Note that I don't say it's the best film musical – I'm not ready yet to evaluate it in comparison with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Singin' in the Rain, both of which were original film musicals, without ever appearing on stage.
Often when stage musicals are adapted for film, the designers and performers get some insane concept of trying to duplicate the stage experience. That's why we get fake-looking color palettes and sing-your-lungs-out acting.
Les Miserables is a different kind of stage musical, for two reasons. First, it began life as a concept album – a sound-only adaptation of Victor Hugo's beautiful, classic and absurdly overwritten novel. What this means is that 100 percent of the story is carried by the songs.
Second, it was created by French composers. Think back to that other classic French film musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, with a score by Michel Legrand. As I recall, there's exactly one song in it, sung again and again. By that standard, High Noon is a musical.
American composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim complained about the fact that Les Miserables has only four songs in it. It's true, but this does make it four times as varied as Umbrellas; and it's French, so what do you expect?
Besides, Boublil & Schonberg do an excellent job of varying the setting, lyrics and emotional effects of each iteration of the songs, so that it's possible for audience members not to realize that this song and that song have exactly the same melody.
The point of this is that Les Miz is almost, but not quite, a sung-through musical, which is only different from an opera because of the musical tradition out of which it arises.
The actors are singing every bit as much as in an opera, but in opera everything is sacrificed for the sake of producing the optimum singing quality, while in the musical, story and character and passion are more important.
That's why operas don't translate to film, but a sung-through musical can. Film offers opportunities that aren't available on stage. While film requires that you "open up" the show, by getting the action out of the handful of enclosed sets that are usual in stage productions, the real challenge is handling the singing.
On stage, the singers have to project their voices. Even with amplification, you need to fill the hall with your voice. The great musical performers produce loud and resonant tone that vibrates the audience's bones – literally. You feel transported, filled, inspired by the power of the voice.
But to produce that voice, you have to shape your jaw, mouth, tongue and body in ways that can look weird. On stage, there's a protective distance (except for audience members who bring binoculars). So you can do what it takes to cast that voice without distracting the audience.
On film, however, the big voice isn't needed; in fact, it can feel absurd. The strength of film is the closeup, and now the contortions that produce the big voice are very distracting.
Normally, film musicals are done by pre-recording the vocal tracks and then lip-synching during the filming. This allows the actors to concentrate on performance instead of voice production. However, when we hear a big voice but don't see the actor doing the things that produce that big voice, it feels false.
With Les Miz, because the most important thing is Victor Hugo's story, they did away with the artificiality of the prerecorded track. But they also did away with the big voice. The actors sang in the moment, and most of the time they sang intimately, quietly, trusting the sound techs to pick them up and amplify them.
The result is the most natural film musical I've ever seen.
It may seem absurd to call it "natural" when almost every word is sung! But singing is not unnatural. No, we don't normally converse with formal music; but music heightens and intensifies speech, and we are used to hearing lyrics that compress speech into a more powerful diction, so it can be sung. It strikes us then with far more power; it feels more important and, yes, more true than speech.
So Les Miz struck a new and unusual balance between singing and acting, between formality and reality. We recognize that there are formal songs behind the performance, but the actors treat their singing much more like speech, including notes too soft to be heard on stage.
This really came home in Eponine's death scene, where she and Marius sing a surprisingly long time while she's bleeding to death from a bullet wound. On stage, it invariably reaches absurdity, for there she is with an abdominal wound, producing a strong tone that suggests that she is feeling no pain.
But in the film, Samantha Barks sings Eponine's death song in a quavering, weakening voice that does not deny the idea of pain and approaching death.
I'm not suggesting that Les Miz does everything perfectly. Some of the actors could not resist the temptation to overact in closeup. Anne Hathaway sometimes forgot that closeups magnify every facial expression. The effect is to make us think she's trying too hard. Film acting is barely acting at all, and this is just as true when the words are being sung.
More important, though, is that, because movie musicals are rarely made any more (and when they are, they're usually over-edited monstrosities like Moulin Rouge and Chicago), actor-singers have forgotten that the very fact that words are being sung carries an enormous power....continued on page 2