Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Miserables: Enrichment

I can't believe they did this.
I know you are sick to death of hearing me talk about socialism and capitalism, but when the opening lines of a film sweeping the awards circuits starts out with "1815, 26 years after the French Revolution and a king once again on the throne," you have to know that socialism is on the film makers' minds; when the work shop women sing, "At the End Of the Day," complaining about their tedious work, you have to know that capitalism is on the film makers' minds; what is also on the film makers' minds is the salvation of the soul and the qualities of the souls of all in society. You can't be a good socialist if you are a lousy person, nor can you be a good capitalist if you are a lousy person, but if you are a good person everyone will benefit from it, yourself included. Tom Hooper's Les Miserables is an examination of what it takes to be a good person.
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) was arrested and convicted 19 years ago for stealing a loaf of bread; he was only sentenced to five years, but he tried to escape, so is sentence was extended under the watchful eye of Javert (Russell Crowe) the captain of the guards who hunts Valjean down the rest of his life. Upon his release, Valjean can't find work because the curse of his past haunts him; given refuge one night at a Church, Valjean steals all the silver. He's caught and dragged back to the priest who says, "I gave it to him," blesses Valjean and sends him on his way to do good, which he does:
Valjean transforms himself, starts a company employing a hundred women and becomes mayor, a saint. Throughout the course of the film, Valjean forgives Javert three times: the first time is after Valjean steals the silver and he has his own conversion; even though it's not specifically mentioned, it's common in the spiritual life to be flooded with grace and in realizing your own forgiveness from God, you forgive all others (case in point: Valjean could have used the money from the silver to hunt down Javert and kill him, but he doesn't, having regained a sense of his own dignity, he also realizes Javert's that continues to deepen throughout the film).
From the opening scene: Valjean and other prisoners pull ropes to save a wrecked ship, symbolic of the wrecked ship of state in the world today. We have to ask, why silver? Of all the things Valjean could have stolen, why was silver what he took (the golden or even jewel-encrusted sacred vessels would have been options)? If you have been around this blog awhile, you might remember discussions on werewolves and why only silver can kill a werewolf: in Hebrew, the word for Word (as in the Word of God) sounds like "silver," which is why so many Crucifixes depict the Body of Christ in silver because He was the Word of God (because a werewolf is a man driven by his "animal appetites," the wolf in him can only be killed by something silver, i.e., the Word Of God; please see The Bright Autumn Moon: the Wolf Man for more). So, since they are in a Catholic church, and "stealing the silver" is really "stealing the Word of God," and why Valjean says the priest "gave it to him" and why the priest validates that answer to the authorities; the authorities don't understand--they only see a bag of stolen silver--and that's what Valjean sees, too, but the priest sees that Valjean has taken the Word of God and it will "enrich him" and we see that in two ways. First, he becomes rich in wealth and, secondly, he becomes rich in spiritual wealth, the inner-life of Grace because the spiritual life is similar to the principles of capitalism as Jesus discusses in the parable of the three talents. Valjean learns to properly invest his love in love of heavenly things instead of love of earthly things and everyone benefits from this great wealth which is exactly how it should be in society. This is why Valjean has such tremendous strength, because his soul is able to bear great burdens.
The second time Valjean forgives Javert is when Javert comes and says, "I accused you falsely." The point can be made that Javert was actually right and so Valjean isn't forgiving anything, rather, just not drawing attention to himself but dismissing Javert's apology, yet this isn't the case because Valjean could use the situation to his advantage to put Javert out once and for all but doesn't. Thirdly, the deepest and most complete forgiveness takes place when Valjean releases Javert the prisoner behind the barricade. Why are these three examples so important? It illustrates for us the principles of correct and proper self-interestedness in capitalism. It would not seem that preventing Javert from hunting him down is a way for Valjean to show self-interest for his own welfare, yet Valjean discerning the consequences of killing Javert would do exercises true self-interest because Valjean's a better person for not killing his enemy and Valjean prevents becoming like Javert, which would mean death to Valjean because it would destroy the life of Grace he has cultivated.
Why does the priest say, "You left without taking the best?" The silver candlesticks symbolize "illumination," wisdom for someone who is en-light-ented, and Valjean keeps those candlesticks (we see him praying with them later in the film) which brings us to the gold Crucifix we see later: IF we are correct about the meaning of "silver," then why do we see both Javert and Valjean pray at the same gold Crucifix later in the film? For Valjean, Christ has become his gold, the Cross is his greatest good and his treasure; for Javert, gold is his greatest good, and he twists his Christianity to justify his worldly pursuits, namely, how he views Valjean and his ruthlessness in pursuing the ex-convict. Just as the same act of mercy is seen by the two men in completely different ways--Valjean sees sparing Javert's life at the barricades as an act of Christian mercy, while Javert sees it as death itself--so they see Christ's great Act of Sacrificial Love on the Cross differently. One of the important reasons for Valjean not killing Javert when he has these chances is a theme we will discuss in Hitchcock: adversity makes us stronger. Valjean would not be able to achieve the spiritual perfection (Marius [Eddie Redmayne] calls Valjean a "saint,") he achieves without the great battles of moral dilemmas Javert presents.
Valjean is the hero for those reasons.
Why, then, is Javert the villain?
Like Fantine (Ann Hathaway) and the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter), Javert symbolizes bad capitalism. Just as Valjean depicts for us a good example of true self-interest, Javert illustrates bad self-interest in his mindless pursuit of Valjean and never minding the poor when investigating various incidents (like Fantine scratching that other captain). Javert, while confessing to Valjean that his father was a gutter farmer, and he rose to captain from being nothing, never fulfills his destiny the way Valjean fills his. Because Javert kills himself, we can say with confidence that Javert's philosophy of life is self-destructive, the simplistic views of self-interest Javert takes kills him because he hasn't been living a true Christian life; that Javert falls to his death (symbolic of a "Fall from grace," which Javert ascribes to Valjean earlier) is the opposite of Valjean "rising up" to God and the waters into which Javert throws himself is the opposite of a Baptism (Valjean, on the other hand, has a genuine Baptism when he drags Marius through the sewer because he's motivated only by love and suffers the way Christ did).
How is Fantine an example of "bad capitalism?"
It's not because she has the terrible job, it's because she sells all her assets instead of capitalizing on them: cutting her hair, letting teeth be removed, selling her body, degrades her dignity so she can't another job, maybe even a better one. Fantine had a dream of love and marriage, but because she gave herself to Cosette's father who then left them, she obviously failed to pursue her dream properly, which is also bad capitalism.
The Thenardiers also offer us an example of bad capitalism: their thievery keeps them in the level of poverty instead of advancing them up the social ranks because no one trusts a crook so--like Fantine who sells her hair once for a few Franks, then won't be able to take advantage of her beauty to get a job--the Thenardiers rob a customer rob a customer so the customer won't come back again hence, having to work harder to get new customers instead of retaining the old ones.
And the student revolutionaries, what about them?
We know they mean something in the film because they interpret the meaning of color in a song they sing. Even though they are devoted to the cause of revolution, the people aren't (we can take this as a message to socialists that they should not try a socialists revolution in the US because the people aren't behind it).
Perhaps the most important feature of the story is that it validates suffering: whereas the socialists really aren't doing anything to aid the poor who turn to them for aid, the suffering of the poor, Fantine, Cosette, even Valjean himself, demonstrates to the viewers that, no matter how bad it gets in life, things will get better and suffering has a purpose, designed by God for your good and mine.
When Valjean dies, we see him with the dead student revolutionaries; why? It can be argued that Les Miserables is a pro-socialist film based on that scene but the socialists were, literally, a "dead end" when they were all killed by the soldiers. Marius tells Valjean that he is his father, that Valjean is the father of them all because nothing else has "given birth to" anything that will last beyond their own life except Valjean being the spiritual father of Cosette and Marius. When Valjean dies, it's also apparent that he is the work (the spiritual child) of the priest with the silver because Valjean sees him after he dies.
Les Miserables is a far more politically ambitious film than I anticipated because it answers the question that neither socialists nor capitalists can answer: What good is it to choose an economic model when no one is sane enough nor honest enough to fulfill their duties to the Constitution? Socialists will have you believe, once the government converts to the new program (socialism), all people will be pure and honest and trustworthy and each will have everything they want. Capitalists, on the other hand, point out how corrupt the current system is and no one can suddenly become pure and innocent. Jean Valjean could be said to be that "man for all seasons," because when he gave up his life and abandoned it, he truly did regain it.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner