Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Les Misérables - the film - opened yesterday, and David and I were in back row center (my favorite seats) for the six o'clock showing. This was not because we are big fans of Les Miz. David had neither read it nor seen it, and though I saw the stage musical twice in London (the second time because my boss, with whom I was traveling, insisted), I wasn't crazy about it. But hey, it was Christmas Day, we needed to do something while digesting dinner, and it would have been too ironic to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace by going to see Jack Reacher.

Our teenaged granddaughters wanted to know what we thought of Les Miz. Though we made a game attempt, a 2-hour-and-37-minute film is hard to review in text messages, so here are my extended observations.

The story. Quite faithful to Victor Hugo's sprawling novel (1779 pages in one French edition, and no, I haven't read it), this is a set-up, if not for the Oscars, at least for Christianity Today's annual list of most redeeming films. It won't be a spoiler for you to know that the hero, Jean Valjean, is a repentant thief who spends his life selflessly helping people. This is a story that reeks of moral uplift. And that's good: in an age that celebrates ruthless individualism, it is both shocking and inspiring to watch this reminder of the power of forgiveness and self-sacrifice.

The problem with the story. Despite his repeated willingness - if inability - to die for others, Valjean (like his creator, Hugo) supports an armed band of young insurrectionists who hope to overthrow the government. If you believe that peace is created by angry men who shoot the people with whom they disagree, you will find no inconsistency in this aspect of the story.

The historical background. Do read at least a couple of Wikipedia articles before going to see the movie. The one on the June Rebellion is a good place to start. Later you might want to read Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, if you haven't already, or watch Oliver, the musical that reportedly inspired the French librettist of Les Miz. Oliver Twist was published 24 years before Les Misérables (it takes awhile to write 1779 pages), but the two books deal with the same general time period, and the lives of the poor were just as miserable in England as in France. It helps to realize that there's not much exaggeration in Les Miz, except of course that the poor were unlikely to be as gorgeous as Anne Hathaway.

The opera. Be aware that Les Miz is not just a musical. It's grand opera: "a genre of 19th-century opera ... characterised by large-scale casts and orchestras, and (in their original productions) lavish and spectacular design and stage effects, normally with plots based on or around dramatic historic events." The characters are much more likely to sing than to speak. There are recitatives and arias, rousing choruses, and even a sextet where the conflicting characters lay out their differences in counterpoint and set the audience up for the dénouement.

So what did I think of Les Miz? I liked the lavish spectacle. I thoroughly enjoyed the rowdy song "Master of the House" featuring Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. In fact, I enjoyed every scene featuring the evil duo. The sextet and chorus, "One Day More," is quite glorious. David, old romantic that he is, liked "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."

The other 2 hours and 20 minutes, however, often left me thinking, in the oft repeated words of archvillain Javert, "Shoot me now."

At one point I whispered to David, "There are only two things I don't like about this opera: the words and the music." Apart from a few stellar numbers, the music ranges from insipid to tedious. One or two leitmotifs are endlessly repeated. Worse, a lot of the recitatives are simply drawn-out scales. If you can't come up with actual music, I wanted to scream, just let the characters talk, for Pete's sake.

The words are even worse. When I was a teenager, a particularly bad amateur poet came often to our church and read his supposedly inspirational poetry at us. I kept awake by playing a game: after he declaimed one line, I tried to guess the word he would use to make the next line rhyme. It was amazingly easy. I recommend, dear granddaughters, that you play this game while watching Les Miz. 

The librettist dips into his large sack of easy masculine rhymes (be/me, done/run, know/go, chill/kill) and scatters them prodigally about. He is particularly taken with the near-rhyme Jean Valjean with "on" and "gone." Never does he play with words like Alan Jay Lerner in, say,  Camelot ("You'll never find a virtue / Unstatussing my quo / Or making my Beelzebubble burst ...") or Stephen Sondheim in West Side Story ("I like the isle of Manhattan, / Smoke on your pipe and put that in!") Except for the bawdy tavern song, all the songs in Les Miz are so earnest, so sentimental, so predictable.

Still, as of this writing, 63% of the top critics (surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes) liked the movie, as did 72% of critics in general and 86% of the audience. That's not shabby. You may like it too, and I won't think less of you for it. Just don't put yourself through it three times. Nobody needs to be that misérable.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Violence : It isn't just about the guns

This is not a blog post about gun control. Everything that can possibly be said about that subject, pro or con, has already been said millions of times since Friday. We are talking too much, too soon. In the words of my rabbi, “Judaism teaches that when there is nothing to say we should say nothing….Sometimes only silence gives voice to what has happened."

We Americans should all be sitting shiva.

But when, next week, we rise from our knees and begin working – together, I hope – to reduce the terrible problem of violence in our country, we must realize that our disorder goes much deeper than simply owning too many guns, and that any effective solution will have to go much deeper too.

When they are distressed, some people clean house or do push-ups  I collect data. All week I have been amassing numbers and arranging them in rows and columns, trying to shed light on the question: Why are some nations violent while others are not?

To answer that question would take a lifetime of research and more wisdom than Solomon’s. The best I could do was to look at the homicide rates of the 34 OECD nations, which are the countries that most resemble the United States in culture and economics, and to compare them with rates in other categories. The best I can offer are correlations, not causes.* Here is what I have learned in the last four days.

1. Despite what liberals like myself would like to believe, the homicide rate does not correlate, either negatively or positively, with the gun-ownership rate per se.** South Korea, for example, has a very low gun-ownership rate but a high homicide rate. Austria, Norway, and Switzerland, on the other hand, have relatively high gun-ownership rates but low homicide rates. Japan has low rates all around – very few guns, very few homicides – while the United States has high rates of both gun ownership and homicide.

2. Despite what some preachers (and atheists) have claimed, the homicide rate does not correlate, either negatively or positively, with religiosity. The United States is highly religious and highly homicidal. Japan is barely religious and has almost no homicides. Most nations, though, are an unpredictable mixture of spirituality and savagery.

3. There appears to be some correlation between high homicide rates and a high degree of economic inequality. This seems particularly evident in Mexico, Estonia, the United States, and Chile, who all have lots of homicides and a great gap between rich and poor.

4. The homicide rate correlates most strikingly with three other rates:
• The higher a nation’s homicide rate, the more likely it is to have a high rate of military expenditures.
• The higher a nation’s homicide rate, the less likely it is to have an effective healthcare system.
• The higher a nation’s homicide rate, the less likely its students are to earn high scores in mathematics.
In other words, if you want to identify homicidal OECD nations, look for the ones with the strongest militaries and the weakest social services. 

In case you’re wondering, of the 34 OECD nations, the United States has the third-highest homicide rate. We also have the highest number of guns per 100 residents and the fourth-highest rate of military expenditures (for what is by far the most expensive military in the world). At the same time we have the third highest income-inequality rate. In healthcare outcomes we are in 24th place, and in mathematical achievement we are tied with Portugal and Ireland for 25th place.

Sixty years ago President Eisenhower warned us about the path we were taking:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. ... Is there no other way the world may live?
Today President Obama announced that Vice-President Biden will "lead an exploration of options" regarding "the renewal of an assault weapons ban, limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and an end to loopholes allowing gun purchases with no background checks."

Such options, if legislated and enforced, might well decrease our appalling homicide rate. They will not, however, reduce our huge military outlay. They will not make our healthcare and educational systems competitive with those of other nations. And until we prioritize people over power, we are likely to continue down our violent path.

* This research is about correlation, not causation. Two facts - we'll call them A and B - coexist. A may cause B. On the other hand, B may cause A. Some other fact may cause both A and B. Or A and B may have nothing to do with one another. For example, eating chocolate may cause migraine headaches. On the other hand, an incipient migraine headache may cause a person to crave chocolate. Or possibly some alteration in brain chemistry may cause a person both to crave chocolate and to get a migraine. Or maybe chocolate and migraines are totally unrelated. It takes wisdom, common sense, and often hindsight to sort out how, and if, coexisting facts are causally related.

** I have not studied OECD gun laws, so I do not know what kinds of guns are involved in these countries, who can legally purchase them, or what background checks or training are required before purchase. Nor do I know how laws may have changed over the last couple of decades, or how homicide and gun-ownership rates may have changed in response to changed legislation. Any of those factors could affect their homicide rates.