I had already seen the movie in theaters three times. Enjoyment is one word, obsession is another. The first three times, this film had sent me into hysterics, including, but not limited to impassioned weeping, strings of incoherent syllables, and frenzied gesticulation at the screen. In each of my three previous viewings, the usual suspects (“I Dreamed a Dream,” Fantine’s passing, “When Tomorrow Comes”) were to blame, but during this latest screening at the Garden Theater, the floodgates held fast against their onslaught. If not to weep piteously, I had at least expected to float back to my room on a cushion of catharsis-induced giddiness; instead, the walk back was downright terrestrial.
Later that night, as I tossed and turned in my bed, kept awake by the unfulfilled Les Misérables paroxysms still ricocheting around my chest, I tried to reconstruct the chronology of the movie. Perhaps I had inadvertently slipped into microsleep during a pivotal scene, derailing the building of the emotional momentum.
“Ohhh. Right.” I thought, then remembering an incident that seemed hugely significant when it had occurred, but had waned in relevance as the movie rolled forward. Roughly halfway through the movie, the broad shouldered Jean Valjean, clad in overcoat and bowler hat had sung to Cozette “Hush now, do not be afraid of me.” Advancing toward the comparatively miniscule girl among the snow powdered trees, he loomed like a tree.
The cackling from somewhere to my left that answered his words excavated a pit in my stomach and planted a grimace on my face. I shifted in my seat and looked away from the screen. Expecting to commiserate with allies, I caught the profiles of the few faces I could make out through the theater’s dim light. To my surprise, I saw unfazed expressions in the reflected pale blue light, some faces even cracking smiles sympathetic with the laughter.
A wave of déjà vu that surged through me at that moment in the theater, brought on by the situation’s uncanny resemblance to a reoccurring nightmare. In this nightmare, I am sitting in the audience of dingy auditorium or dilapidated stadium, a witness to some appalling demonstration of Orwellian authority. Even though I know that the game is to conceal my true feelings, I feel myself shouting in protest, as if operated by a nightmarish puppeteer. Every person in stadium whips their head around to look at me like I had just been thrown into a shark tank wrapped in extra rare steak.
Of course, the Garden Theater is not billed as the glitziest of theaters, but I was mostly transported to this recollection by my stifled “What!?” in response to the audience’s laughter at Jean Valjean’s encounter with Cozette. Up to this point, Jean Valjean had given zero evidence of pedophilia. In fact, he had become a paragon of virtue after the merciful Bishop in the film had allowed him to keep the silver he had just stolen from him. It strained credulity to impute such behavior to Jean Valjean.
And yet, this experience was the only recognizable difference from my three other viewings. Something about this mocking-induced agitation was related to my uncharacteristically subdued reaction to Les Misérables.
I began to consider the possibility that I had underestimated the degree to which my enjoyment of a movie is related to the social context in which I view it. In the same way that multiple viewings of a film can help one catch previously unnoticed details, perhaps the type of audience members I am surrounded by can dramatically alter my cinematic experience.
Perhaps this phenomenon crossed the perceptibility threshold in this particular instance because of the unique genre of Les Misérables. Les Misérables, in contrast to most movie musicals, utilized live vocals during the actual filming, distilling the raw emotive power that is usually restrained by the timing requirements of lip-synching. Les Misérables thereby approaches the potency of a live stage musical, while lacking the social pressure of a stage musical, and live performances more generally, to suppress snickering out of respect for the actual performers. Because of this, Les Misérables is a film with the unique condition that audience members are more likely to experience and thus be more aware of the reverie-dispelling effects of snickering than they would otherwise be.
I was unhappy with this psuedoscientific train of thought. Anytime I go to a movie I consider an intense emotional experience, I am potentially exposing myself to the disenchanting power of the peanut gallery. The disquieting possibility that some heckler or wise guy will waltz in, pick a seat next to me, and systematically destroy all that I hold near and dear to my heart will always be lurking at the back of my mind. But my discontent was not with this happening in principle. I thought of my beloved Les Misérables, fouled with accusations of pedophilia and I was more than unhappy; I was enraged.
For a week I stewed, no longer able to relax with the melodious choruses of “Red and Black,” or be uplifted by the stirring refrain of “Do You Hear the People Sing.” Every encounter with anything relating to Les Misérables was a fresh reminder of my defused connection with the movie. I wanted to forget about my former infatuation with Les Misérables, to pretend like it had never happened. Maybe this way, I couldn’t be reminded of its former purity, its former capacity to make me fall over in my chair (viewing #2).
This proved more difficult than expected; the songs are almost absurdly catchy. Frequently I would find myself absentmindedly whistling a few notes from the movie and that night at the Garden Theater would come flashing back. The blood in my ears pounding, I would remember the unfulfilled catharsis. Furious, I could imagine the laughter, the faces. I viciously wished I could be in the theater of a movie that those malicious cacklers loved so that I could laugh and make jokes during the emotionally intense parts and imperceptibly, but effectively ruin the movie for them. I wanted revenge, an eye for an eye.
This was my background mood towards Les Misérables related things as I was jogging on the towpath alongside Lake Carnegie. It was one of those spring Saturdays that is actually a summer day, but is made urgent and memorable by its context. I was incrementally repairing my relationship with Les Misérables, doing a better job of forgetting about the bitterness I felt towards the particular song that was stuck in my head.
Running and humming along, I saw into a clearing to my left, where a father and his son were standing and pointing, surveying the rays of the sun dancing on Lake Carnegie. It was an uplifting image, but the wistful flood of nostalgia and Norman Rockwell-ness that should have washed over me and spread an enduring smile across my face was violently countered by an acrid taste of déjà vu. The snickerers, the snickerers. My face twisted into an ugly grimace. It was as if they were in my head, taunting me in their derisive satisfaction.
Of course I recognized how silly I was, so obsessed with this particular encounter with the movie, but the thought only intensified my irritation. I didn’t want to believe that the snickerers, as I reasonably told myself, had an equal right to enjoy the movie and had no intention of causing the mental anguish I was now experiencing.
I put my head down and ran, channeling my frustration at my unshakeable pettiness into my legs. Watching my feet crunch and scatter the gravel for some fuzzy duration of time, I felt something brush my forehead. I jerked to a stop to look up at the source of the soft, tiny object, a whimsical prospect made necessary by my heavy breathing. The slight breeze picked up, showering my upturned face with the fluttering, circular, silver petals. I gasped, stunned with sudden understanding and closed my fingers around a few of the flowers; all was forgiven!
Probably because I cannot whistle the notes that accompany it, the shot of the rising scraps of Jean Valjean’s torn up and scattered parole papers was never at the forefront of my mind during the time I hated the snickerers for ruining Les Mis. But in my own inexplicably similar moment of epiphany, the joy the scene had elicited rushed through me again, filling my heaving chest with more force than any of the three viewings of the scene. I felt the exhilaration he must have felt as he discarded his bitter hatred for those who had falsely imprisoned him and became a new man. Stunned, electrified, I was Jean Valjean.
In that instant, I realized I didn’t need to forgive the peanut gallery for what I thought they had done to me; I needed to thank them. As I stood there panting, looking at the petals in my hand and back up at their source, knowingly nodding its branches, it occurred to me at what a distance I had previously experienced the movie. Contrasted with this feeling of being Jean Valjean, the Les Mis the first three times had been acted by mere images, as if it were a magnificently wrought, but two-dimensional painting. I felt in that moment like I had bridged the gap between the silver-screen and the stage, and I was there, watching and feeling Les Misérables first hand. I turned around to head back, and whistled a few of the notes to “Do You Hear the People Sing.” Smiling at the thought of the snickerers, I ran, not distractedly floating, but rejoicing in every honk of the geese and over every hill.