Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame”

Ever since the publication of Notre Dame de Paris in 1831, Victor Hugo’s name has been linked to the cathedral which inspired the French novelist’s gothic tale. But the Notre Dame of Hugo’s day was a far cry from that of his imagination.

Over the centuries, the cathedral — begun in 1163 — played host to a clash between accretion and iconoclasm. The interior had been stuffed with ornamentation and statuary, and then stripped; the nave was whitewashed; the stained-glass windows replaced; the medieval stone masked by baroque marble; gargoyles destroyed. But the story Hugo told took place in 1482  — long before many of these cultural depredations  and the cathedral he described is a lot closer to the version being mourned this week than the one that existed as he was writing.

By memorializing and romanticizing Notre Dame’s past, Hugo ensured its survival and restoration. The book — published in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame — was a sensation, inspiring a decade-long rehabilitation process aimed at restoring the edifice to an imagined, somewhat fictitious, origin.

In keeping with our celebration of all things archival, we’re sharing Book 3, Chapter 1 of Hugo’s classic, which describes the decaying sanctuary, and sparked its revival.

Notre Dame, and St. Michael bridge, ca. 1890


Also known as:


By Victor Hugo

Translated by Isabel F. Hapgood

Book 3, Chapter 1

“Notre Dame”

The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.

On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior; which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid.

If we had leisure to examine with the reader, one by one, the diverse traces of destruction imprinted upon the old church, time’s share would be the least, the share of men the most, especially the men of art, since there have been individuals who assumed the title of architects during the last two centuries.

And, in the first place, to cite only a few leading examples, there certainly are few finer architectural pages than this façade, where, successively and at once, the three portals hollowed out in an arch; the broidered and dentated cordon of the eight and twenty royal niches; the immense central rose window, flanked by its two lateral windows, like a priest by his deacon and subdeacon; the frail and lofty gallery of trefoil arcades, which supports a heavy platform above its fine, slender columns; and lastly, the two black and massive towers with their slate penthouses, harmonious parts of a magnificent whole, superposed in five gigantic stories;—develop themselves before the eye, in a mass and without confusion, with their innumerable details of statuary, carving, and sculpture, joined powerfully to the tranquil grandeur of the whole; a vast symphony in stone, so to speak; the colossal work of one man and one people, all together one and complex, like the Iliads and the Romanceros, whose sister it is; prodigious product of the grouping together of all the forces of an epoch, where, upon each stone, one sees the fancy of the workman disciplined by the genius of the artist start forth in a hundred fashions; a sort of human creation, in a word, powerful and fecund as the divine creation of which it seems to have stolen the double character,—variety, eternity.

And what we here say of the façade must be said of the entire church; and what we say of the cathedral church of Paris, must be said of all the churches of Christendom in the Middle Ages. All things are in place in that art, self-created, logical, and well proportioned. To measure the great toe of the foot is to measure the giant.

Unknown photographer, ca. 1900

Let us return to the façade of Notre-Dame, as it still appears to us, when we go piously to admire the grave and puissant cathedral, which inspires terror, so its chronicles assert: quae mole sua terrorem incutit spectantibus.

Three important things are to-day lacking in that façade: in the first place, the staircase of eleven steps which formerly raised it above the soil; next, the lower series of statues which occupied the niches of the three portals; and lastly the upper series, of the twenty-eight most ancient kings of France, which garnished the gallery of the first story, beginning with Childebert, and ending with Phillip Augustus, holding in his hand “the imperial apple.”

Time has caused the staircase to disappear, by raising the soil of the city with a slow and irresistible progress; but, while thus causing the eleven steps which added to the majestic height of the edifice, to be devoured, one by one, by the rising tide of the pavements of Paris,—time has bestowed upon the church perhaps more than it has taken away, for it is time which has spread over the façade that sombre hue of the centuries which makes the old age of monuments the period of their beauty.

But who has thrown down the two rows of statues? who has left the niches empty? who has cut, in the very middle of the central portal, that new and bastard arch? who has dared to frame therein that commonplace and heavy door of carved wood, à la Louis XV., beside the arabesques of Biscornette? The men, the architects, the artists of our day.

Vüe de l’intérieur de l’Eglise Cathédrale de notre Dame de Paris, artist unknown, 1670

And if we enter the interior of the edifice, who has overthrown that colossus of Saint Christopher, proverbial for magnitude among statues, as the grand hall of the Palais de Justice was among halls, as the spire of Strasbourg among spires? And those myriads of statues, which peopled all the spaces between the columns of the nave and the choir, kneeling, standing, equestrian, men, women, children, kings, bishops, gendarmes, in stone, in marble, in gold, in silver, in copper, in wax even,—who has brutally swept them away? It is not time.

And who substituted for the ancient gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels’ heads and clouds, which seems a specimen pillaged from the Val-de-Grâce or the Invalides? Who stupidly sealed that heavy anachronism of stone in the Carlovingian pavement of Hercandus? Was it not Louis XIV., fulfilling the request of Louis XIII.?

And who put the cold, white panes in the place of those windows, “high in color,” which caused the astonished eyes of our fathers to hesitate between the rose of the grand portal and the arches of the apse? And what would a sub-chanter of the sixteenth century say, on beholding the beautiful yellow wash, with which our archiepiscopal vandals have desmeared their cathedral? He would remember that it was the color with which the hangman smeared “accursed” edifices; he would recall the Hôtel du Petit-Bourbon, all smeared thus, on account of the constable’s treason. “Yellow, after all, of so good a quality,” said Sauval, “and so well recommended, that more than a century has not yet caused it to lose its color.” He would think that the sacred place had become infamous, and would flee.

And if we ascend the cathedral, without mentioning a thousand barbarisms of every sort,—what has become of that charming little bell tower, which rested upon the point of intersection of the cross-roofs, and which, no less frail and no less bold than its neighbor (also destroyed), the spire of the Sainte-Chapelle, buried itself in the sky, farther forward than the towers, slender, pointed, sonorous, carved in open work. An architect of good taste amputated it (1787), and considered it sufficient to mask the wound with that large, leaden plaster, which resembles a pot cover.

View of spire, roof with statuary, and cityscape beyond, photograph by Charles Marville, ca. 1860.

‘Tis thus that the marvellous art of the Middle Ages has been treated in nearly every country, especially in France. One can distinguish on its ruins three sorts of lesions, all three of which cut into it at different depths; first, time, which has insensibly notched its surface here and there, and gnawed it everywhere; next, political and religious revolution, which, blind and wrathful by nature, have flung themselves tumultuously upon it, torn its rich garment of carving and sculpture, burst its rose windows, broken its necklace of arabesques and tiny figures, torn out its statues, sometimes because of their mitres, sometimes because of their crowns; lastly, fashions, even more grotesque and foolish, which, since the anarchical and splendid deviations of the Renaissance, have followed each other in the necessary decadence of architecture. Fashions have wrought more harm than revolutions. They have cut to the quick; they have attacked the very bone and framework of art; they have cut, slashed, disorganized, killed the edifice, in form as in the symbol, in its consistency as well as in its beauty. And then they have made it over; a presumption of which neither time nor revolutions at least have been guilty. They have audaciously adjusted, in the name of “good taste,” upon the wounds of gothic architecture, their miserable gewgaws of a day, their ribbons of marble, their pompons of metal, a veritable leprosy of egg-shaped ornaments, volutes, whorls, draperies, garlands, fringes, stone flames, bronze clouds, pudgy cupids, chubby-cheeked cherubim, which begin to devour the face of art in the oratory of Catherine de Medicis, and cause it to expire, two centuries later, tortured and grimacing, in the boudoir of the Dubarry.

Thus, to sum up the points which we have just indicated, three sorts of ravages to-day disfigure Gothic architecture. Wrinkles and warts on the epidermis; this is the work of time. Deeds of violence, brutalities, contusions, fractures; this is the work of the revolutions from Luther to Mirabeau. Mutilations, amputations, dislocation of the joints, “restorations”; this is the Greek, Roman, and barbarian work of professors according to Vitruvius and Vignole. This magnificent art produced by the Vandals has been slain by the academies. The centuries, the revolutions, which at least devastate with impartiality and grandeur, have been joined by a cloud of school architects, licensed, sworn, and bound by oath; defacing with the discernment and choice of bad taste, substituting the chicorées of Louis XV. for the Gothic lace, for the greater glory of the Parthenon. It is the kick of the ass at the dying lion. It is the old oak crowning itself, and which, to heap the measure full, is stung, bitten, and gnawed by caterpillars.

How far it is from the epoch when Robert Cenalis, comparing Notre-Dame de Paris to the famous temple of Diana at Ephesus, so much lauded by the ancient pagans, which Erostatus has immortalized, found the Gallic temple “more excellent in length, breadth, height, and structure.”

Notre-Dame is not, moreover, what can be called a complete, definite, classified monument. It is no longer a Romanesque church; nor is it a Gothic church. This edifice is not a type. Notre-Dame de Paris has not, like the Abbey of Tournus, the grave and massive frame, the large and round vault, the glacial bareness, the majestic simplicity of the edifices which have the rounded arch for their progenitor. It is not, like the Cathedral of Bourges, the magnificent, light, multiform, tufted, bristling efflorescent product of the pointed arch. Impossible to class it in that ancient family of sombre, mysterious churches, low and crushed as it were by the round arch, almost Egyptian, with the exception of the ceiling; all hieroglyphics, all sacerdotal, all symbolical, more loaded in their ornaments, with lozenges and zigzags, than with flowers, with flowers than with animals, with animals than with men; the work of the architect less than of the bishop; first transformation of art, all impressed with theocratic and military discipline, taking root in the Lower Empire, and stopping with the time of William the Conqueror. Impossible to place our Cathedral in that other family of lofty, aerial churches, rich in painted windows and sculpture; pointed in form, bold in attitude; communal and bourgeois as political symbols; free, capricious, lawless, as a work of art; second transformation of architecture, no longer hieroglyphic, immovable and sacerdotal, but artistic, progressive, and popular, which begins at the return from the crusades, and ends with Louis IX. Notre-Dame de Paris is not of pure Romanesque, like the first; nor of pure Arabian race, like the second.

Notre Dame, interior, coloured photograph, ca. 1895

It is an edifice of the transition period. The Saxon architect completed the erection of the first pillars of the nave, when the pointed arch, which dates from the Crusade, arrived and placed itself as a conqueror upon the large Romanesque capitals which should support only round arches. The pointed arch, mistress since that time, constructed the rest of the church. Nevertheless, timid and inexperienced at the start, it sweeps out, grows larger, restrains itself, and dares no longer dart upwards in spires and lancet windows, as it did later on, in so many marvellous cathedrals. One would say that it were conscious of the vicinity of the heavy Romanesque pillars.

However, these edifices of the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic, are no less precious for study than the pure types. They express a shade of the art which would be lost without them. It is the graft of the pointed upon the round arch.

Notre-Dame de Paris is, in particular, a curious specimen of this variety. Each face, each stone of the venerable monument, is a page not only of the history of the country, but of the history of science and art as well. Thus, in order to indicate here only the principal details, while the little Red Door almost attains to the limits of the Gothic delicacy of the fifteenth century, the pillars of the nave, by their size and weight, go back to the Carlovingian Abbey of Saint-Germain des Prés. One would suppose that six centuries separated these pillars from that door. There is no one, not even the hermetics, who does not find in the symbols of the grand portal a satisfactory compendium of their science, of which the Church of Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie was so complete a hieroglyph. Thus, the Roman abbey, the philosophers’ church, the Gothic art, Saxon art, the heavy, round pillar, which recalls Gregory VII., the hermetic symbolism, with which Nicolas Flamel played the prelude to Luther, papal unity, schism, Saint-Germain des Prés, Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie,—all are mingled, combined, amalgamated in Notre-Dame. This central mother church is, among the ancient churches of Paris, a sort of chimera; it has the head of one, the limbs of another, the haunches of another, something of all.

We repeat it, these hybrid constructions are not the least interesting for the artist, for the antiquarian, for the historian. They make one feel to what a degree architecture is a primitive thing, by demonstrating (what is also demonstrated by the cyclopean vestiges, the pyramids of Egypt, the gigantic Hindoo pagodas) that the greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius; the deposit left by a whole people; the heaps accumulated by centuries; the residue of successive evaporations of human society,—in a word, species of formations. Each wave of time contributes its alluvium, each race deposits its layer on the monument, each individual brings his stone. Thus do the beavers, thus do the bees, thus do men. The great symbol of architecture, Babel, is a hive.

Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of centuries. Art often undergoes a transformation while they are pending, pendent opera interrupta; they proceed quietly in accordance with the transformed art. The new art takes the monument where it finds it, incrusts itself there, assimilates it to itself, develops it according to its fancy, and finishes it if it can. The thing is accomplished without trouble, without effort, without reaction,—following a natural and tranquil law. It is a graft which shoots up, a sap which circulates, a vegetation which starts forth anew. Certainly there is matter here for many large volumes, and often the universal history of humanity in the successive engrafting of many arts at many levels, upon the same monument. The man, the artist, the individual, is effaced in these great masses, which lack the name of their author; human intelligence is there summed up and totalized. Time is the architect, the nation is the builder.

Not to consider here anything except the Christian architecture of Europe, that younger sister of the great masonries of the Orient, it appears to the eyes as an immense formation divided into three well-defined zones, which are superposed, the one upon the other: the Romanesque zone, the Gothic zone, the zone of the Renaissance, which we would gladly call the Greco-Roman zone. The Roman layer, which is the most ancient and deepest, is occupied by the round arch, which reappears, supported by the Greek column, in the modern and upper layer of the Renaissance. The pointed arch is found between the two. The edifices which belong exclusively to any one of these three layers are perfectly distinct, uniform, and complete. There is the Abbey of Jumiéges, there is the Cathedral of Reims, there is the Sainte-Croix of Orleans. But the three zones mingle and amalgamate along the edges, like the colors in the solar spectrum. Hence, complex monuments, edifices of gradation and transition. One is Roman at the base, Gothic in the middle, Greco-Roman at the top. It is because it was six hundred years in building. This variety is rare. The donjon keep of d’Etampes is a specimen of it. But monuments of two formations are more frequent. There is Notre-Dame de Paris, a pointed-arch edifice, which is imbedded by its pillars in that Roman zone, in which are plunged the portal of Saint-Denis, and the nave of Saint-Germain des Prés. There is the charming, half-Gothic chapter-house of Bocherville, where the Roman layer extends half way up. There is the cathedral of Rouen, which would be entirely Gothic if it did not bathe the tip of its central spire in the zone of the Renaissance.

However, all these shades, all these differences, do not affect the surfaces of edifices only. It is art which has changed its skin. The very constitution of the Christian church is not attacked by it. There is always the same internal woodwork, the same logical arrangement of parts. Whatever may be the carved and embroidered envelope of a cathedral, one always finds beneath it—in the state of a germ, and of a rudiment at the least—the Roman basilica. It is eternally developed upon the soil according to the same law. There are, invariably, two naves, which intersect in a cross, and whose upper portion, rounded into an apse, forms the choir; there are always the side aisles, for interior processions, for chapels,—a sort of lateral walks or promenades where the principal nave discharges itself through the spaces between the pillars. That settled, the number of chapels, doors, bell towers, and pinnacles are modified to infinity, according to the fancy of the century, the people, and art. The service of religion once assured and provided for, architecture does what she pleases. Statues, stained glass, rose windows, arabesques, denticulations, capitals, bas-reliefs,—she combines all these imaginings according to the arrangement which best suits her. Hence, the prodigious exterior variety of these edifices, at whose foundation dwells so much order and unity. The trunk of a tree is immovable; the foliage is capricious.

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An Element of Chance: A Celebration of John Perreault

Village Voice art critic R.C. Baker recently spoke at the opening of a survey exhibition of the work of John Perreault (1937–2015), “It’s Only Art,” on view at Marquee Projects. Perreault was an artist, critic, poet, and teacher, as well as the chief art critic at the Voice from 1966 to 1974.

On John Perreault, at the exhibition “It’s Only Art,” Marquee Projects, June 23, 2017:

I’m going to keep this short and hopefully on point, because that’s how John wrote some of his greatest reviews. Let me give you an example of what I mean when I say that: In 1970, Philip Guston exhibited his magisterial cartoon figures for the first time, paintings influenced by Renaissance masters from 500 years earlier. Within a decade it would become apparent that Guston’s own masterpieces would join that pantheon and similarly influence serious painters for all time. Back in 1970, though, most critics — and too many artists — gave Guston terrible reviews. These first cartoon paintings were almost universally reviled. But one critic, writing in the Village Voice, saw something that almost no one else appreciated in those works. I’ll quote a few excerpts from John Perreault’s two-paragraph review:

“Guston’s new paintings are cartoony, looney, moving….It’s as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart….It’s all in the service of a tragicomedy of errors or terrors. It really took guts to make this shift this late in the game, because a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. Not me.”

If that is all I said about John tonight — that in those brief sentences he got right what almost no one else did, except Willem de Kooning; John and de Kooning got it right — if that was all I said, it would cement John’s legacy as an extraordinarily insightful critic. But how could John have had such insight when nearly everyone else missed the beginnings of one the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century?

One clue might come from the great underground filmmaker Jack Smith, who wrote in a groundbreaking essay in the late 1960s, “In [America] the blind go to the movies.” What he was charging was that film critics didn’t understand the medium because “film critics are writers and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.”

The gallery at Marquee Projects

And so, as we look around these galleries, we begin to understand why John Perreault got Guston right, or why he saw in a young student named Ana Mendieta such astounding promise — we see why right here on these walls and on these floors. Because John was not uneasy with visual phenomenon. In fact, he reveled in it. Because John created his own visual phenomena — he was an artist.

For instance, what do we see in the painting Don’t? At first glance, those two elongated red globules might be twins, and yet it quickly becomes apparent that they are doing very different things. One stretches exactly from the top to the bottom of the canvas; the other comes up a bit short. This is visual poetry. This is the full stop of a period on one side, the pause of a comma — or perhaps the clean break of an em-dash — on the other. This is the rhythm of stanzas, the charming echo of assonance.

Perreault’s “Don’t” (2014)

And then we have those two red wheelbarrows. I’m not sure the children should be allowed to see them in their rough embrace. These are found volumes — we know that wheelbarrows are designed to trundle around heaps of dirt or compost or what have you. John has destroyed this utility while creating a comical narrative that in its brawniness — to my eye, at least — brings the sheer physicality of an ancient Greek statue of two wrestlers into a garden on the South Shore of Long Island.

Or how about those yellow, right-angle drips in the painting around the corner there, which is called Three. This might be a modern dance, the troupe moving first in one direction, then all pivoting gracefully to another. Abstract, yes, but also a physical record of force and weight and velocity. And how much would John appreciate the way in which this painting is displayed in this gallery at this moment? How serendipitous is it that in a painting that is all about right angles and gravity, that in this charming — but old — building, it was necessary to put a small wedge under one corner to keep this piece level, something absolutely crucial to its concept.

But as John often said, “It’s only art.”

That statement is a wonderful, worldly wise view of this thing called art, one that John shared with Gulley Jimson, the main character in Joyce Cary’s great 1941 novel, The Horse’s Mouth, and perhaps fiction’s greatest evocation of the earthy, humorous, and at times fatalistic view of life I believe all truly great artists possess. I think John and Gulley Jimson would have shared a laugh at the way one of Gulley’s cardinal rules has been broken here: In the novel, Gulley says, “When I had my canvas up, it was two foot off the floor, which just suited me. I like to keep my pictures above dog level.”

“Three” (2013)

Which brings me to what John once wrote of Andy Warhol’s — well, let’s use the polite name, Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings.” John said, “Shower queens will rejoice and others will be simultaneously attracted and repulsed. What could be better?”

And so, with this inherently human contradiction, we arrive at a discussion of alternative mediums. I mean, are you kidding me — toothpaste? Oil-soaked beach sand? Coffee?

When I first saw John’s coffee drawings I thought of an amazing show at the Drawing Center in the late 1990s, by another writer who was also an artist — Victor Hugo.

Hugo’s drawings, like his novels, are Romantic, gothic, overblown, and thrilling — castles in mist, a murder of crows surrounding a hanged man, a menacing octopus, and ultimately completely abstract vistas. One of Hugo’s friends said of his methods: “Any means would do for him — the dregs of a cup of coffee tossed on old laid paper. The dregs of an inkwell tossed on notepaper, spread with his fingers, sponged up, dried, then taken up with a thick brush or a fine one.” There is a wonderful sense of play implied in this mucking about in the dregs of the world.

And that is what you feel here, in John’s work—the world. Not just the art world, but this vast combination of things, of ideas, of culture past and present — of coffee grounds and toothpaste and polluted sand — everything was grist for John’s work. Or, as Hugo once said, “Great artists have an element of chance in their talent, and there is also talent in their chance.”

In a painting such as City, we are startled by the way chance and insightful skill and decision-making combine into a powerful, glowing composition. This is drips as architecture, a matrix of light and dark, civilization as abstraction. And to me, it is so beautiful how John, having made a life and a career for himself in the labyrinth of New York City — something that is not easy to do, as so many of us here tonight understand — John (along with his husband Jeff Weinstein, of course) then made a home out here on Long Island. And I think these two worlds are combined in this painting, both literally — grids blotted and ground down by sand — and also formally, in a way that borders on the spiritual. Because, as much as we are all denizens of civilization — of this vast network that makes art and culture possible — we are, before that, children of the edge, of that place where land and sea meet. This painting captures something so very much larger than what it represents.

So, ultimately, this is serious business, this thing called art and culture. But it means nothing if we cannot enjoy it, and John, through his writing, his poetry, and, yes, look all around here, through his art, through all the stuff that made up this singular, wonderfully expansive life, John left the world — and I’m not talking about the art world, understand, but the real world — John left it better than he found it.


“It’s Only Art”
Marquee Projects
14 Bellport Lane
Bellport, New York
Through July 16




Les Misérables, Streamlined and Digitized

It dominated Broadway for decades, disappeared for about five minutes, and was briefly revived in 2006. Now, hot on the heels of a 2012 Hollywood version, Les Misérables is back in all its melodramatic splendor. This latest remount arrives in New York after touring for a few years, and it has the pared-down efficiency of a road production; the show has been streamlined and speeded up, with brisk tempos and digitized projections for backdrops.

Victor Hugo’s tale of love and moral redemption centers around the 1832 rebellion in Paris, but the musical glosses over the politics and goes for the heartstrings. This staging rarely slows to let us take in the narrative’s finer points, but Ramin Karimloo delivers a commanding performance as the reformed fugitive Jean Valjean, the fullest character, dramatically speaking; Karimloo finds an arc and a grace to carry him from prison to sainthood (with a gym body acquired somewhere on the way). In a cast that sometimes pushes too hard, there are several standouts, including Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle, who bring true wickedness to the grotesque comic foils Monsieur and Madame Thénardier. The Les Miz revolution may never die — but here it largely feels new and improved.


Les Misérables Doesn’t Dream Daringly

You can hear the people sing—really hear them—in the long-gestating screen version of that Broadway juggernaut Les Misérables. Countering the standard practice of having the actors in a film musical lip-synch their songs to prerecorded tracks (a/k/a “playback”), director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) insisted that all of the singing in his Les Mis happen live on the set, in the moment, with hidden earpieces allowing the actors to hear the orchestrations. The result is a movie musical unlike any you’ve heard before: Real voices emerge in real time, complete with assorted tremors, gasps for breath and other “imperfections” of the sort typically smoothed away in the studio. The quality of the sound recording is exceptional, too, as crisp as in the best concert films and live albums. Inevitably, you wonder what the likes of My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and The King and I would have sounded like if they’d been made this way, and without the reassuring soprano of Marni Nixon emanating from their leading ladies.

The live singing is but one part of Hooper’s concerted effort to inject grit and verisimilitude into Les Mis—a lofty strategy that has become folly by late in the film, when the proletarian hero Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) sloshes through the sewers of Paris with the body of the wounded revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) slung across his mighty shoulders, both men caked in human excrement. For the more Hooper tries—and oh, how he tries, ratcheting the filth amp to 11 and shooting almost everything with an arsenal of wide-angled, handheld cameras—the more the moist-eyed storybook romanticism of the source material proves resistant to his efforts.

It’s doubtful, after all, that realism—or any semblance of it—is what audiences were seeking when they turned British über-producer Cameron Mackintosh’s 1985 stage production into one of the biggest of all musical-theater blockbusters. Liberally inspired by Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables, the musical first entered the world as a French-language concept album by composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg—and a concept album it very much remains. Hugo’s panoramic study of the underclasses between the end of the French Revolution and the failed Paris uprisings of 1832 is here boiled down to a series of noble peasant heroes, cardboard villains, and star-crossed lovers belting out sound-alike anthems about the resilience of the human spirit. Developed by Mackintosh into a full-scale English-language production that premiered on London’s West End in 1985 (where it is still running), Les Mis arrived in New York two years later, on the heels of the Mackintosh-produced Cats and just ahead of his Phantom of the Opera—the “British Invasion” trifecta that, at a low ebb for original American musicals, revitalized Broadway as a tourist mecca.

On stage, Les Mis has about as much to do with Hugo as Rent has to do with Puccini, but it has undeniable kitsch appeal, with its own literal pièce de résistance—an enormous rotating barricade—in lieu of Phantom‘s plummeting chandelier. On screen, there are fewer pleasures, though the opening moments are undeniably impressive in an old-fashioned, epic-monolithic way, as the camera drifts up from underwater to reveal Valjean and a chain gang of prisoners hauling an enormous ship into port under the crash of waves and the glower of the police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Later, when a paroled Valjean jumps bail and flees through a snow-capped mountain expanse (actually Gourdon, in the South of France), the film exudes a wide-open physical grandeur not often seen in musicals—save for the few, like Fiddler on the Roof, shot on real locations instead of studio sets. There are a handful of other show-stopping moments along the way, though I’m not sure if the most discussed of them—Anne Hathaway’s rendition of the tortured ballad “I Dreamed a Dream”—stops the show for the right reasons. The impassioned lament of Fantine, a fired factory worker forced into prostitution to support her illegitimate daughter, “I Dreamed a Dream” is already emotional pornography of the first order, made more so by Hathaway’s borderline hysterical interpretation, all bulging eyes and hyperventilation, as if Hooper were shouting “More! More!” into her earpiece. Is this realism or the precursor to spontaneous combustion?

Yet it’s hard to place too much fault on the direction of a movie that feels less like an exercise in filmmaking than in careful brand management. Once upon a time, directors entrusted with bringing some popular work of theater or literature to the screen were allowed to be creative, to reshape and adapt as they saw fit. And the audiences that lined up for Cabaret and The Godfather and The Exorcist instinctively understood that they wouldn’t be seeing a scene-for-scene, page-for-page translation of the source.

But in today’s Hollywood, where “pre-awareness” reigns supreme and the rights-holders of underlying properties retain ever more say in the adaptation process, writers and directors are increasingly reduced to the level of corporate lackeys. Occasionally, a filmmaker will still be given major leeway to reinvent a well-known character or franchise (as Christopher Nolan was for his Batman films), but more often—whether it’s Twilight or The Hunger Games or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—the clear mandate is to cater to the base, and Les Mis is no exception. Try as Hooper might to make the movie his own, the only real changes he has been allowed are cosmetic and stylistic, and even smeared in shit, Boublil and Schönberg’s gleaming icons cannot be dulled. The dream lives, but this movie remains in chains.


The Great Divide–Old West, Old Play, New Life

What would it take to cause a riot at the theater these days? Plays that once incited audiences now soothe or bore them. Spring Awakening appears on Broadway; Playboy of the Western World receives the dreary designation of a classic; Ubu Roi is assigned in high schools, while Victor Hugo’s revolt-inducing Hernani isn’t—only because it’s too dull.

But every so often you come across an old play that still has the power to surprise and unsettle. Among them: The Great Divide, William Vaughn Moody’s 1906 drama, now revived at the Metropolitan Playhouse, the East Village theater specializing in American rarities.

In the play’s first scene, Ruth Jordan (Lauren Sowa), an upstanding young woman who has traveled West with her family, is left alone at their Arizona ranch. As she readies herself for sleep, three ruffians break in and attempt to rape her. Disarmed of rifle and knife, she desperately offers herself to the least vicious of her assailants, Stephen Ghent (Timothy Weinert), saying she will go away with him if he saves her from further disgrace. He buys off one of his compatriots and shoots the other, then they ride off together. Now is that a way to start a play or what?

The drama caused a mild scandal when first presented, with many reviewers declaring it immoral, a description that didn’t hurt ticket sales. By the time it arrived in New York, however, critics called it “an extremely interesting play, admirably conceived” and hailed its author, Moody, as “a dramatist worthy to rank with [Arthur Wing] Pinero and [Henry Arthur] Jones.”

Moody, the Indiana-born son of a steamboat captain, was an English professor, a poet, and one of a number of young American men (Clyde Fitch, Bronson Howard, Augustus Thomas, James Herne) turning away from melodrama and toward greater realism. But Moody’s interest in the symbolist poets also lends his plays an otherworldly tinge, in which ordinary settings and objects (in the case of The Great Divide, a string of gold nuggets, the Arizona desert) seem freighted with the abstract and mystical.

Unfortunately, Moody died of brain cancer in 1910, and his theatrical career was over almost before it began. He produced only two prose dramas, The Great Divide, which made his fortune, and The Faith Healer, a commercial failure also revived by the Metropolitan a few years ago.

Even though the Metropolitan’s current production, directed by Michael Hardart, is indifferently acted and seemingly underrehearsed (in the dark before the first scene, you could hear at least two actors bumping into the furniture), it still makes a case for The Great Divide‘s endurance. Like O’Neill, whose plays possess a power in spite of some very rickety dialogue, the structure and themes of Moody’s drama help it resonate.

We may no longer observe the same rift between Eastern propriety and Western wildness. (Indeed, a fellow patron of the Metropolitan’s co-ed restroom didn’t think it necessary to shut the stall door while he urinated—so much for North Atlantic manners!) Yet the oppositions Moody assembles between Puritanism and paganism, between morality and desire still have force, and he borrows just enough tricks from melodrama to keep the play chugging along nicely. Though it runs in excess of two hours, it feels far shorter, even considering all the hamming.

Many of Moody’s lines, particularly those attributed to the Westerners, seem more constructed than inhabited, as if he had to sprinkle in just enough ain’ts per page. But there’s poetry here, too. At the drama’s end, Ruth still resists Stephen’s love, speaking to him of suffering, sacrifice, sin, and death. But he comes toward her and says, “Our law is joy, and selfishness; the curve of your shoulder and the light on your hair as you sit there says that as plain as preaching.” It’s a wonderful speech that continues, distinctly American in its vocabulary and concerns.

In a 1909 interview with the Los Angeles Times, as Moody lolled on a sofa and ate Limburger cheese, he said, “Our stage is just trying to find itself. It is in its infancy.” Though Moody never lived to see it, The Great Divide shows he’s one of the men and women who helped it grow up.



Kyphosis is seemingly nothing to laugh about; it’s a painful curvature of the spine that can sometimes prove fatal. Nor are Victor Hugo’s novels laugh riots. But Chicago’s Redmoon Theater has created from Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame an evening of physical comedy. In Hunchback, a puppet Hugo serves as guide to the jolly tragedy of Quasimodo.

Fridays, Saturdays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 12 & 5 p.m. Starts: Oct. 24. Continues through Nov. 9, 2008


Ways of Seeing

For his latest steamy series of large-scale photographs, German photographer Thomas Struth positioned himself just to one side and slightly in back of Michelangelo’s magnificent
David in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. The nine color photos on view form a kind of wraparound photographic fresco and give us an art’s-eye view of the power, the glory, the wonder, and the sheer sexiness of what seeing looks like. In the offing, Struth also provides insight into how varied and extraordinary these ways of seeing can be.

Some onlookers are glazed, others are dazed. Some are bored, others are obviously looking at David‘s private parts. Young swains watch women who are watching David. Strange Kabuki postures are assumed, dramas build and unfold. A girl tugs on a boy’s shirt sleeve as he looks away. Americans with their fanny packs and Japanese tourists with cameras make good every cliché. A distracted mother tends a crying baby, a conscientious father reads to his daydreaming kids from a guidebook, and a museum guide who has seen observes. Look closely and you’ll see David himself reflected in the glasses of a few onlookers.

These new Struths are encyclopedias of seeing and taxonomies of looking. They’re Holgarths by way of Victor Hugo and history painting. They’re also very fun.


NY Mirror

Antony , the ethereal voice of Antony and the Johnsons, sings like a Wim Wenders angel and—when necessary—can swear like a sailor. He was the prime mover of the celebrated Blacklips Performance Cult, who made the Pyramid a place of rare beauty and wonder in the early ’90s with their sexed-up, punked-out shows based on old Godzilla movies and Victor Hugo novels. Now he’s a rock star.

1 Did you just open your mouth one day and this diva voice came out, or is it something you’ve worked and worked on? It’s pretty intuitive. It isn’t a static thing—it just sort of morphs.

2 Who are your heroes? I love Kazuo Ohno, the dancer. I also really like Liz Fraser [Cocteau Twins]. And lots of American singers, especially Otis Redding and Nina Simone. The only art books I have are by Peter Hujar.

3 Downtown New York’s artistic and musical legacy is very much a part of your work. Is that something you strive to re-create? I came to New York in 1990. Kabuki Starshine at 21 was pretty fucking mythical. Page was pure magic. Johanna Constantine—10 years ahead of the curve with her antlers and blood—influenced me profoundly. But queens were dropping like flies in the ’80s and I certainly missed out, not getting to hang out with Klaus Nomi, Hibiscus, Ethyl Eichelberger, Jack Smith . . . . I’ve always looked on a certain marginal strain of NYC culture as my family, but I’ve never tried to re-create a scene. I’m more interested in the present.

4 You’ve spent the last few years in some heady company. What were the highlights? Lou Reed has been my greatest advocate and friend. I opened for Coil in Italy last spring, and Jhonn was so sweet. Being supported by other artists has been a lifeline for me.

5 What’s your favorite song you didn’t write? “A Dream” by Donny Hathaway. It just kills me.

See Antony and the Johnsons at Joe’s Pub January 9. Their new record, I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian), is out February 1.



Widower Rick O’Lette, an exec at the consulting firm Image (not to be confused with competitors Façade or Pretense), always has a put-down on hand, even at the expense of his lothario boss who lusts after Rick’s daughter, Eve. As in Verdi’s Rigoletto—itself a depoliticized adaptation of a Victor Hugo play—our hero puts out a contract on his patron. But unlike Verdi’s crying-on-the-inside hunchback court jester, Rick (Bill Pullman) is an embittered cad who fails to earn the audience’s sympathy, so the film falls short of its source’s tragic dimensions. That aside, Daniel Handler’s script and Curtiss Clayton’s direction hit all the right notes, especially in the final act. Surprisingly, there’s less sex here than in the 1851 grope opera, though the fat-soprano role is voluptuously filled by Agnes Bruckner’s less than virginal Eve—she’s fine, but she’s no Callas.


Show World

Although the show of French daguerreotypes that just opened at the Metropolitan Museum (and continues through January 4) contains some of the first photographs ever made, there’s nothing musty about these antiques. Made between 1839 and 1855 by the format’s inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, and a host of subsequent artists and amateurs, they’re small and seductive, and their mirror-like surfaces are as inviting as peepholes. Much of what we see in them is long vanished, but, carefully spotlit in these velvet-lined rooms, it couldn’t be more startlingly present. Here is the world in all its variety, from Parisian panoramas to a solitary palm, with Balzac, a prosthetic leg, a pair of human skulls, a bull, Victor Hugo in exile, a chunk of crystal, and a gaggle of nudes (academic, erotic, and matter-of-fact) in between. Once the process was popularized, daguerreotypists recorded people, places, and things as if they were going to disappear at any moment. Their pioneering urgency is well rewarded here.