Rearview Mirror: “Phantom of the Opera”
Fifteen years later, Phantom joins the tradition of bad movies that feel good to hate.
Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2020. I’m so happy you’re here.
Loyal: as you are no doubt aware, having pored over each and every inch of my columns with Robert Mueller–like fastidiousness, Rearview Mirror is a monthly feature in which I revisit a movie that premiered in theaters exactly ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago, comparing my initial reaction as a passive movie consumer to my current critical, analytical understanding. But this month’s piece is a slight departure from that formula, a broader discussion pegged to the movie The Phantom of the Opera.
The Phantom of the Opera hit theaters in December, but because it went into wide release in January, and for other reasons that I’ll get into shortly, I’m writing about it now. I tried to find a movie celebrating a milestone anniversary this month, but it was impossible. Generally speaking, studios release their superhero blockbusters and franchise tentpoles in summer and award season fodder in November and December. January is the dead zone, the drop month, the land of no return, abandon all hope ye who premiere here. Looking back on the January releases of yesteryear, not only could I not find anything I wanted to write about, I couldn’t even find anything I had seen. Believe it or not, I never bought a ticket to Book of Eli, and I doubt it’ll be any different for this year’s Dolittle. January movies are bad and everyone knows it. That’s why they are January movies.
Phantom wasn’t a January movie, but it is bad. The sets and the singing voices are pretty, but all that opulence is in service to a story so paperback-romance, Lifetime-movie-of-the-week, poorly-told-campfire-spooky-tale bananas that it’s almost numbing. If you aren’t familiar with the plot (or even if you are), do yourself a favor and read Natalie Walker’s hysterical (and accurate) synopsis. In her recounting, Walker lends the narrative a certain wry silliness that, unfortunately, the story does not actually have. Phantom takes itself deadly seriously. Not even Minnie Driver is enjoying herself, and she’s supposed to be the comic relief. Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson are dutifully wooden and wide-eyed, but if Gerard Butler (Gerard Butler! As the Phantom!) did something interesting in his audition, we can’t see it, because half his face is hidden by a mask.
On stage, mask work can challenge both actor and audience to understand a character through non-facial cues. On film, masks really only work if your personality is as big as Jim Carrey’s, and Butler’s is not. Director Joel Schumacher manages one genuinely exciting sequence, in which we are drawn into the Phantom’s underground lair by way of a boat in a tunnel lit by arm-shaped torches as minor chords ring out through a synthesizer. At that moment, it seems like maybe this stilted production might take a turn and lean into the horror or camp of it all—but sadly, that never happens.
Like the movie, Phantom on stage is, in my opinion, not good. Unlike the movie, Phantom on stage is still relevant (and running), and is in fact the most successful musical in Broadway history. Previously, the record was held by Cats, another Andrew Lloyd Webber joint I never cared for. But it’s the reason I was so eager to find a way to write about Phantom this month: because of Cats.
When Cats premiered last month, the pans were swift and merciless. Cats has no plot. Cats is just character introductions. Cats is weirdly horny. Cats doesn’t make any sense. As a fan of traditional three-act structure, I agreed. But as a fan of the Great White Way, I was livid. Didn’t these people know that the whole point of Cats is that it’s just characters introducing themselves? It’s horny because it’s supposed to be horny! What in the goddamn hell did you think a musical about cats would be? Why would you go expecting anything other than a mess? If you order a plate of candy, you can’t turn up your nose when candy arrives, complaining it’s not filet mignon.
Finding joy in the miserable failures of Cats and Phantom of the Opera isn’t disrespectful, it’s humane. Mirth is the kinder alternative to cruelty.
But Cats has, if not nine, at least two lives. After a poor initial performance at the box office, it’s become something of a cultural curio, spawning memes and parodies and bringing audiences back to theaters for ironic second screenings. “Watch it high” a friend recently commanded the group at a party. This weekend, I’ll be going to a “Rowdy” screening. Singing along is expected, nay, encouraged. When Phantom came out, we didn’t have the mass chatroom of social media.
I saw a tweet recently that said, “life is too short to talk about books you don’t like.” I understand the logic: there are so many good books released every year, don’t waste time trashing the trash. Let it die a quiet death while you promote what you like. The same sentiment applies to movies; when The Hollywood Reporter compiled a “worst movies of the year” list, many people said it was poor sportsmanship, in the wrong spirit, and totally unnecessary. They were right.
But the thing is, it’s fun to talk shit about stuff you hate. It’s a bonding experience and it’s funny. If you spend hours of your life reading a book and that book is bad, you should be able to say to other people that the book is bad, and how bad, and why. Finding joy in the miserable failures of Cats and Phantom isn’t disrespectful, it’s humane. Mirth is the kinder alternative to cruelty. Like the Twilight Saga or the Fifty Shades trilogy, Cats and Phantom are both kind of a mess. They’re not good. But they’re fun to make fun of, begging the question: If a bad movie delivers a great communal movie-watching/hating experience, is it really bad?
The other reason I will defend to death our unalienable right to be snarky, petty little bullies about bad movies is that the reverse of this conversation, the earnest attempt to glorify the best of the best, is even more odious. I’m not talking about lists of the best works of cinema or glowing reviews. Those are good, those are helpful. I’m talking about the Oscars. The goddamn Oscars, which don’t teach anyone anything and never seem to matter for longer than a weekend, even though we’re expected to spend the entire month preceding them tearing our hair out over the nominees.
Whatever! Let the nerds wear their ball gowns to an assembly where they hand each other prizes for bestest most special monologue. I’ll be with the cool kids, smoking cloves under the bleachers (is that what cool kids do?) and rolling our eyes over how hard the theater dorks tried, so earnestly belting to an empty room. How cringe, how stupid, I love it.
Life is short. Too short to spend it watching crusty period pieces for the sake of catching all the Best Picture nominees (though actually, I liked 1917). Too short to feel bad about making fun of bad movies. Too short to spend your days locked away beneath the Paris Opera house in a grotto with a life-sized figurine of the woman you love. Step out into the light and make yourself known! Let loose the chandelier of decorum! May it smash into a million pieces, as broken as your inhibitions! Happy new year! FL