Thursday, December 30, 2010

Technical Demands

I understand this year’s Oscar for best film is a tight race between The Social Network and The King’s Speech, with The Fighter a somewhat inexplicable “dark horse.” Actually, I’m pretty sure The Social Network will win. But until I saw The King’s Speech the other day, I assumed this was a contest between polar opposites – cutting-edge commentary on one of the driving forces of our time versus a nice but no longer too consequential seventy-year-old anecdote. Actually though, the two films are thematic cousins, positioned at different ends of the technological and existential revolution that’s remade our world, but in the end perhaps not sending such different messages on what we should think about it.

The King’s Speech

The reason the King, George VI of the United Kingdom (Colin Firth), cares particularly about his quality of speech is that he has a stammer, and since it’s the dawn of the media age (the 1930s), it matters: the once-distant royalty now has to make speeches and radio broadcasts and appear in newsreels, making a social phenomenon of its flaws and imperfections. In addition, Hitler’s growing power in Europe suggests imminent war, and a heightened need for (at least quasi-eloquent) national symbols of continuity and perseverance. After suffering through a long series of failed treatments, he finds his way to an unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who insists on calling him Bertie, as his family does, as a necessary component of a doctor/patient relationship of equals. The movie’s main selling point is the interplay between the two, and this certainly provides satisfying enough entertainment (although I found the film a little vague on what Logue’s treatment actually amounted to or how it actually worked). But in itself, this wouldn’t amount to so very much, notwithstanding a fine performance by Firth in particular.

The film’s greater power, I think, comes from its analysis of what Bertie represents, and how that’s under strain. From what we see here, the centre of royal power consists of a series of cramped, musty-seeming rooms, where one is always skirting round creepy servants, or being pushed from one stale obligation to the next, or being belittled to an extent a normal adult might reasonably hope to have left behind. Firth is very moving in an extended scene where Bertie talks about his often lonely and miserable childhood (playing with a model airplane of the kind he was always denied – his father collected stamps, so he had to collect stamps as well), and later on he rails against the uselessness of being king in an age where the role doesn’t allow (indeed suppresses) exercising real power or autonomy.

George VI only reluctantly became king, of course, after his older brother Edward VIII abdicated, as a result of his relationship with an American divorcee. Bertie speculates in the film that Edward has become mentally unsound, and indeed he may have been, but the tension between private desires and public propriety has overshadowed all else about the Monarchy in recent decades. The less important the institution becomes in any substantive terms, the more exhaustively it gets covered, which of course only reflects the infantilization of culture more generally (the very day after I saw the film, a newspaper article was insipidly blathering on about Kate Middleton’s “commoner” status).

Versus The Social Network

The title refers both to George’s affliction in general and to a specific speech he gives following the declaration of war, when he must stir the Empire and set it on its proper course. It’s no spoiler in the circumstances to say he pulls it off, but as galvanizing as the speech may be to radio listeners, the movie makes it clear that to him it’s a technical exercise; his focus on getting through (occasionally, for example, inwardly spouting obscenities to help bridge difficult transitions) is far more pressing than any sense of great personal purpose. Afterwards the inner circle congratulates him on getting through it, but the point is that he didn’t screw it up, not that he demonstrated some remarkable leadership. Start from there, hop forward a few generations, and you arrive at our prevailing culture of tireless dissection and meta-commentary, where purpose and substance only intermittently shine through the barrage of strategizing and point-scoring.

But maybe you could argue we’re all trying to attain the status of low-end royalty. It’s an age of connectivity and on-line visibility, but who knows how any of that correlates with our inner selves, or even whether the concept of an inner self has the same validity it used to have. As a viewing experience, David Fincher’s The Social Network is very different from The King’s Speech, moving at a substantially greater words-per-minute pace, more visually alluring, and of course aggressively contemporary. But like Bertie, Marc Zuckerberg’s actions are specifically driven by his analysis of class imperatives (in the celebrated opening scene, he’s mouthing off about the importance of cracking the right circles), and Fincher closes his film by emphasizing the remaining distance between Zuckerberg’s formal achievements and his inner priorities. Most striking is the irony of Zuckerberg (a member of the modern new economy royalty if anyone is) reinventing the concept of “friendship” while being so ill-attuned to the normal rhythms of interaction and seduction, amusingly paralleling Bertie’s accidental embodiment of Empire and continuity.

Tom Hooper

Anyway, while it’s virtually impossible to write about The Social Network without referencing its director Fincher, The King’s Speech seems to be in the category of films like Shakespeare In Love and Driving Miss Daisy (both of which won the best film Oscar without winning best director), perceived primarily as achievements in writing and acting. The film’s rather more than that though; I don’t know how its director Tom Hooper could have done much better with the material. The film has an insinuating, appropriately grim use of space (I was particularly fascinated by the hideously coloured wall in Logue’s office) and is far less calculating in its crowd-pleasing than it might have been (although I think the comic montage of the two engaging in assorted tongue-strengthening and other exercises might have been profitably omitted).

Hooper directed the HBO mini-series John Adams, but I’d only seen his last film The Damned United, the story of 70’s soccer manager Brian Clough and his short-lived attempt at managing the then-mighty Leeds team. I enjoyed that film a lot (not least for evoking an unpretentiousness and accessibility unimaginable in professional sports now), but it would be difficult to say it had much broader relevance - it would be no surprise if many viewers were simply to find it mystifying. But anyway, Hooper is plainly a shrewd and versatile director. And it’s barely necessary to mention that The King’s Speech is well-acted by all. The main thing though, it’s not that usual to come out of one of these British stiff-upper-lip period movies thinking, wow, that actually had some relevance to something.

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