Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Let England Take: Pregnant Portman Vs. THE KING'S SPEECH (2010)
There will always be an England, taking... our Oscars. The U.S.A's imperialist academy voters of a certain age with their ensconced sense of drawing room pomp get all weak in the knees at the thought of having tea with the wife of King George VIII, especially if she's embodied by saucy Helena Bonham Carter, and said king's played by dear old Collin Firth. If the film's lit artsy (lit like a Romantic period painting) and crafty (stripped down so every word of dialogue is a fractal composite of the whole), in English (upper crusted accents), and has a happy ending. I've seen them, with their jewels and haughty laughs, and I know what they like!
I'm rooting for the BLACK SWAN, the defiant Mozart that unnerves the Academy's Salieri-voting block, SWAN is divisive by the very nature of its 'Yellow Wallpaper' feminist-hall-of-mirrors Icarus-ian iconography... it dares to melt the mythic archetypal into the personal and meta until its soul bleeds into its body like Ahab. It's basically an admonishment to the elderly artist, and old is what everyone who votes in the Academy is, or will inevitably be (dead stars get no vote). Yesterday's royalty, Winona Ryder lurks like the Phantom of the Opera in the shadowed wings of SWAN, a film that chooses death, drugs and hot mess madness over respectability; the Academy needless to picked the latter. KING trumped SWAN for me in just one way: Geoffrey Rush as the unorthodox teacher who must cut past "Bertie's" repression-- part of a long, illustrious line of Oscar-snatching, unorthodox teachers who must cut through repression--social and personal--stretching back through Robin Williams in THE DEAD POET'S SOCIETY. BLACK SWAN's unorthodox teacher--Vincent Cassel-- pushing the star past repression is much younger and cinematically aerodynamic than Rush, and thus seems more like the son of a ballet master than the thing itself. He does a great job, but Rush does a masterful one.
Rush's teacher feels lived-in, uniquely British in his blend of fiery eccentric lordliness and deeply humble focus. Firth was great too, making us feel every attempt at speaking as a truly heroic force of strength and English will, but if you compare his crumbling speech student to Portman's banshee ballet breakdown it's like comparing life and death, salt and salt-free. THE KING'S SPEECH is so A+ in every nook and cranny of its white elephant hide it defies description. But oh for a termite.
SWAN might die at Oscar time because its lack of a clear reality is interpreted, felt, lived, in a way that makes the bourgeoisie nervous: they don't like high art to bite them in their feeding hand. In locating the crux of Tchaikovsky's music and the myth it embodies within the personal life of a repressed ballet star, Aronofsky peels back the yellow wallpaper between texts and makes the myth personal -- it swallows you whole, sucks you down like the Pequod. The viewer of THE KING'S SPEECH is not implicated the way he or she is in SWAN. In SWAN, the metatextual chain of interpretation and performance (i.e. the fact that this is Natlie Portman's break-out picture as a creased, non-gamin actress, and Winona's presence is the grim future for non-gamins), lunges for the jugular and bitch slaps the viewer with their own mortality. KING'S just causes us minor bumpy traffic jam stress and relief as all the antsy waits as upper crust fortifications are breached and every coherent sentence is like a dream, but the whole effect becomes as calculated as another Geoffrey Rush picture, QUILLS. The movie becomes like a therapist presenting the viewer with ink blot puzzles to solve, with no other solution but the correct one possible. SWAN is more like the therapist that burns down their own office and then makes out with you in their car, then reads you your DSM-IV in bed.
That said BLACK SWAN has Oscar plusses: stodgy art, tight binding of young girl's feet, Svengali-esque puppeteers and wounded doe Trilbies high on ecstasy; it also has a big Oscar minus: Natalie Portman's character is rude to--and directly disobeys--her long-suffering Mrs. Bates-ish stage mother (Barbara Hershey) and isn't directly punished for it! As the academy is chock full of hard-working stage mothers, such disobedience is usually Oscar death. The scandal of Mila Kunis not being nominated indicates a secret law Nathan R pointed out in in a post I can't find at the moment: giving oral sex to Natalie Portman in SWAN ensured Kunis' lack of a nomination and that 'tis better to receive than give in olde Hollywood, and new as well.
Due to higher education being available based on merit and interest as opposed to wealth, more of the working class in socialized countries like GB seem to possess a genuine interest in 'high art' than here in the States, where tenured professors, teacher's unions and old women in expensive jewelry make 'classical' and 'boring' inextricably entwined. The journey from US government education board lesson planning (they should all have to read Anna Karinina!) to hungover, underpaid educator ("pay attention! this woman was Russian!") to ADD sugar-addict child mind twisting in and out of wooden desk/chair torture combo unit, ensures a kind of tedious base-line conformity that discourages passionate interest. In London, if a man has no love for literature, he's allowed to stay in shop class fixing engines... all his life, on a nice stipend. So it is that a working class taxi driver may love Bartok and Handel, and a prince may jam to the Clash without irony. Since they 'know their place' neither can be accused of slumming or class-climbing as they would here, thus art and education are free to fly and be living and vital.
By this of course I mean--and again no offense meant to the films or filmmakers--the unquestioned embrace of all things British by our bourgeoisie is not the fault of these highly trained artisans and keepers of the classical flame, but just that the nature of grants means they mustn't travel too far, darlings. And if there is some Shakespeare, or something legitimately powerful and poetic, it has to be watered down and steamed ala SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (above) or welded to a single cheering moment, like a speech, a stage show (TOPSY TURVEY) or sports event (CHARIOTS OF FIRE - below) in order to stop it from spilling out into the streets and starting a riot.
The average English person understands this issue of tish-toshy, royalty-suck-up-to glimmer glammer, even more than we do, this tendency of critics to fall on their knees as soon as Collin Firth picks up an expensive period pen, or Helena Bonham Carter emerges, high heels and white gloves first, from a period Bentley pulled up before a flower-and-footman-bestrewn mansion. They're a droll bunch the Brits, keenly aware of their country's faults and foibles through their hitherto discussed vibrant relation to the arts. Americans have their 'Super Bowl,' Britain has its theater, and films like THE RULING CLASS and TV shows like THE AVENGERS. which come chock full of wry self-deprecating Britishness. America isn't quite ready for that level of self-satire. The only film that maybe comes close is Richard Kelly's unappreciated SOUTHLAND TALES, and our collective lack of arts education is, and gentlemen I say this without hesitation, the reason for us not loving it.
Still - I don't really see anything new or alive or chance-taking, nothing fresh, in the KING'S SPEECH compared to the wacky attempt to fuse 800 levels of intertextual operatics into 90 minutes of the BLACK SWAN's tightening gyre. Yet by any standard you care to name, THE KING'S SPEECH is stunning - even the music manages to sidestep the kind of corny orchestral bombast someone like John "Excuse me while I rip Les Baxter" Williams would have brought to it. The photography of all the royal landmark interiors is breathtakingly romanticist. The acting jaw-dropping in its perfection; the script one of those perfect little traps wherein everything from the speech therapist's pedantic audition to play Richard III in an amateur theater troupe, to the threat of Nazism (seen by the King as a kind of proletariat revolutionary threat, a class war), to the meteoric all-pervasiveness of the wireless; to Prince Albert's abdication to run off with a married woman; to the leavening of true distance between royalty and commoners, all congeals like a completed puzzle that operates on every textual level there is, all into one halting final speech/broadcast that involves two middle-aged men, alone together, in a room, with a sheets hung from the ceiling, and there's nothing gay about it.
In the end it proves that little has changed since the nouveau riche Texas oil wives were lugging home British butlers and kissing up to European nobility in the early 20s, while Charlie Ruggles and W.C. Fields looked on aghast before slinking to the bar. There's a still a contingent of these 'cultured' elite, most of them of Oscar voting-age, for whom soft-spoken women who know their place, and men who'd rather die than cut loose on camera aren't even required to prove themselves... America just hands over its most precious award show trinkets like they've forgotten all about the 'art' of genuine revolution, you know, like the war? That we won? From them?
POST NOTE: As so often happens, my crush on Natalie Portman is gone now that she's all proudly pregnant. Knocked up by a commoner--a dance instructor, no less---and showing off her budding oven like it's by Jean Paul Gautier, that's doing the whole 'king becoming friends with his commoner speech therapist' thing one worse -- as painful to see for me as my own creeping gray hairedness. I'll admit for me it's that old unsnaswered question: Why? Why was I born just to have to go to school and brussel sprouts? Is that all there is... to a circus? Then let's keep / dancing-- but with Millipedes?
So for me, seeing Portman knocked up is like what seeing Justin Bieber with beer bloat, dilated pupils, and mussed hair in a future DUI mugshot will be for legions of reticently aging Bieber fans now freshly married with children of their own. Can't we keep our icons in some pressurized chamber that turns counter to the earth's rotation so they never age, or menstruate? Or worse, meet some some rare straight French dance instructor and leave us all alone to our dreadful mortal thoughts?
IN OTHER BRITISH NEWS: PJ Harvey's new album is out, LET ENGLAND SHAKE. And it's awesome, and all about England. PJ Harvey is one of those eternally gutsy artist with the cajones to not only address her nation's slaughtering ways, but to dab herself in the blood like its stage make-up in a Bertolt Brecht pageant number. And Polly Jean's using her "White Chalk" falsetto still, making those of us who remember the awesome, deep, full-bodied sexuality with which she once sang lines like "Aaaaa Aaaah Eee /and you believe me!" Still it's pretty awesome and I spent the walk over here listening to it and imagining political cartoons comparing the States' fucked-up healthcare and education systems with England's far more advanced socialist network. America's fur-wrapped Academy voters may still be dreaming of tea with the queen and voting accordingly, but at least they got one thing right: England Ruled. Now we're ruled by someone called Mark Zuckerberg. THE SOCIAL NETWORK's theme will, I think, be lost on the Academy, who regard the internet as something devoutly to be feared, up there with all the other things that might symbolize handing over the keys to the Twilight generation.
Of course the age war is nothing new for Academy Award choices, and the British mix of conqueror and civilization, reserve and madness, inbreeding, tea, crumpets, assault and apology, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, jolly good quips and oppression is everything that 'youth' is not. THE KING'S SPEECH is adult... as adult as dull lectures, as decaffeinated tea, as not the sudden glorious death of Icarus but the slow, rotting flesh decay of the elderly statesman.
In that movie THE RULING CLASS for example, Peter O'Toole (above) is cured of of his Christ complex which had him loving all creatures and thinking himself God--and transformed into a draconian Jack the Ripper-type conservative, advocating the return of public flogging in the House of Lords -- in other words, he grows 'English' old boy, like Clockwork Alex in verso. Our Oscar voter may not have enough therapy under their belts to realize it, and it's too late because no one in the Ameristocracy attended Marxism 101 in college, just got automatic A's thanks to their dad's donation. Then again, maybe it's someone else that rigs the world... just what in the world is a Rothschild Zionist and who do I have to sacrifice to become one?