An Early Take on the 2011 Oscars
Movie critics and theatre critics face a similar predicament. They have to like some of the things they review if for no other reason that they have to sustain their own credibility as people who can make discriminations, and so there have to be some plays and musicals and movies that are better than others even though the things offered for review fall into a very narrow range between being somewhat entertaining and awfully stupid. So the reviewers provide raves for what is somewhat entertaining so that they can condemn what is awfully stupid. There are, of course, other reasons for praising some productions. Theatrical advertisers will rebel and have rebelled against major journals publishing a critic who is always negative.
Professional movie critics wield much less power than theatre critics but the real critics in Hollywood, who wield a lot of power, are the actors and directors and other industry people who vote for the Academy Awards. That is because winning a nomination or an award can impact on the box office in a significant way. An Academy Award win can get a movie another run, and that adds millions and millions to its take. Think of “The Wrestler”, a rather conventional movie more interesting for the way it showed an overgrown actor, Mickey Rourke, taking his lumps, literal ones, to show he was still a decent actor. That was yet another case of the Academy voters following their hearts rather than the needs of the business. But rather than making them free, voting your aesthetics means voting the middle brow tastes that suffuse Hollywood.
Hollywood still doesn't know what to make of the Coen Brothers, just as they don't know how to evaluate the older Woody Allen, and so the best picture and director awards will probably go to the more conventional quality movies, which are these days defined as ones that do not depend too much on special effects and so have a lower gross even though they are very professionally produced. Hollywood honors these pictures because it thinks that is what its art consists of while merely violent movies just pay the bills and make the fortunes. So Hollywood honored James Cameron for Titanic but not for his Terminator movies and Clint Eastwood gets awards because his movies, however similar they are to the ones that made him a star, now are taken to have more serious themes. So this year, again, there will be a number of movies that are not that bad, that are really pretty good, that will be treated as something better than that, significant works of art, which they definitely are not. Let us turn to some of those offerings that are overly praised and taken as much more serious undertakings than they are.
The King's Speech, to my mind, is pretentious and claustrophobic because it pretends that whether King George could make a radio speech was a big deal. The fate of the Empire, however, did not depend on those speeches because Churchill did the talking for the Brits. The King could have put out statements in writing or had them read for him. Speaking on the radio was only important to him and his family because it showed that he actually did something as a king. In fact, the most important impression George VI made on the people of Britain during the war was in the visits he paid to parts of London that had undergone the Blitz. He and Elizabeth stepped through the debris to greet shopkeepers, and that appeared in the newsreels. It may indeed have calmed a population that the authorities did not know would not crack under the pressure of the bombing. But he didn’t need to make speeches to do that.
So much is made in The King’s Speech of George V need to make speeches, however awkward he was at doing so, because the movie is out to perpetuate the idea that the monarchy somehow suffers for its people and therefore is deserving of respect. That same approach was taken in the much better movie, The Queen, which was about George’s daughter, Elizabeth II, who was made to feel awful because the people so cared about Princess Diana that she had to acknowledge the love the people had for her that the members of the royal family did not share. Both movies are claustrophobic in thinking that the monarchy is more than a set of illustrations for People and the British tabloids. The more modern day movie had the advantage of playing the troubles of the royal family against Tony Blair actually trying to run a government when he wasn’t compelled to diddle-daddle and tsk-tsk about the concerns of the royal family.
No higher politics, though, in The King’s Speech. There is neither the hugger-mugger of Elizabeth I’s court nor the slippery pole of parliamentary government. There is only the need to make the King look good in performing his minor duties because the nation likes to think well of him. The King is not Hitler’s adversary any more than he is Roosevelt’s ally, because it is Churchill, not the King, who sends troops into battle. The nostalgia for a monarchy that has power was also seen in The Young Victoria, as if anyone cared about what she thought, especially once even her personal staff came under the control of Parliament. Monarchs are out of Ann Hathaway’s teenage movies. The idea is to act the Princess, because being one does not have much substance to it.
There are no surprises in the plot of The King’s Speech. The Duke of York who will become King George VI has had a number of language instructors who have failed, and then he finds one who is a failed actor and has shabby accommodations but is able to improve the King’s delivery well enough so that the King can make an occasional speech. There are some set pieces on the strains of therapeutic encounter, especially ones that involve personages of such disparate social standing. But, all in all, the King and Queen prove themselves gracious and able to deal with their social inferiors when they engage in what everybody considers a grave undertaking. Less matter than in The Madness of George III, which also had great acting but also had a more luxuriant sense of its times and opened the movie out to more than the doctor-patient relationship.
And yet the movie does do everything right about all the elements of movie making other than story. A viewer is drawn into the pleasure of observing first rate acting by beautiful people of different ages. Helen Bonham Carter retains her pre-Raphaelite beauty and Jennifer Euhle tones down her own beauty but still has that smile and Claire Bloom catches your breath without having to do more than provide a few facial expressions. The director knows how to photograph women. Colin Firth is also better looking than the guy who was chosen to play Edward VIII, though the reverse was true in real life, Edward’s appeal having been in that he was a bit of a fop. All this is in keeping with the movie dictum that actors turn stories into fantasies by being better looking than the people they portray. It is also in keeping with the dictum that applies to all movies to some extent, and not just westerns, that people are made legendary by making them so good looking that they deserve to be present at great events, even as ordinary people can only look on, all of us New Yorkers just living our lives so as to serve as supernumeraries in a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy set in New York City or, if we are lucky, have our West Side apartments star as the set of an episode of Law and Order. Woody Allen is one of the few who allows New York City to be for the masses and not just the beautiful people.
The King’s Speech also contains a nice and handsomely photographed color scheme, period costumes, all of which were done on a small budget, as can be seen in the fact that the movie is mostly small scale interiors buttressed by some shots of Westminster Abbey no doubt filmed in a few hours in the middle of the night. The movie’s other pleasures include an impersonation of Churchill by yet another face, and so to be added to our memory’s gallery of such faces, as well as a number of recognition scenes in which people are flummoxed that the people introduced to them as the Johnsons are in fact the royals, to the amusement of the Queen, who is in a position, after all, to be gracious because she knows who she is before the people she meets do. This is the sort of movie people mean when they say they had a good time at the movies. It was fun to live the life of royals for a brief time, never mind that the situation rather than anything that went on in the situation was what kept people interested. Story is just a way of tying together scenes there for their own sake.
The plots of The Kids are All Right and The Social Network also suffer from the thinness and fatal flaws of their plots. Kids has a plot that is contrived in the sense that it has no other reason for being than to sustain the movie. The lesbian mothers choose a sperm donor rather than conceive in the old fashioned way by making use of a friend because they did not want to have any association with the biological father. So why didn’t they cut the relation short long before he turns out to be such a scuzzball? He is the feminist’s fantasy of what is wrong with men: all they are good for is procreation. Whatever his charms, he is unreliable in his sexual morals or in carrying out his responsibilities. Yes, he does provide some Chinese cookie wisdom. He tells the son to stand up to those of your friends who are really jerks and he tells the daughter that you have to act like an adult to have your parents treat you like one. But it does not take a man or a father figure to do that, only some one who is a bit more clued in to the ways of teenagers than are these two women. This is standard sit-com wisdom, as is most of the plot of Kids. The climax of the movie is when Moore’s character says that marriage is hard and she apologizes for bringing pain. Only in the sit com world is speaking overtly about things that are emotionally complicated considered a triumph as well as a major pleasure of the genre: Archie Bunker and the Meathead get it on, and the people on Friends are always talking about the sex they do, and the people on Everybody Loves Raymond are showing up the next day in one another’s homes however honest they have been in the verbal slugfest of the night before.
For some reason, no one I have read has chosen to mention that Kids is extremely poorly shot. It is overexposed and so everything looks much too sunny. The apartments and homes are seedy. Maybe that was deliberate, the intent being to show, as in Sideways, just how shabby Southern California life can be, but I don’t think so. There are no contrasting pretty pictures to bring out that this is the shabby side of LA. Rather, it may be that no one wanted to go over the skimpy budgets that now go to “quality” productions and are mostly spent on the lead actors. That is very different from the old days, when the most handsomely produced movies were also the ones Hollywood thought to be the highest quality ones. Gandhi gave you spacious and very well photographed meetings and demonstrations with lots of extras. Gandhi also gave you a travelogue of the Indian countryside. The money was up there on the screen. David Lean, in similar fashion, provided his audience with their money’s worth when he presented an enveloping sense of the sand of Saudi Arabia and the cold beauty of Russia. Nowadays, money gets spent on special effects, as in Inception, which had nothing else going for it, or on special effects that create a David Lean landscape, as happened when James Cameron did Avatar.
The Harvard and Silicon Valley settings for The Social Network also give a sense of being done on the cheap. Why waste the production costs? Exteriors in the movie are mostly night shots, which may be appropriate for the theme that nerds work at night as well as the theme that Harvard is at its most ominous then. Failing to open up the movie to daylight means, however, that what might be visually pleasing about Harvard and what that tells about its culture is lost, and that the characters are just rushing across the night to get from one grubby dorm room to another to spin their plans and write their computer programs. It also gives in to the movie’s inclination to see relationships in very stereotypical ways: the night is when Asian women show how much they like nerds. Aren’t those girls smart and independent in their own right? I always thought Radcliffe girls were that. Anyway, the movie deprives people of one of the things people go to the movies to see: how things look. Everything happens in people’s heads, not in the settings.
Eliminating settings as a serious source of experience and information means that the actors, in the case of both these movies, have to triumph over their materials, which includes bad dialogue. I know Andrew Sorkin is the master of dialogue but it is not particularly spirited here, given that he is dealing with such limited people. He did better in The West Wing where he was dealing with articulate people who had something to say about world affairs and brought their brittle intelligence to their personal lives or perhaps brought their brittle intelligence from their personal lives to their professional lives. The best lines in The Social Network go to Larry Summers, the then President of Harvard, who does have some of the smartass straight talk appropriate to a big figure and so is able to tell the students who think their idea has been stolen to just go invent something else. They are, after all, Harvard students. Sorkin has a problem in that the dialogue he does best is suitable for grand institutions dealing with weighty matters. ESPN and a Hollywood equivalent of Saturday Night Live, both having served as settings for his work, do not qualify as suitable subjects. Maybe Sorkin should turn to historical topics, like the American Revolution or Napoleon and his generals.
The actors, especially the actresses, are up to the task of overcoming their materials. In Kids, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore remain attractive despite their no longer being young because of the character in their faces. They and the young Mia Wesikowski, who did a very good turn on In Treatment, are what we are there to see, not Mark Ruffalo, who cooperates in the enterprise of making this a woman centered movie by playing a really psychologically unattractive guy. Whatever mystery lies in The Social Network comes from the ability of Jesse Eisenberg to make his face as unformed as that of a Harvard nerd might well be. Things happen to him but they have not yet registered, have not yet become the personal legend that makes up his character.
Acting seems to be such an easy thing because there are so many good actors and actresses placed in vehicles that are nowhere as good as they are, and that has always been the case. Mary Pickford was always good and so was Garbo, though Garbo didn’t get a good role till the talkies came in. The expressiveness of an actor’s face conveys so much more depth than their vehicles in the same way that the music in pre-World War II Broadway musicals was for the most part so much more subtle and appealing than the hackneyed and uninspired plots in which they were set. Acting, for the gifted, is easy; writing for Hollywood, even for the gifted, is not easy at all.