28 December 2010

And Now "The King's Speech"

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, calls the film The King’s Speech, a “Complacent middlebrow tosh engineered for maximum awards bling and catering to a nostalgia for the royalty we've never actually had to live with.” I have thought a little bit about this sentence, and I cannot think it anything but unworthy of serious criticism. I don’t know what middlebrow means except as some elitist critic’s judgment that the intellectual content of the film doesn’t rise to the level demanded by the high-brow critic. Who else would recognize middle-brow except a high-brow? Daughter Two is studying The Scarlet Letter that, upon publication, was declared decidedly ‘low-brow,’ fit mostly for a female audience hungry for romance literature. Any novel, it was believed, was to be read in the home, women’s proper domain, and should be, therefore, more concerned with issues of women and their world. A woman’s magazine at the time wrote, ‘The privilege of deep research is man’s right, with it we have no wish to interfere; but fiction is . . . women’s appropriate sphere, as much as the flower garden, the drawing room and the nursery.” The Scarlet Letter, certainly devoted to issues concerning women, achieved best-seller status upon publication, but was soon relegated to the tables of remainders. The Scarlet Letter is today a classic of American literature. Its brow has risen.

In fact, I think the classification ‘middlebrow,’ and its related concepts ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ are symptoms of a classism that the film itself attempts to upend. Highbrow is held to be superior to either other subordinate brow positions, but only because the critic has located any single work on some arbitrary geographical altitudinal level on the forehead.

Attendant on a work’s altitude is its attitude: highbrow art is refined, honest, daring, intellectually stimulating and morally uplifting. The assumption is that the higher on the brow the higher the intellectual level it reaches and requires. This must be so either because such works calls upon the activities of the upper parts of the brain which organ the phrase highbrow must equate with mind, or the height on the brow refers to the the nature of the material to be engaged, though I don’t know by what standards one could recognize such achievement. Nevertheless, it is assumed that high brow reaches towards the heavens, even when it mucks about in Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Hell.

Highbrow literature is that which intellectuals learn to read for the most part in their institutions of higher education; lowbrow refers to that entertainment that appeals to the non-intellectual element of society—some of who may sometimes (and graciously) be found in the elite institutions of higher education. Sometimes the participation of highbrows with the lowbrow products is referred to as ‘slumming,’ itself a class and racial slur. Middlebrow tosh—Burr’s description of The King’s Speech—aspires to intellectual heights but does not achieve it for any number of ascribed, but unnamed reasons. First, I suppose the failure would arise due to the inadequate intellectual abilities of the authors: they aspire to climb intellectual heights but have not the equipment to do so. Their steak tartare turns out as hamburgers. Or the authors mean to profit from the pretentious aspirations of those who desire to think of themselves as intellectuals but really have not the capacities. It is believed that there is a great deal of money to be made in servicing such egos: the term middlebrow suggests that the material should not be considered too seriously because it is produced to be marketable to a middle level that prefers not to be too challenged (or cannot be so tried) but also prefers not to be caught slumming. The product is pablum: pleasant tasting and easily digested; heart warming and mildly nutritious, but hardly sufficient fare for an active energetic life.

As for the awards bling to which the critic Ty Burr refers, I think his is a specious charge. After all, it is the critics such as Ty Burr who make the awards bling so meaningful by their constant measurement of the film’s quality according to their own artificial standard of award-worthiness. Finally, what do these awards really mean but that some studio has successfully lobbied the requisite judges to collect the award for their studio’s entry.

I think that the film is very much about class. Lionel Logue is a commoner, an unlettered (and uncertified) speech therapist (from Australia, mind you) who is hired to work on eliminating the Duke of York’s stammer. The relationship that forms as a result of this work defies class as the future King of England is tutored by this commoner who insists that his work demands that he call the Duke of York (and then the King) by his common name, Bertie. The Duke is tutored daily in an unfurnished basement office: the Duke’s wife and then the Duke himself must first learn how to even operate the elevator! But of all the Duke’s retinue, Lionel Logue honestly cares for the difficulties he faces, and who sympathizes not only with his current plight but the very conditions under which he grew up as son of George V and a member of the royal house. Lionel talks to Bertie as only an intimate friend might talk. Lionel is Bertie’s best friend, and the film will not permit the viewer to forget this for an instant. The King's speech occurs because of the work, effort and affection of Lionel Logue first for the man, the Duke of York, and for the country for which he stands as symbolic leader. The last image of The King’s Speech is not of the king or his speech, but of Lionel Logue, standing proudly alone as the King waves at the thousands before the Palace who had come to hear the king’s speech; the final image of the film is of Lionel Logue, the commoner who made possible the King’s speech. The two remained close friends for the rest of their lives: the king of England and his speech therapist.

This is also a film about speech. This film insists that speech matters—this in an era where our politicians carelessly throw about words and abuse grammar in the practice of some roguish demagoguery that does not mean to communicate ideas but only to arouse ignoble emotions. The film suggests that speech expresses character, and the ability of King George VI to inspire the English at their moment of great fear at the outset of World War II resulted from his ability to speak the speech trippingly on the tongue., without flair or excessive drama. In this era of meaningless, manufactured, trifling sound-bites, the film says that speech has the power to achieve good, inspire strength and lend support to the fearful, and the film suggests as well that speech has the power for great evil. Newsreel footage of Adolf Hitler’s unstammered speech to the German people stands in stark contrast to George VI’s reserved and tutored speech to his citizens. Hitler rants, but the king’s speech is quietly spoken and read from a carefully prepared and marked up text. Hitler screams alone, but the film’s cuttings between the King and Lionel during the king’s speech to the nation declare that it is both men who speak: the King’s speech is also Lionel’s speech.

Perhaps speech always has mattered, but today, what with text messaging and Facebook obsessions, I wonder to what extent we pay attention to speech.

And so this is a film about politics, this nation’s politics, and compared to the motives of Lionel Logue and King George VI, we pale in character. We lack the character embodied in these two men. We listen to few who speak as they do. We have not the courage.

I think this film is not about the monarchy, but it is about royalty—royalty of character and personal stature.

23 December 2010

True Grit

The Coen Brothers version of True Grit seems to me finally a story of courage and virtue in a world overrun with criminality, greed and lawless mayhem. Not unlike our own time, I think. Of course, there is nothing terribly honorable about Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who we meet at first on trial for callously killing some outlaws (maybe) whom he had been chasing (we think). Whether he shot the men in self-defense or just shot them where they stood to ensure his reward is left unresolved, but clearly there is nothing honorable about his actions on this (and other) occasions. Rooster Cogburn is no model of virtue. Indeed, his drunkenness does not endear his character to the viewer, nor does his seemingly amoral stance in the world. He stands for nothing but his own limited self-interest and his alcoholism. He may be competent, but he exudes no inspires no confidence in Mattie, and the scene where he shoots at an empty bottle and some corn bread is not only funny but revelatory: he might not even be adequate to any task. Cogburn’s marital narrative does not portray him favorably, the second wife long ago having left Rooster and taken their son. He does exhibit any remorse or confusion. As I watched the film I was constantly aware how for Cogburn there was absent any sense of normal hygiene and cleanliness: except for Mattie, everyone in the film (almost completely male) were disgustingly dirty. No one bathes, washes or cleans their teeth throughout the film. Even Mattie never changes her clothes, but somehow she remains comparatively dirtless. And no male in the film has any real redeeming characteristic, nor is there a hint in the film of any sexuality whatsoever. Of course, Mattie is supposed to be fourteen years old, but I would suspect that in this Wild West, a women’s age doesn’t matter when male desire is aroused.

The journey—for finally that is the structure of the film—concerns the search for Tom Chaney who had murdered Mattie’s father and then escaped with impunity. Mattie hires Rooster, a Marshal, to track down Chaney, and she insists on accompanying Rooster in the search. She intends to bring Chaney back to trial and hanging. Mattie is a strong female, and she drives a hard bargain—whether it is to get back the monies her father paid for goods he could not now use, or whether it is to coerce Cogburn to take her charge and payment. She knows her law—or at least appears to have this knowledge when talking with business men who would cheat her because they assume she is a young, innocent girl , or because they would cheat anyone as an automatic first response to any situation. Mattie may be innocent but she is not unlearned. She consistently gets her way.

Finally Mattie will have to shoot Cheney herself, and then be saved by Rooster in the one truly heroic act of the film: the recoil from the rifle drives her back into an abandoned mine and a nest of snakes. There, she is bitten by a rattlesnake, and Rooster pulls her out of the mine (with the assistance of Mr. LeBoeuf—pronounced LeBeef) and then runs for miles to a doctor carrying her in his arms. Maddie survives, but she will lose her left arm as a result of the snakebite. Mattie will never seem Rooster again, though finally, having learned of his death, she exhumes his body and brings it back to her land for burial. She will remain for her life unmarried, but it is unclear whether it is out of loyalty to Rooster or abhorrence for the male.

The journey takes Mattie into the wild of the West where she regularly confronts cruelty, dishonesty and violence. She and Rooster are joined in their quest by Mr. LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who also is out searching for Tom Chaney, and who would prefer to travel alone but ends up joining forces for awhile with the two, and who at the end prevents the murder of Mattie and Rooster in Rooster’s bungled attempt to kill all of the outlaws. There is nothing about him to be admired; at best he is a pompous ass.
Finally, Mattie’s desire for justice in the wild, lawless and wholly male West—which she must finally execute herself and in the process of which loses both her innocence and her arm—and Rooster’s race to save Mattie’s life, are the ethical basis of the film. The film seems to suggest that even a lowlife like Rooster Cogburn about which nothing favorable might be said, can acts ethically, and that even in an environment thoroughly lawless and immoral, justice can be attained, though it might not look just. Here Rooster Cogburn surprises even himself in his effort to save Mattie.

Perhaps it is the vision of this film that ethics and virtue and courage have dubious presence in the world and are never evident in pure and plain form. These qualities are not integral to character, but rather a potential within each person that arises maybe in particular and specific occasions without premeditation or even conscious intent.

Though the final scene of the film is elegiac, the characters—all but Mattie—remain contemptible. They may have washed but their hands are not clean.

20 December 2010

This isn't either

This isn’t a journal. But things happen. And I have to do something—click my fingers and sing, “Gotta move.” For example, its only December 20 and the snow is falling again—this time about seven inches by morning. There is a sense that I don’t mind being snowed in—again—but I don’t want to shovel anymore. And it is only just winter today. What I can expect for the next four months or so is not to be imagined.
     And the cats insist on following me about the house. In whatever chair I rest they are in attendance in my lap. Suddenly I am the cat’s best friend, even though two of them kept looking in my beer glass and seemed not at all put off by the aroma. Or they go tearing through the house as chasing each other as they might chase their own tales. And the old Tiger, no Spring chicken, so to speak, and veritably blind, collapses on my lap and begins to snore. I am too sympathetic to ask him to leave and find another chair.
     And the snow keeps falling.
     And I sometimes don’t know what to do with all of this feeling. And so I watch Without a Trace. I have seen not a few of the episodes, and Anthony LaPaglia—Jack—hasn’t smiled once. Even when he finds the person, he doesn’t crack a smile. And he walks around with the weight of the world on his shoulders. And watching him I always feel better—and after that I can tune into Criminal Minds—with either Mandy Patinkin or Joe Mategna, I don’t care­­—and allow the television to enact the horror of my psyche. Two episodes and I am whole again, and all is well.
     If I’m lucky, there will be next an episode of Seinfeld.
     Then, I can read and go to sleep. Mostly.

16 December 2010

This is Not Eden

There is a remarkable helplessness a parent (I) experience(s) when unhappy occurrences happen to their (my) children. Broken bracelets, broken legs, broken hearts. There are disappointments we (I) would really hope our (my) children never experience though we (I) know painfully that such protection is futile. We (I) don’t live in Eden, and we (I) have to earn our (my) food on the hard, difficult ground by the sweat of our (my) brow; having children will bring us (me) pain. They will experience pain.
And yet . . . I know no way that I know to prepare a child for great disappointment.  Nor would I want my child to go through life without such experiences because then she would become horribly spoiled—with the emphasis here placed on horribly. She would then learn to expect that every wish be fulfilled, and that whatever she desires she may acquire. It’s a child’s ideal view of the breast: whenever hungry, food is instantly available. And that denies the very nature of Desire. Rather, I would have her learn to transfer her desires toward another object equally attractive though not identical to the unattained object. To find another object she didn’t know yet that she had lost.
Perhaps that might be what I put on my gravestone: it was not Eden though it was Paradise.

09 December 2010

Winter is icumen in

Winter is icumen in. The nights are long and the days are short and the air is bitter cold. I feel as if I am shrunk a bit in size as I hold myself tight to maintain body warmth. The front foyer is littered with cloaks and scarves and boots, and to enter the house requires some fancy and careful footsteps. If nothing else, winter is heavy.
When I step out of the house in the early morning hours, when the night is still upon me  . . . well, how to describe the sky without resorting to cliché? Littering the blackness is the sparkle of the endless stars: they seem to offer some end to the universe and I feel almost comforted by the sense—albeit false—of the finite. But the silence is astounding—the traffic that begins around 5:30a has not yet begun, and even the rabbits foraging for some table scraps we have thrown out from last night’s dinner make no noise as they hop fearfully away from my step. Out here there is movement but no sound. It is beautiful but frightening.
Tonight the town sponsors a Winter parade. Floats and bands march through town for hours, I suspect. People will stand for hours watching the display, and children will scurry about gathering candies thrown by participants in the parade ensemble. I hope it will be shown on the nine o’clock news.
In here there are two kittens. Sleeping. They are about seven or eight weeks old. All kittens are adorably cute: their coats are soft and fluffy and they scurry about playing with anything that can be moved, and they squeak rather than meow. Their eyes are enormous and sparkle—but not like the stars in the frigid cold. The eyes of the kitten are filled with wonder and play and . . . longing. They have been moved into a strange environment. Though I suspect they will have a good life here, they do have that awareness, and perhaps they are a bit wary. After all, they have been taken away from their mother.
I’ve never been fond of winter, actually. I watch the school children bundled up on their way to school and I sometimes wonder where they are in all of those clothes. How do they manage to move their legs and arms encased as they are in protective wrappings.
Does hibernation prolong a bear’s life? 

05 December 2010


I read in The New York Times (attending to the daily news is an addiction I wish I could break; it is certainly debilitating) that a recent event at the 92nd Street YMHA did not go smoothly. Apparently, Steve Martin’s recent book “An Object of Beauty” concerns the art world, and so the conversation tended to discuss the world of art. The audience was not pleased. They wanted a different conversation.
     Midway through the conversation, a Y representative handed Ms. Solomon a note asking her to talk more about Mr. Martin’s career and, implicitly, less about the art world, the subject of his latest novel, “An Object of Beauty.”
     According to Mr. Martin, viewers watching the interview by closed-circuit television from across the country sent e-mails to the Y complaining “that the evening was not going the way they wished, meaning we were discussing art.”
     What is this? An obviously multi-talented man writes a novel about the art world and the audience doesn’t want to hear about his work or the world he has studied in order to write the book because they have come to hear about his life as a comedian and an actor. They would have the story they want or they would have no story at all. The Y returned the $50.00 for each ticket purchased. The behavior of the audience at the Y displays a disrespect not only to Steve Martin and his work—his new work—but to the very idea of conversation. The discourtesy speaks to an anti-intellectualism that will hear only what it want to hear. Hence the incivility of our society: if you don’t agree me you are obviously stupid and wrong, you dumb ass! And the behavior of the audience at the Y speaks to a dull consumerism that insists on being pleasured. What would the audience have done if Leonardo daVinci had come in to talk about his flying machines and not his painting of the Mona Lisa? He would have been booed.
     A story is told: Abe knocks on the office door of his good friend Jules. “Come in, come in, please have a cup of coffee. How are you.” Abe says, “Really, Jules, I’m not so good. Today I learned that unless I can come up with $10,000.00 by next week I’ll lose the business.” “That’s terrible,” says Jules, with great sympathy. “I know,’ Abe sighs. “Jules, I hope you can help me.” “Gee,” says Jules, “I don’t think I can, Abe.” Well, Abe is a bit shocked. “But Jules,” says Abe, “remember when you were starting up your own business, and you needed immediate capital. Who gave you the money?” “You did, Abe, and I was grateful.” “And when your factory burnt to the ground, who signed the bank papers guaranteeing payment.” “You did, Abe, and frankly, it saved my life.” “And when your wife became sick, who gave you the money you needed to hire specialists and to send her to a private clinic where she recovered fully?” “Abe, bubeleh, you know it was you. And we were so grateful” “Abe sighed and through up his arms. “So then, Jules, why won’t you help me now when I am in trouble and you can help me.” “Ah,” Jules said, raising his eyebrows and turning his head slightly to the left, “but what have you done for me lately.”
     The rudeness of the audience and the complicitousness of the administration of the Y in this behavior reflects the general atmosphere of incivility now plaguing society. I am not prepared to catalog instances of this behavior (though I am obsessed with the South Carolina Senator who called the President a liar during his State of the Union Message and was not roundly censured or removed from office), because they are too abundant. Our politicians and public officials are certainly guilty of engaging in public display of repulsive speech and unethical behavior, and violence is all around us. I read (alas, yes, in the papers!) that football has taken a turn for the worse in the practice of head tackling—a particularly deadly strategy for effecting injury. I read that basketball is plagued by fake injury-display.
     What is this shit?