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.


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