Friday, February 25, 2011

Dear Oscar: The Depression Was Not That Pretty

I went to see The King's Speech, because it was nominated for all those awards and because Monday is Five Dollar Night. I like the actors in it a lot, but I'm glad I didn't spend more than five dollars. The King's Speech may well win the Oscar for Best Picture, but that just goes to show that you don't need originality, drama, artistic perception or a compelling story to win an Oscar.

From the opening moments of that film I was forced to think, once again, a thought that's been building up slowly and irresistibly over the past several years of movie-going:

I am really, really tired of the Great Depression looking so goddamned pretty.

You know how the Thirties look in the movies: all those lovingly restored cars, polished to a deep black-mirror gleam, all those beautifully tailored vintage clothes, all those hats. At the movies, it seems completely inexplicable that hats ever went out of style: every hat looks so good! Everyone looks so good in hats! How could anyone not wear one? You have to watch a movie actually filmed in the Thirties, rather than merely set in the Thirties, to see what people actually looked like in those hats. You also need to watch a movie made during the Depression, instead of set during the Depression, to have any chance that the movie will acknowledge the Depression itself or the tens of millions of people mired in desperate poverty.

Some of the Hollywood movies from the Thirties are entertainments designed to ignore the tough times happening in the real world, while others make those tough times into the story. But nearly every high-end art-house movie set in the Thirties, the kind of movie that prides itself on being "serious", ignores the tough times that were happening in the real world. Low-brow moviemakers used to offer up escape from the Thirties. Now high-brow moviemakers offer the Thirties as a place to escape to.

Some of this is just the Costume Drama Effect, which invests props and costumes with fetishistic glamor. In old Warner Brothers pictures, people drive cars. In a costume dramas they drive carefully restored antique cars, which is a very different thing. The same thing goes for clothes and hats; there's a difference between wearing a wool jacket and wearing an obsessively recreated wool jacket. The camera treats them differently, too. When you've spent that much time and effort and money getting the cars and hats and silver trays just right, you focus (literally and figuratively) on the cars and hats and silver in a way you wouldn't if you were filming a contemporary setting on a normal costume budget. The same phenomenon is at work when the camera in The Social Network lingers repeatedly over that movie's detailed recreation of the Harvard campus. (No one has been allowed to film on Harvard's campus since the makers of Love Story, another craptastic Oscar nominee, allegedly trashed the joint.) The film makers worked so hard to make its Harvard look real that they need you to notice and admire it. And of course, when you're focusing on the nice clothes and cars and silver, it's natural to focus your costume dramas on the people with the nicest clothes and cars and antique silver. Costume drama has always favored the upper classes.

But just because something has become a cliche doesn't make it less hackneyed or dishonest. There will always be some historical dramas about people with country houses and butlers and really cool cigarette holders. They have their place; there are many that I enjoy. But how many do we need, and why are so many allegedly ambitious and "serious" film makers willing to accept the severely limited view of the world that those country houses afforded? At this point Brideshead has been revisited, and re-revisted, and re-re-re-re-revisited. What makes film makers think there's anything else to see there? In the actual Thirties, most artists knew (or at least suspected) that the world of the aristocracy was not the whole world, and even when the story was about aristocrats there was a healthy understanding that they were not the whole story.

The King's Speech, on the other hand, lazily assumes the Duke of York's view of the world. The speech therapist, Lionel Logue, may be from a much lower class and live in much less comfortable circumstances, but the movie has no real interest in those circumstances or that class. Logue's character exists to serve the Duke of York's, both formally and on the level of plot. The movie is perfectly happy with that; it is convinced that both men belong exactly where the British class system has put them. Any exceptions to protocol made in the speech therapist's consulting room are daring enough; everywhere else they are iron-clad. This is a movie that, entirely without irony, depicts Wallis Simpson's failure to greet the Duchess of York with the proper etiquette as an important character flaw. The only way to be entirely unironic about something like that is to be at least a little bit stupid.

The Depression is nowhere to be seen in this movie. The distant rumblings of World War II are to be heard from far off, but only because they provide context for the movie's great challenge: Albert Windsor's speech impediment. This is a movie that seriously proposes that George VI's speech therapy was a major front in World War II. Worse yet, it doesn't even try to sell the viewer on that proposition. It takes for granted that the viewers buy it.

I foolishly thought World War II was won by millions of factory workers working night and day to build weapons and equipment for millions of soldiers who risked (and often lost) their lives over years of grinding, grueling battle. Silly me. Now I understand that was won by a member of the British royal family keeping his appointments with his speech therapist, except when he didn't. Because, after all, if the King of England weren't able to make a good speech into a microphone, the British would have needed to fall back on the speech-making talents of Winston Churchill.

I'm okay with building up a central character as the prime mover in events that were much more complicated and beyond any individual's full control. Lawrence of Arabia is not a piece of hack work. The Social Network tells another not-terribly-plausible tale of a privileged individual almost single-handedly changing things, but it sells that story, and allows its account to be challenged in the movie itself. (Facebook is obviously not a ground-breakingly original invention, but the winner in a market competition between a bunch of remarkably similar social-networking sites. The question of where Mark Zuckerberg's personal genius comes from isn't rooted in the real world, but at least the movie works hard to root it into cinematic reality for two hours.) Protagonists who can be put forward as world-shakers tend to be very privileged, for reasons both of literary tradition and of real-world opportunity. But a film needs to sell its version. It needs, at the very least, to make it plausible. The makers of The King's Speech don't seem to have entertained an instant's doubt that George VI and his diction exercises were of world-shaking importance. Worse yet, they don't seem to have entertained even an instant's suspicion that anyone else could doubt that either. That makes the film more than a little stupid.

The saddest thing about The King's Speech is how very ordinary its type of badness has become. It's favored for major awards, despite its stupidity, because so many other allegedly thoughtful art movies are stupid in exactly the same ways. It doesn't sell its silly ideas because it expects it audience, the well-educated upscale audience that goes to see historical dramas, to believe them already.

That audience now takes it for granted that a comfortable and privileged figure can meaningfully combat a major political evil (Nazism, Communism, apartheid) simply by espousing a little symbolic opposition. That goes down well with an audience that would like believing the right things (whether left, right, or center) to be all that it takes. The audience has also grown quite comfortable identifying with Very Important People, and doesn't bother to ask why they are important. (At one point in The King's Speech, Colin Firth laments how pointless it is to be a 20th-century king, a lament that this movie couldn't afford if it didn't count on its audience to believe that Firth's character is Very Important and to thrill to the way he Shoulders His Heavy Responsibilities.) This is an audience that doesn't relate to the little guy. They're more than happy to identify with those born into privilege. And for that audience part of the point of historical drama is to gape at the luxury of the aristocrats' lives, and to enjoy all the really wonderful bespoke hats.

Furthermore, although this may simply be my own eroding patience, it seems to me that over the last twenty years or so historical films headed for art theaters have been set more and more often, with less and less nuance, in exactly the times and places where economic inequality was greatest: in the period between the two World Wars, in the Gilded Age, during the British Raj. Maybe I've only begun to notice it more. But either way, these movies seductively and relentlessly present their audience, a highly educated and relatively privileged section of the moviegoing public, a vision of history as seen through the eyes of unearned privilege. In that vision the periods of grossest inequality, the decades marred by needless poverty and rank injustice, are shown as a series of golden ages. As the income distribution curve of our own economy has come to look more and more like that of a third world nation, our most educated and self-consciously intellectual filmgoers have been seeing film after film that makes such retrograde social arrangements look elegant and appealing. Those movies say that it's good to live in such an unequal society, that inequality creates luxury and refinement and charm. Historical drama does for those eras what those eras struggled and failed to do for themselves: hide all the work, and the sweat, and the unpleasant, undeniable truths.

cross-posted at Dagblog

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