Friday, January 14, 2011

Persistence of vision (and families)

For regular filmgoers, award season is like the best film festival in the world. This time of year it's possible to move from one excellent film to another over the course of a week or so, and yet I suspect you will not read another piece this month that compares The King's Speech (2010) with The Fighter (2010).

The superficial resemblances are easy - both are Little Movies That Could, extremely low-budget projects that attracted top-level talent due to the excellence of their respective scripts and the dedication and integrity of the producers. Both are based on actual events. Both deal with overcoming of physical challenges - stammering and getting beaten in the hand, respectively. Both confront problems with communication - in one case literal, and the other interfamilial communication breaking down.

But at a deeper level, both are films about overcoming the limited expectations and horizons that families can place upon an individual, especially the second son. Bertie was never expected to be king, and was specifically trained for the task, though it turns out his sense of duty and honor -- the most important attributes of a modern constitutional monarch, were more developed that his older brother David's. And Dickie Eklund was supposed to be the Pride of Lowell, not his younger half-brother Mickey Ward. Both succeed through hard work and persistence that their seniors are incapable of.

Not all second sons are literally second. Although chronologically younger, Jeb Bush was spiritually the first son of his family, the promising one, marked for success; George was the disappointment, the screw-up, the one for whom the bar was lowered. The second President Bush's story was about overcoming those family expectations, which may be one reason he is such a sympathetic person for so many Americans. Clearly, it's a story with a lot of power, as the reception for each of these films demonstrates admirably.

Both films are also about teachers who break through with their students not just by dint of skill and tenacity, but through transformative love. Many times -- too many times -- it is a teacher rather than a parent who can see through the shell a child builds around himself to see the real person inside and the real potential locked in that shell. There is no great teaching without love, and that may be the greatest lesson we take from these films.

A couple of specific observations about each. Much has been made of the fact that at one time the screenplay of The King's Speech took the form of a play. It is not clear how serious the writer was about having the story produced in that form (there was one public reading), but the real aim seems to have been to focus the storytelling on the two principal characters and the confined setting in which much of Bertie's transformation takes place. Conventional thinking suggests that this is uncinematic storytelling -- two people locked in a room. Hitchcock of all people proved that a limited group of people in a confined setting is exactly the sort of pressure cooker situation that makes for great film. He boasted to Truffaut that he could make a film in a phone booth (which, I suspect the reason the film Phone Booth was written and produced, despite its then-anachronistic situation -- just to answer Hitchcock's dare).

But in order to pull this off, director Tom Hooper takes a page from Sidney Lumet's book (specifically with regard to Twelve Angry Men) and rarely uses the same set-up or the same lens in any two scenes set in Logue's office. In addition, Eve Stewart and Netty Chapman have made the space, supposedly barren and dilapidated, fascinating and complex to look at, especially the wall which displays multiple layers of paint and wallpaper, with the result being a rich mosaic that one might pay a lot of money to have created from scratch. Hooper uses a variety of short lenses to emphasize the confinement and the strange distortions of life in the royal bubble, most obviously in a scene in which Logue first encounters members of the court and we see them loom in a bulging way reminiscent of a FedEx commercial of the 1980s. Conversely, as Bertie and Lionel stroll through the fog into what will become a rift between them, the lens is very long, minimizing the distance between the royal and the commoner who follows a step or two behind him.

I was not surprised by the humor and wit of the film, nor the skill of Firth, Rush and Bonham-Carter. What was utterly surprising was the intensity of emotion I felt during those coaching scenes. At the risk of cliche, I felt myself present in the room, and I ached for Bertie to succeed and to triumph. I will be interested to see the film again to see how that effect was achieved for me, whether it be the agonizing set-up in the first scene, the callousness of Bertie's father and brother, the generous love of Bertie's wife or the rooting interest developed for Logue -- or, most likely, the confluence of those forces. This is not to slight the great presence of charisma of Colin Firth, who we treat as one of those good Reliable English Actors, but is in fact a movie star of the order of Peter O'Toole or Richard Burton, without the alcohol, wives and bad taste. Which is not to say he's not sexy -- he's my wife's favorite, and given that she's married to me, the sexiness bar standard is very high. (Kidding, folks.)

The Fighter makes a fascinating contrast technically for all its narrative and spiritual common ground. Where The King's Speech looks and feels carefully designed, its camera moves smooth and graceful as its production design, The Fighter seems to have been caught on the fly just as the HBO documentary about Dickie's crack addiction which dominates the first third of the film has been. (I thought at first that the documentary frame was going to be a guiding narrative device for the entire film, but it is dropped before it wears out its usefulness.) This is clearly a choice, as director David O. Russell's films (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster) have previously favored more deliberately created imagery.

There is a critical pitfall in such filmmaking, as it invites the viewer to devalue the acting, as it seems to have been part of the reality being captured by the camera. So it was heartening to see Christian Bale and especially Melissa Leo recognized for their work in the form of nominations and awards. Bale's work is the kind of total transformation we expect of his kind of master character actor, to the point that it is hard to remember what his "real" persona is like. But Melissa Leo rose to prominence in roles that were extravagantly deglamorized, most notably her hard-bitten veteran detective on Homicide. Her Alice wishes to be glamorous, to be put together, almost as if to spread a patina over a seamy existence and an exploitative relationship with her own, beloved son. Hopefully this will open new doors for an underrated artist.

Finally, The Fighter constitutes a new entry in the small, but growing sub-genre of films based in Eastern Massachusetts. Many of these are associated with Matt Damon or the Affleck brothers, but this one is not (although Matt Damon was once pencilled in for the Bale role). Two of them, Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone are based on the work of the superb novelist Dennis Lehane. It might make sense to examine these films as a coherent sub-genre about a corner of America from which the parade has gone by, perhaps forever, leaving broken dreams and despair, from which the occasional triumph, as in The Fighter, gleams all the brighter.

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