Search This Blog

Friday, December 31, 2010

A Pandora's Box: Performance and Technology in “The King’s Speech”

It's an odd thing, hearing yourself, and sometimes unpleasant. The voice I hear in my head is completely alien from the voice I've heard recorded on video, audio, or presently broadcasted over the radio airwaves. My first sense of hearing myself on the air some months ago was how strange that voice was, though it may have been because I was suffering from a cold. Regardless, the voice was uncannily disconcerting, and I've noticed that it even alters when I'm on the radio hearing its transmission performance while wearing headphones, from when I'm not wearing the in-studio headphones. A kind of puzzling self-consciousness sets in. My padrone, T.D. Mischke, recommends listening to the shows later, and in effect work away on chiseling out the character of my voice. That's what one is doing behind the microphone – assuming a character. I still don't think I've found a stable radio persona just yet, but it's a fascinating process to wonder how the elements of one's presentation shift in accordance to whatever given platform. This is basic Goffmanian performance in everyday life: one acts differently towards a parent than one acts towards a friend, just as there's another compartment for lovers, pets, bosses, co-workers, doctors, dentists, baristas, and the IRS.

But there's something about the microphone. In preparation for a show, I would at first draw out many elaborate notes. But the moment the light goes ON by the mic, and the host asks a question, those notes are essentially drivel. As often as the notes are there, I find that I almost never really turn to them for any substantial commentary during a show. By thinking too much, pauses creep in along with uncertainty. The best I can do is marry myself with what I know in my subconscious and hopefully a rhythm of words will flow. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Listening to a show, my sentence breaks, cadences, and basic patterns of sentence structure will pester me to no end. My prep for new shows includes a listen to an old one hours before, somewhat to deflate my ego and influence me what not to do or say.

I have performance anxiety, which is one of those weird contradictions of character because I suppose I want to perform. I've been in plays, I've modeled, I post these blogs, I have my facebook (which is a form of masked performance, as far as I'm concerned), and if I had a video camera, I would tirelessly show stuff of YouTube. I may feel bad about it afterwards; performance can be exposure, and as such I feel vulnerable afterwards. When playing Tartuffe, I was having a ball. When I saw the tape afterwards, I wanted to throw up. Though I now regard it with much fond humor, one of the low points of my childhood was stepping out on stage during the final scene of a play. Beforehand, I had eaten a bacon double cheeseburger, onion rings, some beef jerky, and then hours before that I had a pepperoni pizza. To use Rodney Dangerfield's euphemism, as I walked on stage to deliver the closing lines, I stepped on a duck. Everyone noticed. I screwed up my lines, and the other actors, trying hard not to laugh, screwed up theirs. Rumors of the unfortunate bout of gas would filter into the school halls and my 7th grade crush, the choir teacher's daughter, would be in on my flatulent reputation. Worst of all, this was the performance my dad attended, and seeing how young men are fixed on making their dads proud, this was a detrimentally shameful setback for me.

Some people have anxiety dreams deep into their adulthood having to do with college finals. I have anxiety dreams about performing.

Somehow, for some reason, I keep on coming back though, and have consistently done so since the 7th grade fart attack. Anxious as I may be subconsciously, public speaking is something that does not petrify me as it does some other people. This brings me to poor Prince Albert, "Bertie," the Duke of York and future King George VI in Tom Hooper's film The King's Speech, played by Colin Firth. Bertie has a stammer to his speech which has been with him since childhood. The opening moment of this fine film is a highly detailed account of how Bertie must address the nation on the king's behalf. The year is 1924. We see Bertie nervously prepare. We also see his antagonist, who will remain his antagonist throughout the whole picture: a microphone. The microphone handily defeats Bertie in this opening prologue.

Bertie’s struggle is fatefully unfortunate. Kings and princes never really had to deal with this kind of vocal address before. The sardonic irony of his situation is that in the 20th century, the Royal Family has no political power. They cannot make laws or declare war. They are merely figureheads, symbols communicating things. As such, once they could communicate simply by virtue of their visual iconography. The Crown alone would convey the message. But this has ended because of social change, and the main gear moving social change is technology. Radio has revolutionized the world, not simply in handing over a new convenience to the masses for entertainment and information, but that avenue of information and communication has altered the way human beings exist. Like writing and then the printing press before it, and television and Facebook after it, Radio bends Royalty to its mechanical will.

It would seem that poor Bertie could simply be held at a distance from public discourse. After all, though George V (Michael Gambon) is aging, it is his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) who is next in line for succession, and Edward's a fine and debonair communicator. Though he stammers, Bertie is no idiot. He is richly intelligent and able to convey humor through storytelling. We see him lured into telling stories for his two daughters (including the future Queen Elizabeth II), and though he struggles with words at first, he is able to complete the story while eliciting laughter from the girls upon delivery of punch lines. The stammer works fine for fairy and childrens' stories, but that is a different paradigm from the symbolism of patriotic addresses.

His wife Anne (Helena Bonham Carter) has been trying to find Bertie a cure. She's used up the most respected of possibilities and treatments, and finds herself enlisting the help of a commoner, Lionel (Geoffrey Rush), who has a sympathetic and almost psychoanalytical method of reaching his patients. Lionel understands that there is no ready-made miracle cure, and that the patient must descend into his own past and the roots of the impediment in order to make any kind of change. Bertie goes along with it, after some hesitation. Lionel reveals that Bertie's biggest obstacle is his own self-consciousness. With headphones blaring classical music from a phonograph, Bertie reads from Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech. A recording reveals that Bertie barely stammers here, as he's unable to hear himself.

The remainder of The King's Speech is a moving, though sometimes too repetitive, story where Bertie and Lionel argue back and forth towards mastering the stammer and acquiring mutual respect. After George V dies, Edward soon abdicates the throne, and Bertie has no choice but to be the king. Meanwhile, the regal interests in the king's cabinet look upon Lionel with disdain for a number of reasons: he is an Australian (and as such, kind of a second class citizen), he is a commoner, and he has no formal education or degree in speech related matters. He's a failed actor who has merely found a minor niche. Then there is the loom of war leading to the film's climax, where Bertie has to go back to the microphone and address the nation as King, a rally cry of morale to combat Hitler.

But the given historical incidents of the story are to me of little consequence when compared to the subtler things The King's Speech offers. For one thing, this is a story about the art of performing, which is demonstrated in the ironic contrast between Bertie and Lionel. One of them doesn't know how to use words, but is forced to act because of his station; the other is master with words ("you have great diction," he is told) but as an actor he cannot get a job. Lionel has the great parts of Shakespeare completely memorized, but no theatre troupe will touch him because of the strains of Aussie in his accent ("Richard III was not the king of the colonies," a casting director remarks). The way one talks on a public platform, be it a stage or behind a studio microphone, is more important than the words one uses. During his failed audition, Lionel is told, "We're looking for someone more regal" (interpretation: more English). Bertie, meanwhile, is pressured by his father to adapt to the microphone because, as the old man puts it, "we've become actors." As such, this is a big Theatrical Company, resembling a "firm" more than a "family," where biological relationships are secondary to dictated role playing. The mechanics of presentation, such as in Westminster Abbey, are at odds with the content buried beneath it: Chaucer, Dickens, and Handel, all of whom Lionel knows well, stand in substantial contradiction to the tired linear process of a coronation; and yet the Archbishop (Derek Jacobi) would not have an Australian commoner – without a degree – like Lionel present at the coronation.

This civilization of masks where natural relationships are secondary to utilitarian ones is attached to the grander theme of The King's Speech, technology, which makes it in many ways a kind of sibling to this year's best film, David Fincher's The Social Network. The methods of performance have changed because the medium has changed, and the microphone – technology – is altering how human beings acclimate to their world professionally and personally. The Radio Microphone may help humanity, but it also threatens to control humanity. Throughout the picture, Bertie is told to "let the microphone do the work." We see some other examples of technology creating complications just as they are supposed to be convenient. Notice how Bertie has problem with his cigarette lighter, or how Anne is confused by the elevator connected to Lionel's office. One of the major inconveniences of machines is that they cannot be reasoned with. At another place in the film, I think Churchill (Timothy Spall) refers to the microphone as a "devilish device," indicating that there's a kind of antagonistic consciousness in the machine. The red light is like an evil eye, seen in close up as a signal that one is on the air, and can only make one think of Kubrick's HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most important example of technology antagonizing humanity in the cinematic canon. Yet we definitely see the positive side of the technology, such as the "new invention from America," the Silvertone, which Lionel uses to record Bertie speaking Hamlet, or the vital necessity of radio and cinematic images in combating the coming danger of fascism, to say nothing of Bertie's fascination for planes as he tinkers with models.

Recently while talking about Chaplin's The Great Dictator, I noted how the Hitler character in that film uses the microphone as an oppressive tool. He has mastered the technology, even being able to bend a microphone by coming nearer to it. Chaplin was nervous about technology, particularly as a silent era filmmaker threatened by the new wave of Sound. He saw the conveniences of this technological development as a threat to the poetic capabilities of cinema, and so it had to be handled carefully. He also understood, via The Great Dictator, that in the wrong hands (where "Might Makes Right") such a tool would be easily conformed to a particular ideology. In The King's Speech, Bertie's antagonist, the microphone, has its double in the newsreel footage of Hitler. "What's he saying?" young Elizabeth asks her father of the ranting Fuhrer. "I don't know," Bertie admits, "but he seems to be saying it rather well." During the 1930s and 1940s just as in our own time, the angry rhetoric of the right wing, whether it be that of Hitler or the more seemingly benign fascism of J. Edgar Hoover in America, always has gotten along well with the tools of communicative technology (right wing radio at the present time is a present example; nuances of communication are eliminated for simplistic notions of good and evil; Fox News is much more popular than its cable competitors). Churchill admits that 'the wireless' is a kind of "Pandora's Box," and now unleashed, may collaborate with the wrong hands in being harmful to humanism. But it must also be the arena where statesmen of the Humane fight back.

During the final speech, beautifully executed by Firth and Hooper, we see the value of genuine human friendship along the wires as Lionel counsels Bertie to "say it to me, like a friend," friends being a thing that Bertie has not really been allowed throughout his life. The historical significance of the speech is secondary to the subtexts involving how technology affects us, right now, in a time where the budding grove of tiny red light microphones has become overwhelming. The whole visual design that Hooper has given his film has a sense that takes it away from what we expect from most pretty English period films, as he constantly uses extreme wide angle lenses, often from Bertie's point of view, which slightly distort the image and give an off-kilter and comical flavor to several moments. The feeling is closer to dystopian science fiction, particularly Terry Gilliam's Brazil, than to Merchant Ivory or Richard Attenborough. The microphone itself is often framed in such extreme lenses, making them grossly imposing as they stare down Bertie or anyone who approaches it. The King's Speech, extremely touching in how it juggles its relationships, may console us in how we played the technological politics of the last World War, which was a struggle for what we believe is humane to endure. And yet, relating the story to our own time, we may be uneasy, seeing how those same tools in the politics of communication may have stamped out the same common sympathy we then worked to preserve. That microphone, succeeded by movie and television screens, online networking and a new syntax of communication, wields much more power today. As we LOL and ROFL and OMG, it becomes clear that we've bended to the devilish apparatus' impersonal will.

No comments:

Post a Comment