Monday, October 31, 2011

Worth Watching: The King's Speech (2010)

Title: The King's Speech
Director: Tom Hooper
Language: English
Rating: R (because His Royal Highness doesn't stammer when he's cursing a blue streak)

The Duke of York (Colin Firth), known as "Bertie" to his family, is second in line to the throne after his older brother. Bertie prefers to stay out of the public eye; the few speeches required of him are disastrous on account of his stammer. At the arrangement of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he undergoes speech therapy with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who demands great effort and openness from him. In spite of some progress, Bertie still stumbles during moments of nerves and high emotion. After his father, George V (Michael Gambon), dies and his brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicates the throne, Bertie becomes King George VI. On the eve of WWII he's required to broadcast an important speech with a strength and eloquence he's convinced he'll never possess.

The King's Speech movie poster

Lionel Logue is passionate, wry, and just a little bit bonkers (in a manner unique to Geoffrey Rush). His character is also deepened by personal disappointments and struggles, such as his inability to start up a career as a Shakespearean actor.

Lionel Logue

From Colin Firth's Bertie you get a sense of a decent man who's fun to be around when he can relax, which isn't often. The few people who make him feel at ease are his wife and daughters (the elder of the two became Queen Elizabeth II in 1952). As his wife, Helena Bonham Carter is good at mixing upper-class restraint and properness with the sense of fun and play that she's brought to other very different movie roles.

I got a kick out of the fact that they made Winston Churchill a character, though I laughed too because I recognized the actor who plays him (Timothy Spall) from only one other role: Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. He doesn't look sufficiently different from Peter here and doesn't have a large enough part to make himself a distinct character, so I kept thinking of him as an animagus politician. Another "cross-over" moment that briefly threw me out of the film was the scene where Lionel Logue's wife, Myrtle (Elizabeth Ehle), meets Bertie for the first time. Ehle starred as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC's grand 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, which also made Colin Firth famous as Mr. Darcy; it's probably still the role that Firth is most strongly associated with. So to have the two of them meet in a quiet room tipped the movie back into the Regency era for a few seconds, and I expected him to launch into a pompous marriage proposal. But then I was tilted right back to the 1930s, because Myrtle Logue treated the king with a nervous deference that Elizabeth Bennet would never have felt in the presence of Mr. Darcy.

Relationships and conflicts
Bertie and Lionel become friends, though it's a struggle, and they fight along the way. Bertie hates appearing vulnerable, and he's had to deal with so many quacks that it takes him time to trust someone; he's also conscious of the difference in station between him and Lionel, and it isn't easy for him to get used to Lionel's informality. Add to that the pressure of his public duties and the fact that he had thought, with great relief, that he'd never be king, and friction between the two men is inevitable. With the exception of his wife and daughters, Bertie tends to be reserved around everyone, in part as a defense mechanism against the mocking he's endured over his stuttering.

Bertie is sweet to his daughters and has a steady source of warm support and companionship from his wife, who consoles him, cheers him up, banters with him, and occasionally sits on him or stuffs things into his mouth. Firth and Bonham Carter play well off each other.

Bertie and Elizabeth

Memorable sights and sounds
Lionel runs Bertie through various exercises that lend themselves to interesting visuals (like Bertie rolling around on the floor) and sounds (vowels belted out with mixed dignity and silliness). At a few points in the movie, Bertie also speaks in song; if he couches his sentences in the melody of a familiar song, he stutters much less or not at all. This use of song sometimes has a comic effect but at other times is used to highlight a personal melancholy.

I also loved Bertie's expression as he hears himself deliver a soliloquy from Hamlet. Lionel had him record it while being drowned out by music so that he couldn't actually hear himself speak. Later on, after breaking off in disgust from Lionel Logue and his unconventional methods, Bertie listens to his own voice speaking steadily, and it's a wonderful moment of revelation. Shakespeare in general is woven nicely into the movie (including Lionel's audition for the part of Richard III).

Stand-out scenes
The King Edward's Chair scene. Bertie's confidence initially lapses, and it seems that he's going to give up again on working with Lionel. But after Lionel insolently drapes himself over King Edward's Chair, which is the throne used during a monarch's coronation, Bertie's anger at Lionel's presumption prompts him to eventually shout out that he has a voice! Bertie also shows himself to have a feeling and respect for tradition that contrasts with his older brother's depicted carelessness in abdicating the throne to be with Mrs. Wallis Simpson.

Another great scene is the climactic delivery of the speech on the eve of WWII ("In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history..."). The movie cuts back and forth between Bertie picking his way through it word by word, with Lionel standing opposite him, gesturing and coaching, and the king's large audience including various people in their homes, Bertie's family in the palace, and his older brother and Mrs. Simpson.

Further thoughts
Though the movie isn't a documentary and was made to show a man overcoming challenges to rise to the occasion, it still interests me to think about how the filmmakers played around with history and with the characters. For the sake of drama, the relationship between Lionel and Bertie was compressed to a shorter period of time, when in fact they had been working together since the 1920s; and who knows if they ever got to be this informal with one another by the end. I haven't read enough about the characters in general to venture a guess as to what they were like with each other. The movie also omits the whole issue of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement (along with George VI's public show of support for Chamberlain after the Munich Pact) and depicts Churchill and George VI as being friendly and supportive of one another from the very beginning. The filmmakers shape it so that everyone seems more or less united at the war's start, with George VI hoping that his speech impediment won't prevent him from being a resolute figurehead, a symbol of strength and resistance. And it's true that during the war, he and his wife appeared often in public, and visited various places in the UK and abroad, to boost morale.

Here's an actual recording of George VI, delivering the speech on September 3rd, 1939:

The text of the speech is here.

*All images link back to their source (Flixster community).

Friday, October 28, 2011

Week in Seven Words #90

After lunch we emerge from the sukkah to find that the day has brightened, the trees sketching flame onto mild blue skies.

In the main room of their apartment the light will be on all day and all night. The walls are pale and bright, and after the food is cleared away games are laid out on the table. Desserts make the rounds, and I get into an intense conversation that lasts until the early morning hours.

It's a quiet street for the most part, but then a car will cut through the dark with its headlights, or a bike will whirr by, and down the block I'll hear one half of a cellphone conversation. Everyone moves with a destination in mind; there are no meanderers just taking in the trees and the muted street lamps. I wonder where they're going. One woman swings a grocery bag between limp fingers and lets herself into a house. She disappears, and the door clicks shut behind her.

Our conversation is a series of cloud patterns: dense and concentrated sometimes, at other times gapping or thinning, spilling sunlight.

A squirrel steals into the sukkah, where an unattended backpack calls to it. Maybe there's food inside, a sandwich half-eaten or a cookie from the cafeteria. The squirrel worries the zipper on one of the smaller pockets before climbing on top of the backpack and nuzzling against the folds and straps.

My first glimpse of the holiday evening festivities: people bobbing up and down before a lighted window. As I come closer to the building, I hear a faint roar of singing and stomping.

Three women are at the center of the dancing circle. Two are holding Torah scrolls, and one is holding a young child. The child has stuck her thumb in her mouth and is staring wide-eyed at the women whirling around her.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 4 stories from Adaptations

Collection: Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen
Editor: Stephanie Harrison

Title: Auggie Wren's Christmas Story
Author: Paul Auster

Auggie Wren works at a cigar store. His real name isn't Auggie Wren; that's just what he told the author, Paul, to call him. Auggie is an unassuming guy. You wouldn't guess that he's a photographer and that every day for years he's been taking a photo of the same street corner ("the same people in the same spot every morning, living an instant of their lives in the field of Auggie's camera"). And you'd probably never guess how he got his camera. That's where the Christmas story comes in. A major part of the story is that he pretends to be a blind old lady's son who has come to visit her for Christmas; the old lady is on to him, but she's lonely and he's got nowhere else to be, so they pretend. Another thing that isn't clear is whether Auggie is making this story up. How much do you want it to be true? Either way it makes for a good story.


Title: The Harvey Pekar Name Story
Author: Harvey Pekar
Illustrator: R. Crumb (Robert Crumb)

Harvey Pekar doesn't change much from one panel to another in this short comic. He's a scruffy ordinary guy who is thinking out loud about his life and more specifically his name: Harvey Pekar. It's a strange name, he thinks, and he talks about how people used to tease him for it. He then mentions other Harvey Pekars he's seen in the phone book. This is the best part of the comic - his thoughts on the multiple Pekars and how his identity might be bound up with them. Is he connected to them in a deeper way than shared names? What are they like? Maybe his life could have turned out like theirs, who knows. "Who is Harvey Pekar?" he asks. I looked at one image after another of Harvey and wondered the same thing, getting a better sense of him but also asking myself just who he is and why it's him (and not another Harvey Pekar) featured in the comic.


Title: My Friend Flicka
Author: Mary O'Hara

When Kennie McLaughlin's father grudgingly allows him to tame one of the colts on their ranch, Kennie is drawn to a wild and fast colt that no one thinks is tameable. It's difficult to confine the young horse; she goes into a frenzy, breaks free and runs off. Her need to get away is so desperate that one day her escape attempt ends in a horrible injury:
Twenty yards of fence came down with her as she hurled herself through. Caught on the upper strands, she turned a complete somersault, landing on her back, her four legs dragging the wires down on top of her, and tangling herself in them beyond hope of escape.

The colt's chances of survival are slim; her skin is lacerated, and the wounds are infected. Even if she pulls through, there's a chance that she'll be crippled for life. Kennie needs to make a choice: he can abandon her as a lost cause and let the ranch workers shoot her, or he can try his best to nurse her back to health.

My Friend Flicka is a warm family tale, though the warmth is never cloying, and the possibility of death and serious injury is presented starkly. Part of what makes it a good story is that it shows how a young boy learns to take responsibility for another life. His attempts to tame the colt led to her injury; to discard her in the aftermath would be callous. Kennie and his horse form a deep bond; he's determined not to betray her and treat her life lightly.


Title: A Reputation
Author: Richard Edward Connell

Saunders Rook is an ordinary pleasant guy who would like to be noticed a little more. So one evening when he's dining at his club, he breaks into a lull in the conversation by telling everyone that he's going to commit suicide on the Fourth of July - a pronouncement that surprises him at least as much as it surprises his audience.
He had never demanded much of life; his existence was not rigorous, but placid. He was a sub-editor on a woman's magazine - he conducted the etiquette page - and this brought him twelve hundred dollars a year. He had inherited an income of twelve hundred more. He was able to live in modest comfort, for he was an orphan and a bachelor; he had a season ticket at the opera; his health was good. If he had a cross, it was a light one: minor editors of minor magazines usually rejected his minor essays, imitations of Charles Lamb, hymning the joys of pipe-smoking and pork-chops. So it startled him not a little to hear himself announcing his imminent self-destruction.

People who overlooked him before now turn to him with breathless questions. They ask him why he's doing this. To protest the state of civilization, he says, and they go wild with interest. Suddenly everyone is talking about Saunders Rook. He gets letters from people who either beg him to reconsider or congratulate him on his determination. He's invited to dinners thrown by intellectuals and artists, and his essays are solicited for magazines (though he notices with some nervousness that a couple are scheduled for posthumous publication). One of the ironies of the story is that Saunders loves his life, especially now that he's getting all this attention. Still, he has a reputation to maintain, so he keeps pretending that he's grown deeply disgusted with the world.
"But why do you feel that the state of civilization requires so drastic a protest?"

Deline asked this question as Saunders Rook was enjoying the third course, tender roast young guinea-fowl with mushrooms; Rook loved good food.

"Because," said Saunders Rook, with fork poised, "it's rotten."

Around the table went murmurs of approbation and interest.

Richard Connell's story pokes fun at the chattering classes and how they're quick to read profundity into Saunders Rook's words; hype, excitement and endless discussion swirl around Rook's careless statements, as if he's become a kind of prophet of the age. Connell is also careful to show us the day of reckoning: a sunny beautiful Fourth of July in Central Park, where Rook has decided to kill himself. Families are strolling and picnicking, and the city seems to be shining. Will Rook go through with it? It's the most important decision he'll ever make, and you wonder whether he'll be guided by his private self or by the demands of his public persona; maybe it's gotten to the point where his reputation really is everything. You also get the sense that no matter how he chooses, he'll fade back into obscurity at some point, once his fifteen minutes of fame are over.


Other stories from this collection include Babylon Revisited (by F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Basement Room (by Graham Greene), Killings (by Andre Dubus) and The Sentinel (by Arthur C. Clarke), along with The Swimmer (by John Cheever), Tomorrow (by William Faulkner), and Your Arkansas Traveler (by Budd Schulberg).


This post has been linked to at the Breadcrumb Reads blog in Short Stories on Wednesday #16.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Week in Seven Words #89

They're sitting in the kitchen making long colorful paper chains to loop around the walls of their sukkah. The decorative chains spill over the kitchen table and pool and heap on the floor.

Hit by an illness first thing in the morning, I find that the world is shaky when I'm out of bed. I stay under the covers, reading by the light that slides in through the blinds.

I learn again that it's best not to put off doing something good and worthwhile with the complacent thought that there will be another opportunity for it soon.

As I'm reading them picture books about a spiffy giant and a Gruffalo and a snail that travels the world on a whale's tail, she asks me why the pictures show some things but not others; for instance, if the story tells you that a fox ran off and hid, the picture only shows you the hiding part but not the running part. After I tell her that everything can't be shown, and that the people who write and illustrate the books have to pick and choose, her older brother starts to talk about how in movies you can't see what's going on with all of the characters either; when one character's story is on screen, other characters are off-screen, with things happening to them that we can't even see but maybe will only hear about later.

On my walk home, bright globes of light burn on either side of the path. It's nighttime and a fresh new day has begun.

The tables and chairs are beaded with rain water.

Scrabble Junior can be as challenging as regular Scrabble, simply because Scrabble Junior lulls you into a false sense of security.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Week in Seven Words #88

It's fitting that they find out this week, at the start of the new year. It isn't when I'd planned on telling them, but it doesn't matter. Maybe I'll be less reticent this year.

Every day I dump books into the steely mouth of the return bin, where they rumble away into silence.

The light of day's end on a pale brick wall.

What I eat this week, among other things: pomegranate seeds and a few small pieces from the head of a trout.

Two good places for a conversation: the front steps of my apartment building at night, and a sunny paved courtyard rimmed with trees and stone ledges.

On Yom Kippur, during a quiet section of the afternoon prayers, a marching band sweeps past our windows; the trumpets, drums, flutes and trombones break into the solemn hush.

Three qualities I wish for in plenitude: persistence, discipline, and courage.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 2 tales from The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories
Editor: Tom Shippey

Title: Lila the Werewolf
Author: Peter S. Beagle

Farrell, a musician living in NYC, keeps falling for women who have serious issues. His latest live-in girlfriend, Lila, is a werewolf, as he discovers after she moves in with him. At one point in the story he explains to his horrified best friend why he's still with her:
"The thing is, it's still only Lila, not Lon Chaney or somebody... she's got her guitar lesson one night a week, and her pottery class one night, and she cooks eggplant maybe twice a week. She calls her mother every Friday night, and one night a month she turns into a wolf. You see what I'm getting at? It's still Lila, whatever she does, and I just can't get terribly shook about it. A little bit, sure, because what the hell. But I don't know."

Farrell is a laidback guy who seems at ease in the presence of other people's weirdness, but his tolerance is put to the test in the story's climactic scene, where Lila (in werewolf form) goes into heat and starts roaming the city pursued by packs of male dogs. Farrell follows her to try to prevent any unfortunate liaisons, in a scene that's both hilarious and surreal. He's accompanied by Lila's formidable mother, who keeps popping in and out of taxi cabs, and he's trailed by his building's superintendent, who hopes to put an end to Lila once and for all. As for Lila herself, she's initially excited by the presence of her canine suitors, but by the end of the night her feelings turn from lust to bloodlust, and unfortunately that's when the little coddled lapdogs venture out to have their chance with her:
They were small, spoiled beasts, most of them, overweight and shortwinded, and many were not young. Their owners cried unmanly pet names after them, but they waddled gallantly towards their deaths, barking promises far bigger than themselves, and none of them looked back.

Owners of small dogs will not like what happens next. But even if lapdog carnage isn't your cup of tea, there's a lot to enjoy in this story, not least the author's knack for odd funny descriptions; for instance, this is what we're told about the superintendent of Farrell's apartment building: "He smelled of black friction tape and stale water" and "He roamed in the basement all day, banging on pipes and taking the elevator apart."


Title: The Silken-Swift
Author: Theodore Sturgeon

Rita is cruel and stunning; she'll toy with men, humiliate them, and dance beyond the reach of their touch or their vengeance. Barbara is "a quiet girl whose beauty was so very contained that none of it showed"; no one notices her, but she is never alone:
... Barbara's life was very full, for she was born to receive. Others are born wishing to receive, so they wear bright masks and make attractive sounds like cicadas and operettas, so others will be forced, one way or another, to give to them. But Barbara's receptors were wide open, and always had been, so that she needed no substitute for sunlight through a tulip petal, or the sound of morning-glories climbing, or the tangy sweet smell of formic acid which is the only death cry possible to an ant, or any other of the thousand things overlooked by folk who can only wish to receive.

Del is the man who meets with both women during a night where he's preyed on and where, in a haze of anger and drink, he acts as a predator. After a certain point his perceptions are false. But matters are cleared up in the bogs, where "there was a pool of purest water, shaded by willows and wide-wondering aspens, cupped by banks of a moss most marvellously blue." The Silken-Swift, written in evocative language, addresses the concept of purity and how it's often equated with virginity. Blindness is also an important theme in this story: blindness to truth, character, and genuine beauty.

Of everyone in the story Barbara is in many ways the strongest. She isn't cruel or vengeful; she has no part in the destructive power plays that diminish the other characters, whose actions corrupt the world around them. This is why she lives on the margins of society, ignored by everyone; she offers no attraction to blinded people.

For Barbara the idea of love is receiving what the world offers (instead of seizing and conquering). Sometimes the offering is painful in the extreme. What the world offers can also be beautiful beyond measure. But can a place "without hardness or hate," as the pool in the bog is described, survive the intrusion of people?


This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #13 over at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Week in Seven Words #87

I visit DC on Day 2 of the National Book Fair. Tents, crowds and long lines spill over the flattened grass of the Mall. In each tent presides a writer, installed behind a microphone. The books are pricey. It isn't what I imagined it would be, and find that the best parts of the day surround the fair: the Botanic Gardens, the sculpture gardens with fountains, the reflecting pool by the Capitol, the Holocaust Museum, beautiful Union Station, and beyond the Washington Monument the World War II Memorial where the water mirrors stars and powerful quotes are inscribed in stone.

I think of two people I know who, more often than not, are humored by others. I also think of how much they know, and how they sometimes reveal a surprising hidden talent or unsuspected well of knowledge.

At the US Botanic Garden you know you've arrived at the orchid room because nearly everyone has a camera out with the zoom on. People hover before each flower and curl their bodies towards it; they purse their lips in concentration and tilt their heads, making minute adjustments to their cameras.

During services the shofar sounds quietly mournful, pitiful even, except for the longest notes, which are sure and strong and seem to have no end.

Tashlich (תשליך‎)
The trees fold the cool air around us, and the air has lost its city smell. We stand by the water tossing in pieces of bread to symbolize the casting away of our sins. The water simmers and churns with hungry fish that slide open-mouthed against each other. Soon a turtle joins in, bobbing among the fish like a gray balloon.

Teenagers from DC wander through the Holocaust Museum unsupervised. They're quiet and respectful. They light memorial candles in silence and pause before names and passages of text.

A mass evacuation from Union Station; apparently there's a fire in some part of the building. The first thing people do when they get outside is take out their cell phones, either to snap photos or to inform someone that they'll be delayed. A pearly pink sunset follows, as the fire engines scream their arrival and lights flash. I get the feeling that, even as they're frustrated or anxious, most people are enjoying this turn of events to some extent; it's not a catastrophe, and it makes for an interesting story to dramatize at work or at home the next day. Even muttering about the delay brings a kind of pleasure.

Week in Seven Words #86

It's a drab gray street with little to see except for a parking garage and the neon-lit windows of an XXX shop. Expecting to soon put it behind me, I hear someone call out, and there they are, people who haven't been around in months. They've materialized across the street at the bus stop with their child.

Sometimes at the end of a sluggish day, all the inspiration and energy that had stirred quietly beneath the surface will burst out like vines flowering in a bog.

There will always be someone sitting alone on the grass talking to himself in the midst of other people.

A thundercloud looms over the city, delivering empty threats all afternoon. We walk undisturbed.

We feed off each other's enthusiasm.

The fountain at Fitler Square is fenced off. It plashes with an aloof complacency at people who try to send their arms through the bars to touch the water.

Old brick homes with fanlights above the doors give way to derelict shops and cold glassy skyscrapers.