Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Man Who Would Not Be King

There’s a Pinter play lurking beneath the Noel Coward surface of The King’s Speech, a two-hander about a man who cannot talk and a man who always natters entertainingly--a man to whom silence is a friend and one to whom silence is the enemy--a story that can only end when the chatterer becomes mute and the silent man orates. (Which I guess would really make it a Sam Shepard play.) (About brothers.)

You can see this other play all over Colin Firth’s face for most of the movie, which is why, whether or not he wins the Oscar for Best Actor, his Bertie Windsor is nothing short of brilliant. I don’t know how he does it, but there’s never a moment when you cannot see the wounded, wary boy looking out from behind Firth’s eyes, or not be uncomfortably aware that there is a lake of boiling lava beneath his stony exterior. It’s partly a physical thing: Firth’s Bertie is totally uncomfortable in his body, and his face seems always prepared to flinch in embarrassment. Which is to say he’s British through and through, as is the movie, in the stiff upper lip tradition of Coward’s In Which We Serve. But Firth’s upper lip is always on the verge of trembling, and he doesn’t show this through mugging, or indicating, or doing anything else under the camera’s ruthless eye but embodying. That’s the kind of acting that does not win awards, because it’s not showy enough; if anything, it’s the kind of acting that always gets you work, and the respect of your award-winning peers.

Deer? Meet headlights. Headlights? Deer.

It helps, of course, that Firth is playing opposite Geoffrey Rush, whose credit as an executive producer makes me think that he was the driving force behind getting this done, and (with a great actor’s instinct for surrounding himself with good people) choosing Firth to be his foil. (I’m trying to think of other actors who might have been in the running and drawing a very British blank. Guy Pearce strikingly resembles the historical George VI, but (a) he’s Australian and (b) he’s playing David the soon-to-be Duke of Windsor. Who else? Jude Law? That sound you hear is a suppressed guffaw.) Rush and Firth are perfect foils for each other, Rush the amused and amusing outsider and Firth the stiff and repressed vice president of the family firm. There's also a deliberate air of the court jester around Rush's Lionel Logue, never more apparent than the moment when he is discovered lounging on the royal throne. The laugh this gets is half "Uh oh, now he's done it," and half "Now THAT is how you puncture pomposity."

The script of this dark comedy of manners is clever enough here and there to earn a lot of laughs like that, and deep enough there and here to suggest, rather than dissect, the source of Bertie's stammer. For instance, one character towards the end of the film makes an implied analogy between shell-shocked World War I veterans and emotionally wounded children of overbearing fathers. In a movie about Americans, this would be the cause of much scene-chewing and a possible fistfight. In a movie about British royalty, it is politely ignored. In that sense, this is also a movie about the British character, and you find out all you need to know about that particular subject the moment the outgoing Prime Minister privately refers to Hitler as “Herr Hitler,” like a New York Times writer obeying his paper’s decree that all last names not on the Sports page, even those of mass murderers, must always have a respectful prefix. And when such (decorum? good manners? hidebound traditionalism?) is the norm, any deviation from it is magnified tenfold. When brother David mocks Bertie's stutter, it's vicous, cruel, and shameful. When Bertie loses his temper, it's almost embarrassing. When David breaks down and cries, it is embarrassing. (Actually, both brothers have a scene where they break down under the stress of the public role they are being asked to play; David’s is public and ludicrous, Bertie’s is private and heartbreaking.)

And y'know, now that I think about it? The entire structure of the movie is designed to build up repressed tension and then release it (as politely as possible) once every fifteen minutes or so, like a monster showing up in a horror movie, or a dance number in a Fred and Ginger film. And it works, thanks in no small part to the acting. The back and forth between Rush and Firth creates one of those wholes which is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also a distinct pleasure to see Helena Bonham-Carter rein in the batty and (I can’t believe I’m actually typing these words about her) act as the voice of reason. Eve Best channels her inner Bebe Neuwirth as Wallace Simpson. Michael Gambon's George V is a suitably tyrannical ogre. Timothy Spall plays Alfred Hitchcock playing Winston Churchill. And Guy Pearce's David nearly steals the movie; he's such a besotted git that you want to slap him. (Watching Pearce, I kept thinking that someone should cast him as the Duke of Windsor in Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words, one of the best fictional examinations of the curious passion that British and German fascists had for each other.) (It also delivers one of the cleverest solutions to the Harry Oakes murder mystery.)

So, yes, an interesting and engrossing movie which implies depths it does not deign to sound, and treats its audience as intelligently as possible until (alas) the climax, when the final speech of the title (it is a pun, after all) is not only delivered over, but exquisitely timed to, the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. This is outrageously manipulative. It's the Masterpiece Theatre version of that endless rock and roll medley during the Viet Nam scenes of Forrest Gump. And what made it even worse for me? It totally worked. So all I can say is, if you watch that scene and you don’t get a lump in your throat, or then find yourself laughing and crying at the same time when Firth gives a classic self-deprecating remark at the speech’s end, then, well, you’re probably British.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Let me not love you if you love me not

Hope is the snare in which all hearts are caught
And never cry for help but only pray:
“Let me not love you if you love me not.”

Two eyes invade your every waking thought;
You come to life each time they glance your way:
Hope is the snare in which all hearts are caught.

That’s why you feel as if you’d just been shot
When eyes that once met yours begin to stray.
(Let me not love you if you love me not.)

Blind Love is like a happy juggernaut:
It crushes doubt and undermines dismay;
Hope is the snare in which all hearts are caught.

Blind Time will give all couples the Black Spot
But only one will open it and say:
“Let me not love you if you love me not.”

And as for us, you see the vacant lot
In which I know a house will grow someday.
That hope’s the snare in which my heart is caught
To always love you though you love me not.

Copyright 2010 Matthew J Wells

Sunday, November 21, 2010

. . . so which would you rather have? Something? Or nothing?

“I love,” I say, “the way you see the fruit.”
“I hate,” you say, “the way you see decay.
I notice things that grow, you that pollute.
That’s why --” “I know: I never seize the day.
But then the day is such a shallow craving.”
“It leads to different days and fuller flavor.”
“And traps you into dull routines like shaving.”
“And if your love were trapped so? You could save her.
You drool to do that.” “So do you. Let’s share
The rescues, then.” “Like Steed and Emma?” “Great.
And mate from love, not habit.” “Deal. And wear
Our daily best.” “Never cut down -- create.”
“And never, love, --” “I know: sleep on a fight.”
“Or a half-eaten fruit?” “So true. Your bite.”

Copyright 2010 Matthew J Wells and his imaginary opposite number

The first two poems in this series can be found here:

I'd say there was a running theme here, wouldn't you?

11/19. I dream that I wake up on Monday November 22nd, look at my alarm, and decide never to go into work again. I have no money in the bank and no other job to go to, but I also have no desire to enable the corporate assholes who pay my salary when they tell employees things like, “Be sure to decompress during the holidays, and spend quality time with your families and loved ones, because God knows when you drag your sorry ass back to the office, we are going to work you to death, divorce and despair.” Since I have no one to divorce, and am already half-dead and half-despairing, I unplug the alarm, say to no one in particular, “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it,” and go back to sleep, fully expecting someone from work to call me around 8 in the morning and ask me where the hell I am. But nobody does call. I sleep till noon, get up, write the opening scene of the Christmas one-act about suicide, have Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup for lunch, write the second scene, map out the rest of the play, and go to bed. I go online once to check e-mail, I keep my phone on silent; and still, no one from work has called or tried to contact me. I spend the next two days like this, getting up and writing, going out occasionally for food, doing as little as possible, eating as cheaply as possible, and writing, always writing. The Christmas play gets finished Wednesday morning; I title it Up On The Roof and walk it to my agent’s office at 40th Street. Then, because I’m only 8 blocks away, I head to the office, and end up standing at 48th and 7th, staring at the door, looking for people I know. There's an ache in my heart, the kind you get when you realize that what you thought was a two-way passion was just one-way and a mirror, when you realize you were the only one who actually cared. But I don't care. I don't care about the job. And if I don’t care about the job, then why do I care that they don’t miss me?

11/20. Since I saw Harry Potter 7.1 Saturday morning, I dream Saturday night of high school people I haven’t seen in years. In this dream, Sheila Tagrin wants me to help her with the high school graduation pageant she’s staging, so I agree to sing backup to her girl group, which consists of her, Vicki Gibson and Laura Yurkstas. The song we’re doing is a Glee-version of a Gladys Knight number (which makes me The Pips), with a whole other semi-rap interlude sung by twelve dancers, four male, eight female, on the gym floor. Problem is, none of the dancers know the words to the interlude; every time they try to do it, either they blow the words or the dance routine. “Look,” I say to Sheila, “let me sing the rap interlude while they’re dancing, I can cover for them and they can worry about getting the steps right.” She gives me a blank stare. “Why would you want to do that?” she asks. “I’m trying to help,” I say. “Why are you always trying to help other people?” My face gets hot. “Because I can,” I say. “No,” says Sheila, “because that’s how you feel good about yourself. Maybe some people don’t need help.” My face gets red hot. “Remind me to say that to you the next time you need help with a term paper.” Sheila’s face gets red. “I asked,” she says. “And some people don’t know how to ask,” I say, “but they need help anyway.” I point to the dancers. “Like them,” I say, and Sheila works her mouth into a knot before saying, “Okay. Fine. Do it. Do you know the words?” “I’ll get them from Karen,” I say, and go up to Karen Wolozin, who’s the dance captain. “Give me the words and I’ll cover for you,” I tell her. She looks at me like I’m nuts. “We don’t have the words; do you think we’d be blowing the words if we knew what they were?” “So who has the words?” “Ask Sherri.” Oh crap. “Sherri?” Karen gives me the hairy eyeball. “You see our problem?” she says, and I sure do. Sherri Rosen is to cute what citrus is to grapefruit; but as far as brains go, she is only eating with one chopstick. (And who was crazy about her when he was ten? Three guesses, and the first two don't count.) So I start looking for Sherri, but she’s not in the gym, she’s outside on the swings. Of course. She’s out on the swings with John Hickey giving her a push. I take one look at the two of them, say to myself, you know what? Get him to help you, honey. And walk back inside.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

. . . is also the only way to be absolutely sure nothing will come of it . . .

“But all that’s born,” you say, “is like a fruit
That’s sweet at dawn and sour by end of day.
Time plants the blossom that it will pollute.
So if you taste not what tainting decay
Will gobble up no matter what you’re craving,
You’ll never know Love’s sweet and timeless flavor.
Love is a coin for spending, not for saving.
Like freshness, Time will sap its youthful savor;
So why not kiss it while it’s everywhere?
When I declare ‘I love you’ to a mate,
I mean I want to pluck that fruit and share
It all -- then plant the seeds from what we ate
To grow a new fruit, spoiling for a fight,
That will stay fresh each time we take a bite.”

Copyright 2010 Matthew J Wells

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The only way to be absolutely sure it will never go bad

My love for you is like a teasing fruit
I yearn to bite a hundred times a day;
But once I pierce its skin, time will pollute
Each tasty morsel with tainting decay,
Fresh air will race against my hungry craving
To feast on passion while it still has flavor,
And I’ll eat up the prize I should be saving
Till there is nothing left for me to savor --
Which is, love, what most people everywhere
Mean when they say “I love you” to a mate --
A meal they both feel bound to serve and share
In memory of what they both once ate --
And why, my love, my gluttony I’ll fight
And from your sweet fruit never take a bite.

Copyright 2010 Matthew J Wells

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The last word in flawless

When you tell me I overpraise your worth
By using words like “perfect,” “lovely,” “sweet,”
And swear it’s just an accident of birth
That made your body such a luscious treat,
Then I add “modest” to my litany.
Sweet is to you what relics are to Rome.
As for your body, this is what I see:
The stunning mansion that your soul calls home.
You say your talents don’t deserve applause?
I say, let’s make not praising you a crime.
Don’t even try to tell me you have flaws --
I get that line from diamonds all the time.
You claim your heart’s a vase no praise can bloom in?
How perfect can you get? You’re even human.

copyright 2010 by Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, November 10, 2010