Cahiers Péguy

29Dec/109

Commit This “Speech” to Memory

It would make a good letter in Traces: “Father Carrón, for several years now I have worked in the family firm run by my father. I am the second-eldest son, and my older brother, David, has always been seen as next in line, especially by my father, who doesn’t seem to have much faith in me. To be fair, I have a serious handicap that holds me back in business. Without going into details, let’s just call this handicap fear. Because of this fear, I don’t inspire my co-workers, I don’t run a good meeting, I don’t even tell a good joke in business-social situations. Try as I might to overcome this fear, my own efforts simply are not enough. . . .

“I attend School of Community with Father Lionel. His friendship, and especially working with him and others through the chapter on sacrifice in Father Giussani’s book on charity, has been transformative for me. Brought up against my own limitations, confronted with my own harsh reality (the ever-present fear, the resulting sense of failure), I now understand that it is only by sacrificing, only by giving myself to Another that I can go beyond these limitations. As you yourself said in a recent School of Community:

If one understands that without Him everything becomes really burdensome, then he starts to glimpse that the real solution to this temptation of ours to be autonomous is to abandon ourselves: we understand that abandoning ourselves suits us better: we don’t need a moralistic effort, but to let ourselves be embraced by Another. This is not a problem of effort, but of freedom, because to let ourselves be embraced we don’t need any special energy . . . We simply need to surrender. The true question is to understand that this is better for us, that not only is this not a sacrifice, but that this is the truth of who I am more than what I am able to accomplish. [Father Carrón’s School of Community for December 15]

“Father Carron, even my father is beginning to notice a change in me. . . ”

This is a roundabout way of introducing the new based-on-history film “The King’s Speech,” starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. It struck me while watching the film yesterday that the relationship between the future King George VI of England (Firth) and the eccentric, uncredentialed therapist (Rush) he hired to rid him of a crippling stutter is an up-and-down journey much like that of any Christian approaching Jesus Christ. No, Lionel Logue, Rush’s Australian-born teacher, is not a “Christ figure”—although he does sometimes have the look of one of those gaunt, sad-eyed El Greco Christs. But he does represent that Other to which the Christian—prince, king, or pauper—must surrender in order truly to be free.

Stuttering proves to be a remarkably apt metaphor for facing one’s own spiritual limitations: The harder we “try,” the less we are able to get out of our own way. The Word dies literally on our lips. The film opens in 1925 with the future George VI, known to his family as Bertie, failing miserably to deliver a speech to a crowd at Wembley Stadium. (“We aren’t a family,” Bertie notes, ”we are a firm.”) During the ensuing decade—which preceded the death of Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon), and the brief accession to the throne of his brother David, Prince of Wales, as Edward VIII (Guy Pearce)—Bertie’s wife, the future “Queen Mum” (Bonham Carter), cajoles him into speech therapy lessons with Logue and the two men pursue an on-again-off-again tutorial.

“The King’s Speech” is about this student-teacher relationship, a friendship as true as it is paradigm-breaking. Logue’s first condition is that Bertie address him as Lionel, not Dr. Logue, and that he allow Lionel, a commoner from Down Under, to address him, the Duke of York, as Bertie. In this initial proposal, and in Bertie’s reluctant acceptance of it, we see the first gesture of surrender. But Bertie is a strong-willed monarch-to-be under that fearful exterior, and the Old Man dies hard. Imagine “To Sir with Love”—complete with class bitterness, hilarious montages, and plenty of tears—set in the homes and gardens of The Royals and you won’t be far from the spirit of “The King’s Speech,” although you may underestimate its quality.

After seeing the film, I had a lengthy dinnertime discussion with my daughter, who is still annoyed at me for not appreciating the putative “Best Picture of 2010,” “The Social Network,” in quite the same way she did. She told me that I looked for a message in films where she often looks first for enjoyment. I acknowledged this personal failing of mine and tried to explain it. I said that both films, “Speech” and “Social,” show us a lonely man trapped within himself. In the Facebook film, that man is Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard nerd who became a twelve-times-billionaire but is seen, sadly, at film’s end, trying to refresh the Facebook page of his ex-girlfriend, who dumped him because he is, in a word, a creep. To me the “message” of that final image is despair, which for a Christian is no message at all.

“The King’s Speech,” by contrast, provides a trajectory of salvation, the path one man walked out of himself toward something larger. No, King George VI does not embrace Christ in this film. The vicar of Our Lord is represented here by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi), who is all but the villain of the piece, trying to pry Bertie free from Lionel’s mentorship. (In a smashing irony for anyone who loves the Thomas More biopic “A Man for All Seasons,” it was the Archbishop’s Church of England that stood in the way of Edward VIII’s marriage to Wallace Simpson on the grounds of her multiple divorces and so made way for George VI, father of the reigning Queen Elizabeth. The Church was not quite so strict with its first so-called Head, Henry VIII.)

But Bertie does embrace his destiny. The film ends with Hitler’s armies swarming the map of eastern Europe, and we are left with the understanding that if one man had not surrendered himself to the mentorship of another, then Britain itself, saddled with a monarch who literally could not speak, might have surrendered.

I think I made a point with my daughter near the end of dinner after we had spent about five minutes recalling the many moments in “The King’s Speech” that had brought us joy. I will not spoil the film by mentioning a single one. I asked my daughter how many moments of joy she could remember in “The Social Network.” She paused, then said, “Well, there were many moments that made me smile, but I can’t think of one that gave me joy.” In that statement, I think I heard a pretty good standard for separating the good film from the great.

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About Webster Bull

Webster Bull is a writer and publisher living in Beverly, Massachusetts, north of Boston. His latest book is "Something in the Ether: A Bicentennial History of Massachusetts General Hospital, 1811-2011," to be published in April 2011. You can follow Webster on Facebook.
Comments (9) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I haven’t seen “The King’s Speech” yet, so i will refrain from judgment as to what is a better movie. But I think you misunderstand the purpose and meaning of Social Network, or, at least, seem to be promoting a particular vision of what Catholic art must be that is incomplete.

    I don’t think the Social Network ended in despair per se so much as it ended up being a tale about one man’s pursuit of an abstract ideal of greatness that ultimately ended in his descending into his own personal hell. That it does not show him finding redemption is not fatal; it is potentially realistic. In this — and no, I am not claiming the Social Network is as good a work of art, though its Aaron Sorkin penned script is surely among the finest of the past decade — it fits keenly into the tradition of the Godfather and a number of Flannery O’Connor stories.

  2. Chris, I appreciate your insights. And yes, it is true, I “seem to be promoting a particular vision of what Catholic art must be.” I admit that I find Flannery O’Connor pretty heavy going, and I suppose that if The Godfather is “Catholic art” then my vision is sorely limited indeed. But I find myself preferring Walker Percy to O’Connor because in Percy, no matter how dysfunctional the narrator and other characters, after “The Moviegoer,” which I don’t particularly care for, there is a still, moral center in each of his novels. Including notably the mad priest in the watchtower of “The Thanatos Syndrome.” I think that as Catholics we might be well served to speak out in favor of an art that instructs, that inspires, that somehow moves us further along the “trajectory of salvation.” Which is why I also liked “True Grit.”

  3. Webster,

    Everything you said is fair enough. I guess I just also see space for us, as Catholics, to be moved and instructed as much by art involving the absence of a moral center and exploring its conspicuous consequences as we are by art that states that moral center explicitly. And this is especially true for that art explores the consequences of modernity; the alienation that befalls the main character in the Social Network is tragic and jarring precisely because all he has done is lived life as modern culture assumes we should want to live it. That fact instructs an interested viewer in much the same way that a film involving some kind of redemption does. For the record, I also think this is the key to enjoying O’Connor and what she was trying to do. If you’re interested in a more full explanation of this theme from someone who was deeply committed to it, her writings in “Mystery and Manners” do a very nice job.

  4. I understand “art involving the absence of a moral center.” I grew up with such art in high school and college of the 1960s and 1970s. But consider a further problem with The Social Network: However you and I may perceive it as practicing Christians, the fact is, most non-practicing young people will be wowed by the club scenes, the sex, the drugs, the booze, the music, “the life, the players,” the absolute coolness, more than by any internal response of their hearts to the lack of a moral center. So the message they will take away is not, I don’t want to be like that. On the contrary, they want to be like that: happy, high, $12-billionaires, just please add in a girlfriend who will friend me on Facebook.

  5. Great article. I saw the King’s Speech a few days ago and absolutely loved it. The quality was exquisite and the the scope, both breathtaking and paradoxical. Haven’t seen The Social Network.

  6. I haven’t seen true grit yet ….. Don’t you know how hard it is to get a baby sitter?

  7. Thanks for your movie takes, Webster. I am even more excited now to see The King’s Speech. Keep your insightful commentaries coming! Given the limited time I have to go to the movies, I have to be highly selective about what I see. To be honest, The Social Network was never on my list, but this film has been from the beginning. This, too, constitutes a necessary judgment, which, like all my judgments, is incomplete, no matter how many cross checks I accomplish before making them. Sometimes reality forces us to judge a book by its cover because we are limited.

    As for the rest, I am not worried in the least about what constiutes Catholic art, which designator strikes me as a chimera. Any attempt to define Catholic art is doomed and incomplete from the get-go. I can only judge a film, a book, a song, a painting, a symphony, an oratorio, opera, or play by the way it affects me, which is neither wholly subjective nor solipsistic. I am interested in how artistic works affect and effect others. As Hopkins accurately observed: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places…” If I can catch just one every once in awhile I am grateful, but then such encounters only whet my appetite for more, more, more, which brings me back to…

  8. Thanks Scott, You help me to frame the question more clearly. Perhaps it’s not exactly a question of what Catholic art should be but rather what judgments a Catholic should make about art, indeed, what a Catholic has the right to demand of art. Which comes down to the question, What do we desire? And if in the end my desire is limitless, and an entertainment calling itself art panders to a reduced desire in me, then is it art, Catholic or otherwise?

  9. “what a Catholic has the right to demand of art. Which comes down to the question, What do we desire? And if in the end my desire is limitless, and an entertainment calling itself art panders to a reduced desire in me, then is it art, Catholic or otherwise?” I agree.

    Heck, I think Kerouac’s On the Road is a very Catholic novel. I am pretty sure I am part of a very small minority on that point!


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