These two images say everything: the monumental vs. the network
"Are they still making movies in Hollywood? Shouldn't we all be watching the YouTube video awards instead?" —Doug Lain
I'll cut to the chase: People think "The King's Speech" is about important issues — kings and wars — while "The Social Network" is about frivolous things — kids and social networking. But the exact opposite is true: the speech of a king, however eloquent, is irrelevant compared to the radical shift in media environments facilitated and proliferated by Facebook.The one reiterates the same old top down story; the other shifts the very architecture of the social.
In McLuhan's terms: the academy chose the content — the king's speech — over the medium, social networking. The one is an irrelevant moment; the other is fundamentally life altering, working us over, as McLuhan would say.
Now on with our story....
I was recently on a plane sans WiFi and was offered the opportunity — and that's a generous word — to watch "The King's Speech" for free. As it had just won a meaningless award, beating out one of the better American movies in ages — "The Social Network" — I was a tad curious.
Just a tad, mind you, because I assumed — knowing nothing about it, having never seen it or an ad or preview for it — that I could write the entire screenplay verbatim — and be 80% correct. "Maybe I'm wrong," I said to myself, feeling generous and bored.
But, no, I was right: there was not one moment — at least in the hour I watched because I had to turn it off for health reasons — that was surprising or beautiful.
But that's neither here nor there. Lots of movies stink. Lots of movies are predictable. No, what matters here is the way this film is predictable and how it stands towards "The Social Network."
The plot of "The King's Speech" is embarrassing to repeat: a man struggles to overcome a stutter. I don't mean to suggest that a stutter is not a serious impediment but come on. What justifies this achingly banal storyline is that it's not just any man who struggles to overcome his stutter, it's the king! And not only is it the king but it's the king during wartime. And not just any war but WWII with those dratted Nazis.
Of course, it's not the king who overcame his stutter so he could kick Nazi ass. It's a king who overcame his stutter so he could deliver a speech.
The assumption, then, is that the poor lost plebes of England needed their royal stutterer to be eloquent in order to feel good — and then, presumably, kick some Nazi ass. In the part of the film I managed to watch, the camera would cut to faces in the crowd as our poor, handsome king stammered and we'd witness their looks of sadness and confusion. Whatever will we do! How can we go on with a stuttering king!
"The King's Speech" is old school monumental film making — the classic phallic narrative arc: the king begins limp, gets hard, shoots his load — that reiterates the logic of the monument; what matters is the king!
So of course it won the academy award. Because the academy is the institution of film as monument, film as that thing that's big and on that huge screen. Big stories! Big people! Big award (that looks just like the narrative arc at its apogee)!
"The Social Network," meanwhile, is about the end of the monumental: the birth of bottom-up media. And the film performs this. It's not a grand narrative arc; it's a proliferation of perspectives.
The things people write on FB may or may not be frivolous. But that's irrelevant. It's the medium that matters and it changes everything. What the Academy proved is that the world continues to be seduced by message, lacking the tools and will to examine the medium.
(And that it, the Academy, has itself become irrelevant.)