What it Means that The King's Speech Beat The Social Network

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.)


Jeff M. said...

I like your analysis, though I'm more inclined to blame the loss on the generation gap. The typical Academy voter is much older and much less web savvy than your typical social media user. In this, they are also much more like the typical American than, say, the people who read this blog. They are like my great-grandfather who, I am told, watched exactly one program on TV -- Gunsmoke. The readers of this blog are like the baby boomers for whom TV was not just a "show," but a natural part of life. Imagine all the baby boomers who must have had their first sexual encounter with The Brady Bunch on in the background.

But the fact that the Social Network was even nominated probably means that we have only a few years before someone figures out how to turn the internet into the next WalMart.

dustygravel said...

Now don't get me wrong I agree with what you're
saying here but is it a dichotomy to set the social network up against the kings speech.

I'm usually suspicious of dichotomies, but thats just me.
what do you think of them? are they useful?

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dusty: I'm not sure it's as much a dichotomy as a distinction. I am pointing out two dominant architectures of media — the monumental and the network. (D&G use arborescent and rhizomic, which is a slightly different distinction than monument/network).

Are there other terms? Of course. Are these two terms rigorously distinct? Of course not. But, frankly, I assume my audience takes that for granted.

dustygravel said...

alright cool I like it.

Anonymous said...

There is an interesting parallel between the particular kind of impotence of the king and the impotence liberal Americans are now seeing in their anointed leader and for that matter, leadership around the world is failing to "Keep it up," -- the phallic 'object petit a' being that of the king's *voice* in the film, the thing within the thing that gives it its particular power, now seemingly destabilized at a global rate. I see the film as a calculated attempt to realign the proletariat's allegiance to the hysterical patriarchal ruling class' divine authority, even in this state of crisis as the *mysterious origins of authentic power* (his voice) are failing. I think this film was not accidentally designed for the oscars, for worldwide propaganda: Support your king! Support your leaders! Nothing is more important in the world than constituting the ruling class as masters!-- WWII, the death of poors and disappearance of Jews & outcasts from the king's country & around the world BARELY makes peripheral reference in the film. And the Social Network was disappointing in a similar way: it comes out looking through the lens of classical historicism--of history being made by the great accomplishments of great individual men.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@Kat: I agree with your reading of The King's Speech. Only I think you give the producers too much credit: their instinct to affirm — hysterically, yes — the power of the leading class is, methinks, just that — an instinct, a training, a stupidity. It's a bizarrely anachronistic film.

As for The Social Network, I think it performs a more complicated argument. It may suggest that great inventions come from great men but I think it's odder than that:

a) The film performs — embraces — a multiplicity of perspectives, almost Rashomon-like. That is, every "scene" is itself a network of views.

b) I'm not sure they present MZ as a great man. I think they present him as playing this peculiar role in this peculiar culture at a peculiar time — when someone with once obscure skills could suddenly become loaded.

Andrew said...

I thought Mark Zuckerburg was the king of England. Overcoming the stutters and challenges of FB to be the new king.

If the Pathos has a voice; don’t both of these films fail equally? In that neither are surprising, beautiful or artistic? Both predictable and bound to truth. Just as science, religion, or western medicine are in the same boat. Seems to be the Duke of Donalld Duck vs. Bugs Zuckerburg Bunny. Preforming to the same end.

If everything perceived is moving around; foreground, background, mixing, shaping, framing. Does this imply the scope of perception is always full, yet hard to grasp, as you don’t realize how much is working you over? Do we each have a finite capacity of perception always engaged? If this is reasonable, is it fair to think that the extension of radio is less than that of FB?.. I remember grade school teachers with tears of pride singing Oh Canada facing the image of Queen Elizableth; every morning. I can’t imagine: your king, head of your church, speaking in your room, how many had ever even heard his voice before radio? (Lucky bastards with your 2nd amendment) The medium of email and texting had been around for years before FB, already networking friends across the globe.

As for the academy awards; it’s hard to separate the depth of field. But it seems as some kind of judging orgy where no one knows who is screwing who. The one who strokes the field the right way goes home a winner. Sweet justification to do more. As you said, irrelevant.

Pierre said...

the mistery of the misteries is may be in this daily, usual, casual event: " I don't like that. " " I liked this"

Full stop on a rational point of vue. Starting point of life, in an other way.

The worl remain. But to remain in the world, we need this feeling. Even if we are a stick ata hand, mor than the hand of the stick.

Anonymous said...

It is possible that in the Social Network MZ has a peculiar role in a peculiar culture at a peculiar time, but does he not perform it greatly? I don't think one is chosen to be Time Magazine's Person of the Year without affirming some of Capilalism's fundamental hallmarks. And in this case, I think Individualism--rising to the top, making profit at any cost, even & especially at the expense of human relationship (the "substance" of the Social Network's product, ironically so) is what is being embraced about Facebook's origins. Had the Social Network been successful at taking a multiplicity of perspectives and showing a network of views--had it been convincingly, undeniably holistic--would Mark Zuckerberg be dubbed "The Connector" & Person of the Year? Would advertisements for the film have looked like this:


Daniel Coffeen said...

I don't have a problem with him being a great man — because, unlike the king, his greatness is not assumed by his position as a leader.

And I am not a critic of individualism — on the contrary, I am its advocate, at least in certain expressions/modes.

I like that he's a bit of a pompous prick, that he's socially uncomfortable. I can relate, perhaps.

As for profit at any cost, MZ has done a great job of not taking profit at any cost. He has turned down money and ways to make money in favor of his product.

Now, does his product fundamentally serve the desires of capitalism? I think, for the most part, yes (where do you work? are you married? all the same old bourgeois bullshit — which is why I think Chatroulette is much more interesting.)

I do think the advertising for the movie misreads the movie. The movie, as a movie, is quite smart. And, as one whose ethics stem from his aesthetics, that's important.