Sunday, May 29, 2011

The King's Speech

Britain in the late thirties was at a major crossroads. At the turn of the century the British Empire was the largest in history, controlling so much of the earth that there was no part of the empire that was not seeing daylight at any given point of the day. They literally controlled nearly half the population of the earth. Through world war, uprisings and general unrest at being empirical subjects, the reign of George V saw the first three decades of the 20th Century take a great deal of power from that empire. Toward the end of his life, George saw things potentially getting much much worse. It looked as though Europe, including Britain, may well be on the verge of yet another world war and, with his health failing, his sole heirs were a playboy who cared more about mistresses than civic duty and a nervous, bland younger son who could barely speak due to an awful stammer. The latter, however, decided enough was enough and he must both grow a backbone and eliminate that stammer.

He was growing increasingly frustrated in his efforts, as nothing seemd to work, when suddenly an odd actor from Australia came along and seemed to have the answer he’d been looking for. He was unorthodox and so were his methods. He was the last person a potential heir to the throne would be expected to become subject to. Lionel made the Duke of York come to his office in a nasty part of town. He referred to the Duke as Bertie, a family nickname, and made him talk about personal, private matters. All of this made the Duke very uncomfortable, but the more he opened up and let himself go, the more he became the man he was hoping to be.

The King’s Speech is about more than him overcoming his stammer, it is about the friendship of this very odd pair and the making of a king. It was a good thing the Duke of York decided to get himself into shape, as his father died just before World War II broke out and his older brother abdicated from the throne to marry his mistress almost immediately after taking the thrown. It was a decisive move at a delicate time. On this note, King’s Speech is very interesting. I love history and it was great to watch a ‘behind-the-scenes’ view of an important moment in Western history.

That said, while I liked the movie, I didn’t love it. I don’t think they did a good enough job of showing the stakes behind it all. Outside of the occasional mention by one of the characters of the import of his attempts to better himself, the film never really portrayed the basis for that import. Only once do they show Hitler or anything military at all. There was very little shown of the government dissension (for crying out loud Ireland removed the monarch from it's constitution on the day of his ascension to the throne) and nothing shown of the poverty and unrest of England or the rest of the empire. In other words, it was vital that the king become a strong, powerful leader at this pivotal point, but you wouldn’t know that from the film alone. I never felt like much was at stake other than the personal battles of the Duke of York.

Long story short, it was a movie that was interestingly shot, very well acted, but never really sucked me in all that much. I liked it, but I didn’t love it and I certainly didn’t love it as much as everyone else seemed to.


Cave of Forgotten Dreams

About 25,000 years ago a cliff face in Southern France collapsed. It completely sealed off a large cave on a riverbed. When I say completely sealed off I mean it. In 1994 some French archeologists were taking part in a ‘shot-in-the-dark’ method of looking for caves that they sometimes did in their spare time. The method is to walk along areas that look to have formed as a result of a collapse of the rock face and use either your hand or face to feel for air coming out of the rock. Air means at least a shaft is under there. Well, they found one and the shaft just kept going, though it was barely big enough for either of them to get through. They kept following it down and down until suddenly it opened into a huge expanse. What blew them away, however, was not the size, but what they saw inside. The cave is a perfectly preserved glimpse into life over 25,000 years ago (the date of which they know from carbon dating and many other tests). It is truly as though they stepped back in time.

There are footprints, there are pieces of ash from torches, there are altars and there are numerous, incredible paintings. Not only are these now the earliest known paintings, but they are truly the product of high levels of skill, much more advanced than other known works of art dating thousands of years later. There are also the bones of animals long extinct and some of the paintings are of animals that scientists had no idea existed in France, such as lions, hyenas, bison and more. The French government, in an attempt to preserve this amazing time capsule, sealed it off and forbade any entry except for a single, small group of scientists who is allowed for one hour a day, for four days, once a year.

Werner Herzog is the first person in these last 16 years allowed to film inside the cave. They allowed him in only with the scientists and only if he used battery operated equipment. Though this means the camera work can be iffy at times and the lighting is not always that great, the chance to take a look inside this incredible site is worth every minute. In the entire world, as far as we know, there is no other site like it. While other ancient finds exist, they are always tainted and faded. With this cave, it is truly like walking in two seconds after Cro-Magnon man walked out. The only thing that makes it at all dated are the stalactites and stalagmites that have developed over the millennia, but all these do is make the joint all the more amazing visually. If you could pick someone to guide you through this amazing cave, I can’t imagine many more qualified to make it interesting than Werner Herzog. It’s the most upbeat and positive I’ve ever seen him. Even Werner can’t help but be in awe of this place.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

One of the people interviewed in this movie said (roughly) the problem I have with the Republican Party is that they portray themselves as the party of the common man, yet work primarily for and in the interest of the wealthiest 1% of the country and portray themselves as the party of strict moral standards and yet lead often deviant lifestyles. Put plainly, this guy’s problem with the Republican Party is that they are so good at pulling the wool over people’s eyes and he doesn’t appreciate it. If that the case, he’s certainly not going to be a fan of Lee Atwater, a key figure in the modern version of the Republican political machine. You think Karl Rove is bad? Take a look at his teacher.

The Republican Party was making it in the 60’s and 70’s, but it seemed like the Democrats had cornered the market on effective, beloved mass communication. The Republican Party might get the occasional vote, but if they wanted to be a true powerhouse, they had to get better at being persuasive and eloquent. Lee Atwater, though a nobody from the Carolinas, was a master at what he called spinning, which is, of course, now part of the basic political vocabulary. He could make anything sound as damning or uplifting as the chose. At the start of the 80’s he had the perfect vehicle through which to exhibit his gifts, Ronal Reagan. Reagan said he never would have won the primary and been on the road to the Whitehouse without Lee. But while Lee had the talent, he completely lacked in conscience. He had zero qualms about lying or cheating or straight up backstabbing to get the right story out.

He used racist tactics, sexist tactics and everything in between. The fascinating aspect of the story is not that such a person existed, but that it worked so very well. America, we were duped and then we were duped again in the 90’s and then his protégée duped us again in the early millennium. Atwater, his methods and his approach have become such an overwhelmingly successful aspect of campaigning that now it’s considered political idiocy to not use them. Now, the tables have turned and it is the Republican Party who is so effective at mass communication and the Democratic Party who seems at a loss for these abilities, even with the eloquence of Obama at the mic. Let’s just hope they don’t find their own Lee Atwater to turn that ship around for them.

If you want to see an unbiased, balanced examination of a very uniquely American political animal, this is the movie for you. This guy is fascinating and his story is even more so.