Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The King's Speech VS The Social Network: Heart over head?

So now The King's Speech is the frontrunner for the best picture Oscar at this month's 83rd annual Academy Awards. The Social Network, long considered the film to beat after having swept the critics awards and winning the Golden Globe for best motion picture-drama, is now an underdog. The King's Speech rose to its current status after winning awards from three major guilds, most of whose members belong to, or at least wield influence with, the Academy, as critics and members of the Globe bestowing Hollywood Foreign Press do not. Once Oscar nominations were announced, The King's Speech strengthened its lead by garnering 12 nominations, compared to The Social Network's 8, two less than even True Grit, the Coen brothers's western that the Globes and those critics pretty much ignored.

The amateur pundits who track the Oscars all year long, debating each film's merits and likely appeal to the Academy, are outraged. To them, The Social Network is a movie that speaks to its time (the word "zeitgeist" is trotted out repeatedly in discussions about the film) and speaks to the intellect (its characters are backstabbing creeps that only other backstabbing creeps could love). The King's Speech, they say, targets the emotions. It touches the heart and tells an uplifting story, mostly true, based on historical fact. There are the usual naysayers, including Christopher Hitchens, who are dumping on the film's distortions (King George VI was not nearly as unsympathetic to the Nazis as the movie claims, Hitchens says), just as they questioned the true character of Oscar Schindler and other subjects of heartwarming biopics.

The quarrel I have with these critics is that they almost always imply, or flat out state, that a film that appeals to the emotions is inferior to one that appeals to the intellect. Compassion and kindness are qualities believed to be related to the heart, and where, oh where, would our society be without compassion and kindness?

Someone whose head overrules his heart would probably not adopt an orphaned child or an abandoned puppy because his head is thinking only of the responsibilities, the expense, and the sacrifices required. The heart has other priorities and it could be argued that they are of greater value than a decision made only by the head. The heart usually proves wiser than the head in the long run because it takes others into consideration, something the main characters in The Social Network never do.

The head VS heart argument is even a little sexist. After all, we have always been told that women let their hearts rule their lives while men favor logical thinking. Ideally, a work of art appeals to both the mind and the emotions, but if it only aims for one, the greatest works of art usually go for the heart. They inspire rather than report, and as Bob Dylan once observed, the greatest thing you can do is inspire someone. Technical writing appeals exclusively to the head. Is it art? If so, does its appeal to the intellect make it superior to poetry?

I haven't seen The King's Speech, but The Social Network and its characters left me cold. Mark Zuckenberg is an obnoxious, fast-talking, opportunistic asshole without one redeeming personality trait. A movie's characters don't have to be noble or even likeable for a film to achieve greatness, as Martin Scorsese's magnificent Goodfellas proves, but it helps to have someone you care about or can identify with.

As for its "hitting the zeitgeist," maybe it does, but The Social Network strikes me as being a little too much of its time to remain relevant in the future. It's about the founding of Facebook (which is, as far as I can tell, nothing more than My Space with a different name), but Facebook will almost certainly fade away once the next big thing arrives. The Internet itself may be subsumed by some other technological innovation before long, and the web that we know now may look as quaint as those cylinders once used to record sound. The Social Network could just as well be a film about the invention of the compact disc. Some have suggested that it's comparable to Citizen Kane, not only because it has a media mogul at its center, but because of its supposedly revolutionary technique. Its certainly well-made, but I didn't see anything I haven't seen before. Furthermore, Zuckenberg is not Charles Foster Kane, and David Fincher, the director of The Social Network, good as he is, is no Orson Welles.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks