Thursday, December 9, 2010


How rare it is to see a movie that is stimulating, intelligent, and entertaining.  To watch one that pulls off the cinema hat trick of impeccable acting, writing (David Seidler) and directing (Tom Hooper).  That rarity is The King’s Speech.

Many of us of a certain age are familiar with the spine of the story. It’s 1936, the Great Depression is grinding away, and war clouds are forming over Europe. Britain’s King George V (Michael Gambon) dies, his vapid son Edward (Guy Pearce) succeeds him as king. Just eleven months later, Edward abdicates so he can run off and marry the American multiple-divorcĂ©e, Wallis Simpson. Younger brother Albert Frederick Arthur George, or “Bertie,” (Colin Firth) ascends to the throne as King George VI. As far as European royal families go, so far, so good

But – there’s always a “but” – Bertie has a problem.  And it’s a problem that I certainly wasn’t aware of before this movie. Bertie has been a life-long stammerer, and he’s deathly afraid of any form of public speaking. Yet he now has a nation to inspire as its titular leader, and he has to do this during a time of rising international turmoil. This requires ceremonial remarks, radio addresses, public appearances – all anathema to this insecure, embarrassed, stammering king.

So stammering and British history intersect. And this leads to the heart of the movie – the relationship between Bertie and his highly unconventional speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush). Watching this rocky relationship develop, as portrayed by two masters of the acting art, Firth and Rush, is a treat to behold. And the lesser roles aren't too shabby -- Helen Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The critical reception has been almost unanimously gushing.  All 17 top critics as compiled by Rotten Tomatoes gave it the highest accolade -- a ripe tomato rating.

To me, one of the most interesting perspectives on the movie was that written by the drama critic of the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty. What makes his review a little more special is that McNulty is himself a stammerer. Some quotes from his piece:

Public speaking consistently ranks as one of life's most stressful events, up there with divorce, bereavement and home foreclosure.

As someone who has stuttered since childhood, I recognize [Bertie’s] symptoms only too well — the blood-drained complexion, the collapsing gait, the passive acceptance of death in the eyes.

Probably the darkest period of my life was around the time I was just finishing graduate school and feeling completely overwhelmed with doubts about how I would make my way in the world. How funny that a future king could share my anxiety.

By the way, I recently read Black Swan Green, a terrific 2006 novel by British writer David Mitchell in which the protagonist is a 13-year-old stammerer. His biggest challenges arise from the cruelty that many children impose upon a peer who has a disability. As McNulty pointed out in his movie essay,

The condition has been coded as a joke in popular culture, one of the few disabilities considered fair game for laughs.

We recently watched another highly enjoyable movie about 20th-century British royals, The Lost Prince. Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, this BBC film tells the poignant tale of Prince John, the epileptic youngest brother of Bertie and Edward. Available on DVD at Netflix.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Last night, we attended the preview of a terrific show: Peter Greenaway’s multimedia interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana. The show, an American premiere, opens Friday at the Park Avenue Armory, and it’s without doubt the best $15 entertainment you’ll find these days in New York.

Peter Greenaway
Greenaway is the Welsh-born multimedia artist and filmmaker perhaps best known for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, a 1989 movie that the New York Times called “elegant” and “stylized”, and the Washington Post labeled “accomplished” and “astounding.” These descriptions would aptly lend themselves to Greenaway’s show at the Armory. It is some artistic tour de force.

The original da Vinci painting is in the Refectory of the Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. Greenaway has shaped his interpretation of  The Last Supper by using the brilliant technology of Factum Arte, a Madrid-based company that produced a meticulously detailed, high-resolution facsimile of the original painting. Greenaway brings it to life through an ingenious manipulation of light, sound, and theatrical illusion. These, in turn, allow you to see the familiar image in completely new ways. There are projections, moving and still, on the walls and the ceiling.  There are voices. There is music. There are enlargements. Enlargements of the enlargements. Individual figures come to life. Wine and blood that flow over the table’s edge. And on. And on. It’s an immersive, thrilling, unique experience. The video below suggests, but does not capture, the real-life experience.
Veronese's The Wedding at Cana

The other highlight of the Armory show is Greenaway’s multimedia treatment of  The Wedding at Cana. This 16th century Veronese work was originally located in the Benedictine monastery of  San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Then Napoleon came along in 1797, sliced the huge painting (31 x 23 ft., 130 people) into sections, and carted it off to Paris where it ended up – and remains – in the Louvre.
The Greenaway/Factum Arte multimedia treatment of The Wedding at Cana is equal to that of The Last Supper. Together, they offer a unique way of looking at two of the great art works in history. Greenaway demonstrates how a contemporary artist can use technology and imagination to stimulate the appreciation the ages-old visual arts. More multimedia explorations are on the way. Of the ten in total that he has planned, Picasso’s Guernica may be next.

Finally, a word in praise of Factum Arte. British artist Adam Howe has created this international company that leads the world in applying technology to art conservation and to the making of exact facsimiles of works of art. Indeed, it has an astonishing capability for creating high-resolution, three-dimensional clones of major works of art.

Scanning The Wedding at Cana at the Louvre
Example: It made a precisely identical, visually indistinguishable, three-dimensional clone of The Wedding at Cana original that hangs in the Louvre. The clone now hangs back at its original home, San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. But as art historian Susan Tallman points out (Art in America, Feb. '09), “The original hangs low on a wall at the Louvre, between two doors, in the same crowded gallery as the Mona Lisa. The copy at San Giorgio Maggiore hangs at the height and in the space for which it was intended, with the lighting anticipated by Veronese. There is no doubt which is the more authentic object. But which version provides the more authentic experience is open to question.”

By the way, a few years ago I posted on this blog a suggestion to democratize art by creating exact reproductions of masterpieces held in museums around the world and then making them available to other museums around the world for art lovers and students to enjoy locally. The aesthetic experience offered by the clone would be identical to that of the original; this was shown to be the case with The Wedding at Cana reproduction in San Giorgio Maggiore. 

Alas, the art establishment -- museums, curators, artists, dealers, collectors -- is not exactly enamored of this idea. But I am. And now the Louvre has broken the ice with its permission for the Veronese clone to be made, and now that we have the technology to do it, who knows? You can read the proposal here.

If you want to see the Greenaway show  – and you should – hurry. It closes January 6th.