Now playing at the movies: stuttering kings, stumbling dancers, conniving nerds

Am I the only one who noticed, or did the three films considered most likely to win the Best Picture Oscar this year all strike you as sharing the same theme?

Black Swan, King’s Speech and Social Network each seemed to be about disaffected individuals struggling to express themselves in a world preoccupied with objects. As such, all three movies, to one degree or another, seemed to be based on the same 1923 book: Martin Buber’s Ich und Du, making this a can’t-miss year for to the Bubster to finally collect his statue from the Academy — in spirit, at least, since he died back in ‘65.

What do you wanna do tonight, Marty?

I’m neither a student nor a fan of Buber, whose big work, translated as “I and Thou,” was forced reading in high school. I recall little of the contents, because we amused ourselves during the assigned reading period by insisting on pronouncing the author’s name, Billy Carter-style, as Bubba, and reading the passages aloud using a Gomer Pyle intonation, while throwing in exclamatory Pyle-isms such as, “Gol-l-l-l-e-e-e-e!” Thanks to Buber and other curriculum oddities, high school passed as quickly as any related form of torture.

Things might have been different if we’d had the Internet back then. Exactly how much different is illustrated precisely in “The Social Network,” where the protagonist, some kid named Zuckerberg, uses his self-taught mastery over practical computer functions to become a big shot on the Harvard University campus, and, in short order, a billionaire 20 times over, after he invents Facebook in his dorm room. His computer skills are unequalled. What he isn’t quite as good at is carrying out a simple conversation with a girlfriend, or getting along with the swaggering figures of the university administration, or certain privileged fellow-underclassmen. In that sense, Zuckerberg is Everyman, if we all happened to be dweebish collegian computer geniuses.

Brushed off by the girl he loves, he applies his galloping intellect and hormones into inventing a so-called social network, a parallel planet whereby users can interact and form “friendships” without the inconvenience and disorder of actually getting to know the other person. It may have surprised Buber, who theorized on this subject, to find that half-a-billion of the world’s inhabitants would rush to partake of this dubious experience.

The film adroitly catches each irony, as Zuckerberg casually punishes his first financial backer, and only approximation of a non-digitized friend, by screwing him out of a 30 percent ownership stake in the company they jointly established. He multi-tasks this act of cruelty while being voluntarily disengaged from the physical world, preferring to be scribbling code while plugged into the binary universe of his own creation. This is a lot for the movie-goer to take in. The knowledge the film conveys about the weird workings of the human heart is all the more powerful because we arrive at the theatre already familiar with the improbable story, the nerdy principals, and the technology product that instantly took the world by storm.

The technology’s also the thing in “The King’s Speech,” where it’s 1939 and a pathologically tongue-tied King George VI is required by history to deliver to his subjects a call to arms, using that new invention, Marconi’s wireless.

George is possessed of a regal nature and a damaged soul, and he acts out his daddy issues through a painful-to-behold stammer. He receives secret speech therapy from a failed actor, Lionel Logue, whose Aussie egalitarianism will prompt the hot-tempered monarch to explode on cue. From these slapstick beginnings, a buddy-pic emerges as the uptight blue-blood saves the Empire with the help of the seedy thespian, and the pair develop a life-long friendship, completely free of homoerotic undertones, no matter what you might have heard about what goes on in those British public schools.

The graphic homoeroticism in “The Black Swan” has been much commented upon, and is one part of what makes the ballet drama the most controversial and complex of the year’s big three cine achievements. Lengthy and specific as it may be, the Sapphic smooching scene is merely one of a chain of fantasies experienced by the film’s hero, a self-sacrificing dancer who has given it all to her art. Her denial of pleasure is attached to a quest for artistic perfection, encouraged by her archetype of a smothering mother, portrayed by Barbara Bach. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky has plenty of points to make about anomie, alienation, and the mind and spirit of the artiste, but he also knows his audience well enough to conclude that it’s box office magic whenever two hot chicks get it on in a high-brow flick.

Aside from such rare outbreaks of passion, we’re inevitably brought back to technology, and its potential to both dehumanize and humanize. Zuckerberg and Aronofsky were kids from the inner New York suburbs studying at Harvard, separated by only around a dozen years. Aronofsky, evidently just following a computer-hacker’s prerogative, makes lavish use of computer-generated imaging in his film, causing his ballerina to spontaneously sprout feathers and flesh wounds. While these imagined metamorphoses are taking place, her colleagues mumble on, in asides, about how the economic viability of traditional ballet companies is being threatened.

However, our new-millennium world cares about objects, not people, and what we see being subsumed into technology each day, in real life as on the movie screen, is… everything. And so, George VI forcefully delivers his stirring address into a radio microphone, but then barely three generations later, the level of oratorical discourse, delivered via YouTube, will sink to the subterranean depths of a Michelle Bachman or Sarah Palin. College undergraduates continue to seek camaraderie at cozy campus bars, except that they occupy themselves now by solitarily firing off text-messages to unseen “Facebook friends.” Performing with a major ballet company will always be soul-fulfilling, until the boss has no use for you anymore, in which case you may as well be any other schlub who suddenly finds himself without a paycheck.

Old Man Buber, on another occasion, offered a comment that might have applied to these three nominees for Best Picture of 2010: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings.” Which might be rephrased for audiences by the movies’ directors as: “Hang your silly crown on the hat-rack, kick off those stupid pointe shoes, turn off your iPhone, c’mere and give us a hug.”


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