The King - USA 2006 - USA -James Marsh; Gael Garcia Bernal, Pell James, John Hurt
Viewed Tyneside Cinema - Newcastle; 8 June 2006; ticket price £6-00
weirder And wheirder and whearhder
I was trying to understand why exactly this film left me so profoundly dissatisfied, and why being left in such a state bothered me.
There is now a well documented style of film-making, mostly but not exclusively comprising American film makers, that comprises ‘the Weird genre’. This genre was of course signposted by film noir and 50’s horror movies, and the path further trailed by David Lynch. The trouble is that as a genre most of the examples lead nowhere. Most of the films are trapped in a circularity of logic and they develop as a litany of caricatured poses and attitudes. Their banal content leads to a deadening of their dramatic form.
Of course all genres in their structural form are salient products of their culture. The Western in the course of its history moves from embracing the loner as a hero, to questioning his role and function. The scifi films of the 50’s with their plots that parallel the political paranoia of the era. Weird movies reflect societies where values of consumerist capitalism create characters who, beyond a surface performance of conformity, have little social cohesion, and who as individuals are released into a notional freedom driven by the desires of an object and product based culture. My problem with Weird lies in the fact that unlike the Horror Film, this genre draws heavily on the social matrix, but similar to the horror film, it has little to offer except an escalation of effect as the substance of its form. So the Weird as genre takes up the idea of a particular form of socially determined isolation, but is unable to develop it any way other than a circuit of amplification. It is the filmmaker’s lack of ambition to do anything other than devise gestes of amplification that grounds this movie genre in banality. This is the source of my frustration with James Marsh’s film.
One of the salient features of ‘Weird’ is to employ a narrative form that comprises a strip of action in which a character (or characters) experiences or provokes a chain of weird linked events. In ‘Weird’ the general rule is that no character in the movie is aware of the weird because most of the central characters are woven into the same level of perception. The characters may say: “That’s weird!” the comment is usually reserved for the ordinary. The weirdness of the characters is for the viewers gaze to observe and understand. In these genre movies ‘weird’ is a shorthand for personality types who have found a line of retreat or escape from society. Their retreat does not alienate them from the culture: rather their psychic response is of an unbalanced but exaggerated conformance to certain dimensions of the commercial/political culture. This is a trait they share as a defensive response with the exploited subjects of Colonial regimes. So in Weird movies, a common personality feature of the characters is, that figures of iconic status from the movies or from rock n roll/ pop culture, provide derivative models for character assemblage. The feeling you get in Weird is that character is a function of an egregious random assembly from the drifting flotsom of mass communications. A core central feature of the weird personality type is an inherent unpredictability caused by disintegration of the assemblage which disintegration is oftem key to the unravelling of the narrative.
In ‘Weird ’ the face of the protagonist is often the key geste of the narrative. In The King, Bernal plays Elvis - the eponymous lead - with an invariant fixed look that is dominated by the fixed set and tone of his eyes - the outer socket musculature of his eye socket is relaxed but the eyes have a glowering quality caused by hardening of the inner eye socket muscles. This look, an attitudinal affect, dominates the film. It works as a non reactive mask through which the film’s events of increasing violence flow without emotive registration. Bernal’s role is allowed an occasional lapse into a rictus: a tensing of the jaw muscles to form a smile or half laugh for the sake of social easement so that some level of interaction can be imputed to Elvis by the other characters.
The plots of Weird films, and ‘the King’ is typical in this respect, normally rely on a single device or motif to drive a concatenation of events which are either weird in themselves or to which the characters have weird reactions. The structure of the King takes the form of an escalation of the weird events and responses leading to a final act of destruction followed by an unresolved last sequence about which there are few doubts as to outcome. The weakness of ‘the King’ is that to explain the events that it depicts, the only referential logic is the dynamic of escalation demanded by the form of the film. This is often the case with Horror films but these usually allow total suspension of belief and work hard to parody both themselves and nature of our fears. ‘The King’ like other Weird movies, doesn’t want us to suspend belief, rather the opposite: great care is taken to evoke a realistic mis-en scene. However within the classical structure of film created reality director Marsh wants to evoke a simplistic belief that the world is weird, particularly America. But it is over the simplicity of this thesis that the film stumbles and finally trips.
‘The King’ is typical of its genre in that the scenario is a series of weird events linked by the central weird character. ‘Weird’ films are often hyper-real in style, but the King hovers somewhere between an expressive mode of realism and hyperrealism. The characteristic feature of ‘The King’ is that everything is subservient to the dominant concept of weird. The passage of time, constancy of character, ideas suggested by the script are all ditched in the rapid progress through the linkage of weird events. Director James Marsh seems particularly lost when trying to build any coherence of time in ‘The King’. Despite the fact that the film is built on a time line, and there is a pregnancy(incestuous) and other critical time based references in the film, the director simply gives up any attempt at control over temporal issues, the action image drives time. Time in fact hardly exists in the film: there is neither emotional time, nor spacial time or movement time. Instead there are simply a string of events that take place without any time reference. So states of mind, the mother’s perception of her daughter who has engaged on an incestuous affair, the pregnancy are all reduced to the banality of the manufacture of the escalation of events.
The locus for Weird movies such as ‘the King’ tends to be USA. But it is as a country that is more a psychic geographical place rather than a specific location. The Weird is of course a cultural product, and it’s interesting as a type of film about the world’s culturally dominant force. But characteristic films such as ‘the King’ are decontextualised, dehistoricised and depoliticised. The individual is king and controls everything within the contorted bounds set by the gentre. ‘The King’ left its mark on me asan empoverished strain of endeavor that contributes little beyond its membership of a particular class of movies.
adrin neatrour 10 July 06