Friday, December 22, 2006

Return to the Thames

Wow. A three month blogfast. Sorry, my few loyal readers.

I got prepped for getting back in by reading some mom-blogs, in particular some guerrilla nursers (not to be confused with gorilla nursers). Wow. Very impressive, and not a little scary, if in mostly a good way. But more on that another time.

Today's post might not be what you would expect as a getter-backer-inner. But there you go. One writes what one must.

As it turns out, I must write about "The Queen," the movie with Helen Mirren, which we all (Jonathan is home from UW) just saw.

Hey, my surname is Thames. There are destinies one cannot escape.

I'll doubtless ruin the movie for those who haven't seen it, plan to, and hate to have the plot "given away." But I would guess most people are not going to see it nor do they plan to, so I'll proceed. You, I assume, know your own needs in this sort of thing.

It's about the royal family's reaction to Princess Diana's death. But it's more about their reaction to the British public's and the world's reaction to her death. And, in a way, it's just as much about Tony Blair's coming to understand the royals, and to value monarchy.
It is an incredibly fair and kind movie. Everyone's foibles are shown for what they are, but it loves its characters, and basically, as Elizabeth (Thames, not Windsor) said, everyone is trying to do the right thing from their own point of view. It's not sappy, though. The dramatic tension doesn't have to be manufactured; after all, it's built in to the material, for the whole point of the movie in one sense is that Diana's death brought out--whether it was the sort of thing that should have done so or not--all sorts of viewpoints in British life that are not easily comprehensible to each other, and (a separate issue, but confused with the other) are to some extent in conflict with one another.
Mirren is amazing as Queen Elizabeth. Even when she feels most despairing, she will not resign or abdicate, because of the horror in general British aristocrats and royals felt at the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 over his marriage to an American. She thinks what people want--for what she wants to do is be the people's monarch--is for her to not express her own emotions, but be dignified in public. This is what she has trained herself to do. But Diana, whom Blair's speech writer dubs "the people's princess," senses (rather than knows) that what the people want is for her to show her inner life and share it with them. To the royals, this smacks of celebrity, a term of extreme distaste and abuse among them. But of course, in many ways, that's exactly what, in the eyes of the public, the royals are. Prince Charles is presented, interestingly, as a son fearful of and dominated by his mother, but actually somewhat insightful about the changes in the world outside and in the relative royal position as a result. Not that Diana fully gets it: she dies partly because she resents and flees the papparazzi who inevitably accompany all celebrities. And Charles is only halfway there.
One issue where this becomes clear is in marriage and romantic relationships. The immediate fascination of the celebrity press is with Diana's love interests post-Charles. Her dalliances and affairs conducted in the glare of camera lights in jetsetting locales is a source of disbelief and disdain from all the royals, although it is of course the norm for celebrities. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Prince Philip, the Prince Consort (Queen Elizabeth's husband), who articulates well why they despise that sort of "making a spectacle of oneself," but also, in an off-handed, it's-just-obvious tone, says, in commenting on Charles's problems (Diana of course being one of them, in his view), that he, Charles, could neither leave his affair (with Camilla Parker-Bowles) behind when he married, in the modern fashion, nor "control his wife"--i.e., force her to accept that royal men just do have affairs, mistresses, harems, and she should deal with it, given the privileges accruing to her as legitimate wife--in the old style. His harumph indicates that he clearly thinks the old style was better, earning a scathing look from the Queen, but the larger point, of course, is not only that the upper class does and always has gotten away with marital and romantic arrangements that the rest of us could not, but that there is and always has been a market in the public for following such amazingly non-normal-person behavior, as the Enquirer and People and so on show. Edward VII, whom Prince Philip doubtless has in mind, was notorious for his affairs, but of course Edward VIII's problems were due to a different marital problem that only royals have (why can't I just marry a commoner, a foreigner, who's been divorced, if I want to?). And Charles's mistress and Diana's flings were just a modernized installment of the same, eternal phenomenon. (The movie implies, incidentally, that Philip has been (largely?) faithful to Elizabeth, such monogamy another "modern" approach.)
The attitudes of the public constantly come into play in the movie, at least for Blair's team and for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles. (The other royals, having truly no jobs and nothing that they have to do in life, are more or less what their critics say, some incredibly out of touch, incredibly privileged people.) Prince Charles correctly sees that, as he says, the public's image of Princess Diana and the royal family's day-to-day experience of living with her have, need have, and it's no surprise that they don't have, anything much whatsoever to do with each other. And since the royals just are, by virtue of who and what they are, public figures even when they would rather not be--just like any other celebrities--they have to take the public's perception into account when they act. Queen Elizabeth sees this, eventually, and delivers a televised speech and appears in public in ways which do damage control and renew the contract between the royal family and the people.

The way this happens is told, in some detail, as the story of how the royals' staff officials and the prime minister come to understand one another to some extent, at least enough to help the royal family through--and in the process, open Blair's eyes as to why it's important that they do so. But it is also portrayed, beautifully and hauntingly, by an allegory.
The assumption of the older royals is that Charles and Diana's kids, the princes, should be shielded from all media reporting on their mom's death. So (in another typical, old-fashioned move) the assumption is that they'll be better off "getting their minds off things" by getting outdoors for vigorous exercise, in this case, stalking a huge stag on the grounds of the royal retreat at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The dramatic climax comes when Blair phones the Queen and says that she must come to London and lead the people in expressing grief over Diana's loss. She hops in a LandRover to go get the princes (Philip, Charles, and the boys) from the far reaches of the estate. The truck breaks down crossing a stream; she calls (cell phones are ubiquitous and uncommented on in the movie, itself a remark on "modernization") some of her Scottish groundskeepers (whose accents, I'm sure, were ameliorated to keep from having to put subtitles in for American audiences) to come get her. As she waits for them, sitting on a rock above the stream, she wordlessly starts crying. She clearly is a feeling person. Then the stag the men are hunting comes up silently near her. The stag causes her to smile. When she hears rifle reports, she tries to shoo the stag away so that it won't be killed. However, a little later, back at Balmoral, as everyone is getting ready to leave for London, she hears from a groundskeeper that a great stag has been killed, having wandered onto the next estate, belonging to a duke or something. She drives over, and asks one of the staff there if she can see the stag. He takes her into a hanging room for game meat. There is the stag, suspended from hind legs, decapitated. The head is on a counter to the side. The Queen notices that the stag was wounded before being killed.
That's it for that scene, then it's off to London. But here's what I think is going on. Deer hunting is not thought of in England as it sometimes is considered in the US, a lowbrow sport for good old boys. It is an aristocratic privilege. The stag is connected somehow with nobility, if not with royalty. (Of course, surely the filmmaker must know the allied reference to the white stag in last Christmas's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) So part of what is going on is that the Queen is perceiving the threat to the monarchy--the stag is shot by an investment banker from London who paid for the privilege. "Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown," from Shakespeare's Henry V is the opening quote of the movie. The forces of modernity are a threat to monarchy: the privileges which accrued to royalty by history and right can now be purchased by anyone with sufficient resources to do so. But it becomes a more personal image. For Diana, like the stag, was hunted. And the stag, like Diana, is killed, at least indirectly, precisely for the reputation it has and by those who admire it. The Queen simply says to the gamekeeper, "let's hope it didn't suffer too much," which might be a first opening expression of sympathy and regret for Diana, in addition to a mourning for the loss of so much in royal history and British culture. (The Queen is well-educated historically and is fluent, I understand, at least in Latin and French.)
Meanwhile, the Queen's chief of staff and Charles and his staff realize that the royals must make a public move to respond to the people's outpouring of grief. For part of the intensity of that grief is not for Diana personally, of course, for of her as a person the crowd knows little. But she is--as befits a royal--a symbol, and the grief is partly driven by the sense of loss the people have over the monarchy, that it isn't what they do genuinely want it to be. They don't want to get rid of it; they want it to be more admirable but also more approachable and human than it is. (And openness and approachability is part of what they admire now, whereas for all we know Elizabeth may be right that in an earlier era the people admired other traits.) Blair sees this too, although his staff, closet or open republicans, do not. He sees that people all over the world value the British monarchy precisely because it is one of the few instititutions left in the world capable of symbolically enacting the people's feelings about whatever. So yes, part of the ceremonial is just Mardi Gras, which can be superficial and annoying, both to the royals who must act out the part and to serious critics. But part of it is valuable to people who are ritual-starved in their lives, who sense in their gut that spiritual and psychic meaning should take physical expression, but see nowhere and no way to do that in their lives. And the monarchy should be kept, should be there to enact public meaning, regardless of the royals' own personal private feelings.
Which is why Blair is impervious to his wife's criticism of the Queen, that, during her television address, she is acting and doesn't mean a word of it. Blair is like, well, of course. Public figures have to do that, they have to act in order to enact what the public expects of them and needs them for. "Faking it" for the common good, Blair sees, is her way of saving the monarchy by doing what the people want a monarch to do. So in a sense, as occurs to Blair when he blows up at the cynical comments of his own staff, Elizabeth is perfectly correct, in one way, that people do want her to suppress her own feelings. Which he respects her for. They do not want to know or hear about how much she detests Diana. But they do want her to express some feelings, namely, theirs. Is this because the crowd is basically selfish? Maybe. But it isn't because they want to humiliate the royals, it's that that's what they sense the royals are for, what only they can do, and why therefore they need them.
The Queen is hurt, humiliated, and angered by the insulting notes (why don't you care, she deserved better than them, etc) that people leave with their teddy bears and flowers outside Balmoral, and tells Blair this, that she has never been so hated before (outside her family, of course; the bad blood within it is why the family can't be a more confident force in public life). Of course his face shows that, as a politician, having people hate you is just part of it, it's a constant. Although the Queen is technically not, constitutionally, any longer a political figure in Britain, de facto at times she is, for in fact she is the voice of the nation at certain times, and this was one of those times, as the people themselves loudly indicated. And as for republicanism, what more does one want than a government whose officials can set aside their personal opinions and feelings for the sake of the public good as defined by the people themselves? That's why Blair goes to bat for her, and why she does what is necessary despite her feelings.
Part of the reason that all of this is so difficult to figure out (to "sort," as the Brits say) is that Britain nowadays truly is diverse. But that means that one part is not more "British" or "authentic" than another part. If that diversity truism is true, though, then the royals' estate at Balmoral, ancient privileges (which are constitutionally harmless), gorgeous (literally: gorge-filled) natural scenery, wildlife, class life (which can be genuinely relational and kind enough despite the hierarchy involved, as repeated scenes of the Queen with pages, ladies in waiting, and gameskeepers shows), and wool tweeds are just as (if no more) British than the Americanophiles around Blair or the "modernized" world of London investment bankers and tabloids. (Not to mention cell phones, mobiles, which everyone in the movie uses with no sense of irony.) But one part of genuine Britain has trouble seeing other parts as also authentically Britain; it is not a matter of old-fashioned and new, but of different and also valid. That multicultural-sounding and politically correct-sounding message may seem itself extremely trite and postmodernly loaded, but its handling here is not stereotypical, since the force of the movie is not to convince aristocrats that they need to change (though it, at a bit of arm's length, seems to endorse both Charles's and Diana's sense of this), but that "new Englanders" need to see the value of other forms of Britishness which (happen to be older but) also have their good points, and whose loss is or would be a genuine loss.
The last part of this is that God is part of British diversity now, which is difficult both for those who had assumed that God always was and would be part of Britain, and for those for whom God never comes into the picture and is something of an embarrassment. The Queen's advisor is talking with the prime minister, explaining to him that she really thinks that God has given her her job. Blair, in a rare frosty moment in the movie, says to leave God out of this. But of course that, too, is part of Britain's diversity. For, on a walk with her mom, the Queen Mother Elizabeth, we see that the Queen clearly takes her vow before God to be the people's monarch for her whole life quite literally and quite seriously. (I am told that Queen Elizabeth is one of the more genuinely Christian people to be monarch in British history, perhaps as much of one as the first Elizabeth.) Everyone has their motives: hers really does involve God, so that never mind the niceties of the British constitution, which establishes the Church of England and makes the Queen its titular head, religion and state, faith and politics just are very much intertwined for at least some people who are as authentically British as the atheist majority.
That has to be part of the message to American audiences. Another subtextual shoutout to America, I think, though, is even more political sciencey. And that is that it is very useful to be able to separate the head of government from the head of state. In the British system, Tony Blair is head of government. But Queen Elizabeth is head of state. The difference is that the head of government has practical power, but the head of state serves as the symbol of the unity and of the continuity of the country regardless of the comings and going of particular exercises of power. It is easy and obvious in Britain to see how one can be a patriot while criticizing the government, since one can be loyal to the Queen, that is to the country, instead of to the current administration. In the US system, the president is both head of state and head of government, and that makes it harder to see how one can criticize the president patriotically. Unscrupulous politicians, like Nixon and the current president's staff, use this to buffalo opponents and to cow them into silence and acquienscence. We even sense this need, for people's "allegiance" to the flag is not understandable except as a symbol of the country, the way loyal subjection to the person of the monarch (curtseys and bows, standing and removing hats, etc.) is in Britain. And our fierce loyalty to the constitution is not because we are, in fact, any more constitutional than Britain, which has a customary rather than a written constitution, but because some of the patriotism directed to the monarch there is directed to the constitution here. Moreover, even criticizing the country (as in the British people's criticism of the Queen) is not a desire to destroy the country, but to improve it, and make it what they want it to be.
In the movie, this takes the form of the flap over the flag. To the royals, who know the history and to whom it's still existentially meaningful (it elicits a very emotional response from Prince Philip, for instance), the royal standard is the only flag flown over a royal palace, and the royal standard is only flown there when the monarch is in fact in residence in that palace. The rest of the time, when the monarch is somewhere else, there is no flag over a palace at all. And a royal standard is never flown at half mast, because there is never a dead sovereign. When a king dies, the notification of that is "the king is dead; long live the king"--i.e., the new king, who automatically and instantly becomes king at the moment when the previous king dies. There is never not a living monarch, and so the standard of the monarch is always that of a living one, therefore it is never flown at half mast. (Historically, if I remember correctly, Elizabeth found out that she was queen when her father died suddenly in England while she was on a trip in Kenya, at the time still a British colony, and someone woke her to tell her by saying not "your highness," but "your majesty." She was 25.)
But to the people at large today, who do not know about and have forgotten almost everything of what they ever had known about ritual, one of the few public rites still generally known is that flags at official places are flown at halfmast when someone important dies or something tragic happens. In the movie, Prince Charles makes sure his flag is flown at Highgrove, his seat, even though he isn't there, and that it's flown at halfstaff. Eventually the Queen capitulates to Blair and does the same at Buckingham Palace.
Of course, to the historically informed, one of the points here is that all of these historic rituals came from somewhere, had their own occasion in which they became institutionalized. And as averse to it and incompetent at it as we are today, we still do it. The Vietnam Memorial set the ritual of inscribing names of victims on monuments, ostensibly at least making them monuments to the people who made sacrifices, not to the cause for which they sacrificed (about which our generations are much less agreed and much less confident). Diana's death set the ritual of bringing flowers, bears, and crosses to everywhere from Ground Zero in New York to bad corners on interstates where people have died or to public places people can get to.
People need ritual. We are bodily creatures, physical spirits. We need and expect our artists and our public figures to be able to enact in physical and visible ways what we all feel. As any artist or symbolically-aware politician knows, any physical word, object, or act may serve as a vehicle for people's sense of feeling and meaning. And philosophers and psychologists know that people's feelings and meanings search ever for concrete embodiment and expression. The royal family of the United Kingdom has been an important part of that for many people for a very long time--over a thousand years, as Prince Philip reminds at one point. And they can continue to do so, if they continue to listen to the people and accept their responsibilities as important public figures.
What a movie. And I hope Helen Mirren gets an Oscar nod, at least. That the Queen looks a bit like my mom, and is my father's age, I'm sure plays in to my interest here. In any case, to anyone who has actually persisted in reading through the longest post ever in the history of Blogger, my congratulations and humble thanks. Go see a good movie this break. I didn't want to, but was glad I did.


Blogger some chick said...

VERY interesting. A few thoughts:

1. See, this is why I decided not to become a celebrity -- all the prying into your private life, the need to put on a happy face (I've never been good at hiding my emotions). Well, that, and I really have no talents. But hey.

2. I like the distinction between head of government and head of state. That you can be a patriot and still freely criticize your government - something that seems lost on our current Administration. Actually, I was thinking about this today, so I find it enlightening that you would draw this parallel. And I think, that in a democracy, to criticize the wrongs you see in your government is one of the most patriotic things you can do. Of course, some would argue that to toe the party line is more patriotic. Maybe I should start calling the good parts 'Mother America," kind of like "Mother Russia."

3. And flags on land are flown at "half-staff." Only flags flown at sea and at grounded naval bases can be flown at "half-mast."

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The one character not developed in this film is that of Diana herself. And while the "people's princess" remains the icon of superficial popular culture, the Royal family knew a very different character up close -- the one behind the facades of glamour and pseudo-compassion.

Both Diana and her brother, Charles Spencer, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder caused by their mother's abandoning them as young children.  A google search reveals that Diana is considered a case study in BPD by mental health professionals.

For Charles Spencer, BPD meant insatiable sexual promiscuity (his wife was divorcing him at the time of Diana's death). For Diana, BPD meant intense insecurity and insatiable need for attention which even the best husband could never fulfill. 

Clinically, it's clear that the Royal family did not cause her "problems". Rather, Diana brought her multiple issues into the marriage, and the Royal family was hapless to deal with them.

Her illness, untreated, sowed the seeds of her fast and unstable lifestyle, and sadly, her tragic fate.

6:56 PM  

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