So the royal wedding has come and gone and I saw enough to give me fodder for a few musings. Yes, I am a sucker for the spectacle and back story, but even I was surfeited. At some point, as Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters blathered on with help from Tina Brown (who was taking a break from saving Newsweek), I became a bit weary of it all — though, no doubt, I will return soon enough to drink from what promises to be a very deep well.
What struck me in watching this event was less the event than its coverage — a swaddling of commentary so dense as to practically smother the spectacle we all tuned in to see. This was owing in large part to the plethora of close-ups. I do not recall as many close-ups of dresses, hats, and, most importantly, faces in any previous royal wedding that has been televised.
The introduction of the close-up was a watershed moment in the history of movie-making. At first it was seen as a wasteful element — why would people want to see part of an actor’s body when they had paid to see the whole thing? But soon, the value of looking at something in close-up became clear: It allowed films to show details of dress and décor that interested audiences. Most of all, it made it possible for cameras to focus on an actor’s expressive face and thus show emotion without the use of words. This accounts for why early film — for more than a decade after its advent — had no need for simultaneous sound.
Yet the close-up, when fixed on people who are not trained actors, can reveal them to us with an intimacy that may jar with the occasion in which they find themselves. As Walters and Sawyer worked to make the faces of the participants in this event fit the occasion, we the viewers had these faces in front of us and could draw our own conclusions. Prince William and his bride were attractive people, but they were not movie stars, and, so, they didn’t quite look and act the way such stars have led us to expect, especially at a moment billed as the most important and romantic of their lives. Why didn’t the young couple glance at each other more, exchange more smiles and gestures, touch each other with more love and concern? How perfunctory that long-awaited kiss (the commentators pounced on there being two to make up for the lack of oomph in either). Obviously, it would be hard to be loving and spontaneous in front of a million live people and three billion more watching on television, but we have been conditioned to see love and spontaneity on TV and movies every day.
More problematic still were the extras in this affair: Parents and grandparents of the bride and groom, who looked as if they were in a state of quasi-petrification — with the exception of the Queen and her consort, who always look at ease in their inexpressiveness (my favorite moment: Prince Philip rotely mouthing “God Save the Queen” without casting a glance in the direction of the figure next to him, who happened to be the subject of the song). In short, the fairy tale story jarred with the faces of all concerned.
Of course, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, seasoned practitioners of spin, made out that everyone was perfect: the body language of Kate and William, they said, was terrific, expressing the warmth and comfort the couple felt for each other. They also maintained that the blank faces of Prince Charles and Camilla, the Queen and Prince Philip, were those of people who were finally relaxed and happy (and it’s true that, given what they’d been through, the absence of a grimace could be taken as a sign of unmitigated joy).
We can never know what is transpiring behind another person’s face. We can only speculate with the help of outward cues. These people would not do well on their screen tests, but the commentators worked hard to make do. And with such an outlay of resources by the television networks, is it any wonder that they wanted to jam everything into a fairy tale narrative, even if it meant lopping off a bit of a toe or an ankle (to borrow from that most apposite of fairy tales)?
But enough with the faces, let’s talk about the hats. In my previous column I expressed a predilection for hats on royal heads. Still, I wasn’t prepared for this. What happened with hats when I wasn’t looking? When did they become so aggressively po-mo? Yes, I like hats, when they frame the face and display elegance or prettiness in their design. An ostrich feather or two? Fine. But ostriches run amok? Brims as wide as awnings, with sweeps and dips that resemble the slides at waterparks? Isn’t this a sign of something amiss in the larger cultural arena? The hats of William’s cousins — daughters of Prince Andrew and the absent Fergie — seemed to be making some sort of comment. But what? The girls looked like Cinderella’s stepsisters (to continue my above allusion). With those hats, the communal spectacle embodied by the traditional long shot was definitively usurped by the preening individualism of the close-up.
It would appear from all this that the monarchy has arrived at a Mannerist phase in its development. Mannerism is that moment in art where a once-robust aesthetic loses its balance and becomes extreme and distorted. You may argue that this juncture was reached during the tumultuous reign of Diana. But Diana’s life and death struck me as having the dramatic content of high Romanticism. Mannerism is form overtaking content. Admittedly, royalty has always been about an excess of form, but for a long period there was content, too — think of Henry VIII’s creation of the Anglican Church, and all those wars based on enmity between royal cousins. But the hats seem to reflect a new turn: tortuous formal innovation for its own sake.
Then again, as we were reminded continually by Sawyer, Walters, et al., the royal couple may mark a new phase in the monarchical story, perhaps a new beginning. They are said to be down-to-earth, un-showy, pleasant sorts of young people. Kate’s gown was tasteful and pretty, and the couple are reported to want to do their own housework. Perhaps a new classicism is in the making. We can only wait for the next big event, perhaps the birth of an heir, to test this hypothesis. The prediction, however, is twins, which would mean lots of close-ups of not one, but two, christening gowns — and matching bonnets. • 2 May 2011