Search This Blog

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Guiding Light: Lincoln as Spielberg's Other Extra-Terrestrial

“With his death,” writes Doris Kearns Goodwin at the conclusion of Team of Rivals,  “Abraham Lincoln had come to seem the embodiment of his own words – ‘With malice toward none; with charity for all’ – voiced in his second inaugural to lay out the visionary pathway to a reconstructed union.” Goodwin’s book is the main source for Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln, an almost “anti” biopic that evades showing the expected high notes in the Lincoln symphony, instead condensing its most storied of American subjects into a procedural set on a political chessboard.  A man who was “the embodiment of his own words,” this Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) shows how those words ascend and float beyond the grit of his terrestrial existence. The film asks what the specificity or legend of a lone individual means for the broad world, the title card “Lincoln” cutting to the opening images of whooping soldiers with raised bayonets to pierce flesh, their boots stamping on faces to drown them in the mud. Scores of dead are burdened on this name, which represents different things to different people, and remains to do so. In the microcosm of a few months, Lincoln seeks not to “reveal” the macrocosm of a human life or an age, but rather to understand how that life remains mysterious and unknowable, always malleable and moving, never fixed. Lincoln is the great “Uniter,” a curious seeker and seer whose challenge is to move through a labyrinth of swinging pendulums, his rare quality of empathy now part of the historical dialectic. He surrenders himself to the tide, to “the ages” which claim him.  Looking into his large black hat, out of which he grabs speeches containing deathless words that usurp plain biography, he could be said to be gazing into a great and mysterious abyss.  With that mystical quality along with his curiosity, compassion, and will to take the ills of a nation upon himself, Abraham Lincoln’s closest kin in Spielberg’s universe is E.T. Both characters heal divides between times, people, and places, the alien coming from outer space while Lincoln's extra terrestrial landscape is the cosmos of the mind and deep thought. These characters scratch themselves into our memory, bidding us to "be good" before departing.

The opening trailers in recent months immediately proposed the question of who Lincoln was, and whose Lincoln would Spielberg and Kushner portray? The high-pitched voice of Daniel Day-Lewis, so unlike the great English actor’s other commanding characters (Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher, John Procter, Hawkeye), came close to provoking some kind of controversy. Instead of the rock-steady Lincolns pervading popular consciousness and our Halls of Presidents, Lincoln here seemed to be shades of Walter Brennan or even, as lovable Spielberg hater Jeffrey Wells noted, Matthew Modine (though no one mentions Sam Waterston, whose similar high voice was part of the 1987 Gore Vidal-based Lincoln miniseries). It would have been the most wonderful of rejections if popular audiences turned down Spielberg’s Lincoln because of his voice (which historians tell us is probably accurate), a demonstration of what’s so important to the picture Spielberg has created. For as Abraham Lincoln sits and chats with some Union soldiers, they tell him that they were at Gettysburg and saw him at a cemetery dedication years before. “Could you hear me?” Lincoln asks them, regarding his speech. They hey couldn’t. But they know the words, and with some fumbling imperfections, they have it memorized. Lincoln listens as the soldiers, two black and two white, recite his words back to him.
Hearing himself: Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis)
In the abstract, without seeing this scene but hearing about it, one could understandably dismiss it as eye-rolling Spielbergian bullshit, particularly when one of the black soldiers wraps up with the final lines ("government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth"). But the way Kushner has written the opening, and Spielberg with his longtime collaborators (like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and let's not forget composer John Williams) has executed it with his actors, reveals some key themes, setting a tone for where the next 140 minutes will take us. The approach is not to sentimentally congratulate the soldiers for their memorization or to show how Lincoln’s message affects them. Rather, the moment is about Lincoln hearing his words come back to him through other voices, and his understanding about how history and perception are running away with what he originally set to paper and orated. The authored document - much like Schindler's list of Jewish names, a grave at Arlington, or a mechanical robot programmed by scientists to love - comes to life.

Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), portrayed negatively in Birth of a Nation, now represents our present-day conscience in Lincoln.
The tempest of history is embodied in how the soldiers are talking over each other with varying temperaments. Of the two black soldiers, one is prudent and restrained, the other blunt and maybe too forthcoming about unequal pay. One is acting in tune with social niceties, the other is telling the truth. There’s a flow of oppositions: white soldiers and black soldiers, pretense and truth, North and South, Free and Slave. Kushner is interested in a historical dialectic of ideas moving forward through chaos, and the labyrinth through which progress moves is the battlefield of language. The film is full of oratory which is deliberately theatrical, as characters speak knowing that what they say matters, and historical record will become a kind of script or play, the domain of politics a stage on which everyone is acting. And indeed, to be too forthcoming or honest like abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the voice to our modern-day sensibilities, is politically treacherous. The film is about the passing and ratification of an abstraction to be printed as a piece of paper, the 13th Amendment, which will legally abolish slavery. That paper holds in it Lincoln’s hopes for a new and healed nation, and of realized “self-evident” truths about our nature. Stevens will have to compromise his values to pass it. The film is stressing the problematic relationship between Historical Text and Reality.

The opening shot of The Godfather. Spielberg introduces Lincoln in a similar fashion, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's choices at times reminded me of "Prince of Darkness" Gordon Willis' work on the Corleone trilogy.
The opening moments of Lincoln also remind me of another story about theatricality alongside backroom dealings and conspiratorial mazes in the reflective mirror hallways of history, where the deep ocean of dark contrasts to the few sharp rays of light. As the camera slowly pulls back from the soldiers talking, and our first glimpse of Lincoln is the back of his head in the foreground, how can one not think about the introduction to The Godfather? Like The Godfather, Lincoln introduces its hero by showing the rear of a patriarch’s head. He is listening, wavering through decisions, and thinking through the shadows, the “swamps” on the way “true north.” Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography even seems to be very much modeled on Gordon Willis’ pallet for The Godfather trilogy, the supporting players in 1860s’ politics functionally similar to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s Corleone adversaries and collaborators. Isn't David Strathairn’s William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, a consigliore not unlike Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen? The wry and wily glutton W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), who works tirelessly with some accomplices (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes) to secure votes from lame duck congressmen, a Clemenza? Old school Francis Breston Blair Sr. (Hal Halbrook) a Don Altobello? Pro-Slavery Democrat representative Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) the antagonistic equals of Barzini, Hyman Roth, and Lucchesi? The passionate Stevens, struggling to muzzle himself until a climactic congressional moment, so much like Frank Pentangeli?  In the President and Stevens, discussing and debating one’s moral compass while seeking "true north," don’t we see Michael Corleone telling Pentangeli, “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer”? And isn’t this Lincoln, played similarly by a man perceived as the generation’s greatest actor like Marlon Brando before him, an ungraspable, mysterious, and omniscient Godfather too?

I don’t think this is necessarily coincidental (or particularly vital, as others remark how the picture is similar to Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent).  I may be reading too much into things, as I'm prone to do, but it makes sense that Spielberg would seek out a unique model to inspire his design, rather than fall back on the predictable look of other 19th century epics. He’s even retained Coppola’s motif of doors closing on people, keeping them in the dark and apart from the realities of whatever convoluted process or scheme is being concocted.

Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) and Mary Todd Lincoln visiting Congress.
And as The Godfather is about children struggling to comprehensively grasp and live up to their mysterious father, aren’t we all, presently as viewers, even as an international audience (read of Tolstoy’s adoration of Lincoln), Lincoln’s children, all of us jealously trying to claim his legacy and be his heirs? Still he remains elusive to us, his essence mysterious, a rare hero whose universalism may prove frustrating to a nation obsessed with its own exceptionalism, in turn leading the “exceptionalists” among us to denounce him as the espouser of a “Union” some of us didn’t want (for Ron Paul supporters and readers of Thomas DiLorenzo, he's the despotic hand of the Great Fed closing down on freedom, and ushering great violence along with him).  In his time and up close, the spirit of Abraham Lincoln was hard to grasp, and Walt Whitman, whose own universality and multitudes of contradictions mirrored Lincoln’s, pointed out how the President’s contemporaries were unable to portray the mystery and depth of his indelible face in art. He writes, “[His] look, though abstracted, happened to be directed steadily to my eye…[Far] beneath his smile I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and direct expression of the man’s face. There is something else there" (my italics).

For Whitman that “something else” is of the same cosmic God-stuff in his leaves of grass, the smallest sprout of which “shows there is really no death,” and Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, using the visage and technical mastery of Daniel Day-Lewis, apply Whitman’s transcendentalism and Lincoln’s ceaseless intellectual movement of sensitivity and empathy to the cycle of history: “All goes onward and outward….and nothing collapses.” The American Civil War, as remembered by Walt Whitman, is not relegated to an isolated, concrete patch of history with half-a-million dead and maimed, their blood soaking the grass. It is an “era compressing centuries of native passion, first-class pictures, tempests of life and death – an inexhaustible mine for the histories, drama, romance, and even philosophy of peoples to come – indeed the verteber of poetry and art (of personal character too,) for all future America – far more grand, in my opinion, to the hands capable of it, than Homer’s siege of Troy, or the French wars to Shakspere.” The enigmatic face of Day-Lewis conveys the mystery of Lincoln, which connects to the perennial echoes beneath the circumstances in his times. A cosmic sweep of history isn't attained by Spielberg through David O. Selznick gusto (such as in the recent War Horse) or the extroverted events in Lincoln's life, which we would get in a big miniseries, but in inwardness masterfully conveyed by a thinking human face.

         "We should have run a better man against Lincoln when we had the chance." Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.

 This is why the casting of Day-Lewis is so perfect for Lincoln. An actor noted for his deep immersion and transformation into varied personalities with the most honed of technical skills, Daniel Day-Lewis almost always portrays the quality of thinking, of introverted depth. There is always a searching, studied calm on his face, a kind of knowing that only gradually reveals itself. It’s in the gay punk from My Beautiful Launderette, the palsy-afflicted poet Christy Brown in My Left Foot, Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, John Procter in The Crucible, even in the misfire Nine’s Felliniesque director Guido. In Gangs of New York, Bill the Butcher understands the "spectacle of fearsome acts” preserves his power. In There Will be Blood, Daniel Plainview deduces “the worst in people,” using that insight to his advantage. The womanizing brain surgeon Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being can aptly draw out how the Czech communists aren’t worthy of Oedipus, who at least tore out his eyeballs when he realized his sins. In The Last of the Mohicans, Hawkeye understands how his adversary, the Huron Magwa, “makes himself into what twisted him,” the oppressive and violent systems of colonial Europe being appropriated by Magwa to perpetuate war and greed. Day-Lewis’ characters repeatedly understand human nature and its innate imperfections.That is Abraham Lincoln.

The paradox of a man whose mind is ceaselessly evolving while moving inward is there with one of Lincoln’s first scenes, an unexpected picture of Lincoln’s dream life. He’s on a boat, coasting over water, accelerating through space and the future. He is describing the dream to his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), who identifies herself as his “soothsayer.” “I am keenly aware of my aloneness,” Lincoln says, adding that he’s “a king of infinite space.” But the boat, in this recurring dream, is now moving faster than it ever has. Too fast maybe.

The President's "soothsayer": Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field)
Is it Time? Space? Or is it Death fast approaching? As an audience, we are more aware than Lincoln that he only has months left on this planet. And indeed, if ever a life seemed to suggest the preciousness of Time nervously set against the urgency of death, accomplishment, and clarity, it’s Lincoln. Embroiled in Civil War, where each day returns countless more bodies and dismembered flesh, Abraham Lincoln is charged with solving the problem not only of Union, which is his primary goal, but of slavery, and completing the task of what was deliberately omitted from the Revolutionary documents nearly a century before him (slavery’s absence from the Constitution pointing out how it’s an insoluble problem, a riddling Sphinx, begging to be challenged and solved).  His Emancipation Proclamation from 1863 is only that – a “proclamation,” words, a temporary war measure that doesn’t free slaves in any of the border states. Unless slavery is legally abolished through a ratified Amendment to the Constitution, once peace is established things could go back to what they were before 1861. 700,000 lives are wasted along with four grueling years. Civil War would only temporarily subside before erupting in the future.

Team of Rivals: "Lincoln"
That’s what the dream is, Mary points out with frustration. This proposed, unpopular 13th Amendment. And it’s also Time, Space, and Death, stirred together in a quickening whirlpool. The complexity of the puzzle is in how Lincoln has to pass the amendment with an uncooperative and divided congress before peace is established, something the Confederacy, exhausted and now losing the war, is seeking. But to prolong the war for this unpopular measure – which the “people” could live without – is harmful to Lincoln’s character, the stakes of a meat grinding battlefield bringing him dangerously close to appearing like the despot his enemies have painted ("King Abraham Africanus the First" is how he's described on the House floor). A wonderful scene between Lincoln and William Seward shows this: the common folk, embodied in Mr. and Mrs. Jolly from Ohio, would rather the war ended without the amendment passing first. "Why?" Seward asks. Mr. Jolly says, as if the answer were all too obvious, "Niggers." The immediacy of life and death is more important than some Negroes getting their freedom and in one swoop poured over the land, competing with whites for land, jobs, and goods. This proposed amendment will require, according to Seward, “shady work.”  In our own time, regarding the uninsured, climate change. and gay marriage, we see how far behind “the people” typically are, not led by human empathy or a historical longview so much as by convenience, convention, and self-satisfaction. 

 Abraham Lincoln drew from the well of the literary canon, memorizing the poetry of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, seeing the dimensions of what constituted “the human” in the words.  Shakespeare’s characters - Lear, Hamlet, Brutus, Macbeth, Prospero, etc. - vividly portray the plasticity of human identity, its changing and mystery.  What Shakespeare richly gives his readers is not necessarily moral lessons to teach us the faults within ourselves, but rather the talent to observe and listen to ourselves while we think, as if we were literary characters.  In Lincoln, Spielberg and Day-Lewis convey this in the President’s deliberations, his back-and-forths, his stares, and in his dreams where the “aloneness” of an individual’s existence is overwhelming.

"There is something else there." Walt Whitman on Lincoln's face.
As a politician educated through the practice of Law, Lincoln is himself an actor tip-toeing on the stage of legalese and historical tumult. Whitman refers to him as “the leading actor in the stormiest drama known to real history’s stage through centuries.” And Spielberg and Kushner are always stressing the performance of politics in their film, in regards to the necessary posture a congressman like Thaddeus Stevens must assume in order to enable progress, in addition to the Lincolns “putting on a face” after their son Willie died three years earlier. Lincoln tells Stevens, “I admire your zeal” and “moral compass,” and “a compass will put you true north.” But Lincoln adds, “If you can’t avoid the swamps, what good is true north?” In front of congress, as Fernando Wood, the new amendment’s chief adversary, tries to goad Stevens into devolving into his abolitionist passion which would doom the vote, Stevens “performs,” sticking to Lincoln’s suggested script: "I don't hold with equality in all things, only with equality before the Law." Stevens is chided outside by fellow abolitionists for this compromise of his values, but as the checkered floor behind him suggests, he grasps the game of chess that this political journey of true north truly is.

Spielberg earlier dealt with this in Amistad, where the abolitionists take offense to the key means of defense a lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) offers to them: they can win through tiptoeing through "vagaries of legal minutiae," and yet doesn't this corrupt their "statement"?  In Schindler's List, Schindler and Stern work similarly through business arrangements and documentation, keeping Jews alive. "Do we have to invent a whole new language?" Schindler asks with anger. "I think so," Stern answers. Here, Lincoln, privy to the trajectory where their mutual narrative will go, informs Stevens of the inevitable Reconstruction squabbles, "We shall oppose each other in the course of time," but nothing can go forward unless the abolitionist leader makes this rhetorical compromise. Lincoln's masterstroke is to speciously reply to some conservative Republican congressmen question as to whether Southern representatives have made offers for peace before the vote. Wood is right that Lincoln's written reply, of "To my knowledge" no one from the South is in Washington to offer peace, is a "lawyer's dodge." But it works. And as with Schindler's list, where "all around its margins lies the gulf," the principle behind it trumps the means by which it is achieved. 

Elsewhere, Lincoln uses the theatrical quality of storytelling to stir his audience – a tool that may upset more practical and concrete thinkers, like his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), who storms off before Lincoln can relate an Ethan Allen anecdote with a punch-line involving the “sight of George Washington” making British officers shit themselves.  He uses lines to his eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meant to discourage him from joining the Union Army, and Lincoln knows that it's the "same scene" played out between fathers and sons across the nation. Lincoln quotes Lear ("poor bare-fork'd animals") and Falstaff ("we have heard the chimes at midnight"), and attends an opera of Faust. Like Hamlet, Lincoln understands how "the play's thing thing" that will catch our consciences, how we are unwittingly acting in everyday discourse. As history is rendered as paper, illuminating humankind with each fresh recitation, Lincoln’s active and curious imagination is like that of an aesthete. As Whitman notes, the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford's Theater has a timeless meaning associated “in senses finally dearest to a nation…the imaginative and artistic senses – the literary and dramatic ones…A meaning precious to the race, and to every age.”

The performative quality of politics and statesmanship rhetoric can be of low stuff, geared to preserving and selfishly exerting power, relying on the implacable stone of “clout,” the subject of one of Roy Cohn’s memorable rants from Kushner’s Angels in America. Cohn says, "You are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe what they seem to mean," but "like all labels they mean tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology or sexual taste [Cohn is referring to his status/non-status as a homosexual with AIDS], but something much simpler: clout." We hear the word "freedom" used too cynically nowadays, a front covering nefarious ends. On the other hand, the strategic, theatrical presentation of the self, with which we always see Lincoln here, can be another tool and mask concealing the “self-evident” truths which are obstructed by “clout” and selfishness. Indeed, the villainous Cohn may well be speaking for Lincoln and his approach to Thaddeus Stevens, albeit towards virtuous ends, when he defends his use of labels and language: "This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy. This is reality."

Beyond that sophistry/reality, though, and its performative theater to be set down on documents for the ages, we know that race, the relationships between human beings is what truly is being communicated (again, as Mr. Jolly says, "Niggers"). And Lincoln the Shakespearian knew all about this. In Lear, the royal court is ripped apart for the king, who discovers the love of his flattering daughters was untrue, while Cordelia, the daughter who wouldn’t “play,” was his most loyal and compassionate progeny.  On the stormy heath, Lear strips and encounters the bare truth of human nature, the sublime awfulness of it, and the common denominator that links all people and nature. It’s from this scene in Shakespeare’s play that Lincoln thoughtfully draws, speaking to his black house servant, the confidante and dressmaker to his wife, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben). She asks if he will accept her people as equals.  "White people don't want us here," she says. "I don't know you or your people," he admits. But he says that her people, the same as his, is how Lear describes all of us: they're but "poor bare fork’d creatures, such as we all are," and so our expectations shouldn't be "incomprehensible to each other." Keckley had a son die for the Union Army, same as thousands of other mothers. "I'm his mother. What else must I be?" The boundaries of race are surpassed.

Lear’s illumination in literature and language gives Lincoln humility. Lincoln has that “knowingness” of which I spoke, but what distinguishes him from all other men, is that what he knows is that he, the Socratic man, doesn’t know. Lear’s tragic desolation makes this vain king see all men as equal (eyes being an important aspect of the play, the “vile jelly” being grotesquely gouged from Gloucester’s eyes). And it was Abraham Lincoln’s style as an orator and debater, in dealing with either slavery or temperance societies, to understand his opponents’ passion and views, and admit that were he in their shoes, he may very well be agreement with them. It’s the extraordinary gift of the imaginative heart and mind that gave him the upper hand in politics. As different as we are, we're are indeed all poor, bare fork'd creatures.


Steven Spielberg's Amistad
From the most superficial of glances, the marriage of Steven Spielberg, America’s most popular, warmest, and most manipulative of image manufacturers, and Abraham Lincoln, seems too perfect, but perfect in such a way that it could be disastrous, or at least a hackneyed, tiresomely "Oscar bait" effort of epic film production. This is based on a kind of dismissal of Spielberg that comes all too easily, and for which the director is at least partially to blame. We’ve been taught by Spielberg’s Hollywood New Wave best friends (Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese – both of whom emulate Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest of Hollywood voyeurs, the same way Spielberg does), to distrust what we see and what we feel by that which we see. The implication is that our feelings cloud our thoughts and obscure the truth. This is fair, and the same way Lincoln looks at the clock pendulum swinging back and forth like the fluctuating arguments of an Idea, I too have wavered on Spielberg, criticizing one moment (The Color Purple, Hook, Saving Private Ryan, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, War Horse, The Adventures of Tin Tin) and passionately praising or ferociously defending elsewhere (Jaws, E.T., Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jurassic Park, A.I., Minority Report, Munich).

Elliott and E.T. look, feel, learn.
Spielberg is a filmmaker who represents the sympathetic act of seeing, and from optical engagement we are changed emotionally, and then from that movement of heart we are changed intellectually, and so moved to decisively act. Repeatedly in Spielberg’s films we see this cycle of sight and mind, with the heart as a go-between. Recently writing about E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial, I noted how when E.T. says “I’ll be right here” to Elliott at the conclusion, he’s not pointing at the boy’s heart (as Elliott was when he had earlier said that line), but at his head, implying memory. E.T., an emissary of peace, engenders compassion in those surrounding him. He is visually linked with Elliott when their eyes meet, the creature mimicking what he sees the boy do (much like Chief Brody and son in that tender dinner table scene in Jaws). What E.T. feels, Elliott feels, and vice versa. Following the abundance of seeing is feeling, language (the Speak 'n Spell, "BE GOOD," E.T. beginning to talk), and finally action (Elliott "liberating" the frogs from a school dissection experiment, the kiss mimicked from The Quiet Man, E.T.'s construction of an intergalactic phone). Cinema itself, for Spielberg, becomes a catalog of memories influencing emotion and action, the transformative power of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, viewed by E.T. on television, being arguably the central moment of the picture, as it influences Elliott, so far away, to kiss a girl, linking the past (John Ford, John Wayne) to right now, alien to little boy, emotion to thought and action.

Pre-Cognition: Minority Report
Elsewhere, we see similar patterns in Jaws, when Mrs. Brody looks at an artist’s rendering of a shark attacking a boat, which moves her to immediately see her youngest son, sitting out on a boat in open water, in danger. She forcefully demands that he get out of the boat right now. In Amistad, one of the African defendants, though he doesn’t know how to read or speak English, actively interprets Dore illustrations from a Bible and is able to translate, between cultures, the mythology of Christ and apply it to his brethren.  Or think about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, where the advanced mechas read the primitive love robot David’s memories as cinematic images, and treasure him as a storer of fossilized memories drawn from an extinct time. The process of sight proceeding cognition is of course loudly in Minority Report, where the clairvoyant “pre-cogs” feed visual images to John Anderton’s Pre-Crime unit, the pictures proceeding thought.  However, the negation of emotions on the part of the crime fighters in their analysis of a crime of passion soon-to-happen, leaves the system – and even the viewer/Anderton – susceptible. With these two films in particular, Spielberg  makes us think about our position as moviegoers (yes, oddly as much as his European critics Michael Haneke or Jean-Luc Godard). Spielberg, with the Kubrickian flavor of A.I. and Minority Report, was acknowledging his power to manipulate, where “clarity” is a drug and the illusions of happiness merely illusions (many people complain about the pat happy ending of Minority Report, but don’t consider that it’s in fact a construct in an imprisoned and comatose John Anderton’s head). Eyes are a black market commodity in Minority Report, while visually reliving memories an addiction.

"It's kind of a ride." Jurassic Park
It’s true, Spielberg is saying, that images lie and delude. But they are also potent, changing minds along with hearts. The greatest example is in the most problematic of Spielberg films, Schindler’s List, which we may criticize for making a trip to Auschwitz an “amusement park ride” not too distinct from what the archeologists venture into with Jurassic Park, thus trivializing a historical atrocity as “entertainment.” I’ve unfavorably compared Spielberg’s film to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, the former film being a “monument” conveniently set in an archived past, as we’re safe from the Holocaust and its meaning, while Polanski’s Holocaust is present, absurd, and of the same stuff that may happen again and again. But here again, reaching behind the frosting of sentimentality, I’m contemplating the Spielberg formula of sight/heart/mind/action. The film’s most famous of images may be Oskar Schindler, an affluent Nazi party industrialist, comfortably on horseback while the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto below gets his attention.  He looks.  In the black and white photography, we identify with Schindler’s optics through Spielberg’s imprint of the color red on a young girl’s red coat. Later on, Schindler will see that same red coat dug up from a mass grave. Schindler, who from his earliest moments is marked by how watchful he is (look at him in the cabaret), is shaken. Moved, he must act. And how does he act? Like Lincoln, through the maneuvering and masquerading of an official document, the titular “list,” which we are reminded is secretly “life,” an “absolute good.”

What Schindler sees: Schindler's List
We can ask, of course, if we are at all changed by Schindler’s List, or if we are re, in contrast to Polanski’s film, “safe” at this historical distance, with Spielberg’s choice to present history in black and white. And yet, though he may criticize the aesthetic and representation, growing up in the suburbs in 1990s, it was Schindler’s List that introduced the kids at school to the Holocaust, provoking our curiosity. And perhaps, being that Schindler’s List is about a “document,” just as Lincoln is about a “document,” the presentation of the film as a sort of monument meant to generate emotion is justifiable. Lincoln, like Spielberg, knew that the way to change a man’s head was to reach him first by the heart too. For Spielberg, “documents” or official cargo is by no measure insignificant. This is what the Ark of the Covenant is treated as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, isn’t it? And hell, if you look at it, it burns your flesh off. The top secret item that the U.S.S. Indianapolis in Quint’s story is transporting in Jaws is also something that burns the flesh off hundreds of thousands of people, the atomic bomb. Human beings are treated as texts of sorts in Munich, as espionage murders are gruesome spectacles that communicate the insoluble dialectic of rage (neither side able to put themselves in the shoes of the Other). Spielberg presents the darker side of communicative images when the Israeli assassins leave the sexually desirable enemy assassin exposed to view (“Leave it open,” one of them says after another tries to close her robe over her bleeding wounds). As a filmmaker, Steven Spielberg is always stressing the ramifications of sight and the symbolism of visual presentation on the exterior world. Cinema is memory, that which is etched deeply on our minds through vision.

"Keep your eyes closed!" Raiders of the Lost Ark
And Abraham Lincoln, so keen with intelligence, has those eyes that are also looking out, searching for people and identifying. “[He] stood observing the people,” Whitman writes of seeing Lincoln in person. “He look’d with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces return’d the look with similar curiosity.” Lincoln stepped on the theatrical scaffold of politics, playing a role that would deliberately etch himself into the memory of those around him. Doris Kearns Goodwin notes how Lincoln was aware of how he was perceived, and how the way people remember us may keep us alive after we are dead. “To see memory as the essence of life came naturally to Lincoln,” according to Robert Bruce, quoted in Goodwin’s text, for he was a man who “seemed to live most intensely through the process of thought, the expression of thought, and the exchange of thought with others.” Memory was a “midway world/’Twixt Earth and paradise” (to quote Lincoln’s poetry).

Cinema as memory: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
That brings me to what I feel is the central prop in Lincoln, a series of photographic glass plates, obsessively looked at by Lincoln’s youngest son, the precocious Tad. Along with toy soldiers splayed out on “official war maps” (which greatly angers Lincoln's "Thundering God of War" and "Neptune" who "shakes thy hairy locks," Edwin Stanton), Tad falls asleep on the floor with these plates, which are pictures of slaves who have been horribly scarred, or are up for sale, their list prices ($600) written in pencil below them. Lincoln wants to discourage Tad’s almost morbid fixation with the images, but we should note how they provoke Tad’s curiosity about the black servants in White House, Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade (Stephen Henderson). Were they ever beaten like this? (Keckley says yes – with a fire shovel.) Were they put up for sale like livestock? As John Quincy Adams asks of the African prisoners in Amistad, what was their story?

One of the photograph glass plates of a former slave, obsessively viewed by young Tad Lincoln.

In addition to Tad’s stimulated curiosity, think about what Lincoln says. He has Tad to put the glass plates put away, but he instructs the child to "be careful with them." The images are history, to be preserved. They are something that may not only show, but in their presentation of degradation, they may sway, and hundreds of years in the future serve as documents pointing out where we came from, and how we should be wary of how we change through Time, that “great thickener of things” as Lincoln calls it. Lit by candles, like light going through projected film, Spielberg is making these images cinematic cousins to the filmmaker’s art, documents that illuminate the past. Tellingly, the final moments of Lincoln have the deceased President resurrected through the candlelight by his death bed, the flame dissolving into his Second Inaugural speech, during which Lincoln voices the need for a “just and lasting peace among ourselves with all nations.”  The words, like the images, and like the man whose words have usurped him and granted him immortality by etching him into our memory, are there to illuminate us, lighting the path for insight. Not, as is so often alleged of Spielberg, to blind and placate us. Note how Lincoln is awakened to the weight of the "terrible things" he has done with General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris), coming close and "intimate" with the corpses on the Petersburg,Virginia battlefield, still smoking after the great conflagrations that preceded it. "I've never seen the like of this before," Lincoln said. Yet Grant reminds him how he might have needed to see it up close.

Lincoln’s relationship to the present is one that the filmmakers are hesitant to embrace, precisely because of our politically divisive times, where Red States and Blue States seem to be drawn on the similar lines that divided a nation in the 1850s. For just as the South seceded soon after Lincoln, a progressive moderate who was by no means an abolitionist, was elected, so too did the Tea Party embrace measures (Voter ID, for example) which probably would not have been touched if a black man, Barack Obama, another moderate, was elected in 2008.  Such a deduction is wide open to criticism, I understand, but it’s harder to deny that of our nation’s current political halves, one half sees the Constitution as a fixed document, something that gives unassailable rights of self-governance, while the other understands that everything is in flux, and had those old squabbling codgers, the Founders, be around today, as men of science they would be a little flabbergasted at how backwards and obstinate we are, in many ways still fighting the Cold War (our nation’s fear of anything remotely “socialistic”) just as we’re still hearing, sometimes quite loudly, echoes of the Civil War – itself being the final series of battles in the Revolutionary War.  In Petersburg, we see the United States flag and the Confederate flag in the same frame for a moment. The difference is that the Confederate flag is fixed to the ground, while the United States flag moves forward, and out of the frame.

"We won't know ourselves anymore." Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley)
Though Lincoln accomplishes his checkmate within the congress, abolishing slavery for good and ending the war soon after, Spielberg and Kushner seem ambivalent about the prospect of an optimistic closure. The war ends, but we cut to a city (Richmond, Virginia, following the last siege of Petersburg) on fire. Lincoln wants to pardon deserting soldiers (“Peace comes, it can’t just be hangings”), but corpses are still wedded together in the dirt, Union and Confederate, and resentments ride high (“Liberty all around. Not revenge,” says Lincoln, knowing that the appetite for vengeance is too present). The wordless exchange between Grant and General Lee at Appomattox has a somber and haunting undercurrent. Peace is established, but in this world that's changed too rapidly for the South, the hatchet isn't buried. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, says to Lincoln about slavery’s end, “We won't know ourselves anymore.” Stephens points out how Lincoln's Union is built "on cannon-fire and death," with thousands of corpses lain to waste on his watch. The President accept this. One of Lincoln's gifts, again, was understanding how the opinions and emotions of his rivals were natural, and were he in their shoes, he may well feel the same. 

The resentment will continue to simmer, and outside the context of this film, without Lincoln’s guidance, Reconstruction won’t be tidy, and of course, injustices to the black race will continue through the next century and beyond.  What we have seen here made it possible to have the president we have today, yes, but the fear and distrust so prevalent regarding him are just as clearly linked, I think, to the attitudes displayed throughout Lincoln’s 1865.  But we should also note how delicately Spielberg and Kushner handle this scene between Stephens and Lincoln. I think there is a kind of incomprehension among the Southerners, a desperate sadness which conceives resentment naturally. Stephens is not like the John Calhoun (Arliss Howard) from Amistad, who arrogantly puts the fire of a secessional threat to President Martin Van Buren's (Nigel Hawthorne) feet. Indeed, these characters are racist, backwards, and wrong - unable to grasp the simple declaration: "Slavery's done." But they are endowed by their filmic creators with sensitivity, a vulnerability behind their ferocious and reactionary words. 

Our time also associates with Lincoln during the final carriage ride between Mary and Lincoln, during which they acknowledge how miserable they’ve been (“a long death” is how Mary earlier describes her migraine-afflicted life), and resolve to be happy. In peacetime, we return to Lincoln’s dreams, and he tells Mary how he’s not only been thinking about the West, but also the Holy Land, and Jerusalem. “I dream of walking in that ancient city,” Abraham Lincoln says, namesake of the father to three clashing religions who dwell there. Knowing that Kushner and Spielberg’s previous collaboration was the imperfect but masterful Munich, about Israel and Palestinians trapped in ceaseless bloodshed, we wonder of how distant that Jerusalem of 1865 must be, and how this great Philosopher President of “semi-divine stature,” is progenitor to a country which will be embroiled so detrimentally with matters related to that Holy Land in the years to come, as rockets are being fired to and from Gaza as I write this, and tensions with nearby Iran accelerate the unsteady hand of a doomsday clock.  Munich also questions our inability to prognosticate the future and our ethical attitudes. The protagonist Avner (Eric Bana) listens the philosophical musings of a friend's girlfriend: "Should one look at right and wrong as ethical questions? That is the problem. Marcuse says Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right' does not assign a moral category to 'wrong.' Free will inevitably causes wrong. That's written by Marx. The blind anarchy of capitalism. You have to be prepared to reconsider right and wrong. Because basically those are just terms that express a horrible struggle, parts of an equation of pure dialectic." Avner looks on while sharing marijuana, and admits with a laugh that he really doesn't understand. But Lincoln has the same affect on Seward when he talks about Time and our inability to look into "the seeds of Time" and see how those seeds would grow. Seward admits his incomprehension, and Spielberg's audience laughs. But though there's no "profit in prophecy," as Lincoln tells Robert, Spielberg and Kushner want to have us consider, with our perceptions and the causal path of geopolitical events, a longview of incessant change, with ideas in friction conceiving new ideas and perceptions. 
The insoluble dialectic: Munich
Our present uncertainties involving the Holy Land reminds us of Lincoln’s closing words, where the Great Emancipator and emissary of Union is talking about a lasting peace not only “among ourselves” but with all nations. Abraham Lincoln is Whitman’s hero of Union, not only as President of the "Union," but as a representative of the transcendental union between all lines of separation, where random and diverse events, in the most horrifying scenes, are absorbed into the Great Self.  The accident of rhetoric materializes as something Lincoln draws from the abyss, the black hole of his large hat into which he stares while considering what to telegraph Ulysses Grant at a crucial moment, finding Euclid. This quiet scene, where Lincoln’s contemplations are treated self-reflexively by Spielberg as the President is framed within a frame, questions the construction of purpose. "Do we choose to be born?Are we fitted to the times we're born into?" Lincoln asks. One of them, an engineer, is skeptical of anyone orchestrating history, setting the clocks: "There's machinery, but no one's doing the fitting." Like a film director, Lincoln knows that the significance of composition and the arrangement of his words, framing purpose and representing ideas (later, he'll admit that one of his final speeches was inadequate) in a maze of machinery that active individuals must hold up. Like Lincoln's first speech in the film, as a flag is being raised, he will raise the flag "if there be no fault in the machinery," and then it will be up to the people to keep it up. Lincoln also refers to Euclid's law of equals as "mechanical" law, something self-evident and true, but being such, it rests on us to exercise the abstraction in reality. 

Moving forward: Lincoln
The war and slavery are problems to be solved, like a film, which presents an infinite matrix of possibilities for presentation (where to place the camera and actors, where to cut, where to have music, etc).  Conducting his own Lincoln Symphony, Spielberg and Kushner eschew the storied notes of Ann Rutledge, Lincoln-Douglas, the 1860 Republican nomination and election, the secession of the South, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and Ford’s Theater. Instead, the essence and mystery of Lincoln, which appropriately remains mysterious, is compounded into these few months before he is claimed by “the ages.” Lincoln is fixed on the Gordon Willis-like chiaroscuro shadows, only incidentally moving to the flame for Lincoln’s light. Spielberg, the great voice of American narrative film, and so progeny of D.W. Griffith, reverses the representational wrongs of Birth of a Nation, in which Thaddeus Stevens and his biracial mistress/housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, influenced negative cinematic depictions. Here Thaddeus and Lydia are not only the moral heroes of Lincoln, but as cinematic touchstones linking Griffith to Spielberg, they show how indeed history has moved in nearly 100 years of moving images in America. This is why the preservation of images, be it Tad Lincoln’s photographic plates or something theatrical and designed like an expensive motion picture, is important. These artifacts of captured light show us how we move through Time.

Birth of a Nation (1915): The naive abolitionist Austin Stoneman - based on Thaddeus Stevens - manipulated by his conniving mulatto housekeeper, Lydia Brown (based on Lydia Hamilton Smith). Spielberg reverses the filmic representation of these two characters near Lincoln's conclusion, as Smith reads the 13th Amendment to Stevens, the two lying in bed together.
More than the abolitionist Stevens, I think young Tad is our audience surrogate.  Making the White House his playground, and traversing through it like Danny Torrence in The Shining (speaking of an interiorized protagonist and father figure influencing the outside dwellings!), we, Lincoln’s spiritual children, are analogous to the child, who is also in a theater when news comes of the great man’s assassination. The boy is watching a take on Aladdin, perhaps the kind of fairy tale we associate with Steven Spielberg as much as we do sentimental passages of history..  The director has made films about family dysfunction his whole career, beginning with the political chaos of post-Watergate with Jaws followed by a series of absent or distant fathers, reflecting the anxieties of a national audience distrustful of innately corrupt institutions.. He leaves us now with the definitive father, reclaimed but just as quickly stolen away. Spielberg has been delicate with us, like Lincoln with his children. Maybe too delicate. And though his touches still resound here, they are subtler than expected. He is still guiding us, taking us into his arms and showing us pictures, like Lincoln with Tad, but acknowledging that we’re mature.

The wonderfully insightful New York critic Bilge Ebiri writes about how Spielberg presents father and son in the picture, tying them to America’s destiny, noting that Tad is “something of a ghost, or an angel – a figure in whom America’s past, present, and future merge. The son might, in a sense, represent the nation’s conscience — both its broken promise of freedom and its belief in a higher purpose.”  The most stirring shot of Lincoln figures after the climactic vote, the bells ringing with promise in the distance, father and child embracing tightly together and looking out of the shadows and into the light of day with the drapes and thick saturating white enshrouding them. We feel their distance from us, but are  reminding of how our present is forged restlessly, even from such a distance, every gesture and word filled with inception and budding possibilities.

(Like Lincoln, I'm afraid I carry the traits of a bad preacher: "I could write shorter sermons, but when I start I get too lazy to stop." If you just scrolled to the end here and thought this was too long, an abridged version of my take on Lincoln can be found here at l'etoile magazine's website).

I'm also going to link other blogs and insightful reviews Lincoln as they come around, in addition to making my own revisions:

The brilliant Cinephiliacs maestro Peter Labuza's take.
Another piece by Bilge Ebiri, linking Lincoln to Amistad.
Sean Gilman, of The End of Cinema blog.
James Callahan of Artist Access on Lincoln, and his favorite Spielberg films. He's awesome, because our two favorites are identical (solidarity A.I. lovers). 
Scott MacDonald of the Toronto Standard.
Kevin Levin of The Atlantic defends Lincoln from nitpicking historians.
Two pieces by Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, on the film and the lessons the film may have for President Obama.  
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly. 
A.O. Scott of The New York Times.
Historian Roy Blount Jr. in The Smithsonian.
MSN critic Glenn Kenny.
Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times.
Omar Moore of 

No comments:

Post a Comment