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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lincoln: It Reminded me of E.T.

***SpoilerAlert*** This post reveals key elements of a movie most everybody has seen and the outcome of historical events many never learned.

I had the rare treat of watching a movie tonight. I saw Mr. Spielberg’s most recent masterwork, Lincoln. I realize the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and the Academy Awards have already registered their judgment. I understand stars have already been awarded and opposable thumbs extended. However, I am compelled to comment in this film, even at the expense of that which is most precious to me, sleep.

I was nervous about this movie. One, I've seen Lincoln shot too many times. It is cliché, but seemingly essential to his story. Second, this movie is based, in part, on Doris Kearns Goodwin's nuanced Team of Rivals biography. I enjoyed her book because it was less a staid tribute to Honest Abe, and more an examination of power and influence. The question of "ends versus means" haunts every chapter. Nuance is not what Hollywood, or Washington D.C., does these days.

The filmmakers managed to capture the essence of Goodwin's nuance by narrowing their scope. The narrative of the movie isn't Lincoln's life, or even his presidency, or the Civil War. The narrative is the attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The proposed amendment would ban slavery in the entire nation, forever.

The film manages to generate drama and suspense, even though the outcome of events is known. This is achieved through simplicity. The drama centers around what nefarious means the various characters are willing to use to bring to pass their noble ends. The subplots and minor characters all serve the main narrative, driving it forward.

This film does what great films always do, make one a witness. A witness, not a spectator, not a patron, but a witness, as though by suspending reality one becomes part of the film's reality. Lincoln leaves one feeling as though they are a witness to history. This film is not a documentary. The film takes certain historical liberties, and has at least one major inaccuracy[1].  There are several scenes with Abraham and Mary Lincoln fighting and struggling with angst and grief at the loss of their son and the way each other handles their mourning. These scenes are not strictly historical, but indelibly real. I hear every father in Lincoln’s voice when he defends his stoicism in the face of his son’s death, by his disquieting-angry reply to his wife’s reproach that he was trying to protect young Tad, and she was too lost in grief to see Tad was also on the edge of death.

While all the elements of this movie are done with impeccable craftsmanship, this film rises from good to great because of the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis has enough awards he does not need to hear from me, but his Lincoln was so human. He was not the audio-animatronic Lincoln, but a human Lincoln, haggard, sincere, constantly hunched over feeling the weight of the world, and incredibly vulnerable, constantly bundled in a blanket as if trying to keep the war from stealing his soul. This is done without diminishing the majesty of the Great Emancipator. Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones manage to share the screen with Day-Lewis without getting overshadowed by Lincoln, but also without upstaging him. Even the bit players are perfect in their roles.

After the narrow victory of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the triumph of Lincoln, the film plays out with an epilogue. The Civil War ends, the Southern soldiers are given their dignity. I braced for the scene at Ford’s Theater, but it never came. Instead, we see the Greek tragic hero prepare for the play, and see him walk down the long hall towards the White House exit. Then we see young Tad, at a different theater as the whole theater gets the news that the President has been shot. That scene, unexpected, is more emotional than yet another view over the shoulder of the assassin. We see the dead and fallen Lincoln, relatively free from gore. But, quickly the scene changes, as in a flashback, to Lincoln’s great second inaugural address. The filmmakers bravely leave us with the living Lincoln.

Film is an escape. The moving pictures have strange and powerful effects on us humans, they always have, as Socrates can attest. Great film, like other great art, moves human passions. Lincoln reminds us of the original sin of our great country, while still showing this to be a great country. The film shows the ugly, and perhaps unscrupulous, lengths the most scrupulous of men committed to in order to bring an end to slavery. Lincoln suggests the Civil War was atonement for slavery, while suggesting that the iniquity has not been entirely expiated. This is all done without being preachy.

Lincoln is why I love movies. The first movie I remember seeing in a theater, as opposed to a drive-in, was E.T. I was five years old when I saw it with my parents. It scared the crap out of me, it made me cry, it made me want to have a flying bicycle, but mostly it made me feel. I remember leaving the theater feeling something I had no words for. It was like excitement, but not as unruly. It was like happiness, but not anchored to anything specific. It was like getting a present that was just what I wanted, even though before I tore off the wrapping paper I had never seen anything like it. That is how I felt after seeing Lincoln. I don’t feel that way often, but the hope of feeling that way is why I yearn to go to movies. I still don't have a word for that feeling, instead the best I can do is say, and “it reminds me of E.T.”.

[1] The movie portrays the majority of Connecticut’s representatives as voting down theThirteenth amendment. This is grossly inaccurate. See link here.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

All Eyes Focus on the Glowing Prismatic God

I am a horrible father. I know this because I have failed the most basic parental litmus test of my generation. I don't hate my children watching television. I love television. Where I truly demonstrate the fullness of my apostasy from the church of modern parenting, show my true heresy, is that sometimes I encourage my children to watch television. At times I not only want them to watch the babysitter box, but I want them to be silently enthralled by it. I want them to sit, not move, and bask in its soft electric glow.

The other morning my lovely, precocious, youngest child awoke at 4:00 a.m. She would not go back to sleep. I refused to let her get up until at least 6:00. I held in her the recliner in her room. I laid with her in an empty bed. (Her three-year-old brother's bed was empty because he was in mom and dad's bed with mom). By 6:00 I was a broken man. My almost two year old has fallen in love with the mid-nineties Nickelodeon classic, Gullah Gullah Island. I indulged her passion that morning. I turned on an episode of her show and collapsed on the couch and slept. Every twenty-two minutes she woke me up and I put on another episode. “Daddy it over", her sweet voice would call out. Bless you Steve Jobs and your wonderful Apple TV. Praise be to iTunes! I simply clicked the sleek silver remote three times while peering at the menu through alligator eyes, and quickly returned to rest.

Gullah Gullah Island is a lovely show. It teaches appreciation of other cultures and traditions without being preachy or heavy handed. The show is heavy on music. My favorite part of the show is that the characters do not invite my child to reply to the television or shout answers. They rarely break the fourth wall, and when they do, it is only to greet the viewer or ask a rhetorical question. The show is really the last of its kind. Since the debut of Dora the Explorer, almost all children's shows are, for some reason, required to encourage children to yell answers back at the television and to jump and dance all over the place. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer my children's television to be stupefying.

I realize that I may be burned at the stake for uttering such statements. But, seriously, since the debut of Dora in 2000, have children become smarter or more physically fit? No. In general they seem to be stupider and fatter. So why torture parents with interactive drivel? I grew up watching a lot of television. I also read a lot of books. I also rode my bike, and once got chased through a blackberry patch by a rabid dog. I watched 3 2 1 Contact, Mr. Wizard, Spiderman and His Amazing Friends, Battle Star Galactica, The Muppet Show, and a fair amount of Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, I Dream of Gennie, and Bewitched. I also watched a lot of strange Japanese cartoons with poor English voiceovers on the relatively new Nickelodeon channel. (Incidentally, I also loved watching Nickelodeon's You Can't Do That on Television, which featured a young Canadian girl named Alanis Morrisette). Once we got the Disney Channel my sister and I would spend some entire weekends glued to the screen. I am not saying that this was a good idea, or even healthy. I am saying that it didn't kill us or make us stupid or fat. 

I believe that children need to be outside. Once a child is outside, relatively unconfined, physical exertion and imaginative play follow. A toddler does not need a hot yoga class to stay in shape. A toddler by definition should be in shape. A toddler needs to be allowed to play at the park, run around on the grass, and most importantly, be allowed to fall down and scrape a knee occasionally. Children profit even more from exposure to the wilderness, or at least a state park. Getting away from urban and suburban settings and seeing real rivers, lakes, forests, and animals not in cages is good for the soul. Scampering down a tree-lined trail will feed some primordial need to connect with nature and helps promote life long activity and curiosity.

However, as much as I love the outdoors, and as much as I love taking my kids hiking and camping, sometimes I also need my children to sit and stare at something that is not me. The television can be more than a babysitter; it can be a sort of part time nanny. The television should be used to further advance our family values. This is why my children watch 1990's basic cable kid's shows and not Children of the Corn, that and I don't want them to get any ideas. I don't have a problem rewarding my children's fidelity to family order with some doses of cartoon mayhem. Sometimes my wife or I will watch along, many times we use the distraction to get selfish things done like cleaning the kitchen or organizing a closet.

My children have a menu of entertainment and educational options only hinted at by my childhood. The amount of video games, movies, and television available for free, or very cheap, is awe-inspiring. The back catalog of television shows available means that my children and I can build common reference points. The fact that most of my children love Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers and Phineas and Ferb, means that I sometimes get to read a little bit of an eBook. That little respite makes me a better dad, even if I am still a horrible father.
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Friday, March 1, 2013

Thinking Thoreau #2- That's What Friends Are For?

The first section of Excursions is a biographic sketch of Thoreau written be his good friend Ralph Waldo Emmerson. The sketch lists not only the standard menu of dates, but also a description of early influences and occupations. The most interesting piece of the section is the stories that are meant to illustrate Thoreau's brilliant, honest, and prickly character.

One such passages is:
In 1847, not approving some uses to which the public expenditure was applied, he refused to pay his town tax, and was put in jail. A friend paid the tax for him, and he was released. The like annoyance was threatened the next year. but, as his friends paid the tax, notwithstanding his protest, I believe he ceased to resist.

The "uses to which the public expenditure" was being applied was the U.S. Mexican War. Thoreau was a vanguard in the first American anti war effort motivated by a love of peace and justice as opposed to crude economics. The selection strikes me as describing if not a timid Thoreau, a Thoreau less than fully committed to the cause than legend would have it. He in fact spent only a single night in jail and seems to acquiesce, albeit reluctantly, to his friends' generosity.

I would like to return to this incident more fully during the reading of Civil Disobedience. What do you make of Thoreau not paying the tax because it was funding a horrible and dishonorable war in his view? It should be noted Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois also was morally opposed to the Mexican-American War. Pin It