Lost in the Movies: Lincoln


Think of it like those old early thirties posters, advertising the vocal debut of some silent film star: "Lincoln Talks!" We've heard him speak before, of course. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln was one of the earliest notable talkies - and one of the last films of D.W. Griffith (the Spielberg of his day, though he didn't bode so well in the long term). This was followed by dozens of Lincoln biopics, some trying as Griffith did to capture the whole sweep, others wisely focusing - as this Lincoln does - on a particular aspect or era in Lincoln's life (the best of these being John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, an almost entirely fictional depiction of the gangly lawyer for Illinois which manages to keenly evoke Lincoln's ability to be both convincingly honest and morally ambiguous).

Yet even after all of these movies, when we see Lincoln's historical visage we imagine a voice sturdy and worn, certainly not booming and bellowing like an overblown orater yet conveying depth and solidity between the folksy self-deprecation. Thus it comes as a bit of a shock to hear Daniel Day-Lewis' thin, reedy delivery, almost too flimsy to command attention yet apparently very accurate to the real Lincoln's tones. The voice is also very reflective of the film itself, packaging a grand figure modestly and in a sense underwhelmingly, so that we're almost sitting forward in our seats, straining to catch a sense of the taciturn magnitude dancing behind the images like the fleeting shadows and pools of light in Janusz Kaminski's photography or the brief moments of warfare and desolation dappled between interior intrigues and extended dialogues.

I liked Lincoln although I was a bit surprised with the type of film it chose to be, unprepared by the hype surrounding Day-Lewis' transformation and the iconic coupling of auteur and subject in the media. Spielberg himself has said he intended the film to be "claustrophobic," not to set a grand backdrop for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment but rather to focus on the nitty-gritty details of votemongering and interest-group negotiations...and more importantly, the domestic turmoil and moral dilemmas of our title character. In this, he succeeds - Lincoln is chamber drama rather than big-screen spectacle, yet audiences seem to have cottoned to it (it's wrapping up the weekend behind the Twilight and Bond juggernauts, but has nonetheless surprised profit pundits with its relative strength; anecdotally, my parents report that in their East Coast small town, all showings are sold out).

That audience aspect is particularly surprising, as very similar films from Spielberg's own Amistad to the almost identically-plotted Amazing Grace have not fared so well with either critics or viewers. I liked both movies myself, but suppose that the big difference here is the iconic nature of Lincoln himself as well as the focalizing presence of Day-Lewis' excellent performance. It's funny what a difference a few elements can make. Lincoln and Amistad are remarkably similar in a lot of ways: both pour a lot of energy into evoking a certain period but put the meat of their drama in dialogue rather than visuals; both tackle the question of slavery primarily as it pertains to white American conscience and consciousness (although Amistad's view - incorporating an African as one of the main protagonists - is actually broader than Lincoln's); both challenge radical idealism with a more hardheaded pragmatic knowhow; both corresponded a large, national moral and legal question with a notion of personal vindication of a stubborn American political outcast (in Amistad's case, for John Quincy Adams; in Lincoln's case, for radical Republican Thaddeus Stephens, wonderfully portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones).

To me, the most interesting comparison is with Amazing Grace, which was released a few years ago to mixed reviews and tepid box office. Grace depicted the long campaign to end British slave-trading, spearheaded in the House of Commons by William Wilberforce, an earnest young radical (although in the scheme of the film, he represents the "liberal" point of view, scorning both the hidebound conservatives and the Jacobin radicalism of another character). There's a shared fascination with political intrigue, the way cynical means can be used for idealistic ends; Grace's plot is primarily distinguished from Lincoln's by the time frame - two decades rather than one month - and the locale, 18th century British Parliament rather than 19th century Congress, the latter distinguished from the former mostly by its bevy of beards. Meanwhile, both Lincoln and Amazing Grace overflow with character actors biting into juicy parts: Amazing Grace has Michael Gambon, Toby Jones, Ciarin Hinds, and Albert Finney as the aging author of the title song; Lincoln outdoes it with David Straithairn, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, and the scene-stealing (when is he anything else?) James Spader, not to mention stars Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the aforementioned Jones stepping in for support work.

Yet Amazing Grace stars the fine but forgettable Ioan Gruffudd as a seemingly uncomplicated Wilberforce, and so it lacks that central pin which holds Lincoln together and offers its allure which beckons viewers past its talkiness and limited confines. Ultimately, if Lincoln can refuse to overwhelm us with kinetic storytelling or sprawling spectacle, that's because it can afford to - it doesn't just have plot, it has character: specifically a character at once homey and larger-than-life, kind-hearted yet forcefully decisive, modest yet deeply powerful - in other words, the ideal father figure. Every Spielberg film that I can think of involves fatherhood in some way (except maybe Raiders of the Lost Ark, unless the father figure is God himself), and the permutations are fascinating: father figures can be either absent (E.T., AI), hesitantly adapting to responsibility (Schindler's ListJaws, Jurassic Park, Hook, The Lost World, Munich, War of the Worlds) or failing to do so (Catch Me If You CanClose Encounters), big-brother-like role models (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Empire of the Sun), or ambivalent rivals (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Quint in Jaws - if he counts).

Only two Spielberg films focus on great leaders, grappling with their ambivalence before they emerge strong and powerful, morally if not physically (instead of just skin-of-their-teeth surviving, like Chief Brody or Allan Grant). Schindler's List is one and now Lincoln is the other; it's interesting to remember that initially Liam Neeson was to be cast as the president. As the most successful film director on the planet, as well as the head of a Hollywood studio and one of the biggest players in the industry game for thirty years now, Spielberg's status does not really fit his somewhat falsely modest preferences for ordinary Joes as protagonists. Yet only occasionally does he allow himself to portray and tacitly identify with a larger-than-life, charismatic patriarch - and one of the treats of such works is to see an easy admiration shade over into a more revealing identification with strength and power. Which also leads to the works' greatest flaws.

In neither Schindler nor Lincoln is Spielberg comfortable with the helpless, powerless characters whose presence he feels compelled to humor; in Schindler, his attempts to identify with the Jews are often awkward and forced (their banter in the ghettos has a false ring and none of the knowing sureness with which Spielberg approaches, for example, a German party) while in Lincoln, the director doesn't even try to identify with the powerless even as he edges them into his frame or gives them voice. There are a few token black characters, mostly servants, and I kind of wish Spielberg hadn't included them at all, as their presence usually seems strained and embarrassed - although Day-Lewis compellingly delivers a dialogue with one ex-slave. For the most part, just as in Amazing Grace, Lincoln's triumph is a white triumph, and not just a white triumph, but a triumph for whites in positions of power. This is fine as it goes but can become annoying when Spielberg lays the sentiment on too thick; especially notable when the Congressmen stand up to be counted for complete abolition. The entire film has been spent showing us how many of these votes had to be cynically bought, and yet here the swelling score and triumphant close-ups and cutting convey a sense of moral victory misplaced onto the undeserving.

There is, however, a subsequent scene which is the best in the film and the only one to startle us out of our conventional-history milieu/reverie: Thaddeus Stephens returns home, a black housekeeper welcomes him back and he hands her the historic bill that has just passed the House. Then he removes his wig, and lies down in bed...next to this same woman. The dramatic reveal could risk cheese or even offensiveness - after all, why should we be startled by miscegenation? But it does seem surprising, not only because of the historical context, but because of the studiously maintained social universe we've been enveloped in for over two hours. Here the relative conservatism of the film's approach (in which the stakes seem theoretical, with the violent consequences of war mostly offscreen, and the actual subjects of all the political-back-and-forth rendered mostly moot and blurred in the background) pays off. Only now are we truly confronted with what's been in play all along: not just the stoic, rather abstract symbolism of black faces in the Capitol galley, but the shared dignity of fellow human beings. This realization, plus Jones' weary, beautifully invested gestures and expressions, sell the risky moment and to a certain extent justify the film.

There's a humorous moment about halfway through the movie as the president prepares to hoist a flag. (There are actually a lot of humorous moments, mostly revolving around Lincoln's penchant for long-winded folksy jokes, anecdotes, and stories, many of which completely perplex his listeners - at one hilarious interval, Secretary Seward grumbles, "Yes, I-" and then throws his hands in the air, snapping "Actually I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about." The audience I was with, including yours truly, laughed aloud in affectionate sympathy.) At this particular moment, Lincoln pulls a wrinkled text out of his coat and reads a few piquant lines aloud. Then he pauses, shrugs, and says - with a twinkle in his eye as he stuffs the parchment back in his pocket - "That's my speech." We chuckle, but of course his few, evocative words have said quite a bit more than they seemed to. So does Lincoln; while not a masterpiece, there's more going on in it than the reedy, homespun if somewhat ambling tones initially suggest. Lincoln talks - but it's what's between the lines that lingers.

Read my reviews of Amazing Grace, Abraham Lincoln, Schindler's List and Munich.


Shamus said...

Nice review: that comment about the father figures was especially revealing - although, it puts a finger on what I generally dislike about Spielberg. Well, I suppose must go see it now.

Even Hoberman, whom you could consistently count on for at least a little vitriol on Spielberg in his reviews (probably because his idol, Godard, of course hates Spielberg) was also (more or less) sold on the film.

Jon said...

A very enjoyable essay Joel, and one that I found didn't give much away for me, as I haven't seen it yet. I do like Spielberg a lot. Not every film but most. I however, have been concerned about this, as I usually don't like biopics for some reason. This one focuses on a short period of time though, which may help. I really like how you examine the film and what works and what doesn't. I hope to see it soon, so I can join in the commentary.

Joel Bocko said...


Yes I'm a bit surprised at the universal acclaim for the film. I liked it, but I didn't think it would be so widely embraced especially when similar films like Amistad & Amazing Grace were not (yes, the focus on an iconic figure like Lincoln makes a difference, but I wouldn't think it would be such a big one).

I'll have to read that Hoberman review now - I'm intrigued. I like the fatherhood themes in Spielberg, what I am beginning to like less the more I notice it is the penchant for tidying things up too much - which is why I'm coming to believe that, while not necessarily his "best" film, Munich is his most compelling.

Joel Bocko said...


Glad to hear it didn't spoil - I remember thinking as I wrote it that maybe the Thaddeus Stephens reveal should come with a spoiler warning.

I'll be very interested in your take on it - you liked War Horse quite a bit as I recall (I still haven't seen that one - in fact this is my first Spielberg since Munich, odd since he's always been one of my favorites and I've seen most of his filmography).

I was thinking recently about making a list of best or favorite biopics (which would include Patton and Social Network for me, although people probably don't think of the latter as being one; probably A Dangerous Method too which I've recently become enamored of). The best ones find a thematic focus which usually entails a chronological focus as well.

The funny thing is I'm very attracted to the genre precisely for the things that end up disappointing me. I'm fascinated by watching lives unfold and transform but since this is a hard thing to capture in a 2-hour narrative in any satisfying manner. The more successful biopics thus tend to be the ones that eschew the very qualities which drew me in in the first place!

Maybe the best biopic (aside from a kind of pseudo-biopic like Citizen Kane) is the Up series since it finds a format in which we can actually follow lives as they unfold over time without feeling that the structure has become too messy or, on the other hand, the character insights too pat. That said, can a documentary be a biopic?

Jon said...

Yes I did like War Horse alot this is true. My issue with Biopics is that often there is a burden of history and the burden of the anti-climactic and the protracted inevitability. Patton is great. I mean there are examples which I like. Embarrassingly I really liked My Week With Marilyn....and I made my reasons very clear in my essay last year. We'll see...I think covering short periods of time works for me. The life story thing is more problematic for me.

Shamus said...


So what is your choice for the "best" Spielberg film? (Is it Jaws?) I'm totally cold to Spielberg's films, so I'm thinking it's time for a reappraisal before Lincoln arrives here (which actually could take fourscore and seven years).

Joel Bocko said...

Good question. I guess at this juncture Jaws is my favorite, along with Munich maybe. I find them to be in some ways his most adult movies (funny, since Jaws is usually accused of making Hollywood "juvenile"). 'Best?' I'd probably go with conventional wisdom on this and say Schindler's List though my take on it is different than a lot of admirers. I think it's a VERY flawed film, but many of its flaws are part of its fascination.

I wrote a dual review of Schindler and Munich last year which pretty much lays out my thoughts:


After years of defending Spielberg from numerous and vitriolic detractors, I became a bit more ambivalent about him myself. Not sure if this was healthy, mature skepticism or a kind of critical Stockholm Syndrome lol.

I am still bowled over by his absolute mastery of fluid cinematic storytelling, a quality that has fallen out of favor in contemporary blockbusters, replaced by a grunged-up rock 'em sock 'em synthetic style. And I love how keen he is on details: for a filmmaker whose work is often iconic in terms of big, larger-than-life memorable images, he is remarkably attuned to a sense of everyday naturalism and what could be seen as throwaway details (Lucas is like this too in the first Star Wars film, cluttering his universe with physical artifacts and edges which give the film a vivid sense of the 'offscreen' but Spielberg takes this approach with performers as well, including gestures and asides that build a rich sense of character alongside the rich sense of place.) Spielberg's early blockbusters, Close Encounters and E.T., are almost as much domestic documentaries as sci-fi spectacles. Since to me the Lumiere/Melies fusion is at the heart of cinema's unique magic, I can't help but cherish this. Indeed I owe my cinephilia to Spielberg above all others; more than anything else he was the gateway drug that led me to everything else I've enjoyed over the years, from Hollywood classics to avant-garde cartoons to documentary miniseries to foreign art films.

Joel Bocko said...

But more and more I am detecting a certain phoniness which appears alongside the genuine talent. Spielberg has the reputation of being a childlike enthusiast, but a childlike enthusiast does not accumulate as much insider power and authority as he is. I don't want to get carried away with biography here: the film's the thing, but what Im increasingly noticing is a kind of calculation, sometimes cynicism, in even his best movies which seems a tad dishonest in the way it's concealed by the sense of wonder, fun, or good intentions.

This sounds vague but to name a couple examples... In E.T., after a bravura, adventurous first 40 minutes in which we see the world through a frighteningly alien perspective, we settle in for a rapidly-paced profession of gags and soon the engines of plot take over and chug us along at what suddenly seemed to me too rapid a clip (although I must've seen the film dozens of times at this point, and it hadn't bothered me before). In Raiders of the Lost Ark, I now notice a contrast between the genuinely boyish earnestness of Lucas, charming at its best (even if the prequels strain one's sympathy for such an unsophisticated sensibility) and the winky ringleadership of Spielberg, which seems desperate for us to recognize that he's in on the joke (maybe borne out of anxiety with his first flip, 1941?).

Schindler's List brings this tension between artist and showman to the forefront, exposing it rather nakedly at times, which is one reason I think it may be his best movie. It is nervously trying to do so many things at once: tell an entertaining story, impress us with its visual fluidity, move us em pathetically, intellectually examine the nature of good and evil, realistically depict one of the most horrific events in the 20th century, shock is with its violence... It wants to give us a good time, shock our sensibilities, and inspire us all at once. It's Spielberg's most ambitious film and I doubt he'll ever make one as ambitious again.

Fascinatingly, the movie is an entertainment film to its bones, not an art film at all (if such distinctions have any meaning), despite the trappings of black and white, serious subject, and at times a pseudo-documentary style. I don't think Spielberg really made an 'art film' until AI (or maybe the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, or even until Amistad if one is feeling particylularly daring). By art film I mean a certain style/tone more than anything (choose another term if 'art film' seems too loaded), ambiguous and investigative, less about greasing the audience's ride than inviting them along in a more conscious manner. Schindler is still a thrill ride of a movie.

That said the richest aspect of the film is the characterization of Goeth, who - far from being the cartoonishly monstrous archvillain many describe - is a frighteningly charismatic figure. Even more than Schindler, he gets to the heart of what is most fascinating in Spielberg: the director's oft-concealed love of power, which manifests itself in the way he constructs his movies, the types of narratives he chooses (often culminating in a bedazzling, spectacular climax) and most of all in the tension between his role as an industry insider, which goes way beyond that of other filmmakers and is way more intertwined with his own films, and his role as independent (in the spiritual, not the financial sense) filmmaker. Few film figures have so profoundly confused the role between expressive artist and presenting showman (Disney and Lucas eventually chose mogul over filmmaker, DeMille and others remained directors of their own material above all else). I increasingly think he's at his best when he challenges himself, as if part of him is ambivalent about his dual caps and how deeply rooted they may be.

Shamus said...

Thanks for the detailed analysis, Joel, and I wish I have something to say by way of response. I've read your article on Schindler but I still think that the film is completely indefensible, ideologically and morally. And the absence of politics in his films, as you note, is precisely an outcome of his calculation- it's easier to pander to a greater number if you pretend to appeal to "humanism" rather than "politics" (narrow and messy, and not universal in the slightest).

But... I'm still trying to keep an open mind. I take it you don't like AI, though?

Joel Bocko said...

No, I like it - what gave you the impression I didn't? I'd also say Munich includes politics (Lincoln certainly does). And I don't think an absence of politics is calculation in most cases, so much as a reflection of his sensibility - not all artists think in political terms and even those who do have a tendency to simplify. I think a filmmaker should be true to his or her personal vision - the issues I have with Spielberg are when I feel he withholds or distorts that.

Out of curiosity, what do you feel Schindler should have included by way of politics?

Shamus said...

I just wrote a fairly detailed response that was lost as soon as I hit post. I hate that. Again:

Briefly, I would say the problem chiefly consists of the ethical depiction of suffering; if you read something by WG Sebald or Primo Levi, they try to approach the Holocaust in a kind of oblique and indirect way, constantly interrogating their own responses and preconceptions in the process. They are not really concerned with the narrative aspects but with the moral dimensions of discussing something of such proportions. Spielberg’s film - a heroic superman type saves the cowering masses from the evil, cruel ogre-man and proves that heroism (and capitalism) and save everything - is a kind of extreme negation of the actual facts and is also the worst approach to take regarding the subject.

One another problem is another radical distortion of the facts- the ghettos established had Jews from all over Europe being herded into an area of about a few square kilometers. From what I understand, they spoke different languages, came from different social and economic conditions and had very different financial and educational standing. And this is apart from the countless other differences that divide people into individuals. Yet, the film treats them as a homogenous group- which is of course precisely that the Nazis did. This is what I meant by politics- an acknowledgment of differences rather than a simple-minded reiteration of universal similarities. And I definitely don’t think any of this is accidental.

Personally, my distaste for the film also extends directed to most other (like-minded) Holocaust films, which are calculated, or so it seems to me, to make the viewers seem virtuous afterwards and winning the filmmakers awards besides. Far more perceptive writers, like Hoberman, have written about the film (and discussed the problems of such representations), and I can’t really add to the existing literature and I’m not comfortable with the topic anyway.

And I have to ask – and I hope this is not rude – but why is it that you are so determined to defend the film when you are so ambivalent about it?

Shamus said...

Although Spielberg's approach seems that of an enlightened philosopher when compared to Tarantino.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, I hate that too. And unfortunately it seems to happen to me all the time. (Knock on wood.)

To respond broadly, I've always been a bit uncomfortable with the question of how ethic and aesthetics relate. I am more than comfortable discussing a work's morality, less comfortable judging it on that basis. Some of the cases against Schindler, and Holocaust representation in general, strike me as a tad selective - why is it ok to show violence against one person if the depiction of suffering is so problematic? I'm more comfortable judging or dismissing a work on its internal coherence than its external ethics. Which is a much-abbreviated version of a much longer musing.

I'll return in a bit to respond to the more specific Schindler question...

Joel Bocko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel Bocko said...

Keep in mind, I'm ambivalent, as you put it, not hostile. Hence I will criticize the aspects that don't gel for me, and defend those that do (and despite some MAJOR things I have issues with, the film on balance works quite well for me). As well as appreciate the fascination that a mishmash between the accomplished and the problematic can achieve. Ultimately, I am more interested in discussing - and to a certain extent defending - interesting works that I am ambivalent about than works which satisfy but do little to provoke me.

Out of curiosity, what did you think of Kapo? I haven't seen it yet but whenever these conversations arise I recall Rivette's excoriating review of the Pontecorvo film.

Shamus said...

(Well, this time I took the precaution of typing it out in a word document.)

Anyway, I don’t think we can really make any distinction between ethics and aesthetics, or politics and aesthetics, in any meaningful sense- or to qualify it a little, an assumption that we can separate politics and aesthetics also implies that form and content are somehow distinct and separate. It is far more meaningful to treat the film as a cohesive body, as the response of a single artist - the director - to the subject matter of the film (which is, of course, one of the basic assumptions the auteur theory), and every shot could then be said to embody a particular idea or an attitude of the film-maker (as opposed to that the entire production unit or a corporate consortium) to the subject-matter of the film. Analysing the aesthetic choices made by the film-maker and the ideological position that results therefrom, is I think, most important
function of criticism, film or otherwise.

And the problem of aestheticization of violence is not peculiar to Holocaust films. A few threads back, you were discussing Kieslowski with RAR. I didn’t want to say anything but there is actually a particular shot in the first episode of Decalogue that put me off Kieslowski altogether. The scene where the father, after finding out that his son is dead, cries beside a religious icon. Then, a candle falls and some wax drips on the icon. Only, Kieslowski somehow contrives it that the wax should drip very very carefully, like tears. The idea that a director should make such a deliberate, calculating choice about portraying intense suffering revolted me, frankly. And, way on the other end of the spectrum, you have someone like Tarantino who arranges the way the blood should flow (on snow, say) in the most fastidious fashion, and that his characters carve each other up into most pleasing shapes.

I’ve not seen Kapo, (not especially keen frankly), but, yeah, Rivette’s (or was it Godard’s?) formulation that “tracking shots are a matter of morality” did spring to mind when we started this discussion, yeah.

This is a very interesting topic and we somehow manage to find the most interesting things to talk about, but, more often than not, I end up feeling like a fool because I know so little about these matters.

Joel Bocko said...

Ha, if you're a fool than I am the fool who follows you, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, as I'm hanging on every word. Your position strikes me as justifiable, though I take a somewhat different - perhaps eccentric perspective. There are definitely works whose aesthetics are compromised by what might be called ethical decisions - to name two examples, in Mystic River I find the self-righteous ending, with its seeming justification of a kind of moralistic mercy killing, glib beyond belief, while Silence of the Lambs' smug fetishization of Lecter's 'taste' (we're supposed to cheer him on because he's articulate and his victims are supposedly boobs) irritates me.

Yet in both cases, can I really say it is a matter of real-world moral objection entirely? When I examine the films - and most films like this - I find it tends to be the internal incoherence, the way the film will hypocritically set up its value system, that irritates me more than anything else (for example, in Silence's case, that it encourages us to feel an amoral frisson with our enjoyment of Lecter's, even as it's at pains to conveniently make him sympathetic in all the ways that would REALLY be unacceptable: in other words, he's a cannibal but God forbid he be a misogynist; kind of like Dexter in that way). Plus both films I do not find stylistically impressive, giving them less wiggle room to get away with any moral hypocrisy. For me the gold (or anti-gold perhaps) standards on this are Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will. If I can call them great - and I can and do, even while focusing much of my reviews of them on criticisms or investigations of their (to put it mildly) troubling qualities, then really in judging a work's value, anything must go, right? You're not going to find many other films endorsing more terrible ideologies.

Joel Bocko said...


Your comment on Dekalog is fascinating. I too had major problems with that segment particularly when I first saw it (for whatever reason it bothered me less second time around). Though again, I think it's more a matter of aesthetic/narrative hypocrisy or over-convenience for me (maybe we are actually saying similar things, phrased a bit differently). Though I think Dekalog is a masterpiece, particularly in his later films, Kieslowski gets on my nerves somewhat - the self-serious, at times self-congratulatory and humorless tone feels, to use a much-overused word, 'pretentious' at times. It reminds me to a certain extent of Bresson in Mouchette, which gets credit for its humanism and yet to me seems a really cruel and dishonest exercise (if also a powerful film) in which Bresson plays a cold and distant God, tormenting his poor characters while asking us to mark their suffering as some kind of beautiful sacrifice. In this I see him as the kind of anti-Von Trier, whom I applaud for indicting himself first and foremost in his filmic j'accuses - both directors mercilessly play god with their suffering characters (and actors) but one strikes me as an Old Testament god, cloaking arbitrary cruelty in a moralistic veneer, while the other is more a Miltonian Satan, exercising power while tragically aware of his own abuse of power (I compared Von Trier initially to a Greek god in his non-moralistic, arbitrary sense of control, but this lacks the self-critical dimension I think; although maybe my impression of Milton is wrong - I've always been 'about to read' Paradise Lost but never get to it).

Phew - I'm composing this on my phone (laziness I suppose, although truthfully if I could get past the getting out of bed and turning on the computer but, this would have been much easier on my Pc!) and I feel like the sentences are extreme run-ons with typos sprinkled throughout but hopefully my meaning is clear.

Definitely read the Kapo piece of you haven't yet (wasn't sure from your comment) as Rivette's point almost perfectly reflects your own about Kieslowski and Tarantino, and he quotes the Godard (and/or Luc Moullet) axiom as well!


Shamus said...

Joel, you are definitely right that Kieslowski was influenced by Bresson but you are doing a great disservice to Bresson. If something like Blue, with its large budget and a star cast, appears to be neo-Bressonian, it is also a contradiction in terms. Rather, Kieslowski is using some of Bresson’s techniques – for instance, the flat, uninflected acting - in a rather generic way. I haven’t seen Mouchette yet but I have seen a lot of his other films like A Man Escaped and Lancelot du Lac(and Pickpocket many times) and he is clearly someone for whom form and content are inseparable; his philosophical outlook is impossible to talk about without alluding to his off-screen spaces, his filming of processes (like removing a wallet from someone’s pocket, like chipping wood off a prison door with a spoon). Whereas, the close correspondence between sound and image is used in a far more impressionistic manner by Kieslowski, who gets a slightly schlocky effect going for him.

Mystic River as you point out, is a deeply confused and an ideologically incoherent film, partly because Eastwood’s and Lehane’s sensibilities are in stark contrast and partly because I find Lehane’s novels in general to be pretty terrible. I vastly prefer Eastwood’s other films, from The Gauntlet to Gran Torino, because those films are coherent and their formal elements are put in service of very interesting ideas (and hey, if you think that your comparisons are stretched, I just compared Eastwood to a kind of Hollywood Oliveira in the previous thread). And I think this is true of many of the greatest filmmakers, like Lang, Kubrick, Oliveira, Keaton who have always had a clear system of ideas which they were expressed by formally daring techniques. The ideas themselves were, naturally, susceptible to change over time, (for instance Kubrick’s ideas about war evolve from Paths of Glory to Full Metal Jacket) but each film is a coherent whole, but also part of a fascinating oeuvre. Sometimes, it may not be able to separate the ideas from the form (true of directors as disparate as Sternberg and Bresson) in which case the underlying sensibility becomes important. You may find Bresson’s sensibility as that of an Old Testament god but I find him a deeply compassionate director and I also think that many scenes in his films are deeply erotic in a strikingly original way, an eroticism profoundly connected with the gestures, expressions and movements of his characters.

I’ll admit (although this sounds terribly ignorant) that I’ve never seen Silence of the Lambs for more than 5 minutes of its viewing time and Griffith, Riefenstahl and Von Trier not at all. Well, onward to Birth of a Nation, I suppose…

Thanks for the Rivette article. I’ve already read it and one of my favorite pieces of film criticism is Rivette’s essay on Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. In return, here is a Hoberman essay on Spielberg:


Shamus said...

And I had no trouble understanding your comment, by the way, except for your reference to Griffith and Riefenstahl. Could you elaborate?

I hope that my own comment is coherent- it was typed out in a hurry.

Joel Bocko said...

Sorry for the delayed response, Shamus. I have some trouble with both Kieslowski and Bresson, and not all of the reasons overlap. It's also worth noting that Mouchette is (so far) the only Bresson I have such major objections to; I was disappointed by Balthazar when I first saw it but now it is one of my favorite films. I've only seen Mouchette once, so I could change my mind on that: but its coldness to me seemed cruel rather than compassionate.

I'll check out that Hoberman piece; looks like it's from '07 so I may not have read it yet, but if it's the review of Schindler I've seen that one (I wrote an essay about 10 years ago exploring the various charges against Schindler's List, as well as its basis in fact and in Kennealy's novelistic book; sadly the essay is lost however).

To elaborate on Griffith and Riefenstahl, what I mean is that I consider their particularly morally objectionable films masterpieces; while I discuss their problematic aspects and tangle with their terrible ideologies, I consider it a given that they are great. I extrapolate from this that the ethics of the views being presented in and of themselves must not play a part in my judgement of a film's overall quality, even though I think it's something that should still be addressed. Hope that clarifies.

Jason Bellamy said...

We've talked through a bunch of this stuff, but I enjoyed your review just the same. Not to wear out already covered ground, but ...

"This is fine as it goes but can become annoying when Spielberg lays the sentiment on too thick; especially notable when the Congressmen stand up to be counted for complete abolition. The entire film has been spent showing us how many of these votes had to be cynically bought, and yet here the swelling score and triumphant close-ups and cutting convey a sense of moral victory misplaced onto the undeserving."

See, that's a great take. But the way I see it is that Spielberg treats any vote for the elimination of slavery as a moral good -- one that is obvious to everyone except the wicked. There's a difference in my mind with needing to be coaxed to break rank and actually changing one's mind. I feel LINCOLN presents those "switched" voters as being coerced to stand by their conviction, which is much different than being coerced to do something they actually don't believe in simply because they're being promised a reward. I know that LINCOLN goes out to 'buy' (or trade for) votes. But in the voting scene, or at any point, did it seem like any character was voting for the elimination of slavery begrudgingly? I didn't feel it. And that's part of why I felt that Lincoln always had the advantage, even as the scrip suggests that he was at a constant disadvantage.

Joel Bocko said...

Good point, and one that others have raised when I brought up the 'But it was all about corruption!' aspect. I will say that if you guys are right, and the vote was always about getting people to do what they REALLY wanted, the film is more tonally and dramatically consistent than I thought but also less interesting; I find the notion that very body's an angel inside if given the chance to be rather glib. I don't even really feel like its something Spielberg really believes deep down, just something he uses for feel-good purposes (even in Schondler's List, I don't quite buy the purity of Schindler's saintliness at film's end, though it doesn't help that he's a less compelling character at this point than earlier in the film).

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