‘Pushing hands’ refers to an exercise in tai chi chuan, where lightly touching each other, two practitioners learn to yield to and redirect a shared flow of energy. Standardized by the Chinese government in the form of sports tournaments, ‘pushing hands’ is neither sport nor martial art, more reasonably it can be said to be the building block of tai chi chuan, in essence a Chinese form of boxing that uses Taoist principles of inter-connected balance of opposites, soft beats hard, emptiness in form.
Nearly impossible to make sense of it in film, as is meditation and other internal Eastern arts, because simply showing it, or worse in the light of mystical ability, obscures what it really is about. Ang Lee however tries in his first film, with mixed results.
Modeled to the story of an aging tai chi master who comes to America to stay with his son’s family, there is what you’d expect from such a film; contrasts between two opposite ways of life, tradition versus modernity, love versus duty.
All that is pretty ordinary, and some obvious drama and questionable acting brings it further down. To be fair, for a low-budget student film, Lee shows considerable talent with a camera. All told, I’d rather celebrate his success story than Tarantino’s. But let’s see something more interesting from the Chinese perspective.
The overall point, is finding a still spot in imbalanced life that is constantly in motion, this is the old master’s quest for a home and new life in a new country, somewhere to grow roots. This is the tao of balancing in the flow.
Life back in China isn’t presented as ideal, we find that the old man has been persecuted all his life, and that his taichi and calligraphy is the still spot he cultivates, his center in a moving universe of suffering. See how a phone ringing startles him from meditation, that is life that goes on.
In line with tai chi principles, all this means ‘hard’ in several moments of real life conflict, versus ‘soft’ in inwards reflection. There is a love interest in Mrs. Chen (soft, as feminine yin to his yang) who’s in a similar situation as the old man, and much gentle pushing and yielding to be close to her.
So how beautiful, if we could have the film as cinematic ‘pushing hands’ between lonely souls? And carry the flow from heavy drama to soft inner life, to what these people do to cool and express their ardor, she in her cooking, he in his calligraphy. Kar Wai makes it work, not quite so here.
Why is that? There’s a scene of the old man watching videotapes of old Chinese kung fu movies, ridiculous from his perspective. The film is meant to offer next to other things a realistic depiction of his arts, fighting or otherwise, tied to realistic human connection as both soft.
But there are scenes like with the fat boy or in the restaurant, that in the end are as ridiculous as in those movies, suddenly jerking us to fiction, obscuring what is vital in his art; and mirroring that, there’s a sense of inflated drama in emotional moments. But Lee is too talented for us to be able to easily discard the whole work.
The Western perspective, introduced later in the film by the son, is that his father’s internal arts may be his way of shutting off the outside world, keeping from being touched perhaps related to the tragic loss of his wife. All through the film, we see that he likes Mrs. Chen but is reluctant to be close to her.
Now watch again the last scene where he teaches tai chi in the Chinese community center, now the ‘hero of Chinatown’. Watch how we first see him doing the motions, and then with a soft flow of the camera materializes behind him as though out of thin air, an entire class of students. And who enters as if by chance? Mrs. Chen.
Now ‘soft’ is what we see of his heart, ‘hard’ what we imagine as taking place in his head.
See how lightly the real and unreal touch, how smooth the parallel flow.
So you can afford to miss the rest but not this last moment, it’s expertly done and too delicious to ignore.
This Czech satire is nearly perfect for what it is, but you’ll have to decide its value for you. It’s smart and thought-out.
But it’s illuminating how it is unlike the previous film of the same team of writer and filmmaker, Loves of a Blonde. Both films are about social situations as they engage and spin humans. In Loves however, each situation was both a skit and sensitive insight of the heroine exploring herself through her stories of having been explored by men.
The main situation here is that it’s the annual firemen’s ball. But each new one on top of that is simply diversion, plainly so. The beauty contest as diversion from honoring the previous chairman. The fire as diversion from gawking at the girls. The stolen lottery as diversion from the plight of the man whose house burned down. There is a lot of hiding around and fooling others.
The childish firemen in their fine uniforms may as well be Party higherups, tasked through the night to carry out a few simple duties, all of which they bungle, all because they wanted some diversion. (the girls are deliberately ugly, to keep us from gawking and missing the point)
Where Bunuel would cruelly emphasize stupidity, Forman shows petty but human beings, retains a spontaneous flow of life, all of which elevate the film to something I can enjoy.
But as with every film, it comes down to what you think sufficiently explains the world. Is it foolishness in the gears of state? Is it desire, stifled or overflowing that’s causing misery? Some more puzzling urge for story in the soul that is creating images?
More to the point, the film can be said to be about the emptiness of having to be entertained.
So as said, it is perfect for what it is. At what cost though? The film diverts you from humans to amusing folly, the point is noting how this pursuit causes embarrassment all around. So you’ll have to decide the value (and perhaps novelty) of the lesson.
LASKY JEDNE PLAVOVLASKY / LOVES OF A BLONDE (1965)
Dir: Milos Forman
DELIGHTFUL, SMART, SENSITIVE AWAKENING TO LIFE
This is such an exquisite cinematic weave of feelings, I was taken aback. But only half of it is there, the rest you’ll have to supply which is even better in a way. Films come into being after all in that space between what is there and the experience in the eye.
But first. Watch it once straight through because it’s funny as hell in that gentle way the Czech know so well, just light and bitter enough to be like getting tipsy on life, delighted at the tipsiness. It’s well made and well acted, you can see why Milos Forman was quickly tapped by Hollywood.
Watching it once, you’ll have this as your template—a teenage girl’s impressionable drift through male sexual whims, and bittersweet realization in the end of heartbreak every time. Now bring all these other things to it:
The guys are only looking to get laid, this isn’t about them.
It’s a story the blonde girl tells to her girlfriend using the photograph of a boy, both real and imagined. Knowing this, is knowing everything else including the seduction is her exploring by allowing herself to be explored.
The gaffe with the bottle of wine sent by horny soldiers to the wrong table, the ugly ducklings instead of the pretty blonde. But it makes its way to the right one, and we have the two soldiers go after the two girls (but not the blondie), and that subplot abandoned with inviting glances.
Now her seduction (remember, still a story she will tell) but we actually skip sex, and go straight to the intimacy and youthful joking around on the bed which is what she yearns for, connection. And as she leaves the room, she meets the ugly duckling coming back to her room after her parallel night with the soldier.
The lecturing by a teacher on girls guarding a woman’s honor, and she boards the first bus out of there.
The cut from her alone in a country road boarding the bus, to a dance floor in the city filled with young couples, to TV footage of dancing girls in the parents’ home. Amazing storytelling, because it is not of the story but the air around the girl.
Her being ‘locked’ in the house, falling asleep to the mother’s incessant nagging. Waking up again, now the boy is there but he’s not who she would like him to be—she watches heartbroken through a peephole (a cinematic device) as the pettiness of family life is revealed.
So this is wonderful. It ends with her telling this story better than it is.
I would change a single detail—we’d never be shown who is in either of the two photographs.
It would be about any of these girls dreaming up all we’ve seen. (we see them all asleep in the end)
Sex safely explored inside the fantasy, and the fantasy both ‘real’ and imaginary, helter skelter so you wouldn’t know where last day’s glances end and the pillow book starts. The ugly duckling as the blonde. It can support all that and more, excellent, excellent stuff.
In order to appreciate why this is special, watch another Czech film called Daisies (Sedmikrásky), more inventive on the surface, more irreverent on the same subject, but it doesn’t hit deep. It has the images but not the life that gives rise to them, there are both here, and how.
It’s so good, it rivals Celine and Julie Go Boating on my list of great films, a similar film on the layered dreaming of a girl.
Okay, so my ongoing project is that I’m seeking out films where, as you see them, the self who sees (who by seeing, obscures the view) comes into focus. The most clear and direct way is with slow filmmakers like Tarr and others, though it’s a lost game if you let them simply numb you. So who is obscuring the view? We’ll get to that in a bit.
Others like Greenaway and Ruiz will do it by tricking you into invented realities, also valid. Anyway as you quiet down that impatient self, and films of this sort help, things become clearer, unusual insights appear. But it also helps to see past the filmmaker, most of the time he imposes on his created world by trying to explain (usually through a surrogate self) some part of it, reducing.
Also clear, in this case it’s the protagonist philosophizing on meaningless life, impossible salvation and the ruin of having to be, dreary stuff. Because he is the protagonist, we think some of it will shed some light. But that’s just who Tarr is, gloomy, wondering. I don’t doubt his sincere despair. But what’s the use? Rest there and he’ll suffocate you, stain you without cleansing.
Anyway, discard all that, and it can be a different experience. It’s a worthy film beneath the mud.
It’s a simple story, a schmuck is contracted to smuggle in a parcel, we can assume by the secrecy that it’s some shady deal. In turn he contracts the husband of a woman he’s having an affair with—a sexy torch singer. As the husband goes away, we go on to visit disconnected stops in this affair, this is what gives the film its dreamlike air. So that’s the story.
More interesting is the world behind it. Your clue is a recurring visual motif introduced with just the first shot—a hazy view of something, and pan to reveal someone watching, an intermediate self between you and things. He IS constantly obscuring the view by thinking what it’s about. The second time it’s like in a film noir, it’s raining, a man is watching a bar. Inside the bar, we are seduced by the femme fatale’s smoky song, maybe it’s all a nightmare as the lyrics say.
It’s a wonderful scene that sets everything else up.
So as per noir rules, desire fools with the schmuck’s sense of reality and we have the rest of the film as hazy perturbation. He has done something wrong and knows it, sending the husband away. The third time the watcher motif appears, the woman is not looking out to life through the blinds, but inside the room, her gaze cramped by walls of his desire —the scene plays out with sex, mirrored in a mirror reinforcing inversed reality.
So the affair grows stale—and lo, we have his endless monologues rationalizing frustration by directing it to the world, the world as punishment. And that as profundity that distracts.
So who is obscuring the view?
It’s that intermediate self who instead of seeing, fidgets for more story and answers that preferably make some sense. It’s your own self, fidgeting for more story when you watch a film like this.
Isn’t this something that actually happens? As you watch these ultra slow films, which is why they can help, doesn’t your own fidgety self distract you by aimless thinking? Isn’t that self getting in the way of what is potentially there for you? Imagine if Tarr acknowledged the fact in his narration, for instance like Nabokov does with self-deprecating layered humor—it’d be an astounding film.
Tarr has set up other cool things, the husband knowing something is wrong as our guy’s guilt, an older woman (his woman) suggesting peace in the dance together. But there are moments like when she quotes the Bible and the inane end with the dog, which muddle what it is about. Tarr was probably unsure himself, the interested part of him doing the noir abstraction, another part of him venting.
But the scene at the bar, her song as noir hallucination. The architecture and roaming camera as in Marienbad. And all of it submerged as different levels of watching. I’d like to think Lynch saw this, and immediately knew which parts worked. Tarr is probably still unsure.
This will hit a particularly sweet spot, if you only let it. It will find the child in you, and tell you a story of medieval adventure and true love. There are going to be like in the storybooks, expert swordsmen, six-fingered knaves, giant rats, fiery swamps, the Dredd Pirate Roberts. The maiden will need last-minute rescuing from the cruel king.
But as the kid in you becomes prepared to be engrossed, the narrator will show you that it is all goofy make-believe for the kick of making it all up as we go. It will not be epic with grand battles and pure evil because you are not actually a child, but sketch only the picaresque outline of things, trusting you to imagine the rest.
So this is nice. Both the storybook for kids, and good-natured acknowledgment of its fiction.
We can be both in and out of the film, poking fun at knowing it is fun.
If you’re going to like this, it will basically come down to a few things.
Do you like Capra and old Hollywood? Which is to say, do you cherish movies where we can pretend that people are struggling in the real world, while knowing every step of the way they’re falling in love in a movie? And that life ought to work a bit like this, love as unpredictable fate.
Do you not mind Woody Allen? Enough to accept the roundly toned-down narrative tricks, neurosis, cynical wit as disillusioned truth and reference to other movies as blueprint for life, in our case (linking back to #1) Casablanca. (if you like Allen too much, this will grate as second-rate compromise)
Can you still stomach Allen’s movie image of the cute, jazzy New York?
Do you watch endless reruns of Friends, just because of the cozy mood?
Can you kid yourself for a while that Cosmo blurbs can substitute for relationship insights?
None of it means you are a bad person. You just want from time to time some comfort food for the eyes. So if half of those are true, Rob Reiner has made for you this sticky-sweet film from Nora Ephron’s smart recipe, much better than Ephron’s own with Hanks and Ryan, Sleepless and You’ve Got Mail.
What the Pythons did goes back to Dada in the 1910’s—against logic and bourgeois complacency, for irrationality, chaos and the absurd as by-roads to unconscious inspiration. In this film, usually accepted as one of their best, they rail helter skelter against authority, masculine heroism, sexual hypocrisy, the chastity of romantic legend.
Some of the skits work, the coconuts, duck, French siege. It’s funny when it is, precisely because it’s non-sense, a shrubbery of very smalls rocks. More often, it’s just silly. The more of logic that is applied to explain say, coconuts in Britain, the more ludicrous logic appears to be, we recognize the truth of this in our own irrational world.
But the overall film fails for my taste.
It had two competing directors in Jones and Gilliam, this may account for some of it. But mostly, it is poor cinematic storytelling, one skit after the other. Even surrealism benefits from some overall framework for the experience, something to be directed to beyond reason.
At the time, this wasn’t as clear as it is now. The Czechs were still making movies in this disconnected vein, Svankmajer to this day. Late 60’s Godard, more famously. All those things were very much in the counter-culture air in the 1970’s.
So as with most things of the era, this is fun for a while, fun but stale.
This is meant to offer a soft contrast as flow, between external life with people (family members gathered for Thanksgiving) anxiously pulled in disparate orbits, and the inner life of unfathomable urges and emotion that gives rise to the first—appearances versus true self, rooted in relationships and attempting connection.
Set in 1970’s America with Nixon lying on TV, the broader commentary is that the world is organized on deceit, misplaced faith. There is contextual talk of people as intertwined molecules, of inner life as inverted space where the invisible becomes visible.
So here’s the cinematic gambit, how to make visible a part of that inner life? It’s what every filmmaker worth anything has puzzled about in his work, in-sight into human soul, no small challenge for Lee, though the film may otherwise seem typical.
There are three connected story lines to that effect, each one culminating in a ritual of seduction as betrayal. Each storyline, climaxes with a loved one drifting out of consciousness in some way (drunk husband, Libbets, the son).
This only emphasizes what we’ve been seeing for the whole film, people drifting apart heedless of one another. It all plays in the latter stages against the backdrop of a coming ice storm, it can’t be helped, there’s some inevitable unhappiness ahead of us.
The overall point? In each case, as loved ones momentarily or not go out of life, those left behind are suddenly surrounded with that negative space of absence, and in that space pour their inner self and effect human connection.
It may all seem a little cloying in the finale. But the best part is getting there, the protracted sequence with cross-cutting between the three stories of betrayed seduction. So how to make visible what in life eludes us, the fabric of feelings as cinematic fabric?
This was very likely Lee’s interest in the project, as well as more broadly the idea of dislocation.
I was happy to see a cinematic solution that was nowhere in multithreaded films like Crash or Cloud Atlas. The idea seems to be, show each new scene from a point on, as extension, as in-sight or meditation on previous ones, as though a single soul is dreaming.
So this is nice. The film is the empty space, as we think dull, day-to- day life to be. The characters as molecules drifting in the air, often apart. The loss of consciousness not simply as loss, but as meaningful awakening to that empty space where we, as molecules, do not aimlessly drift, but by virtue of being there, hold each other into place giving shape to life.
Lee as usual has compromised, enough to deliver a movie with some broad appeal. The overall wrap is a bit too fabricated for my taste. But see how gentle are the contrasts between hard sorrow and soft inner life, where the very similar Melancholia eats at you, this soothes. It’s all here natural to Lee, who as a Chinese knows this stuff in meditation and tai chi.
Jancso was part of a group of filmmakers, who around the same time in different places, largely influenced by one another and the tide they set forth, sat down to examine in their work issues of perception—asymmetric memory, abstract representation of self and feelings, how seeing shapes narrative. Now that it has settled, we can see that they weren’t all of the same make. We can see for example that Bergman was much more old-fashioned than Antonioni. A lot of Godard’s novelty is just not a big deal anymore.
Jancso seems more advanced in retrospect.
Most of his films from this period are about war, they are fine as such, better than most anything by anyone else; and war (usually WWII) did after all loom large in the consciousness of people who lived through it as impressionable youngsters, so it was a much more personal experience than it is for us now, distantly desensitized to it by TV footage of war coverage and atrocity. And they are so purely about war, it seems a lot of viewers have rested upon watching his films on a certain abstraction of war.
But let’s see something else. Nevermind war for a moment. We can know it is WWII somewhere in Hungary, but there are no battles, no two armies on opposite sides to clearly define conflict. We know as much about it as we do about the protagonist, nothing beyond that he’s a boy of 17 tossed by forces beyond understanding. There is no broader story to define who he is versus what he is up against, nothing beyond the fact that there he is, strange people arrest him, he breaks free, is arrested again, and there’s the vague hum of violence hanging over the prairie.
It is all so clear when you see through Jancso’s eyes, no clutter here.
Where most filmmakers try to get the whole image, he lightly sketches edges only—the air around the thing.
Here, the image is of the boy rushing from one stage of life to the next, always moved because the gears of the world move. Others pass through the outpost, soldiers, civilians, wary, bored, some of them small-minded fools doing what they were told to do. Always with the violence, because who knows what part of what story those people live in.
The first half of this is sublime, there is no story (later there will be some), only glimpses from transient life as the boy’s taken around, what the Japanese had a century before perfected in their art of woodblock carving. Buddhist-inspired in its original context, the images reinforced a worldview of fleeting sorrows, impermanence, sweet reminder of the emptiness of all things.
So it is with Jancso, who (unlike most filmmakers of war) does not dwell on suffering, presents atrocity as fleeting as everything else. Whose camera is the Japanese floating eye, always gliding at arm’s length (never fixed, theatric) as though self-less consciousness hovers in and off itself, broken up by bird’s eye views of abstract landscape.
Want another clue? More purely about seeing, the boy has found in captivity binoculars that he uses to look at things, so far we thought he was in the middle of nowhere, but looking out with these things he observes (creates by seeing?) a quiet town, which suddenly, illusory, seems close enough. The association is with cinema, memory, remote vision.
The boys frolic in the ruins of ancient statues, forming temporary connections in a perishable world.
The film is the wonderful blueprint of this Buddhist world, of things coming to be and vanishing again.
I recommend this. Sure there is boredom and dead time, it can’t be helped. Life has this asymmetry.
DESIRE, AS CINEMATIC MEMORY THAT BENDS THE SHAPE OF THINGS
The exercise here seems to be the layered portrait of a woman (an actress) unsure of herself. There is a lot of other stuff thrown in with Hong Kong and Shanghai in the grip of war, spying and politics, that is basically broadening the canvas with enough life to make the main image more lush and lifelike as opposed to a dry examination, bring clarity to it as something we unearth from a busy world. It is what Wong Kar Wai does in his films when stretching time, though not exactly the same.
That image is actually an image of her, shown twice.
That is where she’s talking on the phone in the cafe, more sensually memorable when moments later she puts on perfume. The first time it happens we know close to nothing of her, except an implied affair with Mr. Lee, stolen from glances like in a Wong Kar Wai film. The second time near the end we know everything, again she talks on the phone and puts on perfume but now everything’s changed, we know who both are and what is to be done.
In between this mirrored image is the bulk of the film, all that fleshing out of the world and her as memory that shifts our position in the story by shifting what we know of the situation. It drags for me but there’s a payoff in the end.
Here’s very clearly how it works in the film, it’s clever stuff. If you have seen just the first part leading up to the phonecall, and the last part resuming from the phonecall until the end, in that part of the story after she has fallen in love, her actions make sense.
In that part, Mr. Lee is just a sweet, taciturn man, not unlike the husband Tony Leung played in Mood for Love. Why’d she do it?
But you have seen everything else, known him with more depth as an unpleasant man and can’t unknow him, unless that is if you excuse the film as erotic. So you question her judgment of allowing herself to be seduced, as do her puzzled comrades in the firing squad line.
She an actress, he a watcher.
Her initially acting in the theater, later having to act in life, in the mahjong games with rich bored housewives, as the mistress. He watches, cautious at first but steadily drawn in. She is drawn by him watching, later forcing his way into her performance.
It’s not far from Wong Kar Wai’s later films, which go back to Bertollucci’s Last Tango to Vertigo (better yet, Nabokov’s Lolita), where a man and woman, he is usually older and experienced, create between them a space of obsessive passion, where names and identity dissolve.
Lee has done it halfway between Kar Wai and Bertolluci, shifting from coy glances to lots and lots of sex—but if you are fooled by it, you are fooled as she is, seduced because it’s erotic.
The point in all cases? That space ruled by nameless desire which may seem more pure and sometimes we covet in life, where we won’t have to be who we are, is in fact more illusory, desire bents the shape of things into what is desired of them to be. As in a film noir, where desire (coded in the femme fatale) fools with the narrator’s reality.
On all this topics as well as main story, Lee inserts Hitchcock’s film noir Suspicion which our heroine sees in the theater—a film where a young girl wonders whether her charming man may not be a murderer, and a studio tacked-on (meaning false) ending puts her mind at ease.
Linked in all cases with memory as the untrustworthy desire to bend the life we choose to recall, it is a purely cinematic subject, where again there’s the escape into something more pure than just life, but it’s an illusory ecstacy, light poured on canvas. Enchanting for a while, but the lights have to come back on again.
So why’d she do it? Because all that she knows about him is abstract when he touches her, the touch is real.
So Lee has compromised, in this as in others of his films, it is half a great film in a rather ordinary package. You can kid yourself with the story, whereas not in 2046. But if it leads even one person into likeminded filmmakers who work outside producer constraints, it was all worth it.
Films usually work upon the same mechanisms, it is what religion in old times simply used to warn against. In more typical dramas, the sin is acted out as some part of life, the more recognizable the better. This was fine for centuries, but the invention of the camera opened it up in great ways. More ambitious films visualize the experience or feeling as it arises, more or less vividly render the hell of it (think Lynch), usually with some the ambiguity and mystery it happens in real life.
This is midway between the two ways.
Framed with religion and the search for answers, the story here is of a young boy on a spiritual journey with his animal self. The boy has previously adopted religion, several in fact, and this deeper perspective he cultivates is the film we see. On a simple level, it is a story of survival, but so extraordinary that you know there’s more to it, hidden depths. Visualized around him, we have a series of meditations inspired by the elements—in tempestuous seas, in the whale magnificent to behold but wrecks everything, in the magical, by day, inter- connected nature of the island but turns deadly by night.
Visually, the experience has been more evocatively done in Tropical Malady, which is on the same journey to inner self (once more a tiger) and clarity. Greenaway has more puzzling symmetries. But it’s a nice film to have, perhaps too clean and cutesy, but clean for a reason.
Here’s the caveat. The idea so simplified in the end, is that we can’t know one way or the other, but here we are, loved ones perish, we continue to be tossed in an ocean of suffering, and that god is perhaps the more attractive story to grim reality, it provides purpose and color, soothes the soul on her journey. This explains the Disney cleanliness, as his mind not dwelling on death.
The sentiment makes sense of course, but suddenly reduces.
Going back, you will see this reductive logic in places, reductive because it IS logic. The most telling spot for me is the following, it is the one that should be the most emotionally powerful, the most purely visual because it is directly of the boy’s soul. Among the meditations, there is one of him being submerged in the sea to the quantum level of soul where images bubble up and form everything else, he goes past the animals, past the symbols, and settles on the face of his loved one, all of it illusory.
It is of course the feeling that has arisen in him, but see how it is rendered. Schematic isn’t it?
Not unlike its notion of god as constructed imagination, which reduces in retrospect by too simple sense. So keep this film to heart, it has its heart in the right place, but imagine how you would do the swim. Zen starry waters without the Disney luminescence maybe?
The magic in it being what it is, not constructed, revelatory as it is.
MISS RAVENEL’S CONVERSION FROM SECESSION TO LOYALTY
In the 1867 Civil War novel Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, a Union captain is assigned at the end of the war, to complete the muster-out rolls cataloging his regiment dead and missing over four years of fighting; to get a sense of the insurmountable task ahead of him, these ‘rolls’ were indeed supplied after Appomattox by the War Department in the form of sheets that measured a yard square.
In the book, the captain is chosen because he is the only one who has been there since the start and made it through, the only one who has the memory to write the chronicle, jot down the history. Though not a masterwork, the novel nicely suggests that there is the killing and dying, but there is a relative truth to it, there is both the struggle and the struggle for this to be a story, one with some invented sense in its mechanism.
Spielberg has no notion of this, never had.
It’s all about what kind of world you think this is. From his perspective, it is all too clean, clearly-defined, closed instead of open-ended, you can see that in the story he chooses to tell of Lincoln, the people as he shines his light on them. Oh, I’m fine with the facts they put in, they could have put more, could have put less. They could have made a fuss for example of Copperhead activities of the previous summer, to make Democrats look worse. More astutely, they could have said that Lincoln’s re-election was at all possible because of costly military victory. Anyway, they have very cleanly managed to convey a complex political situation, the issues at stake.
But again it is a simple-minded effect.
Again with the moral platitudes, again with the flaccid narrative and speechifying, with the good guys on one side, noble in the eye of history if not constitutional law, and bad on the other, malicious fools or at best doddering pawns. It reminds me of the few instances we saw Germans in his Warhorse, flatly inhuman, cruelly whipping horses. Again having the subject be safely self-evident, because what would be those who abolished slavery if not great heroes, villains those who opposed it?
And you can see the same dull unambiguity in his visual iconography of Lincoln—Lincoln as mythic shadow, as weary traveler, Lincoln in the candleflame of legend, popular, pedantic perceptions of the man. How else would you do it?
The one great scene for me is where the passing of the Amendment is given to us as Lincoln waiting in his office, startled by the sudden joyous ringing of bells—there it is, the gap away from ceremony and heated fact, the waiting as gears snap into place, the man alone wondering.
It’s just not for me, overall. Because in Spielberg’s world it cannot be just an army camp the president is visiting, not just life with its clamor and filth, it has to be so that four soldiers, two of them black, recite to him his Gettysburg Address—no soul here, only the sentimental schooling.
But this is why it troubles to speak of it, because as you watch it, the doubt and inner turmoil is there, the morally fickle North and hostility to negro equality is there, the bartering of half-truths for necessity is there, the radical galvanizing as a byproduct of bloody war.
So I’d ask anyone who likes this to more carefully differentiate solid scholarship in Goodwin’s book, the historic legend of the man, some narrative complexity in the script, versus insights in the film and cinematic dimension in the presentation of people whose life is not in any book. Historic persons or not, the life you have to imagine.
The difference is between researched history, and bringing it alive as fiction, which is what all filmmakers do, and why Spielberg so often fails when he tries to portray life. You could get the hats and wardrobe historically right, the correct type of wood in the benches, the words and gaslight, but still make a cartoon.
So this is why I blame Spielberg. Film is a matter of representation, of creating the illusion of a world that moves. So the facts are here, but making it alive is a matter of erudition on the part of the filmmaker, a feel for either people or cinematic devices.
Spielberg has taken some narrative complexity, and as he shouts action and we should have the flow of what is real life to his characters, he can’t help but reduce, some truthful moments in Lincoln reduced by juvenile moments elsewhere, the same juvenile handling of people I find in all his other films.
So this is everything he would most like to be thought of as, versus who he can’t help but be. It’s a silly film.