15/12/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin(book)
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn


Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, portrays Abraham Lincoln’s masterful and determined political leadership in passing the 13th Amendment through the US House of Representatives and abolishing slavery by law.

As my memory serves, Abraham Lincoln was a tall and skinny man who spoke eye to eye from whatever lofty podium to whatever man, woman or child in front of him.  Perhaps the opening scene, where soldiers of the Civil War bayonet and stomp one another in hand to hand combat, serve to remind audiences that when Mr. Lincoln spoke, he had to first overcome the heartache of a trampled people in order to be heard.  To do this, the former President often tells a story that ends with a soft smile to invite the listener to come closer to his meaning.

Before President Lincoln meets the camera’s lens face on, two black Union soldiers stand before his shadowy presence as he sits atop a wooden railway platform.  They tell the man of their hopes after the war is over. President Lincoln (expertly embodied by Daniel-Day Lewis as weary, worn and regal) slowly comes into being as the man we all recognize.  Simultaneously homespun and larger than life, Lincoln asks how they’re doing.  One talks smart, making it clear his days of subservience are over.  “I don’t like the smell of boot wax and I can’t cut no hair.”  Lincoln responds with a story about his unruly, wire brush-like hair and how he wishes he could find a barber who could deal with it. They have to laugh. He makes his point. He is easy in their company but he won’t be intimidated.

Then, two young white soldiers – boys really – step in and thank him for his speech on the Gettysburg battlefield dedicating the National Cemetery. Mr. Lincoln wonders aloud, “Could you hear me?”  By way of an answer, they recite the few paragraphs he spoke.  At this point, shivers ran up my spine.  Tears flowed down my cheeks.  The black soldier who was fresh with his words finishes the last of Lincoln’s address.  Boys, really, who had only heard the speech once, committed his words to memory.  Quintessential Spielberg; there’s no way the soldiers’ memory is that sharp, but strong emotion runs straight through the scene, and from my own past. I could hear my own father’s voice teaching me those words.  As a girl, I remembered how hard it was to memorize them.  And yet they never left my mind.  Years later, as I stood in the Lincoln Memorial, I heard my father’s voice in my head as I read the inscription carved in stone declaring a new birth of freedom.  So, these boys –looking up from below, still at eye level and ready for the challenges of their day – set the mood and anticipation for Lincolnto bring forth its point.

It is, after all, a story well known: Lincoln freed the slaves.

But it is also, after all, a story not so well known.  It wasn’t the war that freed them. It was a wrangled effort, led by Lincoln and voted to victory by a cantankerous House of Representatives.

It is not well known that the Constitution of the United States of America needed to be amended to abolish slavery.  The war wouldn’t have done it.  In order for slaves to be free under the law and not just by the say of Lincoln, who held war president powers, an amendment to the Constitution was needed.  Lincoln shows the former President as an adroit politician leading and winning a bitter fight in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery before the South surrendered.  Without the 13th Amendment – that is, without being bound to a U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery upon return to the union – the Southern states could have retained slavery when the war was over.  This point the film makes clear.

Lincoln is a helluva story, not to be missed because it’s a great film nor because it’s an excellent history lesson.  There are lots of facts to be checked.  It’s the story within the story to which the film draws attention and sets off fresh thoughts about the inner workings of our democracy that make it an important film to experience.  The underlying message about the democratic process as a stage for endemic opposition upon which a dedicated reach for reconciliation of opposites plays for all seasons can be easily overlooked.

When Lincoln asks his wife’s black maid, “What will your people do once free?” she answers, “I don’t know what we’ll do with freedom, but free comes first.  I am a mother of a son who fought and died for the Union. That’s the way I’ll remember myself.”

“The door. It opens.” shouts Thaddeus Stevens to a fellow congressman knocking at his office door.  Metaphorically, this small piece of dialog captures the accomplishment of the 13th Amendment.   The film plays Abraham Lincoln’s use of power close to the vest but never in doubt. It is Lincoln’s willingness to use his power as he sees fit that opens the door for many tough arguments to follow.  What people will do with the freedom the amendment provides will result in many struggles for identity.  Lincoln felt driven to open the door, to let things happen.  He never let the mantle of authority drop, not to joke and certainly not to please.

1865 is a bare 100 years before 1965, a time when the fight for civil rights was in the streets again and dividing North and South.  Separate, but equally challenged.  Not as bloody a fight as the Civil War, but bloody enough to spur the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964. At the turn of the century, women fought for the right to vote; 1920 brought the 19th Amendment prohibiting denial to vote on basis of sex but not before women went to jail in protest.

Today, one more time, a struggle for freedom presents itself.  Many of the prejudices exhorted in Lincoln about black people in 1865 resound in current opposition to gays and lesbians.  Archaic but modern, many civil rights issues remain the same.  The Dalai Lama says compassion is the true normal for humans so when we’re drawn into heated oppositions, the return to center is what’s called for.

The cinematography in Lincoln exemplifies Lincoln’s ability to hold the outside at bay while he holds our attention on his intent: compassion.  Behind every window of darkened, often candlelit rooms and just beyond every outside scene, a white light glows and blocks the view. Lincoln’s lanky presence, brief words and lengthy stories lie within a dazzling brilliance, intensifying the masterful interiority of his vision.  His single-minded campaign to abolish slavery effects an historical victory for the world and ‘the unborn to come’ like a spotlighted, center stage act.  In the end, the light from another world comes in, shining upon his frail body lying dead in the center of a group of men in dark suits who will carry on.  However, as the victory vote came in that day so long ago in January, Lincoln stands amidst long, filmy white curtains filled with bright late light, holding his son under his arm and looking out a window where there’s nothing but the future to see.

Free is not an identity.  It’s a beginning of many searches by people who are free to argue fiercely in a ‘country where the fox and the hare say good night to one another’ (P.L. Travers).

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03/01/10 Other Writing # , , , , , ,

Croatia: An Horizon of Hope

Croatia. Not a war zone. Paradise. I drank pure sweet tasting water from the tap, swam in the buoyant Adriatic at inviting temperatures, ate fresh fish, mussels, clams and lobsters caught daily from a crystalline blue sea, and hopped easily onto ferries visiting offshore islands with antique towns and sandy beaches.

Everyone tucks a bathing suit into a pocket or wears one under their clothes. I was in and out of the Adriatic Sea even while I was going for lunch, shopping or sightseeing. The Adriatic is salty but not itchy and the Croats have showers and hoses everywhere in anticipation of people taking quick dips in the sea.

But isn’t NATO bombing that place; isn’t Croatia located midst the strife- stricken Balkans? Well you might ask. I did. Before I signed up to attend a “Peacebuilding Conference for the 21st Century” in Cavtat, just south of Dubrovnik, I had pressed organizers, travel agents and knowledgeable friends with the question —— “Is it safe?” Even though I’d read Lonely Planet’s new guidebook on Croatia subtitled “Get in before the crowds return”, I didn’t believe it. Only once I arrived and had one contradictory experience after another, could I put aside the images of Croatia I’d formed from the news. Where was the Croatia I’d been reading about — the one with tinderbox elections, reeling from a century of combative Serbian demands?

War was invisible unless, of course, I turned on CNN. In truth I felt caught in the film, The Truman Show. I expected the sky to be pulled back, revealing the real world. As a single woman, I was enjoying a rare luxury offeeling safe. I felt safe traveling, exploring and walking everywhere alone. Even in the city of Zagreb, I walked miles along deserted beaches in the early morning hours and returned without fear to my hotel after dinner, often late in the evening.

The presence of the 1991 war does persist — in conversation. A simple question to a waiter or shopkeeper, as vague as “how are things for you now?” easily penetrated any thin formality. Everyone under thirty seems to speak and understand English. But even older Croatian vendors selling newspapers and postcards at portable kiosks found a way to answer my questions. And when I thanked a store clerk for his courteous service, he smiled an emphatic “Thank you” of his own, explaining “We are brothers making a business. Your business is welcome.” A florist who created a bouquet of flowers for me to take to the sister of a friend who lives in Zagreb spoke very little English but proudly introduced her eight year old son to me and explained (in Croatian), “She’s American. English, not German.”

Life was good while I was in Croatia. People were glad for peace and glad for tourism, but they’ve been hurt. I was told many personal stories of a war they never saw coming. Telling me seemed to ease the pain. In Dubrovnik, a taxi driver pointed to “the red tiles where they bombed the roofs”. A doctor next to me in line commented, “The emergency rooms took everyone, Serbs included.” A Croat, who drove me around outside Dubrovnik explained, “that house stands empty where a Serbian family lived and never returned”. A waiter in a small restaurant shrugged when I complimented him on the food, “Times have been difficult, but no one is hungry here.” And so on.

The local red wine was so good in one small Cavtat restaurant that I wanted to buy some and bring it home. The restaurant owner explained its source as his own small vineyard, adding a quiet, “the war is over now”, as if the quality of his wine was a telling sign. Such is the beauty of this land; even when tanks were coming across the fields, no one could believe it. One man heard the news on the radio and since he could see no evidence from his window, he drove around the countryside in his car to find it! The war continues now in Croat minds as a deeply felt injustice — wrong, like graffiti desecrating a sacred wall.

I found the healing power of this land worked with travel mishaps as well as on the vast distress from war. Several personal tourist problems were “somehow” transformed into unexpected gifts. Making my way from Los Angeles to Frankfurt and to my final destination, Dubrovnik, I had a scheduled two-hour layover in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. But an airline official met me at the gate with the bad news that my Croatian Air flight was delayed — four additional hours! — and, furthermore, the flight would stop over in the town of Zared before going on to Dubrovnik. Just as I was wondering how I was going to survive airport chairs after a full day and night of time zone travel, I realized the Zagreb airport was located across the street from a park! I spent the afternoon lazing around in shaded sunshine, dozing and people-watching. Whoever heard of such a delightful layover!?

Then, more problems. Due to high winds, my flight to Dubrovnik was grounded in Split, a seaside city still five driving hours from Dubrovnik — a little like getting grounded in San Francisco. Croatian Air dumped all passengers, rather unceremoniously and without much direction, onto a curb in a parking lot to wait for a bus at midnight! While waiting for the bus, I struck up a conversation with a man from Canada who had grown up in Croatia. He explained that the winds at the Dubrovnik airport were extremely dangerous and the airline was making a good choice not to take us there. After an hour waiting around for a bus, cab drivers approached and asked if anyone wanted to pay 2400 kuna (approximately $300) and share a taxi to Dubrovnik. The Croatian Canadian negotiated a reasonable deal for the two of us and I got a crash course in Croatian history.

The traveler from Canada was a natural storyteller. Even in the dark, he highlighted the Croatian coast and relieved the tension of single lane driving between Split and Dubrovnik. Three and a half hours later (instead of five), we arrived at Hotel Croatia at 4 a.m. He told me that, in 1991, when the Serbs had unsuccessfully attempted to make Croatia their own state, the Hotel Croatia had been stripped and vandalized. Now, proudly refurbished the splendid five-star hotel sports indoor and outdoor swimming pools as well as spa and recreational services, rooms with balconies overlooking village or sea, and nightly disco dancing with a live band. As I walked down the hotel’s spiral staircase to the dining room, he showed me how the architect left the dynamite blasted rock foundation exposed as a natural wall casing. Once again, I was struck with Croatia’s magical ability to merge tough realities with a lightness of being.

This was going to be a wonderful site for the “Peacebuilding in the 21st Century” conference I was attending in the seaside town of Cavtat, six kilometers south of Dubrovnik.

Since I had arrived before dawn’s early light, I woke up to an unexpected paradise, stretching out as far as I could see. First a swim and then dinner, enjoying the clear waters of Cavtat. You haven’t had calamari until it’s been grilled fresh from the Adriatic Sea. The next day, I traveled forty-five minutes by water ferry across the sea to Dubrovnik. Nothing prepares me for the perfection of what some people call the most beautiful city in the world. I felt like I’d stepped into a fairy tale, been refused ordinariness and given royalty in my sundress. I wished for a costume and a procession, some ritual event to match the surroundings and provide pomp and circumstance as I walked around the high walls of this glistening ancient city. I attended a magical evening concert by the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra in the open-roofed Rector’s Palace Atrium where the starry sky of Dubrovnik was momentarily defined by four stone walls, installed as a captive night sky ceiling over an evening of orchestral music and ancestral marble. I lay still on the second story balcony floor feeling the resonance of modern day music and long ago centuries in my body.

More magic. I can’t really talk about Dubrovnik without becoming a poet. Shops still feel incidental to the stone and marble. Kids using phone cards seem oddly out of place. And there just weren’t enough young people leaning up against the fountains, families eating ice cream on church steps, or tourists pouring through the narrow streets that have never known cars to bring me back to earth. Laundry, even laundry (which is strung out on lines everywhere) felt romantic! Croatia casts a spell like a Zen koan, calling out “be here now”.

Croats are exceedingly friendly. Restaurants treat tourists more like guests than paying patron. And, in fact, taking room and board in a private home is a great way to enjoy a lengthy stay in Croatia. A friend enjoyed spending a week on the island of Hvar with a family he’d never met, vowed he’d never stay in a hotel again.

So, like the Lonely Planet advises — go before the crowds arrive. They will surely be on their way.

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