Lincoln

Never is Lincoln–man or movie–more compelling than when the Frankenstein-straight figure, in stovepipe hat and undertaker’s coat–the myth of rectitude himself–is crumpled like a five-dollar bill. It is as late at night as it is in the war, and a Confederate peace delegation is waiting secretly in the wings. Peace now could put the war out of its literal misery. It could also permanently blunt the momentum of an amendment that would abolish slavery once and for all. The question is: How much is present-day blood worth against clean hands for posterity? It’s rounding the 16th president’s brilliant mind like a buzzard. He can only get the 13th Amendment passed with the support of his grand young party’s conservatives, who’ve insisted on this hush-hush diplomatic mission as an insurance policy. For them, and for lame-duck Democrats who’ll sell out to the highest bidder (which happens, in some cases, to still be a slave-economy South), ending the war is the highest priority; for the Radical Republicans, on the other hand, abolition is just a flimsy Band Aid on top of a great moral wound. (To borrow the movie’s fine metaphor, Lincoln’s task is to bend their moral compasses toward moderation in the name of eventual progress.) In short, if the delegation makes it to Washington, and the secret gets out that a truce is on the table, slavery is there to stay. And Lincoln weighs the difference, stroking his gaunt forehead before the telegraph-room late shift that awaits his command: Should the Confederates be sent the signal to come or…? In place of an answer, the president brings up geometry. Euclid was the autodidact’s entrée into the ways of the world; Lincoln tries to reconcile his moral concerns with mathematical certainties. Then he asks his men if they believe in another kind of plan–and the junior officers, speaking tentatively to their commander-in-chief as if he was their drunk boss at an office party, deliver their views on God. To the chagrin of historians, the great man does not dispense his. But after this discourse, couched in metaphor, the man in black, scrunched like someone in a waiting room about to hear whether or not the tumor is malignant, unfurls his response. The delegates are to wait for him in Virginia.

Yet the film begins inauspiciously, shelling itself with pedantry. Union soldiers, black and white, approach their leader with shocking informality, pressuring him into the policies this movie makes a subject of enacting as if they were time travelers delivering warnings from the future. The Lincoln they’re addressing is no marble sculpture peering down with the angels; Daniel Day-Lewis’s lax posture sets the tone for the movie’s portrayal of our secular saint as a sort of hip youth pastor who cradles his lieutenants’ hands while they await news from the front and has folk humor in store to smooth every occasion–a sly flouter of his own authority. When Day-Lewis fires off rounds of intellectual nictating, he’s at his crispest, not only because the old-country-lawyer anecdotes that Tony Kushner supplies him with are funny, but because we’re hit with the Lincolnesque one-two high-low punch–the bark of a born underdog. (Just because Abe is honest doesn’t mean he’s above working a room.) At times, though, the lack of deference beggars belief: Did William Seward (David Strathairn) really talk down to him like a disappointed mother? As close as the two men were in reality, and as talented a nag as Strathairn is, it seems anachronistic to suggest that the secretary of state was the president’s straight man in a Borscht Belt routine. Team of Ribald!

Whatever its flaws, however, the tension between high and low is what keeps the union of form and content in Lincoln together. The boy born in a log cabin who’s never forgotten his roots–the hero who freed the slaves in the second least controversial war behind the one in which Private Ryan was saved–is a subject for Steven Spielberg; it’s the Hamlet figure that probably attracted Day-Lewis, Kushner, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Aesthetically speaking–in a unique, savant sort of way–Spielberg was a man-child before it was cool (scratch that, mandatory) to be a man-child. In a tradition as American as his entertainment values, however, he’s always wanted to be more: Schindler’s List by the man who made Jaws smacks of social mobility, for better or for worse. When he bifurcated his instincts into two films last year, Tintin and War Horse, he stammered in search of relevance–his idea of seriousness, it seemed, had gotten as musty as his memories of childhood. Lincoln, however–unlike its unfortunate namesake–is bullet-proof. It’s the granddaddy of trans-brow subject matter, and if a movie has only the biggest, most soigné names behind it, its box-office and critical ambitions are archly conservative whatever its politics on screen–there’s little risk of these golden geese not laying an Oscar-colored egg. Alas, the lack of risk paid off. And it’s as scrumptious, and inclusive, as a Thanksgiving spread. It’s an event: Avatar in a frock coat.

Continue reading “Lincoln”

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master makes you feel the universe expanding around you. It catalyzes in memory; there’s a stillness to the images–an immobility–that lends itself to reflection. It is borne aloft at the tempo of the romantic standards of its period, a slow dance chaperoned, chastely beautiful–the sources of beauty and chastity almost intolerably resolved in the ether of an intangible era: a sad dream one wakes up longing for. This is not so much a film about Scientology as it is about will and power and coping with the lack thereof. It is about belief as a proxy for love; a conflicted Elmer Gantry; and a G.I. who jacks off at a crowded beach. It is a masterpiece.

We meet the G.I., Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), first. World War II has just ended, and he pokes through the blanket of good feeling like a stubborn erection. When he dry humps a buxom sculpture in the sand, his fellow vets laugh at first. But he keeps at it like a dog in heat and the spectators scatter; they’ve already graduated to the Greatest Generation with chins in the air. When Freddie gets a job as a portrait photographer at a department store, he immortalizes their kind in its Sunday Best–but by then he’s as invisible to them as a mirror. He has no place in this newly minted middle class, with its ambiance of prosperity founded on Yankee good trouncing Axis evil. Like the hysterics in A Dangerous Method he’s an alien–but without the benefit of membership to a “fairer” sex. The first person we see who takes a genuine interest in him is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), on whose yacht Freddie, forever on the lam, is a stowaway. (He lost his job by picking a fight, for no explicit reason, with a customer who resembles Hoffman; he was then expelled from a commune for poisoning a tramp–who looked like his father–with a noxious cocktail of the sort that Freddie himself often partakes of.) Dodd, tellingly, is master of a cult, but not of the boat; it belongs to some member of the café society that gives this salon mystic his backing–the same perks that Scientologists currently get from their association with the movie colony. Above deck, he gives away his daughter (Ambyr Childers) at her wedding, schmoozing and oozing with studied gaiety; below, he’s hacking away at Freddie’s defenses, eye contact unwavering, repeating questions that expose such baleful truths as a sexual affair with his aunt. One might say that Phoenix is a Method-glazed ham–and his Bob Dylan bird-flip with Casey Affleck has scored him no affection from me–but I think that to say he’s overacting would be to say that Jack Nicholson overdid it in The Shining. With shadows that turn his nasal cavity into a cave, and that lopsided fighter’s snout on the verge of caving in, he’s like a cobbler in a Caravaggio: some icon of damnation on the tip of the mind’s tongue. As the fella said, it’s a wonderful day for an exorcism.

A friend of mine likened watching The Master to banging his head against the wall; and so much of the movie is about running in circles–an extension of Dodd’s interrogative technique. The most striking shots, to me, were stationary images of characters gesticulating in place–such as the break-up spat between Dodd and Freddie when they’re both thrown in prison; the former’s arms are crossed wryly while the latter curbstomps the toilet–or of the camera moving to maintain its subjects’ place in the frame, such as a motorcycle zooming through the desert or a figure sprinting to catch a trundling ship or Freddie running back and forth and smashing himself against the walls in Dodd’s baroque form of therapy. Even the dreamy score, by Johnny Greenwood, skates in circles over a pane of Philip Glass. Mihai Malaimare, Jr., the cinematographer, has worked with Francis Ford Coppola and has a Dutch Master sense of light. It’s never too dense, in an opulent way; I got the sense that the performers were swimming in it as naturally as fish through the sea. Since There Will Be Blood, Anderson has been transitioning from ensemble pieces to something like the “great man” genre. (Is it homage or historical coincidence that the L. Ron Hubbard surrogate looks like Charles Foster Kane during his political period?) But even with immobility as his theme–as his visual motif–he leaves no impression of historical fixity or stiffness; there is, instead, a sense of flow–both within the images and from them. And I think the circuit between past and present is even stronger here than it was in There Will Be Blood, one of the few great works of unalloyed leftism of recent years.

Continue reading “The Master”