Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Home Viewer (11): Lincolnesque

I recently submitted a Lincoln-themed piece to our local paper--but I can't find it online, and I don't get the paper, so I'm not sure if it ran. (I really should work on my ego.) Anyway, here in Illinois we're generally pretty Abe-happy--although I'm used to that kind of thing: Growing up in NJ near Philadelphia, it was Ben Franklin this and Ben Franklin that. History. Sheesh. Anyway (again), we're gearing up for his bicentennial--and the college where I work was the site of the 4th Lincoln-Douglas debate, during which, we are always proud to point out, Lincoln "first condemned slavery on moral grounds."

And so it is in high moral dudgeon mode that I present The Roundabout Lincoln Movie Tribute. As the Honest One once said, "There's nothing I'd rather do than go to the theater." You have been warned.

As the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Weekend arrives, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the debates, Galesburg and Knox College are doing their best to honor the old Rail Splitter and his legacy. But as far as the Home Viewer is concerned, no celebration is complete without a random collection of movies. In my diligent laziness, I wandered around a Lincoln quotations website, and have allowed some choice passages to help me select the films that follow. Honest, Abe.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

There’s nothing like opening strong. These words, from his first inaugural address, are justly famous, beautifully constructed without being too fussy, self-assured in their flourishes—the balanced, parallel structures, the long phrase separating subject and verb, trusting the reader to follow, to carry on to the end—with a judicious balance of sentimentality and profundity. But where, cinematically speaking, does this take us? I’m reminded of films where passion strains the “bonds of affection”:

In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards all but surrenders his love to hatred, a hard man whom everyone shuns—until he is forced to break his own will and be touched by those “better angels,” and stay his murderous hand.

Akira Kurosawa’s Akahige/Red Beard (1965) is the tale of young, ambitious Doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), who feels trapped in a charity clinic run by Toshiro Mifune’s Dr. Niide (whose nickname gives us the movie’s title), a man whose great humility and good will—and humor—is tainted by neither false pride nor false humility. While Yasumoto complains, Niide persists, and the younger man’s ego melts under the heat of Red Beard’s implacable dedication. And the remarkable thing is that Kurosawa, like Lincoln in his speech, avoids sheer sentimentality, and instead asserts compassion as the “mystic chord” necessary to accomplish any worthwhile task, pride abandoned, enemies reconciled.

Touchez pas au grisbi/Don't Touch the Loot (1954), directed by Jacques Becker, feels like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon in its brutally frank attention to failure, while ironically praising the virtues of friendship and loyalty. Jean Gabin's Max, a ready-to-retire criminal, is forced to risk everything to save his longtime friend/partner in crime. A casually hip movie in which thugs call each other “Daddy-o” and friendship is more valuable than loot. As Sam Spade says, "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be." Fifteen years later—and an ocean away—Max tenders the same warning, and woe to any mug who gives it the drift.

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

Can we still affirm these words from Lincoln's first annual message to Congress? After a $700,000,000,000 bailout, it appears that, while we are told the American laborer/fundamentals/foundation is sound, Capital still rakes in better fringe benefits. Even at the movies.

Wall Street (1987) trickled down a little secret: “Greed is good.” Michael Douglas with his slicked-back mane and lizard eyes today may seem quaint, an ‘80s Simon LeGree, but is it a coincidence that his character’s name is Gordon Gekko? In its boundless truthiness, Wikipedia tells us that, when threatened, many species of geckos will “expel a foul-smelling material and feces.” Thus endeth the lesson.

But if you really want to see an angry populist at work, suffer through George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). The capitalists hide in a luxury hotel while the workers forage amid the living dead—which in the end become the not-so-meek inheritors of the Earth-as-buffet, taking what they like, and eating what they take.

Still, some movies give credit where it’s due. Norma Rae (1979) and Bread and Roses (2000) extol the virtues of unionization—although Ken Loach’s movie is not as optimistic as Norman Ritt’s, whose Norma Rae (Sally Field in her first Oscar-winning performance) rises above the cotton-dust to lead her fellow textile workers to victory. And while the anti-(crooked) union undertones of On the Waterfront (1954) shift the film’s politics, Brando’s Terry Malloy rounds his shoulders and sneaks in the class-hero side door, the worker-as-boxer, bloodied but unbowed.

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

In this 1855 letter to Joshua Speed, a Southerner and slave-owner, Lincoln addresses, among other things, his opposition to the American Party, or “Know-Nothings,” “Nativists” who advocated restricting immigration of Catholics, particularly from Ireland. Despite his repeated statements that he did not consider a person of African descent to be his “equal in many respects,” as he put it in his first debate with Stephen Douglas, he maintained a strong conviction that “in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” In the Know-Nothings he saw a damaging extension of the degradations of inequality.

Listen carefully to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), and you’ll hear plainly the “progress in degeneracy.” He is always on the lookout for the Irish minions of “their king with the pointy hat what sits on his throne in Rome” and boasts, “You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That's what preserves the order of things. Fear.” And in the end, it is fear that motivates even the fearsome.

My favorite part of the above quoted Lincoln passage is his assertion that, if the Know-Nothings gain control, he “should prefer emigrating to [Russia] where they make no pretence of loving liberty … where despotism can be taken pure.” But when John Reed went to Russia in 1917 and witnessed “ten days that shook the world,” he was hoping for a nation where no one craved “the spectacle of fearsome acts.” And for a brief time, the electric charge of freedom lit him up—as Warren Beatty chronicles in Reds (1981), where Reed moves from fellow traveler to true believer to disillusioned idealist to accidental martyr. In the end, Reed stays behind, buried in the Kremlin, finally equal to everyone, while the “pretence of loving liberty” is still kept up, although more than a little strained.

Well, I’d like to thank Lincoln for easy words to build on, evocative and brimming with ideas. Seems a shame that this is all I’ve squeezed out of them; but as another Master Rhetorician, George Orwell, reminds us, everything is political, even the decision not to be political—and that might include a movie now and then.

Coming Soon: The annual Halloween Roundup. I was thinking of doing an all-'70s version. Any suggestions--or alternate themes?

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