Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Top Five Films on Abraham Lincoln

In observance of Abraham Lincoln's 205th birthday I've compiled a list of my favorite films about our 16th president.  Film biographies in themselves are dubious for their historical accuracy, but they are an irresistible genre of American film for all their foibles.

5) Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012) - In an age dominated by superhero films - why not turn the heroic president into a vampire slayer?  The totally absurd premise makes the movie work with insane scenes like Abraham and Mary Todd fighting off vampires on a speeding steam engine.  This is not the movie for history buffs who flip out over historical inaccuracies, but I enjoyed it.  Readers of Lincoln biographies will notice a surprising amount of accuracy about Lincoln's life - minus fighting off the undead!

4) Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)- John Ford effectively blended history and myth into a film about Lincoln's early days in Springfield.  Many of these scenes of frontier America were taken directly from Carl Sandburg's elegiac, six-volume biography.  Henry Fonda is perfectly cast in this piece of Americana.  The climatic courtroom scene has Lincoln pulling off some moves to make Perry Mason proud.

3) Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)- Raymond Massey plays Lincoln as the sad eyed prophet of the prairie.  Based on a hit Broadway play by Robert Sherwood, the film follows Lincoln's rise from Springfield lawyer to candidate for President.  Some highlights include the debates with Stephen Douglas and his farewell speech before leaving Springfield.  

2) The Civil War (1990)- Ken Burn's groundbreaking PBS series cast Lincoln as the era's conscience and upholder of the idea of America.  Sam Waterston's narration captures the power of Lincoln's rhetoric and all the tragic loss and dashed hopes of the Civil War. Many of Lincoln's most important moments as President such as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and his assassination are evoked in ways motion pictures fall way short. 

1) Lincoln (2012)- Steven Spielberg's long awaited biography of Lincoln did it's best to strive for authenticity.  The film follows Lincoln in the final months of his life as struggled to pass the 13th amendment which abolished slavery.  Daniel Day Lewis set a new standard for accuracy when portraying a historical figure.  There's no hero worship here as Spielberg depicted Lincoln as a pragmatist who realized the limits of his idealism - and did the best he could under those conditions. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis ***1/2 (out of 4)

With Inside Llewyn Davis the Coen Brothers have revisited themes not unfamiliar to their canon.  Among these are cruelty, fate, and the mystery of existence.  Set in February 1961 in the folk scene milieu of Greenwich Village, the film follows its protagonist musician Llewyn Davis as his world appears to collapse around him.  Students of the Coen Brothers will see clear parallels to their previous films Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, and especially A Serious Man.  

The film opens at the legendary Gaslight Poetry Club with Davis performing a spellbinding version of "Farewell" with the ominous lyrics opening each verse "Hang me... Oh hang me." We learn Llewyn's barely making it.  He's homeless and must crash where ever he can, but his argumentative personality alienates him from family and friends.  In addition, he constantly must borrow money after his singing partner jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Despite his character flaws he has good friend in Jim (Justin Timberlake), a square folk singer with a knack for writing quirky topical songs.  In one of the funniest scenes Jim invites Llewyn to play session guitar on a nutty space age satire "Please Mr. Kennedy."  When an opportunity comes about for Llewyn in Chicago the film deters into a bleak Quixotic journey.

Before going to see it, I expected a sort of ironic take on the folk scene of the early 1960s. And to a certain extent that's what I got, but I'm sure there's a better film waiting to be made about Greenwich Village in the 1960s.  The same type of story would work for any period in post-war America associated with a genre of music whether it be rock, bebop, punk etc . . . But there's always been a halo around the folk movement as a time when youth and idealism connected with the mass culture.  The folk narrative usually invokes adjectives like "naive" and "pure" when describing the artists. And that era gave way to a more cynical time and so on . . . and so on.  The Coen Brothers are playing with that narrative by making a gritty film about an unforgiving place where everyone had their selfish motives.  Beneath all the sincerity of the folkies seemed a bland emptiness.  Llewyn at several points expresses a antipathy towards the audience of folk as middle class bores.

Instead we don't necessarily get a revealing expose on early 1960s (although many will interpret it that way) but a character study in the guise of a fable.  How much cruelty can one person take?  Llewyn is regularly beat up, condescended to, verbally abused, and demeaned in his interactions with people.  The indifferent, cruel world he faces is best epitomized by Roland Turner played by John Goodman who the Coens amusingly like to cast as an embodiment of evil in the world (the exception being Walter from The Big Lebowski).  Roland's a jazz musician who torments Llewyn on their trip to Chicago, with insults like "in jazz we play all 12 notes."

Accompanying Llewyn through much of his journey is a cat named Ulysses.  I'm guessing the name choice is not a coincidence.  Is Llewyn their version of Joyce's Leopold Bloom?  I'd argue there are
Coen's Version of Leopold Bloom?
some notable resemblances.  Or at least a distant relative?  Like Joyce's protagonist, Llewyn is haunted by forces beyond his control and faces the world with a quiet fatalism.  Bloom was a kindly humanist, while Llewyn can only use music to reveal the decency within himself.  When studying Ulysses I was always reminded that it was just one day.  And Inside Llewyn Davis takes place over a week.

Where does Bob Dylan fit into all this?  I would argue the film has everything and nothing to do with him. One wonders if the Coens simply thought, "wouldn't it be cool to make a movie set in Greenwich Village in 1961."  After all that Freewheelin Bob Dylan cover was pretty cool!  Dylan, a rock and roller in High School back in Hibbing, Minnesota discovered folk and wrote like his hero Woody Guthrie.  But the rock and roll attitude never left him. He came to despise the entire phenomenon of "topical" songwriting, as he infamously dismissed the erstwhile folker Phil Ochs from his circle, with the put down "you're nothing but a journalist."  One can imagine Llewyn saying the same thing to his peers.  Dylan once wrote "there's no success like failure/And that failure's no success at all."  How does an artist define success?  Making millions on an album?  Applause from an audience after a performance?  Acknowledgement from peers?  Can one attain greatness without the recognition of peers?  

While Inside Llewyn Daivs is not the best Coen Brothers film, it is very much worth seeing. They create a world other filmmakers simply cannot duplicate.  And much like the release of a new Dylan album - you might not always find genius, but always something worthwhile and thought provoking.