Marvelous Hairy About the Face

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Like many filmmakers before me, I have grown a beard. Oh, I denied this at first, claiming it was merely a coincidental gathering of hairs, or insulation for the winter, or a new kind of chin hologram, but there’s no denying it now. Through careful ignoring of my jowl area, I have given rise to a positively Melies-like hair construct.

So to LINCOLN, Spielberg’s hairiest movie ever, hairier even than HOOK, which had Robin Williams in it for God’s sake (“his arm is like an otter” ~ Jiminy Glick). There are all kinds of beards in it. Big beards, small beards, beards as big as your head. Although I note that rather than sporting the full Irish, that strange jaw-fringe, Daniel Day-Lewis looks merely unshaven at the sides, with a tuft on the end of his chinny-chin-chin that’s more like a jazz beard than the half-a-chimney-brush sported by the late president in contemporary portraiture.

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The rest of the fine cast have all kinds of facial appurtenances, from the voluminous side-whisker to the billowing moustachios on perspiring ectomorph James Spader. His appearance excited comment from Fiona ~

“He would still be gorgeous if he’d lose weight. Maybe he doesn’t care.”

“Maybe he’d like to lose weight but likes eating, and doesn’t like exercising, and doesn’t want it all sucked out through pipes.”

“They could make a second James Spader with what they sucked out.”

“A wobblier one.”

“Why would it be wobblier?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have any bones.”

“Maybe they could grow some bones and stick them in and then we’d have two James Spaders.”

But sadly, Fiona’s beautiful dream is as yet unfulfilled. I don’t think they’d grow bones for James Spader. They didn’t do it for Ray Bolger, whose need was clearly greater.

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Oh yes, Tommy Lee Jones — that vast monster — is awfully good, compelling in a way nobody else in the film can manage, entertaining though some are. (For once, Jackie Earle Haley plays a man stranger-looking than himself; Spader is the third actor to be playing a character called Bilbo in today’s cinemas, surely a record; little Gulliver McGrath who stole the show in HUGO is great as Tad Lincoln; David Costabile from Breaking Bad is a delight as always; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Babe-raham Lincoln.)

John Williams pours on the syrup — maybe less than you’d expect, but more than the film needs, since it’s at its best as a dry political procedural. Janusz Kaminski gives Lincoln his Jesus lighting a lot less than I’d expected. More than I’d like, but seriously, far less than I expected. Joanna Johnston puts David Strathairn in an orientalist dressing gown that must by the loveliest thing that fine, stoic stick has ever worn.

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AMISTAD.

This is a return to AMISTAD territory, I guess. I liked AMISTAD, but it suffered an imbalance — it devolves from an exciting mutiny, with Africans filmed like Jurassic Park raptors (a ballsy but justifiable choice) to a courtroom drama with inevitable anticlimax. Richard John Berry’s TAMANGO is better. It stays on the boat.

LINCOLN’s script by, MUNICH writer Tony Kushner, makes a good fist of the politicking, though some of the film’s pleasures — smug, nasty politicians being bested by shrewd, good-hearted ones — are inevitably a touch predictable. But it works when the movie keeps its mind on its plot, but this being later Spielberg it isn’t altogether allowed to — the film ends several times, each more ineffectually than the time before, long after the purpose of the story — the emancipation vote over the 13th Amendment — has been brought to its conclusion. The film devotes a lot of screen time to Mrs Lincoln, and Sally Field is very fine, but as the movie seems determined to prove Mary Todd Lincoln sane, or at any rate to avoid showing her genuinely irrational (all her hysterics and histrionics seem perfectly justifiable, if extreme), the role isn’t everything it might have been.

It is, of course, largely a film about white men deciding the fates of black men, women and children. That’s the part of the story the film has chosen to focus on, and it’s most successful when it does focus on it. The stuff showing the Civil War is oddly ineffectual, and attempts to build a role for Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley feel a little forced at times, though it’s nice that she has more lines than Kerry Washington in DJANGO UNCHAINED.

It’s too tempting to see the Tarantino and the Spielberg films as the two basic choices open to filmmakers: one a gleeful exploitation movie, the other a respectful, dusty hagiography. But this isn’t so. In fact, the dichotomy is false on its own terms, since LINCOLN, though sometimes stodgy, is never as dull as the longeurs in DJANGO, but even if both films enthusiastically did what it said on the tin, there would be a whole wealth of alternatives. One might be to let black filmmakers tell some of these stories. We watched Charles Burnett’s documentary NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY, and despite a meagre budget, its true story was more sensational than anything Tarantino’s imagination has conjured up, and it delved deeper into the issues thrown up by slavery, or any other great evil, than Spielberg’s film. And in less than half the running time of either film.

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33 Responses to “Marvelous Hairy About the Face”

  1. I saw Lincoln and Django back to back (the benefits of visiting and staying with a BAFTA voting member during a snow storm). Django made me feel really uneasy but I thought Lincoln was a good bio pic in that it made me want to go to the libaray and find out more about Lincoln (and DDL wasn’t nearly as annoying as I thougt he was going to be)

  2. oh and agree it seemed to be a film which could not decide where the end was to be

  3. Spielberg’s had this ending trouble since at least Schindler’s List, which is YEARS ago. The worst is Minority Report, which passes its obvious finale by about forty-five minutes at least, deteriorating with every moment.

    Yeah, I’ve been on Wikipedia looking up a few details and will probably go deeper (American history being strangely neglected in British schools). So it does raise some interest, even if it isn’t often more than mildly interesting most of the time.

  4. James Spader at his loveliest

    Tim is cruel.

  5. Correction: Time is Cruel.

    Speilbeg’s biggest Ending Problem can be found in The Color Purple, which has at least 12 of them.

    As fro Abraham Lincoln: Oscar-Hunter, I’ve said my peace HERE

    and

    HERE

    As for “Hair” here’s the lovely Gavin Creel.

  6. Oh, Tim is cruel too, from everything I hear.

    Yes, Color Purple ends a lot. It looks like it’s his urge for Oscars that drives the “no one ending is good enough,” thing, although in the case of Minority Report it was “I can’t possibly end a film noir on a downer,” which shows an astonishing lack of understanding of noir. Or maybe just a constitutional incompatibility with the genre.

    Tintin spends a lot of time setting up a sequel that nobody seems eager to see…

  7. Tim at his most deliciously cruel

  8. I groaned twice at LINCOLN – once in the opening scene when young battle weary Union soldiers were able to recite the entire Gettysburg Address, and again when it became clear that the shot of Lincoln disappearing down the hallway on his way to the theatre was not to be the closing shot – which somewhat coloured my view of the intervening 140 minutes.

  9. That would’ve been a fine ending, wouldn’t it? Especially with DDL’s comedy waddle taking the epic curse off it, adding a more human element.

  10. You know that there is a difference between ‘growing a beard’ and ‘utter physical neglect’ David. A subtle one I know , but still important.

    I enjoyed Django up until the ending shootout(s) when it wore out its welcome and got boring.

    ‘Team of Rivals’ the book that Lincoln is apparently founded on , is a fascinating read and I recommend it. It makes Lincoln all the greater for humanising him.

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    As you link shows, it is John not Richard Berry who directed TAMANGO. some attention should be given to Herbert Biberman’s SLAVES which, reputedly, is another good post-blacklist film on this subject.

  12. Whoops. Corrected.

    I’d love to see Slaves if anyone has a copy.

  13. Paul Duane Says:

    Well, I unreservedly loved this – not the infinitely receding endings, but the absorbing business of trying to turn democracy into something moral. It’s a very abstract sort of story for Spielberg to take on. I know a bit about the American Civil War but I started out thinking, for fuck’s sake, Lincoln, listen to your advisors! You don’t need this shit! The process by which the story convinces you that liberation from slavery was not inevitable, but largely due to one man’s dogged devotion to an unpopular and politically (and personally) suicidal cause, is entirely intellectual. And almost entirely dialogue driven. That’s the sort of thing Tarantino used to be good at – telling us a story via long, intricate, interesting dialogue scenes. And the final Seventy Angry Men scene was almost a standoff – Reservoir Wigs. Have the two auteurs changed places? I certainly find myself more drawn to Spielberg’s confident craft than to Tarantino’s arrogant burrowing into himself these days.

  14. My groans exactly tracked with judydean’s. I so wanted the movie to end with that shot of Lincoln leaving the WH (and frame, and life) and I so knew that it wouldn’t.

    But I found the film unexpectedly moving, and basically loved it despite its flaws. There are so many great stories to be told about this period, and I was happy to see one get saved from Tarantino’s wood-chipper.

    I recommend the biography “Lincoln” by David Donald. It deals with the 13th amendment very briefly, but tracks well with the film because the focus is on Lincoln as a politician — deal-maker, dispenser of patronage, etc.

  15. Randy Cook Says:

    Liked seeing Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, but wished they’d had a scene of him animating RED HOT RIDING HOOD.

  16. Heh! That took me a minute to process.

    Paul, yes — Tarantino’s blood-and-thunder vision is paradoxically duller than Spielberg’s procedural, which loses interest only when it strains for emotion too hard or injects war or music. Although thinking of The Best Man I can see ways SS could have created more urgency. I wish he’d taken the handheld newsreel approach of the best bits of Schindler’s, rather than viewing this as a story from the past. But the story is a very good one, thanks to Kushner’s shaping.

    But Paul — has SS swapped with QT or are we just getting into middle-age?

  17. Since I never really understood what the Radicals wanted, I never really followed the machinations. Some people needed votes and got them. The most interesting thing about “Lincoln” for me – and I don’t mean this as an insult – was seeing a film employed so clearly as a weapon of propaganda. It bypassed drama almost completely to send a message to the incumbent that times may be tough, but if you really try you can drive an amendment through, and in a hundred years they’ll be making films about it. (I can’t see anyone making a film in a hundred years about the Eu referendum.) So it made a part of me want to become a politician, but as films about differently hairy ugly guys on a linear quest go I missed Sylvester McCoy and his sled pulled by rabbits.

  18. Leave it to Spielberg to find the most optimistic take on anything, be it the Holocaust or slavery. So we get a film that suggests that politics, even dirty politics, can make a positive difference, which is quite a nice thing to hear.

    I *think* I understood the radicals’ position as I watched it, but I couldn’t tell you now. But that’s OK. I appreciated hearing Lincoln’s opponents warn of the social problems that suddenly freeing all the slaves at once would create, because in a way they were right, and that added the kind of complexity Spielberg is usually extremely uncomfortable with. But he still had a basic moral absolute truth to get behind, which was that slavery needed to be abolished at once WHATEVER the consequences.

  19. I seem to remember moral absolutes being surprisingly absent from Munich, Spielberg’s other collaboration with Kushner, so I suppose I was hoping for something a little more thrilling here. If I’m honest I couldn’t always hear what was being said.

  20. Perhaps James Spader was influenced by his five seasons spent with Ye Olde Billiam Shatner on Boston Legal (also notable, among other things, for sightings of the late, great Henry Gibson and the uniquely annoying/appealing Parker Posey, the Lois Lane that never was)? Maybe he thought “ah, fuck it, if it works for Captain Kirk?”. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him – Cruel Tim or no – he’s a great engaging charismatic weirdo on film or tv, and I don’t mean weirdo as a negative, either (needless to say I loved him and his character in BL). Spader and much of the rest of the cast give Lincoln the lift it might otherwise lack. Apart from anything else, it’s good to see Hal “The Crypt-Keeper” Holbrook in his natural environment (I’m still waiting for a showdown between Hal H and Jerry Hardin as duelling Samuel Langhorne Clemenses, or, come to think of it, Duelling Deep Throats).
    As for Kaminski : Meh.

  21. Cruel Tim! That picture of Spader (incandescently, angelically lovely in his youth) from Lincoln reminds me of the chief Revolting Prune in Down with Skool (page 118 of my old paperback edition, since you asked.)

  22. I think Spader still has some appeal, though. Since part of his charm was an aura of smuttiness, and he still has that alright.

  23. You can’t go wrong with smuttiness, and you’re dead right about Master Spader indeed still having that aura. Fantastically so.

    @Helena, Spader as chief Revolting Prune? I like the sound of that. I came across your mention of Roger Livesey in the Inception post comments on this log, you’re a woman after my own heart. Everyone with taste likes Mr Livesey (and his great voice), don’t they?

  24. To my considerable surprise, this was the first Spielberg movie I’ve been kinda OK with since Sugarland Express. I expect there’s a second-unit director I can blame. The substantial good parts reminded me of Advise and Consent, one of the few Preminger-branded movies I’ve been kinda OK with. Both show that beautifully cinematic thing, people at work.

    Yeah, the multiple endings bummed the high, but that’s what Hollywood blockbusters do and Spielberg ain’t the type of titular head to buck a standard he helped establish. And yeah, like the Preminger movie, its politics stink compared to the politics of our dreams, but considering the dreams a lot of other creeps have put on film (no sympathetic Confederates, not even Schindler-close) (I’m writing this from the Fat Bible Belt), I didn’t kick. Much.

  25. Just to clarify, I find the Chief Prune very appealing, altho Molesworth is more smutty.

  26. Heh!

    Why Spielberg included all those codas is mysterious to me because he doesn’t seem very interested in them. Tad in the theatre was the only bit that carried any impact. And it struck me that showing the wrong theatre was too much like the showers trick in Schindler’s.

    And considering he’s ashamed of shooting Joan Crawford through a chandelier way back in Night Gallery (a reasonable choice given the story), filming a vision of Lincoln in a gas lamp seems a bit eggy.

    Oh, what did we think of the dream? I liked it, but it needed to come back somehow.

  27. just saw it. did anyone notice how sally field channeled geraldine page both physically and in her performance?

  28. Geraldine Page as Gabrielle Valladon in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Perfection. (Hal’s Irrelevant Comment No. 1013, but who’s counting?)

  29. A little TOO irrelevant — isn’t that Genevieve Page?

  30. Ha! You *are* indeed right. I thought hey wait that was Genevieve – I always mix them up – just after I posted by which time… Heh. Still, Genevieve, Geraldine, Aubergine Page *was* good in Private Life so it bears saying even if it has nothing to do with anything, well that’s my dandy excuse…

  31. just as long as no one thought i meant flip wilson.

  32. Heh. I’m surprised I didn’t think Sally Field was Sally Struthers…or Scatman Crothers. (you’d have thought I’d have noticed Ms Field was nothing like Genevieve but nooo!)

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