Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thoughts on Abraham Lincoln, Inspired by the Movie

Warning: this may be only wishful thinking on my part. But it turns out that Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln, shares that wishful thinking, if only wishful it be. My wife and I saw the movie Sunday, and we both thought it was terrific. I have a few quibbles about it, but not with its historical accuracy in the literal sense – Kushner really did his homework, as he explained in an interview Nov. 15 with Dave Davies of WBRU radio in Boston. It was in that same interview that I found he shared my wishful thinking.

We know the history of Reconstruction after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Johnson followed Lincoln’s policy of malice towards none and charity towards all; by the end of 1865, he had approved new governments in the former Confederate states, nine of which showed apparent  good faith  by ratifying the 13th amendment. As far as Johnson was concerned, they were back in the Union. But the Radical Republicans won a two thirds majority in Congress in 1866, and quickly moved to impose Radical Reconstruction: only the most extreme measures, they believed, could bring political and social justice to the South and eradicate the legacy of slavery. And they had grounds for suspicion of white Southerners; a number of states had adopted “black codes” to restrict the rights of freedmen.

Under Radical Reconstruction, the white governments of ten Southern states were replaced by military governments, which created voter rolls that enfranchised blacks and disfranchised any whites who had supported the Confederacy. The new state governments elected in 1867 were controlled by Republicans, and enacted progressive measures like universal public education and public works. But they were also soon mired in blatant corruption, as in appropriating millions for railroads that were never built, with the funds ending up in sticky fingers. Taxes skyrocketed, and some states went bankrupt in all but name. The old planter class resented property taxes based on the actual value of their land; before the Civil War, they were hardly taxed at all, because they could declare the value of their land and nobody would dispute them. But working people and the poor also suffered. While a number of blacks held office, they were largely pawns of the carpetbaggers and scalawags who waxed fat from Reconstruction. Only, it was the blacks who were blamed by white conservatives for all their real and imagined sufferings, and were singled out for brutal vengeance by the White League and the Ku Klux Klan.

Out of all this came the legend of the Lost Cause and the Redemption, which led to draconian Jim Crow laws, disfranchisement of blacks, decades of lynchings, and all the rest. That legend was the subtext of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1916), which was based on a 1905 Thomas Dixon novel called The Clansman, and led to a revival of the Klan; and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) – her celebration of the Klan was cut from the 1939 movie version, but the Legend of the South as some sort of idyllic paradise before the War remained. The white conservative view of Reconstruction was accepted almost universally in the North as well as the South; one the few dissenters (among whites, at least) was Howard Fast, whose Freedom Road (1944) was made into a movie in 1979. But as a Communist  – he won a Stalin Peace Prize in 1953 – Fast had to hew to the absurd Marxist premise that the freedmen and poor whites, who together made up the overwhelming majority of the Southern population, were proletarian brothers in arms – and thus inexplicably done in by a handful of vengeful planters. Perhaps the only 20th Century novelist to write honestly about Reconstruction was Frank Yerby (himself black, although most of his readers may not have known it) in works like The Vixens (1947), which portrayed the carpetbaggers as crooks and the Redeemers as callous murderers.

Would things have been any different had Lincoln lived? And just what did Lincoln have in mind? That has become a matter of some controversy among historians, given that in 1862 he had seriously proposed that freed blacks be sent to Latin America. There had already been a movement to return blacks to Africa; that was the origin of Liberia, and Lincoln had supported that before the war. During the war, there had even been an attempted settlement in Belize. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a black leader, regarded the colonization plan a betrayal, and some revisionist historians seem to think it was Lincoln’s Final Solution to the problem of what to do with freed slaves  – although noting that perhaps it was only because he feared Southern whites would never accept free blacks. But his secretary John Hay wrote that he had “sloughed off” that idea in 1864, and there is no mention of it in his final public address, delivered in front of the White House April 11, 1865, just after Lee surrendered; rather, he held out hope that whites and blacks could live together, although it would take time to achieve political equality.  He gave the example of Louisiana, where the whites had embraced the Union and accepted emancipation – clearly criticizing Radical Republicans who opposed recognition of the new government:

Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation. These twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union, and to perpetual freedom in the state--committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants--and they ask the nation’s recognition and its assistance to make good their committal. Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them. We in effect say to the white men "You are worthless, or worse--we will neither help you, nor be helped by you." To the blacks we say "This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how." If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both white and black, has any tendency to bring Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I have, so far, been unable to perceive it. If, on the contrary, we recognize, and sustain the new government of Louisiana the converse of all this is made true. We encourage the hearts, and nerve the arms of the twelve thousand to adhere to their work, and argue for it, and proselyte for it, and fight for it, and feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success. The colored man too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end. Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them? Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it.

There is scant reference to this address in Lincoln, which mentions only that he wanted to limit the black franchise, at least initially, to the most intelligent – and those who had served in the Union Army. But to advocate voting rights for any blacks at all was revolutionary in 1865. But the film portrays our 16th president as both a man of principle and a man of what would later be called realpolitik. He wanted the 13th Amendment passed as a matter of principle, but didn’t shrink at arm-twisting and backroom deals to get the votes he needed in the House. The Hampton Roads Conference, where he met with Confederate leaders to talk “peace,” was the price of getting Preston Blair, a prominent Democrat, to lean on other Democrats – by fair means or foul. Chances are that Lincoln considered it just a ploy; the movie seems to suggest that the outcome of the war was still uncertain at the time, but in fact the Confederacy was clearly on the verge of military collapse. If its leaders seriously expected any concessions from Lincoln, they were delusional. In any case, here is how Kushner summed up the situation in his interview with Davies:

I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of the war was a very, very smart thing, and it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered, the inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way without any question was one of the causes of a kind of resentment and the perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote/unquote "noble cause" and the rise of the Klan and Southern self protection societies and so on. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe and led - helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering. So had Lincoln not been murdered and had he really been able to guide Reconstruction, I think there's good reason to believe that he would have acted on those principles because he meant them.

Maybe I’m delusional. Maybe Kushner is delusional. Maybe things would have turned out just as badly if Lincoln had lived and his policies been pursued. In our history, we know how long it took for blacks to regain the “scattered contents” of the cup of liberty dashed from their lips. It surely could have been no worse in that other history that never happened.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Patterns, and Authenticity

Another birthday, and I’m stuck away from home on account of Hurricane Sandy. Not that Marcia’s folks in Virginia aren’t great hosts, but I miss our own home and hearth (even if the latter hasn’t seen a fire for 15 years!) in New Jersey (Not to worry; the house came through fine, it was just dark and chilly after the power went down Monday night.). As I was working on this post, we got word that power is back up at home, at least in our neighborhood. We’ll heading back tomorrow, but that’s a day after my birthday.

So here’s my 71st birthday post. I have a subject that’s been bugging me for years. It has to do with knowing things without knowing how we know them. Like, I’m sure you can tell the difference between a waltz and a tango, but if you aren’t musically trained, as I am not, you can’t explain just what that is. You’d be even harder put to try to explain the difference between a traditional Strauss waltz like “An Artist’s Life” (which I first heard as a child, when it was the theme of a TV show where Jon Gnagy gave art lessons):

And a post-Strauss era variation like Aram Khachaturian’s “Masquerade” waltz:

There’s an element of irony or nostalgia for a more innocent time, I think, in the latter, but how is that expressed in musical terms? There seems to be a similar contrast between a classic tango, Gerardo Matos Rodríguez’ “La Cumparsita:”

And Angelo Badalamenti’s “Kiss All Around It” for Jane Campion’s film Holy Smoke:

It’s a matter of pattern recognition; we can sense the musical patterns of the waltz and the tango, and variations of them. But it becomes more subtle with some patterns. Consider Miklos Rozsa, who scored a number of movies like The Thief of Bagdad, Spellbound and Quo Vadis. From his name, if you know anything about ethnic names, you know he was Hungarian. That didn’t show up in his movie music, but it is obvious (to me, at least) in his concert music, like his Violin Concerto, composed for Jascha Heifetz (Link here doesn't work ditectly, but you can copy the URL to Google and it should play):


I hadn’t even known about his classical music until a couple of years ago. But the thing is, if I’d heard this piece without knowing its composer, I would have recognized it as Hungarian immediately. That’s because I had known the music of Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok for decades. Can you sense the kinship Rozsa’s piece has to Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3?

Somebody with musical training could explain it all very easily. It’s only my ignorance that prevents me from doing so. But in other contexts, there are terms we understand, or seem to understand, without reference to standard definitions. Take words like “stylish,” “heart” and “class” as applied to the arts – including film, some examples of which I want to look at here.

Someone of my acquaintance, just who I can’t remember for sure, once described one of the short films in a series called The Hire as “stylish.” The Hire was produced by BMW as a showcase for its cars, and starred Clive Owen as the Driver, a free-lance agent who took on (usually) dangerous missions. The films were not advertorials or infomercials; they were intense short stories. They’re still available on YouTube, and below I offer links to four of the best (the directors’ names are in parentheses) – “Ambush” (John Frankenheimer), “The Follow” (Wong Kar-wai), “Ticker” (Joe Carnahan), “Hostage” (John Woo):

But what’s “stylish” about these films? Online dictionaries aren’t much help. Merriam Webster defines the word as “conforming to the current fashion; modish.” Google has two definitions: “1. Having or displaying a good sense of style: ‘these are elegant and stylish performances.’ 2. Fashionably elegant.” These come closer to the meaning my acquaintance had in mind, and what has long been my own sense of the term. When we admire a woman’s choice of dress as “stylish,” we surely don’t mean that she is a mere fashion slave. I find most popular fashions silly, even ugly; and yet once in a while in a department store I’ll see a gown that has that elusive sense of style – simple but elegant. And that’s what the BMW films have: a sense of style, or rather senses of style – you can see how each of the directors has put his own stamps on his work, even working within the limitations of what seems at first a pure action format. That’s “stylish” in the best sense.

Chances are that few of you have heard of Ted Kotcheff, although he is executive producer of the Law and Order franchise. Fewer still are likely to be familiar with The   Winter People, his 1989 romantic drama. And the official trailer, while accurate in the narrow sense, is misleading in a broader sense.

The Wikipedia entry offers a few more details:

Wayland Jackson, a widower with a young daughter, moves to a small, impoverished mountain village in North Carolina, circa 1934. They are taken in by Collie Wright, a single mother, and she and Wayland soon fall in love.

Wayland is a clockmaker whose ambition is to build one for the center of town. His life and Collie's, however, are threatened by family members from the evil Campbell clan, one of whom is the father of Collie's baby and intent on getting his child back in any way, even if it means murdering the couple. Cole Campbell is found dead, and his relatives demand that Wayland and Collie be held responsible and give up the child.

A review by Dawn@Wyoming.com at Amazon.com puts more stress on the dual nature of the story:

With his clock making skill, Russell's character is able to bring hope to the town by restoring the clock in the church steeple. The restoration of the clock, like the relationship that develops between the Russell and Mc Gillis characters, bring light to an otherwise dark world with little hope.

Exactly. The Winter People is a movie with heart. But what is “heart?” It isn’t the kind of sloppy sentimentality some might mean by it. I think it has to do with the hearts of the characters being true, and their true hearts guiding their actions. Wayland has a sense of mission, and a true sense of decency. Collie is no stereotypical “fallen woman,” but one of the most truly decent women you’ll ever see on screen. As for other inhabitants of the Appalachian community, another review by Connie of Albany, Georgia, disputes those who might think their characterization is over the top:

Perhaps when some see the performances as cheesy or over acted they've never actually met any mountain folk, and thusly are insistent that the histrionics are over played. If you have been to the mountains and can feel the spirit of them then I think you will love this picture. It is about the give and take, the act of forgiveness and of course true love.

Some of Kotcheff’s other work shares that kind of heart. Although he may still be best known for First Blood, which unleashed Rambo on the world, he had nothing to do with Sylvester Stallone’s sequel. Instead, he made Uncommon Valor, which starts with the very same premise of Americans having been left behind in Vietnam – but instead makes an intelligent and even moving story out of it. Perhaps even more surprising is “Weekend Pass,” an episode he did for Red Shoe Diaries – a short-lived series devoted to soft-core erotica aimed at women’s tastes, or at least what the producers thought were women’s tastes. Kotcheff’s episode, involving a military woman who finds love on leave, was the only one I ever saw that was about heart rather than tease.

What was 1965 important for? One thing was Diana Rigg’s first appearance as Emma Peel on The Avengers. She changed the way millions of men thought about women, and she did it with class (copying and pasting the link into Google Search still works despite the YouTube ban):

Class? No, we’re not talking Marxism here. And by “class,” we surely don’t mean the kind of class consciousness the British aristocracy once prided itself on. Jane Austen wrote a lot about people of that class, and made it clear that she thought a lot of them didn’t have any.

“Showing stylish excellence” is one of Google’s definitions of “class” as an adjective; one of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the noun is “the best of its kind,” but when we use “class” in reference to a phenomenon like Emma Peel, it’s more like the state of showing stylish excellence. And it can show itself in unexpected places. We’ve had a spate of superhero movies in the last few years, and some have been good, like The Dark Knight. But superheroine movies have generally been duds – for that very lack of class. One exception is only a partial one: Scarlett Johansson’s brief turns as The Black Widow, as in this montage from Iron Man 2:

It’s like Emma Peel reborn. Sure, she’s sexy as all get-out, but she’s no bimbo, not even a Bond girl. She can kick ass, but she isn’t just an ass-kicker. She has self-confidence and a sense of her own worth, but she is never vain or boastful. She’s got class.

It occurs to me that “stylish,” “heart” and “class” as used here, and as I believe they are understood by a number of you reading this, are all aspects of authenticity. That’s a word which has been much abused by cultural critics, or at least counter-cultural critics, who seem to believe that only anti-social behavior is “authentic.” We have cults devoted to everything from gangsta rap to writers like William S. Burroughs. But we have a crying need for genuine authenticity, an expression of authentic human values, and I think we can find that in some, if far from all (Jersey Shore? Keeping up with the Kardashians? Blecch!) popular culture.

One recent example: The Hunger Games, the book and the movie. It’s a story with style and class and heart. I wish I could find a link to one of the most emotional scenes in Gary Ross’ film adaptation, faithful to Suzanne Collins’ novel, in which the heroine Katniss honors a fallen opponent by laying flowers on her body. That has as much to say as any of the more overt scenes about Katniss’ attitude towards the inhuman games in which she has been forced to fight by a cynical autocracy that relies on them as “entertainment” in much the same way that the Roman emperors used bread and circuses to maintain their power.  Collins and Ross know what authentic humanity is about. We need more of that kind of authenticity in our culture.