Nothing trumps Lincoln, but…


When I saw Lincoln on the screen last year, I felt like a kid on the last day of school. There was so much to look forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. It was the movie of a lifetime for this ardent Lincoln buff, who was born up the road from where Lincoln lived, and carries Lincoln’s name with me everywhere I go.

I was blown away by Daniel Day-Lewis’ transformation into the man on the penny and the $5 bill. It felt like I was witnessing Lincoln, in a way that I never expected I would. And it felt like the Oscar for Best Actor was the very least that he was owed for this performance. I believe it still.

But yesterday I went to see Les Miserables¬†in a theater. Hugh Jackman’s performance as Jean Valjean was perhaps the grandest acting turn I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. So now I’m conflicted about who will win the best Actor award. It’s a pity that only one of them can win.

Les Miserables was the first professional play experience that I ever had, back in 1989 at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. I loved the rotating stage, and the music, and the costumes, and all of it, really. “Lay Miz” didn’t become the phenomenon that it was for nothing.

At the end of the show, when the actors came out for their curtain calls, the final call–and the heartiest cheers–were for Jean Valjean. The audience really does become emotionally invested in him, as he raises Cosette and runs from Javier and becomes more than just 24601. Valjean must be an actor’s dream role, because he’s the beating heart of the show.

Not every actor could play the part of Valjean. It requires a gargantuan presence on the stage to carry it off, even if all of the showstopping numbers go to the other actors onstage. At the end of the show, it’s clear that Valjean represents the desire in all of us to do the best we can, no matter the obstacles in front of us. When he sings, with his dying breath. the line “To love another person is to see the face of God” it’s an emotionally draining end to an emotionally draining show. That’s a very high bar for any actor to reach. And Jackman fills the role as well as any actor could.

So I’m torn. Lincoln or Valjean? I feel as though I’ve been privileged to see both performances, and it’s a shame they have to compete against each other. I still think Lincoln will win, since real-life American hero (as played by an Irishman) trumps fictional Frenchman (as played by an Australian). But both performances, and the movies that they carry on their backs, remind me of how vitally important the arts are in our society. For a short amount of time, if we’re able and willing to spend $10 or so for a ticket, we can be transported to a place where stories are told and love, in its all of its many forms, wins the day. As it must.

Remembering Aaron Copland

Thirty-five years ago, roughly, I got myself into trouble. It was during music class, the once-a-week excursion outside of the classroom in the Catholic school that I attended in the 1970s, and into the music teacher’s classroom on the first floor. I’ll call the teacher Ms. F, but her full name isn’t really important to this story.

One day, as Ms. F was playing her piano and expecting us to sing along (I think I was in fourth or fifth grade at the time), some of my buddies and I were cutting up in class. We feared the nun who was our regular teacher–as we were supposed to do–but the music teacher didn’t scare us so very much. She probably ignored more of our misbehavior than she should have, but at some point she must have decided that we needed a punishment of some sort. So she told a couple of my buddies and I that we each had to write a report about Aaron Copland, who was probably the composer of the piece that she was playing for us that day.

A week went by, and I hadn’t done a thing for the report, and none of my buddies had, either. On the day that these reports were due, we all began writing reports that gave Copland credit for all sorts of amazing things. I specifically recall claiming that he had invented electricity, and the others were probably even more generous than I was. By the time we had finished out reports, Aaron Copland was just about the most accomplished man of the modern age.

I don’t remember what happened as the result of our creative academic works about Mr. Copland. We didn’t have Google back then, but it was pretty obvious that Aaron Copland hadn’t done any of the things that we gave him credit for. But today, all these years later, I read that Aaron Copland was born on this day (November 14) in 1900. So I decided to actually learn something about the man I was once sentenced to write a report on. And it turns out that I learned quite a bit.

But the single most amazing thing, which but for that long-ago punishment I would have missed out on, has a connection to Abraham Lincoln. The release of Lincoln in movie theaters has set me off on a bit of a Lincoln writing bender, so here’s still another piece about the Great Emancipator. But this one’s really good, I think.

In early 1942, when the nation was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, a concert was organized by conductor Andre Kostelanetz. Copland and two other composers were commissioned to write orchestral pieces about American themes. In the early 1940s, there was no television, no pay-per-view, and really no record industry as we know it today. There were no televised benefits where viewers could call in to an 800 number and make a donation with their credit cards. It was just a concert in a place, and in this case the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was playing the music in May of 1942. The piece that Copland wrote for Kostelanetz was called Lincoln Portrait.

What made this piece so special was that it made use of Lincoln’s own words, from the Gettysburg Address and his 1862 Message to Congress, in which he stated “We cannot escape history.” It also told details from Lincoln’s personal life, in the hopes of rallying its audience, and the nation itself, to war. Almost eighty years after his death, Lincoln’s life and words served as an artistic inspiration. And, as Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are now showing us, they can still inspire us today.

Thanks to some Googling this afternoon, I was able to get the idea that Ms. F is still around, and probably living not very far from where I grew up. She probably won’t ever read this, as I’m sure that teaching music to me and my classmates is buried deep in the recesses of her memory. But thanks to her, and Google, and a composer’s name that I never forgot, I was able to learn something new and interesting today. Every day should hold such a pleasant surprise, shouldn’t it?.

Loved the movie, but hated the green screens

I couldn’t wait until Lincoln came out, and so last weekend I went to the only theater in Chicago that’s showing it. I was drawn into the story of how Lincoln got the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed through a lame duck Congress. I’ll never take Lincoln’s political skills for granted again.

But I’m not intending to write a movie review right now. What I do want to say is that there were scenes, beginning with the very first one shown above, that I suspect were shot using green screens. The technology is such that the actors can be filmed standing in front of a ¬†green screen, and then a background shot can be superimposed later on. It works to hilarious effect in some situations, but can also be very distracting. And so it was with this movie.

Lincoln rides in a carriage with his son, in one scene, but I never for a second believed they were anywhere but inside a soundstage somewhere. It keeps the shot more controlled, I suppose, but it felt like a visual trick was being played on me. I’m sure this is done in most, if not all movies, but I wasn’t expecting it in Lincoln. Perhaps I just don’t get to the movies enough anymore.

But this is just a minor quibble. The movie itself deserves to be seen by anyone who wants to understand what Lincoln was up against, on both the legislative and the personal fronts. Neither was very smooth sailing for him, but he somehow held everything together well enough to accomplish some truly great things. The movie makes it clear that our collective admiration for Lincoln is well-founded.

Becoming Lincoln

Election fatigue is setting in, after all of these months of campaigning. And it’s true that I want the election to end quickly, but I think that there might be a post-election fight, just like there was in 2000 when George W. Bush was awarded the presidency by the Supreme Court. I very much hope I’m wrong about that.

But my real reason for wanting to flash forward a few weeks isn’t for the next president, but the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. The movie posters are up all around town, and the trailer is now in all the theaters and online. It occurs to me that, for all the pictures I’ve ever seen of Abraham Lincoln, I’ve never seen him smile. I’ve never heard him speak, either. I realize that Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t going to be Abraham Lincoln, but from the look of everything I’ve seen, he is going to become Abraham Lincoln. And that’s no small thing, either.

Seeing Lincoln onscreen will be challenging, in a way. He’s always existed as the face on the penny and the $5 bill, or the sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, or up on Mount Rushmore. To see Lincoln walking and speaking and laughing and riding a horse will be a new one for me.

I remember Sam Waterston’s portrayal of Lincoln in the 1980s, but I never really bought him as being Lincoln. And I’ve seen Lincoln impersonators before, but I’ve never gone all in with them, either. But Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis will be spending two hours and more making us believe that we are watching the Great Emancipator onscreen. I’m hoping they succeed at this, too. We’ll all find out soon enough.

I can’t wait for this

My admiration for Abraham Lincoln runs deep. I carry Lincoln’s name as my own middle name, and proudly so. Nobody ever changed America for the better more than he did. Ending slavery, which had existed for centuries, was an unqualified good thing. And he made it happen, almost all by himself.

The prospect of a movie about his life and his struggles in the White House is exciting. But in the hands of Steven Spielberg, who is probably the best movie director there’s ever been, it’s even more exciting than that. The film is coming out after the election, so it’s still about two months away. But seeing it will be imperative once it does come out.

I’m foreseeing lots of Oscar buzz about this one, just because the names attached to the movie (Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones, among others) and the Lincoln interest that has remained strong ever since 1865.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals was the basis for this movie, and it is a superb read. So that material, in the hands of an ace director and top notch acting talent, can’t help but be a movie for the ages, can it?

Come November, I’ll either be relieved at the outcome of the election or disgusted beyond words, and anyone who’s been here before knows which outcome would evoke which reaction. But either way it turns out, the president I’ll be most interested in seeing will be the one who won the Civil War. Neither of the current candidates will ever come close to what he accomplished.