Monday, November 26, 2012

Mystic Memory Chords

My hair smelled like ketchup for a week.

To animate a fifth grade history report, I staged a reenactment of Lincoln's assassination. Promises of stage glory snared fellow students; but since it was my script, I got to play Lincoln.

A girl I had a crush on was in this class. Janet was ahead of the other girls in overall maturity. She seemed like a woman to me. Impressing her required Method-like attention to detail.

It was a compressed production. I breezed through Lincoln's more memorable quotes, fake beard, construction paper stovepipe hat, and long overcoat adding to the effect.

Then came the action sequence. Sitting on a foldout chair watching an invisible play, my Lincoln nodded appreciatively, unaware of lurking doom. The kid who played John Wilkes Booth had trouble with the cap pistol in rehearsal, and I feared that his ineptitude would ruin the crucial moment.

Thankfully, the pistol fired, making a loud pop. Concealed in my hand was a glob of ketchup. I slapped my head in reaction to the shot, ketchup squirting through my fingers and onto the floor. A low ohhh came from the students. I caught a quick glimpse of Janet smiling.

Go to black. Battle Hymn of the Republic plays on a cassette machine. Behind a partition I wrapped my head in a white cloth soaked with ketchup. Lights slowly up. I'm lying on a bench serving as a death bed. The kid over me said "Now he belongs to the ages" as my head slumped to the side, ketchup dripping on the tile.

Dennis Perrin's Sam Peckinpah's Lincoln.

My teacher thought I'd sacrificed historical importance for special effects, but the kids seemed to like it. Until the next day and several days after that.

"Your hair stinks, Perrin! Ever hear of shampoo?"

Yes, but it took over a week to finally erase the smell. By then, whatever minor inroads I'd made with Janet vanished. But skinny nerdy Shannon with glasses and retainer followed me around for a bit.

Growing up, Lincoln was shoved in our faces, far more than any other president. At the time of my staging, Nixon was president, so Lincoln stood in even sharper relief.

No one I knew questioned Lincoln's greatness. It took Gore Vidal to show his darker side, drawn largely from Lincoln's law partner and friend William Herndon. This inspired nasty reactions from what Vidal called the "Lincoln priests," academics devoted to a more uplifting version of Honest Abe.

In the end, it seems the Lincoln priests have won. Obama's shameless evocation of Lincoln provided them fresh juice, and I suspected that Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner channeled this into their film.

Much of it is there. As others have noted, Spielberg bathes Lincoln in near-holy light. The monument made flesh. Lincoln's haggard, worn features seem to glow. He is man, myth, and deity.

But that's lighting and framing. Daniel Day-Lewis gives Lincoln unprecedented life. Not even Sam Waterston's 1988 revisionist portrayal comes close.

Day-Lewis' Lincoln speaks in a higher register than previous interpretations, rural twang evident but not overwhelming. According to Herndon, Lincoln and wife Mary Todd engaged in furious arguments. Day-Lewis and Sally Field's recreation is absolutely riveting. A pissed off Lincoln must have been intimidating. But it appears that Mary Todd gave as good as she got.

Hints of the reluctant abolitionist Lincoln are present, yet Spielberg and Kushner spend more time on the passage of the 13th Amendment than on Lincoln's view of slavery. This frees Day-Lewis to concentrate on personality instead of politics. And he does a damn fine job of it.

I ended up liking this Lincoln more than I'd imagined. He was, as Vidal showed, an ambitious, depressed, brilliant man. I doubt that many American moviegoers would enjoy or appreciate Vidal's version. But the thought of Day-Lewis playing that Lincoln entices beyond words.

As for the politics of the film, I recommend friend Corey Robin's essay and links. For me, Spielberg's Lincoln was an entertaining historical drama that stirred warm feelings I thought long ago dead.

The boy who loved American history remains. Ketchup bottle in hand.