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.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Blood On The Wind

All state leaders are crazy to one extent or another. Part of the gig. Impossible to avoid.

But Benjamin Netanyahu enjoys his own personal brand. He's easily one of the most unbalanced men currently in power.

Netanyahu seems to enjoy his reputation. He takes great relish in meting out murderous violence, justifying it with a sly grin. His hatred and contempt for the Palestinians is unmatched.

A great number of Israelis appreciate and support Netanyahu's act, which is why he has no hesitation in terrorizing Gaza. It wins him votes, sharpens his renown.

The cruel irony is that every time Israel flips out, it further weakens its ultimate power. Without US protection, money and weapons, Israel would be in worse shape. It's not doing well as it is.

Would a humbled Israel behave more humanely? I've read arguments that say yes, but I doubt it. At least in the short run. It's hard to turn off a killing machine that essentially defines your culture. Changing a brutal nationalist mindset is tougher still.

So, for the time being, we have a heavily-armed rogue state doing pretty much what it wants without fear of serious repercussions. This forces its backers to beat and strangle the truth more than they usually do, primarily in the States.

Major media reporting on Gaza isn't just bad, it's macabre. To hear the New York Times, NPR or CNN tell it, Israel is the nation under siege. Like London during the blitz. Gazan firepower is relentless and forever deadly. How embattled Israelis hold up under such pressure is a testament to their strong values and national pride.

This narrative has been in place since I first wrote and spoke about the Middle East over 20 years ago. Time has not been kind to the official narrative; more and more people have studied the actual history, spread further by social media.

Instead of democratizing major media minds, this expanding awareness compels corporate outlets to pound harder the official narrative. The result is beyond ridiculous. Reporters and commentators appear as liars and fools. Since they serve interests more lucrative than truth, I doubt this keeps them up nights.

Also, anti-Palestinian racism plays a large role, but unlike the stale narrative, that hatred remains fresh.

Meanwhile, the slaughter continues on our dime and with our acquiescence. Reactionaries love Israeli violence, especially if it coincides with Biblical "prophecy." Liberals are too in love with Obama to raise their meek voices.

That leaves the rest of us. Whoever we are.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Second Time As Tragedy

Spent the final week of election season in Paris. Apart from peeks at CNN Europe and the BBC, I was mercifully free of American hysteria.

Taxi drivers preferred Obama over Romney, whom they'd never heard of until recently. But overall there was indifference to the contest. American electoral politics appeared distant and strange to them. They didn't display the envy our media insist is shared globally. Instead, I envied their detachment.

Obama won easily, as this space predicted months ago. I told liberal friends to relax, that their flawed savior would sail to victory. They didn't want to hear it. Many whipped themselves into bizarre frenzies, fretting about the coming Romney Reich, the GOP Gestapo, and related apocalyptic visions.

I know that contemporary liberalism defines itself primarily through fear, but this was borderline insane. An Obama supporter emailed to ask that I stop predicting Obama's win. "You're scaring me," she said. I replied that she was scaring herself. She said that kind of thinking might jinx the outcome.

That's what amused me most about the election: I absolutely despise Obama's behavior, yet I had more confidence in his campaign than most of the Democrats I know.

Once the inevitable occurred, liberals became as delirious as they had been afraid. Suddenly, everything was right. They knew it all along. Americans weren't as stupid as they had assumed.

In reality, nothing changed. A few hours after his victory, Obama bombed Yemen, killing who knows how many people (or "terrorists" as the bodies are officially tagged). The next day he began pitching his Grand Bargain, a new deal where Medicare and Social Security are expected to receive the kind of cuts that Dems warned would happen had Romney won.

The rest of Obama's corporatist agenda, from widening surveillance to extrajudicial executions to privatizing public education, is laid out before him. He's free to be the Real Barack, which he's pretty much been up to now.

There will be no significant liberal resistance to this. Unlike Obama's first term, when libs could feign a betrayed innocence, there is no hiding from what is obvious. Obama's grisly record can be justified, explained away, downplayed or ignored, but it cannot be suppressed.

Obama is the first true 21st century president: a corporate technocrat streamlining authoritarian rule. Eventually, a Republican president will be elected to enjoy the expansive power Obama has given the office. Liberals might take notice then, but it'll be more about personality than policy.

Hate the sinner. Tolerate the sin.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Suffocate The Vote

The happiest day of every four years is here! Feel the pride! Love the envy! Drink and sob at the returns!

Fear not -- I'll probably write something once the glorious high has faded. Until then, luxuriate in my mellifluous voice as Doug Lain asks what makes US elections so goddamned special. Then, as an added treat, I'll be live Tweeting the countdown to Obama 2.0 sometime after cocktail hour. So all of your Perrin needs are met.

Now get out there and make America even better -- or crazier. The Founders are watching. Don't test their wrath.