In a recent book by long-time New Yorker film critic, David Denby, "Do Movies Have a Future?" (Simon & Schuster), he argues that there are fewer quality films coming out of Hollywood, and "that they don't seem to be building audiences for the future." Denby writes that for much of the year the adult audience has been forgotten, and the teenage audience is so totally "hooked on sensation" and extreme action that they become oblivious or incapable of watching films built on narrative, character, irony, and wit.
Denby acknowledges that good independent films are still being made (ones that I especially liked were Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" and Ramin Bahrani's "Goodbye Solo" [both 2009]), but views the studios -- who are now part of vast conglomerates -- as dominating the industry. And in the main, the studios choose to make blockbuster spectacles (Like the "Iron Man" and "X-Men" series), family-oriented animated films ("Shrek"), and genre works (thrillers, romantic and buddy comedies, and horror films) which can take in $40/50 million a weekend. Also, the development of digital technology has granted filmmakers the capacity to create special effects relatively cheaply-and these visual illusions make human relationships and the exploration of the psyche peripheral elements in many films. In addition, many of the directors come out of MTV and commercials where special effects are all.
I share Denby's lament and desire for adult films that resound socially and psychologically, and are now just a small part of Hollywood's product. And I'm in agreement with his description of an ideal cinematic experience where the "unconscious reaches out to the actors, to the cities, to the open spaces on the screen. The experience is the opposite of escape; it is more like absolute engagement."
However, at urban and suburban mall multiplexes the cinematic experience is also continually undermined by huge concession stands, and the sleek, strikingly edited ads for BMWs and foreign beers, and countless coming attractions of films focusing on bloody violence and car crashes that precede the film one has come to see. The implicit goal seems to be to turn the audience into passive consumers, inundated and stupefied by meaningless images and cacophonous sound.
For all that, intelligent adult films do get made, and this year's nine Oscar nominees include a number of films that have been critically well received. In my view, none of the Hollywood films are in the same artistic league as Michael Haneke's tender, unsentimental, emotionally riveting, French-made "Amour," which was given a token nomination for Best Picture, but will probably be handed the Oscar for Best Foreign Film as compensation.
But if most of the nominated films have serious flaws, a work like Spielberg's "Lincoln," which has garnered 12 Oscar nominations and made so far over $170 million, is entirely estimable. Yes, historians like Eric Foner "The Fiery Trail: Abraham Lincoln and the Abolition of American Slavery") criticized the film for failing to show that it was the abolitionists, not Lincoln, who were the driving forces behind the 13th Amendment. Other historians have felt that the film leaves out the activities of slaves in freeing themselves, and the role of free blacks in the nation's capital.
But this is a work of art, not a documentary, so the complexity of history is reduced for dramatic effect, the film choosing to put more emphasis on the role of the charismatic president (the "great man theory of history") rather than on the multiple and collective forces involved in bringing about change.
What gives "Lincoln" its uniqueness is the smart and incisive depiction of the messy legislative process and devious political maneuvering in Tony Kushner's script and Daniel Day-Lewis' nuanced, indelible portrayal of our eloquent, haunted president. Spielberg and Kushner achieve this without turning Lincoln into the larger-than-life mythic figure that has often dominated our image of him. Their Lincoln has a difficult marriage with the neurasthenic Mary Todd (Sally Field), has a losing argument with his older son about joining the army and, most markedly, is a hard-nosed politico, who is not hesitant to use his power and chicanery to achieve his goals.
Though there are faulty Spielbergian touches -- black soldiers who are as articulate as Kushner; an excessive display of Lincoln's folksiness; and lighting and silhouetting that grant Lincoln an iconic aura -- it's the flawed, life-sized Lincoln who dominates the film. Towards the end we can feel his profound weariness and pain, from presiding over a war that cost so many lives and tragically tore the country asunder. And the scene where the 13th amendment finally passes is a moving one-- despite the film's awareness that it was just a first step in the still agonizingly not quite finished road to racial equality.
Spielberg and Kushner have made a serious, ambitious film, one whose words and images demand an audience's careful attention to glean their full import. Kushner, a man of the political left and a passionate supporter of Obama, has spoken of the many parallels between Lincoln and Obama, especially in their relationship to their respective supporters on the left. Kushner: "I think there's a comfort on the left with powerlessness and exercising power in democracy is a series of bone-bending, soul-tormenting compromises of the most horrendous kind. There's nothing pure about it."
That's the essence of Lincoln's tactics to get the 13th Amendment passed, and it's brilliantly rendered in Kushner's script. If good taste and justice reign the Academy will award the Oscar for Best Film to the intricately textured, politically resonant "Lincoln," and not to a more commonplace, though very skillfully-edited political thriller like "Argo."
Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com