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Lincoln, Spielberg and the Seeds of Time


“If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me.”

Twice during Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a collection of glass plate photographs are featured. Lincoln’s son, 10-year-old Tad, is preoccupied with studying these photos, some of which preserve the images of African-American boys close to his own age. When President Lincoln comes upon Tad asleep by the fireplace with a few of these framed plates strewn on the rug near his head, Lincoln holds one of  the transparent portraits up to the fire to look at the last thing his son saw before falling asleep.  Lincoln’s brow clouds with sorrow.  The photos are captioned with the dollar amount the lives of these boys brought at auction. $500 for one child; $700 for another pair, possibly brothers. In a dark room of the White House, firelight flickers, and for a moment the ghostly figures come alive. In dark theaters all across America 150 years later, those images flicker once again, and now it’s Steven Spielberg holding them up to the light.

The power of pictures to touch and inspire us is as old as the caves at Lascaux. But by placing that scene prominently in the first 10 minutes of the film, I think Kushner and Spielberg have provided us a key to understanding part of their intent.  Those hazy faces on glass are a fascinating reminder that photography was in its infancy in the mid 19th-Century — and without those early efforts to capture the range of life’s triumphs and tragedies, our own lives would now be deprived of the starkest evidence of those historic events in all their horror and dignity.

The more I think about the significance of that sequence in Lincoln, the more it resonates. Spielberg’s films have always included scenes like these, when someone arrives at a moment of quiet epiphany. He gives us time to watch characters recast their countenance as they absorb what they’re seeing. Of course, many movies have moments like that, but few directors have a patented style so well-known that there’s a distinctive shot named after them.  It’s The Spielberg Face. That thousand-yard stare, somehow made intimate.  Gazing in awe, or shock, or dread.  Or sorrow.

What a moment like that represents for me, and why I think it touches us so deeply, is how it reaches out and makes us part of whatever vision has been encountered onscreen. We’re gazing in awe at someone gazing in awe, and that overlap can gives us a rapturous emotional connection no other director achieves in quite the same way. For me it goes beyond the Spielberg Face. It’s the Spielberg Touch. It’s a style thing, and I’ve been enthralled by it hundreds of times in dozens of Spielberg films over the years.

It’s a marvelous gift to have the talent to create those moments, and I try never to forget how lucky I am to be alive at time when I can witness Spielberg’s gift evolving and maturing with each great movie he creates. It’s not just a gift he’s been given; it’s a gift he has shared with us his entire adult life. For that, we should be forever grateful. (More about gratitude and the lack of it at the end of this).

This year’s very fine films by America’s best directors represent the same a cross-section of Hollywood creativity we’ve seen on display with varying degrees of aplomb for decades. But while a director’s aplomb can provide eye-catching pizazz for instant gratification, when we look back at the films that stood the test of time with greatest dignity, we see that aplomb doesn’t age very well unless there’s a degree of grandeur onscreen as well.

That’s the choice that filmmaker with a ballot must make this year. Will Hollywood continue its recent streak of rewarding clever if sometimes gaudy showmanship?  Or is it time to give some respect to a film that aspires to that stately grandeur?  It takes a David Lean, Kubrick, Coppola, or Malick to do splendor right. Those directors have given us films of such enduring grandeur they stand as some of the supreme pinnacles of film art. Steven Spielberg is in that league. Among the directors of Spielberg’s generation, nobody but he and Coppola can carry off this kind of majesty and wrap in a package that doesn’t feel ponderous.

The power of photography evolved over the past century to enrich our lives with the power of cinema.   At an early age Spielberg chose Lawrence of Arabia as the standard he wanted to reach.  He wanted to use his gift for conveying film grandeur the way he had seen and learned from David Lean.  He’s been reaching toward and often seizing that standard for 40 years.

It’s frustrating enough when I see people who should know better taking that achievement for granted. But that persistent frustration has paled this year next to a more bewildering frustration I’m still trying to process. The frustration and inconceivable realization that there are people who can’t be bothered to sit up straight and appreciate a thoughtful, engaging and intellectually stimulating recreation of one of the most important moments in American history. Many of those people will say they know enough history already, and others openly admit they don’t care.

Naturally there are many of us here, many moviegoers all across the country, and many people holding DGA ballots right now who do care about history.   Then there are others to whom, for whatever stubborn reason, the events and issues hold no interest have heard all the reasons to please pay heed, and if they haven’t been persuaded to think differently by now, I’m fine with giving up on those individuals. It’s impossible to sway the perception of people predetermined to resist the effort. I’d much rather focus on securing the allegiance and sharing the enthusiasm with those who might recently be wavering between an easy need to be entertained and a more difficult desire toward respect for more profound significance.

I began by saying how much I was struck by the significance of the glass plate photographs that Tad Lincoln can’t stop thinking about. The first time these photos appear in the film, Tad has drifted off to sleep after looking into the eyes of the boys his own age whose lives were commodities to be bought and sold. The next time the collection of images are mentioned, Tad is protesting that the photos have been taken away from him, “because mama says they’re too distressing.”

You had nightmares all night,
mama’s right to –

But I’ll have worse nightmares if
you don’t let me look at the plates again.


Perhaps. In fact, no doubt. President Lincoln cannot even dream of the nightmares that lie ahead for his son in a few short weeks. Abraham Lincoln will be assassinated 10 days after Tad’s 12th birthday. Tad himself will die 6 years later. Neither father nor son would live to see the multitude of nightmares that followed the end of the Civil War, nightmares that plague America to this day.

But Tad is seen at least yearning to come to grips with one of his recurring nightmares, somehow finding solace and learning lessons from looking at the stark images that reflected life stories that lay outside his experience and beyond his comprehension. Perhaps he learned something of enormous importance from those images, and we can hope that helped him find some peace from the next six years of nightmares he had to endure before he died.

A child learning essential lessons from looking images in flickering firelight. Lessons about lives beyond his comprehension but now made manifest before his eyes in gauzy shadows captured on glass. I like to think there are 12-year-old kids today whose parents took them to see Lincoln, so that those kids can learn their own lessons from the flickering images onscreen. Lessons about lives lived 150 years ago, surely beyond their comprehension, but now made manifest before their eyes in meticulous thought-provoking detail.

We don’t have to be 12 years old to need to see those lessons.

“I don’t know if the guys knew who Lincoln was…. It came as a big shock to them when he was killed.”

Kobe Bryant was joking (we hope) when he said that the day after the he and his LA Lakers teammates saw a screening of Lincoln. Some of us might scoff at the idea that movies can teach us much — or that they have any right to try. But you only have to watch 5 minutes of Jay Walking on Leno to know that millions of Americans are woefully ill-informed about what’s happening in the world today, much less what happened 150 years ago. How many people were inspired by Lincoln to stop and ponder the circumstances surrounding the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, a crucial catalyst that sparked the chains of events that led to America’s first Black President. More than a few, I’m certain.

There are lessons that teach us facts: Teheran is the capital of Iran. OK, got it. Let’s file that away. Then there’s another kind of lesson that inspires us to think about ideas. “Things which are equal to the same thing are each other.” OK, let’s remember that. That’s a concept with many applications and a good thing for Americans to consider the next time immigration reform or gay marriage comes up in conversation. Or on a ballot. A good thing to remember, or perhaps, for some, a good lesson to learn in the first place.

More than almost any other director Steven Spielberg has divided his time and talent between creating entertainments and crafting more deeply-felt, more thought-provoking fare. I used to call these two sides of the Spielberg coin, “one for the money, one for posterity,” but then along comes a film like Lincoln that offers so much substance, satisfaction and soul, it not only earns a place in the pantheon of film history, it reaps immense profits as well. But that Spielberg dichotomy is more than savvy career strategy (though as that it’s an undeniable asset), and it’s more than a handy way to sort his filmography. Since most directors choose to follow either one path or the other, it’s clear that Spielberg’s parallel pursuit of both pure art and sheer entertainment reflects a complexity we rarely see a single individual exhibit, no matter what they endeavor to do.

For those who like to look past the surface gloss, Spielberg’s populist films are sometimes burdened with extravagant expectations. On the flip side, many people have trouble reconciling the gravity of his deeper films when they’re infused with that uncanny instinct for mass appeal. That disconnect has led to some unfortunate awards outcomes for the director who’s won the DGA three times but had to earn 11 nominations to do so. After the awards pageants fold up their tents each winter, after all the chips have fallen, after the cookies have crumbled and after the dust has settled, it’s only a matter of months before we begin look back realize whatever the unlucky relationship may be between Spielberg and the fickle Hollywood accolade machine, what’s always left in the wake is an extraordinarily lucky legacy for us.

That legacy, those lessons, the images Spielberg holds up for us to see in the flickering lights of dark theaters all our lives. They are lit with his style, his passion and desire to share with us the horrors and wonders of worlds that lie beyond our experience and comprehension. I’m eternally grateful for that gift. Just wish the Hollywood community would be more grateful.

“If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me.”

Here’s another challenge for Hollywood. Look at the seeds of cinema and see which ones from the past have endured and which have withered.  Sure, who doesn’t like to have their heart tugged. And we all enjoy a tense suspenseful thrill ride. Yes, the little French dog was adorable too. But for me, most of the films that have genuine cultural significance are those with a more sublime sense of aesthetic majesty. Can’t we show more appreciation for movies like that?  Shouldn’t we be more grateful to the filmmakers who strive for those heights?  Especially a director who consistently reaches for that standard set by David Lean, and this year has once again seized it.