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“An even tougher example comes out of artist Sherrie Levine’s practice of photographing works by other artists and displaying the simulacrum as her own. Her point is to explore the status of artworks today and the miniscule amount of creativity required for a work to qualify as ‘original’ in mass culture.”

–Susan M. Bielstein from her book Permissions: A Survival Guide Add a Tooltip Text


And the Oscar for ungracious credit acknowledgement goes to . . . Steven Spielberg for Lincoln. “Based in part on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin.” Not terribly surprising as Spielberg has a reputation for hogging credits in his work. This trait fits the general profile I have in my head about Spielberg, which is that he is a tool.

Yes, he has mastered the medium. But his mastery often comes across as shameless manipulation, even cinematic bullying. An example: when Lincoln is assassinated at Ford’s theater (spoiler alert), Spielberg and the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, choose to show us Lincoln’s adored and beloved child, his son, who is watching a play in a different theater with one of his keepers. The boy hears the onstage announcement that his dad has been shot; his heart breaks in front of us. This is part of the climax of a film that never lets up on the theme of the dead son (harking back to Saving Private Ryan). It’s a great, easy way to make an anti-war pitch and I’ll gladly roll along with any anti-war pitch. Like most parents, I want to vomit at the thought of any son being taken too soon. What a great way to get the viewer to connect emotionally to a political strategy picture. CRY, damnit!

Spielberg is so masterful, he can dumb things down for cynical viewers and make them feel better for it. He is so masterful, he can sculpt a clump of glory for gullible viewers and make them feel better for it, too. But his films are leaders in the Hollywood habit of demanding too little, and expecting too little, from the people who pay money to see them. Spielberg makes assumptions about the audience’s imaginations and intellect. To me, he aims pretty low, even when he’s aiming high.

Well, his heart is in the right place, so leave him alone. Lincoln is a healthy, hearty bit of American history, a piece of pro-democracy propaganda in the vein of the John Adams miniseries (HBO), though John Adams told its tale with more intelligence and humility. Spielberg and Kushner could have given the creative team behind the HBO miniseries a little nod in their credits as well. The two sets of filmmakers focused their stories around the exact same plot counterpoints: marital relationship, pressure to rally votes in a divided representative body, and the horrors and loss of war.

And I wonder how I got to my advanced age without knowing that Mary Todd Lincoln was a lunatic harpy who ruined Abe Lincoln’s chances for happiness? Because I had no idea until Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner informed me. Mostly, she has been left out of stories and legends about Abe Lincoln and his times. I might have even thought Abe was single. And I know a thing or two about crazy women in history. It’s a private interest, built more on empathy than judgment, which is the dominant touch applied to Mary’s story in Lincoln. I wonder why Spielberg felt the need to emphasize this aspect of the story when Mrs. Lincoln was not an important player in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. In Spielberg’s version, she seems to barely understand what’s going on. Oh well, at least it was a juicy role for the brave Sally Field.

I also wonder if the American movie-going public will view this film as “real history.” I watched it on an airplane, and Argo was playing on the seatback next to me. I kept glancing over at the screen; only an hour into it did I recognize Ben Affleck with his pretty little beard and his Brazilian blowout. But that’s another story.