Weird Car Commercials

If you’ve watched any sports broadcast on TV recently, you’ve undoubtedly noticed two specific commercials that stand apart from the ever-present erectile dysfunction and an-unpronounceable-drug-for-every-condition ads.

matthewIn one of the commercials, Matthew McConaughey gets spruced up, puts on an expensive suit on a dark night, smiles a slight, enigmatic smile, and then falls backward into a pristine pool.  In the other, a prissy, entitled Brit talks about how some people are always able to dodge all of the rules — hey buddy, in this American presidential campaign that hits a little too close to home! — and then visits wheelchair-bound Steven Hawking in his underground Bond villain lair where they talk about the laws of gravity, time, and space.

Curiously, these are car commercials.  McConaughey is peddling Lincoln, and Hawking and his above-of-all friend are hawking (pun intended) Jaguars (which I’d always thought was pronounced Jag-warr, but I now learn from the commercial is pronounced, with an affected British accent, Jag-u-are).  In contrast, say, to the commercials that purportedly astonish slack-jawed “real people” with the sheer number of awards Chevrolet has won in the last two years, the Lincoln and Jaguar ads don’t really tell you anything about the advertised vehicles or even show them very much.  The Lincoln and Jaguar ads are lifestyle ads — the kind that try to convince the credulous that if they just buy the product they’ll get the advertised lifestyle, too.

Okay, I get it.  But I’ve still got a question:  how many people out there really want to be like McConaughey or the Brit who trades witticisms with Hawking in his futuristic bunker?  I guess Lincoln and Jaguar aren’t looking to sell cars to women, for example.  And I doubt that the lifestyles depicted appeal to a huge chunk of the American male population, either.  I, for one, have never aspired to fall backward into a pool while zen-like music plays.  And as much as I admire Steven Hawking’s colossal intellect, I don’t exactly associate him with cars.

Give me the car commercials that feature brightly painted roadsters rolling down a winding, open road on a bright sunny day, whisking through freshly fallen leaves as they round a curve.  Leave the enigmatic smiles and the falling into pools to the erectile dysfunction crowd, will you?

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Lighting Lincoln

The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a wonderful place, with its museums and monuments, walking paths and reflecting pool.  My favorite spot on the Mall is the Lincoln Memorial.  It is, quite simply, a majestic place — a kind of temple to democracy and an aspirational symbol of what the United States can and should aspire to be.

lincoln-memorial-statue-symbolsThe most awesome part of the Lincoln Memorial experience is entering the interior and seeing the colossal statute of Lincoln created by sculptor Daniel Chester French.  Towering nineteen feet tall, showing Lincoln seated on an enormous chair, the statute is the embodiment of our ideal of presidential character.  When many of us — at least, those who have visited the Memorial –visualize Lincoln, French’s  depiction is what comes to mind:  deeply thoughtful, somber, placid, resolute, and reassuring.  The dark shadows that sharply etch the 16th President’s craggy face play a significant role in creating that sense of calmness and historical enormity.

Interestingly, it wasn’t always that way.  When the Lincoln Memorial was first dedicated in 1922, French was horrified by the lighting of the statute.  French specifically created the sculpture so that shadows would define Lincoln’s face, but the skylights in the building didn’t produce sufficient overhead lighting to provide the shadows — leaving Lincoln to sit with a kind of blank, zombie-like stare, rather than projecting the sense of unwavering purpose that French had intended.  It wasn’t until 1926, after large floodlights were installed into the ceiling to cast the overhead light in the right way, that French was satisfied.  The photograph below of the worker installing the statue prior to the dedication gives a sense of how different Lincoln looked under the original lighting conditions.

French was right, of course — the shadows are a crucial part of what makes the Lincoln Memorial statue so memorable.  It’s amazing what some light shining from the right direction can accomplish.

Man Working on Lincoln Monument Highlights its Size

The Classics

IMG_1316I love old cars.  Who doesn’t?

In some ways, automobile designs are like fashion design.  The ’30s and ’40s were times of classic approaches, with clean lines and beautifully appealing exteriors.  By the ’70s — well, leisure suits and the Ford Granada just don’t stack up.

I’m not precisely sure what year this vintage Lincoln dates from, but it is a beauty.

Lincoln, Revisited

Kish and I saw Lincoln yesterday.  It’s a wonderful movie, and I would highly recommend it to everyone.

https://i2.wp.com/i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2012/10/20/CCSpielbergLincoln1280x960_460x329.jpgI don’t have much to add to Richard’s excellent, thoughtful review of the film.  Daniel Day-Lewis was terrific as Lincoln.  For an actor, what role could be more difficult than bringing real life touches to an iconic figure most Americans now see less as a human being, and more as a colossal marble statue?  Under the masterful direction of Steven Spielberg, and with the able assistance of some fine actors and great sets and scenery, the film creates a realistic, tobacco-spitting, bewhiskered and ball gown-wearing, deeply racist, embarrassingly eloquent, and entirely believable depiction of America during the Civil War.  Sure, Sally Field was too old to play Mary Todd Lincoln, but that casting clinker can’t take away from an otherwise exceptionally well done movie.

My only complaint is not about the acting or the production value, but about the script.  The story told by the film was not the story of Lincoln’s life, but rather the story of Lincoln’s resolve to secure passage of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery before the Civil War ended — and his deft politicking to achieve that goal.  So why, then, couldn’t the movie end with Lincoln enjoying that success?  Why must every Lincoln movie proceed to the heartbreak of his assassination and the solemn pronouncement that “now he belongs to the ages”?

I recognize that Lincoln’s martrydom is an essential part of the Lincoln saga, but that doesn’t mean we have to be hit over the head with that fact whenever Lincoln is mentioned.  How refreshing it would have been to see the movie end with Lincoln enjoying his triumph!  We would still know that death awaited him, of course — every American knows that to their core — but seeing him relishing a satisfying and historic victory would have exposed a different facet of the man.

Review: Lincoln

Lincoln and his cabinet.

Lincoln and his cabinet.

In a scene in the middle of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican congressman, chides Abraham Lincoln for waiting so long to make an attempt to end slavery.

Lincoln responds that if he had tried to end slavery after the war began in 1861, the border states would have joined the Confederacy, leading to the Union’s defeat and making the chances of emancipation even more remote. Stevens sits there with a defensive expression on his face, unable to offer a rebuttal.

Abraham Lincoln’s character – his blend of compassion and pragmatism – is the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as its title makes clear. Most Civil War epics focus on the great battles between the Union and Confederate armies, but Lincoln concentrates on the role the 16th president played in the great legislative battle over the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.

Those who pay $9 to see artillery fire and bayonet charges will be disappointed by the film. The few battle scenes are short and brutal, serving only to remind viewers of one of the many pressures weighing on Lincoln’s mind as he decided the best way to end the war.

The ongoing carnage has led the Democrats and the conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose passage of the 13th amendment out of the fear it will ruin peace negotiations. They pester Lincoln for even bringing up emancipation, while the Radical Republicans pester him for not pressing emancipation hard enough.

In his portrayal of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a man aware that his role in history is to herd his hard-headed colleagues toward emancipation and peace. He does this mostly through slippery legislative techniques we would associate more with LBJ: patronage, cajoling, and even a little bit of dishonesty. Moralizing is used only as a last resort.

Two of Lincoln’s great speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, make it into the film, but they seem only rhetorical flourishes for Lincoln’s legislative masterwork. Unseemly political tactics are an essential part of Republican government, in any year; during the Civil War our country was lucky to have a brilliant president who used them to achieve great things.

I could think of no historical character more deserving of a portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, with his well-known thoroughness, than the complicated, monumental Lincoln. Ironically, the British actor brings America’s most revered historical figure to life. Instead of the booming voice most Lincoln impersonators use, he employs a more realistic reedy twang. He demonstrates Lincoln’s penchant for funny anecdotes well enough to get my theater laughing a couple times. With saggy eyelids, a slight hunch and a sad smile, he communicates the weariness and the spiritual burdens Lincoln acquired after four years of a wartime presidency.

He also gives him flaws. In scenes of discord with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his son, Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he shows Lincoln as a man prone to indecision and anger, like the rest of us. Underneath it all, though, is the wisdom and strength of character that made Lincoln such an icon.

A great cast joins Day-Lewis in creating real people out of the historical figures known only through stodgy old photographs and dry academic writing. Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln as a woman so anxious, in large part due to the death of her son Tad shortly before the beginning of the film, that I both felt sorry for her and wanted to avoid her. Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln is a frustrated young man imprisoned at Harvard by his mother’s worries while he would rather be proving himself on the battlefield.

Thanks to the full-fledged performances and the attention to detail in the sets, costumes, accents and 19th-century lingo, the movie creates such a convincing image of 1865 that it felt like a precious window into the past. The United States of 1865 is a character itself, tired of war and uncomfortable with the great changes it is undergoing. The new capitol building is so blindingly white that it seems both inspiring and awkward amongst the dingy buildings and muddy streets of Washington, D.C. The telegraphs that bring news of the results of battles and their casualties seem to strike the characters as exciting and frightening, and the same could be said of the freed blacks who have just begun serving in the army.

At the end of the movie, when I stepped out of the theater into the parking lot, I felt like I had returned from a trip to the past. I was conscious of the fact that I and my surroundings were products of the historical currents portrayed in the movie. Some characters in the movie, including Lincoln, ask what America should be like after the war ends, how it can heal the scars of slavery. Stepping back into modern-day America, I had an opportunity to examine the way the United States chose to proceed from their eyes.

Gore Vidal, R.I.P.

I was saddened to learn of the recent death of Gore Vidal, the author, playwright, essayist, and a large and important figure on the American literary landscape.

Vidal cut a wide swath and was astonishingly prolific; he was known for his keen wit, his acerbic comments, and his public feuds with other cultural figures of the ’60s and ’70s.  He also was one of my favorite writers.  He wrote four of my favorite novels — Burr, 1876, Creation, and Lincoln — and I have relished reading, and rereading, them to this day.  I think I’ve read Creation about 10 times, and I would gladly begin reading it anew any time, any place.

Vidal had a knack for looking at the world from a different perspective that veered sharply away from conventional accounts of history; his willingness to articulate that viewpoint made his novels interesting and often hilarious.  (His less-than-flattering depiction of George Washington in Burr, for example, is extremely funny and makes you feel guilty for chuckling at the Father of Our Country, all at the same time.)

Vidal’s flamboyant personality and taste for controversy often seemed to overshadow the fact that he was an extremely talented writer.  He will be missed on the American literary landscape.