Sunday, February 9, 2014

Notes on The Better Angels by A.J.Edwards, USA: 2014-Panorama-Berlin Filmfestival 2014 III.

To see something in this film, it took me a while. The knowledge that this film is not only co-produced by Malick but also that Edwards was a close co-worker for the last three masterpieces by Malick trapped me several times. Treetops filmed from below, the movements of the camera and the protagonists (here mostly the two mythic women in the life of Abraham Lincoln: his mother who died young and his stepmother). The innocence in which I discovered Malick for myself seemed to be impossible at the beginning.

The Better Angels is filmed in Black and White. The film focuses on three years from the childhood of Abraham Lincoln, especially on his relationship with his mother, stepmother and his father. The lack of colours makes this American landscape even more barren. Depending on farm work and being over dependent by nature and threatened by diseases. Human life and traces of human civilisation seems very fragile here.
The film begins with monuments of Lincoln, cold lifeless stone and than turns into scenes from the childhood of the man who became one of the most famous president of the United States.
One of the central conflict is the young boy Abe Lincoln who is a thinker and dreamer which is not right helpful for a family who has  to struggle for surviving. The wilderness,the thicket begins right here, a few  minutes walk from the shabby and dirty wooden cabin. The wild beast America is not yet tamed.
There is also the conflict between physical strength (the father) and the intellectual and dreaming boy.

Another aspect which overshadows the fragments of Lincolns childhood is our knowledge of Lincolns biography. The film emphasizes at the beginning and the end the inevitable death of Lincoln and that everything we see is already history. And yes there is a kind of distance which is more Mizuguchi-like or in western cinema terms – more like in Kubrick´s Barry Lyndon. That means we are more kept on distance like for example in Malick´s The New World.

I almost ran into another trap: I could not get rid of the comparison between Abe Lincolns  and  the young Jack´s relationship in  The Tree of Life to their parents which can be as well the result of my clumsily try to find orientation in this film.
But another thought came into my mind, a slight trace to put the film for myself in another context.. The young actor Braydon Denney looks almost like I imagine Henry Fonda as a boy. That brings me to another trace – John Fords masterpiece Young Mr. Lincoln from 1939. That relativizes a bit this invading comparison between the the family constellation sin The Better Angels and Malick´s The Tree of Life. As Edwards´Lincoln is influenced by these two women (mother and stepmother, Ford´s Lincoln is leaded as well by a woman, by his  early love who passed away at a very young age.

The film has one of its most impressing moments when the boy Abe sees for the first time in his life a group of African slaves chained and silenced. You can really see that this encounter made a big impression on this child. This moment will never be mentioned verbally in this film, but it remains as a big question for this young boy until the end of this film. We do not really know about Lincolns encounter with one of the most barbaric aspects of American history, but it is enough that we sense that something is working in his mind. It is almost an ozu-esque moment. Despite we know today, the abolishment of slavery was in the American Civil War only a part of the strategy of the American Union,  Edwards tells like Ford first of all about an American mythic figure. But this mythic figure is very grounded in the barren shabby wooden hut in the middle of the American wilderness where the young American civilisation had to struggle to survive. Where Edwards is working with this wild almost untouched natural landscape, Ford is working with this young and brilliant Henry Fonda who enriches a mythic figure with a soul.

Even though I am from this generation who is grown up with American Cinema, the more I am thinking about this country, especially about this tension between classical Holly wood and the renewals in the 1960s, I am realising how very few we really know about this very complex culture.
Donald Ritchie, one of the first western authors who discovered the glory of Japanese Cinema, established especially concerning Ozu the term “Japaneseness” And yes there is probably something like “Americaness” in American Cinema – not only in the films of two of its greatest masters John Ford and Terrence Malick, but also in the films by Jeff Nichols, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, A. J. Edwards and a lot more others which reminds us how much more we still to have learn about this country which we believed misleadingly to know better than our own.
I am not yet finished with A.J.Edwards´The Better Angels. But I suggest to consider this very interesting film through the relationship between classical Hollywood and New Hollywood and American Independent Cinema. Of course – and here we can´t hardly avoid a John Ford or a Terrence Malick, both key figures of their time.

Rüdiger Tomczak


February, 11, Cinemaxx 7 10.00  

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