Wednesday, November 19, 2014
"The Better Angels", in black and white, makes the simple frontier life of Abe Lincoln's boyhood absolutely surreal
“The Better Angels”, directed by A. J. Edwards (under the supervision of co-producer Terrence Malick) dramatizes the boyhood of Abraham Lincoln (Braydon Denney) in the primitive frontier conditions in southern Indiana around 1817. Dad, Thomas Lincoln (Jason Clarke) has no option but to be a taskmaster in this environment, and the mother Nancy (Brit Marling) dies of undulant fever. Some well-acted minor incidents show how Abe learned the trait of honesty, to the point that near the end of the film his dad says he will do great things. And he did.
The custom of the time was that the father was entitled to the son’s earnings until age 21. Abe gradually took over as he grew older, and became a champion wrestler.
The film opens with a shot of the US Capitol, and it takes a moment before we realize that the film will be in black and white, with cinemascope. The effect is almost that of the Twilight Zone, almost like we were color blind living in another culture on another planet. The details of daily life, like how women made clothes on looms, is interesting.
The film is largely told in narration by young Abe, with minimal dialogue. The classical music in the background is captivating. It includes excerpts from the slow movements of Bruckner’s 7th and 8th symphonies (see Drama-Music blog Oct. 26), excerpts from both Kalinnikov symphonies. Let me digress a moment and recommend listening to the Kalinnikov Symphony #1 as played by the Ukraine Symphony, appropriate given conflict in that part of the world, here. There is also some music from the Dvorak New World Symphony and some Vaughn Williams. It struck me that almost all the late romantic and modern music in the background had been composed after the time period of this movie, even after Lincoln’s death (and a final scene of the film shows the aftermath back in his boyhood era in 1865). Lincoln and his family members could never have known this music.
The official site has a lot of effective black and white rural video to watch. The distributors are Amplify and Variance.
I saw the film at Landmark E Street in Washington, before a fair weekday audience.
Picture: I think that's near Vincennes Indiana, in the 1940s, photo in my mother's estate.