Monday, November 12, 2012

Musing Pictures: Lincoln

I was struck, as I drove away from the theater after seeing "Lincoln", by how few "point of view" shots were used.  In fact, it has taken me hours to find the one moment in the film where the POV shot becomes central to the visual narrative scheme.  Although there are a couple of other scenes that may include POV shots, it's just as likely that they're simply close angles -- there may only be one point of view moment in the entire film!

Steven Spielberg is not one to shy away from POV shots.  In fact, some of his most famous moments (such as the shark attack at a crowded beach in "Jaws" or the rearview mirror shots in "Duel", "The Sugarland Express", and "Jurassic Park") feature POV shots.  As I've written elsewhere, Spielberg uses these in combination with what I've termed "point of thought", camera placement and movement that evokes a character's mood or feeling, rather than literal point of view.

Spielberg's treatment of "Lincoln" relies heavily (and unsurprisingly) on this "point of thought" approach, but it's not Lincoln the character whose thoughts we're invited to join.  The most iconic and memorable images of Lincoln (played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) are all from behind him, from over his shoulder.  He would be in profile, but he's looking away, looking forward, to the future perhaps.  We see the back of Lincoln's head, and sometimes a sliver of his profile.  This isn't necessarily how others in the room see him, but it's how they feel about him.  To those around him Lincoln is a dreamer, always looking forward, away, to the future.

Since Lincoln is presented to us in the way that those in the room feel about him, we have a sense of general mood or general attitudes, but not necessarily a strong allegiance to any one character's point of view.  It's part of the film's attempt to present the story without too much mythology.  It contemplates Lincoln the man, rather than Lincoln the legend.

But Lincoln the man becomes Lincoln the legend, and the transition happens as he leaves the White House, headed for the inevitable at the Ford Theatre.  As he walks away, his black servant watches.  And it's the black servant whose point of view we see:  Abraham Lincoln, lanky, iconic, walking alone down a long hallway.  In other words, we can never understand Lincoln fully without glimpsing him, even briefly, through a black man's eyes.


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