Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis shows us how good we can be when we apply ourselves. He is the crazy-artist actor, infusing iconic movie characters with combustible soul. He cares about these characters he plays, so he works (and works and works and works) to become them.

Like in “Lincoln.” Steven Spielberg called it “the most performance-based film I’ve ever made.” Day Lewis isn’t in every scene, but he’s in most, and his Lincoln is both the mythic hero of American history and a sad, tired man aged by grief much too quickly.

Check out this great interview with Day-Lewis and Spielberg on AMC. This is partly how the actor explained his method for working with Spielberg to make the best Lincoln he could:

“Quite often, when the set was just ours to play with at the end of a day, um, and it was quiet, we would start to explore the ideas we might share about what the next day’s work would bring. Some of the best times that I remember having with Steven were just the two of us trying to figure out…. And of course it’s an unforgivable thing to do when you don’t have your colleagues around you. And it’s not to say that when they arrived the next day we weren’t open to the possibilities that they brought with them, but at least we had a sense ourselves of how we might approach that piece of work.”

Based on what we know about Day-Lewis, he was almost certainly dressed as Lincoln and speaking in his Lincoln voice during these late-night hang-out-and-brainstorm sessions. Spielberg must have loved that.

“In my eyes, Daniel’s the Holy Grail of actors. To work with somebody that is gonna be that focused and dedicated, without question, to what he’s doing… So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on him, really. You think ‘Oh boy, I hope I can do as well for you as I know you’re gonna do for me.’”

That’s Paul Thomas Anderson, talking to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross about directing Day-Lewis in the 2007 film “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis won an Oscar for the roll of Daniel Plainview, a soulless, furious, murderous, drunken oil man feuding against an evangelical preacher in an early-20th-century town sitting above an ocean of oil. Rolling Stone said “Daniel Day-Lewis gave the best and ballsiest performance of the last 10 years.”

Dedication, like Anderson said, is Day-Lewis’s key to being the best. In “My Left Foot” his character can only control his left foot because of cerebral palsy, so Day-Lewis insisted on being pushed around in a wheel chair between takes, which reportedly got on the crew’s nerves. Before filming “Last of the Mohicans,” he spent months living in the wilderness, hunting and fishing and surviving off the land. Before playing Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York,” he actually trained as a butcher. On set for that flick he got pneumonia and, for a while, declined to wear a warmer coat because it wasn’t of the right time period.

He’s crazy like the greatest artists are crazy, so anyone surprised by the touching performance as Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg’s new movie hasn’t been paying attention. Spielberg said the movie is based on part of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Day Lewis called the book “the springboard for us all.” Luckily for Day Lewis, and for us, the book gives fascinating insights into how Lincoln looked and moved. He walked with arms straight or folded behind his back, for instance, and “lifted his whole foot at once rather than lifting from the toes and then thrust the whole foot down on the ground rather than landing on his heel.”

Beyond these more technical aspects of his appearance, though, is what makes the performance really special. From the book: “His features, even supporters conceded, were not such ‘as belong to a handsome man.’ In repose, his face was ‘so overspread with sadness,’ the reporter Horace White noted, that it seemed as if ‘Shakespeare’s melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois.’ Yet, when Lincoln began to speak, White observed, ‘this expression of sorrow dropped from his instantly. His face lighted up with a winning smile, and where I had a moment before seen only leaden sorrow I now beheld keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart, and the promise of true friendship.’ If his appearance seemed somewhat odd, what captivated admirers, another contemporary observed, was ‘his winning manner, his ready good humor, and his unaffected kindness and gentleness.’ Five minutes in his presence, and ‘you cease to think that he is either homely or awkward.'”

Day-Lewis mastered this. Repeatedly, we watch his Lincoln staring ahead, seemingly lost in thoughts of the war or his young son who died. Then he’ll engage with other characters and somehow transform into the smartest, sweetest, funniest man in the room, his manner soothing and inviting. We don’t get wild Day Lewis in “Lincoln” – the guy we saw in “Gangs” and “Blood,” who’s face and speech are scary as a hissing, coiled cobra, who brags about cutting out his own eyeball or drunkenly screams “I drink your milkshake!” This is more nuanced stuff, a portrayal of the singular dignified figure in American history.

In “Lincoln’s” first scene, Spielberg shows us a Civil War battle in driving rain and deep mud. Men are shooting, stabbing, punching and choking one another. We see a face, in closeup, being driven to drown below the muddy water by a furiously stomping boot heel. The Civil War was a nightmare, and Lincoln wore the strain of leading in that time like a stone around his neck. Daniel Day-Lewis, in his singular way, does justice to the man and his times. He has given some incredible performances over an incredible career, but “Lincoln” might just be his best.

Now, hopefully, Quentin Tarantino will put him in a movie as the bad guy.


Desean Jackson’s Jersey in “Silver Linings Playbook”

Robert DeNiro’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook” can’t get over it.

Monday Night Football, Sept. 15, 2008: Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Desean Jackson blazed passed the Dallas Cowboys defense and caught a bomb off the cannon arm of quarterback Donovan McNabb. Jackson, a rookie, was sprinting toward his first NFL touchdown. As he closed in to score, he tossed the ball and launched into a celebratory dance consisting of air humps synchronized with disco-dance pointing. Problem was, he’d flipped away the ball before completely crossing the goal line. Referees reviewed the play and decided it was a fumble, not a touchdown.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is about forgiveness and family and friendship and real (enough) anger. It’s also about die-hard NFL football fans, with their irrationality, superstitions and tendency to get loud or worse after several beers.

DeNiro plays Pat Sr. Bradley Cooper plays Pat Jr., who moves in with his parents after his release following an eight-month stint in a mental institution. Pat Sr. worries over his son, wants him to bounce back from his breakdown and finally be happy.

With tears in his eyes, Pat Sr. actually tells Pat Jr. he wants to spend time with him, and the Eagles can make that happen. He thinks if they could sit down in front of an Eagles games, a shared interest might blossom into deeper father-son discussion. He wants his son to open up, but Pat Sr. is no good at initiating the conversation. He needs some thing to bring them together. Football can be that thing.

In this great performance DeNiro personifies football fandom’s essence. Some sports fans don’t even know it, but they root for these teams because it helps compensate for lousy social skills. Our (totally human) neuroses necessitate an ice breaker. Get into a sports team and you’ve begun to share something with your family and friends and a community of likable, generous strangers who wear the same colors and hoot with joy in unison over scores. It becomes important. It becomes maybe even more important than it should be, but why judge?

“Silver Linings Playbook” is full of characters who could be considered crazy. Pat Jr. has a friend who says family and work make him feel like he’s choking. Jennifer Lawrence’s character Tiffany is a widow who slept around after her husband died. There’s talk of anxiety meds, and how to calm down in moments when life gets overwhelming and claustrophobic.

These characters are crazy, almost literally. They’re also just like a lot of us. Being crazy is all right, so so is painting half your face to go tailgating. And so is wearing a favorite player’s jersey. When Pat Jr. gets invited to a friend’s house for dinner, he accepts but feels uncomfortable about it. He helps ease his anxiety by wearing his Eagles jersey. It’s DeSean Jackson’s, with the number 10.

“DeSean Jackson is the man,” Pat Jr.’s therapist tells him. Pat Sr.’s a fan too, of course, but he mentions, repeatedly, that fumble on the one-yard line. At one point he is arguing about something important with his son, who’s wearing the jersey, and throws in “And how could you fumble on the one yard line!?”

“DeSean Jackson is the man.” Hell yeah he is. He’s fast and tough and can bust huge, awesome touchdowns. But he also spiked the ball before he scored and started air-hump disco dancing in the end zone. The Eagles scored on the next play, but it was still such a stupid thing to do. A stupid, weird, totally human thing to do.

A Tale of Political Madness for Election Day, Illustrated by El Machete

Our street dead-ends at a sprawling dog park with miles of hiking trails. It’s glorious unless you suddenly realize you’ve misplaced your pooch. Like an O.G. Santa Fean, I was Five-Finger jogging through the sandy canyon in the center of the park. Then I turned and realized my dog wasn’t behind me. I felt worried after 10 minutes, scared after 30. I spent an hour trekking up and down the entire huge park, calling my dog’s name and describing her build (medium) and color (butterscotch) to strangers. My mind started spinning. Where could she have gone? What would I tell my wife? Could an animal have attacked? Did someone take her? Her tags jingle when she runs, and she always yelps when she’s hurt. I clenched my ears and heard neither jingle nor yelp.

The day before this happened, the first issue of a free print magazine I wrote and edited called “The Candle” debuted with a 20,000-copy run. The mag has TV and movie reviews, but it mostly features informed hit pieces on Gov. Susana Martinez and her staff. Much of “The Candle” is devoted to Jay McCleskey, the governor’s campaign guru whom she calls her top adviser. His job is running political action committees which raise millions of dollars to spend on creating attack ads against candidates who oppose the governor’s agenda. That agenda could be described – with gross over-simplification – as consisting of two main items: holding back third graders who fail a literacy test and repealing the law in New Mexico allowing illegal immigrants to get drivers licenses.

I’ve written about McCleskey here before. That post was a long, unfunny joke about how McCleskey might send goons to kick my ass or worse. I’m not really afraid of anyone in politics, because they’re in politics and because I’m strapped. If you see me around town, you’ll notice I wear an assault rifle and a samurai sword, holstered and sheathed in a big “X” across my back. Flip Side Phil don’t leave home without his big “X.” Bear arms, baby. Grrrowl.

That isn’t true. What is true is that an anonymous stranger, who left the name “Jay’s Victim,” commented on that blog post to say, in part, “you should be afraid.” I had a short email exchange with Jay’s Victim, and since I still don’t know who he is I won’t reprint much of what he said, except this: “if you pop up on his radar as an enemy, i don’t think there are any lines he won’t cross.”

So “The Candle” comes out. The paper calls McCleskey a “goon” and asserts that he spins made-up, half-thought propaganda into voting power, and “undermines how democracy is supposed to work.” One article includes this line: “Republican operatives can be as dumb and dishonest as they want.” (It was labeled “Commentary.”) (The headline was “Don’t Let Stupid Affect Your Vote.”) The next day, I’m running in the park with my dog and she disappears. Could McCleskey have some Super-PAC thug tailing me, waiting for the right moment to snatch my innocent little Butterscotch Princess? Am I going to get her head delivered to me in a box, with a note that says “Your next,” (“Your” because McCleskey’s attack mailers are notorious for misspellings and bad grammar)?

Wait! Did you hear that?

I got fired one year ago this month from the Albuquerque Journal newspaper, for writing a letter to congressional spokesmen demanding an “email duel” over their 9-percent approval rating. (You can read it here.) I did not want to be fired, and when the ax came down in that morning meeting with the paper’s editor-in-chief – the first time we’d ever talked – I felt a naked kind of white-person terror that comes with suddenly losing health insurance and a regular paycheck. I had naively presumed the worst-case scenario for sending that letter was a tongue lashing. Instead, I was suddenly unemployed.

My fists wouldn’t unball as I was escorted to human resources for a post-firing debrief. Red eyes running, I interrupted the woman who was explaining COBRA and said I needed to leave immediately but would call later. I’d been fired for trying to write a column about how congress could justify the lousy job it was doing. Whoops. It was such a mistake.

Within a week, I got a phone call from a union-powered Super PAC called Independent Source PAC. It is a very small group of left-leaning shit-storm-stirrers, with the hard-core investigation skills to follow campaign donations through doors I thought were closed (or didn’t even know were doors). ISPAC digs up dirt no one is supposed to find, dirt that gets politicians into trouble. What ISPAC needed, though, was a writer.

We dug deep into the Downs Deal, a 25-year state-fair lease awarded to Louisiana businessmen who have donated at least $70,000 to McCleskey’s PACs. The deal is reportedly worth more than $1 billion over those 25 years. “The financial contributions by Racino owners to political heavyweights are substantial and the entire gaming industry is directly controlled by appointees placed there by the Governor. The tenets of good government are nowhere to be found.” That’s Charlotte Rode, a Republican appointed by Martinez to the State Fair Commission, talking about the Downs deal.

ISPAC worked to uncover what happened, and what happened is an apparently rigged evaluation, a 300-out-of-300 score for “management expertise” awarded by an evaluator who’d been hired by the governor against the advice of a long-serving State-Fair official who wound up resigning over the deal after 16 years on the New Mexico Board of Finance. (He was also a Republican.) A 300-out-of-300 score for management expertise, to a company on probation with the New Mexico Racing Commission for not paying purse money… to a company who had to be ordered by the EPA last year to clean up giant mounds of horse poop that were seeping into the Rio Grande.

The deal went through after the Downs barely outscored another bidder in evaluations. Martinez’s donors will make a lot of money off it.

When the governor’s chief of staff, Keith Gardner, was caught on tape saying “That’s why I never use my state email… I don’t want to go to court or jail,” ISPAC helped make the recording public and then begged many news outlets to run the story. (They were reluctant, for mysterious reasons.) Last year, Gardner’s wife got a $67,000 job at the Public Education Department after the job requirements were changed to make her the lone applicant of five finalists who qualified. On the “don’t want to go to court” tape, Gardner actually offers his friend a job running the State Fairgrounds! Government can’t create jobs… for outsiders?

Gardner, it turned out, was right to worry about his emails. He was involved in a string of private-email conversations with other members of the governor’s staff and a lawyer for the Downs. ISPAC obtained those private emails and outed them. Government officials are not supposed to use private email for public business, and these messages seemed to demonstrate that the lawyer was ordering Martinez’s staff around during the evaluation process. (The lawyer also made a lot of bad jokes, including one that got him fired, about the governor dishonoring Col. Custer by attending a tribal leaders summit.)

We even helped get the word out when a young woman who lobbies for public schools accused Gardner of grabbing her arm in an “extremely threatening manner.” The woman said Gardner yelled at her that “the bowels of hell were about to open up upon” her boss if he didn’t get behind the governor’s education agenda.

Ah yes, education. It’s been a mini mission of mine to understand education policy for my ISPAC writing. I covered Santa Fe’s schools for the Journal, and while there’s a lot of minutia in the education beat – on issues like funding formulas – there’s also a lot of soul. I’ve seen parents, teachers and students all crying at school-board meetings, over things like councilor case loads and small-school closures to save money. School board members’ jobs are mostly boring, but shrinking money resources force these people to grapple with huge questions, like how important art is to a young child’s education.

The governor has hired a Public Education Department cabinet secretary who is obsessed with teacher evaluations and letter grades for each individual school. Both are based on standardized test results, and here’s what I’ve learned from research: Children who come from poor households are terrible at tests because their brains are harmed by the out-of-school stress that comes with living in poverty. If you’re homeless, your mom or dad does drugs, you’re hungry all the time, the kids in your neighborhood are trying to recruit you into a gang… these things are a direct, demonstrable reason for plummeting test scores. Study after study – the ones I find come from college professors – have shown this. Government has a role in fixing education, but it requires community-based programs like parent training, and an approach to reforms that doesn’t involve more testing.

When schools are bad so is the state, because education hugely impacts the economy. Yet the governor plows onward with a reform agenda science says won’t work. And third-grade retention? Here’s one of those studies, from the regents professor of education at Arizona State: “Research is quite clear that on average, students left back do not improve as much as do students who are allowed to advance to a higher grade with their age mates.” He says the state should do what rich parents do, and put the money we’d spend on an extra school year for the student into tutoring and after-school opportunities instead.

I have tried, repeatedly and obnoxiously, to engage the PED in a debate about what works best for children. The subject is actually fascinating when you get away from funding formulas. At first they wouldn’t talk to me because of who I work for. Now they won’t talk to me because I bash them on the internet for being opaque and corrupt and kinda evil. The newspapers, meanwhile, don’t seem interested in asking how the governor’s approach accounts for poverty, or what reasoning or specific research helped state authorities decide holding back slow-reading third graders and assigning grades to schools were worth-while reforms.

My point is this: Government is a fantasy land populated with opportunists and liars. The inmates have escaped the asylums and learned to win elections. I’ve been watching in angry awe. Susana Martinez was a district attorney and now she is a governor. Both jobs are paid for with tax money, yet she doesn’t blink in claiming the government can’t create jobs. When she had an opportunity to lower the overall corporate tax rate in New Mexico by signing a bill that closed a tax loophole allowing corporations like Best Buy to avoid paying a state tax that’s assessed to local companies like Baillos, she vetoed the measure because it would hurt job creators. Government is never closing loopholes.

My dog was waiting at home. She’d wandered up a hill, down our street and into our driveway, alone the whole way. She was waiting for me when I arrived back home panicked. She was fine, wagging her stupid tail.

I’m not fine, though. Watching politics up close has jacked up my mind. Government should be manned by big-hearted idealists who want to harness their Constitutional powers to collaborate and make our state a stronger, better place. Instead it’s become a sick game, a professional sport where egomania substitutes for athleticism. Having no soul is like being able to run a 4.3 40-yard-dash. Jay McCleskey gets donations to his Super PAC at a quarter-million bucks per clip, from oil companies and casino moguls. Then he creates commercials accusing Democrats of “siding with child killers.”

These greedy lunatics lie to get elected, then use their power to benefit themselves and their friends. Politics sucks. It makes me angry and it makes me crazy. Happy election day.

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