Kool Kat of the Week: The Beating Heart of Art: Garrett DeHart and His Poe-Inspired Short Film IF I AM YOUR MIRROR

Posted on: Feb 22nd, 2013 By:

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Atlanta native filmmaker and photographer Garrett DeHart is the mastermind behind one of the most inventive short films ATLRetro has seen in recent years: IF I AM YOUR MIRROR. An adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the film takes Poe’s lean exercise in mounting paranoia and expands it into a fractured document of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the years following the Civil War. Beyond the narrative twists taken with Poe’s themes, the film dramatically stylizes the world its characters inhabit – presenting it as a living Victorian-era oil painting imbued with the blood, spit, dirt and murk both of the time and of its main character’s mind. The portrayal of that lead character by the late actor Larry Holden in one of his last roles, is a triumph: in turns fierce and fragile, proud and pitiable. Currently available for viewing online, this immersive 18-minute epic is well worth your time.

In honor of this horrific accomplishment, ATLRetro goes Really Retro with this week’s Kool Kat.  We spoke with Mr. DeHart about his experiences making the film, the techniques behind creating the images, his influences, his local ties and much more.

ATLRetro: IF I AM YOUR MIRROR has a remarkable visual style, resembling an oil painting come to life. Were there any particular artists that inspired the look of your film? Filmmaking-wise, who influenced you on this particular project?

Garrett DeHart: I’ve always loved Poe, and  I had been playing around with a process to make live action film look like an animated oil painting. I thought the color and composition of Romantic painting, the predominant painting style of Poe’s time, was very well-equipped to tell a story inspired by Poe’s voice. I added a bit more dirt, grim and blood, and I think, with that, it’s a style that lends itself well to my voice as well. I did research on Romantic painting as a whole, but was really drawn to the paintings of Eugène Delacroix, J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Wilmer Dewing.

As far as filmmakers, the process was, of course, inspired by Richard Linklater‘s WAKING LIFE.  I loved what he did, turning live action into animation, to create a world of dreams, and really loved the look of his Rotoshop films. But I really wanted something that had a bit more texture and grim to it, and also wanted something that I could do myself.  After I saw WAKING LIFE, I started working on the process and used it in my film THE PROBLEM WITH HAPPINESS (2004) a 70-minute film that was projected on three discrete screens and had an accompanying seven-piece live band playing the score. We had 300 people at Eyedrum for the premiere and then later played The Earl before the band broke up. It was a sci-fi film in which the protagonist’s world slowly turns into a moving oil painting. I was never really happy with the effect that I was able to produce for that film and so I kept playing around with the process. The narrative was inspired by the films of Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier.

Could you describe how you came to create MIRROR’s striking look? How long did it take to bring such a heavily-stylized project to fruition?

The actors were shot on green screen at a small studio at Georgia State University. Aside from a few chairs, luggage and miscellaneous props, everything else was added in post. I developed a process through Photoshop to stylize the actors’ frames and ran each frame of each element in a scene through Photoshop to add the effect. Many of the shots have multiple layers on each actor, and the layers were then rotoscoped in to create lighting effects, shadows and a greater depth of field with the paint effects. The backgrounds were developed from stills, paintings and created graphics. Those backgrounds were then layered and animated in After Effects. Some of the shots have hundreds of layers in them. The final shot of the film took over 30 hours to render. I pushed the capabilities of After Effects in working in a 2D for 3D world. I did all of the post for the film on my MacBook Pro. The computer was running full speed around the clock for over two years. I’m typing this now on the same machine. The whole process took a bit over two years.

You also directed DOGME #55: A PICNIC AND A STROLL. You’re obviously not frightened by taking on a wide variety of styles, as MIRROR is about as far away from the Dogme 95 philosophy as possible! Which turns out to be more difficult (or, alternately, more fulfilling) for you as a filmmaker: following the self-imposed restrictions of the Dogme 95 movement, or the technical demands of an effects-heavy film like MIRROR?

I was really inspired by the Dogme 95 manifesto. I really like the idea of using real people, instead of actors, when possible, and breaking down the spectacle of lighting and score, and using a handheld, cinéma vérité camera style to get to some truth. I think my tendency would be to lean more towards a Dogme esthetic, at least in the way in which I direct actors. Now that I think about it, It might be compelling to try and develop one of Poe’s stories as a Dogme style film.  But I don’t think even Von Trier or Vinterberg ever made a truly pure Dogme 95 film, and while I think there are some very important ideas in the Dogme 95 movement, I’m really most inspired by very stylized expression in films. I also love the graphics and effects and the spectacle of fantasy and horror films.

I did MIRROR for my graduate thesis and I really wanted to experiment with this effect that I had developed. They have a great studio at DAEL (Digital Arts Entertainment Laboratory), and I wanted to utilize the GSU facilities while I had the chance to access all of their equipment for free. We shot almost everything in the DAEL blue-screen studio at GSU and got to utilize all of the studio equipment.

I’m not sure which style is harder as a means of telling a story well. I know which takes longer.

How did you come to work with the late Larry Holden, and how was your experience working with him on MIRROR?

I met Larry on the set of another film a few years prior to my film. My friend had written him a letter, told him he was trying to make his first feature and asked if he’d be willing to be in the film. Larry drove across the country for that film, so when it came time to make my film, I thought he would be perfect for the role [and] I wrote him and asked if he would star in the film.

Larry was an amazing cast member to have on set. The experience and vitality he brought to the set really energized everyone working on the project. For most of us on set he was the biggest name we had worked with, but he was incredibly humble and was really dedicated to working with and teaching everyone on set. He had been in Christopher Nolan’s films and a lot of TV, but he was making his own films whenever he could, and when he had time he would travel across the country, for little more than expenses, to help and teach those who were trying to learn the craft. He stayed with some friends of mine up the street from my house during the shoot.

He was not only incredibly influential to all of the crew that he worked with for less than a week, but many folks in the neighborhood became very close with him in that time as well. My neighbors traveled across the country to go to his funeral. I was not able to make the trip at that time. It’s an incredible loss. He was an amazing artist and an amazing person, and we all feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend some time with him.

Poe’s stories are known for how streamlined they are, which makes adapting them almost impossible without necessarily expanding on the source material, or deviating from it in some way. MIRROR provides a particularly novel take on Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” How did you decide on your approach to the source material?

Initially I had planned to shoot a straight version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” told through the lens of Romantic painting, with voiceover. I had all the pre-production done and was ready to shoot and make that film. As I got Larry Holden interested in and then brought him onto the project, he convinced me that “The Tell-Tale Heart” films had been done enough and that it might be more interesting to take Poe’s story and its themes and let those inspire a new story. After some research, I realized that while a modern “Tell-Tale” done well could be really compelling, he was right and that I needed to develop something new: something that would express my voice. So I dug in, and with the help of a couple of friends, developed a script that I thought respected Poe’s legacy but might expand on who his characters were and the world they may have inhabited.

Garrett DeHart on set of IF I AM YOUR MIRROR.

I had the blueprint of all that pre-production I had done for the Tell-Tale script, but I was convinced we were making something new now—something certainly more challenging for me. So it wasn’t really a difficult process in deciding what to add or subtract. Poe’s story works really well in its minimalism and focus. He excludes all details that don’t lend directly to the development of the protagonist’s obsession and insanity. I was working on a new project; a film inspired by Poe. I think that “inspired by” gave me the freedom to expand on Poe’s ideas and imagine circumstances that may have brought his characters to the situations they experience in his story, and in that imagining I was creating my own story, a story that explored some slightly different, maybe more contemporary themes.

My first edit of the film we shot was almost 50 minutes. It was really more about pacing than it was about cutting scenes. But many of those quick shots, that last only a few frames, were 5, 10 or even 30 seconds long in the first cut. I was really working from the inspiration of Malick and Von Trier in the pre-production process. I imagined the film as a very slow, melodic PTSD nightmare. But as I worked with the film more and more, I found something of a thriller in it, and it seemed a bit pretentious to let the scenes linger like they were. I loved the 30-second wide, static shot of the train driving across the horizon, or 30 seconds of his wife walking through a burning wheat field, or a 5-minute flashback of the Civil War, but as I lived with the film day and night for two years, I realized this was a short, not a feature. I felt the audience might find it a bit tiring, and I wasn’t sure the long shots and extra scenes were really helping to propel the narrative. I’m happy with the decisions I made in cutting the film down.

Being an Atlanta-centric website, I’m required by city ordinance to ask: what local talent should we be keeping our eyes peeled for in the film? Any notable locals toiling behind the scenes that we should be aware of?

We had an amazing turn-out for crew from GSU grad students and for extras from all over the Atlanta area.

Shane Morton (aka Professor Morte of the Silver Scream Spookshow) was incredibly helpful on set. He did a lot of makeup work on the actors in production to help the paint effect along when we got to post.  He’s always working on cool projects. He did some effects and stars in the TALES FROM MORNINGVIEW CEMETERY horror anthology. He’s always planning and working on Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, and they are in development on FRANKENSTEIN CREATED BIKERS (The sequel to DEAR GOD NO!).

If you’ve seen any Atlanta independent film you probably know Barefoot Bill (aka Bill Pacer), the Old Man/Evil Eye. Bill is always auditioning in Atlanta when he is not working on his one-man Ben Franklin show. He”ll be doing the Ben Franklin show at AnachroCon this weekend and March 2 at Duluth Historical Museum.

Mari Elle, the wife in the film, is now in LA but comes back to Atlanta to audition for films. She’s in town this week auditioning so catch her while you can. She is fantastic.

Steven Swigart and Chris Escobar were a huge help during production as the anchors of the production team. Chris is now the director of the Atlanta Film Festival and recently made a documentary short, shot partially in Colombia, about the ripple effects of family choices. Steven is making mini-documentaries for a university.

Jeff Ballentine, who let us borrow his large Civil War re-enactor wardrobe, is working on post for his own Civil War film.

What led to your decision to release the film online, rather than pursue the typical festival route? What has the reaction been thus far?

There’s a misconception, I think, that filmmakers are giving their work away for free when they put it online. The truth is that most filmmakers don’t make any money from their films; in fact, most spend hundred or thousands of dollars just trying to get the film seen in festivals. I made IF I AM YOUR MIRROR as my graduate school thesis project, so I wasn’t expecting to make money on the film. I wanted to create a film that exemplified my capabilities at the time, and I feel this film does that. MIRROR, at 18 minutes, is long for a short film and does not easily fit into an established genre. Therefore, it would be difficult to place it in festivals.

The festival circuit, while important, seems to me, just another way to suck money out of the truly indie filmmaking market. At $20 to $50 per entry, it’s just so much time and money that could be spent on the next project. And while seeing a film on the big screen is, of course, a far better experience (I screened my film at the Plaza Theatre and the trailer at the High Museum as part of WonderRoots Best of Generally Local, Mostly Independent Film Series), reaching an audience is really the most important thing, and the potential audience on the web is immense. Tapping that audience is, of course, the key, and that has been somewhat difficult, but I’m doing everything I can to self-promote the film through online media like ATLRetro. The critical response has been great and the film has gotten a lot of attention but, sadly, that has not really translated into as many viewers as I had hoped.

If you like the film, please support independent cinema, and pass it along to your friends and social networks.

This past October, I saw the 7 Stages production of DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA, and when I saw your film later at the Plaza, there were a few effects shots in the video projection that looked familiar—primarily some shots of the train and the train station itself. Given the overlap in talent between these projects, I have to ask: were these your handiwork?

Yes. Rob Thompson was in MIRROR and asked, when they started to develop DRACULA, if they could use some of the footage for the backgrounds of the rock opera. I adjusted a few of the shots and gave them longer takes, and I’m very happy that MIRROR helped to fill in some of the space of the Dracula rock opera.  We’ve talked about the possibility of doing a music video/short with one of the songs on the soundtrack that will be released this month, but we haven’t had the time to work it out yet.

Are there any future projects on the horizon we should be looking out for?

I’m hoping that getting IF I AM YOUR MIRROR out into the world will facilitate connections with other writers and filmmakers and lead to new projects in the near future.  I’m in development on a Steampunk character study, short film with a style inspired by Wong Kar-wai and Gaspar Noé, that I hope, when complete, I can crowd-source into a TV series or web series. I’m looking for some writers to help in the expansion of that project. Again, if you like the film, please support independent cinema, and pass it along to your friends and social networks.

You can like IF I AM YOUR MIRROR on Facebook and check out the webpage; www.ifiamyourmirror.com.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

All artwork is courtesy of Garrett DeHart.

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ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER by Seth Grahame-Smith: The Novel Is Better Than You’d Think, and Maybe That’s the Problem

Posted on: Feb 12th, 2013 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER By Seth Grahame-Smith; Grand Central Publishing. 384 pages.

If the forecasts of the end of publishing as we know it, and the end of the novel as an important art form, prove correct, what will we be left with?

Well, one thing I note when I go into a bookstore is that though there’s not as much of what I personally want any more, there’s an ever growing abundance of at least one type of product. The product is remarkably adaptable to our all-too-instantaneous culture, and so deeply committed to vacillating fashions, that though the books are individually ephemeral, they are collectively eternal. I refer to novelty books.

Each is quickly produced, and just as quickly forgotten, yet the space they occupy is never empty. And if you return to that space over and over again, you will see that our impulsive and unconsidered consumption of facile distraction represents a continuum, demonstrating evidence of the hive mind and proof of a certain form of reincarnation. Moreover, within these novelties, maybe sometimes there is the possibility of a slightly substantive literature.

Both of Seth Grahame-Smith’s two most famous novels, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE WITH ZOMBIES and this one, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, were commissioned for gimmicky series dreamed up by his editor at Grand Central Books. In both cases, he was the only novelist engaged who was able to play with the gimmicks (rewriting classics with monsters, reimagining historical figures with monsters) in a way that received significant positive critical attention. Grahame-Smith has a rare gift (or compulsion) to infuse some artistry to a throwaway idea. His literary career is distinguished by focusing on some ersatz absurdity, applying a sharper intelligence than many would think the subject deserves, and then keeping his one-note-joke buoyed by imaginative wit and exceptional attention to telling detail. He knows how the mechanisms of the B- and exploitation-movies make a narrative move, and he knows how to toss in just enough brain candy so that we don’t feel as guilty while reading his work as we did that time when Mom caught us flipping though the pages of a dirty magazine. (I should throw in, his first book was THE BIG BOOK OF PORN, a modestly seriously-minded history of the porn industry.) Here we have (as Gina McIntyre put it) “a great SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch” transformed into a full-blooded, even epic novel.

In classic “high-concept” style (who the hell coined “high-concept”? It’s deliberating misleading as it inevitably targets the lowest common denominator!), the title says it all. I expected it to be fun, and it was, but I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. And there in lies the rub – it was good enough to disappoint. When I saw what Graham-Smith was capable of doing, he raised my expectations, and then I found myself disappointed he didn’t do even more.

No one reading ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is expecting either a real biography, or something comparable to the truly timeless historical novels like WAR AND PEACE. This is a populist fiction about a President we like a lot more in myth that reality. Rather than comparing this book to Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s TEAM OF RIVALS (the basis of the Steven Spielberg movie LINCOLN) or Leo Tolstoy, we are more in the territory of the movie YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, that sentimental piece of heliography that made Henry Fonda a star back in 1939 (directed by John Ford, written by Lamar Trotti).

Well, like YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, only with more a lot more blood and a much higher body count.

But then Grahame-Smith surprises us with a Lincoln who is many times more believable than Fonda’s. This Lincoln is strongly sympathetic, and though frequenting engaging in super-heroic antics, he’s neither a paragon of some ideal (Superman) nor an invitingly unoccupied vessel for the reader to fill with over-textural identification (most private eye heros). Clearly, Graham-Smith learned a few things from comic-book pioneer Stan Lee’s formula. In the past, Graham-Smith has collaborated with Lee, and here we see that the student far has excelled the master.

The novel begins in 2008, with a fictional version of Seth Grahame-Smith deep in a writer’s funk as he watches President Obama’s first inauguration. At this historically appropriate moment, he is offered a confusing, disturbing, perhaps dangerous, but also irresistible commission: to edit and flesh-out a long rumored of, but never made public diary which represents nothing short of a secret history of the Civil War, and by extension, America’s development and the whole of Western Civilization. You see, vampires are real, and the diary was Abraham Lincoln’s own record of his war against them.

The novel that follows switches back and forth between Lincoln’s secret dairies, which are, of course, fiction, woven seamlessly in with Lincoln’s letters, which are real, and Grahame-Smith’s omniscient third-person narrative, which is based on the testimony of surviving (undead) witnesses and a great deal of material pulled directly from more respectable historical sources.

The novel starts in Lincoln’s childhood and shows his development in a rich and thoughtful in a way that too little genre fiction has much patience for. Deftly sketched is Lincoln’s complicated family tree, the challenges of his humble beginnings, his strained relationship with his father, his enormous personal drive, his insatiable intellectual curiosity, and how his life’s trajectories were guided by a series of early tragic losses and economic reversals. Lincoln’s famous battle with depression is woven throughout the book, but treated with an appropriately light touch, because Grahame-Smith instinctively knows that had the depression truly been crippling, Lincoln would’ve never become Lincoln. It is somewhat removed from the “cult of Lincoln” of popular myth and somewhat closer to a figure historians would recognize.

At least up to a point.

The “up to a point” part is the crux of the novel, because in 1820 Lincoln realizes his life is being shaped by the capricious whim and insatiable hunger of supernatural entities that are stronger, faster, more experienced and more skillful than he. In 1820, he launches a one-man covert-war against their evil.

The novel is at its strongest when addressing Lincoln’s early days. Rich in the biographical detail of years that many, even Civil War buffs, are not fully familiar with, this part of Lincoln’s life is the era in which this kind of keyhole narrative can most easily be integrated into historical realities. The young Lincoln rambled widely, living and working in several states and trying out several professions, giving any adept writer abundant opportunity to paint the landscape vividly and imaginatively and still remain in the context of the verifiable. When Grahame-Smith puts words in his fictional Lincoln’s mouth, he displays a fluid style that is often lacking in like-pastiches, for example, when the diary recounts what Lincoln witnessed at a slave auction:

“I saw a Negro girl of three or four clinging to her mother, confused as to why she was dressed in such clothes; why she had been scrubbed the night before; made to stand on this platform while men shouted numbers and waved pieces of paper in the air. Again I wondered why a Creator who had dreamt such beauty would have slandered it with such evil.”

By this point in the narrative, Lincoln has already allied himself with a group of not-so-evil vampires who call themselves the “Union” –  get it? – against the other more powerful group who dominated Southern politics and society. His political career which would start not long after and be shaped by that association. The contrasts in which the story revels rest on this foundation, largely historical content vs. horror-movie scares and comic-book action scenes.

The horror/action content is fast- paced, hugely entraining and often quite funny. In one episode, Lincoln, now a lawyer, is bruised in court with the loss of a civil suit; that evening he goes out on a vampire hunt. To his surprise, it turns out that evening’s monster is none other than his client from earlier in the day. Just as they are about engage in their death duel, the demoness hisses contemptuously that Lincoln better hope that he’s a better fighter than an attorney.

Grahame-Smith’s historical fidelity grants his hero a more interesting character arc than most pulp heroes. When this fictional Lincoln, mimicking the real one, falls in love, marries, has children and enters politics, he does something few action heroes ever do, but most men of accomplishment accept as an inevitability. He puts aside childish things (in this case, his axe) and creates a more stable and sustainable life, integrating himself into new venues, and pondering how he can apply the lessons of his youth to the realities of maturity.

This radical turn in the narrative allows the pulp novel to be shaped by more-complex-than-average relationships. Lincoln profoundly loves his wife, who is treated with a lot more respect here than in most dramatizations of Lincoln’s life, but  still he turns his back on her in her hour of greatest need. After losing a second child, she spirals into mental instability, but by then he is President and in the midst of the ultimate national crisis. I also liked the handling of his long-rivalry, and occasional allegiance, with Stephen Douglas, who in most Lincoln dramas is regulated to a single footnote incident.

The novel leans heavily on mano-a-mano combat up to this point, and as the more complex history unfolds, Grahame-Smith repeatedly interrupts it with more breathless action-episodes. During the build-up to the Civil War, the retired vampire hunter reluctantly accepts one last vital mission from his Union allies.

So the hero’s reluctantly dragged out of retirement for one last vital mission. Yeah, we all know how well those generally work out, don’t we?

This situation leads to a wild scene where Lincoln and his two assistant vampire hunters, Joshua Speed and Jack Armstrong (both historical characters), are hopelessly trapped in a burning plantation-manor-house, surrounded by an army of vampires, while Jefferson Davis, in classic melodramatic villain style, gives a smug speech about the superiority of his cravenness over Abe’s naive virtues. It would not have been out of place in the recent film DJANGO UNCHAINED.

As entertaining as all this interplay is, it also is evidence of the difficulties of taking a story that was one thing and trying to mutate into another into another. This problem is demonstrated even in the number of pages the book devotes to this subject or that. A full 187 pages are required to get us to the year 1843, when Lincoln hangs up his axe. After that, a mere 146 pages is left to get him into Congress, then the White House, guide the nation through the Civil War, and fall to an assassin’s bullet (by the way, John Wilkes Booth was a vampire).

Joshua Speed.

However, Graham-Smith, making vampires the primary drivers of the slave economy and the secret force behind the South’s mad, headlong rush into war, has stumbled across a near perfect metaphor. Vampires, since Dracula, have represented hold-over superstitions trying to keep the shadows deep and dark in the face of the light of reason and modernity, and they are simultaneously the aristocracy and the parasite. They have been exploited to make political points not only in fiction but presidential campaign rhetoric (anyone remember the “Romney is a Vampire” TV ad?). The metaphor has rarely been utilized as forcefully as here, but unfortunately it isn’t used to dig as deep as it could. Having set the stage so deftly, Graham-Smith fails to utilize his fantasy to illuminate real themes in history as historical fictions are generally expected to do.

One thing almost every Lincoln drama gets wrong is how slowly his positions on slavery evolved. From his earliest years, he found slavery morally repugnant, and his abolitionist rhetoric was fiery in even his earliest political speeches. But even well into the Civil War, his policies regarding the institution were, in fact, quite moderate (and from a 21st century perspective, reprehensible). Preservation of the Union was his number one priority, freeing the slaves was way down the list. It would not be much of a stretch to say he’d have been satisfied to institute a handful of reforms that maybe could have been utilized by others later, and that he was okay with the possibility that the end of slavery was something he didn’t personally live to see.

The first step in seeing someone as human is fully recognizing them as real. There’s little reason to think that black slaves, who did move Lincoln’s heart when he saw them suffer from a distance, were ever close enough to him that he was forced to see them as real as his friends and associates, or even as real as his bitter enemies. There’s little or no record of Lincoln having substantive encounters with blacks during his formative years in rural Kentucky. Working on a flat boat on the Mississippi, he wasn’t likely to be invited into the homes of slave owners, nor to encounter the minority of black freemen in his day-to-day labors. Though Lincoln married the daughter of a prominent slave-holder, he was not close to his in-laws, and he and his wife settled in a free state. I’d wager that it’s not likely he had a conversation with a black person longer than 10 words before went to Washington in 1846, maybe not until he entered the White House in 1861, and maybe not even until his memorable meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1863 (which isn’t included in this particular book).

Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg's LINCOLN. Dreamworks/20th Century Fox, 2012.

Moreover, not only was Lincoln not a liberal by today’s standards, he was a man of a time when it would’ve been almost overwhelming intellectually challenging to conceive of blacks as fully of the same species as whites. He was quite articulate in expressing his belief that blacks were inferior to whites. Lincoln’s moral evolution was a long road that most dramatists don’t want to admit he had to travel. Nor do they want to acknowledge that his eventual abandonment of comfortable, if reprehensible, moderation and his heroic embrace of a righteous stand was something that he was burdened with, in part, by the Confederate madness.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER doesn’t misrepresent Lincoln’s relationship with slavery, but having built so a fine bridge of fantasy to this true subject, it side-steps it rather than crossing it.

The novel is better in evoking the madness and hopeless of the Southern cause, but even here I find fault. We see the relentless spiral towards war through Lincoln’s eyes in the first-person entries. But Graham-Smith also availed himself of the third person omniscient, yet didn’t utilize it when it was most needed. It should’ve been said that the South had a smaller population, a limited industrial base, and significantly no cannon factories. The Confederate strategy was to strike first in the months between the election and inauguration and then dig in so that the Federal Government couldn’t respond. When Lincoln chose the course of military engagement, the South inevitably was doomed. Yet almost four years and more than 600,000 lives were forfeited to this pointless exercise. Even to that last moment, the firing on Fort Sumter – hell, even after that last moment – the South had so many other options, but they acted with the kind of irrational absolutism that we now associate with only the maddest of despots or the presumptuousness of the divine (read: supernatural) right of kings.

According to a 1973 study by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, had the South ended the institution of slavery by buying and freeing all the slaves instead of going to war, it would’ve cost them about $2.7 billion 1861 dollars. True, it is hard to imagine the political will to execute such a plan could’ve ever been mustered, but what were the costs of turning their collective backs on any compromise or accommodation? On the Southern side alone, the most often-cited figures are $1 billion in property destruction, $1.5 billion in loss of human capital, $767 million for war expenditures, and an appalling 258,000 dead young men. To this, Goldin added a net economic difference of $10 billion between an imaginary South without rebellion and the one we got, in which wide regions wallowed in near continuous recession for the next 80 years. This is the kind of clarifying extra that the fictional narrator Graham-Smith could have provided us with, but that the fictional diarist Lincoln couldn’t have been reasonably expected to.

Poster art for the movie of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012).

And not for nothing, the real Lincoln, who couldn’t have done Goldin’s math, wasn’t insensitive to the idea. In an 1862 letter Lincoln wrote, “Less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at $400 per head … [and] less than 87 days’ cost of the war would, at the same price, pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Kentucky and Missouri.” (This letter is not cited in this particular book.) In fact the Federal government did buy back the slaves within the confines of the District of Columbia. (This fact is also not cited in this particular book.)

Once the war starts, the novel engages the reader mostly because of its effective and exciting compression of what actually happened, while the vampire metaphor, suddenly under-exploited and under-explored, loses much of it bite (pardon the pun). Lev Grossman puts it well in TIME Magazine, “Once the connection is made, it feels obvious, and neither slavery nor vampirism reveals anything in particular about the other. One could imagine a richer, subtler treatment of the subject, in which the two horrors multiply each other rather than cancel each other out.”

Yet as Lincoln fictions go, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER has more to say than most. Maybe it communicates something about our culture that a deliberately ridiculous, axe-wielding, vigilante super-hero towers over most more easily respected works. Allegedly realistic fictions have been full of myth, while the myth-shaped novel presents a sharper picture. One measure in how the novel succeeds is revealed in a words of a withering critique of the Timur Bekmambetov’s film based on this novel. Historian Vernon Burton enjoyed the book but hated the movie, and spoke volumes of the pitfalls of fictions that prove incapable of grasping the real historical issues they grapple with (from an article by Tierney Sneed in US News and World Report):

“‘Slavery was our national sin,’ said Burton, who said the connection works in that ‘the nation sucked the blood out of Africans for its wealth.’ However, in posing vampires as the villains behind the crime of slavery, the film risks ‘letting the South and the United States off,’ freeing it from blame for the practice.

‘The book did some clever things,’ said Burton. ‘I was excited to see the movie. The book had potential.’ He said the film version was oversimplified, and he worried viewers would make too much of what he and other historians often call the ‘Oliver Stone school of history.’”

That, at least, is one trap the novel didn’t fall into.

Robert Murphy is 47 years old and lives in New York City. Formerly employed, he now has plenty of time to write about movies and books and play with his cats.

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Weekend Update: March 18 – 20

Posted on: Mar 18th, 2011 By:

Friday, March 18

Phoenix Flies tours go into their final weekend with Ivy Hall (Peters House, now SCAD Writing Center), Edward Gay House, Inman Park Arboretum, Historic DowntownCatholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, whose beginnings date back to 1848 and cornerstone was laid 1869.

Glenn Phillips and Swimming Pool Qs play Red Light CafeBryan Adams rocks Atlanta Symphony Hall with a solo acoustic night. SFJAZZ Collective performs hits of Stevie Wonder at Emory University’s Schwartz Center. It’s Salsa Night with Salsambo Dance Lessons & Entertainment at Fernbank Museum of Natural History’s Martinis and IMAXFatt Matt’s Rib Shack serves up roots, blues and BBQ with Atlanta Boogie. Better Than the Beatles with Johnny Porazzo and David Lowell pays tribute to the Fab Four at Jerry Farber’s Side Door.

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