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Stanley Crouch: Art, aspiration and American dreamers

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One thing that distinguishes our country is that facts are argued, and arguments can move free of the foamy and sentimental to achieve deep sentiment — which is always different. The layered human fact can be made into an accurate and transcendent feeling, true or false.

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This week, I thought about a few forces to be grateful for in our daunting and coldly mathematical technological age. One of them is a historical figure, Abraham Lincoln, given his proper due by Garry Wills, one of our finest writers.

The narrative Wills crafts in the finely made sentences of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg” goes far beyond anything that most of us were obliged to memorize in public school. It instantly became a part of American life and philosophy, because Wills shows how optimistic America was and can still be about human nature — our resolute will to move beyond irrational separation through laws, our reason set down firmly on the page.

Thinking about that book led me to look again and again at Ronald Maxwell’s 1993 drama “Gettysburg” and Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary “The Civil War”; to again read Chris Matthews’ “Tip and the Gipper”; and finally to soar with Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” a masterful film about the billionaire aviation genius and madman Howard Hughes.

All this material showed me how the American tale can survive any form —as long as its makers are most concerned with what saxophonist Ornette Coleman calls “the human reason.”

When George Will said that he felt the nation had gotten its “Iliad” through the epic feeling delivered by Burns in his factual, poetic but completely true documentary, Will clearly laid out his own intelligence and sensibility.

For all of the fictionalized elements in Maxwell’s film, set at Gettysburg in 1863, he succeeds as John Ford did in the fictionalized classic “Fort Apache” in showing how blind obedience, courage and suicidal arrogance can create a tragic mix, one celebrated by some for all of the wrong reasons. Maxwell makes it possible for the viewer to understand, with little sentimentality, the Southern forces as men, not primates with guns — quite an achievement.

That core American humanity is what Matthews underlines in his portrait of then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan, who maintained their shared belief in compromise and governance, no matter how much and how fiercely they disagreed over policy. They were elected to work together, and they did, more often than not. Matthews preferred then — and still does now — politicians who know one another and can see good people behind the barricades, not merely enemies. Matthews depicts what happened during Reagan’s presidency in movie scenes and plotlines that are part of the general vocabulary, yet he is a real writer with an eye for meaning that those making films so often miss.

When describing Jimmy Carter as his presidency met a vanquishing loss, he sees things only a true writer would. After a rare meeting on a plane, Matthews sees in the flesh what is going on, how many wounds Carter has endured without publicly acknowledging them: “I couldn’t help noticing the back of his hand showed a mass of cuts made by the many rings and watches of the men and women in all of those receiving lines.”

Finally, “The Aviator” is about a truly modern, truly epic hero — one who could not have flown planes at any earlier time because they did not yet exist. Technology had to open the barn door.

A film virtuoso of almost incomparable modern depth, Scorsese helps the audience to see that Hughes was an aviation genius, the tragedy of which was that, despite fighting as hard against it as he did, Hughes was pushed offstage by his own growing paranoia and madness. Hughes is so imaginative and innovatively big above the clouds, but shrinks to a very small and frightened man when he comes down or terribly crashes down from the wild blue yonder.

No other filmmaker can come so close to what Martin Scorsese says about the frailty of the human being and the grandeur of the dreamer, so central to modern life and America itself, as those dreamers stand to take their own measure in battle and history, technology and film — our most completely modern art.

Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at crouch.stanley@gmail.com.

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