Young Mr. Lincoln

Criterion Files

Since his infamous assassination in Ford Theater was re-imagined for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, American movies have been just as fascinated by Abraham Lincoln’s image and legacy as American culture at large. Besides the general veneration directed towards his name, there are specific reasons why Lincoln has been a subject of considerable preoccupation in the moving image. Lincoln is an icon ubiquitous in American culture; his face resides on our currency and his larger-than-life status has literally been set in stone by the Lincoln Memorial. But at the same time, Lincoln occupied the Office of the Presidency years before the emergence of mass media as it is recognizable today. Having died several decades before the first images were captured on film, history knows Lincoln only through still portraits. On the one hand, this reality has emboldened the notion that Lincoln was a uniquely authentic President; this Kentucky rail-splitter of modest means and education didn’t have to perform leadership for microphones, mass-distributed newspapers, or television cameras. On the other hand, the pre-cinematic status of real-life Lincoln emboldens curiosity about Lincoln the symbol versus Lincoln the human being. Live action cinema forces a rendering of reality concrete even if its subject matter concerns the mythic and the symbolic; any cinematic rendering of Lincoln may pose answers to a variety of questions, including details as difficult to know certainly as the sound of his voice.

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Criterion Files

Of the 600+ films in The Criterion Collection, almost 200 are listed as from the United States. While not all of these films are explicitly thematically based  around life in the US, the American selections for the Collection do make up a mosaic of diverse perspectives on life in this country, proving that there is no sustainable solitary understanding of what it means to be an “American,” but there exists instead an array of possibilities for interpreting American identity. What the American films do have in common, though, is provide proof that excellent films have been made in the US for quite some time. So, after exhausting yourself with Independence Day Parades, firecracker-lighting, and Budweiser, settle down with a great American movie. Here are a dozen great titles from the Criterion Collection about “America” and “freedom” in the many senses of those terms.

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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