The Cinema Sins episodes on YouTube result from a close analysis of “errors” in a film illustrated with clips and directed by a voice-over critique along with subtitles. The investigation counts up continuity errors, unexplained or implausible plot developments, and other logical lapses. The creator explains that all films have such “problems” and he’s not deciding on the worth of a film. In this example from Django Unchained, a missing plot point is underlined. In a later example, the narrator points out Django is shown to be “a natural” at shooting with a pistol when he first gets one. But in a later scene he is showing strenuously practicing his skill. Why would “a natural” need to rehearse?

After Lincoln disperses the lynch mob, he receives an invitation to a dance from Mary Todd, a new arrival to Springfield’s upper class society.

At the dance, Mary Todd leaves Steven Douglas and goes to Lincoln to insist he dance with her, he avers that he doesn’t know how, but she simply demands that he dance with her. After they dance she reprimands him, touching him with her fan, and saying he should take her outside. Throughout, she commands his attention and actions.

At the July 4th parade one of the film’s few black people leads the horses pulling the carriage of Columbia, an eager young woman dressed as the iconic symbol of the USA. Following her are several Native Americans on horseback.

At the parade Abe begins by standing with some ordinary townsmen. He will move on to the reviewing stand and meet Mary Todd.

After the first day of the brothers’ trial for murder, the family gathers in the jail, singing quietly. The mood is very somber; Cass’s eyewitness testimony seems to have sealed their fate.

Continuing the vigil, the trial judge comes to Lincoln and recommends the young lawyer get help from a more experienced one, such as Douglas. Further, the judge says that if Lincoln would identify the killer at trial, he would be lenient on the other brother. Lincoln turns down both offers, while holding the Farmer’s Almanac. The judge says things will go badly, “as sure as the moon sets.”


The fictional code

Cahiers argues that certain narrative necessities, managed by John Ford, work to undermine the producer’s goal of making the man into a myth. One of those is the entire shooting and editing of the murder scene. While we “see” all the events step by step, the sequence is shot and edited so as to be undecipherable. We viewers (and the two accused men and their mother who arrives on the scene) are mislead by certain gestures (e.g., the gunshot) and selective information (a clear view of the murderous stabbing being blocked). In turn, not being present, Lincoln has incomplete information and is mislead along with the townspeople. While this creates narrative suspense (who did it?), as the Clay boys’ lawyer he tries to find out from their mother which one is guilty. But, she refuses to choose between them. (Also, she is deceived and actually doesn’t know.) Lincoln has to ask her, but also to accept her refusal. “I can’t! I just can’t!”

As a result, Lincoln has a contradictory position, according to Cahiers. He is a bringer of truth (what really happened at the murder scene) but not through detective-like investigation and deduction. Rather, he simply receives the definitive truth from the Clays giving him the Farmer’s Almanac as notepaper. His means are magical rather than scientific. He proves Cass couldn’t have seen what he claims to have witnessed by dramatically presenting the almanac to show it was too dark to see. He is a conduit for the truth: Nature—permanent and eternal—is the irrefutable authority.

But to some extent almost every film, and certainly almost all studio-produced examples of Classic Hollywood Cinema have some elements which can be read as contradictions to the dominant aesthetic or ideological project. Most simply these are continuity errors, the “goofs” that film enthusiast love to note, especially on sites such as the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com). And there, and on other film fan sites, there are often comment and query message boards that are animated when someone writes in pointing out a “mistake” or asking a question about something confusing or something that appears impossible or implausible. And of course there are films that are generally seen as narratively confused (famously, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, 1946).

Today, with the ability to make clips of specific scenes, this kind of filmic interrogation can be taken to a high art: I suggest looking at some of the Cinema Sins series on YouTube. You might want to start with Django Unchained: “Everything Wrong With Django Unchained In 4 Minutes Or Less”. The point is, that despite these disruptive contradictions, people still watch films and assemble a whole (most of the time) out of the inconsistencies. Strong arguments can be made that even the most poorly made films still “work”—a fact that brings out a whole new level of understanding moving image art.[27] [open endnotes in new window]

The Fordian code

One of the more elusive aspects of the Cahiers analysis is their claim that there is a Fordian écriture, (literally writing, but more fully authorial style, or working mode) which also creates a disruption in the text’s ideological project. This idea is elusive because it depends on something outside of the film proper: the ensemble knowledge of the director’s other films, that is, knowledge of him as an auteur. For example, in many Ford films a dance or other collective celebration brings people together and underlines a basic societal harmony. And there is a significant dance in YML. Following the thwarted lynching, Lincoln is invited to a fancy dress ball at the home of a leading citizen by Mary Todd.[28] Obviously those present represent the business, government, landowners of Springfield, and the professionals (like Lincoln and Douglas) who serve them, and the servants who attend them. Cahiers, stressing the distortion of harmony, reads the sequence as revealing Lincoln as the awkward figure in the dance. He is passable but obviously unskilled in the first dance and moves in reverse to the swirling procession in the second one. True enough, but taking Dance=Harmony as Ford’s auteur trope (on the basis of knowing other Ford films) and Lincoln’s awkwardness as disruptive may be over-reading. The scene can also be understood as a distinct class contrast to the earlier, rowdy Independence Day festivities that do show the Springfield community’s full class range in boisterous celebration. In contrast, in this upper class social setting, Lincoln is amiable but self-deprecating, present but not integral with the group.

Cahiers’ argument that Ford undermines the film’s studio-intended ideological project begins with the two quotes that start their essay. One, by Engels and Marx about a year after the first Inauguration, remarks that Lincoln became President not by leading a popular revolution, but by electoral process. (And for many contemporary readers, it’s worth pointing out that Lincoln entered office with one of the lowest pluralities in Presidential history.)[29] Thus Lincoln’s becoming President was not Destiny but Politics; true history had to be suppressed to present the mythic hero. The second is an anecdote about Ford, remembering a discarded shot of Lincoln entering Springfield on a mule, calling the fresh lawyer “a poor ape.” By repeating the comment, Cahiers points out Ford’s own view undermined the intended sanctification. Their extended scene-by-scene analysis continues by emphasizing the diverse ways a Fordian code or system creates contradictions for the “reformulation” process.

Cahiers’ way of looking at the film around structuring absences depends on a prior knowledge of the conventions of cinema, in general, such as how it typically shows the passage of time and spatial relationships; the standards of Hollywood cinema, such as the star system and narrative tropes; and the way a particular auteur, in this case Ford, works for expressive purposes within the system. An example is the first part of the Night scene. The preceding scene at the trial ended sensationally with Cass giving a second testimony, saying he saw Matt kill Scrub White. But Lincoln, following the family’s wishes, is committed to not choosing between them but rather freeing both of them.

That night, the mood is somber. Cahiers points to it as a Hollywood dramaturgical convention: the calm before the storm. Such a scene allows for a “rest” before the big finale, the action sequence, or emotional eruption. In terms of dramatic writing, it is almost an obligatory scene. By slowing down the pace and allowing for some reflection, the seriousness of the situation sinks in and thus opens up space for an even more heightened explosive dramatic action to follow. (Typical scenes would be the police or soldiers preparing for the scheduled action, or the protagonist mulling over some new information or revelation before their partner/spouse/lover returns and it has to be discussed.)

The family sings together (actually humming) and then the mother, fiancé, and daughter-in-law depart. Cahiers points out that there is a missing scene, part of the repression of the narration to maintain the enigma. Given the new eyewitness revelation at the trial, pointing to Matt as guilty, we would logically expect a discussion of this. But there is none. Not between the brothers, not with the other family members, not with their lawyer. It doesn’t happen. It’s one of those missing things, as Cahiers themselves indicate, that becomes clearer on a second or repeated viewing.

Similarly, once we know from viewing the entire film that the proof the brothers are innocent is in the Almanac; every time the booklet appears, it is significantly revealing. Especially in the vigil: Lincoln holds it up while talking with the judge. The older man recommends Lincoln get advice from another lawyer, Douglas, and have one of the two men plead guilty, thus saving the other one. Lincoln defers, but with the Almanac in hand, so on a second viewing, we know he already has plotted what he will do at trial. Cahiers argues that these narrative effects, revealed by their “active reading” are artifacts of the need to link Lincoln with the dramatic and miraculous revealing of Truth. Lincoln as Revealer fits the producer’s goal: “the reformulation of Lincoln on the level of the myth and the eternal”

The film exhibits several features of the film that Cahiers doesn’t mention but which could bolster their case. One is that the entire narrative progress avoids some of the most common tropes of the apprenticeship story: learning from mistakes. Usually the protagonist suffers several reversals or defeats before the final victory. These are portrayed as foundational experiences that test the hero’s commitment and often teach a valuable lesson. We never see that in YML. In the same vein, while we see Lincoln talk, it is mostly in delivering a statement rather than in the give-and-take of a genuine conversation (the scene with Ann Rutledge is the exception). Thus he does seem to be simply a vehicle for the Truth.

Cahiers’ reading is certainly possible. But it is not the only one available. One could read the nighttime events as an example of Abe’s extremely clever reading of a situation. Lincoln doesn’t know he will succeed, but he does know that if he can force Cass to confess, he will exonerate both of the Clays. He is calculating, just as one-by-one he picked off the key figures in the lynch mob: suspecting that Buck, once challenged to a physical fight, would back down; and that another was religious and would stop if reminded of that; and that his basic stock of community good will would let him make a comic plea to let him defend these, his first clients, in open court. In this perspective, Lincoln is far less a figure of “myth and the eternal” and far more the honest man of the people, the unpretentious and plainspoken frontiersman. As Peter Wollen notes of the film’s core political values:

“Distrust of the aristocracy is paralleled by distrust of the urban masses: the movie’s populism is based on the independent rural yeomanry of homesteaders. It is a classical petit-bourgeois populism.”[30]

As Cahiers notes, Lincoln can be easily read as taking a position within the Clay family. It is clear from the scene with his visit to the family’s farm that by metonymy he is joined to them. He grew up in a cabin much like their log cabin, his deceased mother was like Mrs. Clay, he had a sister named Sarah who died, his family too had to move westward seeking opportunity, they cook his favorite dish, and so forth.

In summary, Cahiers argues that the film’s “ideological project” (validating a Lincoln myth to serve an electoral aim) is contradicted in at least five ways:

  1. There are significant distortions such as deception by shot and editing in the murder scene.
  2. There are omissions such as scenes that would be needed for the crime thriller genre but which would have lessened the presentation of Lincoln’s omnipotence: for example, he never confronts the accused about what happened, what they know.
  3. The film relies on exaggerated accentuation as seen in the very heightened drama of the final scenes at the trial and the aftermath.
  4. There is a scriptural violence, invoking God, and Law, Truth, and Family in a distorted way.
  5. The film’s project aims at a religious (Puritan) sense of election, that Lincoln’s place is predetermined, but it must maintain suspense and a presentation of free choice in order to maintain basic narrative interest.
After the first day at trial Lincoln sits in his second floor office with his feet out the window and playing “Dixie” on a Jew’s Harp. On the street below, hearing Lincoln, Stephen Douglas stops his carriage and with his companion, Mary Todd looks up at Abe.
Lincoln stops playing and looks down. Mary Todd asks Douglas to continue discussing his political ambitions, a remark that seems directed at Lincoln witnessing her presence with his rival. Douglas signals his driver to start up and turns his head.
But Todd keeps looking up at Lincoln, hinting at what her real interest is. The tighter reverse shot marks Abe’s observant interest in Mary Todd.  

Besides destiny (an aside)

There are some elements of the Lincoln myth that Cahiers doesn’t touch on. In the United States, schoolchildren learn some stories about Lincoln and this forms the commonplace knowledge the filmmakers can expect the audience already has. One is the Honest Abe story, which recounts how, at the end of the day, discovering he had overcharged a woman customer in his country store, he walked many miles to return a few cents. The woman is always described as a widow or poor or both, and the moral lesson is that honesty should honor the most humble and vulnerable people and that personal sacrifice (the long walk) is a good thing. Another (often illustrated with a picture) shows him reading at night by the fireplace (the family too poor to afford candles or lanterns for this purpose), in his thirst for knowledge and self-education. Both common knowledge stories would provide a backdrop for the YML scenes of Abe receiving the law book, reading it on his own in nature, and choosing to walk on, alone, at the end of the film.

Cahiers makes only the faintest gestures to recognizing Lincoln’s sly cleverness framed within a folksy stance of unassuming modesty. His election speech, plain and simple, is delivered in a way to lightly separate himself from the rhetorically inflated introduction that preceded his address. (This prefigures the concise simple economy of his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address.) Dealing with the overheated dispute between two farmers, he settles it by pointing out the damages sought by one are just about equal to those claimed by the other, and that he would cancel them and pocket the difference as his legal fee.

The decisive moment for a counter-claim against the Cahiers’ assumptions could be the lynching scene. As the Clay brothers are taken to jail, the hangers-on at the crime scene become agitated and call out for instant justice in the form of a hanging. Lincoln’s friend Efe warns him of the plan and says Abe needs to do something. Abe approaches the family, telling them to hurry to the jail. Mrs. Clay cries out, “Who are you?” and Lincoln answers, “I’m your lawyer, m’am!” This moment can be read as a turning point in his self awareness for he is next seen pushing his way through the crowd at the jail, standing in front of the door that’s being battered, and stopping the crowd. His action is clear and calculated: he demands they stop and physically stands in the way. He challenges any man present to take him on physically and when Buck does, intimidates the fellow into backing down. He then shifts to his folksy wit and appeals to them that he needs the clients, and that as a jackleg lawyer, he won’t be effective. Finally he singles out a God-fearing man in the crowd and shames him into leaving by quoting Scripture. It is a remarkable performance, and it reveals what had been hinted at earlier. Lincoln is extremely self-aware, and has inner resources to command a situation when needed. His folksy banter is deployed to achieve his calculated aims. This type of sly wit is also seen in the title character of Ford’s earlier film, Judge Priest (1934) played by humorist Will Rogers.[31]

After the sheriff takes the Clay boys off to jail, the drunken male crowd, in a mood for continuing their collective celebration decides to lynch Matt and Adam. As they run off to do so, the women of the Clay family are bewildered. Lincoln steps forward, telling them, We gotta hurry,” but Mrs. Clay, confused, says, “Who are you?” Abe replies with direct assuredness, “I’m your lawyer, M’am.” Coming at 33 min in the 100 min film, the declaration stands as the perfect conclusion to the first act of a three act drama. Lincoln finds his true vocation, his identity, his mission. He enters the second act storming through the crowd outside the jail to stop the lynching by putting his body in the doorway. With a lynching mob trying to break the jailhouse door, Lincoln, who has just told Mrs. Clay he’ll be her boys lawyer, forcefully pushes his way through the angry crowd. This is the first evidence of his action, determination, and power.
In the jury selection Lincoln strikes a deliberately casual pose with his legs stretched out while using his folksy address to judge the suitability of a young man. Lincoln continually plays casual against the prosecutor’s rather pompous formality and inflated rhetoric. During jury selection, when the prosecutor objects to Lincoln asking if a prospective juror knows the prosecutor ... ... Lincoln turns it around by remarking that he’s worried that the citizen might not know the prosecutor (implying to know him is to have a low opinion of him). The courtroom crowd bursts into laughter, particulary Mary Todd, sitting in a front row. Even Stephen Douglas is amused at Abe’s ready wit.

Some healthy skepticism about Cahiers’ assertion about the film’s controlling “ideological project” might make us look at the conclusion in a different way. If we instead assume that the project of the film is to please the core 20th Century-Fox theatrical audience, those transplanted Midwesterners now living in the West, we could read Lincoln for most of the film embodying their core values in a film that recapitulates the sentimental populism of small town and rural life. Like Will Rogers’ performance persona, Fonda and Ford’s version of young Abe rests on deflating pretension in many cases, and coming to defense of the defenseless when needed through strong moral assertion that combines with appeals to deeper sensibilities and values. His defense of Mrs. Clay’s refusal to testify under the badgering prosecution is the supreme moment in this pattern.

“I may not know so much of law, Mr. Felder, but I know what’s right and what’s wrong and I know what you’re asking is wrong. Put yourself in this woman’s place, your honor. Can you truthfully say you’d do differently? Look at her. She’s just a simple ordinary country woman. She can’t even write her own name. Yet has she no feelings? No heart? I’ve seen Abigail Clay exactly three times in my life, gentlemen, and yet I know everything there is to know about her.

I know her because I’ve seen hundreds of women just like her working in the fields—kitchen hovering over some sick and helpless child. Women who say little, but do much. Who ask for nothing and give all. And I tell you that such a woman will never answer the question that’s been put to her here. Never!”[32]

According to Margaret Thorpe’s study of Hollywood film, America at the Movies (1939), “The audience was primarily middle-class whites between the ages of fourteen and forty-five, the most important segment of which was adult female—the ‘average citizen’s wife’ who set the tone for the majority of American movies.”[33] Obviously Lincoln’s declaration goes directly to the values and attitudes of that demographic.

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