Split Pillow Examines ‘Life as Lincoln’
by Matt Fagerholm
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Everyone needs an idol, and many people have found just that in our 16th president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln is one the few figures in the history of American government whose appeal and influence transcends political boundaries, a fact provocatively illustrated by the new film, Life as Lincoln.
This feature-length documentary is the latest work from Chicago’s non-profit movie production company, Split Pillow. The company’s Executive Director, Dennis Belogorsky, served as producer and editor of the film, which centers on three different Lincoln impersonators. Belogorsky first began developing the project a year ago, in light of Lincoln’s bicentennial.
“Having grown up in Springfield, IL, I’ve seen those [impersonators] and I’ve always been very skeptical of anything Lincoln-related because it’s borderline kitsch,” Belogorsky says.
Coincidentally, Chicago journalist Caitlin Grogan had been researching Lincoln presenters around the same time, and ended up taking the directorial reigns of the project. She says that her interest in the material stemmed from her upbringing.
“I grew up with history all around me,” Grogan says. “Trips to historic homes and battlefields were as normal as a trip to the beach, in terms of summer vacations. I also grew up in an old home, built in 1847. So I was always aware of history surrounding me in a very alive sort of way. I felt very much a part of it.”
Due to budget restrictions, the filmmakers couldn’t travel far for interviews, and decided to center their film on three presenters who each live in a location that Lincoln used to call home. Foster father Murray Cox works to instill “Lincoln pride” in the youth of Indiana, which is often overlooked as the location of the future president’s formative years. In Honest Abe’s birthplace of Hodgenville, Kentucky, Larry Elliott portrays Lincoln as an almost spiritual icon, upholding the values of fundamentalist Christianity. Former theater professor Lonn Pressnall, of Forsyth, Illinois, takes a more pragmatic approach, delving into the complexities of the man without connecting his views to those found in contemporary politics.
“These [subjects] are good representations of how a lot of people in the country view history,” Belogorsky says. “Some view it through a personal prism, applying their own values to everything, and others stand back and let the history speak for itself. As filmmakers, we did not want to take sides.”
The crew was focused on making as structured of a film as possible, fitting the project into a production timeline usually used to shoot a narrative film. From conception to finalization, the film took a solid year to complete. For Grogan, the trickiest task was gaining the trust of subjects skeptical of camera crews.
“The most challenging part for me was simply trying to create relationships with subjects without even being able to shake their hand,” Grogan says. “It was very important for them to get to know us before we pulled up in their driveway with a camera and started rolling.”
“Once we actually got on location, 75% of what we planned was out the window,” Belogorsky says. “We had to improvise and make decisions on the fly in order to get the most out of our subjects. Sometimes their presentations go well and sometimes they don’t.”
The film culminates at the Lincoln presenters’ annual convention in Washington D.C, populated by nearly a hundred costumed enthusiasts of the legendary politician. Footage taken at the event exemplified Grogan’s belief that her subject matter called for “moving images rather than the written word.” She felt that it was important for people to see each man’s personalized visualization of Lincoln, from Cox’s delicately prepared mole, to Elliott’s large beard, which looks considerably more Amish than Abe-ish.
“There were moments of intentional and unintentional humor, but we didn’t want this to be a comedy,” Belogorsky says. “It’s always tempting when you deal with people who are pursuing these quirky hobbies to paint them with a broad brush as these buffoons. We wanted to do a film about what these guys got out of this hobby, and the meaning of their pursuit.”
“Everyone sees something in Lincoln that they admire, respect or even idolize,” Grogan says, “and despite our differences, we can rally around him. I hope the film stirs a conversation about the ways in which we all share a common history that affects each of us differently.”
Life as Lincoln will have its world premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State Street, on February 12th at 8pm. There will also be two additional screenings on February 13th at 8pm and February 17th at 8:15pm. All three screenings will be followed by an audience discussion with Grogan.
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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