Saturday, September 22, 2012

An Epic Tale of War and Birthers

Oh, this movie, oh this movie, oh this movie Birth of a Nation....

I knew before I saw it that it would be something that would rile me up, I expected it and was ready for it... at least I thought I was.  What I didn't expect was that D.W. Griffith's first big magnum opus, and possibly the first BIG movie of its kind to be made in America (and, more importantly, unfortunately, a major success with a lot of audiences in 1915), was that it would kinda, sorta, draw me in to the drama in the first half of the film.  It's really an example of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only it's not a case where one side fights over the dominance of the other.  It's like Dr. Jekyll is in the first half, with a little bit of Hyde poking his head into the mix here and there... but when he takes over in the second half, it becomes a completely different movie. Frankly, an evil one.

Ok.  Let's get it the fuck out of the way.  The Birth of a Nation is an innovative movie.  It is.  It's difficult to ignore that as it is to ignore how Griffith, whether he would ever fess up to it or not (and apparently he didn't really), is absurdly, repulsively racist in how it looks at not just black people as caricatures, but as a terror on the white race who must be saved.  But taking aside the content, which I can get to later - this was a crucial step in terms of the evolution of filmmaking, I get that.  Yes, Griffith (who, by the way, let's us know with EVERY title card that it's his film with his initials and last name on the banner), took cross-cutting to a whole other level, to the point where, to a large extent, the film is never boring while watching its big set pieces.  He understood where actors could heighten drama in scenes.  Hell, he even understood that actors could be *subtle*.  Yes, even in goddamn fucking Birth of a Nation, there are a few scenes of which there is subtlety shown by the actors (mostly with the actor, I forget who, who becomes the "Clansman" of the title of the book this movie is based on).

I'll even go as far as to say sequences in Birth of a Nation are thrilling spectacles.  It's exciting to see what Griffith does with his Civil War portion of the story, which is really the first half and, like Gone with the Wind years later, would make the first half marginally more interesting in terms of telling a story of what people had to go with in war.  Griffith had me with feeling, for just a split second perhaps, sympathy for the Confederacy, who were so outnumbered by the Union that they had little choice but to storm the other side even as people were picked off one by one.

A genuinely cool image
This battle sequence is the stuff that film history is made of - compositions made to show the scope and horror of it all, color tinting and angles that emphasize the madness and terror, and the crazy bravery of some men.  And on a smaller scale, the set piece that makes up the climax of the first half of the story, Lincoln's assassination (and, as an aside, I was mildly surprised how sympathetic Griffith makes Lincoln in light of what the film becomes not so later after - when someone talks about what to do with the Southern states, Lincoln calmly asserts it should be like how it was before, or something to that effect).  Just the simple staging of that scene in the theater is remarkable.

But then there is, of course from the start, the fact that Birth of a Nation is a somewhat simple, silly story of two families who don't have much character to speak of, except that the ladies are fair and the men noble and "true" I guess or whatever, who cares.  They weren't characters I completely sympathized with, but they were at least human beings, recognizable to a great extent.  They have an old-world reality to them.

Until this scene...
... And then the second half comes along.  Oh, those years of reconstruction.  Weren't they just like... um.... let's use a rather radical metaphor here: think of Gotham city in the Batman universe.  There's just hordes of these criminal elements just waiting to pounce, and who have been given not just rights but government positions in the Southern states (!) and God forbid one of them gets near a white lady!  Oh, lordy lord.  But hey, there is a savior, and it's a man in a mask, a man who could be anybody and everybody, a man who will stop at nothing until the criminal elements, the SAVAGES that roam the streets and then, eventually, take things over like the primitives they are, get put back in their place.  After all, it's not what they AM, but what they DO that defines the KKK, right?

.... Just doing that Batman comparison made my head hurt.  And I'm a Batman fan!  I can say, with some reasonable assurance, I am NOT a KKK fan.  Oh, no no no.

Lincoln begging, pleading, that I stop this Batman comparison.... and I will now.
The evil side of The Birth of a Nation is that the Klansmen are the heroes, who, as a title card tells us, will save the white race from the savagery of the black menace.  This black menace that - in black face as white people by the way (and one actor in the climax, I should note and from what I could tell from the 2011 restoration DVD, looks like a dark white man, NOT a black man) - will chase a poor, defenseless white woman up a mountain where, under duress and feelings of imminent dread, will jump to her death.  A Black Menace that doesn't have respect for nobody since they don't have respect for themselves.  And a Black Menace that, if they're left unabated, will just take over town and run rampant like it's Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

The evilness is fear, fear as a way of sucking people in, which is much easier to do than with a film about understanding (albeit the director's mea culpa one year later was titled, literally, INTOLERANCE, ho-ho).  The film functions no longer at having ANY grey area to it, which is what I thought made the first part of the Griffith's tome kind of captivating.  I knew the Confederacy was wrong, but they were presented in such a way, as well as with the Union, that nobody was really right or wrong, and that they were righting in an untenable situation.....

Actually, that's kind of a lie.  There is one scene in the first half that made me cringe, even as the director was building a surprising amount of suspense, as a union army storms the house of the Southern family we've been following (a white man leading his black trained monkeys - I don't say 'monkeys' as a slur, by the way, I mean it in just the most figurative sense as I can).  The women hide in rooms while the old man of the house tries to stop them, but to little avail.  I assume there was some looting of Southern homes (again, to go back to Gone with the Wind, this had it too), but the way it's presented, and how the Confederate soldiers just rush in to save the day, hints at the insanity to come later.

What's scariest of all is that Griffith's film, which he shot all from images in his head, he didn't have a script or even notes while making the film (a remarkable claim, albeit there was the book so there's that), got more people to see it than not.  While it was banned in several cities, it ended up being the first "Blockbuster" event, and according to about two million people saw it in its first year of release.  For 1915, that was a lot.  And scariest of all is that not only were people thrilled by it, outside of it being a big massive movie at a time when one-reelers rules the day, but it inspired others.  The KKK reemerged as a big power just as, before the movie came out, it was in decline.

The film is impressive for its tenacity, but it's a big, fat, stinking metric FUCK-TON of bullshit.  It is, in a way, like the Birther movement of today, or how it's still going on.  It disseminates its information without any factual basis (while I need to check my history books, I'm pretty sure hordes of black folk weren't trying to rape white women, overrun towns and kill the Honest White Government of the land), and with a sledgehammer approach.  To be fair then, as now, people saw through the bullshit of the content and the NAACP of the period tried to get the film banned.  However unlike the Birthers, the film still carries legitimacy to this day, and if just on clinical, objective historical grounds, sure, why not.  It shows the promise cinema could carry, and influenced how silent films, and just montage and other action movie elements, would be done for years to come.  Unlike some other controversial films, as I said, it wasn't a "chore" to sit through, oh good Lord, no.

When one is flabbergasted up against such sophisticated and majestically mounted hatred, one almost has to start thinking if it's a put-on, if so much talent could be put to an end such as this without it all being about how absurd such a racist fantasy wish-fulfilment jerk-off session it is.  But then again, when a man like Griffith, who knew what he was doing with camera and actors, had to be told once the film was released that it was racist, there's a problem there.

Not unlike good ol' Wilson, the Presidential Volleyball of Hate.  
Bottom line - it may be worth studying, hell I recommend that every American see it once and decide from there what to think about it (that is if you can get over it being silent, which means that when it gets over the top in the climax it goes so far high up the 'top' is a fucking speck of dust on the sky en route to the moon).  But to say I'll never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER watch it again unless for academic purposes is an understatement.  A befuddling, powerful, potent, horrifying statement on the "history" of our country, the kind of thing that CSA: The Confederate States of America sorely was made as a response to.    

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