DJ Does D.W.
On the first evening of MoMA’s week of his Rebirth of a Nation, multimedia artist Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid affirmed that blockbuster came into use to describe queues waiting to see D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which was twice screened to live accompaniment this same week. The legendary latter popularized techniques in camera angle and movement, close-up and full shots and cross cutting, while it altered the economics, and thus the heart, of filmmaking sixty years before Spielberg would do so again.
Made by arguably the single most influential person in cinema history, the 1915 epic is now best known for sparking indignant controversy, resulting in cuts (to a length still in excess of three hours), a change of title, and Intolerance the following year. To this day defenders maintain that racist attitudes and stereotypes portrayed reflect society of the time, what Auden called “a whole climate of opinion,” rather than those of the Kentuckian director and son of a Confederate cavalry lieutenant colonel.
Happy faithful slaves serving noble cavaliers and pure ladies in crinolines are shown in the Piedmont, South Carolina, first third that precedes groundbreaking Civil War battle scenes. But it was the portrayal of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and its glorification as protector of civilized, i.e., white, values, that offended. This inflammatory final part is set during scalawag-carpetbagger Radical Reconstruction consequent on the assassination of “charity for all” Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) by a brief John Wilkes Booth played by the director’s Biograph assistant Raoul Walsh.
Griffith and Frank Woods’s script derived from The Clansman, a popular romance and subsequent play by minister, North Carolina legislator, and Woodrow Wilson friend Thomas F. Dixon, Jr. Thus the dramatized film story was, for its era, in effect a documentary-like recreation by actors -- characters of African blood are Caucasians in blackface -- of the emotional and questionable fiction of a novel-play masquerading as historical fact.
Enter Rebirth of a Nation, in one sense a social-document consideration of Birth, a digital-age remixing of the technology of cinema, graphics and music onto an hour-and-a-half-plus selected from Griffiths’. With an art gallery installation and a commissioned live multimedia performance touring here and abroad, this DVD is a third viewing possibility, obtainable through normal channels without going underground. Calling it a “revisionist” look at the earlier film which had already been revisioned, should not bother Miller/Spooky, who would do something along similar lines with Metropolis had not someone already beaten him to that punch. Indeed, he envisions others’ de- and reconstructing his work, since digital remixing in order to relook at what people consume, is the growing, and ongoing wave.
Rebirth goes full circle, opening with color media footage of the American ghetto in flames, and closing with it. In black and white from the 1931 reissue, front and back, none other than D.W. Griffith reflects, “What is the truth?” Reality here at home different from that of Europe, Virginian Woodrow Wilson got Birth of a Nation shown at the White House to give a loving presidential seal of approval; a black man now president, the director-producer-composer-coscripter would not mind a loc. cit. Rebirth showing for the NAACP centennial next year.
His “DJ re-mix” employs color tinting, strange graphic overlays which soon acquire integrity -- lines and grids, triangles, rectangles, squares and circles -- and the Kronos Quartet performing his own score reworking of classical, blues, a hint of jazz and no noticeably distracting hip-hop. Added to “PDM-Paul Miller” intertitles, Richard Davis’ overvoice sounds like the director’s.
Culling from, and commenting on, the original, the narration prompts that the more things change, the more they stay the same, i.e., The Birth of a Nation embodied this country’s reduction of complexity to black and white in every sense, a simplistic divisional view that still holds sway. Shorn now of half its length, the plot nevertheless is easy to follow in the tale of two families, Stoneman and Cameron, whose sons fight for the blue and the grey, respectively, and one of each of which falls in love with a daughter of the other. Sacrifice in love and war is cinema staple, but it is the pictured aftermath of opportunists’ rape of the gentlemanly South that stirred passions.
The current film is too insistent on its interpretation of its celluloid ancestor, though, uncommonly versed in global culture, Miller/Spooky says he invites other future takes on his take and on our social-political-moral situation. Boiling down to recontextualize a complex moral ambience means that certain facets are of necessity omitted or not remarked on in full. Singling out white Northerners’ Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Green Pastures while not a white Southerner’s Gone With the Wind, religious historian Curtis J. Evans notes the depiction of safe, idealized, emotional, children-of-nature blacks (before their mass migration to the ghettos of Detroit, Chicago and New York). Griffith’s white-players-as-blacks, too, are simple, loyal and subservient, if easily aroused by demagoguery, liquor and lust. The latter failing is for social standing, flashy politics, and white women, but no critic seems to have remarked that the social-climber housekeeper Lydia Brown (Mary Alden) and the ironically named villain Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) are mulattos and thus subliminal indication of that greatest of root fears, miscegenation.
A digestible way to watch The Birth of a Nation, and an admirable fusion film in its own right, Rebirth of a Nation promises to be a part of our unfinished dialogue, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
(Released by Starz/Anchor Bay; not rated by MPAA.)