January 2, 2011

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Soo.... yeah.  You know, in film school they talk about this movie.  About its significance in film history, and to the craft.  But they don't actually show it.  They show Intolerance, or Broken Blossoms, the films Griffith made by way of apology.  But one of the things that initially inspired this project was my desire to finally take the plunge, and deal with this monster once and for all.  THE movie. THAT movie.  The bush everyone's always beating around.  So, here goes. 

For the uninitiated, The Birth of a Nation chronicles the insidious attempts of negros to corrupt and overthrow society during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the creation of the noble Ku Klux Klan to oppose them.  ...Yeah.  Please feel free to never watch it.  Ever.  However, it is also one of the very first feature-length films, and perhaps the film that, more than any other, announced to the world that movies were not just frivolous entertainments, but a real artistic force to be reckoned with.  Writer/Director D. W. Griffith had made hundreds of shorts over the preceding decade, doing a great deal (if not as much as he is sometimes credited for) to create the "language" of film as we know it.  With all that experience behind him, and his sights turned to such dire subject matter, Birth of a Nation shook the world.

It isn't so bad at first.  After some early fawning over the "idyllic" Southern fields filled with politely mooing blacks, the movie gets distracted by the personal stories of the white characters through the war.  This is generally good stuff, if a bit familiar.  There's two friends on either side of the battle lines, and romance in a military hospital.  You might expect more of a pro-South bias - and indeed there is plenty - but once the dream of Sovereignty of the States is crushed the movie is remarkably accepting of federal authority, venerating Lincoln and eventually bringing North, South, and loyal blacks together against the real enemy: scheming mulattoes.  Indeed, the movie can imagine no greater evil than inter-racial marriage, a specter that looms constantly during the frequently uncomfortable second half.  Perhaps most frightening, however, was the moment when the evil mulatto overlord - er, governor - announced his intention to rule on high as emperor with the white heroine as his "queen," (not exaggerating here) and I realized just how familiar all of this was.  Replace all the non-whites with, say, goblins, or the minions of Ming the Merciless, and I doubt anybody would have called it racist.  It would have just been a classic epic adventure tale.  Wherever blacks may stand today, clearly the fear of the "other" still runs strong in all of us, and probably always will.  The best we can hope for is to at least get all the non-fictional races onto our side of the line.

Still, this approach resulted in a film that was frequently as silly as it was insulting, at least when viewed through modern eyes.  See, Griffith never really bothers to construct an argument about why the blacks are so bad - he just assumes we're all on board with that.  He's using them as stock villains.  Like, when we see a goblin or a Klingon: we just "get" that they're evil and everything makes sense.  Without that automatic association, the whole thing falls apart.  A black guy makes a pass at a white woman, and she shrieks and runs away.  What's her deal?  A regiment of blacks walks down the sidewalk right in front of a white man's house!  The horror?  They even have the nerve to point out "the sidewalk belongs to everyone equally" when the white guy gets upset.  Who are we rooting for again?  You might expect to see more flagrant lies to make the evilness of the non-whites clear, but apart from a couple over-the-top black-face performances and several lies of omission, the movie is mostly a testament to the grotesquely distorted reality of its makers.  For instance, as a final victory note, we see an endless line of clansmen on their horses standing firmly between the blacks and... the ballot boxes.  Now we're honoring blatant disenfranchisement?  Who could possibly watch this - much less write it - and see it as in any way a heroic act?  And how telling is it that the KKK can't even manage to come off well in their own damn movie?  One could almost believe Griffith pulled a fast one on the world and was really an abolitionist all along.  Almost.

Alright, technical stuff.  The film really does look good.  Camera technique was quite similar to Perils of Pauline, just... better.  Better framing; each shot a lovely, sometimes even sumptuous picture you could frame on the wall.  Griffith was a damned good photographer by this point.  Most locations are usually shot from exactly the same angle, no matter where they appear in the movie (I'm assuming all of a location's shots were filmed during the same camera setup), which was the style at the time - but it's also helpful with such a long movie (3hrs7m) to create a strong sense of familiarity.  The camera shot and the location essentially become the same thing, so with little effort, we know "ah, we've returned here."  The main new technique I noticed was Griffith's fondness for matting the image - blacking out a soft "vignette" around the picture.  Sometimes it just crops in the corners to create a dreamlike picture frame.  Sometimes the image is quite small in the frame, to highlight a particular person or act.  The most interesting use was in the Ford's Theatre, where the president's balcony was shown in the upper right of the screen with the rest darkened.  It occurred to me this might have been done in the absence of a longer lens to show only the balcony, or perhaps it was thought the audience's spatial awareness would have been thrown off if the balcony was not shown in the same location it was in the wide shot of the full theater, even though he only wanted the balcony itself to be visible.

I was also impressed by the performances.  They seemed - at least among the good guys - quite naturalistic.  The standouts, thanks to their emotive faces, were Lillian Gish and especially Mae Marsh as the infectiously cheerful "pet" sister.  There is a short moment where she looks down at her rag of a dress after the sale of their fine possessions, considers the tragedy of it, and then, slowly, finds again her childish heart.  It put a big grin on my face, and would have been the Oscar clip, if the Oscars existed yet.  Shame to waste it in such a sociological nightmare of a movie, but great art is where you find it, right?

So that's The Birth of a Nation.  And the birth of a film project.  One thing's for sure - it's all uphill from here.

1 comment:

  1. I remember seeing this movie a long time ago and thinking how horribly racist it was. However, in my memory, I had thought the black people terribly exaggerated, doing cartoony villian things. What I'm struck by this time is at how, for the most part, the actions of the black people are mundane, rather ordinary things. As Robin points out, one of the big moments is when a group of black men pass down a sidewalk in front of the white protagonist. They're just minding their own business, not rude or making a big deal of taking precedence. I only noticed their action when the white guy gets huffy. It some ways the ordinariness of the black characters' actions throughout the movie makes it even more horrible to see it used as an excuse for the rise of the reactionary KKK.

    One more note: the cute 'pet' sister was a little too much for my feminist tastes. Perhaps its OK when you're supposed to be 10 or 12 but she's got to be at least 18 by the end of the movie and she's still skipping around and fluttering her eyelashes. Her hysterical reaction to the marriage proposal (politely made) by the black guy was ridiculously exaggerated -- it was a relief when she finally jumped off the ledge.