10 June 2009

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

d. D.W. Griffith / USA / 187 mins.
Click here to read my 2008 review of this film.

I feel compelled to revisit Griffith's The Birth of a Nation for four reasons:

1) I am curious if my saturation in a summer of silent cinema has fundamentally changed the way I read this film — that is, if a film that struck me one way with a previously limited exposure to silent drama will strike me differently after a broadening of said exposure.

2) The title has come up in numerous reviews of silent films in the last few weeks, often in contrast (i.e., to DeMille's The Cheat); but the more I've thought about the film, the less its visuals come back to me and the more I feel myself inflating its technical aspects into pure abstraction. A revisit is thus necessary to hit the refresh button on my brain.

3) James Agee, who I have been re-reading under the prompt of the recent Movie Book meme. I respect Agee, and often disagree with him, but it felt nearly impossible to resist a wade back into the fray after reading Agee's eulogy in The Nation upon Griffith's death in 1948: "This was the one time in movie history that a man of great ability worked freely, in an unspoiled medium, for an unspoiled audience, on a majestic theme which involved all that he was; and brought to it, besides his abilities as an inventor and artist, absolute passion, pity, courage, and honesty. The Birth of a Nation is equal with Brady's photographs, Lincoln's speeches, Whitman's war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone, not necessarily as 'the greatest'—whatever that means—but as the one great epic, tragic film." It's hard to resist the simple act of re-watching a film with writing like that.

4) Because we are enjoined by the philosophies of criticism to wrestle with tough films, to meditate on them and revisit them from time to time as we see fit, the way any other thinker struggles with content and form. In the movies, there is no bigger wild beast for a film critic to wrangle than The Birth of a Nation.

Allow me to begin by turning to the crux of my August 2008 review of the film, which asked, its virulent racism and white supremacy aside, whether Griffith's work is a fundamentally great movie:

The ultimate answer is: not by a long shot. The adjective "well-made" can only be applied to the strictest technical elements. The camerawork during the battle sequences is powerful and remarkably fluid, and the cuts are sharp throughout. Griffith also plays with light in ways that were wholly unique; the captured landscape is as haunting as the ghostly photography that came out of the war. But when the film is broken down into pacing, plot, characters, etc. — the hallmarks of any good movie — "well-made" doesn't even begin to describe The Birth of a Nation. At 190 bloated minutes, it's entirely too long (the second half containing the most egregious episodes of racism, too). Most of its characters are abstract and non-emotive (the result of a sagging story). Like Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, it is a film that has eclipsed its original intent (to entertain) and has become a stolid artifact of film history. Rendering a verdict might involve more a struggle if the film was consistently entertaining, tightly edited, and robust in its story.
Where to begin with myself? I suppose the best place would be a concession that my feelings of the film have improved; certainly not to Agee-levels (I doubt I shall ever declare this film a masterpiece), but I would be remiss to say "not by a long shot" again. My second viewing of the film within a year (my third viewing overall) marked my most appreciative attitude toward it yet. I have a hunch that this might actually prove itself to be a criticism plateau, however; many of the elements I praised in my original review — the camerawork and the editing, primarily — continue to be the elements I most revere; some of what I disliked, namely the characters and the approach to the plot, fared better at times during this screening; and what I disliked the most about it — the pacing, theme, and point-of-view — will be forever lost on me. I still find The Birth of a Nation at the least a half-hour too long, and the pacing in the first halves of both sections is problematically sluggish (it makes it difficult to get into the film at first and makes the mid-section lag).

So why was there an improvement? I'm not too sure, but one of the surprising aspects of this viewing was that in many ways, and as surprising as this may be, The Birth of a Nation works better when its racism is accepted as a foregone conclusion. Certainly that does not mean an endorsement of such abhorrent material (more on that in a moment), but my viewing of the film opened when I basically wrote off the second half as nonsensical, insulting rubbish. A typical reading of The Birth of a Nation leads the audience to focus more on formal mechanics in the first half — which includes an introduction of the characters and plot; the Civil War; the Lincoln assassination; and the launch of an shaky Reconstruction — than in the second half, which largely concerns itself with channeling fear, formalizing xenophobia, and fabricating a heroic visage for the Ku Klux Klan. This offensive content rages thunderously and drowns out clearer examples of Griffith's contributions to film grammar. In reality (and again, I say this aside from the content itself), an argument could be made that the second half is superior film-making from a sheer technical standpoint. It lacks the epic scope of a Civil War battlefield, but its shift to vengeance and pursuit, however morally wrongheaded, translates into a grander production: the cross-cutting during the chase scenes is tighter, and the cinematography is more nimble and experimental (in one shot, the horizon is high in the frame and silhouetted Klansmen ride across in front of a red-tinted sky).

That is not to dismiss the style of the first half. The battle sequences do command attention, both for their aforementioned ghostliness and their realism. (So real, you might say, that sometimes not being able to follow what's going on while the camera is positioned in extreme long-shot is pure toss-up between flaw and enhanced realism.) And then there is the miraculous shot when the camera first moves — something that sounds banal in this text, but when compared to the relative stasis of much of the film (and until then the battle sequences only gain momentum through editing) arrives as a bit of a shock. The battle charge forward, culminating in the breathtaking shot of a Confederate colonel jamming a flag staff down the barrel of a Union cannon, lasts just a second but makes sure the audience is paying attention. The Lincoln assassination is another thrilling sequence, an example of Griffith's remarkable authority in camera placement and editing. Through a mix of close-ups, long-shots, varied angles, and iris shots, Griffith creates a sequence that stirs the system with suspense and tension.

And what of film's notorious, nefarious approach to racial issues? Back to the original review: I want to stand by the central thesis I posited then, that the film causes angst primarily due to the difference in Griffith's approach to the film's most noteworthy elements — its formal construction and its politics:
In order to be as technically innovative as he was, Griffith needed to be as detail-oriented as possible. There are shots that attempt to recreate scenes with unrivaled precision and exactness (Abraham Lincoln's assassination, for example). But when it comes to the film's approach to race, it is the categorical opposite of detail-oriented; its picture is painted with sweeping, inflammatory, and prejudiced strokes: white actors appear in blackface as barbarian caricatures; it endorses anti-miscegenation and pro-slavery positions; it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and is audacious enough to imply that the white supremacy hate group brought law and order to the post-war South. (The critic Andrew Sarris wrote, "[The film] was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word.")
We normally give Griffith a pass on the racism charge, primarily because he asked us to. (He asked for our acceptance publicly, he asked for it during the film's re-release, he asked for it in Intolerance, and he asked for it in Broken Blossoms.) If this second analysis of the film made me appreciate certain aspects to a greater degree, then I must confess it made me feel that Griffith was more culpable in the film's content than he wanted it to seem. More than ever I'm less inclined to believe that Griffith was truly innocent, and I find the claims of "That's just how it was in 1915" to be equally unsatisfactory. I have no doubt such racism was rampant in the 1910s (it was rampant all through the 20th century, though noticeably not in our national cinema) and I certainly understand the narrative complexity with telling this story from the point-of-view of angry and insular Southerners. But the film's objective point-of-view, illustrated in the title cards that were unaltered, is too extreme to be innocent. It's not incidental; it's active. There are passages in the film that are detached from the characters and seem to harness the voice of someone else (perhaps Griffith), passages that are so offensive it creates an unsustainable balancing act — it seems virtually impossible to claim ignorance on something as heinous as the racism here; to do so is to show yourself to be more unconsciously removed from social mores than ever previously thought; to not do so is to admit such views were consciously inserted, and thus creating culpability. It was Griffith, after all, that wanted to adapt this story — not any story of the Civil War, but this story from Thomas Dixon's "The Clansman."

All this leads to the common claim that we must consider The Birth of a Nation as an apolitical whole. If and when such things are possible, I contend they are only possible on an isolated and deconstructed scale. One can examine the climactic ride of the Klansman, for example; you can notice the camera moves not once but thrice, exciting and riveting movements; you can notice and commend the sophisticated editing, which is effective enough to create suspense and moral discomfort. But inevitably such strict scrutiny can only work in the moment. The Birth of a Nation and its politics are inseparable; one comes forth from the other, and vice versa. It is unfair to ask for consideration of the film with its racism set aside because it is truly impossible, and such, an irrevocable flaw in the fabric of the work. This tension between exacting attention to technical detail and a lack of control whatsoever over the political elements is the chief angle for criticizing the film for its racism. If the film's best-made scene is the Lincoln assassination (where technical construction seems perfectly and acceptably in tune with political messaging), then the film's worst scene occurs in the second half when a single white man fights off ten black men — and if it weren't for a gun, he'd win! It is flagrantly ridiculous, both in its absurd portrayal of white (and masculine) supremacy and for the way it retreats the audience, fabricates its own vulgar mythology, and entrenches itself deeper into moral obsolescence. It is a lack of control on Griffith's part that makes the film spiral away from the audience in these moments.

So The Birth of a Nation can never be, by my own personal standards, great art. Great art is much of what The Birth of a Nation has to offer: ascertainable qualities such as creative vision, influence, and technical skill, as well as esoteric qualities like controversy, crisis, and an intellectual coercion that demands that you wrestle with its challenging elements. But great art is timeless and self-sustaining, which are things this film is not. We make excuses for Griffith and for The Birth of a Nation because we wish to recognize their importance, but great art doesn't need an excuse made for it; great art stands alone, without support or defense, without tomes of analysis and sometimes even without context. Everyone who says this is great art is forced to use the word except, and what sort of praise is that? Without reservation we can call it what it is: important, influential, apoplectic. But we should not call it great.


R. D. Finch 11 June, 2009  

T.S., what a thoroughly detailed analysis of the movie and explanation of your final judgment on it. It's clear you've watched it very carefully and given a great deal of thought to the reasons for your reactions to it. I'm perhaps more willing than you to forgive the movie the narrative flaws you point out because it is so early and because Griffith was so ambitious on the technical level. I think of Griffith in this movie as not a great cinematic innovator, but a great cinematic synthesizer. By this I mean that he grasped how all the then-new techniques of filmmaking could be put together to tell a story in a completely cinematic way, with the camera as a mobile spectator and the director as the equivalent of an author writing a novel. Close-ups, tracking shots, natural lighting (especially in interior scenes, which he called "Rembrandt lighting"), cross-cutting between parallel plots ("It's what Dickens does," he told skeptics), and other techniques--he put them all together to create the total visual experience. He also realized that this could be used to make a point, and that is the problem modern viewers have with the movie. Today the racist point of view of the movie is almost unbearably disturbing. But maybe that served a historic purpose too: to make us more critical of what the filmmaker is trying to get us to believe and not just accept it because the storytelling is so persuasively dramatic. One thing I've always found fascinating about this movie is its Victorian sexual repression. It's the sexuality of the African Americans that is presented as the most threatening thing about them. Freud would have had a field day analyzing the implications of some of the settings in this movie, like that huge phallic precipice Gish is held prisoner on. What a dilemma this movie is: grand storytelling technique in the service of a wholly reprehensible theme.

T.S. 11 June, 2009  

R.D., great points, particularly in the coinage of Griffith as a synthesizer more than an innovator. I like that terminology. And I'll definitely second the Victorian sexual repression aspect of the film. David Kehr touches on that tremendously well in an essay on the film, where he notes the binary structure of Griffith's oppositions (North v. South, black v. white, war v. peace., etc.) and suggests there's a masculine v. feminine binary at work too — the phallic precipice, as you point out, and notably the battle charge scene with the flag being forced into the barrel of the cannon. I suspect these are accidental revelations into Griffith's psychology, less conscious than the racism (which at best can be seen as latent) but all the more important in our comprehension of Griffith as an auteur.

Hokahey 11 June, 2009  

Excellent review. I agree with your assessment of the film's strengths. Most of all, the film is influential. I always show the charge/cannon scene in my film history class. I used to show the KKK rescue sequence at the end, but young audiences just can't get past the racism and the ridiculous white actors in blackface no matter how influential I say that sequence is.

T.S. 19 June, 2009  

Hokahey - Thanks for commenting! I'm sorry it's been such a delay in my response. Yes, that makes a great deal of sense. I wish it weren't the case, obviously, and for the purposes of canonical virtues, I am (as certainly you and others are) willing to view it as objectively as possible. That said, as much as I wish young viewers could see it for what it is, I don't blame them for recoiling. I wish it weren't so, both on Griffith's part and on our part.

MovieMan0283 04 August, 2009  

An excellent essay, though I disagree with its thesis - indeed, I think Birth of a Nation is unavoidably, embarrassingly great, Griffith's undoubted masterpiece. I wish I could write it off easier than that, but I can't - its storytelling is just too seamless (there's a specific area where I disagree with you), its formal triumph too overpowering...I don't feel distanced at all watching it, but pulled in as if I'm watching a contemporary film.

I may return to add more of my thoughts on your piece, though obviously my thoughts on the film have been covered on my own blog. They may receive further attention if I decided to kick of my "150 favorite great movies" list with Birth; I don't really want to, as I've already said so much on the movie and one always has to spend so much time discussing the racism. Nonetheless, I find the movie so impressive overall that I'm tempted to begin with it. It certainly is one of the seminal works of cinema.

T.S. 04 August, 2009  

To a great degree, I feel a bit of envy for those who, like you, can be pulled in watching it and not be shaken out of the experience. In fact, I'm certain if I felt a glimmer of that my feelings on the film would swing more toward greater appreciation. Part of why I returned it after a year is Agee's unabashed enthusiasm for it; I re-read his essay shortly after contributing to the film book meme, and thought that I simply had to see it one more time and review it from another angle.

My feelings on Griffith have indeed evolved, and I'm happy to struggle with this film in particular. I have no qualms with holding it in masterpiece status, although I do believe it is below that (and for Griffith, Broken Blossoms comes closer, though it is flawed as well). Indeed, because it is one of the seminal works of cinema, it should be held up and revered for what it is and what it did.

I think you should take it on again for your 150 favorite great movies series. I've had a lot of fun re-writing reviews with the space of time, since a review of a film is in many ways your response to it at that moment in your life. Under that pretense I may reconsider other proclaimed masterpieces that I've never loved — High Noon and The Searchers come to mind immediately — in future Screen Savour installments.

MovieMan0283 04 August, 2009  

T.S., the most compelling reason to start with that movie is of course BECAUSE it's such a challenge. And now that I've aired the idea (a few times, actually) I may just HAVE to begin with it! Glad I'm catching up with your site now, don't mind my tardiness with this comment...I come wandering around to most blogs (except Wonders in the Dark of course, which seems to have slipped a narcotic through cyberspace directly into my veins...) every few weeks/months or so and see what I missed in the mean time.

My own blog-visiting habits are part of what encouraged me, along with other considerations, to post more slowly at my own blog and to encourage readers to take a more random, less chronological approach to my own site (hence the 1st anniversary alphabetical round-up). I wonder to what extent this is my own quirk and to what extent other bloggers/readers share it. Not that I mind blogs (like yours) that post regularly - just that I may play catch-up once in a while! I do like the idea of blogging becoming less disposable, less of an ephemeral enterprise...Of course, good writing tends to do that anyway so the fact that, for example, I'm finally reading your Birth of a Nation post nearly 2 months late does not have any effect on its quality!

None of this is neither here nor there but my embarrassment at missing this excellent piece for such a long time spurred me on!

T.S. 04 August, 2009  

Haha, well, I'm glad that, much like your own feelings about the film itself, the passage of time hasn't dampened the enjoyment of my review. ;)

There's no need to explain or apologize the blog-hopping phenomenon. Of all people, I'm among the worst at making sure I keep up with all the blogs that are out there. (I hear you on Wonders, which has also drawn me in. And since they began running links to your publications [kudos on that, again], I feel like I'm getting a Dancing Image/Wonders two-for.)

My life simply doesn't afford enough time or energy to keep up with it all. I try to post regularly during the summer because I can, but come the end of August and beginning of school once more, I imagine I'll find myself back down to a once-a-week post. Oh well. The great thing about the archives system, which I've tried to simplify here by chronology, director, and my own "masterpiece" classification much as you have done by alphabet, welcomes such late-coming comments. Once I fulfill my pledge to upload everything onto IMDb, I hope to have more comments occurring on past reviews and hopefully the conversation will continue.

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