One watches The Birth of a Nation from the present like a cop at a mob funeral: separated from its mournful agonies by an unbridgeable chasm, the fierce emotion at its center something we cannot share. Nearly a century after David Wark Griffith's historical epic emerged as the American cinema's first great lunge toward art, the funny-sad sight of Flora Cameron adding raw cotton appliqués to her burlap dress still carries with it a masterful balance of ruddy gentility and hopeful striving — we can sense it in Mae Marsh's wide, innocent eyes, in her childish belief that the war is just another game of pretend. But we know the image's original sense, for in it we can see the ghost of this country's history of violence. If Flora is innocent, then so is the Confederacy, the nation itself. Such sins are not so easily forgiven, even in the cinema's magical, dreamy dark.
That's not to say that Griffith's film was not as controversial upon its release in 1915 as it is today. Woodrow Wilson famously praised the film after it was screened at the White House, while the NAACP launched protests against it. Melvin B. Tolson called it such a "blatant lie that even a moron could see right through it," while James Agee placed it on par with Lincoln's speeches or Whitman's poetry. Regardless of its artistic merit, it is certainly one of the three or four most important films in the history of American cinema, the flash of lightning from which all our other fires and sparks have descended: its hateful tale of a nation's (re)birth also functions as the birth of a national cinema, the original sin we've spent a century attempting to redeem.
For The Birth of a Nation was that difficult thing, a racist masterpiece, a technical marvel whose history of Reconstruction was so egregious that it changed the trajectory of African-Americans on film. Not until Mario van Peebles did black men regain on-screen strength, relegated in the interim to empty, demeaning minstrelsy (Mr. Bojangles, Step-n-Fetchit) or unthreatening quiet (Sidney Poitier, a fine actor whose misused talents never achieved the reclaiming force of later blaxploitation pictures). Yet by introducing and developing the close-up, cross-cutting and the iris, Griffith took a leading role in the invention of a filmic syntax which remains with us to this day. For better or worse, The Birth of a Nation is cinema's subject, object and verb.
The real question one asks in any reappraisal of the film is perhaps impossible to answer. "Is it art?" Perhaps not, if you are of the mind that historical importance and artful beauty are separate qualities. That is not because The Birth of a Nation tells a tale of misery and woe — Alain Resnais twice found terrible beauty in history's burnt-out path, in the warning sorrow of Night and Fog and the cosmic loneliness, the laborious love, of Hiroshima, mon amour. But Resnais' films attempted to reclaim humanity rather than deny it. On the other hand, the beauty in certain of Griffith's compositions — like the forces curving around the side of a hill on the way to Atlanta, a scythe at the neck of the Confederacy — does not outweigh the militant ugliness of his racism. The film history that commences with The Birth of a Nation is a history not just of form but also of narrative content, a history whose art resides, if only too rarely, in its striving depiction of what a man no less artful than Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." Griffith's film is a terrible angel, one to which we are as irrevocably tied as the Civil War or Reconstruction itself. And in that we are culpable all the more for using the syntax it developed to say something more perfect about our tenuous Union.
Two capsule reviews from a brief stint at LA Weekly, before all film journalism went to shit (not in quality mind you, in ability to make a living):
MATTIE FRESNO AND THE HOLOFLUX UNIVERSE “Define distracted,” petty criminal Al Lewis (Ellen Cleghorne) asks murder suspect Mattie Fresno (Angela Pierce) early on in Mattie Fresno and the Holoflux Universe, and even in a story as unwieldily metafictional as this, it probably wouldn’t do to have Mattie name her own movie. But you get the point — distraction and diffuseness, not the proffered “unified theory of what is,” are the thematic and aesthetic core of director Phil Gallo’s failed political satire/media roasting/New Age fantasy. One could describe Mattie Fresno as being “about” the title character’s involvement in a convoluted assassination scheme, or “about” her physicist grandfather’s self-created alternate universe, but to do so would imply that the movie hangs together more coherently than the average YouTube video. Too bad, because the assassination plot, conceived by a public-relations firm to win the public’s eternal sympathy for a struggling client, briefly sustains a welcome, rabid cynicism about the politico-media complex, “spin doctors,” megalomaniacal TV personalities, fake holy men and an American public that laps it all up like a pig at the trough. Unfortunately, Mattie Fresno blunts these sharp satirical edges with moments of aimless screwball comedy, awkwardly composed flashbacks and green-screened dream sequences suggestive of anything but the universe’s deepest complexities. Rarely has a film killed off its own best instincts with more vigor.
DAVID & FATIMA Politicians and filmmakers, one might conclude from director Alain Zaloum’s suffocatingly simple movie David & Fatima, have developed similar approaches over the years: platitudes, platitudes, platitudes. But in the case of this Israeli-Palestinian twist on Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers and their warring clans inhabit a world too complex and too dusty with ancient conflicts for such banalities to ring true. The result is a film so emphatic in its treatment of the parallels between David Isaac (Cameron Van Hoy) and Fatima Aziz (Danielle Pollack) that the handful of affecting moments, like the lovers’ dance in a dilapidated shack by the Dead Sea, end up as whispers drowned out by the political din. More typical is the clumsy opening sequence in which David and Fatima’s mothers, going into labor, meet while en route to the hospital, perhaps spurring David’s belief that “if we pretend everything is OK, the world might change.” By the time Martin Landau swoops in as a radical rabbi who denies love’s power to conquer all, it’s too late: The humanist Realpolitik he imparts with his steady voice and watery eyes has gone distinctly out of vogue this year. “Do you think this is some kind of joke?” David’s sister asks him after discovering his tryst. “Some exercise in Middle East politics?” Unfortunately, the answer is yes. With Tony Curtis as a wizened romantic named Schwartz.
It is in these moments ~ the subtextual ones, where Dylan himself is not necessarily revealed, but the intense web of allusions that make up his work and his popularity are ~ that I’m Not There, No Direction Home, and Don't Look Back get at just why he is, humanoid or not, an "archive of American mythology." He survives in our minds because of the shared nostalgia he has come to represent, because he is, for those of us who see identity as infinitely malleable, the secondary handhold we need. There's a throwaway moment at the tail end of Pennebaker's film in which one of Dylan's entourage, speeding away with the musician from a throng of British fans outside yet another venue's service entrance, in yet another car so dark it seems to absorb and dim the glow of the streetlamps, calls Dylan "the vanishing American." It is this elusiveness that reflects the elusiveness of a vanishing America, a spectral, idealistic place where the American promise and the American people still seem, from this nostalgic viewpoint at least, to work in unison. For anyone who has ever heard and responded to a Dylan song ~ and I would venture a guess that most people who come across this piece fit into that category ~ his mystique is as personal as it is political, reminding us of a time in our lives in which we believed that authenticity, or on the other hand the elasticity of identity, would win the day. But even in 1965 he was vanishing before our eyes, like the America which time had obliterated. "It looks like its dying," he sang, speaking to that part of us which clings to our hopes but lowers our expectations, "and it's hardly been born."
My first year of teaching now over, I have realized that I utterly neglected this little project of mine for more than a year, which is too bad. Today I'm posting some excerpts of and links to pieces I've written for other publications, and here's the first, about Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2007):
"Children of Men is, like other apocalyptic fictions, a prophecy — an educated, dramatized guess about where we are going based on where we have been. Where we have been is where Eliot comes in: his sexual and spiritual dystopia of the last century's first fire sermon, coupled in the film with images of Nazi atrocities (cages and train stations and camps) from the second, creates a language for postulating the impossible. America in September of 2001 was like no other country in history, except perhaps Pax Brittanica in 1914, where the sun never set. But decline, like shifts in character, comes suddenly. The war that could not have happened between prosperous states; the attack that could not have happened on the American mainland. The analogy, without Eliot, remains shallow — a constructed coincidence of historicity. But with him it becomes instructive, tying together not just the series of events that preceded and followed each disaster, but also what we are to make of them. Being set in Britain makes Children of Men no less American, at least in the sense that American politics dominate (for better or worse) the world stage, and that those politics emerge as the target of Cuarón's sharp portrayal of a futuristic Britain saddled with a government poisonous in its policies and devoid of humanity. If Cuarón's vision of the world in 2027 is uncomfortably close, it may be because the decline has already begun."