Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The First Four Films of Terrence Malick

Well it’s November 2nd.  The Cubs and Indians are preparing to play game 7 of the World Series and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the world ends sometime during the 9th inning.  With that said, I appreciate you spending some of your last moments on earth reading my blog.  Like every blog entry ever I meant to get this written sooner, but life has a way of inevitably delaying everything I aim to do.

I’ll start by giving a little backstory as to why now seemed like a good time to revisit the films of Terrence Malick.  To start we have to go back a few months.  A few times a year random flash sales pop up where the typically expensive Criterion Collection is 50% off.  The previous sale I purchased Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and Wim Wender’s Road Trilogy (Alice in the Cities, False Movement, King of the Road).  Right around this time A New World was being released.  I figured since money was a little tight, I’d wait until the next sale and stock up on Malick’s films.  As of now, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World are part of the Criterion Collection, and amazingly enough I owned none of these films on DVD or Blu-Ray.  So fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when a sale on Criterion was announced, and I stocked up.  I got the idea immediately after to actually watch these four movies and offer my collective thoughts.

The debate obviously raged internally as to how to organize this article.  Would I offer full scale Kubrick sized reviews, or perhaps invoke my Vincente Minnelli piece from a few years ago and discuss these movies individually in a shorter capacity?  I suppose you can read on to see just what approach I took, but I opted for a third option, channeling an old essay I wrote in film school about Spike Lee’s first five films.  Mainly we’re going to talk about everything and how they relate in theme, style, perception, etc.  So I would highly recommend watching all of these films because there will be spoilers, but considering the most contemporary of these films is already 11 years old, you’ve have plenty of time.  Although one can argue the films of Terrence Malick are immune to spoilers.

Now for those long time readers I’m sure you are all well aware that I love Tree of Life, like more than just about any film.  This film blew me away like nothing I’ve ever seen in theaters, and I thoroughly challenge any film made in the 21st century to top it.  Despite how revelatory the film was, there were roots of it’s brilliance scattered throughout his previous films.  Much in the same way Godard seemed to incorporate everything he knew about cinema into Weekend, or Altman’s penultimate improvisational epic Nashville was the sum of all it’s previous parts, Tree of Life represented Malick putting all his successful early ideas into one sententious masterpiece.  As groundbreaking as Tree was, the elements of that film were present pretty much from his first feature.

Badlands was one of the films I was most excited to revisit for this project.  I hadn’t seen it start to finish in roughly 15 years and frankly wasn’t overly impressed by it.  My problem with the film the first time around was probably one of context.  The film presented itself as a lovers on the run tale, and it seemed like a much more boring version of other better known tales (Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves Like Us, etc.)  Watching it as some sort of sensationalized tale of a violent rampage and a story of doomed young love was the wrong way to approach this film.  Taken as the first chapter in cinematic universe of Malick it suddenly fits beautifully.  The film wasn’t sensationalized, it wasn’t meant to be some fast paced tale of doomed love, and these weren’t some sexy villains breaking the rules.

There are some common threads that pop up even in this first film.  For starters there’s the narration, which would be a common thread throughout Malick’s work.  Using narration to explain the plot is typically seen as a crutch for most storytellers, but Malick uses it in much the same way a novelist might.  It adds depth, Holly (Sissy Spacek) uses it to internalize her thoughts, saying things that couldn’t be filmed or spoken in a film.  This narrative technique would be exploited further in his later films, particularly in Days of Heaven.  He would eventually use multiple narrators in his later films, but the first two both use the narration of young women who seem largely along for the ride to add the depth.  On Days of Heaven, Linda Manz apparently recorded multiple hours of improvised narration, where Malick simply told her to say whatever came into her mind about the visuals she was watching.  Both offer narration that compliments the narrative but doesn’t explain what’s happening.  It isn’t a crutch for him, simply another cinematic device.

I would argue Malick is one of the few filmmakers who seems to be a complete filmmaker.  He uses every technique he can to illustrate his story.  His camera is often mobile,  free to roam wherever it feels best.  Multiple scenes are filmed with and without dialogue, and much to annoyance of his actors he often cuts out lengthy dialogue scenes and reduces them to a wordless single shot. 

The cinematography often gets the most attention in his film, and Malick’s in depth knowledge of cameras, lenses, and film stock is well documented.  His preferred use of natural lighting is often infuriating to the more experienced cinematographers, but damn it if he doesn’t always seem to be right in the end.  His preference for shooting typically leads to an absurd amount of film being used.  Editing his films can be seen as a monumental task, and it’s why in the case of certain films (like Days of Heaven) it took nearly two years.  Part of the idea is that despite some well worked out scripts, the man isn’t closed to new ideas.  Shooting scripts can go out the window if the lighting is just right.  If someone has a better idea on how to do a scene, he’s usually open to listen.  This gives the films something of a freedom, and it comes across when you watch them.  It also leads to many people expecting conventional narratives to be frustrated.

Both Badlands and Days of Heaven are fairly straightforward.  They are both 94 minutes long, and have an intimate quality to them.  Badlands is largely just about two people, and Days of Heaven expands to a quartet.  The landscape is important to these films, going as far as to lend the title to his first film.  It’s important to note that Malick is from Texas and this love of wide open spaces seems to be almost born in him.  He came from money, which often helps explain a fascination with people from the wrong side of the tracks.  Rather than get too in depth about his biography I find it necessary to mention two additional items.  First, he is a certifiable genius, the man is probably smarter than you.  Second, he was a philosopher, even teaching it at MIT.  Knowing a little about his background helps to illuminate some of his ideas towards cinema.

What many people thought would be Saving Private Ryan-Pacific, Thin Red Line turned into a philosophical exploration of the psychological aspects of war.  Much of the carnage is filmed with long shots, with many a shifting internal monologue, flashback, and muted soundtrack.  There are multiple moments where the film could venture into conventional war movie territory, but it never seems to linger for long.  It was based on James Jones’ book of the same name, and the author probably wouldn’t have recognized Malick’s interpretation had he lived to see it.  I was a fan of the film from the first time I saw it, and on an emotional level it probably remains Malick’s most powerful.  It was simply a miracle that it was made.  During the two decades separating Days of Heaven from The Thin Red Line many a rumor and legend began to arise about what Terrence Malick was up to.  He moved to Paris, continued writing, but from there the details are incredibly vague.  There was no shortage of A-list actors who wanted to be a part of The Thin Red Line, and although the cameos might seem slightly distracting, he makes sure to feature them early and often.  This film helped bring things full circle considering John Travolta was the first choice to appear in Days of Heaven

The one constant in Malick’s films is art director Jack Fisk.  He got his start at the Roger Corman school of low budget movies before getting his break on Badlands.  Fisk is something of the unsung hero in Malick’s work.  It’s amazing to see the progression from three story tree house in Badlands to the fort in The New World.  He was known for an impressive attention to detail, filling Spacek’s room with tons of character detail, earmarked books, and clothes in every drawer.   These things might be geared more towards helping actors get in character, but it creates a sense of lived in space.  As the scope of these films got larger obviously Fisk’s work got bigger.  The attention to detail and obsessive quest for authenticity in The New World was a common theme throughout the cast and crew. 

The Native American actors went through their own mini-boot camp to learn how to move and speak like a tribe in the early 17th century.  This helped create a sense of community not unlike the one for the soldiers in The Thin Red Line.  The fact that Malick seems completely unconcerned with financial returns on his movies, allows this sort of unusual luxury.  Each of his films seem like a self contained world yet part of a bigger picture.  What helps unite these films isn’t just the presence of Fisk or narration, but violence.  Badlands was a personal project for Malick that he had pretty much fully formed in his mind by the time he enrolled in the American Film Institute.  It was based loosely on the Charles Starkweather killings in the late 50s.  The film ends with a note in the credits about how it is a work of fiction, and comparing the true crime story to the finished film will naturally reveal some key differences.

Days of Heaven isn’t really a violent film by nature, but it is book-ended by a couple of murders.  It’s easy to think of that film as this really pretty picture that employed two absolutely incredible cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler.  The Thin Red Line by contrast is violent by nature but despite many explosions and attacks it’s far from gory.  It’s interesting to compare the first two films and their depiction of violence with the last two.  In Badlands the killing is just a chain reaction.  One bad decision just leads to another, and you get a feeling that Kit (Martin Sheen) starts to enjoy it.  He is concerned with his own legacy, even building a little rock monument to show where he was captured.  Bill (Richard Gere) is as much of a victim as a perpetrator, pushed into violence to survive in Days.

The killing is more a matter of course for The Thin Red Line.  The film does show the psychological aspects of fighting a war in a way that isn’t really shown in the much more personal violence of the first two films.  It’s somehow more humanistic despite the often faceless nature of war and war films.  These two threads get woven together beautifully in The New World.  The violence is part of surviving in a new and hostile place, but the personal attachment Smith (Colin Farrell) has to the natives makes it seem all the more tragic.  Despite the aloofness of Smith, the rest of the whites seem more in tune with history’s version of early settlers.  They are convinced they’re right, and have that classic European delusion of bringing civilization to these “savages”.  When the natives attack it’s more in the interest of their self preservation, and the white people seem much more on the defensive.  Violence seems an unavoidable by product of the world in Malick’s eyes through all these films, just in different contexts.  This is where the philosopher seems to really shine through in these movies.  The idea of violence would somewhat exhaust itself after The New World, as nature itself appears to be the violent force in Tree of Life.

I would point out I was quite happy when Criterion announced they were releasing The New World.  For starters I hadn’t seen the film since it was originally in theaters.  I liked it but found it at times a bit slow.  Hearing that there was an extended cut of the film was something quite exciting, but I never put fourth enough of an effort to track this version down.  The new release features both the theatrical cut and the 172 minute extended cut, as well as a third original version.  I watched the 172 minute version and it simply adds some texture to the original story.  I followed this up with the 150 minute original cut, which admittedly was playing the in the background while writing this blog.  Considering so many of Malick’s work is in the details these contrasting versions don’t alter the story too much, simply adding a few extra layers. 

I feel The New World is arguably his most important script.  The story was apparently written around the time of Days of Heaven, but for numerous reasons was put on the back burner for decades.  I noticed that when Smith is commenting on the natives never uttering the word “forgiveness”, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) asks to be forgiven by her father later.  Something I noticed in theaters that was backed up by the extended versions is also the fact that the name Pocahontas is never actually uttered.  The first time she is ever even addressed by a name it is when she’s christened Rebecca.  It’s a subtle little detail, but one that I feel rewards the diligent. 

Overall these first four films are far from a warm up to something greater, even if you’ll excuse me in saying Tree of Life is superior to all of them.  I wouldn’t argue with anyone who would say one of these four films was Malick’s best.  Arguably the best thing about his often rambling philosophical style is that it resonates with people on a personal level.  Badlands is a perfect film, and an incredibly impressive debut.  It works because of it’s two leads, Martin Sheen’s charisma and Sissy Spacek’s ambivalence.  Malick himself appears as a traveling salesman, and would also appear briefly in Days of Heaven as a steel worker before entering his self imposed seclusion. 

Days of Heaven is a good film but one that misses the mark ever so slightly.  I’ve never been a big fan of Linda Manz narration, despite being in the minority with this.  Malick always had a bit of a fascination with accents, and there’s no doubt he was enamored with Manz’s, but I find it a little overdone.  The visual aspects of the film deserve all the praise you can give a movie, and despite the cinematic inexperience of the actors the performances are pretty solid.  Part of the problem with the film is in it’s legend.  Being the last Malick film for 20 years a lot of people over analyzed the hell out of this film, and what was something of a simple period picture became so much more.  It was more a testament to what could have been with his seemingly abandoned career.  As we’ve gotten more Malick, especially recently that promise seems largely fulfilled.  Days of Heaven almost seems like a sophomore slump, a good film that doesn’t quite hold up to it’s predecessor and it’s long awaited successor.

The Thin Red Line was the first Malick film I ever saw, and I really didn’t know much about the director or his long hiatus.  Perhaps for this reason I didn’t go in to the film with the same level of anticipation all the people who worshiped Days of Heaven had.  Since I watched it in my formative years as a film fan, I was obliged to compare it to other war films.  I loved it right away, mainly for how subjective the film was.  I could recognize even as a novice that the goal was to show more of the emotional toll of war than the physical or even mental.  Seeing it several times since it reveals new depths each time.  It would have seemed silly to consider it a better film than Saving Private Ryan, which it’s for better or worse always going to be linked with, but the more I’ve seen each the more I have to lean towards Malick.  Repeated viewings are kind to this film, and not to detract from Spielberg’s masterpiece, that film wins you over immediately.  There’s a bit of work that is required in The Thin Red Line, but it’s so worth it.

Having seen all three version of The New World I have to say it is a great film.  At times the film seems to wander aimlessly, and even the theatrical version feels a bit long.  There are a few head scratching moments, and there is a sense that things could have been trimmed without losing much of the ambience and plot.  Colin Farrell isn’t bad, but he does just seem to be more of a prop than an actor here.  He’s just sort of wandering aimlessly the whole time, but what do I know?  Without nitpicking, I feel like I should point out that filmmakers of a certain quality are judged by different standards.  With technical aspects all universally excellent, their work seems to be measured against each other, and although these four films are all masterpieces in their own right, they aren’t necessarily equal in quality.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment to an auteur is that these films all have a similar visual look despite being shot by 5 different cinematographers.  Emmanuel Lubezki (who has won the past three best cinematography Oscars) seems to have made a good impression on Malick.  After The New World, they worked together on his next three features.  Watching these first four films reminds me of the era when a Terrence Malick film was a once a decade experience.  He has started to make up for lost time, and his future films will probably fail to be as heavily scrutinized and poured over as these first four were, but the plus side is more movies.   So thank you for reading through my scatterbrain thoughts on one of America’s greatest directors.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Breathless (1960) - Jean-Luc Godard

There have been more film movements over the past century than I would care to calculate.  Some are vaguely defined, some were stylistic, some were political, some geographical, but few did more to reshape the concept of cinema quite like the French New Wave.  Godard’s debut feature, Breathless still remains the movement’s most definitive and most influential film.

The film’s reputation has been so exalted and canonized over the past several decades that it seems completely intertwined with film history.  I believe it helps clearly separate cinema into two distinct eras, the pre-Godard and the post.  The rules of cinema were open for debate, the subject matter could be anything, the methods of production were flexible, and things were never quite the same afterward. 

As indebted as this film is in history it’s legend began during production.  Godard who was a pretty well established film critic from Cahiers du Cinema, knew the power of the press when it came to making or breaking a movie.  He made sure to have various journalists visit the set and write about his unorthodox filming methods and had himself proclaimed as some sort of mad genius long before the public even got a glimpse of the film.  It was a calculated move that paid off and helped to ensure the film’s success as well as Godard’s desire to be included as a true cinematic auteur.

Now before I shit all over the film, I’d like to point out a few of the things that completely deserve praise and exaltation.  For starters, there is a certain sense of joy in this film that is noticeably absent from Godard’s later films.  He seems to legitimately be enjoying the process of making a film.  Godard had numerous false starts getting his first feature financed, and he was the last of the 5 seminal directors of the Cahiers group to begin his first feature (although Jacques Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient ran out of financing, and wasn‘t finished until after Breathless premiered).  Godard was in fact so excited to get to make a film he didn’t really stop to figure out what the hell he was going to do.

The story was originally suggested by friend and fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut.  It was based on a real life incident involving a man who shot a motorcycle cop in 1952 before being turned in by his American girlfriend.  In reality the criminal was apprehended, Godard saw a much more Hollywood style dramatic ending in mind for his version.  As he would do countless times in the future when given a synopsis, Godard changed a good amount of the details and the finished product barely resembled either the real life incident or the much more conventional script treatment Truffaut submitted.

The opening sequence is still quite exceptional, and I am under the impression that many critics and film fans base their praise of the film on these first 10 minutes or so.  The beginning has no formal credits, much like Welles’ Citizen Kane, but does have a dedication to Monogram Pictures which firmly sets the tone for the low-budget film noir homage the picture would become.  With a handheld camera, the film feels deeply personal.  Everything was shot on location, and the jump cuts are jarring but not disorienting.  Godard is drawing attention to the artifice of cinema in a very deliberate way.  The cuts are noticeable, but thanks to a unified sound track, they are easily followed.  The movie was shot without direct sound, so everything from dialogue to street sounds were done in post production.  This underlying sonic element helps to keep the film from derailing into amateurish territory.  Godard filmed several moments, including the chase from alternating angels, and when editing Michel pointing the gun at the police officer, the reverse shot is oriented to be pointing back at Michel.  Rather than sloppy editing, this is more of a deliberate attempt to break up the rules of continuity.  In the case of the gun, it makes it seem like Michel needs to shoot the officer in order to keep himself from being shot.

One criticism of the film is the fact that it is extremely amateurish.  No doubt Godard would find himself on the short list of greatest directors ever, but he had no clue what he was doing on this film.  He would write dialogue the day of the shoot, hand it to his actors and shout out the lines.  Since there was no direct sound, he knew everything would be dubbed after the fact.  It was infuriating for his actors who were barely able to tolerate what they saw as a madman without a clue. 

The final film was well over the two hour mark when initially completed.  Godard’s producer Georges de Beauregard insisted on delivering a 90 minute film to the theaters.  When discussing what to cut, Godard consulted with his friend and mentor, the director Jean Pierre Melville who appears as the celebrity Patricia (Jean Seberg) interviews for her paper.  Melville suggested cutting everything that was unnecessary to the central plot, that of the criminal Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo), Patricia, and his flight from the law.   This meant Melville suggested cutting his own scene, but Godard had another idea.  Rather than chop up entire scenes, he decided to remove fragments of each scene.  The idea was to trim whatever felt lagging or slowed the film down, regardless of whether it was an entire scene or merely a couple of shots.  This tightened up some of the scenes and helps explain the practical reason why there are so many jump cuts. 

Godard’s numerous film references and homage’s were also relatively new at the time.  Truffaut did make a small reference to cinema in The 400 Blows, but it was mostly a knowing bit of encouragement to his buddy Rivette’s yet incomplete Paris Nous Appartient.  Aside from the beginning dedication, Belmondo is constantly mimicking Bogart’s look, which is juxtaposed rather deliberately with a poster of his last film The Harder They Fall.  The film audio we hear in the film is from Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool, and several other posters and references pop up.  Melville’s presence is in itself an homage, as Godard was a very big fan of his Bob Le Flambeur, which was an early influence on Breathless.  For better or worse countless followers would show their love of cinema and throw in knowing winks to their idols and influences.

Melville being as pretentious as he can
Much of the dialogue is pretty ridiculous.  Patricia is perhaps fashioned after a classic femme fatale but she just seems painfully apathetic.  Most of Michel’s comments towards her seem to be about her promiscuity, a fact that he doesn’t even attempt to conceal about himself.  Her denunciation of him is announced so casually.  Both characters aren’t particularly likeable, but the actors playing them are so it certainly supports Fellini and Woody Allen’s ideas that casting was more than half the battle when making a film.

This scene might be boring but those abs aren't
The film is not a flawless masterpiece however.  The debt future filmmakers owe to Godard and this film is nearly impossible to calculate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the film itself is great.  The plot is standard enough low budget noir fare, but the lack of focus is apparent throughout.  Virtually a third of the film’s running time is just Michel and Patricia hanging out in her room talking and smoking cigarettes.  The scene works in a small way because of the screen charisma of it’s two leads, but the conversation is just the somewhat slightly immature and insecure ramblings of a director who is noticeably speaking through his actors. 

There is a wonderful spontaneity to the film that is part of it’s charm.  Shot on location with a skeleton crew, many of the street scenes were filmed with a small lightweight camera by Coutard sitting in a wheelchair being pushed by Godard.  Some police actually did show up when they filmed Michel’s death scene, and Belmondo deliberately timed his collapse to be right before landing in oncoming traffic.  Godard was obsessed with filming everything with available light, which led to some creative fixes for night scenes.  There was only one lab they could get film sensitive enough to shoot at night without added lighting, but it only ran in roughly 30 second reels, which led to Godard and Coutard hand splicing the film together.  Coutard would prove to be a willing partner, and their frequent collaborations in the future proved they did work extremely well together.  Godard’s main reasoning for shooting with natural light was the freedom it provided.  Godard hated the mechanical aspects of filming, and made sure he could be free to just film and make it up as he went along.

Godard and Coutard trailing their actors
I’m not sure how much of Godard’s spontaneous ingenuity was just plain laziness.  I mentioned earlier how Godard wrote the dialogue each day before filming, but much of the film was shot in the same haphazard way.  He wanted no producers on the set and kept the bare minimum of crew by union laws.  Godard also loved to not work.  Many days shooting would last on average 3 hours, where he would film a couple of random scenes and then dismiss for the day.  Much of the cast and crew found it incredibly unprofessional, and based on the style Belmondo for one thought that the film would be an incomprehensible mess that would never be released.  Jean Seberg, who made her acting debut following a well publicized talent search for Otto Preminger, found the conditions appalling.  Preminger may have tormented his actress, but he at least knew what he was doing on set. 

Godard rarely gave his actors any direction, preferring vague comments that had little to do with the film.  His instructions for Coutard were similarly cryptic, which is partially because Godard had no idea what he even wanted.  He spent so long just wanting to make a movie, he didn’t necessarily plan out how to do it.  Thanks in part to Coutard and the near documentary aspects of the location photography the film is still filled with highlights, but the rambling indecision of it’s auteur is apparent, especially on multiple viewings.  Godard’s main ambition seemed to be to make sure everything was in focus and the film at least looked professional, the rest could be figured out later.

Breathless despite it’s flaws and apparent sloppiness is still among the 5 or 10 most important films ever made.  Not only did it help break the French New Wave to an international audience, it inspired legions of film fanatics to make their own film.  Never was its influence more apparent than in the next decade’s American films.  The “film school” directors of 70s were all heavily indebted to the French New Wave, probably none more so than Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. 

Breathless can be compared to Birth of a Nation in terms of it’s importance, but the flaws of that film bare little resemblance to the ones here.  Griffith was an accomplished pro who was at the top of his craft, but also a bit of a racist.  Feel free to read my last blog post for elaboration.  Godard did have some extreme right-wing sympathies during this period in his life, and many accused his early films of being outright fascist.  Breathless however can hardly be called fascist or racist by a modern audience.  Oddly enough he was criticized by many of his peers for not being overtly political with this film.  Anyone familiar with some of Godard’s later work, particularly anything from about 1966 on would know that he more than made up for the absence of his political convictions early on.
Patricia mimicking Michel mimicking Bogart
Godard has a tendency to take himself far too seriously in his later work.  His recent films almost feel like grueling homework to sit through, so there is some solace in the entertaining aspects of this film.  The plot is fairly straightforward if a bit rambling, which is something to note compared to how incomprehensible some of his later work would get.  This would remain his most universally liked and praised film.  Although different Godard fans would all have their own personal favorite, it’s hard to argue that Breathless isn’t the best place to start.  I still think it’s a great film, just a far from perfect one.  It will forever be the defining moment of the New Wave, and the moment where cinema would never be the same.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

I’ve written a few words over the years about D.W. Griffith and his two seminal masterpieces The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.  In fact nearly everyone whose written anything about cinema has written a few words about these two landmarks of American film.  A couple of weeks ago I watched both films again and it got my mind aflutter.  Due to my tendency to write too much, here’s the first part of that review, on The Birth of a Nation.

It is hard for me to divorce these films from their historical era.  This isn’t necessarily a problem, because it is important to view things in the context of history.  We shouldn’t judge Robocop’s ED-209 with it's noticeable stop motion animation by today’s CGI-fests.  It’s important to know the limitations of the era and respect the often ingenious solutions filmmakers got around certain practical problems.  This helps explain some of the awe I have watching the battle scenes in Birth of a Nation, and particularly the Babylonian sequence in Intolerance.  I still wager Intolerance is impressive today, even knowing that modern special effects were over half a century away.

Looking at these films as a product of their time brings a few problems however.  The first is that we aren’t measuring the films by any universal criteria.  We give these films a pass on some of the acting, writing, and production values based on when it was made as opposed to ranking it alongside any contemporary work.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and these two films for better or worse helped define nearly all of Hollywood for the past century.  The other more practical problem is that modern audiences have no idea what life in 1915-1916 was like.  We’ve read history books, seen old movies, but do any of us really know the cultural zeitgeist of a century ago?  This leads to many modern audiences, myself included, projecting what they felt was normal or contemporary for the period.

So naturally we’re facing a certain dilemma, do we simply laugh at the over dramatic acting, and dismiss this as some historical relic good for a chuckle; or do we measure the films based on what was happening at the time and measure them against their peers?  Film is a medium that has continually evolved as new technology has developed.  It’s easy to discuss the artistic merits of paintings that are separated by a century or more, because paint + canvas = art hasn’t really changed that much.  Sure different styles and movements have come and gone in painting, but the tools have remained the same.  Music to a lesser extent can fall under the same category.  Classical music in particular can be compared across any era, because the instruments and basic music theory hasn’t changed much since the baroque period. 

Literature offers perhaps the closest parallel to cinema.  The structure of the novel is still very much the same as it’s always been, but so many other things have changed.  So many classic novels have entire plots based on obsolete or downright silly dated axioms.  This doesn’t stop these books from being great, but it certainly makes them dated and we have to trust in the writer to transport us to that world.  This is why books like Pride and Prejudice or Sister Carrie remain classics despite being nearly completely implausible in a contemporary setting.

I realize I’ve gotten ludicrously off base and I know what you want to talk about, racism.  It’s the elephant in the room with Birth of a Nation, the one thing that the film has been associated with throughout the last century.  This aspect makes that historical perspective tough to figure.  This was made in 1915, nearly 50 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, so it’s easy to just shrug your shoulder and say people were just a hell of a lot more racist back then.  That doesn’t exactly let Mr. Griffith off the hook to just point and say everyone was a little racist back then.  So allow me to try and wrap my brain around the most troubling aspect of either of these films.

Now the film essentially breaks itself into two parts.  There’s the war, and the Reconstruction.  These can be separated by Lincoln’s assassination.  Griffith makes a strong point in this film to point out how much he loves Lincoln, and believes he could have prevented all the degradation and exploitation of the Reconstruction.  So it isn’t entirely accurate to label him a racist right off the bat.  Not all of the blacks in this film are portrayed as buffoons.  A few comically offensive ones certainly overshadow the more humane examples.  These things didn’t go unnoticed at the time, as many protests were centered around the film and the NAACP urged a boycott and outright banning of the film.

What’s interesting to note narratively is that Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) who is shown to be the founder of the KKK, was pardoned by Abraham Lincoln.  It is meant to show the compassion and forgiveness on Lincoln’s part to the rebel Confederates, but it also unfortunately implies that had it not been for that presidential pardon the Klan might not have been formed.  I don’t think Griffith or original author Thomas Dixon Jr. were implying that Lincoln was in some way responsible for the group, but it is an interesting by-product.

I'm fascinated to know end with the amount of information we are given.  The Civil War itself is remarkably simplified.  Trying to condense the bloodiest conflict in American history into a one hour subplot will naturally involve leaving out a few details.  However the film moves along in a way that respects the audience's intelligence.  We’re supposed to know certain things, and Griffith assumes we have some basic understanding of the principles involved.  That’s why the Northern Stoneman’s and Southern Cameron’s are meant to represent two sides of the same coin.  They’re united as Americans but divided by geography.  It’s Griffith’s and Dixon’s belief that we are all one nation, hence the title of the film, and that essentially wealthy white people are one and the same everywhere.

That feeling when you can't look a white man in the blackface
Where Dixon in particular shows his Confederate pride is in his depiction of Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), based loosely on Thaddeus Stevens.  Stoneman isn’t necessarily wrong in his beliefs but certainly in his execution.  He is a staunch abolitionist and that’s something that isn’t exactly being contested here, but his plan for the Reconstruction is to punish the South, contrary to Lincoln’s plan.  As a patriarch in the beginning of the film during their visit to the Cameron’s in South Carolina, he is depicted as a pretty level headed leader.  His family is well brought up, and he is extremely progressive employing a “mulatto” named Silas Lynch (played by the very white George Siegmann).  Afterwards you can almost feel the Yankee loathing in Dixon, who made Stoneman a figurehead for every carpetbagger that came to exploit the South, and in particular the newly enfranchised freed slaves.

Again where this film gets troublesome is that the tactics used to give blacks the vote and suppress the former slave owning whites from elections are exactly what happened for the next century on the other side.  In fact when “order” is restored near the end of the film, all the freed slaves go back to being terrified of white men and want nothing to do with voting and holding office.  The scene of the black representatives is one that constantly gets cited among the films greatest sins.  You can view it as a sort of a caricature, everything in silent films had to be somewhat exaggerated and blown out of proportion to translate on the screen, so the unruliness of these newly elected members does reflect that.  By today’s cinematic standards it’s hard to watch without cringing at a few moments.  Members are barefoot, taking shots of whiskey, and all other manner of unruliness.  Rather than showing the utter chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction, it comes across as showing newly freed slaves as uncivilized baboons that have no business in government or decent society.  The black legislature even has the audacity to legalize interracial marriages, which is of course depicted as an atrocity here.

Nothing offensive about that at all
Now rather than spend this entire time talking about racism I’d like to point out something about the acting style in the film.  It was common in many Griffith films, but you can certainly notice here that no characters ever make eye contact.  They always turn their heads towards the camera or away from each other, looking straight ahead as if they are projecting for an audience.  Now this was a play before a film, so it’s possible Griffith just went with that style, but it makes the performances feel unnatural, even if it’s not immediately perceivable.  Naturalistic acting wasn’t a particular style in silent film, but watch just how many people fail to make eye contact when speaking here, it’s staggering.

Behold eye contact in all it's glory
Now back to mixed race marriages because although it is the type of fundamental human right we have lately taken for granted, it’s depiction here is important to note.  Gus, the black soldier who was played by the really white Walter Long, spots Flora Cameron and over-zealously mentions his intention to marry her.  In a modern film this might be met with some confusion, earlier he is seen spotting her and somewhat leering at Flora, but alone in the woods it’s depicted as downright terrifying.  Flora becomes arguably the most irrational character in a movie filled with them.  Rather than tell Gus no, and playing up her ladylike superiority, she immediately runs and flees.  As Gus tries to explain himself and make something of a compelling case for himself as a suitable husband, Flora warns him that she’ll jump off a cliff if he comes closer.  This is baffling behavior and makes you wonder just how damn racist people were that a woman would rather commit suicide than let a black man come close to her.  We’re meant to assume that Gus is depraved and Flora assumes he’s going to rape her, but Gus is just scared and frankly a little confused at the object of his affection acting psychotic.

Pictured, the reaction to a black man wanting to talk to you
When Flora jumps off the cliff it’s as good as Gus killing her.  The frightening thing is that Dixon, and possibly Griffith meant to show Ben and his Klansmen lynching Gus as a sign of vigilante justice.  I wonder however if it is that simple.  Watching the film several times, Gus seems a bit clumsy but his only crime is asking a white woman to marry him.  Silas Lynch is much more deliberately criminal, which I’d like to think is the white half of his upbringing.  I have to laugh at the hypocrisy that they expose in the film regarding Austin Stoneman.  When Lynch tells his boss and mentor that he plans on marrying a white woman, Stoneman congratulates him until he finds out that the white woman is his daughter Elsie (Lillian Gish).  He flips out, attacks Lynch and the idea is that racial integration is great until it’s your own family.  It is a bit disappointing reaction for Stoneman, who previously had Elsie break off her engagement with Ben for his KKK connection.  The man he supported and forced down South Carolina’s throats as the Lt. Governor isn’t good enough for his own daughter. 
Pictured: White Justice
Not long after this comes the film's most cringe worthy title card “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright.”  This is when the black militia are surrounding the cabin where the elder Cameron and his faithful servants are held up with two former Union soldiers.  According to Dixon, our mutual distrust and hatred of minorities has bridged the gap between the Union and Confederacy.  What more could you expect from a film where the heroes are the KKK?  It is deeply disturbing to see the KKK keeping black people from ballot boxes at the end as a sort of victory.  This is the type of shit that took a century to clean up in the deep South, where institutionalized racism still persists.  There is such a naiveté to this film, like Griffith wanted to show how progressive he was, but simultaneously had no idea what that meant.  This points to a larger problem in society, where racist people don't seem to be aware that they are racist.

The fucked up and disturbing aspects of this film's final act notwithstanding this is still a monumental work in the history of cinema.  It’s legacy is well documented.  Raoul Walsh who played John Wilkes Booth would later spend the next half century as one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors.  Lillian Gish appeared in films up until the late 80s.  John Ford was said to have been an un-credited Klansman in this film, who went on to win four best director Oscars.  It’s not hard to get six degrees of separation to anyone in Hollywood history from this film and it’s cast/crew.  Griffith himself claimed to have invented nearly every film technique there was, but like Edison and his similar inventing claims most have historically been refuted.  There is no doubt that the success of the film helped spread a ton of Griffith’s devices to other filmmakers who were influenced by this.  Including tinting, irises, night photography, and wide panoramic shots.

 Perhaps no filmmaker was better influenced than Griffith by the film.  His masterpiece Intolerance was a direct response to this, and it helps right many of the wrongs in the second half of this film.  Broken Blossoms made in 1919 is arguably the first sympathetic interracial relationship in cinema, albeit white and Chinese, and of course the Chinese man was played by a white, but I digress.  Griffith eventually went bankrupt trying to top this film, and after making two talking films, one about Abraham Lincoln, he was essentially blacklisted.  It’s standing as the top grossing film of all time stood until Gone With the Wind came out in 1939. 

There is no doubt of it’s historical significance.  The cultural impact was immediate, and no matter the exaggerations and inaccuracies of some of the historical elements it’s impact on the evolution of film was unparalleled.  The question though remains whether it’s a great or even good film on it’s own.  Separate the film from it’s context and influence and is it worth watching?  Despite some pacing issues, the first half is incredible to behold.  The scale and scope is still impressive today, but the second half poses numerous problems.  The politics and the obvious blackface is hard to sit through, but despite how wrong the climax might be, Griffith was the all time master at inter-cutting and filming a last second rescue.  It was his stock and trade, and something he perfected from his early Biograph days, and by 1915 it was as ubiquitous to one of his films as an Alfred Hitchcock cameo in one of his. 

Due to the extraordinary execution, it’s hard not to get swept up in the finale as you wait for the Cameron patriarch to be rescued, and then you stop yourself and realize you’ve just been rooting for the Klan to save the day.  Before you condemn yourself as a racist monster, you might have slight epiphany about the power of cinema and what it can do in the right (or wrong) hands.  It is hard for a modern audience to like the film on it’s own merit, it doesn’t have the more broad and sweeping appeal of Intolerance but there is still some greatness to be found there.  So do your homework and watch it already.