Saturday, January 29, 2011

Birth of a Nation

I had never seen Birth of a Nation. I don't know why I watched it, I guess it came up when I was browsing in Netflix on-demand titles, so I started watching on a whim. I was blown away. I watched it all the way through, all three hours.

I'm not a fan of historic film, or silent film, or propaganda, artful or otherwise. For example I wasn't much interested in Triumph of the Will, though I did watch it all the way to the end. If I were a film history buff (obviously I'm not) Triumph of the Will might have held my interest more. I just saw it as ugly and dated, and more to the point, as Nazi crap.

Birth of a Nation was racist crap...but I've never seen anything like it and I have been trying to figure out why it fascinated me. Part of it may be that it gave me a sense of the permanence of some of the right wing sentiment in this country, a vision of America that's still around, mutatis mutandis of course--nobody justifies the Ku Klux Klan now.

I don't think I would call it a movie at all in the present-day sense of the word. Maybe you can think of silent film as a kind of extended mime-melodrama--in this case very extended, as I said, three hours long--accompanied by music, originally played in the house.

I can't tell you why a moving-picture mime performance three hours long with captions and music worked, but it did. In 1915 a ticket cost the equivalent of over $40 in 2010, and the film was a runaway hit, the biggest grossing hit in movie history until the late 1930s.

I guess I haven't been patient enough to sit through many restorations of silent films, but my impression, and I hasten to say, not a very informed impression, is that they were accompanied by rinky-tink and slightly comic player-piano sounds, but until now I never thought much about the music in the originals.

With Birth of a Nation I think the music was actually the key to its power, even more so than the amazing photography--or so it seems to me--much like in Alexander Nevsky, though that was not a silent movie. (An aside: I originally saw an unrestored version of Alexander Nevsky many years ago, and thought the Prokofiev score for the Battle on the Ice was absolutely perfect in its majestically satanic quality, but later I discovered in hearing a restored version that a lot of that was the distortion of the degraded sound track. The restored version seemed like hearing a Tom Waits song performed by Loreena McKennitt. Oh well.)

I wonder if Lee Atwater and Donald Segretti and Karl Rove and Frank Luntz didn't watch Birth of a Nation, secretly, and find in it something that could still be used. I don't mean that they saw it and discovered music as a tool of misinformation--Republican propaganda has gone in other directions--it was the whole deal, the idyll of America that was being sold to the viewer, a vision of an ideal America that Republicans have to like, excluding the overt racism of course. But the music had to be really important in why Birth of a Nation succeeded.

The score was selected by Joseph Breil with a lot of help from, or (I have read) argument with, Griffiths, and was played by house orchestras, at least in the case of performances in major cities. (I read somewhere that Breil's score was not played at the Los Angeles premiere, but only later at the New York opening.) At any rate the Breil score seems be the soundtrack of the film's presently released version. And that soundtrack is fascinating.

What do we hear? Orchestral and kinda tarted up versions of Dixie, Bonnie Blue Flag, Camptown Races, My Country 'Tis of Thee, O Tannenbaum (which at that time must have been familiar to Breil as also being the socialist anthem the Red Flag) the Ride of the Valkeries, Gary Owen, and at the end, the Star Spangled Banner as the new nation of Aryan white brotherhood, north and south, is born. And of course there was a lot of original stuff by Breil. I'd guess he wasn't a very good composer, but Dixie has an emotive spin on it, on its own.

So I think what kept me with the movie was the music, and the simplicity of mime. Plus the cinematography, but that's obviously not news. A simple, mythic message, pulling out all the stops in the delivery. Which, unfortunately, seems to be what the right-wing in America is good at. Even more unfortunately, maybe better today than in 1915.

An irrelevant-to-my-point footnote: I have not looked into real scholarship on Birth of a Nation, but the online commentary always notes that the major black roles were played by white people wearing blackface. That's not really true. I noticed a few, but only a few, white people in stereotypical blackface playing minor black roles. A great many of the black crowd members and extras actually were black. Black actors and extras were clearly available in Los Angeles and were hired for the movie.

The major black characters in the movie, who were villains, were supposed to be "mulattos." I think that's important. Race mixing was a big deal in Birth of a Nation, representing contamination and corruption, not just of whites but of blacks as well. The villains did not appear in blackface; they were obvious white people whose skin had been made to appear dirty. Nothing more. Just dirty. The symbolism is obvious.

Trivia: I suppose the rocky terrain could pass for Appalachian foothills, and ponderosa pines for loblolly pine, but I had to laugh at a big agave that persistently appeared in the background scenery during one sequence toward the end.