Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Birth Of A Nation (1915)


Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation has quite the dual reputation. Everyone talks about its technical expertise, its stellar performances, its sheer scope and spectacle. Everyone also talks about how staggeringly and blatantly racist it is – it celebrates the Ku Klux Klan, it features actors in blackface and it drew complaints from the NAACP at the time of its release.  So I knew that watching it was going to be tough.  But I made myself keep an open mind when I watched.

And I think the open mind made everything even worse.

Parts of the plot are actually quite complex (at least, compared to the twelve-minute Great Train Robbery). Our story mainly concerns two families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons, who stay friends throughout the film. Phil Stoneman and his brother are buddies with the two oldest Cameron brothers, and during a visit south at the movie’s start, Phil takes a shine to the older Cameron sister Margaret – meanwhile Ben Cameron is taken with a picture of Phil’s only sister Elsie. While the kids are running around down south, the elder Stoneman, an abolitionist congressman, is coming under the sway of his mixed-race housekeeper.

The Civil War temporarily divides everyone – each set of brothers enlists with the Union and the Confederacy in turn, with the war claiming the younger brothers (who die in each others’ arms). Ben and Phil run into each other as well, when Ben leads a charge on the Union outpost defended by Phil’s squad; when Ben is wouned, Phil gets him safely to an army hospital in the North, where by chance he is tended to by Elsie and makes a bid for her affections. The feeling is apparently mutual – Elsie visits Abraham Lincoln to make a special appeal for a pardon for Ben.

So the families are friends again at war’s end, with a double romance even in the air, and the southern Camerons even applauding President Lincoln. But the elder Stoneman – wholly under the influence of his social-aspirant housekeeper, as well as a mixed-race schemer named Lynch – wants to go even further with promoting a change in race relations, and siezes his chance after Lincoln’s assassination.  And thus the next twenty minutes are an alt-right stereotype of “what Reconstruction was like”, featuring scenes of newly-freed slaves running rampant in the streets, drinking in Congress, stuffing ballot boxes and shoving white people off sidewalks. A new law permitting mixed marriages encourages a black soldier to seek out the youngest Cameron girl, Flora, and ask to marry her – and she completely freaks out at the idea, runs into the woods and jumps off a cliff.

Ben uses her death to rally the initial Ku Klux Klan, gathering them to find the soldier and “give him a trial” (read: lynch him) before dumping his corpse at the doorstep of the new state governor.  The governor – who happens to be Lynch – outlaws the Klan, arrests Ben, and makes his own bid for Elsie.  After much consternation, the Klan dares to re-form and come to the rescue, freeing Ben and fending off Lynch.  The whole thing ends with a double wedding – Cameron to Stoneman in both cases – and both couples spending their honeymoons contemplating an eventual end to war.

I’d heard about the blackface; so I was surprised to see African-American actors in several scenes. Granted, they were living out every worst stereotype about slavery and the Reconstruction South imaginable, but they were there.  Then again, they were also extras; the speaking roles were all given to people in blackface.  The speaking roles also didn’t seem like great prizes – the lot of them were either servants or soldiers, either comically buffonish or malevolently manipulative.

However, the Stoneman’s housekeeper was strangely sympathetic. Her whole motivation was a desire to be a respected lady like Elsie; she is snubbed by a visiting Congressman early in the film, and in a later scene takes great delight in forcing him to treat her with the exact forms of courtesy that he denied to her earlier in the film. It’s clear you’re supposed to think poorly of her – she is so caught up in “pretending to be a lady” that she neglects her work, and in another scene it looks uneasily like she’s trying to seduce Stoneman into doing her will – but frankly, I found myself actually siding with her, and thinking of her as a sort of Lady MacBeth, with her own ambitions coming into play to influence a man with more power.

It’s clear Griffith put a lot of work into this. The battle scenes were all carefully choreographed, with some scenes lifted directly from contemporary paintings of certain battles (Griffith helpfully points them out during the intertitles). And this film is also the birth of a lot of the conventions of film that we take for granted today – closeups, two-shots, even a score.

It’s also clear Griffith knew how some of the racial elements were coming across. In a disclaimer near the beginning, Griffith states that the film is not meant to be a depiction of any one race as a whole, and throughout he takes pains to point out noble moments from “good” African-Americans – Ben is rescued from jail with the help of the Cameron’s servants, and in a scene showing the Camerons grieving Flora’s death, Griffith includes a shot of the two servants huddled together in tears, with the caption “none grieved more than these two”.

But those are small comfort in a film that depicts all of the freed-slave voters as ignorant, greedy, motivated entirely by their ids. They drink, they smoke.  They go barefoot in Congress.  They stuff ballot boxes. They don’t outright rape, but you sense that Griffith would have shown this if censors would have let him.

Griffith also includes a pre-amble quoting President Woodrow Wilson, stating that “white men were roused by an instinct of self-preservation” in the south, and towards the end, an intertitle describes a pair Union soldiers who come to the Cameron’s aid as a case of “The former enemies of North and South united again in defense of their Aryan birthright”.  Towards the end, a scene depicting “the next year’s election” shows a line of white-robed Klansmen glaring threateningly at a mob of would-be black voters, who all turn and slink away. That was real fun to watch in these days of restricted access to ballot boxes…although watching the Klansmen dump the lynching victim on a doorstep, with a sign reading “KKK” pinned to his shirt, was far worse.

….I’ve been following the career of the actor Colman Domingo for some time now, after we did a show together early on in his career. This year, he was in a film about the Nat Turner slave rebellion – which the filmmakers titled Birth Of A Nation, in an ironic nod to how Griffith’s film both launched the movie industry and the modern Klan in one fell swoop. They were trying to “reclaim it”, they said.  I suspect that their choice may be lost on the average moviegoer, but I’m thinking I may want to watch it as a kind of palate cleanser now.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Great Train Robbery (1903)


Wow, look at that! A recognizeable plot!

This takes a huge leap forward from A Trip To The Moon – it’s much easier to follow the action now. There are very few scenes with more than just three people in them – and when there are, it’s easy to follow what’s supposed to be happening and who to pay attention to.  I know I keep harping on that, but this is a basic element of dramaturgy and stagecraft that was getting overlooked in the last film; not because the filmmakers were ignorant, but because film was so new that people were figuring out how it worked.

Even though it’s easier to follow, the plot here is still a little thin, however – a team of train robbers hold up first the train station, and then a train itself, making off with papers from the express car and with valuables pilfered from the passengers at gunpoint. But the station master is revived by his sweet daughter and sounds the alarm, raising a posse to give chase and recover the goods from our villains. The end.  Ben Hur it ain’t, but not bad for only twelve minutes.

A few details made me chuckle.  A number of people get shot over the course of this film, and three of them “play dead” in exactly the same way – coming to a sudden stop, throwing arms straight up over their head, and then sinking to the ground while pirouetting.  It’s not clear whether they’re hamming it up to “sell the action”, or they’re just…hams.  My money’s on the former; another scene with the station master’s daughter has a similar degree of Big Acting, where she pauses in the middle of trying to wake her father to clasp her hands and raise them in prayer for a second, but the actress is a child, and I don’t see her trying to upstage anyone on purpose.

Also, this kind of acting was The Done Thing at this time, on stage especially. This was a long time before naturalistic acting; the goal wasn’t to imitate life, it was to evoke emotion. I’ve seen an actors’ instruction book from the period, which spoke of some very specific poses, gestures, and body language they were expected to assume during different scenes, depending on the circumstances; if you were trying to show fear, you had to stand one certain way, if you were pleading you stood another way. Some of the more histrionic poses may have been an offshoot of arcane acting habit that would have made perfect sense at the time – but just look ridiculous today.

The posse was silly for an entirely different reason. We meet them all at a country cabin where they’re having a lively squaredance, complete with bonnetted ladies, and at one point they yield the floor to a gentleman in a bowler hat who does a sort of tapdance while the other men all shoot at his feet. A moment later, he runs off and the others resume dancing a bit before the sheriff comes in to recruit them all for the posse.  And….scene.   I think this was just sort of an effort to add some “local color”, but that was still one out-of-nowhere shot.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Voyage Dans La Lune (1902)

Image result for voyage dans la lune

And we begin – with a film you can watch on Youtube. One of the oldest movie fantasies in the genre is short enough for the average Youtuber to upload on their site – it’s only twelve minutes long.   I feel like that is some kind of metaphor for the rabid change in cinema technology, but I’m not sure what metaphor that is.

I do know, though, that for most of the film, I had no idea what the hell was going on.

Ostensibly, it’s about a team of astronomers vowing to take a trip to the moon.  They build a rocket and head there, take a nap upon arrival and are watched over by the Big Dipper and by Saturn, and have a couple run-ins with lunar creatures before coming back to Earth and a hero’s welcome. But to me, it looked like  –

  • Group of guys with wizard hats sit in a room gesticulating a lot
  • Wizard guys bother a bunch of workmen
  • Wizard guys cimb into a giant rocket and are seen off by a team of chorus girls
  • Moon gets rocket in eye
  • Wizard guys climb out of spaceship, gesticulate a lot and then go to sleep where they are watched over by creepy ladies peeking out from stars
  • Wizard guys run around and gesticulate more
  • People in lizard masks start chasing them
  • Wizards get back into rocket and splash down on earth
  • Wizard guys make grand re-entry into town, chased by a lizard guy whom they dispatch by hitting him on head
  • Happy people play ring-around-the-rosie around a statue of a wizard

The end.

But my confusion may simply be a function of the passage of time.  A lot of the conventions we associate with movies, especially silent movies – credits, captions, music – simply aren’t here.  I had only the onscreen action to rely on – but that wasn’t helping me much.

What I learned afterward is: Georges Méliès, who also wrote and directed, plays “Professor Barbenfouillis”, the main wizard-guy who proposes the expedition.  As for the lizards, they’re actually “Selenites”, Meilie’s term for moon-people, and are played by various acrobats on a day off from the Folies Bergère. But history has not recorded their names, nor did the film itself.

Meilies was from a theater background, which may have affected the structure somewhat.  In theater it’s common to have a single static set; people can come and go, the ranks on stage can grow and shrink, but audiences can still follow the action (or at least figure out who to pay attention to) because they can hear people talking.  But here…I couldn’t.

More than anything else, that’s what drove home for me just how new this film was for its time – the creators were theater-trained, used to the conventions and rules of theater, and trying to apply them to a wholly new art form – and only realizing after the fact that not only was this art form new, it was different, and needed different rules. 

Film gave directors a lot of freedom too, though. Melies got interested in film because of its special-affects capability – he would do all sorts of weird experiments with his camera to see what it would do to the filmed image; running it backwards, at different speeds, and such.  His experiment with “what would happen if I stopped and started filming mid-way” was his favorite, and lead to him being able to have the wizards “magically” turn poles into chairs, an umbrella “magically” turn into a mushroom, and the like.  Special effects was his forte in theater too, though, so he can probably be forgiven for overlooking the more mundane parts of dramaturgy.

Still – it’s a start.