Sunday, November 29, 2009

Films I Love to Hate

Some films seem too easy to hate - so easy that it feels unfair and takes all the fun out if it. They make righteous indignation seem self-righteous. But then one reads how some others - critics, historians, scholars - have found reasons to admire the films and to recommend them. Hating them then becomes a duty, and whipping the dead horse not so futile as it seems.

The Birth of a Nation

Slavery has been called one of America's "original sins," and it is one that is still being expiated. It is only fitting, then, that the very first feature-length film to be made in America should have been one that is not only about the Civil War that sought to end slavery (1), but that is on the side of the slave owners. D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation was made in a quiet, godforsaken locality called Hollywood in 1915, and its success helped make Hollywood into what Griffith later called "a Detroit of the mind."

Based on the trash novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon (2), the film is replete with heroic white Southerners and villainous Northerners, noble and obedient slaves and lecherous, ape-like former slaves. And, of course, the Ku Klux Klan, which rides to the rescue in the film's climactic scene. If The Birth of a Nation were nothing more than an embarrassing relic of primitive filmmaking, it would have been mothballed long ago and put away in a nice dark vault.(3) Most of the so-called innovations attributed to Griffith have been systematically proven to be borrowings from Danish or French films either lost or forgotten. These reservations aside, The Birth of a Nation does possess a crude but undeniable power, a negative energy, that gives some scenes an emotional punch, regardless of the stupidity of their message.

When it was released it was a sensational hit, and made Griffith a fortune. This was due largely to the riots the film's screening provoked and the refusal of some major cities to show it simply in the interests of public order. It also inspired lynchings, an activity that usually needed no provocation in many places in America. It was attacked in the press and Griffith was labelled as a racist. In response, Griffith was inspired to make his next blockbuster, the extravagant and simple-minded Intolerance (1916). Lillian Gish continually defended "Mister Griffith," as she called him against the charge of racism.(4) But the film tells a very different story.

It is difficult to imagine the screening of The Birth of a Nation to an audience, particularly a black audience, that has not been given ample advance warning of its content. I have read tributes to Griffith, most notably by fellow Southerner James Agee, that practically have to stand on their own necks in his defense. But while some have argued that the film's outrageously stupid views on the Civil War and slavery are beside the point and that the film is justifiably ranked as one of the greatest American films, I would compare it with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, which is itself a formidable cinematic achievement. On the occasion of Riefenstahl's death in 2003, Stanley Kauffmann wrote:

When questioned about her work for the Nazis, she always responded that she had
never actually joined the Nazi Party and that she had changed her views in 1944
(as did other Nazi supporters when they saw that Hitler was going to lose). She
made her own subsequent attempts to separate art from politics. She would often
say, "I didn't do any harm to anyone. What have I ever done? What am I guilty
of?" I haven't yet read the response that could have been made: "Your work--in
fact, your best work--helped inspire millions to do enormous harm."

(1) Some historians deny that the Civil War was about the abolition of slavery. It was indeed about states' rights - but the most contentious right that the Southern states wanted to defend was the right to buy and sell black human beings. When the issue went unsettled at the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave-owner, admitted that "We have the wolf by the ears and we dare not let it go." The issue had to be shelved in 1776, but it was inevitable that it had to be settled in a nation that announced to the world that "all men are created equal."
(2) Griffith gave Dixon a percentage of the film's profits when he couldn't pay his original fee ($10,000) in full. The film's extraordinary success made Dixon a millionaire.
(3) Unlike Kevin Brownlow, who has devoted his life to unearthing and restoring ancient films - and written such beautiful books on the subject, like The Parade's Gone By - I have no great nostalgia for them. I am indebted to the people who restored Carl Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc to something close to its original glory. I am in no way indebted to those who restored Erich von Stroheim's Greed to four hours, less than half of its original 9-hour "director's cut." It is interminable at any length.
(4) Griffith was a perfect unthinking racist. Here is his response to the accusation that he was "anti-negro": "To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives."
(5) The New Republic, October 6, 2003.

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