"The Little Colonel" (Henry B. Walthall) performs a stupid and futile but nevertheless rousing gesture in Griffith's film.
In his December 2012 interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Quentin Tarantino notes of Thomas Dixon's The Clansmen, that it "really can only stand next to Mein Kampf when it comes to just its ugly imagery." To which Gates replies, "It's pure evil." As they continue to chat, Tarantino and Gates conflate The Clansmen with The Birth of a Nation, director D.W. Griffith's 1915 adaptation of Dixon's work, and Gates, after Tarantino avows that he doesn't use the word "evil" lightly, continues, apropos the film, "And a foundational moment in the history of cinema."
There indeed is the rub, and for as long as there is cinema, and cinephiles, and cinema historians, The Birth of a Nation will be maybe the greatest "problem picture" of all time, greater by far than The Triumph of the Will. While Riefenstahl's picture seems to us frozen in an unspeakable historical moment, its fascist aesthetics ever-ossifying into a species of malevolent kitsch, in the United States of America Griffith's vehemently racist vision is never not relevant, to use a word I'm not particularly fond of. A formulation I'm not particularly fond of either is the "what-we-talk-about-when" one; on the occasions it comes up, my reflexive response begins with "what do you mean 'we'?" Nevertheless, seeing how Gates and Tarantino talk about Nation reminds one that the movie's position as a film maudit is as singular as its position as a defining masterwork of epic American film. It is a film that literally cursed itself, by dint of the brutality of its racism; and the curse it put upon itself grows uglier year after year.
Chatting with Gates, Tarantino extrapolates Griffith, the Kentucky-born-and-raised son of a Confederate colonel, as a man obsessed, and paints his obsession as an entirely malevolent one. "[I]t's one thing for the grandson [sic] of a bloody Confederate officer to bemoan how times have changed -- some old racist Southern old-timer bemoaning how life has changed, complaining that there was a day when you never saw a n--ger [sic] on Main Street, and now you do. Well, if he's just going to sit on his porch and sit in his rocking chair and pop off lies, who cares? That's not making The Birth of a Nation every day for a year, and financing it yourself." As if the entirety of the labor put into Nation was in the service of black subjugation. Tarantino has a vivid imagination, and a lot of general stuff going on in his head, but one might expect that, being a a filmmaker himself he could conceive that the day to day making of this film might not have been entirely a case of getting up every morning and saying "Time to get to subjugating the Negro!"
That said, I also don't expect Tarantino to be able to simulate a frame of mind in which The Birth of a Nation was actually NOT an effort driven wholly by malevolent intent, and I'm not sure it would be socially, spiritually, or intellectually useful for anybody to try to do same. Anyway, fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, we have a historical record from which we can discover exactly what such a frame of mind was able to come up with in defense of Griffith's vision. As in:
"Today, Birth of a Nation is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does. I don’t entirely agree with him; not can I be sure that the film won’t cause trouble and misunderstanding, especially as advertised and exacerbated by contemporary abolitionists; but Griffith’s absolute desire to be fair, and understandable, is written all over the picture; so are degrees of understanding, honesty, and compassion far beyond the capacity of his accusers. So, of course, are the salient facts of the so-called Reconstruction years."
I was thinking of doing an "anyone in class care to guess, put your hands down [names of critics X, Y, and Z]" joke here, but that would be too coy. Anyway: yes, that was James Agee, writing in The Nation, no less, in a 1948 obituary for Griffith. Too which one may respond, particularly if one has watched Birth of a Nation recently (I just did, on the splendid Kino Lorber Blu-ray disc presentation), define "fair." Because, man, oh man. Between the self-pitying resentment, the schizzy miscegenation paranoia, and all the other racial neuroses-to-psychoses filtered through overheated post-Victorian melodrmatic tropes (the building blocks from which Griffith constructed his new model of cinematic narrative), the prominent racial observation of The Birth of a Nation is "the only tolerable Negro is a subservient Negro," which, you know, doesn't strike me as "fair." And yet James Agee thought it was? How can this be? Note the care with which he chooses his words, and the note of ambiguity in the placement of one of them: that Griffith went to lengths to be fair "to the Negroes as he understood them" AND that Griffith understood them "as a good type of Southerner does." The ambiguous word for me there is "good." But inasmuch as these words offer us a window into not just Agee's head in 1948, but a sentiment that it was not entirely disagreeable to articulate in The Nation in 1948, so too do Tarantino's words offer a window into what "we" think, or may think, Griffith's attitude and intentions were. We see them only as hateful. We are literally incapable of extending the sympathy to observe that Griffith saw/understood blacks "as a good Southerner would." By the same token, as amazingly constructed as the Klan-to-the-rescue climax of Birth of a Nation is, we are all in a sense socially prohibited (scratch the: not "in a sense" or even "socially" prohibited; more like, prohibited by the strictures of human decency itself) from permitting it to manipulate our sympathies as it intends/demands. In his 1915 account of the movie, the poet and writer Vachel Lindsay says of Nation that is "a crowd picture in a triple sense." Discussing the climax, he rhapsodizes: "So, in Birth of a Nation, which could better be called The Overthrow of Negro Rule, the Ku Klux Klan dashes down the road as powerfully as Niagara pours over a cliff. Finallt the white girl Elsie Stoneman (impersonated by Lillian Gish) is rescued by the Ku Klux Klan from the mulatto politician, Silas Lynch (impersonated by George Seigmann). The lady is brought forward as a typically helpless white maiden. The white leader, Col. Ben Cameron (impersonated by Henry B. Walthall), enters not as an individual, but as representing the whole Anglo-Saxon Niagara. He has the mask of the Ku Klux Klan on his face till the crisis has passed. The wrath of the Southerner against the blacks and their Northern organizers has been piled up through many previous scenes. As a result this rescue is a real climax, something that photoplays that trace strictly personal hatreds cannot achieve."
Despite the eccentric undertones of his analysis, Lindsay, among other things, nailed why Nation was/is a "foundational moment in the history of cinema." "Real climax" is something greater than it sounds like, and it is not found even in the cinematic achievements one might be more comfortable with than Griffith's film. (As in, what if it was Feuillade's Fantomas? But it isn't/wasn't, and can't be.) Lindsay loves Griffith's storytelling, and his heart, so much that he seeks fo absolve him by trying to extract him from Dixon's vision: "Griffith is a chameleon in interpreting his authors. Wheeever the scenario shows traces of The Clansmen, the original book, by Thomas Dixon, it is bad. Wherever it is unadulterated Griffith, which is half the time, it is good. The Reverend Thomas Dixon is a rather stagy Simon Legree; in his avowed views a deal like the gentleman with the spiritual hydrophobia in the latter end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unconsciously Mr. Dixon has done his best to prove that Legree was not a fictitious character."
It's very kind of Lindsay, but one need only look at the film, an uncomfortable thing to do, to realize that every frame of Nation carries the same level of conviction. It is very sad. And often very peculiar. From the prologue with the title card saying "The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion" to the odd formulation of Abraham Lincoln as the "great heart" who pardons future Klan founder Ben "The Little Colonel" Cameron when he's slated to be hanged for guerilla warfare and who, before heading to the theater to be shot by Raoul Walsh, promises to treat the South as if it had never seceded, the movie's first section has these little rueful sentimental touches, not to mention reasonably powerful pacifist pleading moments, to give one the impression of Griffith as a relatively gentle-souled epic maker. Then, an hour and a half into a three-hour-plus movie, up pops the title card "This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstuction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” And then, if you'll pardon the phrase, it's off to the races, with a couple of ugly citations from future fan of the film Woodrow Wilson, about "men who knew nothing of the uses of authority, except it insolences" and of "a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South." (By the way, did you know that Larry the Cable Guy is actually from Nebraska?)
Here is what I wrote in my notes while watching it the other night: "Hey, remember that title card about five minutes ago? The immediacy of the images and the broadness of the performances pretty much wipes out THAT disclaimer. There’s really no getting round it: whatver the narrative necessity of setting these characters up as villains might have been, the execution of this can only be characterized as VEHEMENT." The film's quiet, sincere depictions of the privations the South suffered during the war, mentions of meals of "parched corn and sweet potato coffee," the description of raw cotton's use as "Southern ermine;" these now seem setups to rationalize the unrelentingly hateful portrayals of the likes of Thadeus-Stevens-pastiche Stoneman, smugly strutting Silas Lynch, "mulatto leader of the blacks[...]traitor to his white patron and a greater traitor to his own people," and whoever that black soldier is who chases poor Flora Cameron off that cliff. The dignified smiles of the blacks in the rafters of the House at the climax of Spielberg's Lincoln can, on some level, be understood as an answer scene to the repellent burlesque of the celebration of the racial intermarriage legislation in Griffith's film. But this, as we'll see, is maybe too genteel a reparation to the contemporary audience. The founding inspiration for the Klan is presaged by a lyrical picture practically out of Wordsworth, and followed by the proud intertitle statement "Over four hundred thousand Ku Klux costumes made by the women of the South and not one trust betrayed." Which may move an observant viewer to yell at the screen "Where did you crackers get the damn MATERIAL if you were so bad off?"
It's all terribly appalling, and yet you'd have to be an entire cinematic illiterate not to see and, yes, maybe feel the skill with which Griffith pulls off his to-the-rescue "real climax" with barely minutes to spare in the film's running time. A few years ago, the critic Terry Teachout wrote about Nation as a film that "has served its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently," and avowed, prior to making that pronouncment, that it was also pretty boring, which was one reason WHY it could be swept aside: "Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film—not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it—is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities."
This notion that the mean of "modern sensibility" as circumscribed by the critic is all that counts from said critical perspective is going to have to wait, and probably for a long time (see also Stephen Metcalf's immortal bit about The Searchers being "off-putting to the contemporary sensibility," oh dearie dear). But here's the thing: let's say that you are not Terry Teachout, and you do not process the film as bring "slow" but rather you apprehend both its pace and its overall cinematic language differently and as part of a continuum that continues to this day: in that case, whatever the fuck you think about early Renaissance music or what have you, the climax of The Birth of a Nation is going to "play" for you; that's the extent to which it is, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., rightly put it, a "foundational moment." But what, now, is its proper place in "our" construction of cinematic history/heritage. And while the fashion has it that Birth of a Nation is some form of evil, what is the place of Django Unchained as an "answer film" to Griffith? (Tarantino has talked of his ur-Klan comedic fillip in the film as his "fuck you" to the earlier director, who died a near-penniless alcoholic forgotten by the industry he helped create, so even if he were able to receive Quentin's flip-off, it is not likely he'd be overly impressed.) And also, why isn't anyone talking about the Klan as it's represented in Gone With The Wind? So many questions.
In any event, a film in which the protagonist dryly exults "I get to kill white people and get paid for it?" is pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office in these United States. Interesting payback for a nearly hundred-year-old insult, for sure. And a reminder that whoever "we" are talking about, "Give Peace A Chance" is not and never will be "our" new jam.
So for some reason or other the "film criticism, que-est-ce-que c'est" question is heating up again, in venues far and wide. First it's the topic of discussion between the ever-insouciant David Carr and my screening-room buddy A.O. Scott at the New York Times' new kinda-video-podcast series "The Sweet Spot," which kind of proceeds from Carr's misapprehension that the function of criticism is buzzkill. Mr. Scott strives mightily to correct Carr's misapprehension, to very little avail, if the cutaways to Carr squinting in apparent disbelief are to be believed. "You're just defending your posse," the intelligent but querelous Carr parries, and it's a measure of how much film critics in particular are disrespected that Carr seems so much more willing to buy Roberta Smith's rationale for the existence of criticism rather than Scott's. Never mind that seven minutes and change is hardly sufficient time to really begin to address the question of what criticism actually IS, its ideal form, its history, how it both interesects with and differs from the practice of "reviewing" and so on.
The video spurred some social-media rumination from the ever laid-back and relaxed and terse movie blogger and entertainment journalist watchdog David Poland, who, on discovering a further rumination from my friendly acquaintance Michelle Dean, which quoted the infamous "Don't be critics, you people, I beg you" screed from Saint Dave Eggers, jumped on that shit like he'd just dug up a new Dead Sea Scroll (the Eggers piece in question is over a decade old, but no matter), and wrote up this commendation of it. Which in turn led to a really quite fascinating and ongoing comments thread which features, among other things, a lively exchange in which writer and scripter Drew McWeeney presses Poland to name the movie he actually worked on that apparently gives him, David Poland, the Sacred Dave Eggers Dispensation To Write Movie Criticism Because He's Actually Worked On A Movie. (In case you'd like more than just an inference, by the way, I'll come right out and say it: I have a lot of friends and colleagues in common with Eggers, etcetera, but I think that riff about critics and criticism is one of the bigger barrels of horseshit I've ever fallen face-first into, and it's pretty damn hippy-dippy horseshit at that. Examination and or analysis, which I figure to be the two key features of real criticism, do not amount to the same thing as sticking a pin through a butterfly's innards. Of course examination and or analysis don't really figure in a lot of stuff calling itself criticism these days, but that's hardly the point. The assertion that the critical impulse derives from the worst part of the self is itself absolutely despicable and nothing but a glob of Egger's own phlegmy resentment, of what I have no idea I'm sure.)
What comes out most plainly in this particular wash (and what a messy wash it is) is Poland's own aiding and abetting of an old myth about critics, that is, those who can't do, criticise. And, more specifically in this field, that every film critic is somehow a failed filmmaker. Poland actually comes out and admits that he "ended up in journalism and criticism, which I never wanted." He hastens to add "but I loved the idea of what would become The Hot Button." Yeah, me too. While Poland's admissions are apt to confirm the prejudices of critic-haters everywhere, I should like to say that, speaking strictly for myself, I did not enter criticism as a failed filmmaker.
Or did I? See this post for some background. And savor again the immortal line "There's nothing wrong with getting a hard-on in a movie theater." (And, if you're wondering how Danny Amis is doing, well, he's better these days; see here.) The Beach Movie experience was instructive, but did it sour me off the film business? I can't say it did; a move to L.A. was something I never considered, then or ever after. Before it, and after it, I was an avid reader of criticism and a spotty writer of material that I thought aspired to criticism. My heroes were Lester Bangs (whose band I saw a few times at CBGB; one of said bands had Billy Ficca on drums; Billy now plays in Gods and Monsters with my great friend Gary Lucas), James Wolcott, and Robert Christgau, among others. While I dicked around with making music in the late '70s/early '80s (and am currently dicking around with music again, and with the same group of dicks, or at least some of them), my biggest ambition at that time, I'm not kidding, was to write about rock and roll, in the Village Voice, and have Robert Christgau as my editor. And in 1984, at 24 years of age, I fulfilled that ambition. I wrote about the album The Naked Shakespeare, by Peter Blegvad (whose now-adult daughter, Kaye, a wonderful artist in her own right, who was not yet a gleam in Peter's eye when Shakespeare was made,I'm having coffee with tomorrow); a record Bob Christgau didn't like too much but which I had hectored him into allowing me to review over a correspondance beginning in the summer of 1983. Having thus acheived my ambition, I somehow had to fill out the rest of my professional life. Sigh. I did a lot of work as an editor, but criticism was something I always held as sacred even as I never really believed I was practicing it. To be entirely honest with you, I think in all the years I've been publishing, there's maybe two dozen pieces of mine that I could point to and say, "Yes, this is actual criticism." (One of those pieces is in this upcoming book.) I don't think reviewing and criticism are incompatible; indeed, they can't be. But reviewing, or deadline criticism if you want to call it that, has its own set of demands and stresses. To me, "real" criticism needs temporal and mental space to clear the field for a thorough examination OR, to go back to Eggers' imagery, to follow the "butterfly" on the path it takes. Or the work in question's pattern of reverberation if you will. This is not a realm where reviewing necessarily has the ABILITY to go.
But I love criticism, always have, and I love it as it was practiced by Baudelaire and I love it as it was practiced by David Foster Wallace and, well, and so on. I love it as it was practiced by Nick Tosches, even when he was writing about albums he never even listened to. I often tell people that I would have been happy to have aged into the Stanley Kaufmann of Premiere, had the magazine lasted. I am in complete concurrence with Manny Farber: "I can't imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career than criticism. I can't imagine anything more valuable to do, and I've always felt that way." SO in case you wonder why I tend to take the pulings and mewlings of pseud jagoff opinion-mongerers calling themselves "critics" so personal-like, well, it isn't JUST because I'm a reactive sorehead lunatic.
The current logistical irony is that, in the contemporary environment, I'm compelled to explore making a living in other forms of writing. One of which, as it happens, is....well, I imagine you can guess.
UPDATE: David Poland is, as you'll see in comments below, not thrilled with my characterization of him. Seriously, while I admit that I'm quite prone to going overboard when making sport of other writers, the point of this piece was not meant to be "David Poland's an asshole," or any such thing, and I regret having given the impression, if I did. I have my differences with Poland on a lot of things, including modes of expression, but I'm not in a position to make real judgments on the guy, and I do believe that if nothing else that his heart is in the right place, integrity wise. But as another man once said in a not-entirely dissimilar context, these are the jokes, people.
When Michael Solomon got the position of Editor-In-Chief of Premiere magazine in November of 2000, I was terrified. I had been working there since 1996, under Jim Meigs as head man, and while Jim and I had an often tumultuous relationship, on balance he really cut me a whole lot of slack in terms of my being an overdrinking, coming-in-to-the-office-at-11-a.m.-on-a-GOOD-DAY, quarrelsome querulous asshole. Whether my reputation had preceded me or not, I had a sense I was gonna have to straighten out a bit, or at least show a Willingness To Perform, for the new guy.
Didn't take me long to get my chance. As it happened, Michael, who despite my intimidation I took an immediate liking to when I saw that one of the first things he installed in his office was a sliver tray bearing two large tumblers and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, had an idea that he wanted to make a BIG splash with his first issue. Investigative reporter John Connolly (with whom I had done some stuff at Premiere during the Meigs era; I won't go into it here, as I need to save SOME material for a memoir that I'll actually get frigging PAID for) had an idea: Schwarzenegger, who was a well-known woman-chasing-and-pawing dawg with—ew!— pig valves in his heart, and whose oft-speculated-upon political ambitions were showing signs of stirring again, and who Connolly had excellent materials and/or sources on. Just put me on a plane, Connolly pretty much said.Looking very serious, Solomon asked me, "Can we do this?" I practically jumped into his lap and started drooling. "Sure, I mean four weeks isn't that long if you want it for the January issue, but it shouldn't be a problem." The last big piece I had worked on with Connolly had taken eight months of reporting and vetting and long meetings with lawyers and publicists from pitch to actual publication. What can I tell you guys? I wanted to keep my job.
So out John went. We had worked out that as speed was of the essence, we would write-as-we-go. That is, Connolly would fax me notes or just tell me shit over the phone and I would craft prose based on them; not in my customary conversational piling-up-subordinate-clauses style, but in a terse, sometimes mildly ironic, slightly moralistic tone during the setups leading to just-the-facts-ma'am passages of scandal data. John was a real pit bull in terms of pursuing individual stories, and would go after any lead, so another part of my job was narrowing his focus. There were a number of different Arnold-behaving-badly themes he wanted to pursue, and just to keep the fucking thing moving, or because I didn't much care, I would discourage this, encourage that. I remember having a devil of a time having PAL videocassettes of Arnold copping a feel off of a British morning show hostess converted to NTSC, but once that happened, well, there he was. "Playful," I think his claque referred to this sort of thing as.
Of course Arnold's legal representatives, once word got out that Connolly was turning up at greater Los Angeles body-building hangouts got out, took umbrage, and their pushback approach was two-pronged; first, they tried to remind the Premiere editors what a Bad Person John Connolly was (there had been some stock market shenanigans in which his name had been mentioned, back in the Golden '80s), and then, rather peculiarly, coming right out and telling us just which bits of Arnold scandal they considered actionable, as in, "if you say [X], we'll sue." Almost a roadmap, one of our own lawyers noted, a bit bemusedly, as it turned out to be an incredible helpful document as we vetted the finished piece.
I remember being at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2001, having two-to-three hour conference calls with Connolly and Hachette's legal team and Premiere's fact-checkers (and let me mention that Hachette's legal people were always incredibly helpful and encouraging to us whenever we did sensitive stories, which you wouldn't necessarily think if you know certain aspects of the history of U.S. Premiere at Hachette) and thinking, "Holy crap, we're really pulling this off." We had a GREAT headline ("Arnold The Barbarian"), Matt Mahurin did a really creepy photo-illustration, and our stuff was fucking airtight. What it all meant in the larger scheme of things was completely beyond my ken at that moment, but at least I wasn't going to get fucking fired.
You know who did get fucking fired? Michael Solomon. Before he had even served out a year as Premiere's editor-in-chief. And believe it or not, the Arnold story represented the first couple of nails in his coffin. Yeah, we got A LOT of Hollywood blowback from Schwarzenegger's claque: irate letters from very big-name collaborators, many of them women, complaining at how disappointed they were that Premiere was trucking in such baseless garbage and what a great guy Arnold was. (And I do believe, incidentally, that the protestations of Schwarzenegger's great-guyness were entirely sincere; after all, don't we all have friends who are generous and kind to us and may be less than entirely gallant in other respects, about whom we tend to say, "Oh, that's just X?" when we hear stories of them doing things that aren't so cool?) Every day for like two weeks there were a bunch of new letters, and the names: James Cameron, Jamie Leigh Curtis, Emma Thompson (whose verbal wrist-slapping was hand-written; I remember thinking she had the most beautiful handwriting of any living person that I had ever seen) and so on. But there was no black-balling, no "We'll never work with Premiere again" grandstanding. From any of them. It was just due-diligent noise-making. Because, as much as they liked the fellow, they really did know what was up.
No, the blowback that counted actually echoed that which we got from our readers, many of whom were up in arms that we were "picking" on Arnold. It wasn't just a matter of people thinking highly of Schwarzenegger; because of his rags-to-riches story and Terminator awesomeness, people actually had quite a bit invested in the idea of thinking highly of Schwarzenegger, and they just didn't want that messed with. Quite a few of the bigwigs at Hachette, both French and American, apparently looked at "Arnold the Barbarian" and said "Why are they/is he doing this?" Hachette had acquired U.S. Premiere in order to unify it with the international editions of the book; aside from that, the company never really had much of an idea of what to do with it. THIS, however, they did NOT want to do. So the fellas upstairs all of a sudden got a little bit skeptical of the young man who had been their exciting new fair-haired boy just about ten weeks before. Michael was out in October, I think. And now when people cite the history of reputable Arnold scandal-mongering, all they talk about is the 2003 Los Angeles Times piece. Well, Premiere was there first, and we didn't get sued. Next time I see Michael Solomon, I think I'll buy him a drink.