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A few words about...™ The Birth of a Nation -- in Blu-ray

A Few Words About

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#1 of 22 OFFLINE   Robert Harris

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Posted December 04 2011 - 01:13 PM

Archivist Kevin Brownlow once said: "D.W. Griffith talk the cinema to walk.  Abel Gance gave it wings."


This could not be more true.


Spend some time, beginning in 1908 with the early Griffith Biograph films, and you'll be witness to the birth of true editing, pacing and real cinematography.  By the time Mr. Griffith set out to make longer films in 1914, the language of the cinema was firmly in place.


His next production as director (Intolerance) would come just one year later, and the difference between the two in terms of growth could not be more interesting.


The grown of the language of cinema did not come from thin air.  Between 1908 and 1915, he directed OVER 500 short films.


Much like the tinkering of films today, especially for home video, Mr. Griffith continued to cut and re-cut his films over the years.  Any attempt to perfectly reconstruct the film that opened in 1915 is problematic at best, but Kino's Blu-ray is a very good representation of the film may have been like.  Unfortunately, nearly a century of wear and abuse has not shown brightly on TBoaN.  While the new Kino Blu-ray is a quality affair, one can only image what this film would have looked like in all its nitrate tinted glory.


Running at 18fps, viewers will note that every third frame is reproduced as a fourth to bring the speed up to norm, but this goes by almost transparently.


One does not view TBoaN for entertainment.  One also does not view it for history, or the way that it treats blacks, mostly herein played by white actors.


One views this film as an extremely important artifact of our early cinema, as the lessons it teaches as to where our modern cinemas roots began, could not be more important.


This film has not been digitally restored, and that is probably for the best.  It is what it is, and the quality more than suffices to the need.


Recommended.


RAH


"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did." T.E. Lawrence


#2 of 22 OFFLINE   John Weller

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Posted February 08 2013 - 10:35 AM

One change that was made very early into the film's original run was the title. It premiered as The Clansman. Some contempoary reviews suggest there was an ending where the blacks go home to Libyia - I have no idea if this was inferred, shot or just an intertitle. According to Kevin Brownlow, some 500 feet was removed by the end of 1915.

#3 of 22 OFFLINE   Reg Hartt

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Posted April 03 2013 - 04:13 AM

In 1980 I brought Bernard B. Brown to Toronto for a three day symposium on his career in motion pictures that began with him, at 16, playing first violin in the orchestra which accompanied THE BIRTH OF A NATION (as THE CLANSMAN) throughout its first run at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles.

 

Mr. Brown’s later accomplishments, in addition to playing tennis with Charlie Chaplin and getting involved in real estate deals with Errol Flynn, included directing the sound recording on THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) scoring and creating animated cartoons for Leon Schlesinger’s LOONEY TUNES and MERRIE MELODIES, being head of sound at Warner Brothers and then at Universal, pioneering multi-track recording [ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL (1939)] receiving eleven Academy Award nominations and two Oscars for his work with film and film sound (which he taught at UCLA on retiring).

 

You write, “One does not view TBoaN for entertainment.”

 

I began screening silent films in Toronto, Canada back in the late 1960’s. I realized at once that the general public does not give a fig about a film’s historic merits. They demand to be entertained by what they see.

 

This attitude is the right one.

 

I created scores for silent films that were based entirely on how movies I went to see were scored which is something few who score silent films seem to do (including people who have created scores for contemporary films).

 

As my program was and is self funded its continued success depends entirely not on merely meeting the audience’s expectations but on surpassing them.

 

In 1979 I brought Warner animation director Bob Clampett to Toronto for an extensive symposium on his career. Bob, discovering my interest in Griffith and THE BIRTH, told me about Mr. Brown.

 

My own feeling was that THE BIRTH OF A NATION, properly presented, would be as powerful today as it was when first seen in 1915.

 

After in-depth studies with Mr. Brown I produced a music and effects soundtrack for the film that achieved that purpose.

 

The first public performance of the work was for an audience of 500 high school students. They watched the film with an intensity that astonished their teachers. When the Klan rode to the rescue at the climax the audience (composed entirely of young Canadians) let out a mighty roar of excitement.

 

The next presentation of the work was for the Toronto Film Society’s Silent Film Series. This was in a 600 seat auditorium. These were hard core film buffs. I arrived to discover the tape recorder they gave me ran slower than my own while the projectors (at silent speed) ran faster. There was no way I could synchronize the tape score with the film.

 

I reflected that the sound proofed projection booth had monitor speakers.  I decided to run parts of the film in silence while using the monitor speakers in the booth to cue up the score.

 

Literally, I sweat blood for the three hours of the presentation (no intermission).

 

When it ended the audience was on its feet stomping and cheering just as they had done in 1915.

 

The director of the TFS’s Silent Series stormed into the projection booth. He said, “Reg, that score was brilliant. I especially admired your inspired use of silence.”

 

I then began to redo all my scores for silent films with an eye towards using not only music and effects but also silence (something that, as far as I know, no one else at the moment does).

 

Nearly everyone who scores silent films uses what can best be described as the Delsarte technique (http://en.wikipedia....ançois_Delsarte ).  D. W. Griffith and Mary Pickford led the way in America away from this method as it looked ridiculous on screen (the exaggerated acting many associate with early silent film is actually Delsarte acting). This keeps the audience out of the film. I choose music that takes them into it.

When I work on creating a score for a silent film I first watch it in silence twice. The second time comes a month or more after the first viewing. During the second viewing of the film I hear music in my head. That is the score my psyche has created for the film. Then I look for recorded music that captures the spirit of what I have heard that second time. Sometimes I will be on the street and hear a bit of music that all at once pulls up images of the film I am working on.

 

With THE BIRTH, precisely because nearly all performances of the film are leaden, I jumped at the chance to meet with and learn from a man who not only had been there at the beginning (as well as instrumental in assisting D. W. Griffith, through not only his knowledge of music but also his long standing acquaintance with the owner of the sheet music store) but had also been present at several of the key moments of motion picture history.

 

He was a great teacher. I was an apt pupil.

 

The score created for this Blu-ray edition of THE BIRTH, to put it bluntly, sucks the big one. That’s fine for academics and scholars who like to pretend themselves above the mundane herd but that herd is the audience I program for (and whose company I much prefer). It is, after all, the audience the movies are made for and always has been.

 

Now to come to the silliest part of what you wrote: “One also does not view it for history, or the way that it treats blacks, mostly herein played by white actors.”

 

Griffith, we are informed by Lillian Gish and others who worked with him (many of whose books I have) had a commanding vision of the movies as a literal light burning in the darkness with the power to illuminate the world.

 

“What we put up on that screen had better be the truth because the public is going to think it is and, if they find we have played false with them we will lose them,” Griffith said.

 

You are welcome to debate the historical merits of his films. You can not question them. Griffith is true to his sources (and his sources were excellent).

 

As Woodrow Wilson put it, “THE BIRTH OF A NATION is history written with lightning!” Being a politician he later recanted that statement which is to his discredit not the film’s.

 

Griffith establishes clearly at the beginning of the second half of the film that his depiction of events is not meant to reflect on any race or people of the present moment.

 

He also establishes that the puppeteers pulling the strings were white not black (and this much overlooked fact is to his credit). Anyone who takes the time to inform themselves will find fast enough that he was right in this. Their number, however, has always been and always will be few. As Harlan Ellison so wonderfully put it, “We do not have the right to an opinion. We have the right to an informed opinion.”

 

An informed opinion is a rare thing (and not one present on this site).

 

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.  She was right.

 

The present era of film discussion is one in which small minds dominate.

 

Griffith is usually dismissed by them as a racist. He was not. Even a casual look at the body of work he produced makes that clear.

 

He was and is the single most important director in the history of motion pictures.

 

Archivist Kevin Brownlow can say, "D.W. Griffith taught the cinema to walk.  Abel Gance gave it wings."

 

Griffith not only taught the cinema to walk he also gave it wings. He did that long before Gance did it and he did it more powerfully than anyone has done it before him or after.

 

What I have written here will not go down well with many (nor is it meant to).

 

Some time back I got a post card from comic Emo Philips. On it he had written, “I honestly believe you are the greatest teacher I know...For confirmation of everything you have been saying all along read David Mamet’s new book, TRUE AND FALSE.”

 

I have Mamet’s TRUE AND FALSE as well as his BAMBI VS. GODZILLA. In both he puts the lie to a lot of deeply held beliefs. His chapters on academics and scholars in both books are must reading. His essential statement, “INVENT NOTHING.  DENY NOTHING.  STAND UP. SPEAK UP. STAY OUT OF SCHOOL,” is one too few are willing to hear.

 

In THE BIRTH OF A NATION Griffith invented nothing, denied nothing, stood up, spoke up and created the motion picture that stand alone in the history of motion pictures. It remains the greatest film ever made and it is one of the very few honest ones. There had been nothing like it before in any medium. There has been very little like it since. It was more than mere entertainment.

 

Audiences of the day paid the top Broadway price of seeing a play to see THE BIRTH.  Both the industry and the critics said the public would never do that. In first run, in The United States alone, THE BIRTH OF A NATION was seen by over four times the population of the country.  We have no contemporary film makers whose pictures could do that. We have not had one since the end of the silent era. When the movies learned to talk they lost their voice.

 

The people who scored The Kino Blu-ray of THE BIRTH lacked the balls to do the job right. Shame on them.


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#4 of 22 OFFLINE   Moe Dickstein

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Posted April 03 2013 - 09:52 AM

I think Griffith himself was upset by the unintended influences Birth had - that feeling gave us "Intolerance"

Something about being proud of having the crowd cheering when the clan comes to the rescue doesn't sit right...
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#5 of 22 OFFLINE   JoshZ

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Posted April 04 2013 - 11:08 AM

The first public performance of the work was for an audience of 500 high school students. They watched the film with an intensity that astonished their teachers. When the Klan rode to the rescue at the climax the audience (composed entirely of young Canadians) let out a mighty roar of excitement.

 

Quite honestly, I find this statement terrifying.


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#6 of 22 OFFLINE   Oblivion138

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Posted April 06 2013 - 12:57 AM

I'm with you, Moe and Josh.



#7 of 22 OFFLINE   Ken Volok

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Posted April 16 2013 - 08:27 PM

I agree with Moe, Josh and Oblivion and thus the Mamet reference doesn't surprise me. I would call "Bambi vs. Godzilla" pure mental masturbation itself.



#8 of 22 OFFLINE   sidburyjr

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Posted April 19 2013 - 06:13 PM

So is it fair to assume from your review, that I should just keep my Kino DVD of BOAN and not worry about upgrading it?  Or am I misreading your comments?



#9 of 22 OFFLINE   AnthonyClarke

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Posted April 19 2013 - 07:20 PM

I notice that Mr Harris has not deigned to answer Reg Hartt's post. I'm sure he could if he wished and I'm pleased he has not yielded to tempation.

KB was right about Gance, and I'd add to that select list of film-makers Russia's Eisenstein. I just watched Nevsky the other night for the umpteenth time and wonder why neither it nor the Ivan the Terrible double haven't made it to Blu ray!


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#10 of 22 OFFLINE   Lromero1396

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Posted April 21 2013 - 09:38 AM

I notice that Mr Harris has not deigned to answer Reg Hartt's post. I'm sure he could if he wished and I'm pleased he has not yielded to tempation.

KB was right about Gance, and I'd add to that select list of film-makers Russia's Eisenstein. I just watched Nevsky the other night for the umpteenth time and wonder why neither it nor the Ivan the Terrible double haven't made it to Blu ray!

Nevsky's elements don't look very good based on the DVD. Same problem with Ivan. Criterion should put some effort into those, along with Andrei Rublev.



#11 of 22 OFFLINE   AnthonyClarke

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Posted April 21 2013 - 07:57 PM

Absolutely right. These are calling out for definitive Criterion treatment. I think they are the perfect fusion of image and music, thanks to the collaboration between Eisenstein and Prokofiev.

In the meantime, I will seek out a copy of 'Birth of a Nation' for its historical significance .. but I don't think I'll be cheering!



#12 of 22 OFFLINE   PaulDA

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Posted April 22 2013 - 03:24 PM

I did my graduate work on the use of cinematic history as a teaching tool. I use this film in class (in excerpts) and there is nothing to cheer about, story-wise. The technical merits of the film are not really open to dispute--it is actually astonishingly well-made for its time and stands up to many productions made decades later.

 

As for the cheering high school students, do not be as alarmed as the cheering might suggest. The power of film is vastly underestimated in terms of its emotional impact (even among those, surprisingly often, who know a great deal about film). I remember watching a copy of Triumph of the Will in my final year of undergraduate studies in history. It lacked subtitles, I understood no German, I was fully aware of the atrocities of the Nazi regime and even then I had a fleeting moment where I wanted to cheer along with the crowds in the film. It passed. And the students in Toronto did not all become apologists for the CSA and the KKK. There is a reason Triumph of the Will is considered a powerful propaganda film. The same applies to The Birth of a Nation. That said, the claim that it presented anything resembling "the truth" is sheer drivel (and ironic coming from someone who claims to adhere to the Ellison quotation--Ellison was wrong, incidentally).

 

The Birth of a Nation is an important film for many reasons. Historical "truth" is decidedly NOT among them.


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#13 of 22 OFFLINE   Moe Dickstein

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Posted April 22 2013 - 04:02 PM

It's interesting the power film can have, sometimes unintentional. At the end of the New Years party in Boogie Nights, originally the scene followed Bill Macy into the bedroom and you saw the murders. In tests the audiences cheered him on, which horrified the director, so he used the take where the camera stays in the hall and you hear the gunshots.
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#14 of 22 OFFLINE   bujaki

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Posted April 22 2013 - 05:34 PM

My wife and I had a similar experience (as PaulDA describes it) while watching MoMA's print of Triumph of the Will, in German, no subtitles, fully cognizant of Nazi atrocities, and yet... The power of film as propaganda is indeed dangerous. I was scared, fleetingly, but scared nonetheless, that for a moment... but it passed. And never again, never again.



#15 of 22 OFFLINE   PaulDA

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Posted April 22 2013 - 06:02 PM

It is the power of film to shape impressions (about history, specifically, in my case) that led me to my grad work. And the films don't even have to be good. Even today, nearly 40 years after I saw it for the one and only time, Johnny Tremaine and the Sons of Liberty is the first image my brain conjures up whenever I read about or teach the Boston Tea Party. It's a fleeting image, but it's there. So when a film is skillfully constructed as propaganda, it requires critical viewing skills to fully appreciate and counteract the propaganda--hence my research and teaching interests about cinematic history.


Edited by PaulDA, April 22 2013 - 06:03 PM.

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#16 of 22 OFFLINE   AnthonyClarke

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Posted April 22 2013 - 08:26 PM

And of course Eisenstein's 'Alexander Nevsky' is blatant propaganda too, designed to whip up anti-German sentiment amongst its Russian audience .. which is why this movie was temporarily banned when Hitler and Stalin signed their short-lived non-aggression pact. And when the triumphant Nevsky rides into town bearing young infants in his arms (compared to the earlier scenes showing the Teutonic Knights throwing similar infants into the funeral pyre) we want to cheer, although knowing we're being grossly manipulated. In this case of course the manipulation was on the side of the angels....



#17 of 22 OFFLINE   PaulDA

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Posted April 23 2013 - 08:30 AM

I've been watching a string of late 30s/early 40s films with the goal of identifying propaganda elements so I can incorporate excerpts into a course I'll be teaching in the fall. Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent is not shy about its propaganda and no less an authority on the subject than Joseph Goebbels admired its technique and conceded that it was an especially powerful anti-German propaganda film (Goebbels was a monstrous individual on many levels, of course, but his understanding of propaganda, particularly in its cinematic form, was keenly developed).


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#18 of 22 OFFLINE   Ken Volok

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Posted April 26 2013 - 01:21 AM

Speaking of Eisenstein has "The General Line (aka Old and New)" ever made it to DVD even?



#19 of 22 OFFLINE   Professor Echo

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Posted April 26 2013 - 05:53 PM

BIRTH OF A NATION was scheduled to play here in LA in the early 2000s at the Silent Movie Theater, but had to be canceled due to what the then owner said in an article were threatened protests and personal death threats. Since then both the Director's Guild and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences renamed the awards they had called the D.W. Griffith Award and removed all mention of Griffith from their annual ceremonies. You don't have to be a racist to object to such radical reaction nor retro political correctness.


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#20 of 22 OFFLINE   Moe Dickstein

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Posted April 26 2013 - 06:37 PM

Griffith is FAR more than this one film.
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