This summer may be awash in blockbusters, but none of them will come close to the box office record set nearly 90 years ago. Birth of a Nation pulled in about a cool billion in today's dollars. Its director, D.W. Griffith, was unquestionably one of the most visionary, innovative and independent filmmakers of all time. But how should we approach any work that is undeniably brilliant, historically significant and yet politically and morally repugnant?
The question isn't a new one, of course. All along the historical timeline, artists are constantly falling in and out of the favor of ruling powers and prevailing attitudes (though not always simultaneously). Machiavelli was doing splendidly as long as the Medici were, too; when they weren't, he lost his job and, instead of a gold watch, he got tortured. The King of Rock 'N' Roll shook hands with a Machiavellian once. And meant it. But oddly enough, people go right on loving Elvis and hating Nixon.
The moral quandaries art can present us with get stickier, though, when we're faced with more radically extreme vices and virtues within the same work or artist. On a good day, Ezra Pound was an astonishing poet and a generous mentor. Absolutely front and center when it came to cooking up literary modernism. But he was also on very friendly terms with Mussolini and a no-holds-barred anti-Semite.
With cases like Pound's, there's usually little or no falling in and out of favor going on. Thumbs up or thumbs down just won't do. Very, very, very few people would argue that Pound's works should be burned because of his political beliefs and crackpot economics. Or, the reverse side of the coin, that his poetry is so darn good we need to take another open-minded look at fascism.
A big hairy mess like Ezra Pound shatters the critical apparatuses we've grown comfortable with. In film, there are probably two contenders for the most confusing, frustrating and Pound-like messes: Griffith and Leni Riefenstahl. There's a video outlet in Munich where you have to show your passport if you want to rent Triumph of the Will. If you're German, the guy who runs the place won't let you have it.
This British citizen who specializes in making films available in their original language versions used to claim that he was merely protecting himself, that Germans weren't allowed to watch the inflammatory work. In fact, German law does ban Nazi propaganda, but the law goes fuzzy in the face of Riefenstahl's craft. Over the years, Triumph of the Will has been shown more and more often at museums and in theaters; for a while, a disclaimer had to be read out before the projector was fired up. Now, that practice, too, is falling by the wayside.
But here comes the rub. There is no more immediately effective work of Nazi propaganda than Triumph of the Will. Not even Hitler's own Mein Kampf, which remains banned. And yet it's precisely its power, its achievement that makes the film too large to ignore. There are no moral equivalencies in the chamber of horrors but the parallels between Triumph of the Will and Birth of a Nation are as fascinating as the differences.
Birth of a Nation: Ghastly heroes and a villain in blackface.
Both films were milestones in the careers of their respective directors -- and in film history. Riefenstahl picked up where the German Expressionists left off, particularly in their dark explorations of dramatic chiaroscuro, and added fluidity and an omnipresent eye. After Riefenstahl, the camera could be just about anywhere and everywhere at the same time.
In this respect, she owed quite a bit to D.W. Griffith. It's overly simplistic, but then again, not too far off, either, to argue that he taught the camera how to move. Let's indulge for just a moment in Tim Dirks' ticking off of the technical innovations seen for the first time in Birth of a Nation:
- special use of subtitles graphically verbalizing imagery
- its own musical score written for an orchestra
- the introduction of night photography (using magnesium flares)
- the use of outdoor natural landscapes as backgrounds
- the definitive usage of the still-shot
- the technique of the camera "iris" effect (expanding or contracting circular masks to either reveal and open up a scene, or close down and conceal a part of an image)
- the use of parallel action in a chase sequence
- extensive use of tinting for dramatic or psychological effect in sequences
- moving, traveling or "panning" camera tracking shots
- the use of total-screen close-ups to reveal intimate expressions
- beautifully crafted, intimate family exchanges
- the use of vignettes seen in "balloons" or iris-shots in one portion of a darkened screen
- the use of fade-outs and cameo-profiles
- high-angle shots and the abundant use of panoramic long shots
- the dramatization of history in a moving story - an example of an early spectacle or epic film with historical costuming
- impressive, splendidly-staged battle scenes with hundreds of extras
- extensive cross-cutting between two scenes to create excitement and suspense (especially the scene of the gathering of the Klan)
- expert story-telling, with the cumulative building of the film to a dramatic climax
To add to the overwhelming list, keep in mind that most of these brainstorms seem to have sprung from Griffith as unexpectedly and as fully formed as Athena from the head of Zeus. What's more, as opposed to Riefenstahl, who had all the resources of the Third Reich at her disposal, Griffith began production on Nation well aware that he didn't have the money to pull it off. Having left Biograph, one of the three major studios of the day, Griffith presented the project to the next company he was signed onto, the Mutual Film Corporation, which promptly balked.
David Wark Griffith then set out on a path a lot of American independent filmmakers think they invented in the mid-1980s. He raised his budget bit by bit, as he shot, depleting his own and others' life savings, and when the going really got tough, he literally passed a hat around. The payoff, of course, was enormous.
Eventually, the protest was as well. The initial reactions reflected Griffith's uncanny ability to unleash the previously unrealized power of the young medium. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly blurted, "It is like writing history with lightening. And my only regret is that is is all so terribly true." Wilson later disowned this remark via a secretary, but the reason the legend has been printed so often is that there's a ring of truth in it. He could have, would have said it; one concrete effect of the film, after all, was that the Ku Klux Klan, a sickly relic already plunging into the dustbin of history, suddenly saw itself revived. So, too, were its hideous rituals, lynching among them.
But beginning with the NAACP and a few lone critics, the emotional impact of the film was pierced over time. Griffith could no longer be excused for naively aiming to tell a Civil War story from the South's point of view. Cities, then entire states, banned showings of the film.
It would probably be preaching to the choir to make the standard free speech argument against the banning of either Nation or Triumph, but it's even easier from a comfortable distance of several decades down the line. But censorship isn't the issue. What we can glean from watching Nation and Triumph now, though, is a honing of our critical faculties, a refresher in the lessons of the complex relationship between form and content and a willingness to question aspects of work by filmmakers we admire, filmmakers we assume to be working a bit closer to our own political and moral turf.
Without slipping into a suffocating political correctness, we can and should ask if, say, In the Company of Men is misogynistic, even while praising Neil LaBute's storytelling finesse. We can and should debate whether to toss a trash can through a storefront window really is to Do the Right Thing. The radical extremes, the sins and the blessings bound together in the work of Griffith and Riefenstahl can also be seen as exaggerated illustrations of more subtle conflicts inherent in any truly interesting work of art.
John Updike has written that whenever he reviews a lousy book he always tries to find at least one positive thing to say about the work or its author. You can turn that self-imposed dictum around and it works just as well: if there isn't something about a film you don't like, what good is it?
Check out the list of the best of our silent fare put together by Jogilvy.