Thursday, July 26, 2007
Introduction to The Five Piggies
It is only fair, at the outset, to distinguish between a bad ham actor and a good ham actor. A bad ham actor is a woefully limited actor who over emotes (badly) and inflects his words adamantly in every performance because it's all he knows how to do. Think Richard Dix. His hammed up performances don't fill me with joy, they make me wince. A good ham actor is an actor of considerable skill who because of his abilities can go over the top in ways lesser actors can only dream about. The good ham actor exudes an energy that shoots off the screen and smacks you in the face. In short, a good ham actor is a great actor who knows how and when to take things over the top. Think Charles Laughton.
1. This little piggy went to market
And speaking of Charles Laughton, I have always considered his performance as Captain Bligh in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty as a great moment in ham history. In the later versions, with Trevor Howard and Anthony Hopkins, Bligh is portrayed as an impatient and rigid disciplinarian. Here he is portrayed as the son of Satan. Not only is it written as an evil character (he wants shipmates to hang even after it is clear there were not involved in the mutiny) but Laughton plays him with such a relish for malevolence that if the film had employed a scene whereby Fletcher Christian (a very non-British Clark Gable) walked in on Bligh eating a roasted baby it would not have surprised the audience. With Laughton one does not get subtle glances, one gets arched eyebrows and long telegraphed stares. There is no nuanced twitch of the lip but a dour frown drooping down to the floorboards. It's a great ham performance in an entertaining film. The film also comes packaged with two other treats: Clark Gable not even attempting an English accent as Fletcher Christian and Franchot Tone looking so unrugged, with arms so spindly and a chest bordering on concave, you would expect he would die from frailty after one day at sea. Other notable pork chops for Laughton would be The Big Clock and Witness for the Prosecution.
2. This little piggy stayed at home
If you've seen The Rose Tattoo you probably recognize how wonderful Anna Magnani is in the lead. From beginning to end she doesn't seem like she is acting, almost as if a real person had wandered onto the set in front of the cameras as they were rolling. You probably noticed something else too: Burt Lancaster as Alvaro Mangiacavallo. Holy crap! Hit the road intimate character insights, here comes Burt as Alvaro. In many scenes, like when Alvaro shows Serafina the rose tattoo on his chest while laughing cartoonishly ( HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA ), Serafina looks bewildered by Alvaro. It's tempting to think that this was not a part of Magnani's performance but simply that of Magnani the actress thinking to herself, "Why in the hell is he ACTING so much?" Alvaro is played as a bumbling buffoon by Lancaster with every line delivered at the top of his lungs. Lancaster doesn't play the role to the balcony, he plays it to the moon. At first, you're stunned by the obvious theatrics Lancaster employs to play the role but by the end Lancaster has actually endeared you to the character. Ah, the mark of a great ham.
3. This little piggy had roast beef
Now let's go to one of the all time great actresses. She played many a role to perfection, and while she is known as a grand movie diva she is not known as a ham. But there is one performance that stands out as a definite finalist for the Ham Hall of Fame. I'm speaking of none other than Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. In this film she holds back absolutely nothing. There isn't a hint of underplaying to be found in a single frame. Three moments stand out. The first comes after Blanche (Joan Crawford) complains that Jane wouldn't be able to treat her badly if she wasn't in a wheelchair to which Jane (Bette Davis) blusters, "But ya ARE Blanche, ya ARE!" The second would be the famous moment where Blanche discovers what her next meal is - it's not chicken. That's when Bette let's out a sustained cackle that takes away the horror of the scene and just makes you start laughing with her. And finally, my personal favorite, when Victor Buono accompanies her on piano as she sings "I've Just Sent a Letter to Daddy." The result is a visual and aural salute to the ham. Looking like a forgotten baglady but nonetheless impersonating a little girl it's a wonder to behold. For that number alone she should have gotten an Oscar, or at least some acknowledgement of the guts it had to take to do that in front of the entire crew.
4. This little piggy had none
Now we go to an actress playing an actress. In a roundabout way, it's connected to the last movie. This time it's Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Joan Crawford herself never hammed it up nearly as much as Faye Dunaway did playing her. Obviously there's the "No more wire hangers EVER!" scene and if you don't know that one by now you have a talent at blocking out pop culture that is enviable. But there are so many others. My personal favorite is her meeting with the Pepsi Board of Directors: "Don't f*ck with me fellas. This ain't my first time at the rodeo." I don't know if Joan Crawford was really like this or not I just know that Dunaway, clearly by design, provides absolutely no transitions between "normal" Joan and "enraged" Joan. When Dunaway gets angry in the film it is sudden and blunt. And in the meantime Dunaway makes sure her eyes bulge and her chin quivers. Every emotion she has she projects from a mile away. She's sad, head shakes violently. She's angry, veins burst from forehead. She's happy, ... oh wait, that doesn't happen much. It's a great ham performance. Someone put a slice of pinapple on her back and start glazing.
5. And this little piggy went... "Wee wee wee" all the way home
My final inductee on the list is also an actor of considerable skill. Enough skill in fact that he has made this virtual train wreck of a movie watchable to me again and again. I'm speaking of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula (this movie is also notable for having a second, supporting, ham performance by Anthony Hopkins, practically baying at the moon as Dr. Van Helsing). Gary Oldman makes the Count irrepressably watchable. When Harker (Keanu Reeves, yes, Keanu Reeves) cuts himself shaving Oldman manages to compress five or six facial expressions into two seconds as he licks the blood off of the razor. Hidden under layers of make-up and a wig stolen from Daisy Moses' giveaway pile Oldman nevertheless makes himself known. With his trembling hands, that sonorous old-man chuckle, the look of panic when cornered and full-throttle release of anguish when he has lost his love, Oldman fills the role with such a physical relish it's quite possible it is one of the few film performances in existence visible from space. And all of this had to have been made all the more difficult having to do so many scenes with Reeves who achieves a kind of "anti-ham" performance here, a benchmark of sorts in mangled accents and wooden stammering. The movie itself is so visually excessive that any lesser of a performance wouldn't have even been noticed.
And so we wrap up the first five inductees. There's plenty more to choose from but space and time demand I stop here. And if you're ever in the mood for a nice thick slice of honey-roasted ham be sure to check out any one of the above. Just make sure you've got lots of Cherry Coke. You're going to need it to wash it all down.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Varden had a career on the stage for years before coming to film with a minor role in Pinky (1949). She died in 1958 having only been featured in fifteen films. Her biggest movie was probably The Bad Seed (1956) which got better box office and recognition - at the time. But The Night of the Hunter is the better movie and the icing on the cake of Varden's acting career. In a film with as dynamic and creepy a central performance as Robert Mitchum's it's amazing anyone could stand out but Varden, as Icey Spoon, manages to do just that.
When we first meet her character she is working behind the counter of the deli she and her husband, Walt, run, aptly named "Spoons." She's telling Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) what Willa needs to do: "Willa Harper there are certain plain facts of life that add up just like two plus two makes four and one of them is this: No woman is able to raise growing youngsters alone. The Lord meant that job for two." There is an old saying that goes "Some people think they're very generous because they give alot of free advice." Let's just say that Icey Spoon must consider herself among the most generous women on the planet. Free advice is her forte, it's what she does. After her free advice the shot changes to the train carrying the demented preacher, Harry Powell, played by Robert Mitchum. Then it's back to Icey and her yammering mouth. "Ain't no question of want it or not want it, you're no spring chicken, you're a grown woman with two little young'ins. It's a man you need in the house Willa Harper."
It's certainly not easy describing vocal inflection in writing but it may be best described by saying that Varden speaks her lines as a combination of a cat whining and a donkey braying. At the end of the previous line the word "Harper" is a good half an octave higher than the rest of the sentence. It may be subtle but it's a brilliant acting choice. A woman like Icey Spoon does not trail off. She wants to make sure she's heard until the final word, which of course she accents, to make sure you're still listening.
Later when Powell arrives in town Spoon is (naturally) smitten with him. Spoon is a women, as portrayed by Varden, so utterly sure of her own righteousness, as well as her own rightness, that she never wavers, never doubts for a second any one of her judgments. Powell is a good man as far as she is concerned and that makes it right. When he comments on her fudge she tells him it's for the picnic and he won't get "a smidgen of my fudge unless you stay for the picnic." Again, think cats and donkeys.
At the picnic, Evelyn Varden ramps up her acting prowess to deliver a series of lines, superbly penned by James Agee, that stay in the mind for... well, forever. First, walking with Willa, she tells the children to go play. "Where?" they ask. "Down by the river, my goodness!" she says. It may sound inconsequential, but she claps twice while saying that, at the same time looking shocked and annoyed at the question, and then immediately reverts back to her smiling yammering self. A woman like Icey Spoon tells people (and children) what to do with a stern look and a heavy hand. When done, expecting absolutely no disagreement or protest, she resumes her yammering. Varden plays it perfectly.
She pushes Willa to talk with Powell and then wanders over to the picnic table to hold court. It is at this moment that Icey Spoon delivers a speech on love and sex that sails clear past the "Too Much Information" benchmark set by most people. As Willa talks with Powell about her former husband, Ben Harper, Icey begins.
"She's over there mooning about Ben Harper. That wasn't love that was just flapdoodle."
(Then referring to the act of making love) "When you've been married to a man for forty years you know all that don't amount to a hill of beans. I've been married to my Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there and think about my canning."
Going on about sex in marriage she remarks, "A woman's a fool to marry for that. That's somethin' for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that. Not really want it. It's all just a fake and a pipe dream. "
Here, Varden does something amazing. After saying it's a pipe dream she chuckles uncomfortably to herself then look out towards Willa and Harry with a curious look before raising her eyebrows almost in a look of longing, as if she's always wanted that feeling herself. And she does all of that combined in about one second. The best actors know how to convey not one but many different emotions or feelings with just a glance or two.
After Powell kills Willa he goes to the Spoons and tells Icey that Willa has left. Icey believes every word of it. When she tells her husband, "Willa has run away" it has a dripping tone of judgment throughout every word. Varden also makes it seem with her eyes that Icey "just knew all along" that something like this would happen. When Powell says he's going to stay and take care of the kids he remarks, "Maybe the Good Lord never meant for someone like Willa to taint their young lives," Varden has Icey give a knowing "hmmmm" as she nods her head and bobbles her eyebrows. Varden sees to it that Icey doesn't go more than five or ten seconds without passing judgment one way or another.
Finally, at the conclusion of the film, after Powell has been arrested it is none other than Icey heading up the lynch mob. "Lynch him!" she screams, stretching the word "lynch" into two or three syllables. Given the strength of conviction that Varden has filled Icey with we are not surprised to see her leading a murderous mob. It almost seems natural for her.
Evelyn Varden received no nomination for this or any other performance from her all too brief film career. You'll find no extensive biographies of her on any website, outside of a listing of her credits. Her theatre career was more extensive than her film career. On the stage she played plenty of friendly neighbors and chatty relatives. It all prepared her for this. This performance. This film. And film has one great advantage over the theatre: It is preserved forever. Moments in time that can be revisited in a thousand years as if seeing them for the first time. It is said that Edwin Booth was a great actor. We have to take it on faith. We have no way of knowing. We could never see and hear him deliver one of Shakespeare's soliloquies. But when someone says that someone in a movie gives a great performance we don't have to take it on faith and never will. We can see it for ourselves.
Evelyn Varden is no Hepburn or Stanwyck or Davis. She may not have had much of a range beyond this role. But for this role she did a fantastic job. And when someone in a thousand years tells someone else they saw The Night of the Hunter and the lady playing Icey Spoon was terrific people will still be able to see for themselves. Edwin Booth may be the acting legend of the stage, but Evelyn Varden is here to stay.
Monday, July 16, 2007
If one looks at the careers of Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and William Wellman you will see many titles that stick out from Stella Dallas to Double Indemnity for Stanwyck, Of Human Bondage to All About Eve for Davis, Wings to The Ox-Bow Incident for Wellman. And of course, many, many more. To say that this list is anemic is an understatement. Given the amount of the classic and highly regarded films of these three it is akin to reading the sentence "It was the best of times it was the worst of times" and claiming you have read A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps it is because of the abundance of classic films done by these three that So Big is just not very famous. Or perhaps it is because of its time period: Early sound era. Many movies from this time have fallen by the wayside due to poor preservation, poor sound quality and acting that, only four years removed from the full advent of the "talkie", still relied on part silent film pantomime technique and part proper stage acting usually accompanied by loud and specific e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-i-o-n so as to be sure to be picked up by the microphone.
Whatever the reason, on this day, the hundredth birthday of Barbara Stanwyck, we celebrate one of her earliest and most unglamorous films, So Big.
So Big was only Stanwyck's eleventh film which would be the equivalent of someone's second or third film today, given the rate at which they produced films in the twenties, thirties and forties. It was directed by William Wellman, coming off the heels of his smash hit, The Public Enemy in 1931. And in a smaller role was Bette Davis, in only her eighth film (four in 31 and another nine (!) in 1932).
The film was based on a 1925 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Edna Ferber. The New York Times literary critic of the day, Louis Maunsell Field, said, "The plot is slight very slight, in fact the novel is a chronicle rather than a story, but a chronicle rich in variety and contrast”. This, as it turns out, is an accurate critique of the film as well. Clocking in at a mere 81 minutes and yet covering three decades, the movie has little time but to give you the progression of the story without a lot of lingering over emotional repercussions. That comes later, after you've watched the movie. So Big operates with a story-telling efficiency commonplace in films of the thirties (especially the early thirties) that would be lost in the decades to follow. Today, telling a story efficiently (and economically) seems lost for good in an era where it takes nearly three hours to weave the latest empty Jack Sparrow tale. The thirties closest modern day equivalent remains Tender Mercies, told in just over an hour and a half. Like So Big, Tender Mercies doesn't dwell on emotional repercussions allowing the audience to do that for itself, internally. In both films the primary characters are simpler rustic people, and it would seem disingenuous to show them engaging in emotional mental masturbation over their hardships. They accept their hardships, or deal with them as best they can, and move on. It is their fortitude that keeps them going and allows us, the viewers, to do the feeling for them.
As So Big begins Selina Peake (Barbara Stanwyck) is living the easy life, a rich father providing everything for her. Then Selina receives the bad news: He's been killed, was an addictive gambler and there's no money left. The next thing we know, Selina is being shipped off to Dutch country where she will be a school teacher. She takes up residence with a farming family, the Pooles, and the culture shock is immediate. As Klaas Poole (Alan Hale) is driving her to their house in his horse-drawn wagon Selina comments on how beautiful the landscape is, particularly the fields of cabbages. Klaas balks, "Cabbages is beautiful?" He then ridicules her repeatedly for this, ridicule from which she shrinks, regretful of ever saying it. It is one of the first scenes in the film but immediately sets up the philosophy or "message" of the film: Some people see beauty and others don't. Those that see it will be happier. It is a motif repeated throughout the film but at this early stage the scene also signals something else. Urbanites have a way of romanticizing the rural lifestyle that rarely agrees with reality. Selina sees a beautiful field, Klaas sees hard labor and back-breaking monotony. Once at the Poole home Selina begins to see it to.
Inside the Poole home, Klaas' wife Maartje Poole (Dorothy Peterson) shows Selina to her room. She explains how to light the stove. She shows her her sparse accommodations and then mentions her marriage to Klaas, how young a bride she was (fourteen) and how long its been (seventeen years). This immediately shocks Selina and the audience: Maartje could easily pass for fifty. Clearly this is not a romantic rural lifestyle but a hard, brutal existence.
Later at dinner, Poole and another farmer continue to jab at Selina by saying, "Cabbages is beautiful" while laughing. This is when we are first introduced to Roelf Poole (Dick Winslow), Klaas' twelve-year-old son. He enters carrying wood for the stove after working in the fields all day. He sits down and begins reading the dictionary. Selina asks him what he's doing and he explains he is reading it every day until he gets through all the definitions. Besides, it's the only book in the house. Selina is clearly excited by the fact that someone in the house is looking for a way to enlighten himself. Later, when Roelf has delivered wood to her room, he says just before leaving, "I think cabbages are beautiful too."
The next day as Selina prepares for her first day of teaching Roelf once again shows up with firewood. He gives her a picture he stayed up to draw, of the cabbage fields. In return she gives him books to read and asks him if he will stay. Of course, he can't. Beyond learning to read and write, which he has already done, there is no school for him. He is a farmer. That's his life.
Soon after her arrival, Selina attends a church auction in which dinners made by local women are bidded on by the men. Selina had no idea the dinners would be as extravagant as they were and brought instead a picnic basket with jelly sandwiches. Again, she is ridiculed by the crowd. (It would appear Ferber felt that farm folk had a sinister side: Elevating themselves by mocking those unfamilier with their customs.) Pervis De Jong (Earle Fox), another farmer, upset with her treatment bids far more for her basket than any bid made for any other dinner. Shortly after he asks her to tutor him and from there, to marry him. Roelf is heartbroken. Selina was the first women (or person in general) he felt any real connection to and now she will be leaving the Poole home to live with Pervis.
The day after their wedding Pervis wakes her up shortly after four. "It's still nighttime," she says. "You're a farmer's wife now," he replies. The honeymoon, and the romantic ideal of rural life, is now over. (A quick aside: They are both sleeping in the same bed as they should be as a married couple. Just one year later, when the Production Code began to be enforced, this would not have been allowed.) It is in these scenes that Selina De Jong now confronts the reality of her life: backbreaking labor, day in and day out for little to no reward.
It is at this point in the film that Wellman sets up the best scene in the film, cinematically speaking. By now Selina and Maartje have begun to resemble each other with Selina aging rapidly. Selina is pregnant and Wellman alternates from Selina as she begins to feel the pangs of labor with Maartje who is in her own kitchen. Both women are in their respective homes but the homes and the women look so similar that one has difficulty distinguishing who is who. Both women suddenly feel ill, Selina from oncoming labor and Maartje from presumably a body that is simply, finally failing. As Selina calls for Pervis we see her and Maartje collapse. It is a disorienting scene, purposely. We are shown Selina now, fully entrenched in the farm life about to give birth, and what Selina's future will be in the person of Maartje.
The following scenes tell us that Selina had a boy, named Dirk (Dickie Moore) , whom she nicknames "So Big" based on her question to her little boy daily, "How big is my boy?" and her answer with outstretched arms, "Sooooo Big." *
Heartbreakingly we see the Poole family waiting outside the door of Maartje's bedroom until Klaas Poole emerges and says bluntly and coarsely with no emotion, "Your mother's dead." Roelf is furious at the lack of feeling and runs away. Later he will show up in the field of Selina's farm to tell her he is going to go to Europe. We will not see him again until the end of the film.
Over time Selina tries to convince Pervis to grow asparagus as it is a much more profitable crop. He refuses. It takes three years before a new crop can be fully implemented and until then what are they to do? Cabbages may not sell for much, but they're quick and easy.
Pervis eventually becomes ill with pneumonia and insists on continuing his farm labor until he can do so no more. In their bed, wracked with disease, he dies. Selina and Dirk are now on their own. Selina takes Dirk with her to market as they sleep in their wagon and sell their crops. Selina, desperate for a better life for her and her boy, plants asparagus. The crops are successful and the movie now takes us some twenty to twenty-five years forward.
Selina is a success, her asparagus selling in markets around the country. She no longer has to work fields as her incorporated farms have hundreds of employees but she does help out nonetheless. Dirk (Hardie Albright) has graduated from college and wants to be an architect but is impatient with the work necessary to get ahead. Maybe being a stockbroker would be a faster track to success. Selina is brokenhearted. She wanted Dirk to see beauty in life and pursue an artistically fulfilling career. She had hoped architecture would inspire him. It did not.
It is here that Bette Davis finally makes her entrance in the film, playing a young designer, Dallas O'Mara, who has caught the eye of Dirk. Dallas is unimpressed with Dirk's desire for the easy way out and even when he reveals the hard life his mother had it still leaves her cold. Selina did the work, not Dirk. Dallas, like Selina, appreciates the beauty in life. She remarks that she'd rather design someone's backdoor than an entire building for a bank. She leaves for Paris and returns (in a twist that would have made Dickens proud) with Roelf, now a celebrated sculptor in Europe. The two have fallen in love but Roelf has only one woman he wants to see in the States: Selina.
In the film's final scenes Dallas brings Roelf to Selina so that Roelf can tell her how much she improved his life, how much hope he gave her and the inspiration to continue to see the beauty in the world that helped him become an artist. As Dallas, Roelf and Selina talk by her window looking out onto asparagus fields it is clear that Dirk (So Big) is not connected to their world. The film closes with no redemption for Dirk, and the reiteration that those who see beauty and follow their creative needs end up happy. Those that seek money and material goods are forever unsatisfied.
Obviously, coming in the early years of the Great Depression, this was a movie message that wasn't too hard to sell: Hard work and adherence to ideals in the face of defeat will win the day. And it's perhaps a bit ironic that in a movie arguing against material goods that the characters who reject materialism and follow their creative impulses seem to come off pretty well financially by the end. But in a film told as economically as this one, these are small quibbles indeed.
William Wellman had a philosophy of directing that ran completely counter to the auteurists of later years: "The best director is the director whose handprints are not on the film." Maybe that's why, despite directing The Public Enemy (1931), A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), you don't hear much about Wellman these days. He had a sure hand as a director, just not a visible one. The same could be said here. The film is well done but there are no extraordinary touches or visual flairs. The pacing is expert but that probably has more to do with the brevity of the movie than anything else. The film is not extraordinary by any normal cinematic standards. And yet, it deserves to be seen.
The film world has always been broken down into eras: The Pre-1914 period (before epics like Cabiria), The Classic Silent Period (reaching it's zenith with films like The Crowd and Sunrise), Early Sound Period, The Golden Age (mid-thirties through the late forties, possibly early fifties) and on and on. Each period has films that stand out including the Early Sound Period with films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, M, Duck Soup, King Kong and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. So Big deserves to be added to that list. It does not have many of the bells and whistles that immediately make it stand out until one steps back and realizes that it is precisely the lack of bells and whistles that does make it stand out. It is a simple story, well-told with a great central performance holding it all together.
Barbara Stanwyck gave a lot of great performances in her career (Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve) but here, early on, we can see something different. In Stella Dallas she gave us pathos, in Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve she gave us cunning (one a little less lethal than the other) but in So Big she gives us naivete, sweetness and a love of beauty. It is unlike many of the performances she gave for the rest of her career and she does it beautifully. In the early scene, discussed above, when Klaas ridicules her for saying that "Cabbages are beautiful" we feel a genuine sympathy for her. She is being made fun of for expressing something too few people do and she is made to feel stupid for it. Stanwyck does this with simple looks down or to the side, no overt shock or embarrassment on her face, just a subtle sense of defeat.
Those same looks of defeat are there again when she talks to her son about his career choices. She doesn't understand why he would want to give up architecture for easy money. Her bewilderment makes us wonder the same.
Finally, in the closing scenes, Stanwyck conveys a sense of pride in Roelf, a sense of fulfillment with who he became that is spoken silently through her eyes with looks and glances. Throughout the film her performance is subtle and restrained, enough of an achievement for any actor, but in the early sound period when over-the-top was still the order of the day, it is truly remarkable. She wasn't nominated for Best Actress. It's possible that at the time, the performance just didn't seem (no pun intended) "big" enough to merit a nomination. Too bad. In a film with many good qualities her performance is the best thing in it.
So Big celebrates its 75th anniversary this year and Barbara Stanwyck would be 100 on July 16th. Stanwyck will never be forgotten, but So Big? If only for her performance, let's hope not.
* There is an inadvertantly funny moment late in the film when the older Selina asks the older Dirk the question "How big is my boy?" and Dirk, feeling sorry for himself, holds his two index fingers a couple of inches apart and says, "So big." Oops.
Friday, July 13, 2007
Recently the American Film Institute (AFI) released its updated "100 Greatest Movies List," started in 1997. It is a standard lists of greats, rarely reaching beyond the safe bet. By contrast, the list that started it all is much more interesting, albeit no less unnecessary.
In 1952, as film was cementing its reputation as a truly respected art form worldwide, Sight and Sound Magazine published its first international polling of critics and directors as to what were the greatest films ever made. The magazine began in 1932 and in 1934 came under the management of the British Film Institute which runs it to this day. The lists have been released in ten year cycles (1952, 1962, etc) and mimicking this, the AFI also releases its list every 10 years, starting in 1997. On Sight and Sound's first list The Bicycle Thief was ranked number one. Then, in 1957, Citizen Kane finally got international release and for every poll thereafter has been number one. Starting with the list in 1992 the Sight and Sound poll has broken up its choices between directors' picks and critics' picks. As such, obvious trends can be recognized that separate that considered great by those in the industry and that considered great by those who comment from the outside. Before further discussion, a quick look at the last poll's (2002) picks.
1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
3. La Régle du jeu (Renoir)
4. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (Coppola)
5. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
7. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
8. Sunrise (Murnau)
9. 8 1/2 (Fellini)
10. Singin' in the Rain (Kelly, Donen)
1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (Coppola)
3. 8 1/2 (Fellini)
4. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean)
5. Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)
6. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
7. Raging Bull (Scorsese)
8. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
9. La Régle du jeu (Renoir)
10. (tie) Rashomon (Kurosawa)
10. (tie) Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)
At first glance, the similarities stick out. Half of the movies appear on both: Citizen Kane, The Godfather films, Vertigo, 8 1/2, Le Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game). These five (six because of the Godfathers lumped together) are of course some of the biggest ever. It's not too surprising that they are on both. But when one looks at the entirety of the critics' list weighed against the entirety of the directors' list they become two very different lists indeed. To be finally ranked on either list requires at least five votes. So even if Lawrence of Arabia didn't make the critics' top ten, it did still get ranked, if much further down, at number forty-five. There are only two films that made it all the way into the top ten on one list and were completely unranked by the other, and they're both on the Directors' List: Dr. Strangelove and Raging Bull. They both received votes on the critics' poll just not enough to be ranked (2 for Dr. Strangelove (Alexander Walker and Andrew Worsdale) and three for Raging Bull (Peter Bradshaw, Michael Dwyer and Roger Ebert)). A longer list of films ranked by one but not the other reveals more. Here are the films that got enough votes to rank on one list but not enough to rank on the other:
Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)
Raging Bull (Scorsese)
Sunset Blvd. (Wilder)
The Apartment (Wilder)
Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
La strada (Fellini)
On the Waterfront (Kazan)
The Conformist (Bertolucci)
Once upon a Time in the West (Leone)
Sweet Smell of Success (Mackendrick)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston)
The Wizard of Oz (Fleming)
The General (Keaton)
Au hasard Balthazar (Bresson)
Le Mépris (Godard)
Pather Panchali (Ray)
The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi)
Barry Lyndon (Kubrick)
Ivan the Terrible (Eisenstein)
Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov)
Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi)
Wild Strawberries (Bergman)
The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles)
Modern Times (Chaplin)
Blade Runner (Scott)
Greed (von Stroheim)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford)
Pierrot le fou (Godard)
Rio Bravo (Hawks)
Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi)
The Travelling Players (Angelopoulos)
Two or Three Things I Know about Her (Godard)
Now we have two truly different lists. The average filmgoer would probably recognize quite a few on the directors' list that didn't make the critics' list. For instance, Dr. Strangelove, Raging Bull, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Apocalypse Now, Casablanca, Chinatown, On the Waterfront, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Wizard of Oz would be instantly recognizable titles to even the most cinematically deprived filmgoer, and even if they aren't too familiar with Once Upon a Time in the West, Amarcord or The Sweet Smell of Success they've probably heard of them, especially Once Upon a Time in the West. But the critics' list would probably leave the average filmgoer scratching their head: L'Atalante, Au hasard Balthazar, Le Mépris, Pather Panchali, The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Ivan the Terrible, Man with a Movie Camera, Ugetsu Monogatari, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Ordet, Pierrot le fou, Sansho Dayu, The Travelling Players and Two or Three Things I Know about Her. Sure there are recognizable ones here too (Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Blade Runner and so on) and obviously anyone reading a cinema site like this one probably knows all of these films but for the most part one could pigeonhole these two lists as "accessible" and "esoteric."
PART TWO: BREAKING DOWN THE DIFFERENCES
There are many possible reasons for the gaping differences. Directors, personally associated with the rigors of production, tend to appreciate craftsmanship over artistry. Knowing how difficult it is to be the ringleader of a production gives them an appreciation for crisp editing, tight performances, a polished look and a strong narrative. Dr. Strangelove, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Casablanca, Chinatown, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Wizard of Oz all meet these criteria superbly.
The critics, on the other hand, are personally associated with the rigors of having to see every goddamn film released week in and week out, becoming overly acquainted with cliche and stereotype, and thus tend to take notice when a film doesn't necessarily give them exactly what they were expecting. Not dealing with the day to day rigors of production, they can appreciate more fully the philosophical side of film, tending to give higher marks to films that tell a story outside the mainstream. There are many perfect examples of this on their list but perhaps the best two would be Au hasard Balthazar and Ordet with the first being a French film about Marie, a girl and her beloved donkey Balthazar, who become separated but lead lives where they suffer the abuse of humanity and the second, a Danish film concerning two families, one of which has a son who thinks he's Jesus and performs miracles thusly that helps quell the rift between the two. I probably don't need to tell you that no one who voted for The Wizard of Oz had either one of those movies on their list.
Another reason for the difference would again be directly associated with their respective professions. Being in the industry, and spending months at a time working on a film only to finish and begin pre-production on another doesn't leave most directors with the leisure to see as many films as your average critic. As a result, they see most of their competition in recent release and those films that have been historically noted as standouts. Critics are paid to watch any and all films and have the time to take them all in. One of the odd quirks of this seems to be that at times they purposely ignore the historically noted films lest they be thought of as unimaginative. In his submission to the Sight and Sound poll, well-respected film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum added the comment: "I've included a serial, an unfinished trilogy and two shorts, but assume it's no longer necessary to mention Chaplin, Godard, Hitchcock, Ozu, Renoir or Welles." And so he doesn't. And this coming from a noted Welles scholar and an ardent Godard supporter. And yet he leaves all traces of their films from his list. Of course, if everyone starts leaving them off then it will become necessary to mention them again because they won't be recognized anymore so the whole logic behind the comment appears to be dubious at best.
At the opposite end of that spectrum is what I would call "Manny Farber Syndrome" for the critics and "Noble Subject Syndrome" for the directors. Here's where both the critic and director switch places.
The critic decides he wants to add a little punch to his list that the beloved French donkey just isn't providing so he goes for the rough and tumble "B" movie made by the auteur director that gives his list more of a "common man" feel. Excellent examples would be Rio Bravo, Blade Runner and (on Jonathan Rosenbaum's list) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Two of those are by Howard Hawks, a great director and longtime favorite of Farber.
The director, suffering from "Noble Subject Syndrome," loves Citizen Kane and Vertigo but wants to add some social commentary prestige to his list by adding an epic tale of great seriousness like Lawrence of Arabia, The Best Years of Our Lives or On The Waterfront.
Cases could be made for both, I suppose, but the "Manny Farber Syndrome" is probably preferable. At least there, one is looking for artistry in the mundane which is probably more "noble" than acknowledging "artistry" shoved in your face. But I could be wrong.
PART THREE: AND THE WINNER IS...
So who comes out on top with the list? The directors or the critics? If we combine the totals the answer is clear: It's the critics. The combined total of both lists with their votes counted together gives us this top 25 (actually 26 due to several ties):
1. Citizen Kane
3. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II
4. La Régle du jeu
5. 8 1/2
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
7. Tokyo Story
8. Seven Samurai
10. Singin' in the Rain
10. Battleship Potemkin
13. The Searchers
14. Lawrence of Arabia
15. Bicycle Thief
15. La dolce vita
15. The Passion of Joan of Arc
18. Touch of Evil
21. Raging Bull
21. Dr. Strangelove
21. Jules et Jim
24. Sunset Boulevard
Citizen Kane is number one on both lists so obviously it's number one overall. Vertigo is number two on the critics list and (in a three-way tie) is number six on the director's list but ends up number two overall. Then there's Le Regle de Jeu, number three on the critics list and all the way down to number nine on the directors list but combined it is number four. As for the Godfather films they are four on the critics list and two on the directors placing them at three overall, an even split. Three of the critics top ten films, 2001, Tokyo Story and Singin' in the Rain aren't even in the directors top ten yet make into the combined top ten. Only one critics top ten choice does not make the combined top ten: Sunrise, and just barely, coming in one vote behind the tied Singin' in the Rain and Rashomon. On the other hand three directors picks don't make it: Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove and Raging Bull coming in at places fourteen and twenty-one (tied) respectively.
So why do the critics picks dominate the list? The obvious answer is numbers. There are 145 critics voting to 108 directors voting. The Sight and Sound poll started out a prestigious selection by informed, educated critics and the B.F.I. would probably like to keep it that way so they will continue to tip the scales in the direction of the critics by keeping their numbers higher. But those numbers will mean nothing if there is no consensus among the critics. There is a much higher number of films selected by the critics than the directors and even in the ranked films (5 votes or more) the critics come up with 60 different titles to the directors 50. As digital technology gets us closer to realizing the dream of seeing any movie you want at any time you want more and more film buffs will see more and more films and as they become the next wave of critics and historians any consensus they had will become more and more disjointed. But the directors? Their consensus probably won't change much. I've often told people that the most uninformed people on film and theatre are often those involved in film and theatre. When I was regularly involved in the theatre I would often get into discussions with fellow actors about great performances. They would to a man come up with names like Olivier and Brando and by rote list performances like Hamlet or On the Waterfront. It's not that these aren't great actors or great performances, they certainly are, it's that if you asked them about Walter Huston in Dodsworth or Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo or god forbid, someone who's name they didn't even recognize like Roger Livesey in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp they didn't know what in the hell you were talking about. I was constantly amazed at their knowledge of only the biggest actors in the biggest movies. And in discussions of films themselves just think Best Picture winners and that's about all you need to know. So while the critics list will probably continue to expand to include more and more great undiscovered films the directors list will probably stick with Citizen Kane, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, 8 1/2, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, Bicycle Thief, Raging Bull, Vertigo, La Régle du jeu, Rashomon, Seven Samurai for a long time coming. They know these films and believe in respecting the pantheon.
PART FOUR: THE PROBLEM OF SELECTION
One way around the problem of too many big movies shutting out too many small movies is to expand the submissions to 250 or 500 from each director and critic. That way movies like Citizen Kane and The Godfather will still get the recognition they richly deserve but other smaller films will build more of a consensus. When a critic or director is faced with dropping one of the pantheon so they can get another great, less recognized film on the list most will probably go with the big one. Given only ten spaces the Godard fan might drop Le Mépris in favor of Breathless to insure that Godard is represented. The Welles fan might drop Magnificent Ambersons in favor of Citizen Kane and so on. But given 250 choices, or even 500 (!), Jonathan Rosenbaum can still "mention Chaplin, Godard, Hitchcock, Ozu, Renoir or Welles" and have room left over for Playtime and Last Year at Marienbad. Give critics and directors the freedom to come up with their own top 250 or 500 and, who knows, a new pantheon may emerge. It's five years until the next list, maybe it can happen.
PART FIVE: CONCLUSION
The appeal of the Sight and Sound poll for the novice film buff is that is gives one a quick, concise overview of film history, from all countries, from all eras. The results have changed dramatically over the years. In 1972 there were only three American films in the top ten: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and The General, with only Citizen Kane (at no. 1) breaking into the top seven. Now the entire top three are American made (or four since, despite their being lumped together, The Godfather I & II are obviously two distinct films). The Magnificent Ambersons remained on the list until 1992 when directors became involved in the selections as well. Battleship Potemkin, a vital film in cinematic history, has been in the top seven on the critics list since the poll's inception in 1952 but has yet to crack the directors top ten dropping it to ten overall, its lowest mark ever.
The Sight and Sound poll will continue to offer a fine selection of great movies to the movie enthusiast but until they allow an expanded submission for the critics and directors, the list will be far from authoritative, and as more lists are compiled weekly, it will become more superfluous. And pointless.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
David Wark (D.W.) Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION has been hailed as a masterpiece since its release and it is indeed a landmark in cinema history. It is also a vital historical document showing by its very existence how many people felt in 1915 and how readily they accepted the history they were taught. Cinematically, it contains many imaginative and innovative techniques and helped define standards of cinema during the early stages of film history. But is it a masterpiece? Does it deserve the praise it has received, even if that praise is consistently tempered with outrage at its content? What makes a film great? Can one separate content from technique and praise one but not the other? BIRTH OF A NATION forces the viewer to confront all of these questions and here it is hoped we may find some answers.
Separating content from technique is something not often done in film history. Rarely will you read a review of a film stating, "The story was one of the worst I've ever seen, poorly written, employing all manner of stereotype and filled with hate but boy did it look good. Four stars!" Rare too is the reverse but not as rare. It is much more common to forgive low budget techniques if the story, acting and overall themes are laudable. So why is it the BIRTH OF A NATION gets a free pass? Why do film historians consistently bemoan its deplorable content but still rank it as a masterpiece based on its technique? First, let us understand the film and its story.
BIRTH OF A NATION shocks the first-time viewer with its profoundly racist imagery. No matter how prepared one is by reading about the film and the scenes it contains, shock and disgust cannot be suppressed when actually witnessing them firsthand. This is not the racism of later Hollywood with its servants and mammys, this is racism presented bluntly and brutally: Lazy, shifty and lusting freed slaves taking over the small town of Piedmont, South Carolina; abusing power in the state senate they now control by enacting laws to make legal their lust for white women; the Ku Klux Klan being portrayed heroically as they free the town; and finally, near the end of the film, a scene of the Klan with guns drawn to prevent freed black men from voting - presented comically! And through it all the black man is presented as being just shy of an animal. It is abhorrent to anyone with any measure of civilized sensibility. But that is the second half of the film. The first half deals with the before and immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
As the film begins we get this title card: "The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion." So much overt hateful racism appears later in the film that this opening is often overlooked. The title card mentions nothing of slave-traders, nothing of plantation owners, nothing of Supreme Court rulings that slaves were property but could be counted as "half a man" for census purposes. The word "slave" isn't even used. It says that the African brought to America planted the first seed of disunion. In a very subtle way it is saying the Africans were the problem, not the white slave-owners. In fact, as we will later see in the film, the white slave-owners are presented as the most decent people in the story. Those slave-owners, the Camerons of Piedmont, live in an idyllic state on their simple plantation where their slaves, later described as "faithful souls", serve them their dinner and even dance for their entertainment. The eldest son, Ben, will become the protagonist of the film. The Stonemans, friends from Pennsylvania, are Northern Abolitionists. The patriarch, Austin Stoneman, fights in congress for abolition. Later he will be seen as a betrayer of the proud white race. He is for the abolition of the most heinous institution ever created by man, the owning of other human beings as property, and Griffith chooses to portray him as misguided and hypocritical. One title card states that Stoneman's lust for his mulatto servant, Lydia Brown, is "(t)he great leader's weakness that is to blight a nation."
The coming war is described this way in another title card: The power of the sovereign states, established when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the individual colonies in 1781, is threatened by the new administration. In case you missed the overwhelming subtlety of that title card, the Civil War resulted from Abraham Lincoln's dictatorial tendencies to take all power away from the states, not from the fact that the Southern states did not want new states admitted to the union to have a choice as to whether to be a slave state or a free state. At this point in the film it is clear where Griffith's sympathies lie. As the South secedes from the Union and forms the Confederacy the Camerons and Stonemans are in battle against each other. The two youngest sons from each family die on the battlefield together, arm in arm. During the war a black militia (of course) ransacks the Cameron house, terrorizing and pillaging. It is during these scenes that Griffith sets up marvelous set pieces that are in no small part responsible for the great technical reputation of this film. His overhead and long vistas intercut with medium shots and closeups during battle as well as harsh, realistic historical recreations of such seminal events as Sherman's March through the South, shows a director who understood film at a fundamental level when others around him were still using static medium shots of tableaux, as if placing a camera before a stage. That Griffith was an innovator is certainly not in question. He also produces "historical facsimiles," as they are called in the film, reproductions of historical events such as Lee's surrender at Appomattox or Lincoln's assassination in Ford's theatre. These "facsimiles" present a problem for the whole film, especially to an audience of 1915 still uneducated in the manipulative uses of film as propaganda. They give the illusion of truth, that we are watching "real" history, a subtle nudge that if these scenes are true so must be the rest of the story. At the very least, true in theme.
And here we arrive at the second half of the film dealing with Reconstruction. It is in this half that we see the full thrust of the film's racist ideologies. Reconstruction's failings are heaped upon the shoulders of abolitionists, carpetbaggers and freed slaves. Griffith quotes Woodrow Wilson's HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE to set the tone:
"..... Adventurers swarmed out of the North, as much enemies of the one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile, and use the negroes..... In the villages the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences."
".... The policy of the congressional leaders wrought ... a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South ..... in their determination to 'put the white South under the heel of the black South.'"
"The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation ..... until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country." WOODROW WILSON
As Reconstruction begins Austin Stoneman tries to persuade Abraham Lincoln to rule over the South viciously and brutally so that they may pay for their sins but Lincoln refuses. After Lincoln's assassination, Stoneman gets to run Reconstruction the way he wants to, with the aid of his protege, mulatto Silas Lynch. Stoneman forces Charles Sumner, an actual historical figure, to legitimize Silas Lynch who in the next election becomes Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. Lynch is portrayed as the ultimate villain because of his mixed race, presumably possessing the supposed superior intellect of the white man and the supposed cunning deceit of the black man. He is seen as the symbol of all that is morally wrong with Reconstruction. He lusts for power and will betray the trust of his white benefactors as soon as it suits him.
On election day, Silas Lynch has his Black Supremacists intimidate the whites away from the voting box so that blacks sweep the election. It is here, in one of the most disgraceful scenes ever set before a camera, that we see the newly elected black legislature, resting their barefeet on their desks, drinking whiskey and eating chicken, dozing off, and, of course, lusting after the white women in the visitors gallery. This is also the first instance of "bait and switch" in the film. Prior to this, as noted above, Griffith used "historical facsimiles" to give the film an air of historical accuracy. Now, before the legislature scene, he presents this title card: AN HISTORICAL FACSIMILE of the State House of Representatives of South Carolina... The subversive logic being, "Earlier we saw facsimiles of Sherman's March, Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination. We know those are true. This must be too."
The legislature wastes no time passing laws that "all whites must salute negro officers on the streets"and other legislation "providing for the intermarriage of blacks and whites." In Griffith's eyes, it was the sanctity of the pure white woman that was most threatened by reconstruction.
After the debacle of the election Ben Cameron wants to fight back but doesn't know how. In a scene that would be comical for its simple mindedness if it were not so offensive to the senses Ben observes white children scaring black children by hiding under white sheets as if they were ghosts. According to the title card, in that moment of divine inspiration is born "The Ku Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule."
Silas Lynch declares, "We shall crush the white South under the heel of the black South." He tells Elsie Stoneman, who is in love with Ben "Your lover belongs to this murderous band of outlaws." Elsie breaks off her engagement with Ben but assures him she will not betray him. No white women will betray the members of Ku Klux Klan as we are assured by the title card, "Over four hundred thousand Ku Klux costumes made by the women of the South and not one trust betrayed."
At this point other black characters emerge who also represent the evils of reconstruction. Gus, a freed slave, lusts after Flora Cameron, brother of Ben, and in a scene of great technical brilliance involving crosscutting techniques that would be used to even greater advantage in the climax of the film, Gus chases Flora through the woods until she finally leaps (falls?) to her death - the better to die than be touched by the black man. She dies in the arms of her brother Ben.
Ben and his Ku Klux Klan brethren hunt down Gus in another example of technical brilliance by Griffith in which the chase has multiple actions intercut together as Gus is slowly cornered between the townspeople and the Klan. He is given a "fair" trial, found guilty (of course) and lynched. In the original version of the film he was castrated as well but those scenes were excised after the original release, the footage lost. After his lynching his corpse is dumped on the steps of Silas Lynch. And thus begins the climax of the film.
Lynch reinforces his Black Militia to fill the streets of Piedmont. They are to hunt down anyone making Klan costumes and kill them. The Klan prepares itself for battle with these chilling words: "Brethren, this flag bears the red stain of the life of a Southern woman, a priceless sacrifice on the altar of an outraged civilization. Here I raise the ancient symbol of an unconquered race of men, the fiery cross of old Scotland's hills....... I quench its flames in the sweetest blood that ever stained the sands of Time!"
Lynch has the Camerons arrested and paraded in chains. The "faithful souls", the Cameron's loyal slaves, rescue them and race out of town. Pursued by the Black Militia they find refuge in a small cabin occupied by Union veterans. It's not clear why Union veterans are living in a cabin in South Carolina except to give Griffith the opportunity to show that all whites put their differences aside when faced with a black menace. As the title card says, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright."
Meanwhile, Elsie, "ignorant of Lynch's designs on her", goes to him for help, hoping he can resolve the situation. Proposing marriage he states, "See! My people fill the streets. With them I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen shall sit by my side." Lynch tells Austin Stoneman of his intentions to marry his daughter and Stoneman is horrified, betraying his hypocrisy, a hypocrisy Griffith must have believed was present in all white people who "supported" black people's rights.
In these final scenes the film's technical reputation is seen in all of it's glory as the Klan's ride to the rescue is intercut with the forced marriage of Lynch and Elsie about to happen. When they prevent that from happening they ride to the rescue of the Union veterans and the Camerons with their "faithful souls" in the besieged cabin. Just before the rescue the Union veteran is shown holding the butt of his rifle over his daughter's head, ready to strike her dead should the black militia overrun the cabin and try to molest her. In Griffith's world it seems all black men want to do is rape white women and girls. Griffith's camera goes into closeup to show the daughter's terrified face. Moving cameras, long shots intercut with closeups, and creative angles heighten the tension as film drives towards its conclusion and the family is rescued.
After the rescue on both fronts the Klan parades through Piedmont, the conquering heroes. We see the title card, "The Next Election" and then see two black men emerging from a line of tents to go vote. Then we see Klansmen, guns drawn and pointed at the black men. The black men affect the caricatured bulging eyes of the "frightened black man" then spin around and go back inside. It is clearly meant to evoke laughter. The beginnings of what would become over a century of harsh oppression of black people in the South, played for a laugh.
The film ends with Ben and Elsie sitting together by the seaside as the approving figure of Jesus Christ is shown in double exposure over the scene with the inter title, "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more. But instead - the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace." The End.
It is a repulsive film. Vile and hateful and wallowing in a swamp of moral filth that would make most sensible intelligent men and women physically ill. And yet, it is considered important in film history and hailed as a masterpiece.
The critical responses to THE BIRTH OF A NATION have followed a similar pattern from the beginning. There were few film critics to speak of in 1915 and once, by the late twenties, film criticism started up in earnest most critics developed a pattern of response to the film that continues to this day: Praise the film's techniques, deplore the film's content, let technique trump content, declare the film a masterpiece.
So first let us deal with the techniques of the film that so often allow film historians to rank it as a masterpiece. Although the film does employ many artful and thoughtful techniques during the course of it run this should not be enough to elevate it to the level of masterpiece. Intrinsically understanding this, many critics have chosen to believe, whether true or not, that it employed these techniques for the first time. The logic being that in many ways THE BIRTH OF A NATION is necessary to the development of the language of film. Without this film, the apologist critic must argue, we would never have had the masterworks that followed. This is simply not true.
It is also not necessary. Why would a first make a film better? For instance, one of the "firsts" often cited for THE BIRTH OF A NATION is that it was the first film to have its own score composed for an orchestra. Actually, Camille Saint-Saëns, the famed French composer, wrote music specifically for the film L'ASSASSINAT DU DUC DE GUISE in 1908, seven years before NATION. Other film companies, specifically the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, run by L. Frank Baum, author of the famed OZ books, produced scores for all their films composed mainly by Louis Ferdinand Gottschalk who would in fact later go on to score for Griffith.
Now, does this make L'ASSASSINAT DU DUC DE GUISE a masterpiece to be revered and studied. No, of course not. Here's a quick list of other firsts in film history that, unlike musical score truly deal with the cinematic language of the camera. None of them comes from BIRTH OF A NATION and with the exception of the last film on the list, none of them are held in the great esteem of a masterpiece despite their historical firsts:
*The earliest multi-shot scene, that is different cameras used to capture different angles within the same scene: THE LITTLE DOCTORS (1901)
*The first panning shots: KOMISCHE BEGEGNUNG IM TIERGARTEN ZU STOCKHOLM (1896)
*Earliest Wipe: MARY JANE'S MISHAP (1903)
*First close-up: EDISON KINETOSCOPIC RECORD OF A SNEEZE (1894)
*First interpolated close-ups, that is close-ups intercut within a scene for reactions and emotional effect: GRANDMA'S READING GLASS (1900) Other examples: THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN (1903), THE GAY SHOE CLERK (1903), THE GREAT JEWEL MYSTERY (1905), TRIAL MARRIAGES (1907).
*The first dissolve: CENDRILLON (1899)
*The first double exposure: THE CAVE OF THE DEMONS (1898)
*The first backlighting: ENOCH ARDEN, PART ONE (1911) by Griffith
*The first use of a camera dolly: CABIRIA (1914)
CABIRIA, made in 1914, one year before NATION, employed many of the techniques held in such high regard by NATION apologists. There are dollys and pans as well as epic length, complicated multi-charactered story and even complex chase scenes. Admittedly, none seem to be handled as surehandedly as those in NATION but perhaps that is because they came first.
The point is that to rank THE BIRTH OF A NATION as a masterpiece requires something quite extraordinary as it's moral base is corrupted and it's list of firsts is dubious at best and even if entirely accurate of no consequence to elevating the film to the level of masterpiece. One must then rely on Griffith's execution of the techniques at hand and it is here that the apologists have their strongest argument.
As mentioned previously, CABIRIA employed many groundbreaking techniques, but it must be admitted they were not presented with the same skill and ability as when exercised by Griffith in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. And here, I believe, we get to the crux of the problem.
Griffith was a supremely skilled craftsman in the world of film. Had a lesser director, or even a good but not great director, employed these same techniques, with the same exact story of NATION the film would most likely have long been deservedly forgotten in film history, an unfortunate racist tract to be ignored. But it wasn't done by a lesser director, it was done by D.W. Griffith, a man who understood the language of early cinema better than anyone. As a result, film critics and historians have long marvelled at the ingenious setups, the sense of suspense heightened by the expert editing and visual richness of its camerawork. It is true it does all of these things well and this cannot be ignored. But is that enough? That question takes us to the final stage of the history of THE BIRTH OF A NATION.
The film's status either rises or falls based on three factors: Content, Technique and Execution.
It's techniques are innovative and imaginitive but not necessarily firsts. But are they important to the development of the language of film? Griffith himself went on to produce INTOLERANCE, BROKEN BLOSSOMS and WAY DOWN EAST to name three films easily the equal of THE BIRTH OF A NATION in cinematic quality. Others from Sergei Eisenstein to Abel Gance to Cecil B. DeMille also innovated and developed important benchmarks in the language of early cinema with their works. Surely, like the "discovery" of the New World by Europeans, the development of cinema and its language was an inevitability. To hold NATION up as a film necessary to further developments is revisionist history. From CABIRIA on it was clear where film was headed. Audiences weren't going to last forever feasting at the sparse table of one-reelers and nickelodeans. New technologies and art forms are curiosities. But curiosity quickly fades and anyone involved in the art has to take it in new directions or die. From the earliest visual recordings of trains entering stations, men sneezing and couples kissing there is a clear and consistent development of the story of film. From A VOYAGE TO THE MOON to THE LIFE OF A FIREMAN to THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY and on up to CABIRIA films kept getting longer, more intricate, more detailed, more nuanced. By 1941 we would have arrived at CITIZEN KANE whether Griffith had ever made THE BIRTH OF A NATION or not. Because someone else would have and did make films just as groundbreaking, just as important to the next generation of filmmakers in learning their craft.
So if its techniques and execution thereof are not absolutely vital to the progression of film development and its content so abhorrantly hideous then why is it rated so highly? I believe that one answer is that film historians and critics have convinced themselves of its necessity. Many film books take it on faith that film would not have developed its early syntax without it and the students of those books perpetuate that myth. Another answer has to do with respectability: Ignoring a film of this historical magnitude makes the film historian seem unstudied or pedestrian. Praising its techniques while deploring its content almost becomes a game that each successive generation of historians and critics must play to pay their proper dues. But at what cost?
I do not believe in separating content from execution of technique. I believe film is a multi-layered art form that provides story, character and visuals. The camera is employed with the words as a means of telling the story. There are films that may seem to be all technique (WAVELENGTH 1967) and others that may seem to be all character (MY DINNER WITH ANDRE). But they are not. They are all judged by what they tell us. And how they tell us. THE BIRTH OF A NATION tells us that one race of people are subhuman and deserving of mistreatment and execution. It does so with state of the art techniques that assure we understand its message implicitly. And that is revolting. It is vile abuse of the trust filmgoers give the filmmaker when they enter the theater to watch his film. It is unacceptable.
There is a great moment in Ken Burns' 1994 documentary BASEBALL. It comes in the third installment, after the career and life of Ty Cobb has been documented. Like THE BIRTH OF A NATION, baseball experts and fans relate the greatness of Cobb, many calling him the greatest player ever, always tempering their remarks with what an awful, hateful violent person he was. By the time they are finished it seems as if Ty Cobb's revolting personal life has been rationalized, subverted to his greatness on the diamond. And then it happens. Burns cuts to Baseball Historian Daniel Okrent who provides the final words on Cobb with the following:
"The more his fires burned, the more that provoked him on the field and I suppose one could say that the happy byproduct was the extraordinary baseball he gave the fans of the time but there's a moment when you have to say it's not worth it. I think that Ty Cobb in his totality is an embarrassment to baseball."
THE BIRTH OF A NATION should never be forgotten. It should be taught in film history classes and sociology classes to educate people on the power of racial myth, the power of hatred. It is as important an historical artifact as the Nazi propaganda films of the thirties and forties and has enormous historical value. But it should not be taught in film class anymore as a great film. It should not be revered. And when it is brought up and the urge becomes overwhelming to praise its techniques and innovative camerawork, one must remind oneself of the moral tightrope walk that inevitably follows as the repulsive content must be dealt with. And it is at that moment that one must back away and say, "It's not worth it." That moment has long since passed for film critics, film historians and teachers. It belongs on no list of great films. It belongs on the ash heap of film history. In its totality, and how else to judge a work of art, it is an embarrassment.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION - It's just not worth it.